As we approached, we could see the tire tracks swerve to the right and over-correct to the left, ending at the small curb separating Highway 140 from a rounded cliff-side. My little brother and I climbed over the edge and made our way down – following the tracks and debris left by our black Dodge Caravan when it rolled towards the bottom. Scattered about, we found cds that were thrown from my music binder, my World Industries skateboard and reject baseball cards that were left in the van. At the bottom of the cliff, on a dirt road next to an old steel bridge crossing a creek lined with raspberry bushes, we could see the bloodstains that marked the place of my dad’s death.
My dad, my role model and best friend, taught me so much about life. Making me return that 100 dollar bill that I found on the ground to the woman it belonged to when I wanted to pocket it so badly; modeling for me how to stand up for my beliefs and let my voice be heard even to someone stronger than me. Continuing this list would make this essay unreasonably long.
The most valuable lessons he taught me were unintentional though. When I was 4 years old, he lost his longtime job as an arborist to an injury, sending our family of 5 children into a very difficult financial position. I wasn’t yet in school so I spent my days tagging along with him.
To make extra cash, we collected aluminum cans from the parks around town. “Dad, I hit the jackpot!” I exclaimed as I discovered a trash bin full of beer and soda cans. I relished the stench as he lifted me into the dumpster. After passing the loot out to him, we’d head out on the pursuit of the next abundance of treasures thrown out by people who obviously had no idea how much they were worth. He was able to take this humiliating job and transform it into the most glamorous treasure hunt a boy could experience.
Through my teen years, he often told me of his painfully rough up-brining. As a first generation Mexican-American, he, and all 10 of his siblings, toiled in the fields. He told stories of his back-breaking days of picking strawberries, getting carrot splinters and the racist encounters with the white people he worked for.
This hard life, in the trouble-prone town of Salinas, led him to years of delinquency. When he was in his 20’s, after years of drug abuse and violence, he needed a dramatic change if he was to survive. His cataclysmic moment came shortly after watching his older brother Juan’s trailer burn to the ground, killing Juan, his daughter and his pregnant girlfriend.
Completely lost, broken and sick of his life he turned to religion. With the help of his new found community he turned his life around. He became a mentor to drug addicts and people with violent backgrounds, eventually becoming an iconic figure in his community. The strength that he had to overcome his troubled history to raise a beautiful family and give back to the community inspired everyone who knew him.
Losing him flipped my world upside-down. The next years of my life were filled with anger, confusion and pain. The worst of me came out. My closet door was riddled with holes, my knuckles swollen and callused from putting them there. I retreated from the few groups of friends I frequented at the time. I became a loner. My best friend was my guitar.
With time came reflection. Remembering the painful stories that haunted my dad’s sleep and his constant battle with drugs relapsing into his life reminded me that he was finally at peace. Without him there to influence me, as he did my older siblings, I was forced to find my own way. I did just that. I took a path that I never would have imagined if he was still in my life.
Where my father would have influenced me to make decisions based on security, wisely so from his point of view, I was free to choose an uncertain path led by my curiosity for experience. He would have certainly talked me out of my ridiculous idea to marry my play with my work and my work with travel but that idea worked for me. I joined the circus. Each of my choices, uninfluenced by my father, led me to a new lesson and a deeper understanding of myself.
As an adult reflecting on my family, I look at my siblings and myself and see my father’s characteristics beaming from each of us. I attribute the way we are proud, loyal, hard-working, loving, caring and humble directly to our time with him. Above all of the qualities he passed to us, the one that I appreciate most is the ability to enjoy life in spite of difficulty, to make light and humor of any situation. He left me asking: What is life without pleasure? Why struggle constantly without taking the time to enjoy ourselves? Why not make the best of the struggle if we have to go through it anyways? There is no good reason to not enjoy life and my father demonstrated that with mastery.
What I miss most is his look of pride and approval; the look he had in his eyes at my sister Selena’s wedding, my brother Gabe’s graduation and when Felix joined the Air Force. Without him there I felt it was not even worth “walking the line” for my high-school graduation. A gaping hole in my heart was exposed when I moved into my first apartment. My every accomplishment is accompanied by a bitter sweet feeling, for it is in these moments of satisfaction when I most notice that he is no longer there.
My ideal life would be that I establish my business, buy a house and marry the woman I love. I would invite my father over for dinner, and share stories of work and adventure. My role model and best friend would approve of my success and I would feel satisfied living a life he would be proud of me for.
But in reality, my Dad was in pain and his past haunted him. Ideal was impossible, so I applied the lesson he taught me: make the best of the struggle. With his philosophy, I found that if he had not passed, I would not be the person I am today. Losing him allowed me to take a unique, unpredictable and rewarding path. I like the person I have become. And while I miss my father dearly, I always will, I am a better person having lost him when I did.