I go through the same ritual virtually every day. After a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, I get ready for a walk through the neighborhood. Due to the brisk winter weather, my uniform includes a pair of jeans, sweatshirt, jacket, and Warriors beanie. Once outside, I flip the hoodie over my head, place the earplugs into my ears and off I go listening to music and letting my mind wander.
Recently, the thoughts meandering though my head have been less than uplifting. For the past month or so, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster. On one hand, my health is improving on a daily basis. On the other hand, my next door neighbor passed away of a massive heart attack. He was my age. A week later, a dear friend’s son also passed. He was in his 20s, around the same age as my daughters. A few weeks ago, Tía Marta from Sandra’s side of the family breathed her last breath. She treated me as one of her own.
Since my odyssey with heart disease began, I get more reflective when someone passes before I do. I’ve had a heart attack, experienced cardiac arrest, endured a medically induced coma, and struggled again years later in the ICU after open-heart surgery complications. Yet, I’m still here.
No matter that my faith gives me a deep understanding of acceptance, experiencing another person’s death is now prefaced with the same gnawing questions. Why does God choose to take good people too early? Why does He continue to spare me? What have I done that is any more valuable than anyone else? Am I adding value?
That last question is what preoccupies me the most. From a young age, my dad encouraged me and my siblings to get an education. He told us that college was the path to a comfortable life (i.e. more money). Society told me the same thing. A former boss would pop his head into my office every morning and ask, “García, are you adding value today?” It was his daily reminder that my job was to either save or make money for the company.
These life lessons defined my understanding of success, value, and worth. As readers of ESEReport know all too well, God threw a wrench into that notion for me 9 years ago. In an instant, I went from my family’s breadwinner to someone who spends a majority of time and resources on staying healthy and alive.
These thoughts ultimately lead to me questioning my own worth. Despite overcoming the physical challenges of heart disease time and time again, the emotional and psychological recovery continues to tug at my insecurities. Based on society’s perception of a “successful” man and my own learned expectations, I always ask myself, “What value do I add?”
Then, Tía Marta taught me a lesson.
She was born in a small town in Mexico and spent most of her life in a farming community near Fresno where she worked in the packing sheds during the harvest season. Financially, she had little to offer the world. By most definitions of “value” in American society, one could conclude that she didn’t make much of a contribution.
She dedicated her life to loving and taking care of Tío, her children, grandchildren, and great granddaughter. When we visited, she was usually stationed next to the stove making something delicious – and not very healthy, by the way – or standing in the small kitchen with her arms resting on the high back of a dining room chair enjoying the company of her guests.
She listened with a caring ear and uttered few words, usually encouraging comments about faith and hope. It seemed at times that she wasn’t physically present because she listened much more than she spoke. Nonetheless, her unwavering faith in even the most terrible of times filled any room she occupied.
When my family endured that awful summer in the waiting room nearly a decade ago and again last fall, Tío and Tía were among the first to arrive. She would sit next to Sandra offering prayers, encouragement, and hope. Most times, she just sat quietly letting her aura of hope radiate throughout the room.
At her funeral, I learned that I wasn’t the only recipient of her prayers and devout faith. For 40 years, she was part of a small group of women that studied the bible each week at the home of one of the community elders. Tía’s offerings of faith spread well beyond her house and her family. The leader of her prayer group regaled mourners with stories about her spiritual value to the community.
The family bestowed upon me the honor to eulogize Tía on their behalf. I reached out to her children and grandchildren to learn more about the woman they called Mom and Nana. They shared stories about her love for them, her cooking, and her role as the rock of the family. Their anecdotes inspired me to base the eulogy on faith, hope, and love as envisioned by St. Paul the Apostle.
During my preparations, I also wanted to know how many people to expect and who would attend to ensure that the eulogy properly honored her memory. Her son told me that they expected a small gathering, mostly family. Something told me, most likely God, that I should prepare comments for a wider community.
I wanted to say the right thing. I wanted to honor her and her family in a way that she deserved. Upon on arriving at the church, Sandra and I saw a sprinkling of people congregating in the aisle. Once the service started, I sat in the front pew, nervously listening to the pastor and the community elder eulogizing Tía.
When I rose and walked to the podium, I turned to look at the gathering and thanked God for preparing me for a larger vision of who she was. The standing room only assembly of people spilled out to the vestibule and outside the doors in front of the church. It was amazing and exhilarating to see how many lives she touched.
This brings me back to the definition of “value” and my struggle to overcome misplaced musings about my own worth, or lack thereof. In death, Tía Marta’s life reminded me that value shouldn’t be measured by just dollars and cents. She added value every day to her family, her community, and the world without having a large bank account to demonstrate her worth.
My spiritual journey continues. God will keep providing me with guidance and life lessons in a way that only He can. I have to listen to His message and practice what I preach by not placing so much value on society’s expectations of me. I have a long way to go, but I know that I’m moving in the right direction.
Thank you, God.