‘In the end they could not live without each other’: Family remembers Toronto couple who died from COVID-19, 20 days apart

Phil Guerrero remembers when he was a kid, his father, Malakias Guerrero, met a man down on his luck.He offered the man some paid yardwork at the family’s house. The man, Phil remembers, ended up disappearing along with his father’s wallet.But Malakias was unfazed and undeterred from helping others in a similar way.“He still would be empathetic and trust people,” said Phil, 49. “So I learned that from him.”Malakias, a former high school teacher and lover of antiques, would often be noticed on the street by former students and local residents, who called him “Mr. G.”Phil laughs as he remembers getting noticed himself in Toronto, not for being the famous YTV host “PJ Phil” throughout the 1990s, but as Mr. G’s son.“He was one of those teachers,” said Phil. “They loved my dad.”It’s those students, neighbours and business owners along St. Clair Avenue West — where Malakias owned a series of antique shops as a passion project — who were devastated to learn that he contracted COVID-19 late last year and never recovered.Both Guerrero, 83, and his 80-year-old wife, Norma, a retired nurse and devoted wife, mother and sister, were diagnosed after they arrived together at St. Michael’s Hospital.They died 20 days apart in December — two of the 2,290 people to have died as a result of COVID-19 in Toronto since the pandemic began. They left two adoring children and their partners; a grandson, Quentin Bott-Guerrero; and a large extended family.Memories have been flooding online from friends, family and relative strangers since they passed — with many expressing shock over how it happened, how quickly they both went. Pieced together, the story of how they lived is quintessentially Toronto.It is also a love story. Malakias grew up on a farm in the Philippines but wanted to escape that life. He left at an early age to work for a rich family doing odd jobs. In exchange, the family paid for his education. He always had big dreams.Norma, one of 13 children, was always the child her family thought would bring them fortune. She pursued a career in medicine and travelled at a young age to New Jersey for work before returning to the Philippines to marry Malakias.In Toronto they made a middle-class life together and pursued that “Canadian dream,” taking jobs as a teacher and hospital nurse, recalls Michelle Guerrero, their first-born.They moved from a rooming house on Spadina Avenue near College Street and eventually bought their own home in Scarborough before moving to Oriole Road with their two kids.Malakias, ever the entrepreneur, also bought investment properties that didn’t always work out right away, so the family would move there for brief periods, said Michelle, 54. Malakias and Norma believed in a good education and made enough money to enrol both kids in private school as well as sponsor family members to immigrate from the Philippines, hosting them in a separate apartment in the basement of their Oriole Road home. It meant a rotating crew of new cousins to play with, big Christmas Eve celebrations and lots of home cooking.Malakias taught everything from business administration to penmanship at Central Commerce Collegiate.He was the kind of teacher you wanted to invite to your wedding.Joe Saturnino did. And so did his friends. “He taught generations of my family that went to that school,” Saturnino recalled in a phone interview on Friday. “He was also the only teacher we’d invite to our weddings.”Saturnino owns Revival, a nightclub on College Street just blocks away from his old school, now called Central Toronto Academy, on Shaw Street.As a teenager, during double lunch periods, he would head to Guerrero’s classroom to split the big mortadella or cutlet sandwich packed by his mother with his favourite teacher.“He was very cool.”On the side, Malakias pursued his passion for antiques, owning a series of stores selling furniture and odds and ends at various locations on St. Clair over the years, as well as other businesses such as a karaoke restaurant and, at one point, a Filipino food market, remembers Michelle.Malakias, who often went to a local health club and loved tennis, was still a regular fixture on St. Clair. He was known for being dressed to the nines.Monique Nanton, who owns the popular Stockyards restaurant, grew up in the area and lived down the street from the Guerreros. She said Malakias was “an institution around here.”A lover and purveyor of thrift goods herself, she formed a kinship with Malakias. She would visit his store wherever it moved and much of her home decor came from his shop, including her harvest dining table, she said.They loved each other’s taste in clothes and antiques. “He had great class, great style and he was a wonderful human being,” she said.Saturnino remembers walking on St. Clair with his wife one day after purchasing a new home, when Malakias spotted him and came running out of his shop.He whispered to his wife not to buy anything, saying it would be “junk.”Malakias said he had a grea

‘In the end they could not live without each other’: Family remembers Toronto couple who died from COVID-19, 20 days apart

Phil Guerrero remembers when he was a kid, his father, Malakias Guerrero, met a man down on his luck.

He offered the man some paid yardwork at the family’s house.

The man, Phil remembers, ended up disappearing along with his father’s wallet.

But Malakias was unfazed and undeterred from helping others in a similar way.

“He still would be empathetic and trust people,” said Phil, 49. “So I learned that from him.”

Malakias, a former high school teacher and lover of antiques, would often be noticed on the street by former students and local residents, who called him “Mr. G.”

Phil laughs as he remembers getting noticed himself in Toronto, not for being the famous YTV host “PJ Phil” throughout the 1990s, but as Mr. G’s son.

“He was one of those teachers,” said Phil. “They loved my dad.”

It’s those students, neighbours and business owners along St. Clair Avenue West — where Malakias owned a series of antique shops as a passion project — who were devastated to learn that he contracted COVID-19 late last year and never recovered.

Both Guerrero, 83, and his 80-year-old wife, Norma, a retired nurse and devoted wife, mother and sister, were diagnosed after they arrived together at St. Michael’s Hospital.

They died 20 days apart in December — two of the 2,290 people to have died as a result of COVID-19 in Toronto since the pandemic began.

They left two adoring children and their partners; a grandson, Quentin Bott-Guerrero; and a large extended family.

Memories have been flooding online from friends, family and relative strangers since they passed — with many expressing shock over how it happened, how quickly they both went. Pieced together, the story of how they lived is quintessentially Toronto.

It is also a love story.

Malakias grew up on a farm in the Philippines but wanted to escape that life. He left at an early age to work for a rich family doing odd jobs. In exchange, the family paid for his education. He always had big dreams.

Norma, one of 13 children, was always the child her family thought would bring them fortune. She pursued a career in medicine and travelled at a young age to New Jersey for work before returning to the Philippines to marry Malakias.

In Toronto they made a middle-class life together and pursued that “Canadian dream,” taking jobs as a teacher and hospital nurse, recalls Michelle Guerrero, their first-born.

They moved from a rooming house on Spadina Avenue near College Street and eventually bought their own home in Scarborough before moving to Oriole Road with their two kids.

Malakias, ever the entrepreneur, also bought investment properties that didn’t always work out right away, so the family would move there for brief periods, said Michelle, 54.

Malakias and Norma believed in a good education and made enough money to enrol both kids in private school as well as sponsor family members to immigrate from the Philippines, hosting them in a separate apartment in the basement of their Oriole Road home. It meant a rotating crew of new cousins to play with, big Christmas Eve celebrations and lots of home cooking.

Malakias taught everything from business administration to penmanship at Central Commerce Collegiate.

He was the kind of teacher you wanted to invite to your wedding.

Joe Saturnino did. And so did his friends.

“He taught generations of my family that went to that school,” Saturnino recalled in a phone interview on Friday. “He was also the only teacher we’d invite to our weddings.”

Saturnino owns Revival, a nightclub on College Street just blocks away from his old school, now called Central Toronto Academy, on Shaw Street.

As a teenager, during double lunch periods, he would head to Guerrero’s classroom to split the big mortadella or cutlet sandwich packed by his mother with his favourite teacher.

“He was very cool.”

On the side, Malakias pursued his passion for antiques, owning a series of stores selling furniture and odds and ends at various locations on St. Clair over the years, as well as other businesses such as a karaoke restaurant and, at one point, a Filipino food market, remembers Michelle.

Malakias, who often went to a local health club and loved tennis, was still a regular fixture on St. Clair. He was known for being dressed to the nines.

Monique Nanton, who owns the popular Stockyards restaurant, grew up in the area and lived down the street from the Guerreros. She said Malakias was “an institution around here.”

A lover and purveyor of thrift goods herself, she formed a kinship with Malakias. She would visit his store wherever it moved and much of her home decor came from his shop, including her harvest dining table, she said.

They loved each other’s taste in clothes and antiques. “He had great class, great style and he was a wonderful human being,” she said.

Saturnino remembers walking on St. Clair with his wife one day after purchasing a new home, when Malakias spotted him and came running out of his shop.

He whispered to his wife not to buy anything, saying it would be “junk.”

Malakias said he had a great dining set for them in the back. What Saturnino saw was buried under rugs and other furniture. When he helped clear it off, it was what he feared — a scratched-up piece of wood with cigarette burns and chairs with missing upholstery to match.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” he remembers Malakias saying, assuring him it could be made new again.

Saturnino resisted, but the next day Malakias was outside his home with a moving truck and someone he’d brought to help take the furniture inside. He later sent a man to look into refinishing it. Saturnino eventually gave Malakias $500 for the whole set.

When the furniture was whisked away to a warehouse and Saturnino didn’t hear about it for months, he was somewhat relieved.

But when he saw the final product — carefully disassembled and sanded, then refinished in a mahogany stain — Saturnino finally saw what Malakias had seen all along, what another customer at the warehouse in what is now Liberty Village offered $10,000 for. A beautiful Chippendale set of early American furniture, good as new.

“I still have it,” Saturnino said. “It’s gorgeous.”

“That was the story of Mr. G.”

Both Phil and Michelle say their dad enjoyed the social aspect of selling antiques. He loved to make conversation.

“He really embraced whatever the city had to offer,” Michelle said.

“He soaked up life,” Phil said. “He really made use of his time here.”

Several years ago, the onset of dementia became noticeable. Malakias’s short-term memory was affected but his personality wasn’t. Everyone was grateful for that.

Norma, the nurturing one, took care of him.

When Malakias turned 80, he went to renew his driver’s licence with Norma. An hour later, Phil came to pick them up and congratulated his dad on passing the test. But Malakias couldn’t remember the test he had just taken. Norma was howling.

The two loved to travel and to go out together after putting away her scrubs and his lesson plans.

Phil called Norma the “Godfather”; Michelle calls her a “matriarch.” She was more subdued. Everyone would come to her for advice and for favours, they said. The couple were always thanked at family weddings after helping to bring so many relatives to Canada.

Phil said they would argue when he was a kid — about the shops, about the constant moving. There was a refrain in the house when Malakias had gone off on another mini-adventure — “Where’s Dad?”

“It drove my mother nuts,” Phil said. He didn’t always understand why they stuck together.

“In the end, I really saw what marriage was about.”

The couple were living in a house just north of St. Clair that they shared with Michelle — they had a separate apartment — when they both started to feel ill in late November.

They had recently got their flu shots at a pharmacy and thought maybe they were reacting to that. But their fever hadn’t broken and Michelle drove them to the hospital.

She parked the car, not realizing she couldn’t follow them in due to COVID-19 restrictions. Both tested positive. Michelle remembers being told later that they were the first husband and wife to be admitted together.

Their father, Malakias, was intubated that night. No one got to say goodbye.

In the intensive care unit, there weren’t immediately two beds together, but when one opened up next to Malakias, staff moved Norma, who’d been asking about him, Michelle remembers.

Norma improved while Malakias did not. She was eventually moved to another floor after being cleared of COVID-19 and was released.

Within days, they were told Malakias’s health had deteriorated and they all needed to come in. He died Dec. 10.

Norma rallied for the funeral. Michelle thinks she recovered just enough to see him off. She was wheeled into the funeral home to hear the prayers for her husband of 55 years.

And then, quickly, her health began to deteriorate. A pre-existing but previously undiscovered lung condition made it difficult to breathe despite her no longer testing positive for COVID-19. She was readmitted to hospital.

Patients are allowed only one designated visitor. When she’d been first admitted, Michelle went in to see their mom, which meant Phil couldn’t. This time Phil was the contact. Whoever visited would FaceTime the other.

The siblings have nothing but praise for the staff at St. Michael’s, whom Michelle called patient and empathetic, saying they encouraged daily calls and never tired of connecting families. But Norma was not always strong enough to speak on the phone.

When hospital staff decided that she required a ventilator, they set up a family call with Phil, Michelle and Norma’s grandson, Quentin.

The nurse answered. The conversation was short.

“Just ‘I love you,’ ‘I love you,’” Phil remembered. They told her they’d see her when she got better. It was the last time they would speak.

“It happened so quick,” Phil said.

He was allowed an extra visit on top of the two standard visits a week over Christmas and spent those days at the hospital. He learned a lot in that period — about blood clots and oxygen levels and the things the virus does to a body. He was hoping to return again on New Year’s.

Norma died on Dec. 30, just 20 days after her husband.

Because these are strange times and funerals have a limited capacity of 10 — including the officiant — the services were livestreamed. The video is still available online.

You can watch the priest’s reading — “The Lord is my shepherd/There is nothing I shall want” — at Malakias’s service, and then, separately, Norma’s casket as it is carried to a lift over an open grave. A blanket of snow surrounds masked mourners who lay down white roses. The casket descends all the way into the cold, hard earth.

Their parents used to joke, Michelle says, that Malakias would not survive without Norma — always the caretaker. Better hope you go before me, she’d jest. The two of them always stuck together.

“In the end they could not live without each other,” Phil said.

They still don’t know how their parents got sick. They weren’t doing anything reckless, the siblings say. Michelle also tested positive but was asymptomatic.

Now, the Guerrero children talk about being in a store where someone is standing too close in line. Or hearing someone say they don’t know anyone who’s been sick.

They think about saying something. About how they buried both their parents within a month of each other. About how quickly it came, yet how drawn out it was. Like a car crash in slow motion.

“I don’t want to see anyone go through what I did,” Phil said.

“Just be careful.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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