My stepfather died this morning. He is no longer suffering. He is no longer in pain. He is at peace. Yet he is gone.
I saw him yesterday and now he is gone. I spent a good part of the day crying with my mother, but also celebrating his time here. Sharing stories, knowing he wouldn’t want us to be sad, and though I will grieve with my mother, and will probably have a number of breakdowns in the moments when I’m reminded of him–the first birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas when he won’t be there–I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that even for a brief while, I was privileged to call this man my father.
I am grateful that my mother found the love of her life and got to spend 18 years with him.
I am grateful for how much he taught me about loving people, about humility, about how to be a human being in this world. Because he wasn’t only my father, he was a mentor, a teacher, a friend.
The picture above is of the school that bears his name. Yes, you have that correct. My stepfather has a school named after him. The Charles F. Fernandez Center for Alternative Learning. I could give you a list of all of the awards he has received over the years, but they’re too numerous to count, so I’ll just link to a few so you get the picture:
Perhaps what encapsulates him the most, is a clip from this video when he is asked how being an OVEA Gold Honoree (a national award given to the volunteer of the decade) made an impact on your life and work as a volunteer, he said, “When you’re doing something for your fellow man–that has made me conscious of the fact that that’s what it’s really all about. Being able to help others. And it has given me the incentive to continue to improve the work that I do and also to get others involved in this.”
To those who knew my stepfather, they knew of his humility, and if he were alive today, he would be embarrassed knowing how much I’m gushing about him right now, but the lives he has saved, the hours of his life he devoted to helping others, myself included, I want not to go unacknowledged. He will never be famous, but I’ve said it before, if a person’s worth was measured in how many lives they’ve impacted or saved, he’d be a billionaire many times over.
Though he was an agnostic, he was the most Christ-like man I’d ever met. I remember the stories he’d tell me of visiting the juvenile detention center working with at-risk teenagers and how years later they’d turned their lives around. I remember the pile of what we’d call “prison candy” by the door that he would take every time he’d visit a new juvenile offender because oftentimes it was a way to get them to talk to him and to trust him. Simply by taking them candy, listening, and asking nothing of them other than to know that he was there for them and would help them in any way he could. Prison candy. That was Charlie.
I remember all of the people in hospital beds, unable to speak English, who were able to get relief by having him there to ask questions to their doctor when he was regularly interpreting there and in the court system. Getting calls at midnight when someone was in labor and driving in total darkness to help a woman deliver her baby and calm her in those intense moments when you want and need to know what’s happening but cannot express those needs because you and your doctor cannot communicate.
And I remember living at home every summer during graduate school to save money and having lunch with him discussing how best to reform education, how to be a good mentor, teacher, and role model. I will forever treasure those hours long discussions with a man so wise who, well in his 80s, still wanted to make the world a better place. I think that’s why he lived as long as he did. He just had too much work to do–too many lives to make better.
I am the teacher I am because of my stepfather. I am the person I am because of my stepfather. Though we share no DNA, at times I have felt closer to him than anyone biologically related to me. He loved me like I was one of his own and was the father I always wished I’d had.
I will miss him. I miss him so much already. But I miss the man you see in that video, and as anyone who has seen someone in their last days knows, that man has been gone for some time. The man who was dying was suffering–surely depressed because the one thing that gave him such joy–helping others–he could no longer do. He couldn’t drive, he was home bound, deteriorating, and ready for the labored breathing to stop. For his stomach to no longer feel nauseous every day. For the hurting to end. He was ready, and now he is at peace. I know he never believed in a God, but as a Christian, if there is a heaven, I’d like to think the God I pray to has already opened the gates and welcomed him with open arms.
Today we lost a great man. A man I wish more had the opportunity to know. I’ve met very few people in my lifetime that have dedicated their entire existence to making life better for other people.
But in darkness there is such beauty. In the kindness of neighbors and loved ones and friends who have already expressed such profound love and respect for my stepfather and well wishes and prayers for my mother and our family. Just today a woman he helped years ago sent her daughter to deliver tamales to my mother. A childhood friend of mine came over with food and stayed with me and my mother while we drank tea and talked about life, death, sadness, grief, and how to get through this dark time as he experienced something much more tragic very recently.
I write this as I write most of my pieces because they give me a sense of catharsis. I want people to know the man he was and appreciate the incredibly large footprint he’s left on this world through the ripples of everyone he’s touched. I also write this because I know I will be too much of a mess to give an actual eulogy at his service.
And I don’t want your condolences, or sympathy–I truly wrote this for myself, to process what I’m feeling right now and to pay homage to the man who has had such a profound impact on me and so so many others. But I will say this. If I had one more day, I would have hugged him tighter. If I had one more day, I would have looked in his eyes and made sure he knew how much I adored him. If I had one more day, I would have laughed with him one last time.
So even if you didn’t know my stepfather, I would ask all of you to do this: love those around you as if they could die tonight. Hug them tighter. Never let one day pass without them knowing just how much you deeply love them. Don’t hold grudges. There are never “one more days.” Love and love fully. Love like my stepfather did. Live as he did–with humility, dignity, kindness, respect, and total selflessness. Imagine what the world would be if there were more Charlies in it. That’s the world I want to live in. That is the work I will carry on in his memory. Peace and love to everyone in my immediate world and across the globe. Let us take better care of each other not only in moments of sadness and loss, but in our everyday lives. Love will win if we choose that path.