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Coming to terms with the COVID death of an estranged mother


Lillie Torres was camping this summer in Washington state when she got a worrying message about her birth mom, Holly Serl.

LILLIE TORRES: Somebody said, you know, she's in the hospital. She's in the hospital. She's not doing well. She's in the ICU, and she has COVID. And I kind of - I didn't believe it.


Holly lived a difficult life, and Lillie had gotten used to occasional troubling calls. But this one was different.

TORRES: So I called her that night. And that was - it was so hard to hear her. The machines she had, the oxygen - the high-flow oxygen - was so loud. She was taking 65 breaths per minute, which is, I guess, astronomically large. And her body was just starting to shut down.

CHANG: But somehow, Holly - disoriented in her ICU bed in Florida - managed to call back and leave a voicemail.

HOLLY SERL: I don't know who you are. I'm in the ICU.

TORRES: Her breathing - she's breathing so quickly. So it's that feeling when you cry so hard, and you go, (vocalizing), and your voice kind of trembles, and you're breathing in, and it's hard to get words out. It sounds like that over and over.

SHAPIRO: Lillie, now 37 and a parent herself, had a complicated relationship with her estranged birth mother. But she wanted Holly to know that she loved her and she didn't want her to be alone. So Lillie got on a midnight flight to Tampa. But she arrived too late.

TORRES: I was supposed to arrive at, like, 10:30 Florida time. And she had passed by, like, 7:00, 7:30.

CHANG: Over the past year and a half, we've been remembering some of the more than 700,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. And we have asked you to share their stories with us. When Lillie told us about Holly, she told us the story of a woman who hurt Lillie and other people, too.

SHAPIRO: Holly was born in Carmel, Calif., two days before Christmas in 1957. Lillie describes Holly as a creative person who loved to draw and paint. But she had a traumatic childhood, and as she grew up, she turned to sex work, drugs and alcohol. That life made it hard for her to be a mom. And when Lillie was 10, some family members adopted her, and her life became more stable.

CHANG: Holly's life, however, did not. And eventually that caught up with her. She was convicted for racketeering and spent time in prison. In recent years, Lillie says Holly committed to an uphill fight for sobriety.

SHAPIRO: The choices Holly made strained her relationship with Lillie. But there is some closure now, Lillie says. Her birth mother is no longer in pain. There is no more trauma.

TORRES: But that means it's also over. And there is no reconciliation. And there is no opportunity for her to meet our children or, you know, get totally clean and sober and get to a good place. You know, this is it.

CHANG: Lillie says her mom was flawed but is still deserving of love and remembrance.

TORRES: What are you owed when you die, you know? And I think it's a little bit of dignity and a little bit of compassion.

SHAPIRO: Holly Serl died on July 21 in Pinellas Park, Fla. She was 63.

CHANG: If you'd like us to memorialize a loved one you have lost to COVID-19, find us on Twitter at @npratc. There's a pinned tweet right at the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Sarah Handel
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