Orita Godoy was born poor in Chile and raised by her grandmother after her parents separated. “She only wore shoes when she went to church,” remembers her daughter, Alejandra Godoy, a 53-year-old NHS worker from London.
She met Rolando, a paint sprayer, when she worked as a housekeeper for a family in Santiago. “They had a connection I never saw in anyone else,” says Alejandra. “They could never understand why people got divorced.” Orita would know what Rolando was going to say before he said it. They had two children: Alejandra and her younger brother, also called Rolando.
Orita and her husband were committed socialists and well known in activist circles. “They wanted a better life for everyone,” says Alejandra. “They dreamed about giving the poor their own land.” They were overjoyed when the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970. “She never had a proper education, but she was so clever,” says Alejandra of her mother.
But Allende was overthrown in a military coup in 1973 and replaced by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. When Allende was toppled, Pinochet’s forces began persecuting socialists. Rolando was arrested and held for three months at the national stadium, with thousands of other political prisoners. Orita was beside herself; she did not know where her husband was. “Every day, she’d go out, looking for Dad,” says Alejandra. “She’d check all the police stations and walk around for miles. Sometimes, she’d walk past bodies lying on the floor. She saw people who had been beheaded. It was a nightmare.”
When Rolando was released from detention and came home, he was emaciated. Alejandra’s memories from the early years of the Pinochet regime are traumatic. “You’d hear shooting in the street all the time,” she says. The family knew that they could not stay in Chile, so they applied for asylum in the UK and moved to Renton, in West Dunbartonshire, in 1976. They moved to London in 1983. Rolando worked odd jobs and Orita was a homemaker – in the truest sense of the word.
“My mother, she did not like anyone being in the kitchen,” says Alejandra. “She wanted to be there on her own. If you went in there, you didn’t have a chance. The kitchen was her domain. You could never contradict her.” Orita was a superb cook; she could make a meal from next to nothing in minutes. Empanadas, cakes, soup, bread, pears in red wine. “She used to say that when you cook, you have to love what you’re making,” says Alejandra. “She always put all of her love into her food.”
Rolando died of cancer in 2018. Orita took it badly. “She could never talk about it,” Alejandra says. “It was hard for her.” Alejandra first realised that her mother was unwell on 9 April, when she started to run a temperature. Alejandra herself was unwell: she believes she contracted the virus at Great Ormond Street hospital, where she works. Alejandra slept at the end of her mother’s bed, holding her hand, making sure she had paracetamol and water. A doctor came to the family house to assess Orita and told her to stay at home, but her health deteriorated to the point where she was unable to get out of bed to use the toilet.
On 14 April, she was admitted to St Thomas’ hospital. Stepping into the ambulance, Orita chastised her daughter for being emotional. “She said to me: ‘Why are you crying? You need to be strong, for your children,’” remembers Alejandra. Orita was placed on a ventilator, but she went into organ failure and doctors called Alejandra in to say goodbye. “It felt unreal,” says Alejandra of her last visit to her mother. “It was so strange – before I saw her, I was in denial. I thought: it will be someone else. They have someone else. It’s all a mistake.” But when she saw her mother, she instantly recognised her by her hair, and her hands, even though they were swollen from the dialysis.
“I told her I was sorry and that I wished I could have done more for her,” says Alejandra. “I said that she was a brilliant mum, grandmother and friend. She taught me so much. I told her to go and be with Dad.” Orita died on 10 May.
Since her death, Alejandra has become a member of the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which is campaigning for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. “When you see the government briefings, it’s just numbers, numbers, numbers,” she says. “But numbers had names. They had families. They have lives. How many more people are going to die? My life will never be the same again. You learn to accept grief. But my mother’s death has just killed me completely.”