The glimmer of the setting sun brushes the tips of grassy plains. The scene is silent, the talk a subtle whisper, and the eye focused. The shifting blades of grass reveal the feathery spotted collar. A deep breath and a flick of the index finger releases the thundering shock of gunfire. A clap in the wind followed by fluttering quail wings, desperate to escape the volley of buckshot. Excitement flows though me as we scramble to collect our feathery prize. I peer to see my brother Alex and father Ruben, decked in camo, rifles strapped, paces ahead of me. Rushing to keep pace I stumble and trip into a bed of stickers. A woeful cry ends the endeavor with prickly and red hands.
This is one of the last memories of bonding with my father. He was an avid outdoorsman, eager to get the fishing rod or hunting gear out to escape the day-to-day grind. I struggle to keep a grasp on the gritty details as I was just a young boy when this happened. It is the memory that I find myself going back to as I accept the reality of losing him this year to COVID-19.
The pandemic has made grieving the departed difficult. How do we honor the dead when the act of congregating is dangerous? It is a constant struggle. Compiled with the unwillingness of people to adhere to the recommendations, it is an emotional cocktail of anger, confusion, isolation, and sadness.
My relationship with my father was rocky to put it nicely. Our paths and points of view strayed over the years. He was not present through most of my life and I never connected with his side of the family. It only fuels these feelings of isolation and confusion. How does one remember Ruben Herrera? I have been thinking deeply on who my father was a person. It is easy to point out the shortcomings and moments of pain I experienced because of him. The feelings of betrayal, the anger, the tireless effort to not be “him”.
I have spent so many hours remembering the bad I forget about some of the lessons and moments we shared as father, and son. I realized that I still knew very little about Ruben and the life he lived. I comfortably carried on, only accepting this perspective of him. We live in a world that expects perfection and is willing to write you off for anything less. Our lives are intertwined and influenced based on our lived experiences. We grow, adapt, and become what we need to. With the limited options we have for grief, I want to use this piece to honor my Father the best I can with what I know. In full honesty, many of the details are based on memory, stories, and what insights I have collected from my family. There is still so little I know, but in time, I hope I will come to know Ruben more through these insights.
As a young man, Ruben had to assume the responsibilities of head of household when his father died at a young age. He cared for his siblings which included three sisters (Jovita, Alice, Helen) and one brother (Robert). I think this made him very cautious to spending, a habit that was often showcased when him and my mother still shared marriage. He was always keen to an opportunity to save money, make a buck, or get the most out of something.
He was a veteran and served in the US Army from 1969 to 1971 proudly. This was often a topic of conversation with him, and it was an opportunity to learn the gruesome and humbling experiences the Army taught him. Emotionally, like many veterans, this affected him. It is an unfortunate consequence I wish I had more awareness to as a young man. I think it would have allowed me to see past some of our conflicts.
He was a hard worker and spent 37 years employed at Miller Brewing in addition to running a roofing company and engaging in multiple side hustles to bring the family money. He took pride in working hard and it was a judgment of character for him. He had me crush cans for recycling as a young boy to earn the toys I wanted for my birthday and Christmas. Looking at now, I can see the intention with this act, although my mother and I did not receive it as well. I wonder if this stemmed from the struggle of taking care of his sibling. A sheer determination to ensure we would always have the resources and know how to thrive in the event something should happen to him.
Ruben was resourceful. He knew how to get the most out of a product. He had a nose for sniffing out deals and was very aware of the money going in and out of the house. He had a reputation for being cheap, but I wonder again if this stems from his childhood. He was never without money, and I like to think if things did take a dire turn, he would have had money set aside for the family.
Ruben enjoyed his family. I had the pleasure of enjoying the get togethers later in life after I graduated college. He carried a presence at the table and was always the first one to call me to let me know that something was going on. He respected his elders and went out of his way to cater to his uncles.
I felt in his way, he tried to make attempts to patch up the relationship we had. Our definitions of “attempt” varied greatly, but exploring some of the mannerisms I use in my day to day, help me understand how Ruben’s subtle hints where his way to connect with me. Given the circumstances life threw at him, I think this is how he best knew how to take control of this situation.
Ruben was my father, he was not my dad. But as my father, both intentionally and unintentionally, he taught me the value of work, the value of emotional connections, the value of being honest, and the value of being resourceful. Between him and my mother I can proudly say I have zero debt and live life with low overhead. It is one of the major lessons that have helped me navigate the pandemic and staring a new organization in the midst of this global crisis.
It is hard to say where my relationship with Ruben would have ultimately landed. I do feel to some extent we were slowly getting closer. I often imagined a day out with him at a sports bar catching up and shooting the shits. Maybe not so much as father to son, but at least man to man. I think in our own way, this would have been our relationship. I ponder these thoughts as we coast in 2021. As many with grief, I often get hit with doubt. Could I, should I. These questions sap my emotional bandwidth and have me second guessing a lot of my decisions over these past few years. COVID-19 ended my father’ s life prematurely, so I am only left with pondering.
This virus is still very much active in our communities. So, I have one request for anyone reading, please, take this thing serious. Your desire to go out, get a sip, and catch up could rob others of their opportunities to rebuild and connect with their family. You can unwillingly bring this thing home to someone that is vulnerable. My uncle Robert passed just two weeks after Ruben. In my family alone we have lost three major members to this virus. My heart goes to my aunt, who has had to bear the weight of burying her husband and two brothers over a 3-month period.
Ruben, father, I can not fully express all I feel, as this is a new emotional range for me. But know you are missed. I only wish we could have had more time to connect, more time to learn, and more time to understand each other, and hopefully more time to experience life as father and son. I love you.
Jesse Herrera is the Founder & Chief Visionary of CoAct North Texas which designs human-centered solutions for today's most pressing and ambitious challenges. www.coactntx.org