The staff at Parkland has to think I have the biggest family ever, even for Mormons. The problem, as my wife explained it to me after the fact, is that only immediate family was allowed inside an ICU room. And there were some people very dear to me that were either walking in or fighting their way in, take your pick. One way or the other, these beautiful angels were going to see their “Papa Ghio.” So my wife introduced them as my “adopted daughters” and ushered them in. She didn’t bother addressing why a man with five daughters would want to adopt a bucketful more.
So, here is one of the great secrets of my happiness: Daughters, born and borrowed. Nothing makes me smile more than hearing “Pops” from my girls or “Papa Ghio” from…well…the rest of my girls. My life is full of sweet spirits to whom my heart is knit completely.
All I ever wanted to be was a dad. Because of how richly the Lord has blessed me in that area, I am in no position to complain about anything else. Five daughters, and not a bum in the lot. My oldest two daughters, Francesca and Antonella, were in Utah when I dropped deadish. Both found ways to get back to me as soon as possible. I missed all of one of their visits, and most of the other, but they gave me and their mom the blessing of their presence. My third never left the hospital. She and I already had shared months together recovering from our car accident in 2012, and there was no way that she would leave me alone. The happiest day of my life was when I first heard her laughter in the hospital after our accident, and I knew that my precious Georgina really was alive. Because I thought I lost her, I treasure every moment with her more. Now we can say that we came back to each other.
My fourth, Josefina, came to my side and sang to me, as well as reading all of the Wizard of Oz to me while I was in a coma. She was the family coordinator during my hospital stay, managing the movement of people, food, cars, etc. Sort of a Deathwatch Logistics Specialist. A heavy burden for a girl who at 13 was at times the sole caregiver for three accident victims. My health issues have put an unfair load on her shoulders for a long time now, and she has managed to bend and not break. I often praise her for her remarkable maturity at 17, but I also know that it came only through fiery adversity, attributable primarily to me. I am so sorry for what she has had to endure.
My youngest was in fifth grade when this adventure started. Esther elected to keep her somewhat isolated from what was going on, because the worry of losing her father might be debilitating. But I remember listening to a dear sister in our ward talking about my youngest, who she took into her home for part of this difficult time, and how my Rafi offered a heartrending yet inspiring prayer on my behalf, telling the Lord that He had performed a miracle to save me before, and she needed Him to do it one more time.
For the rest of my life, I will be convinced that it was that prayer that saved me. Her faith that God would step in again and make things right. There was no telling her no.
When things got tough in the coming months, and I felt ready to give up, roll over and die, Esther reminded me that I had one reason to keep fighting: Rafi needed her dad. So I struggled to stay, because I could not leave her alone. My dad lost his father at the same age, and five decades later still wept over his loss. I was not going to bequeath that kind of sorrow to her.
Then there were my adopted angels. Let me preface this with the acknowledgment that it has taken me a long time to understand the ironic arithmetic of love. When it is divided, it multiplies. I never imagined that I could love people who were once strangers as if they were my own, that they would take up residence in my heart and stay there.
Then I met Da.
Desiree Fuertes was my first adopted daughter in Texas. She lived next door, and was on our porch a day or so after we moved in, all of three years old and perched confidently on her Big Wheel. She announced that she was “Desiree Fuerte, and that means ‘strong.'” It was love at first sight. Da was a regular presence in our home over the years. She had her own key and during junior high and high school was usually at our home early in the morning. She would inspect my shirt and tie combinations every morning and send me back to my room if I presented as a fashion disaster. When I had my car wreck, she held my hand in the emergency room and silently wept. I didn’t need words to hear what she told me. (Dag nab it, I’m crying thinking about it).
Da is a relatively new flight attendant. When she found out about my health condition, she essentially told her employer that her dad was in the ICU and she needed to be home. As I understand it, she put her job on the line to be by my side. That is so Da. She tended to me during my coma, washing and combing my unruly hair and massaging my feet to help avoid blood clots. (If you have seen my feet, you would understand the scope of THAT sacrifice). Not long after I awoke, she was there, as bright-eyed and lovable as the three-year old on my doorstep. Love at every sight.
Another of my long-time adopted daughters is Tracy Roper. She was a wee little thing when we moved here as well, and her family were our first friends when we moved to Texas. They have been our friends for over 20 years now. And my Tracy has always held a special place in my heart. She smiles patiently through all of my blonde jokes, and she has always known exactly when “The G Man” (a title only she is allowed to use) needs a hug or a peck on the cheek. When she served a mission, we wrote each other almost every week, mostly because I just missed her terribly. She was there in my ICU room as well, bringing essential oils for my feet that she massaged in for me. I don’t know whether the oils helped restore me, or if was just the natural result of sincere love. I do know that because of the oils, my room never smelled like a hospital room, and that was blessing beyond description.
Two of my adopted daughters came into my life through Francesca, as they were her best friends during high school. Miko Anderson redefines cool and always seems to be going out of her way to take special care of me. On important days, she shows up with sugar-free desserts that Papa gets all to himself. And somehow those brownies taste better than when I try to make them. I think I know the secret ingredient. After my car accident, she and her father, a nurse, were at our home virtually every day for months, making sure that we were ok, tending to our needs, and generally just making our lives easier. Miko is studying to be a physical therapist, and her school was just down the street from Parkland, and at every opportunity she was there for me. On the visits I can remember, once I had woken up, she always came with narrow eyes, inspecting every machine and bag attached to me, and asking quizzing everyone about my treatment. After I finally got home, my most frequent visitor was, unsurprisingly, Miko. Love that kid.
Priscilla Gonzales is the other of my daughter’s friends who quickly became one of Papa Ghio’s girls. Honestly, our family’s experiences with Priscilla are almost sacred in nature, and it would not be appropriate to discuss some of the things we have had to help each other through. What I will say is that no one calls me Papa Ghio with more sincerity than she. We do not always see as much of her as we would like, but the depth of our mutual affection is immeasurable. One of the worst symptoms after my car accident was insomnia. For 50 days in a row, I never slept more than 2 hours at a time. It was Priscilla who one night came to our home and stayed up all night, just visiting with me. It was one of the nicest things anyone ever has done for me. She was also in Utah when I went down this time, and almost immediately she was at my side. I never woke up during her visit, but when I found out later that she had come to be by my side, I felt my grinchy little heart grow a couple of sizes.
There are other adopted Ghio girls who made my recovery easier. Mandy Funderburk and her irrepressible smile. Warm hugs from Amber Bailey and Breanna Munoz. The heartbreaking moment when Ariel Roper, Tracy’s older sister who actually lived with us for a time, burst into tears when she saw me after my discharge, shocked at how frail I was. It was more than she could take; and her pain was more than I could bear. So many moments that softened and strengthened my heart at the same time.
These daughters of mine. They’ve given me what I needed most over the last year: A reason to live. Their smiles and songs, their tears and touch, their love and light provided the healing I needed so that I could live.
It’s that arithmetic of love. No matter what you do, it adds up to joy.
Tomorrow: Strangers’ Blood