Live Every Day Like It’s Your Last

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Enjoying an afternoon with Sandra and the girls in downtown San Jose

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Live every day like it’s your last day.

When surfing social media, I see these pieces of advice and their variations multiple times a day. I’m not sure how many people posting these sensible nuggets of counsel really believe what they’re saying or merely passing on a slogan. For those that use them for sloganeering and self-motivation, the trick is turning the catchphrases into true core beliefs. That’s not easy to do.

I think I have solid credentials to write about this. I spent most of my adult life sweating the small stuff and looking for tomorrow’s opportunities. I monitored every detail of my professional life. When things didn’t turn out just so, my stomach would tie up in knots until I fixed the mishap and made adjustments for next time. My mind was working around the clock.

At home, the slightest hint of disapproval from Sandra would gnaw at me for days. My busy schedule and non-stop preparing for the next move would keep me distracted for weeks at a time. When that caused strains in family time, I was constantly in a state of looking for the next open weekend or vacation to make amends.

For an anxious person, the small stuff and trying to shape the future are amplified even more. I was diagnosed with general anxiety in 2004. A Harvard study published in 2012 reported that patients with a genetic disposition for heart disease “who have generalized anxiety disorder – constant, pervasive worrying, even about mundane matters – are more likely to have heart attacks and serious heart problems.”

Here’s how heart disease researchers think it works. The heart labors harder because anxiety sufferers are in a constant state of adrenalin fueled “fight or flight.” In that state, the body prepares for an altercation and the blood thickens to prevent excessive bleeding from a cut or blow. For people like me with a family history of clogged arteries, the combination of narrow vessels, thick blood, and pieces of plaque floating around could be deadly.

Throughout my life, I heard the wise advice to not sweat the small stuff and live every day like it’s your last a zillion times. I regularly vowed to follow it. Unfortunately, I was never able to really embrace it, until God intervened during the summer of 2010. It turned out to be another one of His amazing gifts to me.

For over 100 days, He gave me a bunch of big stuff to sweat about. Before I signed the surgery approval form, the surgeon was required to advise me that my chance for survival was 50/50. When ICU doctors recommended putting me into a medically induced coma, I agreed knowing I might never wake up. I emerged from the coma paralyzed from medication and a month on a ventilator. I didn’t know what laid ahead.

That summer, God taught me that what I wanted wasn’t as important as what He wanted for me. Heart disease and complications ravaged my body. He wanted me to fight for my life and my family. He didn’t want me to think about tomorrow or the next day. He wanted me to concentrate every minute on the task at hand.

Once I awoke from the coma, I had no choice but to put His lessons into action. At first it was difficult as I wanted to go back to my old ways. I learned that I had to take it one day at a time. I couldn’t give up when simple things like lifting a spoon to my mouth or walking to the bathroom seemed impossible. During the next few years, I kept learning that worrying about unimportant things didn’t help. Looking too far ahead was fruitless. Living for the day became a way of life.

The world looks so much differently now. I see people “hangry” at restaurants because the food is taking too long. I hear people grumble about co-workers and agonize about wanting to make more money. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, we read about family spats over an unknown slight. I understand those very human emotions, so I want to sit with every person feeling pain and share the gift God gave to me.

Last week, I dedicated my daily walk on social media to a young man and family friend who has lived with muscular dystrophy since he was a kid. He spends most of his life in a wheelchair. When I see his smiling face while enjoying a concert or hear about how he is doing, I marvel at how he faces the challenges that most of us can’t even imagine. He and his family are the personification of courageous fighters. I hope to follow their example every day.

When the small stuff starts getting to you, take a deep breath and let it go. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or any assortment of ailments that get in the way, seek professional guidance and share your story so you can find the silver linings. I was so consumed with the small stuff and the future that I almost let the beauty of life pass by.

Here’s some advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I know it’s easier said than done, but I’m convinced that this is what God wants from all of us. There are so many things that can be barriers to living that philosophy. I learned how to dismiss the mini roadblocks the hard way. My life changed drastically overnight. Don’t wait for that. Live every day like it’s your last.

 

 

 

 

 

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You Only Live Four Times!

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My brother David once told me that I was like a cat with 9 lives. He was talking about how I bounced back from failing at my first try at college and rebounded from devastating election defeats. I went on to finish college with honors and ultimately served in public office. Of course he didn’t know at the time that his comment also could have been about my battle with heart failure.

Taking a cue from Drake, I’ve taken on YOLO – You Only Live Once – as my motto for this fight, with a few adjustments along the way. First, I stayed alive after a heart attack in 2010. Second, I survived cardiac arrest when doctors shocked me back to life. Third, I lived to tell the tale of a summer on life support in the ICU due to a rare lung complication from the heart attack.

After that summer, I adopted YOLT – You Only Live Thrice (yes that’s a word) – as my rallying cry. For some reason, God has chosen me to stay around for a while. Not questioning His will, I’m just going with it. Last week, I added another life to my résumé. Now my motto is YOLF – You Only Live Four Times (weirdly, there’s no single word for the fourth time).

Boy do I have a story to tell…

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. This is great news! Getting on an organ transplant list is a rigorous process. The candidate has to have the odd combination of great health and a nearly inoperable heart. It requires a long evaluation period called the heart transplant workup, a comprehensive list of medical and mental health exams.

A key part of the workup is a procedure called the right heart catheterization – otherwise known as a right cath. It’s a procedure that measures lung pressure. This is critical to getting on the transplant list. A previous right cath showed that I had high lung pressure, not a good sign. After taking a new medication for a couple of months, the doctors wanted to check it again.

Heart catheterizations are common – according the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 1 million are done each year in the United States. To measure lung pressure, a heart surgeon inserts a wire called a Swan-Ganz through a small incision in the neck and into the arteries that connect the lungs and heart.

The procedure is done in a cold and sterile operating room. Lying on a narrow operating table, heated blankets kept me warm as the right cath team prepared for the procedure. To ensure the accuracy of the measurements, patients aren’t sedated.

With my head turned to the right, the team placed a small tarp-like covering over the right side of my head to give the doctor a clear view of my neck. I could see the nurse in front of me and hear the doctor and technicians behind me. The doctor explained the procedure and asked if I had any questions. Once the prep was complete, the doctor numbed my neck with local anesthetic.

Everything was going smoothly like the last time I underwent a right cath. I felt the doctor pushing on my neck as the he threaded the Swan-Ganz into my neck and arteries. Midway through the procedure, I felt a weird tickling sensation in my chest. It was like the wire was poking against the inside of my heart. I didn’t feel that the last time, so I told the doctor about the sensation.

Acknowledging my comment, the doctor described making an adjustment to the insertion and continued. The sensation started intensifying. Before I could relay this to the doctor, he announced to the team that he was pulling the wire out. He asked if I felt better and I responded, “yes.”

Suddenly, my heart started racing! I was taking shallow breaths and felt like I was sprinting. I heard the doctor shout, “Place the pads!” He then asked me, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” I was scared, but replied, “Yes, I’m still here.” For the first time in the 8 years since the heart attack, I believed that I was going to die.

With my eyes tightly shut, a million thoughts raced through my mind. The old tale that you “see your life flash before your eyes before dying” didn’t happen. I thought about my faith journey and God’s will. I worried that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Sandra and the girls. These thoughts swirled through my mind in a matter of a few seconds.

The doctor calmly said, “We’re going to give you a shock, Mr. García.” Then…POW!

Some have said that the shock of a heart defibrillator is like getting kicked in the chest by a donkey. I think my donkey was driving a car when it hit me. I felt a massive blow to the chest and saw a bright flash of light as my eyes opened. My body jumped off the table and I screamed “Oh, shit” and the F-word about 62 times (or something like that). I could feel the electric current from head to toe.

The doctor confirmed that my heart was back in rhythm. I was going to be okay. He repeatedly apologized for shocking me without sedation, but my heart rate was rising too fast. His action prevented me from going into potentially fatal cardiac arrest. Lying on the table, I was shaking like a scared Chihuahua and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. The nurses that rushed to the room covered me with heated blankets, held my hands, and comforted me.

When I calmed down, I too apologized for yelling out the F-word so many times. The team smiled and assured me that I just went through a traumatic experience. I asked for Sandra and Erica who were in the waiting room. The doctor went out to talk to Sandra and they came into see me shortly thereafter. I met them with a big smile to assure them.

The doctor sent me to the ICU so my cardiologist could determine if there was any damage to my heart. All tests came back negative. My heart just got annoyed with the intrusion at that moment and decided to send a strong message. I guess my heart is so moody sometimes.

God once again decided that it wasn’t my time. Seven hours after the shock, I agreed to go back in and finish the right cath procedure. I wasn’t nervous and I was no longer scared.

As St. Paul might say, I went back into that cold room with “faith, hope, and love.” The procedure was smooth, just like the other million or so that will be done this year. The result was another mini-miracle. My lung pressure decreased significantly with the new medication. My cardiologist was happily shocked (pun intended) with the results.

I checked off another part of the workup. I feel good. With the fourth life God has given, I will continue to do the things that I love: spending time with Sandra and supporting Marisa and Erica as they pursue their dreams, working to help east side kids and emerging community leaders, and taking daily walks to music that makes me smile.

For a few days after the shock, I was haunted by the words, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” At the time, I didn’t know if he was asking me if I was still alive or if I was still conscious. I kept hearing the question in my mind. Eventually I turned to my faith and realized that it didn’t matter what he meant. Faith gave me the courage to write this post.

The experience highlighted another lesson I have learned from this long journey. There’s a silver lining to every cloud. There are so many people enduring what I’m going through or suffering from cancer, depression, anxiety, a job loss, a broken marriage, and countless other life challenges.

For those who are going through tough times of your own, I encourage you to put your trust in faith, hope, and love.  Look for the silver linings. They’re there. They’ll help you carry on through the challenges. Trust me on this one.

By the way, if my brother is right, I still have 5 lives to go. Stay tuned!

Life is for Living!

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The García family this weekend at the Bay Bridge Series in Oakland

For the past four years, I’ve been taking you on a journey about a life-changing health crisis. The left side of my heart started failing 8 years ago after an artery called the widow-maker was 100% clogged. The result was a heart attack that inflicted massive damage to that side of the heart.

For 8 years, the healthy right side of my heart was compensating for the nearly inoperable left side. Now, the right side of my heart is starting to get tired. This was completely expected. Thankfully, it’s taken longer than doctors predicted. Nevertheless, we’re here now.

Three measurements tell the story of how my heart is working:

The first is the Ejection Fraction (EF), which calculates how efficiently the muscle over the left side of the heart pumps oxygenated blood to feed your other organs. Standard EF is 55-65%. My EF is 10%.

The second is called Cardiac Index. It’s a complicated formula that measures how well (or poorly) the blood flows from the left side of the heart to the body. Normal blood flow is 2.6 to 3.7 liters per minute. My Cardiac Index is 1.6.

The third is Pulmonary Hypertension (PH). This is blood pressure in the arteries that connect the right side of the heart to the lungs. The indicator is called Mean PH. A healthy Mean PH is 25-35. My Mean PH is 42.

To make a long story short, I’m getting sicker.

The right side of my heart is starting to fail. At the same time, God and I are getting tighter. I’m so grateful that my 8-year long spiritual journey has led me to this moment. He has taught me about hope, faith, and love. I’ve learned to fully acknowledge my circumstances and accept what He has given. I’m ready to take on the next phase of my life.

It was therapeutic to jot down my thoughts about the heart attack, the complications that left me in a medically-induced coma, and long rehab. As I wrote, my mind and soul opened to receive the gift of faith. I debated about writing about what’s next. Sharing my faith journey as it happens is inspiring, but I’m not so sure about writing about my ongoing health in the same way.

The inspiration for my story, Summer in the Waiting Room, has been to bring hope to individuals and families facing seemingly discouraging circumstances. With faith, family, and friends, I was able to overcome long odds and continue living a meaningful life. I hope sharing the next phase of my health journey in real time will encourage others confronting life-changing decisions.

Taking medications as prescribed, regular exercise, sticking to a healthy low-fat and low-salt diet, and great medical care has kept me alive and kicking since 2010. Sometime in the future, that regimen won’t work anymore. My heart has been a workhorse and it’s running out of steam. To address this reality, my cardiologist has laid out a few options.

The choices include a heart transplant, a mechanical pumping device, and continued adjustments to medications. Each alternative has its pros and cons. The first is wrought with potential complications, including rejection. The second is less invasive, but may require a dramatic change in lifestyle. The third is the least complicated and the least effective.

In the not so far future, I’ll have another set of life-changing decisions looking at me in the face. Spiritual soul-searching, doing homework on the options, and praying and consulting with Sandra, Marisa, and Erica is the game plan going forward. This is where faith steps in. With this in mind, I recently paid a visit to a parish monsignor who has become a dear friend.

The monsignor has always been available to guide me through my faith journey. He’s been along for the whole ride. He visited the hospital during that challenging summer 8 years ago to provide comfort, prayer, and guidance to Sandra, and the girls. As I outlined the decisions I’m soon to confront, he thoughtfully suggested a path for reflection.

We ended our visit with the Prayer for Discernment:

God our Father,
You have a plan for each one of us,
You hold out to us a future full of hope.

Give us the wisdom of your Spirit
so that we can see the shape
of your plan in the gifts
you have given us,
and in the circumstances
of our daily lives.

With a clear mind and a faithful heart, I’ve spent many hours reflecting on my circumstances and consulting with my family. Of the three choices that will define my future, I like one, I’m reluctant about another, and I’ve dismissed a third. The deliberations will continue with faith, family, and friends by my side.

The good news is that I have time. The decision isn’t imminent. My doctors had the foresight to begin the process early. I’ve taken a multitude of tests to determine my eligibility for a transplant or implantation of a mechanical device and I have a few more months of tests to go. Conditions have to be just right to get a positive recommendation from a committee of specialists and doctors.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to live the life that I love. As time goes by, fatigue will play a bigger role in how I do that, so I’ve learned how to better manage my energy. Mastering that has allowed me to carry on working my passion of advising Latino emerging community leaders and supporting east side high school kids. I still walk and exercise every day.

If I’ve learned anything from the past 8 years, dwelling on what went wrong is not the way to go. Life is for living. This past weekend, Sandra, Marisa, Erica, and I were together laughing, telling stories, and enjoying each other and extended family. I even got in a few dances as a DJ spun tunes at the Giants vs. A’s tailgate. It was a whirlwind weekend.

This morning my world is back to normal. I have lots to think about and more to be grateful for. There are serious decisions for me to make down the road. I want to do what’s best for me and my family. With their support and God’s guidance, I know it will all work out.

On another note, thank you for allowing me to share my story with you for the past four years. Sharing my thoughts has been a blessing to me. I hope it helps others facing similar life-changing decisions. Stay tuned. God willing, there’s a bunch more to come.

Finding True Happiness

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Kicking back on a summer day – 2018

I don’t think I’m a selfish person. Part of this assessment comes from my personality and part is my upbringing. Whether I offered to carry groceries into the house for my mom as kid or pulled the wagon of milk cartons to kindergarten class, I was always the boy that made himself available to lend a helping hand.

Growing up, the concept of needing something overshadowed wanting something. My parents provided everything I needed: unconditional love and support, food, shelter, clothing, and an occasional jelly donut from Peter’s Bakery. Unlike other kids, I didn’t have a Lite Bright set or electric race car track. That was okay by me.

I think I’ve been pretty unselfish as a man too. Nonetheless, I’ve done many selfish things in my life. I first started realizing this when I made the 6th grade basketball team. The kids who lived in the big houses “up the hill” wore red suede Nike high tops to match our uniforms. I wanted those shoes too.

The problem was that they cost $24 ($105 in today’s money). My parents couldn’t afford that, so the answer was “no.” It was the first time I remember feeling deep disappointment about not getting something. After wearing canvas basketball shoes for a couple of seasons, my mom saved enough money to buy the suede Nikes for my 8th grade year.

I had mixed feelings. I felt bad because I knew my mom sacrificed and scrimped to pay for them, yet I was happy because I got what I wanted. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get a part-time job. That way, I could get the things I wanted without having to ask my parents.

My parents’ insistence on working hard made sense. If I wanted something, all I had to do was work for it. There were a couple of hitches that my parents warned about. Getting what you want won’t necessarily make you happy and focusing on your desires can lead to selfishness. In hindsight, I should have paid better attention to those lessons.

After flunking out of college on my first try, I proceeded tirelessly to make amends. What I wanted was redemption from that failure. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would get what I wished for. With every new career accomplishment or material acquisition, I would soar with happiness. With each setback, I would dwell in self-pity and displeasure.

Not completely heeding my parents’ advice impacted me negatively. When I was happy, I was generous with my spirit and my time. When I was disillusioned, I could be selfish with my mood and attention. I wanted to be the best father, executive, husband, public servant. But, I was a slave to my wishes and justified it with my “successes.”

Most of us are under the impression that getting what we want leads to happiness. That belief drove my quest for redemption from that early failure in college and dominated the first few years of living with heart failure. Exploring faith has enlightened me about the intersection of selfishness and unhappiness.

Finding true happiness has been a result of my faith journey. I’ve become a big fan of St. Paul the Apostle along the way. His lessons on love are inspiring. Paul emphasizes that “love isn’t self-seeking.” He also teaches us that the path to true happiness is accepting that life isn’t about achieving and acquiring.

One could say that just prior to having a massive heart attack, I was a man that “had it all.” My life was full with a beautiful loving wife and two wonderful daughters, a career I couldn’t dream up as a kid, the stereotypical middle-class luxury car and nice house in a desirable neighborhood, lots of friends, and a future seemingly without limits.

I look back and now realize that I wasn’t really happy. I hadn’t been for most of adulthood. I was too busy trying to be successful, too busy looking for that magic bullet that leads to genuine contentment.

That didn’t mean there weren’t joyful times. Being with Sandra and the girls and giving back to the community as a corporate executive and public official made me happy. Unfortunately, those instances were short-term and the professional generosity had strings attached.

Psychologists call this circumstantial happiness. That was me. In fact, that’s most of us. Research published in Psychology Today shows that “happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next.” The pattern of unhappiness sprinkled with moments of joy started in college and continued well into my battle with heart failure.

Since my life altering illness, I spend most of my time alone. I had never done well by myself. Being around people is a big part of those happy times. Left alone with my thoughts, I sulked over the desire to return to my normal life. I wanted the exciting career back. I wanted to shoot hoops with the kids. I wanted to eat bad food. I wanted to dance with Sandra well into the night.

Then my outlook started changing. The more time I spent alone reflecting on life, the more I got to know myself. Despite my ambition, I wasn’t meant to be an executive that expects something in return for a good deal or a public official doing good works for votes and recognition. I was destined to be the same unselfish little boy that carried groceries for my mom, but in a man’s body.

True happiness is a state of mind. Like good art, you know it when you feel it. For the first time in my adult life, I’m truly happy. I still feel anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety. But those sensations are no longer the main event. They’re merely brief circumstantial encounters that interrupt my general state of contentment.

My existence and happiness aren’t dependent on getting what I want anymore. I accept all that I have and I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me, including the probability that my life expectancy isn’t promising. St. Paul helped me understand how I feel. While awaiting a death sentence, he wrote, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Yup, I get it now and I’m happy.

Why It Matters – New Blog Series

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Image by cbsnews.com

History matters. Politics matter.

You have to know a little bit about the first to better understand the second. American history is required for all high school students, but it could be pretty boring. “All men are created equal…“Four score and seven years ago…” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” Blah, blah, blah…YAWN!

I was one of those weird kids that loved history. I was so inspired by my high school teachers that I chose history as my college major. That led to a fascination in politics. I spent the next 25 years working in and around politics. It was an amazing and eye opening experience. That’s how I learned that you have to understand one to get the other.

Whether you hate Donald Trump or love him, we are at a crossroads in American history right now. Politics is why we’re in this uncomfortable state of affairs. History tells us that it didn’t start with Trump. Politics will ultimately show us the way out of this sticky situation. I want to share what I know about both to help those who want to make sense out of this mess.

I’m starting this blog series with that in mind. There are people who read my posts and might call me a “know-it-all.” That’s okay. I’m not and I don’t want to be. I’ve just had some educational and career experiences that have helped me appreciate how it works. It’s also given me the confidence that we’ll get through this interesting time as a nation.

Let’s kick-off with one of the president’s favorite rhetorical sayings, “If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.” Well, he’s missing the point. The United States of America isn’t just a country, it’s an idea. It proposes that people can be safe, prosperous, and happy if they are free. It’s one of the boldest ideas in human history. It was the first democracy in the modern world.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, those boring documents we were forced to study in class, layout the plan. The Preamble of the Constitution says it all. Check it out at:

https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/preamble

It’s a fancy 18th century way of saying that the United States government was set up to make sure that all people are treated fairly, protected from harm, offered equal opportunities, and guaranteed freedom. These are still pretty bold ideas. For the past 240-plus years, the government hasn’t always done that. Slavery, Native American genocide, and segregation are just a few examples of our government’s failures.

People have diverse viewpoints about how to accomplish these ideas. That’s where politics comes in. Politics is the art of figuring out how to make all this happen. The fact that people have different understandings, beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences is the reason why politics are so messy.

The Constitution, tradition, and our value system have always guided our leaders on how to resolve differences. Usually the formula works and sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t working very well right now. I’ll explore that next time.

Love is the Answer

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Artist and photo credit unknown

On June 7, 2010, God gave me a gift. It was totally unexpected. I didn’t put it on any wish list. There was no colorful wrapping paper. No pretty bow. It was wrapped in a massive heart attack and a summer in the ICU fighting for my life. Inside was the most amazing present imaginable. That night, God gave me the gift of more time.

The medical crisis and subsequent diagnosis of heart failure slowed my life down so much that I have time to reflect about what it all means. Trying to understand why these kinds of things happen can drive a person crazy or it could lead one to acceptance and true enlightenment. After a few years of dwelling on the “what ifs,” I decided to accept the offering. It’s been a gift that keeps on giving. I learn something new every day.

As I moved along my faith journey, I wondered if there would be an “aha” moment, a thunderbolt of illumination that explained everything. The more time I spent thinking about faith, however, the more unlikely it appeared that there would be that magic moment. It turns out that understanding and fully accepting God’s will is a process. Although I yearned for something, anything, to tie it all together, it didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

Then it happened about three weeks ago, suddenly and without warning. The clouds opened up and… No, not really. Actually it was a sunny day.

Nevertheless, the “aha” moment had arrived. I heard God’s voice. It came by way of singer Dionne Warwick.

Let me explain…

I once thrived on working in organized chaos and seat of the pants decision-making. My life now depends on routine to maximize energy. Each day starts off with a bowl of oatmeal, fruit, and juice. After gulping a handful of pills, I go out for my daily walk to McDonalds to sip a decaf and read the latest book that has piqued my interest. I’m currently reading a comprehensive bio on Alexander Hamilton.

I take the same route every day. It’s about 2 miles round trip. I split the walk into three phases: 6 minutes to my dear friend Vanessa’s house, 6 more minutes to the small bridge that crosses a creek onto the Evergreen Valley College campus, and 5 minutes through a field to my regular seat at McDonalds.

After retracing my steps home, I take a shower and start my day working on consulting and volunteer projects. I take breaks throughout the day to check in on cable news.

During my walks, I listen to different genres of music. On any given day, anything could come out through the earphones. I’ve even acquired a taste for English baroque. Usually, I choose a theme before hiking down the street. It could be Handel or Sinatra one day and Shakira or Drake the next. It might be a week of norteño, tejano conjunto, and mariachi or a few days of old school funk and 60s pop.

That’s where Dionne Warwick comes in. That day three weeks ago, I strolled to my coffee hangout listening to classic Burt Bacharach and Hal David music. Somewhere between Vanessa’s house and the bridge, the Warwick hit, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” blasted in my ears. Those of you in my age group probably heard this tune when Jerry Lewis used to announce the amount of money raised for muscular dystrophy at the end of his annual Labor Day telethons.

As I reminisced about those days, an overwhelming sense of happiness washed over me. It wasn’t a specific memory that triggered the sensation. This time was different. It was a feeling I had never experienced. Rather than temporary elation that comes with a happy moment, this feeling was warm and secure. I felt a powerful sense of balance and pure joy. I replayed the song again and again.

I listened to the words closely as I walked. Warwick was telling God that the world had plenty of mountains, rivers, and natural beauty. The world needed more love, she sang out.

There it was. My “aha” moment! God was speaking to me through Dionne Warwick’s angelic voice. Love was…is…the answer. That’s the secret to faith.

Love comes in many forms. There’s the caring love a parent has for a child or the passionate romantic love we have for significant others. We love our brothers, sisters and friends, but in different ways. Then there’s the kind of love for inanimate objects. I love Maui Zowie pizza and the squeaking sound sneakers make when rubbing against a basketball floor.

The love that enveloped me on that walk three weeks ago was different. It was Divine love. The unconditional love that God and the universe have for all living things. St. Paul the Apostle wrote about this kind of love in a letter to the Corinthians. If you’ve ever been to a Christian wedding, you’ve heard it.

After listening to the song and reading Hal David’s lyrics for what seemed like the hundredth  time, I reviewed St. Paul’s letter over and over. Each time I read it, the words jumped off the page:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

That’s the answer! That’s the key to faith. That’s the foundation of true happiness and joy. It’s simple, yet complex.

Raised in the cocoon of my childhood, I felt that kind of love as a kid. My parents loved me without condition and I returned the devotion. The first few years of adulthood slapped me around. That’s when it dawned on me that not everyone lived in the same space. Calluses formed around my soul as a protective measure. My inner core felt love while my outer shell sensed danger.

Like everyone, I want to be happy. As a boy, I was content with just being. That’s what St. Paul wrote about and God teaches us. As a man, I sought happiness in other ways. After an initial failure at college, I worked hard to overcome the feelings of hopelessness. Accomplishment brought superficial and temporary happiness, so I worked harder. Living at warp speed soothed the scabs that covered my sores.

My parents, Sandra, the girls, and those close to me have taught me so much about love. That fulfilled my inner core. When the heart attack changed my life, the scabs that protected me from the outside world peeled off. The inability to work without fatigue, rack up accomplishments, and attend non-stop social events left me bare.

My faith journey has taught me that all of those external things that made me happy were self-centered. [Love] does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. To feed the addiction, I thought I needed more. What I really needed was hiding inside me, unafraid of exposure. [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

This truth started becoming apparent that summer in the waiting room. While I fought for my life in a medically-induced coma a few doors away in the ICU, God taught me that love would save the day. When I foolishly tried to go back to work and my world collapsed, God strengthened my circle of love. The love that inhabited my soul since childhood chipped away at the protective armor built by years of living and working in an unforgiving world.

As each day wore on, my faith grew stronger and hope became more authentic. The love that filled that little’s boy’s soul so many years ago edged closer to the surface left raw by heart disease. Without the layers of distractions that work, constant social interaction, and pats in the back provided, I patiently sought the answer to happiness. God gave me the answer through the music in my heart and in my earphones. Hal David and Dionne Warwick delivered His message.

I’m not naïve. The world is a tough place. The notion of Divine love is nothing more than a heaping mound of idealistic mush to some people. But happiness isn’t about how others show their love to you. It’s about sharing your love with others. [Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered. That’s the secret sauce.

God’s gift to me on June 7, 2010, has been an amazing journey. I have some work to do to fully appreciate all that He has offered. I’m still working on forgiving the perceived offenses against me. [Love] keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. I’m beginning to understand that I should be grateful for those unfortunate events in my life. They are part of the story that defines who I am. 

The journey has had many peaks and valleys. There are times when I want to give up. I now know that Divine love won’t allow me to do that. God has put me on a steady course. St. Paul put it all in perspective in Chapter 1; Verse 13 of his letter in to the Corinthians.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

***

Listen to Dionne Warwick – What the World Needs Now Is Love

 

Eight Years and Counting

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Eddie García  – June 7, 2018

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“Estimates suggest 50 percent of individuals diagnosed with heart failure survive at least five years, and 10 percent survive at least 10 years.”

Circulation Research Journal, August 2013

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Eight years ago today, after a massive heart attack killed off most of my heart muscle, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure (CHF). If you believe the data published in the medical journal Circulation Research, it looks like I’m in pretty good company. Each day that I get, I try to do all I can to keep it that way.

I’ve done everything my cardiologist has recommended. I gave up eating food that I love. I take a handful of pills every day. There are no more pre-games, all-nighters, or nightcaps for me. I can no longer work the 70 hours a week that once kept my professional life exciting and challenging. I don’t shoot hoops or workout to near exhaustion in the gym anymore. Staying alive requires a lot of just saying no.

Doctors tell me that my full commitment to a low-sodium diet, daily moderate exercise, low-stress activities, and a strict medicine regimen explains why I continue to beat the odds of CHF mortality rates. My cardiologist has played a key role in keeping me ahead of the game. She’s amazing. We work as a team to make adjustments to address any changes in my heart my function.

There’s also the impact on mental health, especially for those with Type A personalities. A recent article published in the journal Medscape states that, “Depression in CHF patients has been described as a temporary or chronic mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, loneliness, despair, low self-esteem, and self-reproach.” Because CHF has put extreme limitations on my life, I’ve been there and done that for most of the past 8 years.

Through all of this, here I stand celebrating my 8th Re-Birthday. This one’s sweeter than the 7 that came before it for a variety of reasons. The most important being that, for the past year, I’ve really gotten to know myself, the genuine me underneath the calluses and scabs caused by 54 years of living.

God gave me a gift on June 7, 2010. I didn’t realize it then. In fact, it’s taken most of the last 8 years to truly understand that the events of that day were just the beginning of an amazing voyage. That awful heart attack and the subsequent side-effects that kept me hanging on for life in the ICU that summer were merely the first stops on a long journey of acceptance, self-rediscovery, and faith.

My youth was awesome, period. My older siblings said I was a happy kid that loved life. School, sports, part-time jobs, and friends were the foundation of my world. As a young man, self-perceived disappointments in life and in love led me to spend the rest of my life running from failure demons. Dwelling on those early defeats kept fueling my drive to “succeed.” By my mid-40s, I worked harder than anyone else I knew. I was looking for redemption for life’s letdowns.

Since nearly working myself to death, I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years trying to understand what it all means. That’s the gift God gave to me. He’s given me the time to reflect and think about what really matters. It’s funny what facing mortality and living with less will do to a person. It can break someone not willing to accept the gift or it can uplift those who take advantage of the offering.

This gift has been an arduous and sometime frustrating excursion. There have been steep hills to climb, and wide turns and tight corners to manage. There have been roadblocks and rockslides that forced me to go in another direction. Just when the sailing seemed smooth, winds laden with questions would push me off course.

I use the gift of thought and reflection every day now. At first, I questioned God: Why did this health catastrophe happen to me? What was I supposed to do with this new life defined by limitations? What happens next? There were no apparent or immediate answers, so I moved along the road of discovery.

The path took me in different directions until I came to the trailhead of faith. I followed the trail by reading the Prophets, Jesus and his Disciples, Mohammed, Buddha, and Gandhi. They helped me understand faith. Through them, I learned that there are no answers, because THAT is the answer. I accepted that what had happened was God’s will and resolved to make the best of it.

Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, God has blessed me with the chance to look back and see how beautiful my life has really been. Seeing this through a clear and pure lens, I’ve discovered that beneath five decades of soot is the same happy boy who loves life. It’s only better now. This time, I’m learning about the true meaning of love.

More on that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“No Mutha%#$@&*, You Can’t Have a Hot Dog!” – A new excerpt from Summer in the Waiting Room

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Image by Bitmoji

Author’s Note: The following passage is an excerpt from the Part 3 of my book “Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.”

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After returning home from the hospital, I went to a class to learn how to live a full life with a compromised heart. The topics included information about how the heart works, suggestions for healthy living, exercises that strengthen the heart muscle without adding stress to it, and facts about the different medications necessary to keep the heart functioning.

The material for the six-week program was delivered by nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, physical therapists, and other content experts in a classroom setting. At 46, I was clearly the youngest of the 30 or so participants in a class of mostly ornery and impatient 70 and 80 year-olds set in their ways and grumbling about aches and pains.

Learning about a heart-healthy diet was enlightening. The standard information about avoiding fatty and fried foods, red meat, and processed sugars was like a review of a basic nutrition class. The reason and importance of staying away from salt was the most informative part of the program. To understand why this is important, we learned about how the heart works for someone with congestive heart failure.

A simple definition of congestive heart failure is a weakness of the heart that leads to a buildup of fluid in the lungs and surrounding body tissues. Blood from the lungs enters the lower left heart chamber to send oxygenated blood into the body to feed its muscles and organs. A massive heart attack kills off muscle that’s necessary to keep the organ pumping efficiently. The end result is that the blood that’s left in the chamber has nowhere to go. In extreme cases like mine, the blood backs up into the lungs, causing shortness of breath and more stress on the heart.

Salt enters the picture because it’s consumption leads to fluid retention. For someone with congestive heart failure, a weak lower left heart muscle and fluid retention make for a dangerous situation. Weight gain from fatty foods and water retention from salty foods is a deadly formula. What I learned in the nutrition section of the class has literally saved my life and kept me out of the hospital.

To understand how the dynamic works is to understand the numbers. The Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA) recommendation for daily sodium intake (the official term for salt) is 2,400 milligrams. For congestive heart failure patients, the recommended daily amount of sodium intake is 1,500 milligrams. Processed food, fast food, and most restaurant meals are unusually high in sodium.

For context, a typical dinner at the Olive Garden Restaurant demonstrates how much sodium is in the food we eat. My favorite meal there was the chicken parmigiana with pasta, one serving of pasta e fagioli soup, a couple of breadsticks and Diet Cokes, and cheesecake and coffee for dessert. Total sodium intake for that one meal is over 5,500 milligrams, nearly four times the daily allowance for someone with heart failure.

Sodium hides in unexpected places. Bread, dairy products, sauces, condiments, cold cuts, hot dogs, baked goods, and cured meats should be avoided for heart-healthy eating. Hot dogs? Really? One of my favorite vices is a Mark’s hot dog with everything on it. What has become known to my family as the “No Muthafucka, You Can’t Have a Hot Dog” story is a rallying cry for me to maintain a disciplined low-salt diet.

It all started the day the class learned about a heart-healthy diet. The nutritionist began by talking about the evils of common unhealthy foods for the heart. During the discussion about the ills of fried foods and fatty red meat, the presenter mentioned hot dogs while listing the “no-nos” for heart failure patients. There was a gasp and an immediate reaction from my elderly classmates.

The sound in the room was filled with murmurs and hands shot up into the air as people started asking questions. “Why are hot dogs bad for you?” “Do I have to stop eating hot dogs?” “Where can you buy low sodium hot dogs?”

The nutritionist went on to breakdown the sodium intake of a basic hot dog. Frankfurter: 600 milligrams. Bun: 200 milligrams. Relish: 120 milligrams. Mustard: 60 milligrams; Ketchup: 160 milligrams. The grand total: 1,140 milligrams for a regular old hot dog with relish, mustard, and ketchup. That was more than two full meals of the daily allowance for heart failure patients. The conclusion was to stay away from hot dogs.

There was a revolt!

The questions came fast and furiously. “What about low sodium franks?” “Buns?” “Relish?” “Ketchup?” My classmates started exchanging ideas. “You can buy low-sodium ketchup at Whole Foods,” said a visibly upset woman. “I’ll just eat the hot dog and bun without condiments,” shouted a distinguished-looking, but  irritated gentleman.

Despite the efforts of the presenter, hot dogs dominated the remainder of the session on nutrition. I learned a couple of things that day. First, grilling a few hot dogs isn’t such a good idea if you want to stay away from the emergency room. Second, don’t mess with the old folks’ hot dogs.

The hot dog saga finally came to an end when the nutritionist calmed the crowd down by promising to bring the issue back up for discussion at another time. That other time came three weeks later during the summary session. In addition to the content experts, a cardiologist participated in the class.

The hour included a review of everything needed for living a healthy lifestyle with congestive heart failure. The class began with the cardiologist recommendation to have a disciplined exercise and medication regimen, avoid stress, and eat a heart-healthy diet. A 75 year-old woman sitting next to me named Ruth raised her hand within seconds of the doctor completing his opening statement.

Ruth had been my seat neighbor for the entire program. She was a nice grandmotherly woman who loved cooking, hated exercise, and planned little changes to her life. She half-jokingly told me that she never exercised a day in her life and saw no reason to start. Furthermore, she couldn’t imagine changing her diet.

“It’s worked for me so far,” she snickered. “Look at you. You’re young, you exercised regularly, and you’re here with us too,” she ribbed me with a mischievous smile. She had a point. If I had lived a long life before the heart attack, I probably would have the same outlook.

When the doctor called on Ruth, she asked the question that was on everyone’s lips. “Doctor, is it true that we can’t eat hot dogs?” The room erupted in a buzz of activity. Heads nodded in agreement. Others raised their hands as well to add their two cents. The chaos that ensued three weeks earlier was starting to bubble up again.

I chuckled to myself, amazed at the emotional appeal of hot dogs. I get it though. Hot dogs played a major role in my life. My mind wandered for a split second to the time at Mark’s Hot Dogs when I had asked Sandra to get married. While my classmates prepared for battle over hot dogs, I reminisced about that magical night in east San Jose.

This hot dog madness had to end. I felt like standing up and saying, “no muthafucka…you can’t have a hot dog!” in my best Richard Pryor imitation. Of course, I didn’t do it. But as I was laughing at my own joke amid the commotion in the room, the doctor put the matter to rest. “No,” he said. “You shouldn’t eat hot dogs.” The doctor had spoken. The revolt had ended.

The last time I had a hot dog was before June 7, 2010.

The Road to Faith: Part 2 – More on Gratitude

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Image by thewordsprite.com

The other day, Sandra and I were talking about the biblical story of Job. It’s a tale of a man who literally had everything. Faith, integrity, good health, vast wealth, and a loving family brought him joy and happiness. God decided to test his faith and allowed Satan to take everything away. Job became a broken man who lost faith and complained about the injustice that was done to him. Feeling sorry for himself, he went on a journey of despair questioning God.

He reached out to others to find comfort and justification for his sorrows. Although they tried to be helpful, the others lacked faith themselves and only made Job’s troubles seem deeper. Ultimately, he found faith by accepting what he couldn’t control, expressing gratitude, and serving God by praying for the non-believers. He learned life’s greatest lesson. Achieving success through hard work wasn’t enough. Faith was the key to peace and happiness.

I’ve been on a similar spiritual journey for almost eight years searching for answers to my lot in life. I’ve always admired people like my mom and Sandra who rely on faith to guide them. They understand something I don’t. To change that, I reflected on my own Jobian journey.

 

My life sailed along smoothly for the first 19 years until I flunked out of college. I felt sorry for myself and sulked my way to dead end jobs and a hard-partying existence. I rebounded a few years later to finish college and start a career. I learned my first life lesson (or so I thought): It’s all about hard work and getting ahead. I pledged never to fail again.

I married the love of my life, bought a home, and experienced the elation of being a father when our first daughter was born. I was on solid ground and poised to make a big move when my dad died. I took on the challenge of a lifetime by running for public office. I lost the election. After my second daughter was born, I ran again and lost again. Two years later, the third time wasn’t the charm. That was three crushing election losses in six years.

Through their faith, my mom and Sandra tried to reassure me that it wasn’t my time yet. “Be grateful for your family,” they counseled. “Your time will come.” I tried to be grateful, but I yearned for more. I learned my second life lesson (or so I thought): It’s not just about working hard. It’s about working smart too. I realized that I wasn’t ready for public life, so I needed to prepare. I decided to do everything with a strategic purpose.

My plan was to build a career as a successful corporate executive and run for public office again when the time was right. During that time, my mom and big sister passed away. Losing both of them in the same year was devastating. I learned my third life lesson (or so I thought): Life is a mixed bag, so working harder and smarter was the answer. Focusing on my professional goals went into overdrive.

At work, I rose from manager to director to vice president in six years. I served on several community and non-profit boards to raise my public profile. In 2006, the high school board of trustees appointed me to an open seat. My plan was working. I left the corporate world for a leadership role in local politics. I was on the way to my ultimate career goal. With each accomplishment, I inched closer to self-fulfillment and the happiness that would surely come along.

On June 6, 2010, I was on top of the world. Everything was falling into place. The next day changed my life. First, a massive heart attack nearly killed me. Then I went into cardiac arrest. A rare lung condition caused by a crippling side effect almost finished me off. This time around, the third time was the charm. I survived. I was alive.

When I awoke from a medically induced coma later that summer, I was paralyzed from  the sleeping medicine and a couple of months in the intensive care unit. I worked hard to recover. After a year of intense rehabilitation, I went back to work. Things went well for a while until disaster struck again. My career came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end. I had a mortgage, two daughters in college, and bills piling up. I was lost and unsure about the future.

Questions came rushing into my consciousness like a raging river. WHY did I fail at college? WHY did I spiral into alcohol-fueled darkness after that failure? WHY did I lose my parents when I needed stability? WHY did I fail at elective politics? WHY did I have a massive heart attack? WHY did my lungs stop working? WHY did my career end so suddenly and painfully? WHY me? WHY? WHY? WHY?

I turned to Sandra, therapy, our parish priest, and the bookshelves looking for answers. Jesus, the Prophets, Muhammed, Buddha, Ghandi, Mother Teresa all talked about the same thing: acceptance of God’s will, gratitude for the tools He gave you, and using your tools to serve others in His name was the secret to understanding faith. I’ve taken many long walks reflecting and analyzing all that I’ve learned.

I slowed down to appreciate everything around me. For the first time, I heard birds chirping and singing outside of my bedroom window. Slowly and surely, I began to accept the course my life has taken.

I’ve accepted my college failure, thankful that being more mature improved the experience. I’ve accepted that the party years were a reality, grateful that Sandra entered my life during that time. I’ve accepted my parent’s early demise, indebted to the values they bestowed on me. I’ve accepted my election losses, appreciating the resilience the defeats built in my character.

I’ve accepted that the medical crisis during the horrendous summer of 2010 has left me unable to live the life I dreamed up for myself. Through it all, I’m sure many wouldn’t blame me if I lived a bitter life without gratitude. My thankfulness, however, is overflowing. I’ve surrendered to God’s will, grateful for what He has given to me, rather than waging a futile fight for what I wanted.

In addition to the miracle of life, God has given me an abundance of tools to serve Him. Sandra and the girls sustain my life and give me hope to carry on. I have a wonderful extended family that brings joy and happiness to my life. I have good friends that inspire me every day. With these tools, I want to give hope to others by telling my story. I’m sure this was the real plan all along.

Thanks to faith, family, and friends, I’ve learned life’s greatest lesson. It’s all about faith.

The Road to Faith: Part 2 – Gratitude

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My mom – Marie R. García – 1930-2003

In my last post, I began sharing my journey to understanding faith. It’s been an amazing voyage of discovery caused by a life changing heart attack and lung complication. Along the way, I’ve come to learn that faith is accepting God’s will, being grateful for what you have, and serving others. It took a major life event to get me on the road to spiritual discovery. On the road to enlightenment, I discovered that my mom had always understood what I sought to understand.

When I was a kid, she taught us to say, “thank you, God, and thank you, mom” after every meal. Of course, I understood why I was thanking mom. She cooked the meals. The real reason for thanking God never really dawned on me. It was a ritual, I thought, like everything else about church: sitting and standing at the appropriate times, praying the “Our Father,” taking Communion, and reciting responses after the priest gave a blessing.

For my mom, all of these actions and words were rooted in her deep faith. Through the course of a day, you could hear her say, “si Dios quiere” (God willing), “gracias a Dios” (thank God), and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you), as part of any kind of discussion she was having with someone. Those weren’t mere sayings to her. She was a person who put herself in God’s hands. She was patient, understanding, and thoughtful no matter the situation, good or bad.

And, she was grateful. As I became older and more financially secure, I started to notice the beautiful simplicity of her life. Her children and grandchildren were her prized “possessions.” When we bought our homes and filled them with, in her words, “nice things,” she beamed with pride. When she passed away, she had the same round kitchen table, simple living room furniture, basic dinette, and plain bedroom set that I remember as a boy. She appreciated every bit of it. I never heard her yearn for more or complain about what she didn’t have.

While tirelessly climbing the corporate ladder trying to redeem myself from life’s “failures,” I found time to visit my mom in the morning on the way to work about once a week. I loved to see her eyes brighten and the smile on her face when she opened the door. She would give me a warm hug before escorting me to that old round table in the kitchen so she could fix breakfast for me.

I felt safe in the comfortable cocoon of 48 Viewmont Avenue. With a plate of papas and a couple of over-easy eggs, a cup of coffee, and warm tortillas in front of me (she usually didn’t eat), mom would want to hear about the girls and ask me to regale her with tales about my business travels. She wanted to hear all about places she had never visited: Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Her favorite stories were my descriptive narratives about the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House. She always thanked me saying how much she would love to see those places someday, “si Dios quiere.” After saying “thank you God, and thank you mom,” I would head for the front door to walk out into the wild and wooly world that was my life. With a hug, she said, “have a good day mijo, que Dios te bendiga, give my love to my babies,” and sent me on my way.

Gratitude, and its connection to contentment, is the foundation of almost every religious and spiritual movement in the world. Fredrick Koeing, an 18th century inventor, put it this way, “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” The concept is simple. To live a happy and fulfilling life, one only has to be truly thankful for all that God has provided.

My mom understood that. She lived that. I really believe that she had a happy and fulfilling life. The struggles of living and the heartbreak of losing loved ones didn’t deter her from being grateful. She didn’t know her father, and experienced the grief of losing a daughter, her husband, and her mother. She wasn’t surrounded with “nice” things and she never visited the places she dreamed about. Nevertheless, she was truly thankful for what she had and appreciated every day of life God gave to her.

In my obsessive pursuit of redemption from failure, I believed that I would find true happiness and fulfillment. With each accomplishment, I thought I was taking another step toward that special place. All the while, I never once stopped to reflect and appreciate what God had given to me. I single-mindedly marched forward to reach for additional professional responsibilities, a bigger office, more prestigious titles, and showed my appreciation by acquiring “nice things” for me and my family.

I didn’t understand what it meant to be grateful the way my mom understood it. It would take a life-threatening medical crisis to feel the grace of God the way my mom did. I hope to share more about my faith and the power of gratitude in future posts, “si Dios quiere.” Stay tuned!