At 1:41PM on June 10th, 2012, Jose Garcia passed away at 81-years-old after struggling with lung cancer for over a year. He was a lifelong smoker, a headstrong entrepreneur, a Cubs fan, a womanizer, and — most notably — he was my father.
That last one almost always throws people for a loop when they hear it because of our age difference — he was 55 years and 359 days my elder. He had met my mother shortly after she moved to Chicago from El Salvador in 1983, herself only 28-years-old at the time. I was born four years thereafter, and they were married shortly after that. For my mom it was her first and only marriage; it was my father’s sixth.
Suffice it to say, my old man had as many bad qualities as he had good, just like any other person, although he had a way of pronouncing his a little more than the rest of us. His friends, knew him best as the highly-successful businessman who’d started several businesses — including one of the most highly-rated and successful Mexican restaurants in Chicago, half a block south of Wrigley Field — on a third-grade education. (My mom played a large role in keeping the restaurant as lucrative as it was, but everything before that — a cigarette vending machine business and several real estate properties — were the product of his remarkable ingenuity.)
They didn’t know him as his family did, though, and we knew his many accomplishments hadn’t come easily. Born in San Antonio in 1931, his life was a continuous uphill battle. My grandfather was apparently a hard man to live with, driving my father to leave at a remarkably young age. He wound up in Chicago, and eventually he would pay for his mother Dolores and his sister Otilia to join him once he could afford it. Both would eventually wind up in a nursing home, where my mom apologetically visited far more regularly.
His business didn’t leave us with a lot of quality time together, and in the end we didn’t exactly have the best father-son relationship. I didn’t much care for the way he would hit me over the head with a flashlight after I’d disassembled it before he was done using it, or with his diamond-studded ring. I didn’t care for how he drunkenly yelled at me for procrastinating and pulling an all-nighter on a class project in high school, to the point that we nearly came to blows and causing my mom to cry. I particularly disliked the way my mom found out he’d been fooling around with another woman, forcing her to kick him out for good.
The couple of years following that were tense, with everyone still at home carrying a resentment towards him, especially me. Slowly we all came to forgive him, and the separation seemed to make him realize what he’d squandered. That meant a lot of awkward dinners making forced conversation, and those dinners never really stopped being awkward, but it was better than what we had before.
Eventually, his lifelong habit of going through two or more packs of unfiltered Camels — from his teenage years until he’d finally quit two years ago — caught up to him, and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. That fact didn’t quite hit me until we visited him after he’d gone in for surgery, removing much of one of his lungs. It hit me again when we visited again months later, after he’d suffered a setback and he lied in the hospital bed hopped up on morphine, grabbing at whatever it was that he was hallucinating. It hit me one last time when they’d set up his hospice care at the relative’s place at which he was staying; watching his condition deteriorate with each visit was brutal.
I didn’t say much of anything whenever I visited him those final months. I think that everyone there, including my mom and brother, simply thought that I didn’t feel like saying anything. It was partly because this was more awkward than any dinner we could ever have, with each “How are you feeling?” coming off as absolutely asinine when directed at a man who could barely stand on his own strength. Mostly, though, it had to do with the fact that this man, my father, this symbol of strength my whole life for better and for worse, was crumbling before my very eyes. For the first time in my life, I’d felt sad for him.
It’s been a couple of days since he passed, surrounded by many of those closest to him. I’ve looked through a bunch of old photos in preparation for the wake on Friday, and it’s clear that, deep down, he loved everyone in his life a whole helluva lot, even if he wasn’t always very good at expressing it.
To me, that’s the saddest thing of all.