WOODLAWN PARK, N.J. — Their love story is the stuff of movies. Alfredo Pabatao was the son of a successful clothing retailer, Susana Galapate the daughter of a stableman who tended horses.
Both grew up in the same neighborhood in the Philippines. She lived in a modest, middle-class home, he in an ornate house that stood out with its marble accents.
They fell in love, against his parent's wishes, married in 1976 and later became the parents of five children.
The couple and their three youngest emigrated to the United States in 2001, eventually settling in Palisades Park. But their oldest children stayed behind – they'd become adults during the 14-year application process and no longer qualified to come with their parents. The parents vowed that when they were able, they would begin the work of bringing their two other children to America.
They would not realize that dream, though. Susana and Alfredo Pabatao died late last month after a one-week battle with the coronavirus. The couple, both health care workers, died four days apart at the same hospital, Hackensack Meridian's Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen.
"My mom and dad are inseparable and where my dad goes my mom goes, and where my mom goes my dad goes,'' their youngest daughter, Sheryl Pabatao, said in an interview this week. "That was their fate, to go together."
Susana Galapate Pabatao was a nurse’s assistant at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, a long-term care hospital in Paramus, sometimes working 12-hour shifts, according to her daughter. Her husband worked as an orderly at Hackensack Meridian. Alfredo Pabatao, 68, could have retired a few years ago, his daughter said, but he was waiting until his wife turned 65 later this year so they could do so together.
The couple, who became U.S. citizens more than a decade ago, were patiently working to secure legal residency for their two oldest children, Stephen and Ann Michelle, who remain in the Philippines. Sheryl Pabatao said she and her sister Angela and her brother, Sybil, of Palisades Park, will continue the process so her parents' dream of having their children together in one country can be fulfilled.
The couple were "those type of people who are both nurturing and have that love for their family,’’ said Sheryl Pabatao, who also lives in Palisades Park. Local pharmacists who treated her mom and dad remembered them as “the kindest people that they ever met and they said that we weren’t the only ones mourning. They were loved by everyone.”
Started with a sneeze
Alfredo Pabatao was the first to feel under the weather. He started to sneeze last month and then developed a cough on St. Patrick's Day. He blamed it on allergies, but the next day had a fever, as did Sheryl.
The next day, a doctor advised Pabatao to go to Hackensack Meridian, where he was admitted hours later. That same day, Sheryl Pabatao went to nearby urgent care center and got a prescription to be tested for the coronavirus.
When she returned to her parent’s home, she found her mother with a 102-degree fever. Susana resisted going to the hospital, but for the next several days, the fever would not subside, her daughter recalled.
Sheryl Pabatao said she and her mother tried for four days to get tested at the then recently opened drive-thru screening site at Bergen Community College in Paramus.
The site was plagued with long lines. Mother and daughter rose before sunrise to go to the center but could never get in. Every day her mom seemed weaker, Sheryl Pabatao said.
On March 23, four days after being admitted to the hospital, Alfredo Pabatao went into cardiac arrest and was moved to the intensive care unit. Hours later, at around 5:30 a.m March 24. his wife was admitted to the same hospital. Susana was in a fifth-floor room, while her husband lay in the third floor ICU.
Alfredo Pabatao would never speak to his wife or the rest of the family again. He died on March 26.
'Daddy passed away'
“It was hard for us to accept at that moment what had happened and then I had to tell my mom,’’ Sheryl Pabatao recalled as she wept.
Sheryl Pabatao worried about telling her mother, but word of her father’s death had reached extended family members. She feared someone would inadvertently tell her.
“I told her Daddy passed away,’’ Sheryl recalled. “She stayed quiet on the line." Over the phone, she could hear the medical equipment in her mother's room "going crazy.”
And then Susana Galapate Pabatao hung up.
More than 20 minutes later, on another call, her mother said she was not going to last much longer.
“She said I can’t do this anymore. My lungs hurt and I can’t breathe right now,’’ Sheryl Pabatao said.
A few hours later, her mother collapsed in her hospital room. Doctors intubated her and transferred her to intensive care. Susana Galapate Pabatao died on March 30. More than two weeks later, their daughter is still trying to process the sudden deaths and life without her parents.
"They went from zero to 100,'' she said. "They went from being OK to not being OK."
The children plan to have a memorial service, once social distancing restrictions are lifted, and have started a Go Fund Me page to help with funeral expenses. They plan to bury their parent's ashes in the Philippines.
Follow Monsy Alvarado: @monsyalvarado