Johnna Baldwin can easily summon the image of her father, Steve Serquina, grilling steaks while listening to his favorite Patsy Cline song at her family’s 5-acre property in Lincoln, Montana. His wife and high school sweetheart Gayle Serquina said Steve loved Patsy Cline for her clear voice.
“Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so lonely. Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so blue …”
On the property sat a large mobile home and an RV, four-wheelers, a picnic table that could seat about 20 people, a seesaw Serquina crafted himself, a swingset, the woods and mountains. An idyllic place where the Serquina family and friends could gather.
When the Serquina family is able to retrieve him, a little less than half of Steve’s ashes will be spread on that property, which now belongs to a friend. The other half will remain in the urn and go into the niche where Gayle Serquina – whom Steve called “Lovie” – will one day join him.
Steve Serquina died on April 6 of COVID-19. He was 71. He had been living in a small private in-home care facility in Spokane following a stroke. Two other residents of this home also died from coronavirus, while the other three did not contract the virus. Two of the caregivers contracted the virus and recovered.
Steve was the son of two immigrants: His father, Patricio Serquina, was from the Philippines, and his mother was from Mexico. His father came to the United States with four cousins as a 17-year-old and worked on the railroad, which is how the family settled in Montana.
“We had a small-town upbringing,” Patrick Serquina, Steve’s older brother, said. “It was small enough that everybody knew us and we knew everybody else pretty much.”
It was in Miles, Montana, that Steve met his Lovie – in seventh-grade band.
“He was playing the trombone, and I played the French horn very poorly,” Gayle said. “And he sat behind me, so one of his ways of flirting was he kept hitting me in the backside with his slide on his trombone … He was a turkey.”
Like his five siblings, Steve inherited his father’s work ethic. He started as a grocery bagger, worked his way into the meat department, and then went to work for the meat department for Buttrey Foods. The family moved from town to town following promotion after promotion until they eventually settled in Great Falls.
Baldwin said her father was tough but fair.
“He expected excellence, but he also understood we would make our own mistakes,” Baldwin said.
Most of Gayle and Steve’s disagreements were about how strict Steve was with the children.
“We did have some hard times, but we weren’t willing to let each other go, so we got through them,” Gayle said. “Had I had my way, I would have raised them more leniently, but I think it’s a good thing that I didn’t because they’ve turned out to be great people.”
He retired in 1996 after 25 years with the company, and then with a partner, opened his own meat processing plant in Belt, Montana.
“When he bought this plant, he was up at like 5 a.m. and out the door, working everyday even though he owned it,” Baldwin said. “He had employees, but he was right there, elbow-to-elbow with them.”
In 2016, he suffered a major stroke and lost a great deal of mobility in the left side of his body. In 2018, Gayle and Steve moved to Spokane to be closer to family. Over the years, all three of their children had moved to the Spokane area.
“Just knowing that – well, when he was here – that they’re in the same city, this made my heart so happy because I never got that feeling growing up,” Breanna Baldwin, Johnna’s daughter, said. “His face would just light up when I would come into the room, so even if we didn’t really do much, or really talk much, we just spent time together.”
Breanna works for an eye clinic and is temporarily unemployed because of the stay-home order. Once, Steve came into Breanna’s work to get an eye exam. From then on, he was so impressed that he urged all of his caregivers to get checkups with her.
“I helped him look at the chart, and I think that just got in his head – just right back around to this hard work thing – he just got really proud of seeing me, and an element of what a career could be,” Breanna said.
Because he never left the in-home care facility, it was a shock to the family when they found out Steve had tested positive for coronavirus. Johnna responded by immersing herself in mask-making.
Steve was tested because another resident was positive, even though Steve wasn’t showing any symptoms. Steve was transferred to MultiCare Valley Hospital, where he was lethargic and had reddened eyes, but otherwise no symptoms.
“For the first five days he did really good,” Gayle said. “We were just amazed. I thought he’d be coming home, and the nurse said, ‘Well, maybe he just got a mild case.’ ”
But just a day later, it went into his lungs, and he went on oxygen. On April 5, the nurse called Gayle and told her she could visit Steve, but Gayle knew she couldn’t do it because it would be too emotionally difficult and she is at risk herself. She asked her three children, but none of them could either. The family decided that Breanna would go in.
Breanna used her phone so that – through FaceTime and Facebook video – the family could take turns saying goodbye.
“It was the best-case scenario that we could have had since we couldn’t be there with him,” Johnna said. “I’m just thankful that I got to tell him I love him, but there’s still not closure.”
For Gayle, the hardest part is that Steve was alone.
“He died alone, and that’s the hardest thing, that he had to die alone,” Gayle said. “That’s so hard that we couldn’t be there with him. This virus is something else, I’ll tell you. I haven’t got my mind around this virus yet, and the reality of it still hasn’t sunk in to me. It’s like this nightmare that keeps going on and on.”
After her father passed, Johnna knew she was going to have to go back to work with FedEx at the airport, and she started making even more masks for her coworkers.
“I got to the point where I was just making them just to keep my mind busy,” Baldwin said. “I didn’t have anyone to give them to, so I was just making them.”
Breanna suggested that she sell them, and they began posting pictures of the masks online.
“Now we’re just pumping out masks nonstop, to the point where I’m just ready to quit,” Johnna said. “But they’re needed, and I don’t want my dad’s death to be in vain.”
Shortly after Steve died, Johnna had a conversation with her neighbor.
“He just kind of made a flippant joke about this virus and he didn’t think it was that bad,” Johnna said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, well, my dad just died yesterday.’ ”
What Johnna said seemed to change her neighbor’s perspective, so she decided to post on Facebook about her experience.
“People are whining and moaning about this quarantine and this shut down, and you know what? At least you’re still alive,” Johnna said.
Her post received over 50 comments and 40 shares, but Johnna hadn’t realized that was what she wanted from the post until it happened.
“I thought ‘You know what? Yeah,’ ” Johnna said. “ ‘Let’s spread the word. Let’s do this. Let’s share the heck out of this. People need to know.’ ”
Breanna was planning to get married on May 10, but that’s now delayed.
“It’s been a tough couple months, but you know, we get given only what we can handle,” Breanna said. “It’s something that I wish he could have been there for. We went back and saw some pictures of him at my parents’ wedding, and it would have just been cool to be able to see him at mine. He’ll be there in spirit.”
Breanna remembered a time when she was young and visiting her grandparents. Steve was out, and there was a terrible thunderstorm.
“I was terrified because he was on his way home,” Breanna said. “I was absolutely terrified that he was going to get hit by lightning. But then he got back to the house and he was like, ‘Look, I made it, I’m fine.’ ”
Steve explained to Breanna that he was safe because his car had rubber tires.
“He was willing to explain to me my silliness, and why I shouldn’t be scared,” Breanna said. “I think he always let me know that everything’s always going to be OK.”
If you have a loved one who died of the coronavirus, The Spokesman-Review would like to hear your story. Please contact Megan Rowe at email@example.com