This story is part of Loved and Lost, a statewide media collaboration working to celebrate the life of every New Jersey resident who died of COVID-19. To learn more and submit a loved one’s name to be profiled, visit lovedandlostnj.com.
Mirba Vega was a small woman with a big heart, a determined woman brave enough to leave her native land of Cuba to settle in New Jersey with her husband, Antonio, and three kids — Sandra, Alexis and Alexander.
Once here, they swiftly set about making a home in this new country and learning a new language.
Eventually, they added two more children, Antonio and Mirba — whom the family calls Mimi — born American citizens.
Mirba proudly became an American citizen, too. “She loved this country. This country was home for her,” Mimi said. Although she understood English well, she avoided speaking it because she was always embarrassed about her accent.
Born in 1947, Mirba was 16 when she married 18-year-old Antonio in 1964.
Wanting a better life for their children, the couple decided to emigrate. To leave Cuba under the Castro regime, Antonio was required to spend two years in the military or two years working in the sugar fields. Antonio chose the sugar fields, working a hard job under armed guard and the Cuban sun.
Antonio and Mirba were not afraid of hard work.
Sponsored to come to America by the owner of a successful bakery in North Jersey, the family settled in Union City. Antonio became a truck driver. Mirba worked part-time as a cleaning lady while raising her children.
Later, she drove a bus for the Hudson County Vocational Technical School, where she worked until her retirement.
She was always the most stylish bus driver in town, said her namesake daughter. “The woman had her hair done and her makeup on all the time,” she said. “She managed to drive her bus year-round in high heels.”
Though she and Antonio raised their family in the Catholic Church, Mirba returned to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the faith of her youth, after a bout with breast cancer in 2017.
After her recovery, she took up her place once more at the heart of the Vega clan, often cooking her special Cuban dishes of congri — Cuban beans and rice — and yucca for family and friends.
As with everything else Mirba did, she didn’t think small when it came to cooking. “It would be a pot that feeds more than 20 people,” her daughter remembers. “Oh my God, I would give anything to have a plate of her food.”
Her special congri was the last meal she made for her husband and the two sons, who live in the basement level of the family home.
Though the brothers lived in a separate part of the house and had tried to limit their contact with their parents, just before Thanksgiving, the whole family swiftly became ill.
Mirba had taken every possible precaution to protect herself. “Even in the house, she was always wearing masks,” Mimi recalled.
On Nov. 30, Mirba was admitted to Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck.
Because Mimi has a social work background, she was the one the family appointed to speak with doctors and explain to the family what was happening.
At first, Mirba seemed to be getting better. “She remained calm and steadfast in her faith,” Mimi said.
But soon she was enduring ups and downs with her oxygen levels. “It was promising, and then it just went downhill,” Mimi said. “For her to get out a sentence was just exhausting. You could see the life coming out of her.”
On December 12, doctors told the family that Mirba was struggling to breathe and would have to go on a ventilator.
Mirba herself no longer believed that she would get better.
“The last text that my Mom sent me, she said that she was going to die,” Mimi recalled.
On Dec. 28, 2020, doctors let the family know that there was nothing more that they could do, advising them that it was time to disconnect the machines that were keeping Mirba alive.
After a month of terrible days and hard decisions, this day was the most terrible of any the family had ever lived. “It was awful. Awful. Awful,” Mimi said.
“She was only 73,” she said. “She just wanted to live a simple, normal life and dress fabulously.”
As the holidays approach, there is an emptiness in the family home once alive with salsa and merengue music, once filled with the aroma of Cuban food and the presence of the woman who made their house a home.
“I don’t want people to forget my mother. She may not have meant anything to anyone else, but in our little block of life,” Mimi said, “she was the world.”