Filled with love for everyone else, especially her grand- and great-grandchildren, and a continuing energy to live life to the fullest, Dorothea Jesus’ passing leaves a gut-wrenching hole in the hearts of everyone who knew her.
Depending on who you were, she was Mama Doring, Jama Love, Grammy or Auntie Doring. Her voice, a beautiful lilt honed by years of singing with the church choir, brought instant comfort, moving those who loved her. Her heart, despite being hurt so many times – the hardest rip being the 2006 death of her youngest son, Sgt. Jesse Castro, to the war in Iraq – was big and full for every person in her family. Her need to “measure the road” and “pashando” was the stuff of family lore as her children and grandchildren recollected tales of midnight drives to Kmart or Ross or visits to see someone’s garden in Merizo or trips for taho at the flea market. Her garden, which bloomed with color and life, was indicative of her personality – vibrant, resilient and trusting that God had a bigger plan for the people she loved.
On March 22, the island received the news that the first COVID-19 patient had died in the early morning hours while she slept. While the island reeled in shock and questions swirled about the pandemic, a family grieved apart from each other and in silence, mourning the loss of their matriarch – the heart and soul of their family.
An eternal optimist and full of life, the family is still unable to believe she’s gone, finding it hard to talk about her in the past tense and realizing that she blessed them and enriched their lives in so many ways. The tributes have poured in – some in song, some in poetry and some with prayer.
Her love for life and culture has transcended her death through her family, friends and students.
“Grandma always kept herself busy. I don’t know how she did it; from going to work, taking us to our practices/shows/games, helping with the church, tending to her garden, or keeping up with the house,” said her oldest granddaughter, Krysta Jesus-Quenga, who currently lives in Okinawa. “She always made time to fit everything into her crazy schedule.”
Jesus-Quenga says her grandma did everything full throttle. She taught with passion, loved the impact she made in the classroom, even going in during breaks to ensure her students got the best she could offer. She was an advocate for CHamoru culture – spoke to her grandchildren in CHamoru and was a member in the performing arts group Ginen I Hila.
“She enjoyed educating people about our culture and language through stories, plays and song,” said Jesus-Quenga, adding her grandmother’s get-up-and-go personality extended to everything in her life. She “hardly took naps” because there wasn’t enough time in the world for everything she wanted to do.
“I am who I am because of the adults in my life guiding me, but mainly because of this strong, beautiful, independent woman,” said Jesus-Quenga. “A lot of the values and morals I have and instill into my kids were taught to me by my grandma.”
“As a single mother, she worked hard to provide for her family and grandchildren and instill in them the importance of faith, love and respect not only for each other, but for everyone around them,” said her daughter-in-law, Theresa Castro.
If her mother-in-law could pick one quality to define her life, it would be love for family above all, said Castro.
“She loved all her children, but adored being a grandmother and great-grandmother most. Her greatest joy was spending time with her grandchildren and teaching them about everything and anything,” said Castro, adding she rarely missed a game, proudly cheering on every one of her kids at every game she made.
“I would want people to remember my mother-in-law for the loving person she was. She wasn’t perfect, and never tried to be, but she was always willing to help out anyone in need,” Castro said. “Even through all the hardships she had to endure, her faith in God never wavered. If anything, I would like everyone to remember my mother-in-law as the amazing woman she was and not just a statistic.”
"Auntie Doring had many distinctions throughout her life, served God and her islands with the talents He gave her, and made a difference in the lives of so many of her students, relatives, colleagues and friends,” Jesus' niece, Yolie Pilarca, said via Facebook. “She is a person whose legacy will live on with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her life should be defined by how she lived on this earth, not by the circumstances in which she left it.”
Making sense of God’s plan
Unfortunately, tragedy isn’t new to the family. Jesus lost her youngest son in 2006 to the war in Iraq. Sgt. Jesse Castro was one of the island’s first casualties in a war that has cost the region many sons and daughters.
“She was never quite the same after his death,” said Castro, who is Jesse’s widow. "Nevertheless, she became a Gold Star Mother and dedicated the rest of her life honoring her son’s legacy and all the other soldiers who passed away from the Mariana Islands. She made it her mission to ensure that they were never forgotten for paying the ultimate sacrifice.”
Like everything else in life, Jesus found a way to grieve and make sense of the tragedy, trusting that God had a plan. Her family has adopted that mentality, keeping prayer and faith in the forefront as they attempt to navigate life without her.
“When Mom got sick with COVID-19, things went downhill very quickly,” said Castro, adding Jesus chose to implement a DNR. “We watched our loved one, our matriarch, deteriorate right before our eyes. To make matters worse, we cannot console one another as we are scattered around the globe and continue to stay isolated and follow protocol.”
Despite her age and the grim prognosis, Jesus held on for several days. Thanks to the kindness of the emergency room nurses, her family was able to be with her in her last moments via FaceTime and WhatsApp.
She was no longer responding, and family members were able to give their final goodbyes. However, she clung to life, and both Castro and Jesus-Quenga said family members told her she can go if she wanted to.
Jesus-Quenga added, “All of us were trying to figure out what she was holding on for” as family members played her favorite songs and spoke with her or just watched her so she wouldn’t be alone when she passed.
Over the course of four days, the COVID-19 test results of each family member rolled in and the anxiety was nearly unbearable. All of her family members, besides the one who cared for her the day she was admitted to the hospital, tested negative. The final results came in late Saturday evening, clearing the entire family in Okinawa, Japan.
She passed at 1:30 a.m., hours after hearing those results. Castro said she believes her mother-in-law could finally rest because she was sure the family would be relieved of their burden.
"She wouldn't want us to blame ourselves," Castro said.
“The nurse gave us some time to say our goodbyes one final time before shutting her phone off and taking her away,” said Jesus-Quenga. “My nina reassured all of us that grandma probably waited for those test results so we can have peace in the fact that we didn’t give it to her. We cried so much.”
“In the past week, we have had so many stressful moments and as hard as it has been, this tragedy has helped remind myself, my family and the rest of the world to not take anything for granted,” said Castro. “My mother-in-law always said, ‘When it’s her time, she’ll be ready.’ So yes, we cried when she left this world, but we also smiled thinking of the beautiful reunion she and Jesse must have had.”
Now, the family prays the rosary nightly for their matriarch, again via FaceTime and WhatsApp.
While they don’t want their Mama Doring to be a cautionary tale, they did have several messages they wanted to ensure got out.
“To the nurses, doctors and staff who cared for Grandma, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Our family took this real hard not being able to physically be with Grandma during this time, but you all made it possible for us to be with her,” said Jesus-Quenga, adding the family will forever be grateful and asks that the front-line workers please take care as they help other families navigate a global crisis.
And to the people of Guam, Jesus-Quenga said, “Please follow safety protocols and precautions people have been practicing all around the world. My family and I would most definitely not want this to happen to anyone else. Practice social distancing and stay home – especially if you’re sick.
“This is real. This happened to us,” she added. “Don’t let stupidity and selfishness take someone you love or a random person away. Be safe, Guåhan!”