Sometimes, we meet people who rise above the rubble of their lives and shine a light.
People who find reasons to smile and laugh when they feel like hiding. People who, even when broken and in tears, are radiant with an unmistakable beauty. People who open our eyes to new definitions of courage.
People who are champions.
I met one of those people last week. Her name is Roni Valle.
The 44-year-old Clovis woman recently lost her husband, Edgar Valle-Sandoval, a detective with the Fresno Police Department, to pancreatic cancer — a loss that came six years after the couple’s young daughter Natalia died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 7.
And although it’s only been three months since her husband died, Valle is already encouraging others at a time when some might imagine her to be drowning in sorrow.
“Don’t give up hope,” she says. “You can be going through the worst and, it might not seem like it, but that rainbow is going to happen and you don’t want to be so down in the depths of despair that you can’t see it.”
You have to make a conscious effort to focus on the things that bring you joy.
Valle says she learned a lot from her eldest daughter, Natalia.
“She set the tone for our entire family, that you have to look at life with joy. That there is always something good to be found, fun things in every day.”
Doctors discovered Natalia’s brain cancer in April of 2008 after she had a seizure at her school. She died nearly a year later.
But in that year, there was a lot of life: swimming with dolphins, sea turtles and manatees in Mexico, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and celebrating what her family calls their “Holy Trinity” — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and finally, Natalia’s Jan. 24 birthday.
Valle called Natalia her “general” and her younger daughter, Sophia, now 11, her “Navy SEAL.” Natalia planned things out and Sophia would carry out the mission, Valle says with a laugh.
Natalia was giving — “she’d give you her last M&M if you’d already eaten yours” — and wise beyond her years.
Valle often thinks of her daughter watching the Beijing Olympics on TV one evening after finishing a radiation treatment. As a powerlifter medaled following what many considered a career-ending injury, he put his hand over his heart and pointed to the crowd. Natalia got the message, loud and clear.
“She said, ‘See that!? It’s all in your heart. You just have to be strong in your heart.’”
A lot of her friends still talk about her with me … I kind of measure how she would be and how she would have grown when I look at them, so it’s nice.
Roni Valle of daughter Natalia, who died in 2009
After Natalia died, Valle became wish director for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central California, something she continued until after her husband died. It had become too hard, working with sick children who reminded her of her little girl.
She’s not sure what’s next.
Pausing, Valle says tearfully, “I don’t want to say I’m rudderless, but he (Edgar) was my main sounding board. He would help focus all my energy.”
After Natalia died, Edgar decided to take on additional duties at the Police Department. Along with working as a detective who focused on domestic violence cases, he became a companion officer, a position that helps other officers going through a difficult experience — everything from a serious illness in the family to an officer-involved shooting.
“He was very extroverted,” Valle says of her husband. “He did not know a stranger and he could talk to absolutely everyone and get their full life stories out of them within moments. He was strong, stubborn, very charismatic, and if you were a friend, he would fight for you for whatever cause.”
As he underwent radiation and chemotherapy, his friends rallied around him. In March, Valle says, more than 100 police officers, five of them women, shaved their heads in a show of support. It meant “more than the world” to Edgar and Roni.
Edgar died at age 41 on April 12, the day before Sophia’s birthday.
“He wanted to make it through her birthday, but didn’t have enough strength to do it,” Valle says through tears. “He was the strongest man I knew. If anyone could have made it, it would have been him.”
Valle chooses not to remember Edgar or Natalia in pain.
“I remember a lot of laughs we had along the journey and they made us stronger.”
In the face of immense loss, it’s the little things that get Valle through each day — the sound of children laughing, a chocolate doughnut, or even something as simple as noticing Wal-Mart has reorganized its store.
“It’s, ‘Oh my gosh, look, my flower bloomed today,’ and getting into my car and, ‘Thank God, the seat is cool when it’s really hot outside.’ You don’t realize how many good things happen until you actually start focusing on all the good things instead of all the bad things that happen to you.”
If you work on having a positive attitude, when life knocks you down, you will get up all the quicker.
But that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to feel sad sometimes, Valle says, because you are. There are just things that are more important — life. And not just living, but living joyfully.
The more Roni says, the more sure I am that this is available for all. That we have no excuse to wallow in our troubles.
“Yeah, you are going to cry,” Valle says. “There are days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed. But something cool will happen that day, and I can’t miss it. I refuse to miss it.”