A few days before Christmas, a neighbor noticed two men in military uniforms knocking repeatedly at the Tamayo family's darkened front door in Fontana.
She told them that the family was at a wedding in Mexico, and asked if something was wrong. They said they needed to speak to the parents of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Fernando Tamayo, 19, as soon as possible.
The neighbor phoned the Tamayos at once.
The call "gave us an awful, gut feeling that something was wrong with our brother," said Tamayo's sister, Adriana Zamayoa, 34, of Las Vegas. "We thought, 'We've got to get back home.' "
The airports were jammed with holiday travelers. But military officials said they had to speak with Mario and Martha Tamayo in person. The couple waited anxiously for six hours for a flight back to California, reaching home at 1 a.m. Dec. 23.
Shortly afterward, they received the news: Their youngest son was among four troops killed Dec. 21 when a roadside bomb exploded near their Humvee in Iraq's Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Tamayo was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
The wedding of Tamayo's brother Alejandro, 31, went on as planned the afternoon of Dec. 23 while his parents waited for family members to return from Mexico.
On Christmas Day, Tamayo's sister said she and her brother Alejandro flew home into an airport "with all these people having these cheerful moments of reunion, and we had just this feeling of utter sadness."
Fernando Tamayo was "determined" to be a Marine from the age of 9, she said, when he saw graduation ceremonies in San Diego for his older brother Mario, now 29, in full Marine dress.
Born Feb. 26, 1987, in Los Angeles, Fernando Tamayo graduated from Bloomington High School in Fontana in 2005 and promptly enrolled in the Young Marines program, designed to give potential recruits a taste of what it would be like.
"He had fun with it, and he decided to enlist," Zamayoa said.
His father, also named Mario and speaking in Spanish translated by Fernando's sister, said that he and his wife supported their youngest son's decision.
"When he told us, we were happy for his decision, [but] a little bit scared like every parent," he said. "Since the [Iraq] war had started, we were a little bit concerned, but like every parent we wanted him to be free to decide what do in life."
Tamayo was stationed at Twentynine Palms just as his older brother had been several years earlier. Within six months, he was a lance corporal, and on Sept. 1, two weeks before his brother Mario's wedding, he shipped out. His family held a big celebration, complete with a priest's blessing.
In letters and phone calls, he told his family and a special girl named Sonia not to worry, that he was safe.
"He never gave us anything but a feeling of security," Zamayoa said. "He would always tell us, 'I'm going to be fine . I'm doing OK.' "
The day the family left for Mexico, Tamayo phoned to say how much he was going to miss seeing Alejandro's wedding, and how much he loved everyone. It was the last time his family spoke with him.
On Dec. 18, he wrote Sonia a letter saying that he was halfway through his stint in Iraq, and that he couldn't wait to get home and see her, "his queen."
Days later, his parents received the awful news. Tamayo was given a full military funeral and Mass on Tuesday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Covina Hills. His parents were given a U.S. flag and his Purple Heart. Afterward, his favorite mariachi band played.
"I have no regrets," his father told mourners. "When you have children, you let them be free to choose whatever they want in life.
"For me," he added, "I think I'll never be able to recover."
Tamayo's family recalled his quick humor, sense of responsibility and concern for his mother when she was recovering from cancer. Now, his mother is consumed with grief over her son's death.
"We let her scream, to try to take the sorrow out," his sister said. "We have a lot of pictures, and we have a lot of memories, so we feel like he is right here with us in some ways."
On Thursday, Tamayo's father thanked neighbors, friends and local businesses for the food and gifts given to the family.
"Thank you for honoring my son. He was a very courageous young man who gave his life for this country . We are honored by what he did," said his father, a truck driver who is trying to find the strength to return to work. "We have to get back on track somehow. We have to get back to work, to our lives, to honor his memory."
Tamayo will be cremated and his ashes will be saved for burial at "a sacred place" that will be selected later by his parents.
"Right now, they want to bring their baby home," his sister said. "He was the light of this house."