Road to Faith: Part 1 – Acceptance

faithsign
Image by graceuniversity.edu

Several days ago, on a group chat with some friends and family, a few of us were discussing the power of trusting in God. At the end of the chat, I reflected a little more than usual on my personal faith journey. For those who endured the summer of 2010 with me, the life-changing 100-day nightmare in the ICU, hospital, and rehab miraculously came to a joyful end almost eight years ago. For me, the experience is a daily reminder of the power of faith.

I’ve learned that having faith is the key to understanding our place in this uncertain and ever-changing world. As is my nature, I went to the bookshelves to unravel the mystery of faith. A dear friend introduced me to the writings of 1st-century Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius and Pope Francis. My brother David shared New-Age writings about God. Other friends recommended that I delve into the works of Muhammed, Buddha, Gandhi,  and Paulo Coelho.

Reading such diverse viewpoints on a common theme inspired me to dig deeper into my own religious upbringing and tradition. The words of Jesus Christ and the Gospels are more meaningful to me as a result of studying the recommended literature. I came to realize that faith can come in many forms, yet the foundation of faith in all its forms is based on making a full commitment to acceptance, gratitude, and caring for others. Upon deep reflection of my literary exploration, I also realized that a devotion to faith is also at the core of happiness.

It all seems so simple: Belief in God (or your version of a higher power) + faith = peace and happiness. Unfortunately, like almost anything that brings true joy in life, adhering to that equation is easier said than done. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everybody applied that formula to their own lives? We would live in paradise. Of course, we know that not to be true.

So how do we apply this commitment of faith to our day-to-day lives? For nearly four years, this question has consumed my thoughts. Life is a winding road filled with potholes and roadblocks that can keep us from getting to our destination. To overcome these challenges, we need a roadmap that can lead us in the right direction. That map is the word of God delivered through his many disciples.

I value and respect the right of people to practice their religion or philosophical tradition, including those who don’t believe in God. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson once told a friend that his grandfather said, “religion is like a mother. However good your friend’s mother may be, you cannot forsake your own.”  In the spirit of Gandhi, I trust in the roadmap drawn by my Catholic Christian tradition.

The first step in understanding faith is the full acceptance of the way things and circumstances are, rather than how you want them to be. Marcus Aurelius put it this way, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” That’s powerful advice. At first glance it doesn’t jive with a “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” philosophy.

On one hand, God tells us to accept what we have and on the other hand He didn’t settle for a small following. I struggled with this inconsistency. Recently at Sunday mass, the priest shared Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (Matthew 25:14-30). The moral to the story is that God gives us all a set of tools and rewards those who make the best of what they have. That resolved my dilemma. God gave Jesus the means to expand His flock. In other words, He wants us to accept what we have and do the best we can with it.

Three major events reveal how the road to fully accepting God’s will has impacted my life. The first incident happened in 1983. After a rocky start at San Jose State University, I failed miserably. The university disqualified me for poor academic performance at the end of my third semester. I couldn’t accept what happened. It was a crushing blow that spiraled into years of drinking, partying, and working dead end jobs.

Rather than accepting the disqualification as a mere technical hiccup on my academic record, I sought to cover up the pain of that “failure” by vowing to never fail again. I worked tirelessly to get reinstated to SJSU and continued working relentlessly to rid myself of the failure demons that haunted me. I married Sandra and we had a family. I found success in the corporate world and in public service, but the demons never went away.

The second episode was a series of “failures” between 1996 and 2008. Although I eventually had the great privilege to serve my community as a school trustee, I lost four elections during that time. I refused to accept what happened after each defeat so I worked hard to erase these “failures” from my psyche. As an appointed school trustee, I labored restlessly and prepared for election as a popular incumbent in 2010.

The third life event was a massive heart attack and a rare lung complication that struck that summer. There was no election for me. All my dreams came crashing down. When I awoke from a medically induced coma two months later, I was paralyzed as my muscles deteriorated while I lay motionless on a hospital bed. I didn’t want to accept what happened to me. I was depressed and contemplated giving up, something I had never done before. Sandra summoned the hospital chaplain. Her name was Terry Becker.

Terry talked about the power of accepting God’s gifts. It was a miracle to survive two harrowing medical events, she said. I was paralyzed from loss of muscle strength, instead of blunt physical trauma like a car accident. Physical rehabilitation will make me like new. God had given me the tools to recover. I just needed to accept what happened and use what God provided. I took a chance and decided to give myself completely to God’s will.

That changed everything. The story has a happy ending. It started with accepting what is, rather than what should be. I also turned to acceptance to expel the college disqualification and election failure demons from my soul. I now understand that those events weren’t failures, but merely stepping stones toward fulfilling my destiny. I’ll write more on that in future posts.

The end of that part of my story doesn’t mean that challenges disappear. Real life is quite the contrary. The loss of my executive salary and financing two college educations make our financial struggles seem impossible to overcome at times. Parenting two adult daughters is no easy task. Advising and coaching replaces scolding and reprimanding when they make risky and unwise decisions. This leads to many sleepless nights. The rollercoaster of managing personal and professional relationships is never ending. That’s life.

All of these obstructions on the roadway of life can cause extreme pain if we don’t have a trusty map to get us through safely.  Each of the world’s religions and philosophies has a map. I rely on God’s word as told in the accounts of Jesus and his Apostles to chart a safe course forward. Their stories provide me with a guide to confront any situation that may cross my path.

The first step in the journey is accepting what is. Gratitude and caring for others come next, there will be more on that later. Taken together, practicing these three acts of faith have brought true joy and happiness to my life. It can do the same for you. You just have to have faith.

Advertisements

September 21, 2010

FullSizeRender

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 was a typical last day of summer in San Jose. The sun was shining with the temperature in the low 70s. Scattered white fluffy clouds majestically floated through the sky powered by a light wind. The next day would mark the celestial first day of autumn. In Native American culture, this time of year is celebrated with feasts of thanksgiving for bountiful harvests.

That Tuesday morning, some 69 miles away from home, I was overflowing with gratitude. I sat in a wheelchair in the lobby of Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center, site of a state-of-the-art physical rehabilitation center. Anxiously looking out of the floor to ceiling windows at the busy parking lot, I was waiting to get a glimpse of Sandra’s silver Ford Explorer. I would soon be in the passenger seat for the drive home.

It had been 96 days since the last time I had seen my house. I stumbled out the door that night, June 17th, to take my third ride to the hospital in little more than a week. Ten days earlier, I had a massive heart attack. The event would change my life. The ensuing summer was a daily fight for survival as complications wreaked havoc on my body. For my family, it was three months of riding on an emotional rollercoaster with high points of hope and dips of despair.

Throughout the month of July, I laid in a lifeless coma being kept alive by a battery of machines and medications. August was marked by a slow recovery from the heart attack and its paralyzing after effects. Three weeks of intensive physical rehab in September resulted in me being able to sit up, stand, and walk with the aid of a walker. I was going home.

I was thankful.

Later that day, I tenderly walked through the front door. Moving through the threshold, I left a summer of uncertainty and began a long journey of discovery.

The damage to my heart is so extensive that my doctors recommended that I completely change my lifestyle. NO MORE stress. NO MORE working 16 hour days. NO MORE eating salty junk food. NO MORE dancing the night away and partying into the wee hours. NO MORE working out to near exhaustion to burn off unneeded calories. And definitely NO MORE HOT DOGS MUTHA******!

I’m learning moderation. I’m learning how to slow down. I’m learning how to enjoy simple things like taking a morning walk with Frank Sinatra tunes blaring through earphones. I’m learning how to lose myself in a book while sipping a cup of decaf. I’m learning about the power of faith, family and friends. I say learning because it’s still a work in progress.

Over the past 7 years, questioning why God let this happen to me has subsided in intensity and frequency. But the question still lingers. I still had much to do in 2010. I still had a full life ahead of me. At 46, my life was on the upswing. I had always thought that life at 53 would be the sweet spot, the high point of accomplishment and “success.” That’s not the way it worked out. Why me?

The answer is simple, yet complex. That’s not what God intended. He has me on an incredible life journey. The road to understanding Him and faith has been exhilarating and frustrating. While one moment can bring an exciting revelation, another can be littered with “why me” potholes. I’ve come to believe that unconditional faith is the formula for happiness.

Here’s how it works: Acceptance + Gratitude + Serving Others = FAITH. Like everything else that’s of value in life, getting this formula right will lead to the true definition of living a full life. I work on it every day. Every new revelation and pothole brings me closer to understanding how the formula works. I’ll write more about this as I discover more.

As for today, September 21, 2017, I’m just going to enjoy the typical last day of summer in San Jose . The sun is shining and fluffy white clouds are majestically floating by the family room window as I write. I’m still here 7 years after walking through the front door and into my new way of life.

And I’m thankful.

June 7, 2010

stock-photo-10274898-june-2010-calendar-series

Author’s Note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room describes the events of June 7, 2010

On Monday morning, June 7th, my weekly routine got off to its usual start with countless issues racing through my mind, a churn in my stomach, and heaviness in my shoulders.  After taking Erica to school, I drove to the gym to meet Sandra and Jerry hoping a good workout would release the stress that seemed to be taking over my body.  When I got to the gym, Sandra was already there warming up on the treadmill.  I began a brisk walk, then a light jog, on the machine next to her as we talked about our respective schedules for the day.  Her day would be filled with the usual steady demands on her time as a school principal being pulled in numerous directions like a ball of Silly Putty – parents, teachers, students, and district administrators all seeking a few minutes with her.  My schedule was a typical day for a political chief of staff and school board president: staff meeting at 10:00 AM, meeting with the deputy county executive at 11:00 AM, work through lunch returning e-mails and phone calls, team meeting at 1:00 PM with George to prepare for the next day’s county board meeting, managing follow-up action items from the George meeting, and finally, presiding over the 6:00 PM graduation ceremonies at one of the district high schools I represented on the board.  

Once Sandra and I were done warming up and stretching, we joined Jerry for what was sure to be an hour of vigorous strength and aerobic training.  We started off with sets of squats, lunges, and burpees, an intense aerobic workout that includes squats, push-ups, and jumping all in one motion.  At this point, sweat usually starts pouring over me and the stress and tension in my body begins to subside.  My sweat glands responded as usual, but the tension, the heavy shoulders, the churn, and pressure on my throat and upper chest only intensified.  I thought that working harder and using the breathing techniques I learned in the anxiety classes, as I caught my breath between exercises, would relieve the pressure that was slowly building up in my body.  The tension in my shoulders, the upset stomach, the discomfort around my neck and throat, the difficulty catching my breath continued through sets of bench presses, legs presses, and dumbbell exercises.  

Sandra and Jerry kept asking if I was okay and I responded that it was stress and my anxiety acting up, and I just needed to work through it.  Finally, while doing a set of push-ups with a medicine ball on my back, Sandra, with a worried look on her face, demanded that I stop.  I stopped.  After a few minutes regaining my composure on a gym bench, I went into the locker room to shower and dress for the day.

As the hot water from the steamy shower rained over my head and body, my mind raced thinking about all of the challenges before me: the county and school board budgets, the fraying relationship with my oldest brother, the coming tsunami of political rhetoric from an opponent with an axe to grind during the upcoming fall election.  The hot water blanketed my body trying to soothe the pressure while the swirling thoughts in my mind fought back making my anxious body respond the same way it did after my mom and Patty died six year before.  After toweling off, I had to sit and catch my breath as I continued with the anxiety breathing exercises. Once I calmed down, I put on my trousers, buttoned my shirt, tied the necktie around the shirt’s collar, and sat in front of a row of metal lockers to tie my shoes.  Again, I stopped to relieve the anxiety by taking deep breaths through the nose and slowly exhaling through the mouth in a steady rhythm.  

I left the locker room and wound my way through the gym floor through the lobby and out to the parking lot as the anxious feelings intensified and my mind swirled with ever-changing thoughts about this issues I faced.  In my car, I sat trying to relax, trying to catch my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the long day ahead.  I don’t know how long I sat in the car, but I was startled by Sandra pulling into the parking space next to my car to ask if I was okay.  I mumbled that I was fine, started the car, and began driving to work.  Once I started driving, I began to feel better and remembered that I wanted to buy a tie to match the school colors of the graduation I was scheduled to preside over later in the evening.  

I stopped at a Kohl’s department store and briskly walked to the men’s department while reading and returning e-mails on my Blackberry.  The churn in my stomach intensified, my shoulders grew heavier, and I had to stop to catch my breath a few times before finding the necktie section.  I quickly picked out an orange and blue striped tie that matched the school colors and the navy blue suit I wore, dragged myself to the cashier, and labored my way to the car trying to fight back the anxiety I thought was taking over my mind.  Once at my car, I again sat for a while to compose myself not knowing that the blood gurgling through my veins was thickening, clotting, and preparing for battle.  

After doing more relaxation exercises and deep breathing techniques, I shifted the transmission into drive and rushed to the office realizing that I was already late for my scheduled 11:00 AM meeting with Sylvia Gallegos, the deputy county executive.  Sylvia and I had known each other for over 17 years.  She was chief of staff to the councilwoman I worked for during the beginning of my career in politics.  I called the office from the car to ask the staff to inform the Sylvia that I would be in the office by 11:30 AM.  It was at this meeting where I was to lay out George’s plan to allocate $2 million from the parks fund to build a soccer complex in his district for community use.  We knew there would be opposition to his proposal as the parks fund advocates wanted all of the money to be used for trails and large regional parks, uses that are rarely, if ever, used by the constituents in George’s historically underserved neighborhoods.  Sylvia, a smart and seasoned public administrator, could be an ally in reshaping the county’s practice of allocating parks resources to open spaces in affluent areas, so I needed to provide her with a compelling analysis of George’s proposal to secure her support.  

I hustled into the county administration building after parking my car and suddenly had to slow down, my mind believing that an anxiety attack was imminent while my body was feeling the effects of thickening blood pushing through arteries that had been narrowing for most of my life.  I walked into the office at noon.

Sylvia, wearing a perfectly tailored business suit as usual, sat waiting at the conference table in George’s office when I walked in.  I apologized to her for being an hour late.  She asked if I was okay, and I responded that I wasn’t feeling very well and immediately proceeded with the business at hand.  This was unusual because casual talk about our families and personal matters always prefaced any business we had to discuss.  I don’t remember anything about that meeting.  According to Sylvia, I appeared “distracted and unfocused.”  Noting that it was uncharacteristic of me to be unprepared for a meeting and unable to articulate, she repeated concerns about my well-being only to hear me respond that “I didn’t feel right.”  I stopped the meeting after about 10 minutes, led her out of George’s office, mumbled something to our office manager Marisa Ybarra, and stumbled into my office shutting the door behind me.

Marisa, my friend of 30 years, is married to Sam Ybarra, my old friend who asked me to help him coach at the parochial school more than 25 years before.  I helped Marisa get a job with the previous county supervisor and she stayed on with George after he was elected.  She later recounted that I had walked out of George’s office with Sylvia, mentioned to her that I had to tie my shoes, walked into my office, and closed the door – which is something I never do.  I tried to relax as the anxiety symptoms continued to persist.  Parks budget, after-school sports budget, my brother David, the sure to be stressful upcoming school board campaign, the A-G Initiative and the teachers’ union underhanded opposition tactics, all spinning in my mind, churning my stomach, putting pressure on my throat.  As one friend later put it, “you must have been like a volcano ready to explode.”  Sitting in my office chair, I bent over to tie my shoes even though the laces weren’t loose or untied.   I leaned back in the chair with my hands folded behind my head trying to find the right breathing and relaxation exercise to release the anxiety I thought was taking over me.  Meanwhile, the blood gushing through my body continued to clot.

I emerged from the office; told the team I was sick and going home, and meandered through the narrow walkway that led to the 10th floor lobby and elevators, walking the same route I took 360 days before on the way to my triumphant return to the James lick High School graduation ceremony as a school trustee.  This time the walk was different.  I didn’t race excitedly through the ground floor breezeway to the parking lot at the west end of the building as I did on June 10, 2009.  Rather, I slowly exited the elevator on the ground floor with my hands clasped behind my head trying to compose myself.  Twenty steps later, I had to stop to catch my breath.  I sat on a wooden bench under the gaze of a large Abraham Lincoln bronze bust in the east wing lobby of the county building, loosened my orange and blue necktie, and wiped sweat off my brow.  Off the bench, I ambled sluggishly through the breezeway with my heavy shoulders writhing with the discomfort weighing on my upper chest and throat.  There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the full throes of an anxiety and panic attack.

 I had to stop and sit once more, this time in front of the district attorney’s office, on what seemed like an epic journey, before finally making it out to my car.  I called George to tell him that I wasn’t feeling well and was on my way home.  He wanted to know how the meeting with Sylvia went and said to call him later when I felt a little better.  I called Sandra to tell her the same thing; then I concentrated all my attention on driving.  I rolled my shoulders, writhed in the seat, and tried to focus on relaxing.   The drive was surreal, I felt as though nothing was happening outside of the car, and when I was focused back on the road, it seemed like I was driving in slow motion as the other cars on the freeway raced by.  

Miraculously, I got home safely, stepped out of the car, and listlessly walked up the driveway and walkway that led to the porch. Marisa and Erica were at home because school was out for the summer, so I stopped at the front door to take a deep breath before I walked into the house. I didn’t want the girls to notice the strained look on my face and the uneasiness in my gait.  They were in the family room watching television as I walked away from their view to the bedroom.  I was sweating and the anxiety was building up inside of me like the volcano my friend metaphorically described. I took off my necktie and suit jacket, and threw myself onto the bed.

Marisa later said that she saw me walk into the house with the usual grimace I had on my face when I was stressed out.  She heard me walk down the hallway and slam the bedroom door shut, then silence, then a thud.  She rushed to the bedroom door and asked if everything was alright, I curtly answered, “yes.” Marisa figured that a work or political matter was on my mind because she lifted the phone to call a friend and heard my voice on the other line.  She later ironically remarked that I seemed so upset that I was probably figuratively “having a heart attack.”  In the bedroom, I wasn’t talking business. I was on the phone with the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan advice nurse.  

Positive that I was having a full-fledged panic attack, I explained to the nurse that I had an anxiety and panic episode nearly six years earlier. I was now experiencing the same symptoms, just a little more intense. The advice nurse asked standard questions about age, weight, medical history.  I mentioned that the cause to my anxiety was a result of my mom’s passing and my sister’s premature death at the hands of heart disease. I also confessed that my fear of having a heart attack led to minor symptoms of anxiety, but that I was able to manage though it.  This time, the symptoms didn’t want to go away despite my efforts to deal with them. She then asked pointed questions:  

Nurse: “Do you feel a heavy weight, like an elephant, on your chest?”

Me: “No.”

Nurse: “Do you feel tingling radiating down your left arm to your hand?”

Me: “No.”  

Nurse: “Do you feel short of breath?”

Me: “Sometimes, until the breathing exercises settle it down for a while.”

Nurse: “Do you feel light headed or dizzy?”

Me: “No.”  

Based on my answers, the nurse said that the symptoms I described sounded like a panic attack and recommended I take a warm shower and rest. Heart attack was the furthest thing from my mind.  I was so convinced of my self-diagnosis, I persuaded the nurse as well. If the symptoms persisted, she continued, I should call back immediately.  

I called Sandra to update her on my conversation with the advice nurse and got ready to get in the shower. Erica told me a couple of years later that she caught me walking between the bedroom and shower to ask if she could go the movies with some friends, and I answered “yeah, sure” in a “grumpy way.”  Like Marisa, she too thought I was just stressing over one of the many things on my mind. I started a steamy shower, sat down on the shower floor, and closed my eyes to clear my mind of the multitude of thoughts that raced through it.  Once out of the shower, I put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and walked out the sliding door from our bedroom to the patio, my favorite place to relax.  

The backyard and patio had become a sanctuary for me and Sandra.  About five years earlier, Sandra and I designed what we thought was the perfect backyard for our home, a Mexican motif with winding clay-colored sidewalks that lead from a tiled gazebo to a large arbor covered with climbing pink trumpet flowers. A green lawn separates the two structures and a variety of plants, bushes, and flowers grow behind a four-foot retaining wall topped with bullnose bricks.  Three tall pine trees dominate the far corner of the yard and majestically stand over the property.  My favorite part of the yard is a small patio behind the arbor covered by a natural canopy made of the pine tree branches and the intertwining of the neighbor’s willow tree and the climbing trumpets that cover the arbor.  

The only sounds that can be heard from this relaxing quiet spot are birds chirping, the wind going through the pine trees, a neighborhood dog occasionally barking, or a jet departing from San Jose International Airport leaving the valley for parts unknown. Sitting in the small patio behind the arbor helps me relax and keep the troubles of the real world from my thoughts.  This time I couldn’t relax, I kept thinking about how anxiety and panic were consuming me.

The symptoms weren’t getting any better or any worse. I closed my eyes to take in the soothing sounds of the swaying trees above, but the tightening in my chest, the ever growing heaviness on my shoulders, and the frequent need to catch my breath drowned out everything but the noise of my hectic life reverberating in my head. Sandra got home and urged me to call the Kaiser advice-line again to schedule an appointment. I got a different nurse on the line, and she asked the same questions. This time, I told the nurse that pain was shooting down my left arm. She suggested that I see a doctor immediately. I insisted that it was extreme anxiety, but I accepted her advice and agreed to take the earliest available appointment.  

I rationalized that a doctor would quickly diagnose an anxiety or panic attack, prescribe medication, and send me on my way so I could return to all of the critical matters that stood before me. It was close to six o’clock, almost twelve hours after my day started.  The nurse scheduled the appointment for 7:30. I called the school district office to explain that I was sick and wouldn’t be at the graduation ceremony. While I dressed, Sandra told the girls that they would have dinner with Tía Shelley and Tío Pancho so she could drive me to the clinic for the appointment. Marisa remembers that I “walked quickly to the car, sat down, and started squirming in my seat.” At this point, the girls weren’t alarmed about anything serious. At Pancho and Shelley’s house she remembers telling them jokingly that I had been so stressed that I was probably having a heart attack.

The ride to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center clinic was uneventful. Sandra drove as fast as she could while I continued to writhe, the discomfort on my shoulders and upper chest increased as every minute went by. She dropped me off at the entrance to the clinic and quickly drove away to find a parking space. I labored into the building, took the elevator to the second, floor, and made my way to the doctor’s office where I met Sandra and checked in at 7:26 PM. We sat in the waiting room for just a few minutes when the nurse called me in to see the doctor. A quick check of vital signs weren’t alarming: temperature – normal at 98.6 degrees, blood pressure – 128/61, weight – 208 lbs., heart rate – a little high at 116 beats per minute, but that could have been caused by the rush to the office.  

Slightly relieved, I was even more convinced that I was having an intense panic attack. The doctor reviewed the vital signs, asked me a few questions about how I felt, and immediately ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) to determine if there were any irregularities in my heart function. The nurse attached electrodes to my chest, turned open the EKG machine, and watched the machine whiz and purr as the needle on the printout page rapidly moved in a zigzag motion drawing tiny peaks and valley on the computer paper. As soon as the machine stopped whirring, the nurse ripped the computer print-out from the machine and quickly disappeared into the hallway. The doctor came back seconds later to tell us the EKG reading was abnormal and I should proceed to the emergency room for more tests.

By the time the doctor finished her diagnosis, the nurse was in the hallway standing behind the wheelchair that was to take me to the hospital emergency room on the other side of the large complex.  With a fast gait, she pushed the wheelchair out of the clinic hallway, into the clinic lobby, and out to the main hallway that led to the hospital about a half city block away. The nurse moved swiftly as she fumbled with her cell phone. Sandra offered to push the wheelchair so the nurse could use her phone, when suddenly the gait turned into a trot, and ultimately a jog to the emergency room. Tall ceiling to floor windows formed a breezeway that connected the clinic to the hospital, and I could see out to the cafeteria and parking lot beyond that life was moving at its usual pace while my life appeared to be heading toward crisis.  

My mind swirled with random thoughts that ranged from doom to confusion to relief. Could I be having a heart attack? Why didn’t the doctor say that? Was she just taking precautions by sending me to the emergency room? Why was Sandra pushing the wheelchair at a jog and why was the nurse excitedly talking on the phone, and to whom? I couldn’t hear what she was saying due to the noise that was filling my head with questions.

We got to the elevator in the hospital and went the one floor down to the main lobby and the emergency room. When the elevator doors opened, we raced across the lobby floor straight into the emergency room where I arrived at 7:41 PM.  Three doctors wearing white smocks waited for us, and within seconds, I got my answer. One of the doctors said, in a calm and a matter-of-fact voice, “Mr. García, you’re having a heart attack.”  

I was stunned!  

It had finally all caught up to me: the genetic predisposition to heart disease, the high-fat diet as a kid, the lifetime of anxiety, the urgency to make up for my college failures, the tireless climb up the corporate ladder, the A-G Initiative, the County budget, the tension with my siblings, my fears about losing yet another election. Combined, they had conspired to create the perfect toxic cocktail that led to a medical disaster. All the while I thought my anxiety was haunting me and intensifying, my blood was thickening and clotting and trying to avoid narrow gaps in arteries lined with plaque caused by genetics and periods of unhealthy living.  

I sat in the wheelchair looking up at Sandra not knowing what to say. She looked back at me just as speechless. The EKG in the clinic showed that I had a “ST segment elevation myocardial infarction” (STEMI), the most severe form of heart attack. That means a major artery in the heart is completely blocked off by a blood clot. As a result, the heart muscle being supplied by the clogged artery starts to die. After what seemed like an eternity, I asked the doctors how they planned to proceed. The lead doctor, a cardiologist, explained that he would do a medical examination and perform an angiogram – a procedure that injected iodine die into the heart to determine where the blood clot was lodged. Once the doctor identified the location of the blockage, he would dislodge the clot and insert a stent (a net-like metal tube) in the affected artery to prevent it from collapsing. The entire process would take less than two hours.

The doctor’s regular practice is at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He was in Santa Clara on special duty that night. He specializes in angioplasty surgery, the stent insertion procedure. On his website, he’s a self-described, “straight-talking physician that ’tells it like it is’ so that each patient is well informed of their options and the implications of their decision.” The course of action he described was clear and concise. Still not fully understanding the gravity of the situation, I asked him when he planned to do the procedure. I assumed he would medicate me, send me home, and ask me to return in a day or two for the operation. His answer was straightforward and simple, yet powerful.  “Right now,” he said.

Again, Sandra and I looked at each other in utter disbelief without a word coming out of either of our mouths. After a brief pause, she kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and told me that everything was going to be okay. I told her that I would be just fine as the nurse whisked me away into one of the rooms that lined the emergency department. The emergency room team, working at a frantic yet organized pace, immediately disrobed me, changed me into a hospital gown, inserted an intravenous tube (IV) into one of my arms, connected me with electrodes to a bunch of machines, and injected me with several medications to stabilize my heart. It was 7:45 PM.

Between 7:41 PM and 7:45 PM on June 7, 2010, for the first time in my life, I felt the presence of God. The concept of God had always been elusive to me. Like many Mexican American kids, I was baptized in the Catholic Church, attended catechism to complete First Communion and Confirmation, and married Sandra in a traditional Catholic wedding before an ordained priest in the neighborhood church. My dad wasn’t a spiritual man, so our family’s exposure to religion and the Church was through my mom’s deep belief and faith in God. Growing up, we would accompany her to mass, mostly for the big days on the Catholic calendar like Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter.  Despite a lifetime of participating and believing in the pageantry and protocols of the Church, I never developed a relationship with God.  

I learned my dad’s lessons well and truly believed that my lot in life and my destiny were in my own hands. The Golden Rule, integrity, and hard work would pave the way. I was also a student of history, and I knew that the ages were cluttered with the political machinations of men causing havoc and misery through the auspices of the Church. If God was really in control, I questioned why He allowed such pain and destruction to occur in His name? During those four minutes, with my life in the balance, I had no control of the outcome or my destiny. As team of medical professionals methodically worked to keep me alive, I thought about how I would react faced with the prospect of imminent death. I was a mama’s boy raised in the cocoon of Viewmont Avenue and suffered from anxiety most of my life. I was sure that panic and fear of dying would overwhelm me. 

But, the reality was that I didn’t panic and, at that moment, I was comfortable with someone else in full control of my destiny. According to the admitting doctor’s written comments, I was “alert, generally well appearing, and in no acute distress.” Those four minutes were like a movie in slow motion. There were nurses, technicians, and doctors surrounding the bed, each doing a specific task to prepare a heart attack patient for surgery. I couldn’t hear a sound, but I knew that they were talking as I could see their mouths moving. Their movements looked like a beautiful and well-choreographed ballet.  

Although I didn’t fear death, I was concerned for Sandra. I kept trying to sit up to see her standing just outside of the room with worry enveloping her eyes and face. An emergency room technician gently pushed me back down so she and her colleagues could continue their work. In the organized chaos I heard a soothing voice say, “Sandra will be fine. You need to relax Eddie so we could help you.” Edward, my given name, is on all my medical records. Why did the ER tech call me by the name used only by friends? How did she know Sandra? The calming voice sounded familiar. I looked up and instantly recognized her face. Her name was Stacey Cook and her daughter played pee-wee baseball with Erica. I was the team’s coach.  

I really didn’t know Stacey other than being the mom of the team’s star player. She would sit quietly and calmly in a lawn chair watching her daughter play. During the season, I learned that she was a great softball player in her own right, yet she never criticized the coaches or the parent volunteers. Our only interaction was her positive comments after a game, “thanks Coach,” or “nice job today Coach.” With that same assuring voice, she helped me believe that Sandra was fine and everything would be okay. I truly believe that God sent a familiar voice and face to be with me in the emergency room at the most critical point in my life. Until that moment, I didn’t have a strong faith in God’s power to control destiny. However, in those four minutes my trust in Him based on faith was beginning to form.

All of a sudden, the slow-motion movie turned into a full-speed action flick.  While I was on a gurney, the medical team pushed me out of the emergency room and rushed through the wide hospital hallways to surgery. Doorways and the art on the walls appeared to be flying right past me in reverse as I could hear the squeaking of rubber-soled shoes against a polished floor coming from the hurried footsteps of those maneuvering the gurney. I remember very little after the race to the operating room. My last memory was of the doctor, wearing a white cap and a mask that covered his mouth and nose, standing over me explaining without emotion what he planned to do next. This was the first time during the entire day I felt extreme, unbearable pain. In a clear monotone voice, he advised that my heart was badly damaged and the prognosis for surviving the procedure was grim, 50/50 at best. When he was done with the explanation, he gave me a clipboard and pen to sign the consent form. I remember saying, “doctor, please put me to sleep, my chest hurts.”  Everything went dark.  It was 7:59 PM.

The first step in the procedure required a small incision in the right thigh near the groin. The surgeon inserted a narrow tube through an artery that led into the heart. He then maneuvered the tube through the artery under the guidance of a tiny scope that followed the path on a computer monitor. Once the tube was in the heart, die material was injected into the sheath so the doctor could determine exactly where the blockage or blockages were located. The image on the computer monitor left no doubt that the Left Anterior Descending Artery (LAD) in my heart was completely blocked. This is one of the most important arteries in the whole system, and once blocked causes irreparable damage to the heart. The way it works is that oxygenated blood leaves the lungs and enters the upper and lower left chambers of the heart. The LAD delivers blood to the muscle over the lower left chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood into the body.

When the LAD is 100% clogged, as mine was that night, the muscle under the LAD stops pumping the blood needed to oxygenate the rest of the body. Doctors have 15 to 20 minutes to dissolve the blockage before other critical organs like the lungs and brain begin to shut down due to lack of oxygen. As a result, the LAD is more commonly known as “the widow maker,” a fact that the doctor matter-of-factly shared with Sandra later that evening. The surgeon prepared to perform a procedure that he had successfully executed several times a day for many years. Sandra sat alone in the surgery waiting room stunned by the turn of events. In the small circular room adjacent to the operating room, she felt like an insignificant speck in a vast tube. As the wonderful life she meticulously planned suddenly and ruthlessly began unraveling, she turned to her unconditional faith in God.

While praying and trying to make sense of the surreal nightmare, Sandra started to call the support system that had carried her through every up and down of her life. At the advice of an emergency room nurse, Sandra’s first call was to her sister Shelley’s house to let Marisa and Erica know what had happened. The girls had just returned to Shelley’s house from swim practice. Tía Shelley made tacos, rice, and beans for dinner. They all came to the dinner table to eat, as Pancho, ever the sports fan, glanced at the TV from time to time to catch a glimpse of SportsCenter as their two young children (my nicknames for them are Shirley and Opie) excitedly sat in their seats because their older cousins were joining them for dinner.

Once they were all settled in and dinner was served, the racket of six voices talking at once filled the room. The girls love being with their tía and tío because Shelley and Pancho are young at heart, stay up to date with new music and fashion, and bring comedic relief to any situation. With her quick wit and his loud exuberance for everything, Shelley and Pancho made sure that there was never a dull moment with the two of them. Pancho’s sense of excitement ensured that even the smallest accomplishment, announcement, or mishap would bring on a dramatic response accentuated with a flourish of exclamations like “WOW,” “UNBELIEVEABLE,” and “THAT’S AWESOME!”  

That’s why I truly love and enjoy hanging out with him at ballgames, family parties, and watching sports on TV. One time he won a Tivo device at a San Jose State basketball game because he was the most animated and loudest fan in the arena. I had invited him to a dinner where Magic Johnson, his favorite basketball player, was the speaker. Boyish excitement covered his face as we stood in line at a VIP reception to take a photo with Magic. I thought he would explode with enthusiasm when he shook his idol’s hand and posed for the camera.

When Sandra dialed Shelley’s cell phone from the waiting room, she heard Pancho’s voice answer the phone. Knowing his penchant to react excitedly to any shocking news, Sandra calmly told Pancho not to say anything until she had a chance to tell the girls herself.  

“Eddie had a heart attack,” she said somberly, “and he’s in surgery now.”  

After a long pause, Pancho, with eyes wide, shouted into the phone, “COMADRE…YOU’RE LYING!”  

Today, that moment lives on in family lore as one of the funniest Pancho reactions of all time. Sitting at the dinner table that night, Shelley and the girls weren’t laughing. Shelley jumped up to grab the phone from Pancho. Once on the line, Sandra explained what had happened, asked Shelley to put Marisa on the phone, and to contact their sisters Valerie and Kim. Marisa listened intently as fear and panic washed over her. She ended the call and explained to Erica what was happening. Fighting back her anxiety demons, she could only think of the worst. Standing in their living room, Shelley and Pancho stood motionless shocked by the sudden news.  Marisa kept asking no one in particular, “Is my dad going to be okay?” Erica sat silently staring off into the distance. After a brief silence, Shelley called her sisters to share the news, and Marisa and Erica quickly dressed to go to the hospital to be with their mama. Shelley and girls ran out the door to the car for the 30 minute drive to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center while Pancho stayed back to get Arachuli and Opie ready to follow along.

Sitting alone in the circular waiting room, Sandra continued to pray. Her lifelong faith in God had always kept her optimistic and balanced. She now faced the most serious crisis of her life, and her faith was intact. She truly believed that all would be well. While Sandra sat alone, the Peralta clan stirred into action to be by her side. Valerie called her oldest daughter Amanda and, after initially commanding Shelley to “stop playing around,” rushed out of the house. Sandra’s parents were getting ready for bed, and immediately changed their plans as did Kim and Miguel. In the waiting room, Sandra continued calling family members: my sisters Barbara and Sisi, and my brother David.  

Finding Steve would be another story. He rarely told anyone where he lived, or more accurately, where he was staying.  Steve’s battle with alcohol and anger over the years made him a moving target.  Even though he hadn’t had a drink in years, his nomadic lifestyle was well entrenched. A cousin once jokingly said that “the only way to get a hold of Steve is by smoke signals, and marijuana smoke would get the message through faster.” With the exception of Steve, Sandra had contacted all of our immediate family members. While sitting in the loneliest of places, she was thinking about our life together, the present crisis, and what the future would hold.

Within 45 minutes of that first call to Shelley’s house, Sandra was surrounded by her mom and dad, and her sisters and their families. The Peralta’s were the first to arrive and found Sandra sitting quietly with a shocked look on her face. The three of them embraced and cried. Mrs. Peralta stood back and said, “Don’t worry mi hija, everything is going to be okay.” The scene repeated itself after each one of her sisters came into the waiting room. The most emotional hugs and hardest cries were with the girls. Marisa was almost in a state of panic asking question after question, and Erica holding her feelings within herself not saying a word.

Here was a family that celebrated together, mourned together, went camping together, argued made up and argued again on vacation together. We served as godparents to each other’s kids for baptism and First Communion. Every Peralta grandchild called at least one of us “nino” or “nina,” and together we were compadres. There were school talent shows, little league games, dance recitals, and swim meets. On any given Saturday night, we were together at the local Red Lobster, Sizzler, or neighborhood coffee shop for dinner. “Party of 21, please,” one of us would say to an incredulous look from a restaurant host or hostess. We joked with each other, teased each other, and laughed with each other. I’m sure there are those who wondered if the closeness of this family was just a show. At that moment, the family faced the ultimate test as one of us fought for his life on the operating table several rooms away. There they were in the cramped waiting room supporting Sandra and the girls.

Eddie was out of town on business, so it was “party of 19, please.”  

They sat together and prayed together as the minute and second hands of the plain-looking clock on the wall slowly ticked away and others started to arrive: George, Will and Juanita Medina, and their kids William and Andrea.  

In the operating room, after identifying the location of the blockage, the doctor immediately worked to dissolve the blood clot by inserting a medium weight wire, called an aspiration catheter, into the tube that led to my heart to puncture the clot. Once the lump of blood had broken up and moved along the bloodstream, he replaced the wire with a balloon-like device and inflated it. He did this at the point where the artery was blocked to temporarily keep the vessel open so he could insert. The coronary artery stent is a metal web framework shaped like a tube that is placed inside the artery to help keep it open permanently.  

Pulling the tube out of the left side of the heart, the doctor proceeded to repeat the process on the right side of the heart to determine if there were any blockages there as well. Finding no additional obstruction, the doctor removed the tube from my heart down to the groin, out of the incision he cut on the right inner thigh, and sealed of the tiny opening. The procedure was complete. All had gone well. It was 9:36 PM, a little more than two hours after Sandra and I showed up for my appointment at the doctor’s office.   

The doctor emerged from surgery and walked into the waiting room to tell Sandra that the procedure was a success and that there were no complications. In his no nonsense manner, he advised her that my heart was badly damaged and it would be a rough road ahead. The surgeon described to those gathered in the cramped waiting room how cardiologists measure heart function to determine how much damage resulted from a heart attack. They use a calculation called the “ejection fraction,” which is the percentage of oxygenated blood that is pumped from the lower left chamber of the heart into the bloodstream with each heartbeat. In a healthy heart, 55%-65% of blood in the lower left chamber is released into the body with every thrust. The doctor explained that the ejection fraction of my heart after completion of the procedure measured less than 30%. I would never be the same, he added. I would have to dramatically alter my lifestyle.  

The room remained silent. Shelley later said that she was “in shock,” and that she “couldn’t grasp what had happened.” Pancho started weeping and saying that “this can’t be real.” Our godson William Medina sat down, put his face in his hands, and began to sob. The doctor concluded by saying that I would be in the intensive care unit (ICU) in recovery for a couple of hours, then assigned to a room in the cardiac care unit (CCU) where the family could visit. There was a sense of relief combined with apprehension in the waiting room when everyone gathered in a circle to hold hands, pray, and thank God for a saving my life.  

Just before midnight, hospital personnel rolled the gurney that I was on from the ICU to the CCU. Although groggy, I remember seeing my family and friends lined along the wide hallway waiting to see me: Mr. and Mrs. Peralta, George, the Medinas, Miguel, and Pancho were the first to come into view. Things were moving again in slow motion and what I do remember seeing was blurry and out of focus. It appeared to me that everyone was concerned as they saw the gurney roll by. When I saw Sandra and the girls, I don’t remember the looks on their faces, rather I felt safe and comfortable and that everything was going to be fine. During that brief moment, Valerie and Miguel said that I stuck out my arm, pushed my hand against the wall to stop the gurney, and asked Marisa and Erica if they were okay. George remembered it a little differently. He said that when I saw the girls, I appeared as though I wanted to protect the girls, so I instantly put on my “game face,” weakly waved to the orderlies asking them to stop, and smiled at the girls as if to say, “I’m okay.”

Regardless of how those few seconds unfolded, one thing is clear. I was in a state of semi-consciousness, yet my immense love for Sandra and the girls, and my fatherly instincts kicked in to provide me with an unrelenting reason to fight for my life. Faced with the real prospect of death, the deepest parts of my soul knew, without being fully conscious, that my family gave me the strength to live.

Chapter 1: 48 Viewmont Avenue

17861700_10209598668789591_3607065428989796163_n
The García kids posing in front of the kitchen window at 48 Viewmont Avenue – ca. 1987

The sky was clear and the weather was in the low 50s, a typical crisp November night in San Jose, California. But for my mom and dad, that night and early the next morning wouldn’t be typical at all. As they raced north on U.S. Highway 101 in the their two-toned orange and white 1955 Mercury, they wondered how they were going to make ends meet now that another mouth to feed would soon be added to the family.

They both grew up in poor single-mother households. Now that they had their own family, they were just getting by living check to check on my dad’s postal worker salary and mom’s odd jobs cleaning houses and working in the canneries. The little creature in her belly causing her so much pain and discomfort would be their fifth child. Nevertheless, both of my parents were excited and happy as the Mercury pulled into the hospital parking lot.

My dad jumped out of the car to walk her into the emergency room. Wearing a camel colored coat and carrying a small overnight bag, she waddled up the steps to the hospital and breathlessly slumped herself onto the waiting wheelchair. As was the custom in the 1960s, nurses rushed my mom into the maternity room to await the doctor who would deliver the baby and told my dad to wait outside. Hospital volunteers showed him the way to the waiting room to join other nervous, expectant fathers who were smoking up a storm as they paced the floor.

Impatient and restless, my dad didn’t stay for very long. He left the hospital to find a place where he could belly up to the bar and knock down a few whiskey and waters before going back to meet his newest baby. My mom was an old pro, he rationalized to himself, she had been to the delivery room four other times and each time the baby came out without any problems.

Back at the hospital, my mom was going through labor pains as one day ended and another began. The baby would soon arrive as the nurses and doctors prepared for the delivery. Labor for her was not much different than the other four times. Actually, this time seemed to go smoother, the pains weren’t as strong and the actual time in labor was much shorter. Just as my dad predicted, the delivery would be quick and simple.

After finishing his drinks and taking a few more drags of his cigarette, he was back in the maternity ward anxiously waiting for the good news. They had two boys and two girls at home waiting. He was sure this one would be another boy. In the delivery room all was going well. When the baby was finally born, the doctor gently gave the newborn the obligatory slap on the backside and waited for the familiar wails of a new life catching its breath for the first time.

The doctor cut the umbilical cord and the nurses wiped the baby clean before swaddling it and allowing my tired, but happy, mom to cuddle her baby for the first time. As the doctor completed one last check of vital signs, the baby slipped out of his arms and banged its face against the metal railing of the bed. A nurse broke the baby’s fall and prevented a disastrous accident. The baby screamed in pain as the nurses and doctors worked to stop the bleeding that had emerged from the baby’s face. Luckily, that scary incident only resulted in a small scar at the tip of the newborn’s nose.

That baby with the cut on his nose was me, born on November 6, 1963, at 5:25 AM at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, California. The third García boy, I was 21 inches long, weighed 7.2 pounds, with dark brown eyes, and lots of thick dark hair. My parents were excited and relieved, especially after the brief scare in the delivery room. That little scar at the tip of my nose would forever find a special place in my mom’s heart.

Exhausted, she suggested a name for me, Michael. My dad wanted to name me Edward. After a few minutes of negotiation, my proud parents settled on a name: Edward Michael García. My dad spent a few more minutes at my mom’s side, slipped out of the hospital, stopped at the watering hole for one more whiskey and water on the rocks. When he finished, he slid onto the front seat of the two-toned Mercury, and headed south for the 45-minute drive to San Jose to tell my siblings that they had a baby brother.

At home, my brothers and sisters, David 12, Barbara 11, Patty 10, and Steve 9, were still asleep unaware of what had happened earlier that morning. When my dad burst through the front door of his modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose, his four older children suddenly woke up and rushed to meet him to hear the good news.  He stood at the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room, and excitedly told his kids about “Eddie’s” chubby cheeks and thick black hair, and how he slipped, and cut his nose.  After a few minutes of taking questions, my dad turned to the heavy black phone sitting on the counter and started dialing to call everyone he knew.

***

My parents were children of the Great Depression, an era of desperate times for all but the richest Americans. For both my parents, poverty was compounded as they were children of widowed mothers who endured the racism and discrimination faced by Mexican Americans of that time. As children, they had no understanding of the American Dream and no real path to achieving it. As adults, they worked tirelessly to provide that opportunity for their children, and the little house on 48 Viewmont Avenue was the base of operations for their pursuit of the dream.

My dad was born Federico Olquín García in the dusty hamlet of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 15, 1926. The oral history of my family doesn’t provide much about the first 16 years of his life. This much we know: his parents were Juan and Isabela “Chabela” García, also native New Mexicans. My dad had one brother and two sisters. Juan worked in the dangerous and backbreaking copper mines of southern New Mexico and Chabela tended to the home and their four children.  They lived in a small adobe structure with a dirt floor built by Juan and a younger brother.  When my dad was about twelve years-old, his father died of respiratory problems related to his endless hours working in the mines. With her four kids in tow, Chabela left Las Cruces to join relatives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Family stories contend that my dad had to help drive the long and hot road to Arizona. If this is true, his childhood had disappeared in a flash and his years of responsibility and obligation came upon him overnight.  In October 1942, my dad left the small apartment he shared with his mother in south Phoenix to join the U.S Navy.  Like many of his generation, my dad shared little about his experience as a sailor during World War II. He told us that he served on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Pacific Ocean, but recounted nothing about battles and dangerous situations. History tells us that the Wasp engaged in several brutal battles with Japanese aircraft from October 1942 through the end of the war, the time my dad served on the carrier. In a personal log he carried, he wrote in detail about the last days of the war and the Wasp’s return to the United States.

My mom was an only child born to a single mother in on January 31, 1930, in Colton, California. Colton, a busy railroad hub and farming town in southern California, was one of many stops on the state’s farm-working circuit where her mother, Joaquina Othon, and her Tía Lipa traveled in search of seasonal work. Like my dad, little is known about my mom’s early life. My grandmother Joaquina was an independent woman trying to eke out a living for herself and her young daughter.  Within several years, my mom and her mom were again on the road, this time to Phoenix to help Tía Lipa care for my great-grandmother who arrived from Sonora, Mexico, to live out the last years of her life. My grandmother continued working odd jobs as a housekeeper, babysitter, and seasonal worker to support her daughter, sister, and ailing mother. Due to my grandmother’s tireless work ethic, my mom had a financially poor, but relatively stable life during her teen years. It was during this time that the lonely young woman raised by her mother, an aunt, and an aging grandmother, dreamed of one day having a big family with many children and grandchildren of her own.

18119146_10209201911068836_5661905925308526828_n
Fred and Marie García in Phoenix, AZ during the early 1950s

My parents met during a late summer day in 1949 when my mom went out to the neighborhood park with a cousin to watch some boys play baseball. My mom caught the eye of my dad as he strut around the diamond with a smile that could be seen across the field. He was calling at my grandmother’s front door the next morning respectfully asking permission to talk to my mom. My dad knew his way around girls from the many ports of call on the trip back to the U.S. after the war and his frequent attendance at south Phoenix nightclubs. But this girl was different: polite, demure, and dignified. Before long, he was stopping to see my mom everyday sitting on one end of the old sofa talking with her as she sat on the other end. Her mom and Tía Lipa sat across the tiny living room knitting a blanket or listening to the radio as the young couple talked, laughed, and sometimes just sat. Their courtship was a whirlwind. After several months dating in my grandmother’s living room, they were allowed to go out to together to the movies or to share a soda, and six months after they met, mom and dad were married in a small Catholic church on April 23, 1950. They had no place to live, no money, and no idea what the future would hold. All they had was each other and my skeptical grandmother watching their every move.

After a few years and the births of my brother David, and my sisters Barbara and Patty, my parents found that there were no opportunities for them in Phoenix. My dad was going from job to job, many times working two at a time, but none was steady. He scraped enough money together to pay rent on a studio apartment, feed the kids, and buy a broken old Ford to take him to and from his various jobs. Later in life, my parents would laugh about the time their car had a dead battery and they couldn’t afford to replace it. My dad would get up early in the morning, open the hood of the jalopy and peer into the motor as if there were a problem. Without fail, a Good Samaritan would ask if he needed help and my dad would explain that the battery wasn’t working that morning, and he would appreciate a jump to get the car started. Once his work day was over, he would begin the same routine until a passerby would lend him jumper cables to start the car for the return trip home. This would last for months. He quickly realized that this was no way to live. He had traveled around the world as a sailor fighting for his country, seen New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. He knew there were opportunities for those who took risks and sought a better life. So, with a used battery in the rickety car and protests from my grandma Joaquina, he and my mom packed up their three babies, their meager belongings, my abuelita Chabela, and headed for San Jose, California, to join his sister Maria, her family, and relatives on his father’s side of the family. My dad’s goal was to find work in the orchards and canneries of the fertile Santa Clara valley.

In San Jose, my parents moved into a relative’s garage until they were able to earn enough money to find a place for their growing family. They found a small apartment not too far away from the town’s bustling canning industry. My abuelita Chabela took care of the kids at night while my mom worked at the canneries. It’s a cliché, but my dad worked day and night to earn just enough money to keep a roof over their head and dinner on the table. There was enough work for my parents to rent a small house in San Jose’s east side. My brother Steve was born shortly after they moved into the rented house on the east side, and with another baby to clothe and feed, my parents found extra hours working for slave wages in the apricot orchards of the east valley picking the fruit and cutting it for the lucrative dried apricot market. Every bit helped, but they needed steady income to provide stability for their growing family.

During that time, San Jose was rapidly growing and the postal service was looking for reliable veterans to meet the demands of its burgeoning workforce. Soon, my dad’s status as a World War II veteran would pay off when he got a job working at the downtown post office. Although the pay wasn’t nearly enough to meet the needs of their family, the stability gave them a chance to achieve the American Dream and buy a house. They found a house just a couple of blocks away from their rented house. My parents borrowed money from relatives to put a modest down payment on the outlandish $11,000 mortgage they took to buy the house on 48 Viewmont Avenue. For the next several years, my dad would dutifully drive downtown to the post office to earn a living and my mom would supplement their income taking jobs cleaning houses and working part-time in the cafeteria at the new IBM headquarters in the south side of town. My dad would take every opportunity to work overtime to help pay the bills. Lucky for them, my abuelita was available to take care of the kids while my parents struggled to stay afloat.

This steady way of life continued for nine years and it looked like my parents were starting to slowly build a solid foundation for their family’s future when I arrived. The first 27 years of my life were marked and influenced by events in and around my parents’ modest house on 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose. The neighborhood was a typical working-class community of small houses on small lots with neatly mowed lawns and little flower gardens. The development of houses was on the edge of the east side of town that once thrived with orchards. Just a short walk a few blocks away, was the Alum Rock Village, a row of mom and pop markets, a liquor store, bakery, hair salon, barbershop, and assorted small businesses that included a feed and fuel that served the remnants of a bygone agricultural community.

The area included a county branch library, a couple of elementary schools, a middle school, a high school, and of course, a Catholic church. Next to the high school was a small fire station. Viewmont Avenue itself was a short block of about forty houses. On one end sat an elementary school and on the other the two-lane Alum Rock Avenue that led to downtown San Jose to the west and several miles up the east foothills to large expensive houses and Alum Rock Park which sunk grandly into a deep canyon. Viewmont Avenue was narrow with rounded curbs, no sidewalks, and wooden telephone poles carrying heavy electrical and telephone wires placed about 50 yards apart running down one side of the street. The poles and wires played an important role during two-hand touch football games – the poles marked the end zones and the wires could be an extra defensive player if the quarterback threw a pass too high.

Our neighbors were working-class families like ours in pursuit of the American Dream. Across the street from our house lived the Ornelas family. My godfather Tony was a sheet metal worker and his wife Marty worked in the canneries. Next door on each side of our house lived widows, Mrs. Wood on one side and Mildred on the other.  Viewmont Avenue was ethnically diverse well before the term became popular in our society.  A few houses away were the Moreno, Romero, Dutra, Marino, Olague, Vasquez, and Zigenhart families. Mr. Helgeson, a retired widower, could always be seen outside wearing neatly pressed work clothes to care for his meticulous yard and garden. On national holidays, I watched in admiration as he carefully hung the American flag over the porch to show pride for his adopted country. The breadwinners provided for their families working as electricians, landscapers, construction workers, and machine shop operators. The women worked mostly at the canneries and supplemented the family’s income by cleaning houses, providing child care, or caring for seniors. The neighborhood around Viewmont Avenue was like a small town on the fringes of a growing city. For me, it had everything I needed and wanted. I felt happy, safe, and comfortable there. It was home.

The house I grew up in was a cozy three bedroom, one bathroom tract home built in the late 1940s. The indoor living space measured about 900 square feet and sat on a 1,800 square foot lot that included a front yard and backyard. In the front yard, was a patch of grass and a magnolia tree surrounded by the plants and flowers that flourished under the tender care of my mom’s green thumb.  Above the wooden one-car garage door hung a basketball hoop and a backboard made from a piece of scrap plywood.  From the kitchen window, one could see the entire scene. Inside, the house was a standard mid-20th century tract home with low ceilings and distinct living spaces.  It seemed as though key family events always occurred at the kitchen table or at the narrow linoleum countertop, dotted with several cigarette burns, which separated the kitchen from a snug dining room. On the kitchen side of the counter sat my dad’s signature restaurant booth tightly curved around a round table and on the dining room side of the counter stood three barstools.

My oldest sister Barbara would say later in life that “we had an idyllic upbringing on Viewmont Avenue. Mom and dad created a cocoon that protected us from all of the bad things in the world.” My parents made sure that school was a priority and provided me and my siblings with the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities; girl scouts, cheerleading, and color guard for the girls and little league, boy scouts, and Pop Warner football for the boys. It was the life of the 1950s and 1960s television genre that dad yearned for after listening to the stories about growing up “American” from his friends in the navy. At mom’s funeral in 2003, one cousin reminisced that “Tía Mary was like the Mexican Donna Reed.”

The protective shell my parents built kept the bad influences out by keeping us away from people or situations that could be harmful.  At home, when my parents hosted family parties, a long night of hard-drinking would inevitably lead to tense conditions that could end up in a fight, and my mom would quietly usher us away from the party to our bedrooms.  When I was in elementary school, on my walk home, I would see some of the cool kids hanging out under the trees at the back fence of campus, and they would sometimes wave me over.  I told my parents and they warned that under no circumstance should I ever venture out to the fence. As I got older, I realized that the boys were sniffing glue and paint to get high.  Many of those kids didn’t get through high school, joined gangs, and either died violently or found a permanent home in prison.  Not only did 48 Viewmont provide a cocoon for us, it served as a safe haven for relatives down on their luck or just hiding away from the miseries of the world.  It would not be unusual for me to sleep on the couch in the living room so my bed could be used by a cousin, uncle, or aunt who needed a place to stay for a few days while they worked out whatever brought them to our house.

In true American fashion, my dad taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to control our own destinies. We should be good people, he would say, and be there for others in need, but don’t count on others to be there for you, he counseled. Most of all, we should know that they, my parents, would always be there for us. They worked tirelessly to paste together a family budget, and we always had a hot breakfast in the morning, bag lunch to take to school, and dinner on the table when my dad came home from work. The meals weren’t very healthy, but they filled our stomachs: any combination of chorizo or bacon, potatoes, and eggs for breakfast. Bologna sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise on white bread, cookies, and an occasional piece of fruit was a typical lunch. For dinner, we ate tortillas, beans, and something fried with the bacon drippings or chorizo grease from the morning. On payday Fridays, we could count on a piece of chuck steak, fried chicken, or something exotic like spaghetti with hamburger meat sauce. We could also count on our parents being at school and extracurricular activities. I can’t think of one back-to-school night or athletic event that wouldn’t include my parents’ attendance. Even when there were competing activities. I clearly remember the 1972 World Series between Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds when my dad, during the school’s open house, found his way to the school office to watch the game with the principal and other dads.

15356664_10208579771397793_2682060326178771712_n
García Family photo in the “front room” at 48 Viewmont Ave – 1964

My brothers and sisters all recount similar stories even though we were part of two families from the same parents. My four older siblings were born in the early 1950s, and my little sister and I came a decade later; I was born in 1963 and my sister five years after me in 1968. David, the oldest, was the patriarch of the kids. He is well-read, studious, intellectual, and like our father, pragmatic and sensible. He played Pop Warner football as a kid and earned an Eagle Scout from his Boy Scout troop, excelled in the classroom, and attended Stanford University during the turbulent student anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After college graduation, he married, divorced, remarried, taught elementary school, became a teacher’s union president, earned his master’s degree in labor relations, and started his own management consulting business.

My sister Barbara turned 12 years old a couple of months after I was born. She was like my second mother as she took care of me for the first seven years of my life when my mom worked her odd jobs or went out for an evening with my dad. She is a bookworm with maternal instincts without equal. She takes care of everyone, at the expense of her own well-being. She was married right after high school and started her own family while traveling the country as the wife of a career Air Force enlisted man. She went back to college in her mid-20s, had four children, and forged a career in the credit union industry.

Patty, another bookworm born eighteen months after Barbara, was fiercely independent, blunt, and practical. She whizzed through high school, earned a bachelor’s degree at Santa Clara University, a prestigious Jesuit college, and earned a master’s degree in library science from UCLA. She moved to Bakersfield with her husband, worked as a college librarian and had a son. She unexpectedly died in 2003 of a viral heart infection just two months shy her fiftieth birthday.

Steve, the youngest of my four older siblings and the baby of my parents “first” family, was born a year after Patty, and is nine years older than I. As a kid, Stevie was smart, rambunctious, and charming. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to approach an uncle or older family friend, put him into a headlock, and mess up his hair, which would invariably make my dad furious. Although dad encouraged independence, he would stifle Stevie at every turn. This had long term consequences as Steve grew into an insular and self-protective man who has battled alcohol and drugs throughout his life. He has been married for 35 years and has five children, including a step-daughter.

My little sister Sisi and I make up my parents’ “second” family. According to our older siblings, she and I had it easy, even though we’re still not sure what that means. Sisi is smart, funny, and outgoing.  As a little girl, she was fun to play with, and as teenager, she was shy and introverted, probably due to her internal struggles to understand her own sexuality.  She left San Jose to go to college at San Diego State University where she became a teacher and eventually an elementary school principal in the San Diego area where she lives with her wife.

At 48 Viewmont Avenue, we had a clear code of conduct and value system from which we were expected to manage our lives.  My dad was no nonsense and no frills. He taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others.  There was no variation from this formula.  Any lack of respect and decorum, especially in public, would immediately lead to a non-verbal response, a stern look with a furrowed brow followed by pursed lips, closed eyes, and a slow shake of the head in disapproval.  He also gave us the lifelong love of reading, learning, and music. The tight shelf space in my parents’ bedroom was stacked with paperbacks and periodicals, every edition of National Geographic Magazine published since the mid-1950s was displayed on a homemade shelf for all to see.  My dad would get home from work every day shortly after 5:00 o’clock with the evening edition of the San Jose Mercury News tucked under his arm. We had to be prepared at dinner to be peppered with questions about the day’s world and local events.  Even as adults, when we gathered around the same kitchen table for the holidays, he would sit at the counter looking into the kitchen with his whiskey and water and make a controversial philosophical or political statement and watch his educated kids flare up in heated debate.  In the dining room, he had the record player and later cassette player in a place of prominence surrounded by albums that included Tex-Mex, mariachi, other genres of Mexican music, and the standards – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.  

My mom, on the other hand, was the epitome of the warm and loving maternal parent.  She taught us unconditional love, faith, compassion, and perseverance.  Even during the last days before in her death in 2003, she remained strong in her convictions and her belief that everyday alive is a good day.  While any indiscretion on our part would be met with my dad’s scowls and rebukes, my mom would react with gentle counsel and loving support urging us to do better the next time.  She was our biggest cheerleader encouraging us to be the best we could be.  After all those years of watching me play sports, I’m not sure if mom really understood the complexities of the games, but I did know that she cheered every time it looked like I did something good.  Every morning she would remind us that the day would be a good one because the sun came up and God gave us another day, and after each meal, she insisted that we say “thank you God,” and of course she encouraged us to pray the “Our Father” before bedtime.  

Although my mom never had much herself, she would share what she had with others to make their lives just a bit better.  One evening, right after Thanksgiving, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember a family calling at our front door.  A young couple in their 20s, with a young girl sitting in a rickety stroller and a baby boy sleeping in his father’s arms, stood at the porch. The man, in a whispered southern accent with his eyes looking toward the ground, explained to my mom that they were hungry and looking for something to eat. It looked like they had been walking around for some time as the man was unshaven wearing dirty pants and shirt. The woman looked tired with hollow eyes and wore a dress she may have made herself.  My mom invited them into the kitchen and shared the few leftovers from our turkey dinner from the night before. I’m sure had planned to use the turkey to make some fried concoction for dinner.  The couple gratefully ate at the kitchen table like they were having a gourmet meal in a fancy restaurant.  After they finished eating, my mom packed a few more leftovers in a paper bag and wished them luck on their journey. How they came to our door and why they chose our house I’ll never know.  I just know that my mom’s actions that night left an indelible imprint in me about the importance of caring for others, a value that would chart the path to my future.

***************

Look for Chapter 2 in June!

Prologue

giant_dipper_santa_cruz
The Giant Dipper – Santa Cruz, California (image by Wikipedia)

By Eddie García

There are those who say life is like a rollercoaster with its ups and downs, and twists and turns.  I’ve loved riding on a rollercoaster as far back as I can remember.  My favorite is the Giant Dipper, a whitewashed wooden 1920s era coaster with bright red tracks that dominates the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk on California’s central coast.  Santa Cruz is about an hour drive from where I grew up in San Jose, California. As a kid, I remember feeling excited to see the high point of the coaster jutting above the squat motels, restaurant buildings, tourist gift shops, and mom and pop stores that lined the streets as my dad drove into town.

The Giant Dipper was a thrilling experience from the moment you bought a ticket and got into the long line that wound its way into the building that housed the coaster station. While in the safe confines of the fast-moving line with friends and relatives, we would laugh and joke, and revel in each other’s company, with an occasional pause to watch and hear the frantic riders above squeal and scream as the chaotic train roared by.  I always began to feel anxious when entering the coaster station as riders took their seats on the train.  Soon, I would be securely seated in the two-person car. Without warning, the train swooshed out of the coaster house and quickly vanished into a tunnel.  

Adrenalin shot through my body, and fellow riders hooted and hollered. The train sped through a dark curvy tunnel to a low point before emerging from the darkness slowly climbing to the first peak with the classic clicking sound of a rollercoaster train laboring upward.  Once at the top, the train slowly scaled the peak and screamed down the other side of the tracks in a free fall as it rushed toward the earth.  After a scaling a couple smaller hills and valleys, the train rapidly rose into the sky to reach the top before it violently curved downward to its left on the way to a deep drop.  A series of turns, ups and downs, and a slow straight-away led the train to its final resting place in the safety of the coaster station.  

My love for rollercoaster rides came from my dad.  When we went to the boardwalk, usually when relatives from out of town were visiting, my dad would strut straight to the Giant Dipper.  With his mischievous grin, he would egg on everyone to join him on the ride, especially those who looked nervous or scared.  My mom never got on the coaster, no matter how much my dad tried to persuade her.  My brother Stevie was also a regular holdout, which was funny because he was the bad boy of the family.  

Stevie had a big heart, but masked it with a perpetual scowl and a look in his eyes that shouted out, “you wanna fight?”  He was tough, uncompromising, and angry. As his little brother, I was regularly collateral damage when he was mad at the world.  He wore his hair long in the style of a 1970s anti-establishment rebel.  His uniform was a pair of jeans, a leather vest, steel-toe biker boots, and a buck knife attached to his belt. I’m sure he scared people as he lumbered along his way.  Despite his bad-boy persona, he was scared to death of that tortuous and seemingly unpredictable rollercoaster that overlooked the Pacific Ocean.

When I was about nine years old, I persuaded Stevie to ride with me.  In line, he had the steely eyes of a gunslinger preparing for battle. Once the train disappeared into the tunnel, he began to scream, giggle, and screech like a teenage girl at a boy band concert. I laughed harder during the next few minutes than I had ever laughed.  With each dip, twist, and turn, this tough guy with the biker boots became ever more vulnerable to the fierce journey of the Giant Dipper.  

As the train slowly entered the coaster station at the end of the ride, Stevie gathered himself and brushed the long, thick mane away from his face. He put that angy look back into his eyes and glowered at passersby as if he was about to kick someone’s ass.  I didn’t know what was funnier, his screaming on the ride or the mask he put on as soon as the danger went away.  I sure wasn’t going to ask him.  

That was one wild ride.

The first forty-six years of my life followed the path of the Giant Dipper. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood of east San Jose was like waiting in line for the coaster enjoying family and friends. From time to time, I would hear and see the chaos that sometimes unfolded around me.  After high school, I ventured away from the neighborhood to attend San Jose State University with the same excitement and apprehensiveness I felt when entering the coaster station as a kid.  I eventually flunked out of college and chose a lifestyle fueled by alcohol, dead-end jobs, and the next party.  

The ensuing undisciplined meandering through life was just like the Giant Dipper’s wild downward ride through the dark tunnel. Resembling the slow and deliberate ascent of the rollercoaster, I put my life back together, got married, went back to school and graduated from college.  My wife Sandra and I started a family while I climbed the corporate ladder and served in public office.  The sudden plunge of the Giant Dipper’s first dip and and the exhilarating rush toward the rollercoaster’s wicked curved peak mirrored a crushing election loss and my rapid rise to school board president just two years later.

Midway through my forty-sixth year, Sandra and I were approaching our 20th wedding anniversary, our two daughters were healthy and happy, and I had achieved success in my career.  I was on top of the world.  Like the Giant Dipper’s next move after reaching its climactic bend, my life would soon make an abrupt and furious downward turn and plummet toward its lowest depths.

***********

Coming Wednesday – Chapter 1: 48 Viewmont Avenue

Welcome to the Official Blog for Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life!

This is the unique and inspiring story of a boy who grew up in a working-class neighborhood, flunked out of college, and lost hope. He put his life back together, married the love of his life, returned to his studies and graduated from college, raised a family, and found success in business and public office.

It’s also the story of a man who vowed never to fail again and worked tirelessly to redeem himself. Despite a seemingly perfect life, redemption remained elusive. After a life-changing event, he found true redemption while in a state of complete helplessness in the ICU through the power of faith, family, and friends.

Coming Soon: The Prologue

Stay Tuned!!