I visited my dad in March 2006, when I still did not believe he had lung cancer. I thought he was lying. In reality, however, he had just received his first chemotherapy treatment, though he appeared as healthy as ever. Once my family and I realized my dad was telling the truth, we assumed that, as tough a man as he had always seemed, he would beat this latest episode of misfortune. We assumed we could soon return to our separate, busy lives. Such was not the case.
My dad was born to Antonio Gutierrez and Ramona Gutierrez (Nava) in Santa Barbara. His roots here stem back to the 1800s, when his great-grandfather emigrated from Chile and opened the Gutierrez Drug Store, one of the first drug stores in Southern California. The store served Santa Barbarans for 124 years.
For more than 40 years, my father worked as a barber. For the last 10 of those years before his diagnosis, he was known as the “Traveling Barber,” taking his skills to clients’ homes, most of them in the Santa Barbara and Camarillo area. He also made special visits to the Santa Barbara Mission to give the priests their scheduled haircuts. Many clients confided in him, often sharing their life stories. He was known as a storyteller who enjoyed exaggerating to entertain his customers.
Within a month of his diagnosis, the doctors said his disease had progressed significantly. The chemotherapy was not working. Our family came together to visit him at his house-something we hadn’t done very often in the past. We prepared a pasta dinner and gave him the attention he had so desperately wanted from us for so many years. Our father had not been the best father when my five siblings and I were kids. Or so we thought. Consequently, we didn’t feel as close to him as we really wanted to be. Among other things, he tended to preach about God, sometimes to the point of fanaticism. As an adult, I found myself shutting down to his words.
After the family gathering, I returned to my home in Sacramento. Now, I found myself wanting to make up for lost time. I realized that for years, I had carried dreams of how I wanted my relationship with my father to be. But in reality, we had rarely hugged, kissed, or shared activities we both enjoyed. Suddenly, I wanted my dad to feel good about the people who really did love him-even though, as my siblings and I found out later, we did not really know him. I decided to plan a party to celebrate his life while he was still alive. The party took place in a community center near his home, and about 40 family members and friends attended. Two months later, he died.
Now, a year later, I still grieve, but am glad we finally gave our father the love that, as it turns out, he really deserved.
Not long after he passed away, we learned through some older family members and his longtime friends that his childhood contained many horrors, all too awful to write about here. To make even one of them public would be to violate his sense of privacy and dignity. Yet what I see now is how incredibly far beyond his childhood he grew, never imposing that kind of misery upon his own family.
I learned why he behaved in the ways he did. In addition to experiencing a childhood many people could never have survived, my father left school at 16. He also was not brought up to believe in modern remedies such as counseling, and had to work hard to support six kids. Until I learned his life story, I never thought of him as a hero. Now I do.
I see now that his religion was his passion-and, more importantly, his way of getting through life. It gave him strength and raised him out of his horrible childhood. I think now that by preaching to us about God so often, he hoped to pass on something that consoled him. He wanted us to have something we could use in difficult times, too. Signs of this intent I can clearly see now. For example, he traveled to many of the places where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared. As kids, he took all six of us to three famous sightings: F¡tima, Portugal; Lourdes, France; and Garabandal, Spain. In the last 10 years, he visited Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina 15 times. He even scheduled a trip to Medjugorje for June 16, 2006.
He died May 18, 2006.