For this series, the WSP counselors were asked to interview an older family member with a childhood experience different than their own. These pieces focus on the family member’s past, particularly his or her goals or aspirations. The purpose of this assignment was to get the counselors to engage with an important family member and to learn more about themselves and their family history in the process.
When I was only about 9 or 10 years old, I almost drowned. I was walking across the pool and I slipped and fell in the water, but I didn’t know how to swim yet. I tried twice to go up to the surface to call for help. And the third time, I went under the water. And suddenly everything became really calm. I saw myself at the edge of the pool. I opened my eyes and I wasn’t breathing, but for some reason, I had no problem breathing. Then, something told me to jump one more time – I made it up to the surface and said ‘help!’ And I felt a hand grab me. And the next thing I remember, I was on the side of the pool on all fours, but no one was there. Ten feet away from me was a lifeguard who was looking straight ahead like nothing happened. I was dripping, by myself, and no one was around me. And so I thank God everyday for saving my life and giving me a second chance. To this day I can’t explain what happened – a guardian angel helped me that day. It changed my life.
“Your uncle’s like a cat,” my mom liked to say whenever my uncle – her brother – happened to come up in conversation. “He has nine lives.”
I’ve always disregarded my mom’s praise for my uncle Efren as an exaggerated case of sibling admiration, but after talking to my uncle about his life for the first time, I discovered that “nine” is an understatement; not only has he survived countless near-death experiences that would have swallowed up any other ordinary soul, he has come out nearly unscathed… Nine lives? I’d say he has at least fifteen.
I attribute my conversation with my uncle to a developmental assignment I was required to complete for work – the prompt: “Interview an Older Relative.” After receiving the assignment, I decided to interview my uncle, not only because of my mother’s fondness for him, but because he and I happen to have the exact same phobia – a fear of throwing up – which we have struggled with throughout the majority of our lives. Since I have yet to meet another person who suffers from the same fear, I assumed that our identical phobias could not be pure coincidence – I wondered if perhaps my uncle and I might be connected by something deeper than genetics, perhaps by an invisible thread that weaves through the both of us.
So I asked my mom for his contact information and sent him a text, asking if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for a work assignment I needed to complete. He agreed, of course – he told me he’s always available to talk.
I ordered the questions chronologically, starting off by asking about his earliest childhood memory, transitioning into adolescence, and then adulthood, finishing off with a few questions about his purpose in life, and finally: “what is the one thing you want people to remember most about you?”
As the conversation progressed, and as I got to know more about my uncle’s tumultuous, almost unbelievable past, I developed an ardent admiration, appreciation, and respect for him. While I cannot recount every single one of his responses adequately enough to do our conversation justice, I believe that only one word is needed to summarize my uncle and the course of his life: “resilient.”
Whether as a preschooler challenged to a duel by a fellow classmate, as captain of his high school wrestling team, as a Colonel, or as a father, he has been resilient. In the face of every trial, every hurdle, every hardship, he has been resilient. He’s been burned, he’s been belittled, and he’s been broken, but he has never been defeated. He has withstood pain and suffering that would’ve cracked Goliath in two, but he is still here, still breathing, still fighting. It is this resilience that has ebbed him on and ultimately guided him to success.
And it is because of, rather than despite of, the intensity of his past struggles that he is able to find gratitude in each day; he is aware of how blessed he is to be given a chance at life. In his words, he sees his survival as a God-given opportunity to “help someone else out, because God spared my life. And I thank God everyday for saving my life and giving me a second chance.”
Interviewing my uncle Efren has taught me to be a fighter – it has shown me the importance of resilience. My uncle has taught me to strive, to never back down, to challenge the limits I have set for myself and aim to surpass them. As our conversation came to a close, he said to me, “I think that 100% is not good enough,” and added, “you can always give more than that.” Now, when I meet an obstacle I am hesitant to challenge, my uncle’s parting words echo in my head: “I will give you 111%.”