Unsung Santa Cruz: Love, loss & grieving ... the story of a beloved bus driver who ‘vanished’ as COVID emerged
Domingo Tovar was the second person in Santa Cruz County to die of COVID-19. As the two-year mark nears of his unexpected passing in April 2020, his family and friends still grapple with how loss unfolded at the beginning of a little-understood pandemic.
Domingo Tovar wasn’t your snarly, jaded, punch-in, punch-out metropolitan bus driver. When Metro Santa Cruz bus drivers went on strike for 37 days in 2005, the Watsonville lifer who came from Michoacan, Mexico, with his brother and parents at age 7 took the consequences to heart.
He was the driver who hopped into his Toyota Camry and personally combed the county, searching for and shuttling people to the places he knew they needed to be — work, church, school, a doctor’s appointment.
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“That’s who Domingo was,” said his longtime fellow Metro driver Bonnie Morr. “If someone needed a ride, he was going to be there. He did a lot of driving around Watsonville because he knew those people needed to get to work.”
And it’s why the ache in the soul of friends and family continues on so acutely 21 months after the much-relied-upon husband, father and grandfather became one of Santa Cruz County’s first COVID-19 fatalities at age 68.
Adding to that ache: the confusing abruptness with which a little-understood virus could wipe a loved one from existence before few knew anything about COVID-19.
When he died in April 2020, Domingo had been spending many of his post-retirement days still behind a wheel. He was driving a shuttle bus for people with disabilities at UC Santa Cruz up until a few weeks before his death. At that point, masking and physical distancing were not yet part of the modern lexicon, let alone public health protocol. Few had even heard the name Fauci.
Domingo had taken medicine for high blood pressure for years, but was seemingly healthy, those around him say. He didn’t smoke, wasn’t overweight, never complained about ailments or called in sick. Yet when he became an early COVID-19 statistic, health officials considered his case one dictated by “preexisting conditions.”
To his daughter, who hadn’t been able to see her father given the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, despite living three exits up Highway 1, and his wife, who wasn’t allowed in the ambulance that ultimately took him to Watsonville Hospital, where his compromised breathing didn’t respond to intubation, the transference from life to death still jolts them.
“They took him away in the ambulance and that was it,” says his wife, Serena. “I just felt so bad that I couldn’t even be there.”
His daughter, Mandy, wipes back tears before trying to explain the surreal nature of her father’s sudden passing: “He just vanished.”
After accepting that Domingo was gone, his family faced the challenge of how to celebrate a man who spent his life collecting friends every time the bus doors opened.
They were among the first families forced to figure out the peculiarities of a virtual Zoom memorial. Though there was a detached and unique beauty to the well-attended ceremony, it still left a question that nags to this day: Did we really celebrate him properly?
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Domingo Tovar is a posthumous Unsung Santa Cruzan both for the way he lived his life and the way he would’ve shaken off the pandemic imperfections with good humor. But his mourning family and friends also deserve recognition for how they have blindly navigated the process as COVID-19 crash test dummies.
Like so many others across the globe, the Tovars were dealt an unthinkable circumstance that they continue to sort out one day at a time, with as much grace as they can muster. This is their story of love, loss and grieving amid a global pandemic.
+++ Love +++
The role of a bus driver can easily go unnoticed in a world where such a small percentage of the population actually rides a bus (7% in Santa Cruz County, by one 2019 estimate). But not by the hardworking disenfranchised for whom it’s a lifeline. Those are the folks who kept Domingo Tovar driving Metro for more than three decades.
Serena was also a Metro driver. She would take the day shift while Domingo did dad duty with their two kids. Then Domingo would hand the children off to his wife downtown and settle in behind the wheel of his bus for the night shift.
Sometimes the people Serena would drop off at one job early in the day would be seeking a ride from Domingo after working their second or third job. The hardworking Tovars were mutually appreciative of their hardest-working, and often struggling, clientele.
“We’d never leave someone stranded, whether they could pay or not,” Serena said. “Domingo has always been calm with people, especially those who are mentally ill. He knew how to listen to people. From the day I first met him till the day I lost him, Domingo was the same person.”
He knew how to listen to people. From the day I first met him till the day I lost him, Domingo was the same person.
Had he not been, Mandy Tovar figures she probably wouldn’t be working as a public defender. Her father, she said, hated a bully more than anything.
“He was really proud of me for the line of work I chose,” she said. “I miss him so much but I was so grateful that I had a dad in the first place to support me. A lot of my clients are down and out, and if you don’t have responsible adults leading you … I mean, I was just a Mexican girl from Watsonville, anything could’ve happened.
“But for some reason my dad ingrained the importance of school and that it’s important to defend people because they can’t always defend themselves.”
Along with that hard work of helping others, Domingo Tovar showed his family how to have fun. Already a fan of family trips to the snow, Domingo upped the ante in retirement, learning how to fly a plane at nearby Watsonville Airport.
Serena remained too afraid to fly in a small Cessna all the way to Reno, but others took the man who seemed born to shepherd others to their intended destinations up on his offer. Mandy Tovar went skiing with her husband and daughter in the Reno/Tahoe area this week, something she said they managed to do annually when she was a child.
She remembers Domingo’s love of photography as something that kept him grounded in the moment. He was so good at it that people asked him to shoot their events. He was good at taxes and would help others do their books. He was curious about people and how things worked. It’s why his daughter knows he would’ve helped everyone else keep perspective during the pandemic.
“He loved tech, so being on the Zoom and doing all this remote stuff, Dad would’ve loved it,” she said. “He would’ve loved the pandemic. He would’ve leaned into it.”
+++ Loss +++
Domingo had gone back to driving part-time so that Serena didn’t have to. They both received pensions from their Metro service, but there was still money owed on the 3,000-square-foot mission-style house he had helped build in the late 1990s on five acres of land her mother had bought for $2,000 in 1951. As he told Serena: “There are still bills to be paid.”
Morr, Domingo’s longtime Metro colleague who retired shortly after he got sick, said the danger COVID-19 would present to transit operators was not well considered early on in the pandemic.
“There isn’t another job where you are more on the front lines. You’re very, very vulnerable,” she said. “Early on they knew that it was happening. They knew that this was a pandemic stage. But nobody knew where it came from, or how it was being transmitted. We were not high on the list for [personal protective equipment] and extra protection.”
As a close family friend of the Tovars and co-worker to both, Morr felt as though she’d have known if Domingo were someone with a susceptible immune system. “He wasn’t one to be sick all the time with colds or pneumonia or flu — it wasn’t like that at all,” she said.
Which is why when both Serena and Domingo came down with colds in January, neither thought much of it. They had coughs that felt more like allergies; no fever. That lingered through February, but Domingo kept driving until bus service was shut down in March.
They celebrated his 68th birthday with a cake on March 21. On April 1 he started feeling worse, and even spiked a small fever. But the fever was gone the next day, and daily phone calls with their doctor led them to stay home, rest and monitor.
The day that Serena called an ambulance, “he didn’t look good; something had changed.” Two days after being admitted and testing positive for COVID-19, Domingo was intubated. The next day, he was gone.
Serena and their grandson, Damien, both tested positive as well but suffered no symptoms beyond a minor loss of taste.
As she looks around the 3,000-square-foot home that Mingo — what she often called him — had built with his own two hands, along with real experts he had befriended, his presence is everywhere.
The little wet bar near the kitchen he loved so much is decorated with pictures of him playing football at Watsonville High. Domingo was proud that his son and grandson — both named Damien — had played high school football like him. There is a favorite spiritual rendering crafted by a local artist friend. And there is the urn that now holds Domingo’s ashes.
“I remember the day I drove to pick them up,” Mandy says of the ashes, “how strange it felt.”
Said Serena, voice trembling: “I don’t understand why it took him. I just can’t understand it.”
+++ Grieving +++
As word spread, so did the sense of helplessness among those who to that point didn’t know someone who had contracted COVID, let alone someone who had quickly died from it. And then to know it was someone who did so much for others in the community.
“It was a shocker, and created this void,” says Morr, recalling how Domingo used to bring bootlegged copies of movies to the Metro station to help drivers who were on call pass the time and bring them together. “It was truly like he’d vanished. It was like the air was sucked out of everything because there was nothing you could do.”
It was truly like he’d vanished. It was like the air was sucked out of everything because there was nothing you could do.
Mandy Tovar, who is immunocompromised with a form of rheumatoid arthritis, was being extra conservative with outside contact before her father got ill. Now she couldn’t even share a comforting embrace with her mother. She had been bringing food over for her parents, but only leaving it for them on the porch.
By August, mother and daughter were ready to venture into the unknowns of a virtual memorial service with the help of good friend Morr. Beyond the audio and video quirks that have become part of Zoom-era communication, there was something touching about 200-plus people waiting out a 3½-hour ceremony to say their piece about Domingo.
“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” says Mandy. “So many bus drivers and people who knew him wanting to talk. We went for hours. People just wanted to be together.”
Morr remembers the picture painted by family members, “Who he was to all of them, just a man who never skipped a beat being there for his family. He was just an incredible soul — someone that’s going to be missed on this planet.”
Who he was to all of them, just a man who never skipped a beat being there for his family. He was just an incredible soul — someone that’s going to be missed on this planet.
Part of Serena’s coping mechanism has been a return to driving — not just to any position, but to the exact one that her beloved Mingo was driving at UCSC. While there is far more care taken with safety now, she knows he wouldn’t approve.
“It felt special,” she said, returning to her husband’s last driving assignment. “But I also felt he’d be so mad. He didn’t want me driving any more. ‘You’ve worked hard enough already,’ he’d say.”
As she watches the Omicron variant change our understanding of this virus once again, she knows she will heed his voice — even if it means selling the house he built sooner than later and downsizing.
“I won’t take any chances,” she said. “I won’t drive if you have sick kids up there. You have kids coming from all over the world. It’s just not worth it.”
Serena Tovar met her lifemate on a Watsonville softball diamond some 47 years ago. She says she draws peace knowing she will have spent more years with Domingo than without him.
“It was a good life,” she says.