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Ben Chavez stands over the grave of his mother, Jean D. Chavez, at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

John C. Castillo’s health had been spiraling downward for some time. So when the 84-year-old’s condition deteriorated in December to the point where he could no longer stand, his family worried, but they couldn’t claim surprise.

The hard-working man, who grew up in the mining town of Oak Creek and later became a master chef in Denver, was loaded into an ambulance at his home in Northglenn and rushed off to medical care. Castillo would be released in a few days, relatives hoped.

“He would make frequent trips to the hospital,” said Ben Chavez, one of Castillo’s many grandchildren. “We learned how to cope.”

But if Castillo’s condition came as no shock, his diagnosis left relatives stunned. It wasn’t his failing heart that was responsible for his decline. It was coronavirus. 

John C. Castillo, left, with his grandson Ben Chavez. (Provided photo)

Family members puzzled at how the family patriarch could have been infected with COVID-19 at his home, where his adult son and daughter had moved in to care for him.

Castillo and his children, Johnny Castillo and Jean D. Chavez, had been careful. They avoided going out. They entertained few visitors. They took no fraught trips to the grocery store. Necessities arrived by delivery. 

Then Jean and Johnny, in their 60s and also struggling with their own health issues, became ill. 

Within a month, all three family members were dead.

More than 5,500 Coloradans have died after contracting COVID-19. They were grandmothers and grandfathers, moms and dads, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. Some were young children. 

But few families have experienced the kind of heartbreak visited upon the many relatives of John C. Castillo, Jean D. Chavez and Johnny Castillo. 

The three were remembered at a joint memorial service in January at Mt. Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Wheat Ridge. A long line of caskets filled the center aisle of the sanctuary. A handful of mask-wearing mourners sat in the pews, separated by social distancing guidelines but clearly tied together in their grief. 

A screenshot from a livestream of the funeral. Only a limited number of family members could attend because of the pandemic. (Screenshot)

“I don’t think they’ve had a funeral for three people at the same time,” said Ben Chavez, who delivered a triple eulogy that lasted about 40 minutes. “You could kind of see it was a lot of work.”

Gary Schaaf, executive director of the Archdiocese of Denver’s cemeteries and mortuary, said special steps had to be taken to account for the triple memorial service. Staff at Mt. Olivet were anxious about whether there would be enough space for all three caskets. They sketched out the ceremony the night before to avoid any hiccups.

I don’t think they’ve had a funeral for three people at the same time. You could kind of see it was a lot of work.

Ben Chavez on the triple funeral for his mother, uncle and grandfather

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Schaaf said. “For my staff, this last year has just been really, really hard. And this particular case was really hard.”

Mt. Olivet has helped families through difficult remembrances before. Tragic vehicle crashes that claimed multiple victims. Mass tragedy like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. They’ve been 25% busier in the past year because of COVID-19.

But the funeral for the Castillo-Chavez family “ranks up there,” Schaaf said.

John C. Castillo died in his sleep on Dec. 9, a few days after he was taken to North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton. 

By that time, Jean and Johnny had tested positive for COVID-19 and were growing increasingly ill. They isolated in separate rooms in their father’s house as they planned his memorial service, mourning their dad’s death as the virus slowly killed them, too. 

Jean and Johnny’s children begged them to seek medical care. But even as their conditions worsened, the pair refused. 

“They fought us the entire way,” Ben Chavez said, recounting Jean’s fear that if she went to a hospital she’d never make it back alive. “We basically had to yell at her to call 911.” 

Jean relented on Dec. 11, when she became so ill that she had no choice but to go to a hospital.

When Jean arrived at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, doctors said she needed to be intubated immediately. She got on the phone with her family to say goodbye.

“That was the last time we talked to my mom,” Ben Chavez said. “We all got to tell her that we loved her and that she’s going to be OK and that we were all going to be praying for it. It was fast. It was a really quick conversation.”

“I’m not doing good,” Jean told her family. Those were among her last words. 

John C. Castillo’s headstone at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Four days later, Johnny was driven to medical care by one of his daughters.

After about a day at St. Anthony North hospital, doctors put Johnny on a ventilator. But sensing his window for communication closing, he first anxiously called his children as he received supplemental oxygen. 

“It wasn’t, unfortunately, any in-depth conversation. It was me getting on him to let the doctors do what they needed to do,” said Dawnielle Castillo-Carter, Johnny’s oldest daughter. “He was scared. My grandfather had just passed and my aunt was (on a ventilator). He had made the comment that he didn’t want to die alone. I think he knew, going in, the chances. The reality of what could happen to him, I think, was going through his mind.”

John C. Castillo was the youngest of nine children. He worked in the officer’s club at the former Lowry Air Force Base in Denver and then went on to open the Red Shanty restaurant on South Broadway. 

Castillo was dyslexic, and so his late wife, Annie, would read him recipes and he would then cook from memory. He loved Cadillacs and dressing sharply. He was so dedicated to his craft that he would sneak away in his retirement to cook at a country club, even though the extra income threatened his benefits. 

“We will always remember his New Year’s Day menudo, his corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, his Easter ham, his Fourth of July ribs and potato salad, his Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing, and his Christmas prime rib,” Castillo’s obituary said.

John C. Castillo at work as a chef. (Provided photo)

Johnny Castillo, 63, was a motorcycle-loving father of five daughters who gave him 10 grandchildren. He worked in construction for most of his life. Johnny had a tough, tattooed exterior, but that would melt away among family or when meeting a stranger in need.

His daughter, Dawnielle Castillo-Carter, said that after Johnny died, family members visited a restaurant he frequented in northwest Denver called Carl’s Pizza. Johnny had befriended the cook during his weekly visits to order an “immigrant sandwich.” Ham, pepperoni, capicola, salami, provolone, Romano, mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, onion and Italian dressing. Johnny would enter through the back door. 

“Literally the guy was in tears when we told him what had happened to my dad,” Castillo-Carter said. “He just had this way of touching people.”

Johnny Castillo. (Provided photo)

Jean D. Chavez, 64, had two children. She worked at the Denver Department of Human Services for 24 years, retiring in May to take care of her father. Chavez liked to drink Captain Morgan and dance. She collected sneakers with her son, Ben. Her favorite rapper was Eminem, though she also liked listening to oldies.

“My mom was a badass,” Ben Chavez said. “She was a strong woman that didn’t take anything from anybody. If she didn’t like something, she let you know. She never held back.” 

Jean D. Chavez with her two children, Ben and Angie. (Provided photo)

In online death notices for their three beloved family members, relatives pleaded with others to be careful with coronavirus.

“As our family reels from losing Jean, Johnny and John in less than a month, we beg of you to please take this deadly virus seriously, to wear a mask, and to maintain social distancing until we are all able to receive vaccinations,” one of the obituaries said.

Ben Chavez, a community activist, knows how fortunate his mother and uncle and grandfather were to have access to medical care. They were also fortunate to be able to stay home during the pandemic while others were forced to work. But even with those privileges, coronavirus found a way in.

“They were basically living 100% percent of the time in quarantine,” he said. “We don’t know how they got it. Was it off a package? I don’t know if they had a visitor that they didn’t tell us about. Who knows.”

Chavez admits frustration with the ways people have ignored the dangers around coronavirus. As he drove through downtown Denver on a recent trip to his mom’s house, he saw people drinking at breweries and found the sight difficult to square with his pain.

“I’m not trying to judge people because everybody has their own lived experiences,” he said. “Everybody has their own level of being comfortable.”

He added: “What it’s done to me mentally has made me feel like I’m at the end of the world.”

After they’d spent several weeks in the hospital, it became clear that Jean D. Chavez and Johnny Castillo probably would never leave.

Jean had contracted ventilator-associated pneumonia on top of her coronavirus infections. Johnny’s oxygen levels failed to improve despite a course of treatment. If they somehow survived the virus, they would spend the rest of their lives living with the help of machines.

“It was clearly time,” Ben Chavez said. 

He was never able to visit his mother in the hospital because she continued to test positive for COVID-19 up until her death. Fear of contagion meant that the mortuary couldn’t dress Jean in her own clothes for burial. 

“She stayed in a body bag,” Ben said.

Dawnielle Castillo-Carter did visit her father while he was receiving medical care. Johnny didn’t look like himself, hooked up to beeping and whirring machines and lying in a hospital bed. Normally, she said, he’d be trying to bust out to freedom.

“Just seeing him in the condition he was in, it helped us to know,” she said. “He didn’t want to live on machines.”

On Jan. 2, family members decided to remove Jean and Johnny, who were being cared for at different hospitals, from their ventilators. They died a few hours apart.

“We did it as a family,” Ben Chavez said. “And they passed away together.”

The Mt. Olivet Cemetery plot where Jean D. Chavez was buried next to her father, John C. Castillo. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....