Abel Perez Sr. was a ‘nobody’ by the world’s standard, but his legacy tells a different story.
We buried my fiancé’s father this weekend. Just a little over a week ago he was diagnosed with Leukemia. Three days later he was dead. No one saw it coming; not even the doctors. These kinds of experiences make you wonder what you’re doing with your own life, and what’s really important.
They also cause a certain amount of reflection on the loved one you’ve lost. Naturally, as we age, we see our parents so much differently than we did when we were kids. We now see their embarrassing antics as acts of love, just because they wanted to relate to us. The long hours on the job, which felt like abandonment, now seem heroic as we think about what they gave up to make sure we were fed, clothed and had a safe place to sleep.
Abel Perez Sr. is not someone you would ever hear about in the news. He never acted in a television show, wrote a book, appeared in a movie, or even caused a public scene big enough to pay attention to. He wasn’t perfect, by any means, but he was a good man.
Abel never had a lot of money. He came to the United States illegally to escape the poverty of his home country in Mexico, and make a better life for his family. He took any job he could find to do just that. He knew that he alone was responsible for them. In deed, in spite of his best efforts he once found himself in need of assistance and reluctantly took his family to a homeless shelter. As a father myself, I can only imagine the humiliation he must have felt. Yet, his pride took a back seat. Within a matter of months, he was back on his feet and repaid the homeless shelter for their time and resources. Abel taught his children that failure is inevitable, but how we handle it is a matter of character.
When his son, my fiancé, Abel Jr., came out as gay to his dad, Abel Sr. had no response. It was unclear, because of the language barrier, if he even understood what his son was telling him. Later, Abel Jr. approached his dad just to be clear (and to explain why I was hanging around all the time). His father responded by saying, “Mi hijo, I just want you to be happy.” No long explanations of Mexican culture, or rants about embarrassing the family, just a parent’s loving wish for his son.
Abel taught his children to never be ashamed of who you are. He didn’t look to religious or cultural traditions to define him as a man, but instead believed that a man was someone true to himself, answering only to God. A person doesn’t lose his dignity because he is poor, a minority, or disenfranchised; he loses his dignity when he chooses to stop acting like a human being, stops caring, and disregards the needs of others.
Abel also never found much use for materialism. He bought a plot of land where he lived for years in old RVs while he slowly built a home for himself and his wife. When he had money, it was difficult not to spend it on others. It was only after his death that we learned of a man Abel met in a coffee shop who was in desperate need of dental work. The man couldn’t afford a dentist in the United States, so Abel drove him to Mexico where the procedure was cheaper. Many more stories like this one have continued to surface. If money can’t be used to help others, Abel frequently reasoned, then it isn’t much good.
Regardless of the difficult life he led, Abel chose to be happy. His laughter was contagious, even if you didn’t fully understand him. I likened Abel’s sense of humor to old British comedies: you don’t always know what they’re saying, but you have to laugh anyway. He once told me a story of working jobs overseas when those were the only jobs available. I never did figure out if he was talking about “landing” in a plane or working in “London.” Either way, I enjoyed hearing the story nearly as much as Abel enjoyed telling it.
He certainly was not without his faults. He battled with alcohol when he was younger, sometimes made terrible financial decisions, didn’t always say the right thing to his wife or children and, occasionally, his temper got the best of him. He didn’t understand a lot about the complexities of life. But those were not the things that defined him.
Many of us struggle to put our human imperfections in perspective. Rather than owning them, we hide them, or at least we think we do. Being a man, many of us subconsciously believe, is about having it altogether. But the people who love us are not fooled. They know our faults; they know our kryptonite. Our partners and children are not looking for perfection, they are simply looking for men who love to the best of their abilities, apologize for their mistakes, and live authentically.
Abel Perez Sr. lived authentically. It never made him rich, or earned him accolades. No one ever wrote an expose about his life, or his rags to riches story. In many ways, his story was cut short. He didn’t get the ending that he deserved. But along the way, he left his mark on the people with whom he lived, loved, and worked. He helped the needy, gave to the poor, took care of his family, and raised his children to respect others and love the country in which he earned his citizenship. He left the earth better than when he got here, and he did it all with humility. That’s the legacy of a good man.