The story of my father is not a sad one.
Despite being shot in the back at the age of 20 and paralyzed from the waist down, he never wanted the story of his life to be of sadness, struggle or pity — but one of endurance and strength.
But his injury is part of his story and it deserves to be told.
My dad initially struggled with being paraplegic and didn’t want to be a burden. He even tried to take his own life twice, which I didn’t know until he told me a story while we were arguing over a soccer match.
It turned out, my mother had given him an ultimatum and it was the tough love he’d needed.
That sounds awful in today’s politically correct world, but my mom was also 20 years old and had 2 young children. I was 2 and my baby brother was only a few months old when my father was shot.
My mother basically told him if he wanted to end his life he would have to do it on his own time because she was busy trying to make our family work. If he wanted to be part of our world, he would have to help with the kids and she had to go find work to keep our family together. She told him how much she loved him but she couldn’t rescue him from his pity. She needed help with the children.
My dad finally got it. His focus changed from self pity to self-preservation for us — for my brother and I.
He took to his new role like a true champ, a leader, a mentor, a coach, a friend, a teacher and ultimately our hero. He became our ‘Mr. Mom’ before that was even a popular cliché.
My father would wake up every day ready to be the best dad he could be. That meant helping me get to and from my Girl Scout Brownie meetings and helping me iron my skirts.
He was more than just a dad, he was a leader in our small community. He volunteered at a Senior Citizens organization and attended our PTA meetings in between.
photo courtesy of the author
In the summer, he made sure we always had fun activities to do, including taking us back and forth from soccer games and cheering us on. He would bring the best snacks — no boring orange slices, he would buy each player a donut for after the game. He had a basketball rim and a half court built in our yard and would spend hours playing basketball with my brother and me and beating us in the game of HORSE.
Our home became a safe haven for the misfits around the neighborhood. He would always give us advice while reprimanding us for doing bad things, like accidentally breaking a neighbor’s window.
My dad was also the trusted mechanic for all of our BMX bikes, and one year he gave us all a small pouch — a flat tire kit — and proceeded to show us the basics of upkeep and how to keep our BMX bikes in tip-top shape.
I recall everyone in the neighborhood looking at my dad with intense eyes, raising their hands in the air to ask questions as he patiently answered us.
I remember thinking my dad had to be the most important dad in our neighborhood.
photo courtesy of the author
He was very popular with everyone, really.
He received disability checks and they always came in on the 3rd of the month. We all knew the first weekend of the month my dad would make hot dogs for all the kids. Some of those kids grew up knowing my dad was such a nice man that they would stop and help him cut his grass. If they saw him tinkering with his car they would come over and help him change his oil.
My dad taught my brother and I how to change our own car oil, change our flat tires and do basic repairs.
He would also take us to the local high school swimming pool to teach us how to swim. He couldn’t walk, but he showed us to how to swim, float and be confident in the water. He later confessed to me that he was so scared to get into the water with us but he was more scared of us not knowing how to swim and us drowning.
He knew how important it was for us to be confident in the world we lived with a father who was paraplegic.
My father went on to be an amazing billiards player and our home is lined with all the trophies he won in many tournaments.
I recall one day being at our local recreation center where we spent a lot of time with my father and he was playing ping pong with another member. There, in the middle of the room, stood Rolando Blackman who at the time was a somewhat famous NBA player.
My dad asked him to move away from the table because he was distracting his concentration. The NBA player asked my father if he knew who he was, and my father was very clear in telling him he didn’t care who he was.
People gasped around us.
Our dad looked at my brother and I and told us something I will never to this day forget:
“Never let anyone tell you who they are, you show them who you are.”
My father let me believe I can do and be anything I wanted to be. He was an immigrant and believed in the American Dream.
He made sure we always celebrated 4th of July and Thanksgiving to the most ridiculous and obnoxious as possible, because he was proud to be in this country. He made me a sports fan, and we always watched any and all sports on TV.
Weekends were spent going on road trips to a river, learning to catch fish that burrowed in the water with our hands (this is called noodle fishing), and frying up the fish to taste like heaven in your mouth.
Growing up that way, I laugh at all this fancy camping gear nowadays.
We grew up with none of that, but we had the best camping weekends with my dad, teaching us the proper way of building and maintaining a camp fire, how to naturally filter river water and even deer hunting on cold November weekends.
My dad never raised his voice at my brother and me. Instead he would give us a look, a gesture with his head as if letting us know he brought his eyes down to the ground. It was more painful than any spanking I could have ever received.
Letting my dad down or disappointing him was the last thing I ever wanted to do.
He was my number one cheerleader. He was my magic.
He was the wind literally in my lungs because he made me believe I could do anything and become anything. I ended up joining the US Navy and making 22-year career of it.
He was so very proud of me and would brag about me, even when no one wanted to hear about my navy story — they wanted to hear his life story.
photo courtesy of the author
They wanted to hear his story: how could he be so positive and bigger-than-life with such a major injury? But he thought he was just a dad like any other that did the most boring dad things.
I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but I can say that he wasn’t just like another dad. He was magical, he was dynamic, he had a beautiful smile that would light up an entire building and a black mane on his head without one gray hair.
He was handsome, charming, loved to dance to all kinds of music. He showed me the best dance moves I would later use to win my middle school dance-off.
He also took all the blame for all the broken items in our home when my mom would ask. She always knew it was us, but he would move ahead of us and say he bumped into it.
Our father also had an incredible imagination. He would tell us stories on our road trips of Giants roaming the earth and crushing the ground, creating mountains, and the gods that would be upset with their followers that made the rivers of the world we would fish in.
He created a magical world that helped us all escape the reality of my mother working 2 or 3 jobs to keep us off welfare, and the stress of moving through many homes until we finally had our own little home.
I never knew we were poor because my dad made our life feel so rich with love, time, compassion, understanding and his presence.
He was worth his weight in diamonds.
I can go on forever and discuss what a wonderful grandfather he was, but my boys only spent a few years with him. He passed away after 33 years of using a wheelchair, living his best life, driving in his car to new adventures.
I know his body was just tired of all this energy he had. He had the will to continue to live, his body was just a vessel.
He lives in me daily, in my thoughts, in my memories, in my stories. He was a legend in a small town — or at least I would like to think that. Neighbors who knew him always have the best stories of my father. I have so many memories, too, and I frequently find myself sharing these stories with my two boys.
Times have changed, little towns and dynamics have changed. I took my boys to a river one day to show them how to noodle fish with their hands, but they were bored, they missed their cell service and I couldn’t help but miss my dad.
I know my dad and I would have had a ball that day and enjoyed the only fish I caught on my own — but I know I was not alone. My dad was fishing with me.
Guadalupe “Elena” Galindo is a retired military Senior Enlisted Leader and community organizer for equality and voter rights.