The night before Alan Arellano died of COVID-19, his wife recorded a short audio message with their two youngest sons. Miami doctors had placed the 49-year-old man in a coma after he suffered a heart attack while being treated for the virus.
His family wasn't allowed to visit him, but after nearly 20 years of marriage, Karyn Arellano knew the love of her life could still hear their voices, even in a coma.
“I know that you’re going to get out of there very soon. Tomorrow’s my game against Benedictine and I'm gonna play really good for you dad,” his 16-year-old son and namesake Alan 'A.J.' Arellano said in the message, trying to sound upbeat.
His 14-year-old brother Evan chimed in, "I’m here for you. I love you.”
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Karyn Arellano, a kindergarten teacher, was weary and worried. Though she tried to sound positive on the recording, she'd struggled to sleep in the nearly two weeks since Alan's hospitalization and frequently called the nurses for middle-of-the-night updates.
The day after the family recorded the message, the doctor called her at school. Alan had suffered another heart attack and they were trying to resuscitate him. Karyn was hysterical.
“Please keep working on him. Don’t give up on him. He’s strong, he’s a fighter,” she recalled.
As they rushed to the hospital, a nurse held the audio message close to Alan's ear. “We love you daddy ... I'm here with you honey,” their words echoed as a team of doctors worked frantically but ultimately fruitlessly to save him.
“While he was taking his last breaths, he was able to hear myself and my boys over and over again," she said. “I have peace knowing that his final moments were hearing his family’s voices.”
When Arellano married Karyn she already had a 2- and 5-year-old. He loved them as his own. Together, they had two more boys. Their family was his world.
He attended football and baseball games and practices, chauffeuring the children in his red pickup truck, blasting “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and pressing them about school and career goals.
As a college admissions counselor, he helped new students, many of them from low-income backgrounds and some of them adults struggling to turn their lives around. He spoke of them at the dinner table, and followed up to see how their classes were going.
He pushed the same message about education and working hard with his children, spending hours counseling 26-year-old Elyssa Hernandez, who is applying to medical school now. He often made Hernandez and her 28-year-old brother Erick dress up for mock interviews, peppering them with questions.
“We didn’t really have a father figure," Erick Hernandez said, about when his mom married Alan. “He was always so selfless with us.”
Erick Hernandez recently began college. He couldn’t wait to tell Alan he’d gotten straight A's.
He was “a big teddy bear,” Erick said, teaching him “how to take care of my brothers, respect your mom, just every lesson that a father would teach their son.”
He preferred doing everything together as a family. Trips were based around the kids, including two expeditions to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in New York state, always eager to build memories.
Date nights were rare. But he told his wife there would be plenty of time for romantic vacations when the kids were grown.
“We’re going to have our turn later," Karyn said. "We just wanted to make sure as husband and wife that we were always present and giving our children lessons that they can take with them.”
Alan delighted in picking out the best baseball bat or football cleats for his younger sons, new clothes for an interview for his older children. When you are out in the world, you are representing the family, he often said.
When he tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantined in the family bedroom, aspiring doctor Elyssa brought him three meals a day while Karyn and Evan were at a baseball tournament.
Alan, meanwhile, was growing increasingly lethargic, with a troubling cough. His oxygen levels were extremely low when he was taken to the ER. Ten days later he had a heart attack.
The doctors wanted to put him in a coma. Karyn was terrified. She remembers him trying to reassure her over the phone.
“Babe, I just want to let you know, I gave consent to intubate me and they’re gonna fix me, they’re going to fix my heart," he told her. “I love you.”
It was their last conversation. He never regained consciousness.
The children have been inconsolable, the center of their family suddenly gone.
“I can’t believe he won’t be able to see me go to medical school," Elyssa sobbed.
Yet even in death, Alan's legacy is ever present.
During funeral preparations, Karyn says, A.J. pulled her aside, reminding her of his football game Friday night in Jacksonville, nearly six hours away.
“Buddy, you know it's OK to miss that football game. Your coaches aren't going to be upset.”
But she says he was resolute.
“Mom, now more than ever I have to play every single game because I know how much daddy loved to watch me play football,” he told her. “And I know daddy will be with me and he can see me.”
In Jacksonville Friday night, Alan's 16-year-old namesake put on his navy football helmet. Even though they lost, it was never about the game. His mom and siblings all made the lengthy trip and Karyn set a gold-framed photo of Alan beside them in the stands.
On Monday, A.J. will put on a suit and tie and, along with his siblings, bury his hero.