Every semester, the results of that term’s academic performance arrived in the mail on light blue computer paper, and term after term, an “A” would be recorded next each course I completed. I was on a mission. I stayed up later, studied more, and worked harder in class as the semesters went by. During the spring before my thirtieth birthday, I was still shy of graduation so I put myself into overdrive to get to the finish line. That semester I took seven classes, plus a required physical education class for a total of twenty-two units, an overloaded schedule that had to be approved by an advisor.
It was a hectic term, and I earned a straight “A” report card again, then it was done. It was a bittersweet moment as I was relieved to have achieved my goal; but I still felt inferior and a sense of guilt for the earlier college failure, so I didn’t want to participate in commencement ceremonies. Fortunately, Sandra made me don the cap and gown of a San Jose State graduate.
At the age of twenty-nine, just slightly ahead of schedule, I walked onto the football field at Spartan Stadium with 5,000 other graduates while our 30,000 friends and family members watched from the stadium seats. I was proud to have earned my degree, especially because my parents, who both suffered heart attacks in their mid-fifties, were healthy enough to celebrate with me.
My bond with Sandra was stronger than ever, and the true meaning of giving unconditional love entered my consciousness for the first time. As I started working on a career and Sandra got settled in hers, we decided to have a family. I’ve always loved babies and kids so I couldn’t wait to have some of my own. Of course, with Sandra at the helm, we planned our family methodically; we would have two children, three to four years apart, regardless of the gender so we could provide them with enough love and resources to be successful.
We would read to them while Sandra was pregnant and continue the practice until they became readers on their own, we would talk with them to build up confidence, and we would support their efforts as they grew. I wanted babies with chubby cheeks and beautiful eyes like their mother, and of course, I hoped that they would love to read history and plays sports like me. On March 20, 1994, our oldest daughter Marisa was born, and Erica came three and a half years later on October 19, 1997.
Marisa is the archetype of the oldest sibling; she is smart, responsible, focused, and cautious. From the time she was a baby, Marisa was all smiles, cheerful, and attracted attention everywhere we went. Skipping the crawling phase, she scooted about on her bottom to get from place to place in the house, and suddenly one day she stood up and began walking. Marisa was and still is articulate. As a baby she could use simple words before she walked and, when she was a little older, she could memorize the storybooks we read and appear to be reading them herself.
I have to dig deeply into my memory to remember a time when Marisa didn’t talk. Mr. Peralta remarked more than once that, “this girl is going to be a lawyer.” Like her mother, she has fair skin, full cheeks, pretty brown eyes, and a smile that is contagious. She is thoughtful, articulate, a voracious reader with a diverse taste for music, and always ready to participate in a good debate. At about the age of ten, she began to have challenges with anxiety, of which she is constantly learning to manage. A straight “A” student throughout her life, she studies communications at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Erica has an endearing personality. She’s witty, daring, and playful. At times she could be unfocused due to her artistically creative nature. She was a chubby baby with expressive eyes and a mischievous grin who began to crawl quickly and walk shortly thereafter. It took her awhile to start talking. I even raised concerns that she might be slightly deaf as it runs in my family. But that wasn’t the case. Although she wasn’t talkative as a toddler, you could see her taking everything in and studying the sights and sounds around her. This keen sense of observation gives her a comedic timing that easily attracts people.
While seemingly shy and reserved upon first meeting her, Erica is outgoing and social once she is comfortable with those around her. It’s not unusual to see her holding the attention of little kids, her peers, or adults with her musings that end in howls of laughter. Although frustrating to Sandra and me, she does just enough to get by in the classroom. Nonetheless, she plans to study art and design in college. While she internalizes her feeling during times of crisis and disappointment, she maintained a faith that was unshakeable during the most challenging time of her life when I was in the intensive care unit clinging onto life
Together, the four of us are a close-knit unit. I’m a prolific practitioner of nicknames and Sandra and the girls have many, and two have stuck for the girls: Marisa is “Tita” because Erica couldn’t say her name as a baby, and Erica is “X,” a warped progression of “Ericas,” one of my earliest nicknames for her. When Sandra and I aren’t toiling away at an evening meeting, we have dinner with each other every night so the girls could talk about their day at school, complete with the schoolgirl gossip that came as they grew older.
Sandra and I share stories about our workday, constantly focusing on the positive outcomes of the challenges we face daily so the girls could see that work didn’t have to be drudgery if they followed their passions. Before Marisa went off to college, the girls fought constantly, only to make up in an instant laughing and joking about inside jokes. Now when Marisa returns for breaks from school, the two of them are the best of friends.
Sandra has always been the one to provide discipline and stability in their lives while I’ve been head cheerleader and dreamer in chief. Since they were born, the girls have had me tightly wrapped around their little fingers so Sandra has said that she has to be the “tough” one while I’m the “pushover.” Although overly simplistic, and in dispute like the argument about how I asked her to dance so many years ago, this dynamic has caused the most tension in our house.
With their mom, the girls love to shop, cuddle up on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching TV, and tease me about my idiosyncrasies. With me, Marisa likes to talk about music, books, and politics. Erica and I talk about sports and history, and make each other crack up with our silly humor. The four of us enjoy being with each other, whether going to the movies or out to dinner, or just staying home, hanging out and talking nonsense. For too many years, our good times together must have seemed like special occasions to my family, because for most of their lives, Sandra, Marisa, and Erica have endured watching me fight demons through my obsessive and passionate pursuit of my ambitions.
Blogger’s note: This is the 18th installment from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. I post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. To read previous installments, go to the “Tags” link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”