When 13-year-old Mazen Kamel and his mother both contracted COVID-19 late last month, he clung to the hope that they’d pull through it together.
After all, that’s what they had always done after his father died of cancer when Mazen was just five.
This time would be no different, he told himself.
“Me and my mom are going to make it together, right? We’re going to make it out. We’re going to be together, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to go outside … just like we used to,” he said.
“I had faith that she would come back.”
But on April 17, Dalia Aly died at age 46 in a Mississauga, Ont., intensive care unit. Mazen, unable to be physically by her side because of hospital restrictions, was forced to say goodbye to his only living parent through a glass window.
“I’m in shock. I don’t believe it,” he told CBC News.
“I’m still hoping that I’ll wake up one day and go to the next room and see my mom.”
‘Killing faster and younger’
Aly’s death is a stark reminder that Ontario’s third wave of COVID-19 is hitting younger populations harder than ever before, something Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, warned about at the start of the month.
“COVID is killing faster and younger,” Brown said in a modelling update on April 1.
Aly arrived in Canada in 2010 along with her husband and Mazen, who was just a toddler at the time. Three years later, her husband died of kidney cancer, leaving Aly to care for their son alone.
“She didn’t have much of her own, but she would take everything off her back, everything that she had, and give it to people who needed it more,” Aly’s cousin-in-law Mariam Nouser recalled.
“She was always there to help her family, to help her friends. And she was always the one that wanted to make people smile, despite her own struggles with depression following the death of her husband.”
Aly was strong and resourceful, finding a way through even as she was diagnosed with a painful condition called fibromyalgia, Nouser said.
‘Me and my family had to watch her die’
But while her son experienced only mild cold symptoms after contracting the novel coronavirus, Aly deteriorated, struggled to breathe and sounded audibly weak on the phone. She visited the Trillium Health Partners Mississauga hospital twice during her illness, both times being assessed and sent back home.
Her third visit would be her last.
After about a week on oxygen, Nouser said Aly was intubated and placed in a medically-induced coma. For a brief moment, there was a glimmer of hope as her oxygen levels climbed.
But on the morning of the April 17, her family received a call saying she wasn’t going to make it.
Mazen and his grandmother rushed to the hospital, where he said a social worker spoke to him about the possibility of losing his mom. Before they could finish the conversation, he said, a nurse rushed in and said his mom was slipping away.
“Me and my family had to watch her die,” he said.
“I’m not crying right now because it hits me in waves, but when I remember the good times, I start to cry.”
In the days following Aly’s death, community members have rallied together to raise money for Mazen, who will now have to learn to live without either of his parents. A fundraiser set up by Nouser has so far raised approximately $125,000 for Mazen, who is staying with a family friend with four children of her own.
“It was important for us to facilitate that,” Nouser said, especially because Aly, who was on disability insurance due to her condition, had little to leave behind.
‘COVID has taken enough lives’
The plan for now is for Mazen to spend the summer with his relatives in Egypt and then likely move in with his mother’s sister in Italy.
While loved ones will remember Aly for her resilience, it’s now Mazen who carries on his mother’s strength.
“Mazen is such a mirror of his mom,” Nouser said, recalling his composure at a virtual visitation held for his mother held in the days after her death.
“We were sending our condolences and he told us not to cry — that his mom wanted everybody to be happy. And he wants that, too. He wants everybody to be happy and that he appreciates that we all love his mom and are caring for him.”
Still absorbing his mother’s loss, Mazen now has this message for anyone who will listen:
“Be aware that COVID isn’t a joke … I want people just to stay safe. I don’t want people to get sick and other people die. COVID has taken enough lives.
“I want people after they’re done watching this interview just to hug their loved ones,” he said, speaking to CBC News.
“Hold them tightly and never let them go.”