Have you ever experienced something so traumatic that it changed the course of your life? We were seven in total, four girls and three boys. My oldest brother was Robert. He was hard on us girls, and many times came across as disparaging. It took years for me to figure out that he was looking out for us and had stepped into the role of a father. Like a real father he was strict and always gave stern advice. Robert had great discernment and, as much as I did not want to hear his counsel, he was usually right. He hated that I joined MECHA, a radical, separatist Hispanic organization. I fought him on this and became so involved that I was elected president. In college the group advocated indoctrination about what was owed to us and how we needed our rights to be heard. We were the Mexican version of the Black Panthers, and just as radical. My brother was right again because the organization spit me out like a hot pepper after dating outside our race.
Robert was born with a gastric intestinal disorder; therefore, he suffered his entire life. He was over 6′ tall but rail thin; due to his illness he could never gain weight. Our mother would take him to a specialist at UCLA medical center for answers, but in Robert’s case no surgery could correct the ongoing affliction. My brother had episodes of his illness throughout his life, some lasting for weeks. Robert was a combine harvest operator and mechanic for a farming family in the Imperial Valley. When he was twenty-four years old, Robert was drafted into the service during the war in Vietnam. He served in the army for two years, but because of a knee injury he was released from his duties. Robert loved life and enjoyed every minute that was given to him in his short life.
Robert was a newlywed when he was diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife Alice were desperately seeking answers when they were introduced to a Maharaja. They followed the guru on television. They dug deeper and purchased a book to further instruct themselves in their new beliefs. This all started with a simple quest for healing. Both Robert and Alice believed that Robert could be healed naturally. Norma, our youngest sister, shared this belief and together they would study from some thick black Maharaja book. The three of them would sit yoga-style and meditate. Norma was just as enthralled in the new-found religion, because Robert was not only her older brother but her best friend. Once she witnessed Robert levitate a foot off the ground. She said it was during meditation when her eyes were closed. When she opened them she made a sound of disbelief that broke the spell of the levitation. This was in 1981, my brother was a pot-smoking hippie, and this, peaceful, self-awareness type of religion was a great fit for him.
Our mother, on the other hand, wanted to take Robert to Mexico to try some experimental drugs for the cancer. We were all desperate to save Robert’s life. We were nominal Catholics who were not steeped into our Catholic roots. None of us knew about prayer, or how to ask God for help. Our mother’s friend told her about a holy man named Vic who could help us. This stranger was the owner of a mattress store in San Bernardino. I took my mother to the first meeting at his store. This man was gentle and God-fearing, a born-again Christian who understood the Word of God. In our first encounter both my mother and I received Jesus into our hearts (this was the era of saying the sinner’s prayer). Vic became our mentor and would make special trips to our mom’s home for Bible studies. We wanted to introduce Vic to Robert, but he and Alice were convinced that the Maharaja was the only way to God. Before his cancer metastasized Robert went on a motorcycle ride, was thrown off and broke his neck. So, in addition to the cancer, he had to deal with the pain of his broken neck. He ended up in the hospital, and the most unusual apparatus (halo) was placed around his head to alleviate the pain of his broken neck. I cannot recall how many screws were drilled into his skull to hold the “halo” in place, but I knew it was extremely painful because it was equipped with weights to stabilize his neck.
With Vic’s help Norma was coming into the light. She was told by a Christian friend that if Robert did not have Jesus in his heart he would go to hell. Years ago abrasive and insensitive comments like these were commonplace. No love or mercy was evident because that’s how people were taught. My sister took it upon herself to introduce Robert to the Christian God; Norma felt a sense of responsibility to share the “Good News” with Robert. She was a novice, a baby Christian shaking in her shoes when she arrived at the hospital. She was greeted by Alice, and the first thing she noticed was the Bible in Norma’s hands. The Bible has never been a discreet book and the title is usually in big bold gold letters on the cover. Alice did not want to have anything to do with this, so she told Robert. He asked Norma to bring the Bible to him. With the little strength he had left he threw the Bible across the room; then he asked Alice to bring their Maharaja book to him. But Norma did not give up; she and mom had a plan.
Vic was a an angel sent from heaven; he was the stranger that God sent to us to get us through this unmanageable stage of our lives. Robert was selling his RV, so Norma and mom came up with the idea for Vic to introduce himself by showing interest in the RV. The rest, as we say, is history. Vic, the angel that God commissioned, did his job and quietly disappeared. We were so grateful for his holy intervention and wanted to keep in touch with him, but it was not to be.
33 Years Old
Robert was 33 years old when the Lord took him home. As a family we all took turns to be with him at the hospital so that he would not die alone. I did not want to have anything whatsoever to do with being there when he died. I planned my shifts to make sure that I was not going to be there. The doctor had announced that Robert would not make it through the night. I told my sisters that I would watch all the kids so they could be with Robert. My sister Jo, who was pregnant, stayed with me. Morning came and, much to my chagrin, Robert made it through the night. It was our shift, so Jo and I went to the hospital. I was nervous and sick to my stomach; never in my life had I been placed in such an agonizing position. It did not take long for our brother to breathe his last. Though I was terrified to witness any death, especially his, it was meant for me to be there. This was the most beautiful experience: as he flatlined, followed by a long beep, I noticed a peaceful, beautiful look on my brother’s face; I saw the color of his body changing from grey to a muted yellow. He was home.
Part of who I have become as a Christian is through this experience. The Lord never let go of me and, as I meandered from one Christian church to another, God has always been with me. I will never forget when mother and I visited Robert right before he succumbed to the illness. He held up two fingers and said, “This is me and Jesus. If you don’t have Him, your life is…” He mumbled several phrases but we both understood what he meant by his gestures. Robert suffered beautifully, and was the instrument for bringing us back to God.
My Prayer: Thank you for our beautiful brother Robert. Because of his suffering we all came to understand our calling. Lord, continue to use us to draw closer to You. Lord, always reveal truth so that we can clearly see what You have in store for our lives. Never allow us to compromise or make decisions without praying. Amen.
Psalm 34:2 New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE)
2 I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall be always in my mouth.