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The New York Times

‘What Do I Do Next?’: Orphaned by COVID, Two Teens Find Their Way

NEW YORK — Their mother went into cardiac arrest just before midnight. She was resuscitated, but the doctor had a question: What did the family want to do if Magalie Salomon’s heart stopped beating again? Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times The decision was left to Salomon’s son, Xavier. He was 18 years old. It was an alarming position to be in, particularly for Xavier Salomon, who had never felt much responsibility for the household. His father had died nine years earlier, and his mother worked overnight shifts as a home attendant, which meant he was often home alone with his 16-year-old sister, Adriana Salomon. Still, Xavier Salomon felt no obligation to take on a big brother role, preferring to dodge chores and duties. He gave little thought to blowing his Burger King paychecks on Yeezy sneakers or gifts for his girlfriend and tended to hole up in his room on his phone. But when the hospital called, it was him who was asked for answers. He panicked. Do whatever it takes, he pleaded. A heaviness descended on the apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He lay on his bed in the dark, waiting for another call. When it came a couple hours later, there was the same news, the same question. He repeated his plea. Yes, resuscitate. Save her. Finally, just before dawn, he received word: His mother, 44, died of COVID-19 about 6 a.m. April 3, 2020, at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. It had been less than three days since she left their home. This time, before Salomon hung up, he had his own question to ask: “What do I do next?” A Kid With No Ambition The nation has begun to emerge from the pandemic, but any real return to normalcy must include an acknowledgment of what has been lost. More than a half-million have died of COVID-19 across the United States. Nearly 34,000 of those deaths were in New York City, an early epicenter where the virus tore through the crowded landscape. The collective numbers speak to the scope of the devastation, but each death was an event of its own, a fissure in some intimate world where only the bereft know just how much was broken. The stories are detailed and personal, a different ache to fill in every home. But woven within that grief are tales of hope and hardiness — of small but brilliant transformations as the city reopens. In the 14 months since their mother’s death, Xavier and Adriana Salomon have managed to reshape their lives, unearthing courage where there was sorrow. Two teenagers on their own, they have made unsteady but brave steps into the shadows of their parents. Xavier Salomon had been the kind of kid who relied on his charm. Even his mother, who babied him, had told him that he lacked ambition. It was she who befriended the Burger King manager and pushed her son to apply for a job. “I didn’t have goals,” he recalled. “I think it’s just everything being handed down. I never really had to work at anything.” He had little use for his sister, who swiped his clothes, snooped through his phone and tattled about what she had discovered. In turn, Adriana Salomon resented that her brother was coddled. While she was expected to help clean and cook, he sat and waited for his dinner to be plated. But they were connected by a mother whose vibrancy anchored the family. Born in the Bahamas, Magalie Salomon had a scathing sense of humor and a deft hand at the stove. She warmed their apartment with laughter and the smell of chicken with yellow rice and beans or macaroni and cheese. Generous and gregarious, she lavished her children and their friends with brand-name clothes and restaurant dinners. For her daughter’s 16th birthday, she brought home a Yorkie named Bella. Never mind that they already had a Shih Tzu, Juicy. Xavier Salomon had his mother’s wit, and the two were constantly one-upping each other, to the glee of whomever happened to be in their midst. Adriana Salomon was like her mother — blunt, confident — but quieter. The two shared a room and a queen bed, although Magalie Salomon worked nights, so she was usually gone by the time her daughter got home from school. Sometimes Adriana Salomon was allowed to skip classes so she and her mother could get their nails done or go to the mall. Their father, Adrian Dookie, had been stricken with lymphoma when they were in elementary school. Dookie, whose daughter was his namesake, was just 30 when he slipped away. It was the bond that Xavier and Adriana Salomon each shared with their mother that helped soften the void. When their mother began to feel ill in March 2020, they were worried but not overly concerned. They often teased her about being melodramatic. New York City had recently shut down, but the endgame of the coronavirus was still unclear. The number of deaths was surging, yet there were many more stories of those who had recovered. Adriana Salomon had symptoms of COVID-19 and was not in distress, just fatigued. Besides, their mother had battled breast cancer a decade earlier. She was a survivor. Magalie Salomon finally called the ambulance to their apartment March 31. She embraced her children before walking outside. She continuously texted and called from the hospital. During one FaceTime chat with her son, she brought up his relationship with his sister. Salomon worried about her children’s inability to connect. “She said, ‘I don’t like the way you treat Adriana,’” her son recalled. She felt that the siblings should be closer, that he should look out for his sister. Xavier Salomon waved it off. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But after his mother had been buried next to his father at a cemetery in Queens, Xavier Salomon found her words rattling around in his head. The Rent Is Due After his mother died, Xavier Salomon wanted to stay in the family’s two-bedroom railroad apartment, the only place that held memories of both his parents. But he was doubtful he would be able to keep up with the bills. If he failed, he did not want to drag his sister down with him. It would feel safer if she was in the care of adults. “I didn’t have confidence in myself to be on my own,” he said. “I wasn’t really built in that way.” So Adriana Salomon moved in with family friends in Queens, then took a two-week vacation to North Carolina to visit an older half brother who urged her to stay for good. Afterward, she went to live with an aunt in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The first months were troubled for Xavier Salomon. Because his mother had died of COVID-19, he had to quarantine, missing two weeks of work. Afterward, his $15-an-hour shifts were reduced because customers were sparse. The landlord said not to stress about the $600 rent — a gesture that Xavier Salomon mistook as meaning that rent was canceled. He was shocked to later learn that back rent had accrued, and he owed more than $3,000. He was balancing his first year at City College of New York and looking to major in civil engineering. But the math requirements were steep. With classes remote, his attention easily drifted. His financial aid depended on his grades, which began to drop. He wondered if he should quit school and get a second job. But when asked how he was doing, he made light of his financial worries. He did not like the idea of being on anyone’s conscience. “He’s private. He doesn’t show emotions at all,” said Randy Mahabir, 37, a close friend of the family who housed both Xavier and Adriana Salomon for a while. “Sometimes that bothers me, because you don’t really know what’s going on inside.” Xavier Salomon ended up selling off most of his sneaker collection to help pay the electricity, water and cellphone bills and to build up his savings. He cut cable and the home phone, ate mostly ramen and fast food and hand-washed his Burger King uniform to avoid the laundromat, which charged $5 a load. His girlfriend, Sherlyn Guzman, kept telling him that he was in survival mode, that he should see a therapist. He shrugged it off. Then, in July, he joined Guzman’s family on a trip to the Dominican Republic. He felt guilty about taking a break and had trouble relaxing. But he and Guzman’s father started building a makeshift pool on the roof of the building. They worked through grueling afternoons, eventually coming back down to sit and welcome the breeze on the balcony with the rest of the family. They ate boiled plantains and drank passion fruit juice while overlooking the fields. Something in Xavier Salomon started to settle. His laugh came more easily. If someone mentioned his mother, he would smile and offer a memory, not just a joke. “He was starting to actually let himself feel things,” his girlfriend said. When Salomon returned from the trip, it was with a sense of honesty about his situation. He had never been under so much pressure. But he had also managed to stay afloat on his own. He felt open, like there was possibility. Maybe he could become a guardian. When his sister moved back in with him, there was no grand conversation to be had about tensions in the past. Their mother’s death had somehow righted things between them. Two Teens on Their Own They do not like to belabor their parentless life. The past year has been stark and strange, but they have done what they can to push the emptiness away. They updated their rooms, moving out the broken dresser, patching up holes and painting over the drab blue walls with shades of green. Adriana Salomon got a twin bed to replace the queen that felt spacious and lonely. Their mother’s belongings were bagged up and donated. Adriana Salomon kept the wedding band, the oversize sleep shirt, the bottle of J’adore perfume. The siblings fell into a routine. When Xavier Salomon was at work, his sister often hung out with her godmother who lived upstairs. Sometimes Adriana Salomon cleaned her brother’s room while he was away. He kept his phone near him and checked in when he could. Both procrastinators, they scrambled to do homework after hours as they sat on their beds and talked through their shared doorway. Xavier Salomon started calling his sister “mini me” and her family nickname “Chouchou,” a term of endearment in Haitian Creole, the language their mother grew up speaking. When they talked about their parents, it was usually with insider humor. “Her and Xavier, they don’t really like to express their hurt,” said Nicole Alvarez, 18, Adriana Salomon’s best friend. “Even the day after the funeral, no one was crying or upset; we were just reminiscing about the good times with her.” There have been headaches, the kind their mother seemed to handle with ease. A standout student at MESA Charter High School, Adriana Salomon started missing classes in the fall. She was oversleeping, her brother explained at the parent-teacher conference. Their mother had been the one to wake Adriana Salomon for school, something her brother was too tired to do because of long work shifts. “They’re still trying to figure out how to bounce back from this without the main stabilizing force in their family,” said Pagee Cheung, the school’s principal, who encouraged Xavier Salomon to start a GoFundMe campaign. “At the conference, with Xavier as the parent, it was just very eye-opening. Their dynamic was lots of laughing and joking around, but also clearly lots of love as you heard them work out the day-to-day things.” When the refrigerator broke down a couple months ago, Xavier Salomon was not sure whom to call. They had not used the kitchen much before, but when rodents became a problem and the exterminator was delayed, they shut the door for good. Xavier Salomon often felt like he should give his sister the life their mother would have provided. For Christmas, he took his sister on a shopping spree at Queens Center mall, where she picked out jeans, Nike sneakers, a curling iron and a stuffed Pikachu from Build-A-Bear. That set his savings back, and he fretted about his budget. But on his sister’s 17th birthday in February, he pulled out his credit card and took her right back to the mall to let her select a blue satchel and a tote bag from Michael Kors. On his birthday, when he turned 19, he worked an eight-hour shift. “Him and my mom are really alike,” Adriana Salomon said. “He’d rather have nothing and then make sure I have everything.” Adriana Salomon tried to make gestures in return. For Christmas she saved up money sent from an aunt and went to a nearby jeweler. She picked out a gold rope bracelet for her brother like the one their father used to wear. Trying to Be the Pillar Xavier Salomon proposed to Guzman last fall at Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens, the skyline of Manhattan rising behind them. His mother would have never allowed him to get engaged so young, but she was also the inspiration: Loved ones can be stolen. “We’re talking about crazy things,” he said recently. Guzman, 20, who works at the same Burger King, might move in with him and his sister next year if they can find a three-bedroom that works. Not so long ago, he could not have imagined leaving his apartment, nor feeling such purpose about the future. “I’m really the head of what’s going on right now, trying to be the pillar,” he said. Adriana Salomon wouldn’t mind the change. Guzman reminds her of her mom. They are trying to be healthier, drinking more water, avoiding candy and chips, opting for fresh meals from local restaurants. It is pricier than fast food, but they feel better afterward. They talk about saving up for headstones on their parents’ graves — nothing fancy, just respectful, so that their mother and father are commemorated by more than temporary markers on the ground. Xavier Salomon is eager for progress, to get to the life he envisions. He is committed to pulling his grades up because he is thinking about the job opportunities he wants after college, the debt he will pay off, the house he will buy, the children he will raise. He is sometimes shocked at how he reshaped himself, why he chose to listen to the drive that now propels him. “I have no idea how I got to be this person,” he said. Maybe, he thinks, his resolve had always been there, ready to be ignited by necessity and circumstance and love. His mother had been so strong, so sure — traits he wonders if she handed down to him, leaving them like final gifts, waiting to be found. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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