A young man’s fateful dance with death

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Jesús García saw no reason to be afraid of death.

“It’s not good to fear anything,” he once said. “Death is always around, but you’ve got to laugh at death.”

After leaving the hospital that afternoon in early May, he boarded the bus at Vermont and Sunset and headed south. The shops and congestion of Koreatown streamed by.

He didn’t bother calling his mother. She was in Idaho and would get the news soon enough. Besides, she would only start to cry, which was more than he could deal with. He turned off his phone to avoid any calls. He just wanted to hang out with friends, smoke some weed and play video games.


PHOTOS: A young man faces death with bravado

The bus stopped at Pico Boulevard, and he made his transfer. He was feeling better than he had in the morning when he was dizzy and had thrown up.

Jesús had just turned 19 and had hopes for himself. He held his chin high, had a straight-ahead gaze and dressed carefully, coordinating black baggy shorts with a black and white T-shirt, a gray and white hoodie and white Converse sneakers with red stripes. A Yankees cap covered a scar that stretched from his forehead to above his right ear.

He got off the bus at 5th Avenue in Arlington Heights and walked up the street. He found his friends hanging out in the back bedroom of their apartment. He didn’t share details of his visit to the hospital, and they didn’t ask.

The week before he had received an MRI, and the doctor had just given him the results. The tumor in Jesús’ brain was larger now and had been bleeding. Jesús wasn’t discouraged. He had faith in his doctors.

Since his first seizure eight years ago, he had had three operations, the last in September 2011. There had also been radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Jesús thought he was doing fine.


He was going to get his GED and get a job to help support his mother. He even thought about being a cop; only he’d go after the hard-core gangsters and not harass the kids on the block.

He loved his family and was loyal to his friends. He had no intention of leaving any of them or making a plan for his final days. Leave that for someone older, for someone who had more money, more opportunities.

For Jesús, the world was just coming into focus, and no matter how difficult the treatments or debilitating their effect, he was determined to live.

Everything is fine, he said to his mother over the phone that night. Don’t worry.

Home was a converted two-car garage in the neighborhood of Exposition Park in South Los Angeles, where the streets were narrow and the houses small and tidy. The entrance was off a cul-de-sac, long in need of paving.

Jesús and his family had moved four times in the last seven years. Once their apartment burned down; once a relative threw them out.

Another time their landlord accused Jesús of being in a gang and they had to leave, and their most recent apartment was infested with bedbugs.


Last December, his mother, Valentina González, left for Idaho to visit a friend and decided to stay when she found a cheaper place to live and a better job for her boyfriend.

When Jesús learned in February that the garage was available, he and his sister Jessica, 22, moved in. Another sister, Claudia, 23, eventually joined them, bringing her 2-year-old daughter, Itzel.

They paid $750 in rent, about what Jesús received in disability each month. The rest of the family’s monthly income — about $1,400 — came from child support, unemployment insurance, welfare and whatever relatives could send them.

The garage’s owner was a family friend who tried to make the two rooms comfortable. He laid down carpet in the back room. Jesús and his sisters could keep the cockroaches away, but they had to put up with the rats that came out at night.

Above the door, Jesús placed a memorial to St. Jude. There were family photos on one wall, and in the back room, they hung a small print with verses from Isaiah. “Confiad en Jehová perpetuamente.” Trust in the Lord always.

In mid-May, Jesús was prescribed a steroid that controlled swelling and made him feel more comfortable.

He was also beginning a new type of chemotherapy; his doctor was unwilling to give up. The drugs and the treatment were enough to blur the line between hope and denial, and the summer started to feel normal.


Valentina, 39, had returned to Los Angeles by then, and moved in to care for her son. She had brought her youngest children, Jocelyn, 3, and Stuart, 15 months. Jesús was her oldest boy, the one she called “Perro” — dog — an affectionate nickname from the time when he was little and wouldn’t leave her side.

He was 6 when his father left the family. Jesús idolized the man whose temper often turned violent when he drank.

On Wednesdays, Jesús and Valentina rode the Expo Line and the bus to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for tests. He would put in his earbuds and listen to his favorite bands: South Park Mexican, Kartel de las Calles, Cypress Hill.

Appointments were in the early afternoon, and before heading inside, they would buy a burrito from one of the food trucks parked on the street. He could never get enough to eat, one of the steroid’s side effects.

He was 13 when a brain scan revealed a lesion in his right temporal lobe, too small to worry about, but then came more headaches and seizures.

Almost three years later, he had his first surgery. Six months after that, he needed another operation. What had been diagnosed as a low-grade, non-aggressive tumor had become malignant.


As Jesús lay in the hospital, he saw other children who were sicker than he was. He started to think about his life and how he was messing up.

He bullied his sisters. He ran away from his mom. He got into fights at school. For a while, he hung out with a tagging crew. He said that the police had cited him four times for carrying weed, a lighter and rolling papers.

“I had these demons in my head,” he said earlier this year, “and I then realized I was lucky not to have it as bad as other kids in the hospital.”

By July, the tumor had spread throughout the right side of his brain and had begun to press against the left. The doctors, looking for a miracle, proposed a fourth surgery.

“No quiero que lloren.” No crying, he told his family when they gathered to view his most recent MRI.

Jesús was well known in the cancer clinic, and when a friend there learned that he was a fan of Ramon Ayala, she made arrangements for him to meet the King of the Accordion at a concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk.

Early in the set, Ayala dedicated a song to Jesús, a ballad called “Que me Entierren Cantando.”


“Nothing matters to me if one day I die,” Ayala sang in Spanish, “only that they bury me singing.”

The song’s carefree spirit had always appealed to Jesús, and he tried to live that way, even if it meant ignoring the truth.

If he felt weak, he said he just needed to lift some weights. If he felt pain, it was because he slept wrong. If he stumbled, it was his shoes, and if his family annoyed him, it wasn’t because the steroid made him irritable. It was because they were lazy.

One afternoon, a therapist from a hospice, Trinity Kids Care, stopped by, and helped the family make a poster using paint spread on the palms of their hands. When they were done, Jesús wrote his name on the drop cloth as other patients had.

“Faith + Hope Everything is possible,” he added.

He wanted to believe that his life could help others, and he was eager to share what he had learned in the course of being sick. His message was simple. “You can always change,” he said. “You always have to have faith — and love your family.”

Even after learning the risks of another surgery — paralysis, blindness — Jesús didn’t believe it possible that he would lose his independence.


“That’s not even one-half percent in my head, not even the slightest decibel. Everything is going to be good,” he said. “Positive. I’ll give it to you in Spanish. Positivo.

The operation lasted seven hours. Afterward the ICU nurse asked him where he was. Even in the haze of anesthesia, Jesús made a joke.

“Seis Banderas,” he said. Six Flags.

She laughed. “You have to say it in English.”

“You want it in Chinese?” he asked.

On Sept. 27, Jesús came home to the garage. It had been five weeks since the surgery, and he was excited to be out of the hospital. He had grown bored with physical therapy.

A neighbor greeted him at the van and helped push his wheelchair over the hard-packed dirt in the backyard, which was crisscrossed with clotheslines and crowded with a dusty accumulation of toys, tools, tables, recyclables, tires, bicycles and motorcycles.

They lifted him over the unfinished threshold. Afternoon sunlight angled through the door. Water was running in the kitchen sink where Jocelyn was being bathed. Claudia had rearranged the back room for the hospital bed.

Tired from his day, Jesús had no strength to stand. The neighbor and Valentina got him to his feet and into bed. The windowless room still held the heat of the day.

No one had told him why he had been discharged. No one said that the tumor had grown back and all options had been exhausted. One nurse wondered if he knew. Another believed his doctor should tell him; the doctor left that decision to Valentina.


It was clear to everyone who saw him that Jesús had no short-term memory, and the news would be needlessly distressing.

Sleeping during the day, waking at night, he lost track of time, and his world became a blend of memories, dreams and reality. He listened to the singing birds from the movie “Rio,” as the children danced on the bed beside him. He felt Stuart shake the rails of his bed, heard Claudia scold Itzel, who started to cry, and he smelled tortillas crisping on the stove.

Valentina fixed whatever he wanted — chicken mole, albóndigas, pupusas, empanadas, caldo de res — and there was always ice cream and cookies.

Valentina and Claudia puzzled over his shaky voice and the strange things he said. Once he saw the devil standing among the plaid hoodies at the foot of the bed. Another time he thought his feet and hands had changed places. The hospice tried to help with medications.

In spite of his helplessness, his mother and sister still recognized his bravura. His face — his handsome features, the angular jaw, full lips, long eyelashes — had grown swollen from the steroid, the skin marked with acne, but he still seemed happy and made jokes that doubled them over.

One October night as the Santa Ana winds were blowing, the pastor from their church stopped by. It was close to midnight. He often kept late hours, and the garage had become one of the regular stops for the church’s prayer group. Tonight he came alone.

His hard soles echoed on the linoleum floor as he walked through the front room. He laid his Bible on the bed and poured olive oil into his palm and placed the hand on Jesús’ forehead.


He wept and prayed, the cadence of each sentence matching the length of each breath, as he dispelled the goblin-like demons — como un tipo de duendes — that he found in the room and asked for a fence of angels — un vallado de ángeles — to be placed around the family.

When he was finished, the garage was silent but for the whirring of the ceiling fan.

Jesús lay with his eyes closed. Valentina rubbed a hand through his hair.

Two weeks later, Jesús had his first seizure in many months.

He had stopped getting out of bed. His brain was shutting down.

A few days before, he smiled at the memory of a girl he once knew and at the time he played second base for his Little League team. He wondered out loud about all the other girlfriends he could have had and all that he could have done in his life.

Breathing became difficult. His lungs and his chest labored as if he were drawing air through a wet cloth, and he stopped eating.

The names of two funeral homes were stuck on the refrigerator. A charity promised to pay for cremation and a memorial. Jesús had once told Jessica that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea, and he wanted some marijuana to be thrown in as well.

“It’s me and Mary Jane all the way to the end,” she recalled him saying.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the pastor and the prayer group gathered around his bed and filled the room with their voices, raising their dissonant prayers to God.

That night his color deepened. Claudia called the pastor back, and Jesús’ uncle, Ramón González, stopped by. In the absence of his father, Jesús had often turned to Ramón for guidance and support.

Chiquillo,” Valentina heard Ramón say, “estoy aquí, mijo. Te quiero mucho.” I love you very much.

As Jesús reached out for his uncle, Valentina counted three gasps, and then her son was still. She began to wail.


PHOTOS: A young man faces death with bravado

Friends and other family members soon arrived, and Valentina stayed with her son.

Through her tears, she stroked his hair, cupped his jaw with her hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, as if memorizing each feature by her touch.

The blood had drained from his face, and his cheeks and neck were no longer swollen. She thought he looked beautiful again, lying beneath a white blanket, his eyes closed, his jaw tied shut with a flowered sash.

Jesús was once asked if 19 is too young to die. “It’s never too early, and it’s never too late,” he said. “Everyone’s life is borrowed.”