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Making the most of scant time left

So much to do before time runs out. Give away the fine china. Get rid of the jewelry and a ton of books with split bindings and yellowed pages.

“I don’t expect to live long,” Nancy Tovar says as she surveys the paintings, knickknacks and other faded treasures in her living room. “I’m getting rid of a lot of things.”

In her 70s, Tovar is where we all will one day be -- suspended between memories and mystery, taking stock of a life that seemed but a flash.

A colleague had told me a year or so ago about Tovar and her husband, both of them longtime activists and neighborhood historians. He told me about the amazing cactus garden at their 100-year-old Lincoln Heights home.

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I’d always meant to go see Nancy and Rudy Tovar, sit on the front porch and hear their stories.

But I almost waited too long.

The cactus is still there, towering scarecrow stalks of it, and Nancy is feeling a little better after the last round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. But Rudy has had to move into a home in Rosemead, his thoughts fogged over, his life a trick of broken timelines.

“He thinks he’s in a hotel,” Nancy says. “He asks, ‘Why am I here? Why don’t you take me home?’ ”

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Nothing in her life was harder, Tovar says, than moving Rudy out of the home they shared. Learning of her cancer 2 1/2 years ago didn’t compare. Being told recently that it had spread to her lymph nodes didn’t compare.

Losing Rudy was everything.

“He’s going deaf,” she says, wishing she could share her hopes and fears with him. “You don’t know whether he hears you or not.”

They called themselves El Chicano y La Gringa on their blog, Rudy and Nancy’s Barrio Newsletter. He was born in Mexico and did hard labor for the DWP; she was from Indiana, a graphic artist. They met as kindred spirits in the 1960s at the rabble-rousing Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights. It was a time of brown berets, farmworker strikes and the Chicano movement.

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He had his life, though, and she had hers. Until 1979, when they began dating.

The dating went on and on and on, the most cautious courtship in the history of love.

Mayors and presidents came and went, revolutions flared and faded, the Berlin Wall came down, Russia broke into pieces, and they were still dating. Until one day, when, almost on a whim, they decided to walk through a shower of rice.

Dec. 3, 1995, was the day, big reception at the San Antonio Winery. In the photo album, there’s a grin on Rudy’s face and a priceless smile on Nancy’s.

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“I’ve lived a very rich life,” says Nancy, telling me her home became a place for two cultures, two languages, two points of view.

El Chicano y La Gringa.

When the World War II veteran moved into Nancy’s house, which turned 100 this year, his first move was to get rid of the lawn. He planted cactus and a brown turkey fig tree and raised chickens that laid blue, green and brown eggs. The lone rooster was so feisty they named him Macho Man.

They loved sitting on the front porch with their antiwar signs, with the cactus flowers in bloom, neighbors strolling by and planes circling over City Hall on the long loop to the beach.

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Latinos were their only neighbors at first, then some Asians and then a sprinkling of whites and gays and yuppies.

In his final lucid years, Rudy was growing bitter about some things, Nancy says. He had come from the dirt of Mexico and gone to night school for 20 years while working, earning a B.A. and nearly a master’s. His life was a prayer and a plea for racial equality, civil rights and social justice.

But he saw too many wasted chances and lost futures running through the city, too many gang members killing each other on streets where Rudy and his brethren fought for a better day. He took great pride in the election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but hasn’t been entirely pleased with the results.

Even though he’d gotten feisty as that rooster, says Nancy, “everyone loved Rudy,” who had begun learning a few words of Cambodian and Vietnamese from new neighbors, teaching them Spanish in return. And then he was gone, leaving Nancy to prepare the wills and pass on some things to Rudy’s kids from a prior marriage.

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I think one reason I visited Nancy was to confront my fears about the trials in my own family.

My parents are in lousy health, and my sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer about the same time as Nancy. My sister’s has now metastasized to her brain, so she is having to confront her own mortality at the same time she is taking care of my parents in the house we grew up in.

Death isn’t really so scary, Nancy tells me. I ask where she gets such courage, and she says it helps to have had a satisfying, meaningful life. But there are two other things that keep her strong.

“I guess probably faith, and knowing everybody’s got to die.”

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Nancy says there’s a strange advantage to knowing you’ve got a terminal disease and a median survival span to consider -- in her case, she’s already on borrowed time. If you get hit by a car, she says, it’s done. No chance for reflection or goodbyes. She has at least had the luxury of being able to look back, to savor a sweet life and to make her remaining days matter.

With the time she has left, Nancy plans to check in with loved ones, finish compiling histories of the neighborhood and the garden and distribute the bound manuscript she has put together of Rudy’s life and times. All this while spending as much time as possible with Rudy.

If she could have one wish, she says, it would be for him to go before she does. She doesn’t relish the thought of watching Rudy become a stranger to himself, but she doesn’t want him to suffer without her there to hold his hand.

Nancy and I are on the porch where she and her husband sat so many times and looked at the world. A plane circles slowly, a neighbor strolls by. The cactus Rudy planted stands tall and defiant on a warm, lazy Sunday in Lincoln Heights. In this dream, time circles back like that plane, and Rudy is here with her.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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