It was a vacation to my homeland to renew my spirit in the mountains of New Mexico, appropriately named for the blood of Christ for their reddish tint at certain times of the day. It was certainly that, but the greater inspiration came from a visit to a cousin suffering from cancer of the pancreas.
The day my wife, Penny; my son, Jim; and I came to see Jose Perea, he had just been to the doctor, who told him that the chemotherapy was no longer working. But back home, he was as cheerful as in the best of times. He said he asked the doctor if he could travel to a casino in the Denver area.
"He told me I can do anything I want because I cannot take my money with me," Jose said. "But, you know, I think he is wrong. Before I die, I am going to write a check to myself, and I am going to have it in my hand when that moment comes," he said.
We talked about a cruise we had taken together to Alaska and the laughs we shared then and at other times. We saw in him a spirit that throughout a hard life never gave in to despair.
He was an orphan whose first childhood memory was of his mother dying of tuberculosis when he was 4 years old. Afterward, he was shuffled from one grandfather to another, to an aunt and even to a cousin.
When he was 12, he was back again living with Grandfather Perea. Grandmother Josefita had died and his grandpa had remarried, but his new wife did not want Jose.
So at the age of 13, Grandfather Perea told him: "You have to go. I suggest you go to Colorado. There is much work there. We do not have the money to pay your fare, but you can go to the Labor Department and enlist."
But first he taught Jose some survival skills. "He took a piece of canvas and told me to get a shirt, a pair of trousers, socks and a toothbrush. Then he taught me how to fold them into a bedroll," Jose recalled.
From then on, he was on his own, working in the onion fields in Colorado, as an attendant in the state mental hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he had to lie about his age to be hired, and going to high school at the same time.
At 17, he enlisted in the Army after a tragic accident in which his car lost a wheel, killing his cousin, Henry, his closest friend. In Korea, his unit was approaching the Yalu River when a million Chinese invaded. He spent six months in the front lines simply because his superiors forgot about him.
Back home safe, he worked his way through college to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and finally a doctorate in education. He worked as a university professor, vice president of a branch of Community College of Denver and superintendent of public schools in Vaughn and Las Vegas, New Mexico.
He and his wife, Stella, raised six children, among them a teacher, pharmacist, manufacturing equipment technician, systems engineer and a publisher. At 84, Jose can certainly look back to a rewarding life.
After our visit, Jose was able to go to Denver, where three of my brothers, two sisters, wives and husbands, my cousin, Teddy, and her son, Harold, and friends welcomed him with a nice reception.
The unwanted orphan had created a family that extended beyond his own loving sons and daughters to relatives and beyond. He said: "Whatever God has in store for me, I know it will be for the best."
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.