Horacio Lugo walked through my front door with little knowledge about what he was getting himself into. He mostly just knew I needed a contractor and a bid for a remodel job. He arrived early evening wearing jeans and a freshly ironed shirt, his piercing green eyes and warm smile immediately granting me license to welcome him into our home.
For the past two years I'd contemplated transforming my son's vacant room into a writing studio — reimagining the space, repurposing it with light, creating a sanctuary for my thoughts and musings. Spring being a season of new beginnings, the arrival of blossoms and blooms, I woke up one morning and knew it was time.
If you read my columns, you know the excruciating aftermath of grief. It lingers, taking on a life of its own, sort of like a giant monster sitting on your shoulder constantly reminding you that your heart is shattered. It has been nearly a decade since we lost our son, Alex, but time becomes warped, whether holidays are nearing, seasons changing, or we are simply attempting to carry on with life. You never really get over this.
I'm not exactly sure how the idea for transforming the room came about. All I know is there were numerous false starts and bouts of second thoughts. Entering the room itself, touching even the door handle usually resulted in a cold, awkward stickiness. Some days I'd venture in, take inventory of empty shelves, vacant walls, then abruptly walk out, shutting the door behind me.
How can a mother go on without her child? There is no undoing this, I'd think to myself. But life had taught me it was always in these precise moments when the ache nagged to incomprehensible levels, that someone showed up out of the blue.
From our very first encounter, Horacio sensed my reluctance. Always responding with calm and gentle words, he never questioned my ambivalence. Instead, he honored the space, each pause somehow understood, as if he were no stranger to pain and suffering. With impeccable timing he offered suggestions — a new window here, a fresh coat of paint, maybe overhead track lighting to brighten the room and shine new life onto my keyboard.
Once I said yes, he showed up every morning like clockwork — his crew working quietly, meticulously, with the kind of respect generally reserved for the confines of a church. Sensing our deepening connection, I began sharing tidbits about the room, its history, the life that once was. Horacio Lugo and I were becoming friends.
I started wondering if he, too, had a back story. One morning, I invited him to sit down with me. By now he knew I was a writer. I think I even hinted doing a column about the room transformation. Of course, he would be an integral part of the story. Would that be all right? I sent him a list of questions curious about any personal struggles or defining moments, whatever it was that had shaped his "now." He wrote back saying nobody had ever queried him in quite this way.
His story was a combination of heartbreak and hope. The eldest of three siblings, he described his youth as "life on a tight rope." He grew up in San Jose living with family in a two-car garage, collecting cans and washing cars to help make ends meet. Placed in special education classes because he didn't speak English up to snuff, he told me, "They called me stupid and put me in welding and shop classes. I learned how to take things apart. And put them back together again." Frequently bullied, he learned survival skills from neighborhood gang members but keenly stayed one step ahead of their trappings.
At age 15, Horacio contracted spinal meningitis. Out of 20 afflicted in the Bay Area, he was the lone survivor. Sitting at my kitchen table, tears streaming from his eyes, he recalled doctors telling his parents their son had "four hours to live." Gravely ill with a raging fever, the teenage boy quietly vowed to help others if he survived the ordeal.
Forty-eight hours later, his fever broke and he was miraculously on the mend. His life struggles weren't over yet. There would be many more agonizing life trials, including near-death experiences for both his wife and newborn daughter during childbirth, but astonishingly, both survived. The family eventually found refuge, home and a new life in Fresno.
I read recently that suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The pain smashes through what we think is the bottom floor of our existence — revealing an area even lower. Thrust down into these deeper zones, even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, we tend to emerge more human. This would ultimately be Horacio's gift to the world. And to me.
This morning the room is 99% finished. Sunlight shines through newly paned glass. A few nights ago I stayed up writing well past midnight, awaiting the blood red moon. Gazing intermittently out the window, acutely aware of my own eclipse, I was grateful for the kindness of once-a-stranger, now a friend — Horacio Lugo, who showed up at my front door and worked his way into my heart, transfusing it with new hope.
Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen a Life in Column Inches." Email: armen firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @ArmenBacon.