Many of you know from following my posts on Facebook that my 28 y/o nephew Ralf Garcia was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died ten days later. How does one even begin to make sense of the loss of such a young man, beautiful in every sense of the word, leaving behind his wife and unborn son due in May?
The tragedy of Ralf’s passing has touched the hearts of many, not only because of the heartbreaking aspects of the story, but also because of the kind of man he was. The chief of the Miami Fire Department said in his comments at the funeral that normally when he speaks at such events, he reviews the personnel files. This time he didn’t have to because he had already received eight unsolicited emails from Ralf’s colleagues. That is part of his legacy—the love and respect he leaves behind.
Few experiences in my life have touched my soul as deeply:
Surreal moments…The caravan from the hospital to the funeral home. Everyone in the family still in shock, stunned. Nurses and firemen sobbing along with the family. Driving in Fire Department vans late at night past the stations where Rafi worked as we followed the hearse to the funeral home along deserted Miami streets, traffic cleared by police. In front of each of the three station where he worked, all the firemen and women lined up in silent salute. Somber silence inside the vans.
Next day tough, 16-hour day. Though he was already declared brain dead the day before, his body was kept alive another 24 hours until the organ harvesting was coordinated. Seeing Maeghan, his young wife, for the first time, as we shared our only one-on-one moment in his room very early, before anyone else arrived. Witnessing his parents—my sister Pat, and Juan—and their other four sons. Seeing my mother, who also lost one of my brothers 25 years ago, and witnessing her encounter with my sister, each of them having lost a brother and then a son, all in their 20s.
Inspiring moments…The way the FD showed up at the hospital, the wake and the funeral mass and procession. Fire trucks from dozens of municipalities. The strong sense of loyalty and family. These people have each others’ backs and you can feel it. As one of them said at the hospital, “If we risk our lives to save complete strangers, how can we not be there for one of our own?” How profoundly touching to see strong, courageous men and women openly weeping, with no attempt to hide it.
The nursing staff at UM Hospital, where my brother Rene works, so caring, so present and so professional.
Touching moments…Fire Chief Maurice Kemp. Kind, dignified, striking, at about 7 feet tall. Spoke at the funeral service of how his people see tragedy all the time and they had never seen a family deal with tragedy so graciously and generously. For the first time in the history of the Miami FD, someone was promoted to lieutenant without having sat for the exam.
The sense of brotherhood among Ralf’s Fireboat unit and among the entire fire department. Lieutenant Chris Cope, Matt, Alex, Max. So present, so kind, so compassionate, so helpful. Taking such care of the family, so protective of Maeghan and the parents at the wake, which went on for six hours, people lined up to pay their respects until midnight. Love is in the details. My family and I feel such deep appreciation for the FD, for their dedication, compassion, loyalty and sense of family. As one of them said in an interview, “We’ve made it well known to (Maeghan) that that son is going to have 700 uncles and aunts. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.”
Heartening moments…The funeral service. As staid and rote as Catholic services can feel, this one accomplished its intended job. Rev. Robert Vallee gave a heartfelt sermon that was raw, human, honest, real, with no platitudes or sugar coating. Having married Ralf and Maeghan in 2011, he brought a personal touch and authentic feeling to his words. The all-girls choir’s renditions of Ave Maria and a requiem were soothing to my soul. Somehow, I left feeling more at peace.
His father Juan wove humor and grief into his remarks after the service. “Prayers were not wasted,” he said. “They were helpful and inspiring to Ralf and Meghan and the family in his last days.” He spoke about Rafi being a “gift that keeps on giving,” in that he continued saving lives even after death by donating his organs.
Uplifting moments…The funeral cortege. As soon as we entered the vans after the service, it began to rain. Dozens of firemen and women lined up alongside the vans waited for 10-15 minutes under the rain, saluting the entire time, while we waited for the procession to come together behind us. Was that a tear or a raindrop sliding down the face of the young man outside my window? Again, somber silence within. The rain came down during the entire procession, as as if the heavens had opened up to weep. Then, quite generously, it stopped as soon as we arrived at the cemetery.
The outpouring of love has been tremendously touching and inspiring, including from many people we don’t yet know, from all over the world. Know that your prayers have not been in vain. Your comments on FB have touched our hearts deeply and helped soothe our pain. Our family, large and tight to begin with, has just gotten larger, as one of the fireboat crew said…“way, way larger,” as someone else commented in response.
Your love has also been evident in the GoFundMe fund set up by one of the firemen for baby Mason, who will join the family in May. It has raised almost $210,000 in donations. Although it’s earmarked for Mason’s education, I trust it will continue growing so as to keep Maeghan from having to work for some time once the baby arrives. Thank you!
Deep gratitude to Allyson Orme Baker, Zach Rehder, Gurpreet Gill, David Scott, Morgan Bruin, Lindsay Gonzalez, colleagues and apprentices who donated their time and held the events I would have otherwise had to cancel in Denver, everyone—including Kindness Yoga—donating the proceeds and generating over $4500 for Mason’s Fund. (Thank you, Patrick Harrington, Cameron Dabney, and everyone at Kindness!) My heart is so deeply touched by your love and generosity.
All a testament to the power of love…
I feel all cried out. I imagine there will always be sadness around Rafi’s sudden and devastating death. He left us too soon. But those feelings will be accompanied by joy and love whenever I think of these moments and the phenomenal ways so many people have responded.
If the way she has shown up this last week is any indication, Maeghan will continue to rise to the occasion and seize the moment, and it seems she will continue to inspire others through her new blog, Soaring Through Sorrow. Tragedy sometimes reveals the stuff we are made of.
Life goes on. Ralf will live on in Mason and in the three organ recipients, as well as in all our hearts.
In my retreats I often talk about how we can never predict and much less control what curve balls life inevitably throws our way. There is nothing we can do about that. But we can always, always choose how we are going to respond to those curve balls. This was a big one, unexpected and harsh. It has thrown many for a loop. How will we respond? How will we show up?
During these past days many of you have asked “What can I do?” OK, since you asked, here are a couple of things that you might take on, allowing the way Rafi lived his short life to serve as inspiration:
1) Enjoy life to the fullest. We just never know. Life is unpredictable and ephemeral.
2) Be who you are, your own unique and authentic expression.
3) Serve others. Make a difference.
4) Be kind to and evoke the best and highest in everyone. As one of the firemen posted recently, Ralf was the type of person who genuinely appreciated something about everyone and always sought to find their best.
5) Follow your passion, your dreams. One of the things I just learned about my nephew is he turned down Harvard to follow his dream of becoming a firefighter/EMT. What dreams have you been postponing?
6) Give it you best. And give it your all. No more holding back or playing small. As Maeghan posted recently: “Ralf was the type of man who did everything all the way. When he made a decision, he saw it through to the end. He gave every endeavor his all. He gave me his all. He loved with every fiber of his being. I pray for God to give me the strength and ability to live and love that way. I pray I find the courage to continue to follow my dreams, and to fulfill the dreams we shared together….Go out and love those around you without fear of getting hurt. When the person is worth it, the pain that sometimes follows is worth it, too.”
7) Be a hero, your own kind of hero. How will you express heroism in your own life?
Let’s seize the moment.