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A niece remembers her beloved uncle, lost to COVID, with Elvis Presley

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than a million people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. so far. NPR continues to remember them through the music they loved in our series called Songs of Remembrance. And today, we remember Gerald Thomas, known as Jerry, with a little Elvis Presley. He died on December 8 of last year at the age of 80. Gerald Thomas' niece, Elida Lozano, says everyone always looked forward to spending time with Uncle Jerry.

ELIDA LOZANO: So this one time, they were able to go to Hawaii on a family vacation - him, my Tia Elia and my cousin George. And it was like the one big vacation that they took, right? And so he felt so happy. He's like, I felt like Elvis in Hawaii.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Wise men say only fools rush in.

LOZANO: I have so many memories from hanging out with my Uncle Jerry when we would go over and he would have Elvis Presley playing on the radio. And he would, like, dance, and he would love listening always to music also. So I think he also helped me have that love for music because it was always a great time with him, you know, even though it wasn't - we weren't celebrating anything special, I felt like there was always music in the background that made it happy and warming and inviting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Falling in love with you.

LOZANO: I was born in Mexico, and I was - when I arrived here, I was 2 years old. Spanish was the language at home. And so when I went to school, I only spoke Spanish, and I felt really out of place. And I think my Uncle Jerry was the one who helped me kind of feel like there was a part of me that belonged here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Shall I stay? Would it be a sin?

LOZANO: I was the very first one in my whole family to go to school. So personally, I feel like he was the one that helped me go on to college and, you know, said, you can do it. You don't speak perfect English now, but you'll, you know, go to school, you'll learn it. And, you know, you're just as smart as everybody else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Like a river flows surely to the sea.

LOZANO: In November, when we last saw him and - he said he was feeling sick, and we said, well, you know, you should really consider getting vaccinated. And he was like, no, no. You know, that's just made believe. Like, we're not going to let them put anything in our bodies and that kind of stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Take my hand.

LOZANO: My Uncle Jerry went to the hospital. They told him it's COVID, you know? And then he went into a coma. Things started to get complicated. They had to amputate his leg to try to save him. And I think it was, like, the day after that surgery that he passed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) For I can't help falling in love with you.

LOZANO: You know, he thought he was never going to have children. And then he had just the largest family that loved him. And these members that we lost because of COVID, they're not just numbers. They're really going to leave, like, a big empty hole in this world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWAIIAN SUNSET")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Hawaiian sunset...

SUMMERS: Gerald Thomas of Paris, Calif., was 80 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAWAIIAN SUNSET")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Smiles and says aloha... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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