CHICAGO — It was nearly two years ago that Elizabeth Oyarzun had last seen her grandparents. And every day for the past year, she prayed she would see them again.
After what seemed like an eternity, the two arrived at O'Hare International Airport from Monterrey, Mexico, last Sunday night, she said.
Oyarzun, the couple's oldest granddaughter, who they raised as their daughter, used the money from her most recent stimulus check to fly them to Chicago to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She feared they wouldn't get it in time in Monterrey.
Her grandmother, Irma Rodriguez, 70, contracted COVID-19 in October, and though she survived, the fear her grandfather, Jose Perez, 74, would eventually get the coronavirus haunted her, Oyarzun said.
But it was the distance that hurt the most, Oyarzun said.
Oyarzun, 30, lives in University Village, on Chicago's West Side. Her grandparents have spent long periods living with her in Chicago. But the two are retired and, since before the pandemic began, have been in their native Monterrey, where Oyarzun was born, although they're legal U.S. residents, she said.
"I just hoped I would see them again," Oyarzun said.
Her hope gave her the strength to overcome the anxiety and pain of being apart from two of the people she cherishes most in the world.
"I wish my grandparents were eternal," she said, and paused for a long time.
"But the reality is that they are not, so I will do my best to keep them safe and healthy for as long as possible," she said.
The two have diabetes and high blood pressure, and about seven years ago, Perez had open heart surgery that put his life in danger.
"At least then, we knew we could go see him and say farewell, but with COVID-19, it would have been impossible," Oyarzun said.
Even the thought of that stings, Oyarzun said.
In their native town in Mexico, vaccine distribution seemed distant and almost impossible, her grandmother said. While the distribution of vaccines in Chicago to those 65 years and older began in late January, in Mexico, the distribution of vaccines to those 60 years and older began mid-March, according to news reports.
"We were worried because we just didn't see it coming to us anytime soon," Rodriguez said in Spanish.
And even when there was news that the vaccine was finally arriving in Monterrey, the city where Rodriguez and Perez have been living, the two didn't trust the process.
For nearly a year, Perez said, they had been isolated, lonely and taking care of each other.
They saw firsthand the suffering of their neighbors and other families. Ten of Perez's friends died from COVID-19 in the last year, and Rodriguez recalled how some people had to sell their properties to pay for their hospital stays and medications.
"We missed our family dearly. It's been a very difficult time," he said in Spanish.
But beyond the difficulty, "it's been heartbreaking to live far away from our loved ones, especially during these times," Rodriguez said.
So when Oyarzun got her stimulus check and realized that her grandparents qualified to get vaccinated in Chicago, she made the appointment and bought the tickets.
The family decided that flying them to Chicago was a risk worth taking.
On Monday, the day after they arrived in Chicago, Oyarzun drove her grandparents to the United Center to get their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
"It felt surreal, I felt extremely happy. I was more excited than they were," Oyarzun said, after Perez and Rodriguez both had their first shot.
Rodriguez sobbed, unable to contain her emotions.
"I'm deeply grateful for our granddaughter, for worrying about us and taking care of us," Rodriguez said. "And I thank God that she has the opportunity to do this for us."
Oyarzun said it is thanks to her grandparents that she has been able to have what she has now.
When she finally saw them again, they walked more slowly and had more wrinkles than they did the last time she saw them, she said.
"Distance between loved ones is a terrible thing," her grandmother said.