Teresa de Bree | Life’s Lessons from Uncle Joe Garcia

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

I was deeply saddened to learn that my former neighbor and friend Joe Garcia passed away last week. Joe and his family were special people whose story is worth sharing. 

With Joe’s sudden death, I recall the time I first met Joe. I was just 6 years old when my family moved to Chatsworth and bought a home next door to the Garcias. The Garcia family was a lot like mine. Our families were both Catholic; we had seven children and they had five. Joe was always known to me as “Uncle Joe,” a term of endearment and respect. Uncle Joe was always available as a friend, mentor and tutor. He was accessible because, at the tender age of 19, he contracted polio, which broke him and left him with quadriplegia. I don’t know if Joe had the opportunity to get the polio vaccine, I only know he hadn’t. 

Initially, Joe’s prognosis was grim when he typed a letter to his older brother, Clifford, using a stick placed in his mouth. Joe told his brother that he broke up with his girlfriend to avoid having her endure his eventual death. When Clifford and his wife Alyce read Joe’s letter, they couldn’t stop crying. Not wanting a family member to suffer alone, Clifford and Alyce decided to take Joe in. This was not an easy task, as they were a young couple with three small children. Joe and Alyce assumed full-time care of Joe, which entailed tending to all of his physical needs. Joe remarked years later that he never had a bed sore because of Alyce’s amazing care.  

Due to his paralysis, Joe’s dreams of attending college and having a normal life were shattered. He would never have a family, wife, children, or an independent life. Despite his debilitating condition, Joe wanted to make a difference and repay Clifford and Alyce for their kindness. He began by taking college classes focusing on science and math, so he could help his nieces and nephews with their homework. 

Although Joe originally planned to focus solely on tutoring his nieces and nephews, he eventually became a tutor and mentor to all of the neighborhood children. He was affectionately referred to as Uncle Joe. As a tutor, Uncle Joe was kind and patient, which made learning from him extremely enjoyable and rewarding. Although I can’t say I became a math whiz or scientist, I eventually became a nurse and caregiver to my own daughter with special needs. Joe prepared me for those endeavors. 

Joe was the neighborhood watchman. When we saw Joe, we made sure to be on our best behavior, because we knew if we did anything bad Joe would rat us out to our parents. Joe was also a chess prodigy. My older sister, Mary, said he taught her the love of the game, and she learned chess moves she remembers to this day.  

Joe never engaged in self-pity because he came to love life so much. When Joe wasn’t helping us, we were there to help him. We were always available when he wanted help to write letters or fetch items from the house.  

When Joe turned 65, Alyce threw Joe a retirement party and was surprised to see that 250 people showed up. Friends and neighbors came from near and far, wanting to show Joe how much of an impact he had on their lives. Joe mentored many generations, for which we are all grateful.  Thankfully, Joe lived almost 80 years due to the care of his amazing sister-in-law Alyce and the rest of the Garcia family.  

Joe lived much longer than anyone ever expected of someone suffering from the same fate. Joe will be forever in my heart and will be missed by many. I know Joe will be remembered by many, because when I ordered flowers for the family, the local florist said he was so overwhelmed with orders for Joe that our order would have to be delayed. 

As I reflect on Joe’s life, I feel compelled to remind others why vaccinations are so important. We can only imagine how Joe’s life might have been different had he only been vaccinated for polio, and how much more he could have achieved. Please remember to keep Joe in your thoughts when considering whether to get vaccinated — especially against something as terrible as COVID-19.  

Teresa de Bree is a Valencia resident. 

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