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gabriella AND arnoldo

01 February 2020 Written by  By Gabriella Gannon Avila
Published in February 2020 Articles

WALKING in Love THROUGH A Dark Valley

i met Arnoldo Avila when the two of us were Chico State sophomores. I had a double-major in History and Religious Studies; Arnoldo had a double-major in International Relations and Social Science. 

Everything changed one evening when six of us from the school, including Arnoldo, went dancing together at a Chico club called the Brickworks. At one point the two of us got up to dance. As soon as he took me in his arms, I felt as though an electrical charge was passing through my body. As we danced, he held me close and I discovered I was holding on to him, as well. When the dance was over he kissed me on the mouth, and I kissed him back. The next day he took me out for breakfast at the Blueberry Twist diner. We both knew that we belonged together “for as long as we both shall live.” We became a unit that day and remained inseparable during the remainder of our lives together. 

We were married December 29, 2001, in the amazingly beautiful Guadalajara Templo del Carmen church. It was not the typical destination wedding, because my folks had been married in that same church. The service was beautiful for many reasons. 

After the wedding, we set up our first home in a tiny rented room in the back of a San Bruno garage. Arnoldo began working for a staffing company, and I was working for NASA managing educational grants in their Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. It was a wonderful job. I loved working with students and especially with these bright and motivated people who were interested in becoming scientists. Of course, Arnoldo did a wonderful job in the staffing company and two years later we were able to purchase our first house in San Jose. Our lives were moving into a beautiful space. I took classes and graduated from Santa Clara School of Law in 2007. Our first baby, Noah, had been born that January. I was back in school a week after my delivery but following graduation, I focused my attention on work and being a mom, so I never took the bar exam. 

In 2010 I was pregnant with Matthew. We moved to Brentwood, bought a home in Apple Hill, and fell in love with the town and people. I became an active member of the Mothers of Brentwood, joining their book club and playgroups. I made friends with the other women in the group, some of them friends for life. We were like family. Baby number three, Nico, came along in 2015, giving us three healthy vibrant little boys. Arnoldo and I were living lives that other people might dream of, with good friends, in a great community, attending a wonderful church. All the pieces of the good life were in place. 

“He was trapped in a body that no longer worked, but he showed through gestures that he was fully present.”

But then, on April 9, 2017, we were driving home from Sacramento, and Arnoldo experienced full cardiac arrest. When we arrived at the hospital, the doctors offered a grim prognosis. Arnoldo’s heart was working fine again. However, the prolonged lack of oxygen had caused a severe anoxic brain injury. They wanted me to make a decision about maintaining life-support. I decided to fight for him and see what recovery might look like. I maintained vigil with him, continually hoping and praying that he would wake up. At the beginning there were times I was nearly overcome by his pain and mine; while driving down Vasco Road I would have momentary thoughts about how easy it would be to just drive off the road and be done with it. 

A breakthrough occurred when 10-year-old Noah was with us in the ICU unit. He walked to Arnoldo’s side. “I miss you, Dad,” he said. “I miss you tucking me in at night and kissing me.” I leaned over to Arnoldo. “If you can hear us,” I told him, “give your son a kiss.” I then watched in breathless wonder as, following two months in a deep coma, Arnoldo lifted his head from the pillow and turned to kiss his son. The doctors had imagined that Arnoldo was in a vegetable state, but it turned out that he was fully alive and aware of what was going on. He was trapped in a body that no longer worked, but he showed through gestures that he was fully present. 

That kiss was the beginning of his recovery. He started to sit up on his own, to stand with assistance, take some stumbling steps, and did things they had never imagined he could do. He could respond to yes and no questions with a squeeze of his hand. He began doing therapy and started to relearn to talk. We were so excited by his return. However, our hopes were dashed when we learned that the healing process itself typically causes other problems in the mind of a person with Arnoldo’s condition. Brain and muscle connections deteriorated. He began to experience excruciating muscle contractions, and for the next two years lived in terrible pain. Arnoldo had been the strongest, bravest person I had ever met and it was terrible to stand by his side and watch him suffer. The medical staff kept increasing the levels of medicine to control his increased levels of pain, which accelerated his mental decline. 

Arnoldo’s continual suffering finally drove me to make an impossible decision. I placed my hand on his. “We love you so much and wish you were back here with us, but we want you to be free of pain.” Then I said, “I will care for our boys.” And added, “We will be okay.” I was giving him permission to leave and three months ago, on November 15, he finally went home. 

We had been living the American Dream, with genuine prosperity, healthy kids, wonderful jobs, and a lovely home. One day as I was driving to the hospital where I was spending most of my time, I realized that the illness had wiped away any sense that I was “living the good life.” But that turned out to be a superficial assessment of the truth that when the presence of God was all I had left; His presence was all I needed. 

In that moment of awareness, my spirit took an enormous leap. I realized with a sudden shock that Arnoldo’s illness had, in the most important ways, been the best time of my life. I had always been friendly with my relatives and the people around me, but Arnoldo’s illness had brought us all into a “fellowship of suffering,” as someone called it, that made our relationships more intimate, loving, and personal than anything I had experienced before. I had always believed in God and had been a follower of Jesus Christ, but now my connection with Him had become more real and personal than would ever have been possible if Arnoldo’s heart attack hadn’t turned my world upside down. 

“He kept squeezing my hand and acknowledging in many ways that he would choose his present suffering over an offer of health.”

A quote from Vincent van Gogh catches an important truth: “Normality is a paved road,” he said. “It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.” The flowers of grace, love, and even joy had been growing along the abnormal and uncomfortable pathway we had been following. The rainbows of God’s presence and butterflies of his grace had marked each milestone. Someone pointed out that light shows us the way, but only darkness will allow us to see the stars. My suffering has made me more conscious of the pain others are having when I see it. I’m stronger and more patient with myself and with other people. 

One day while driving to the hospital, I imagined God presenting me with a choice and saying. “Will you let me make all this go away? Can I send you back to April 8, 2017, and none of this will happen,” I was astonished to realize that I wouldn’t be tempted by the offer. Our former wealth and health were nothing compared to the growth that had taken place in my spirit. 

I wondered what Arnoldo would think about my choice, so when I got to his bedside I said. “I want to ask you a question: If God would give you a choice to remain here or go back in time and skip all this, what would you do?” I repeated the question in many ways, each time asking him to squeeze my hand if he agreed. He kept squeezing my hand and acknowledging in many ways that he would choose his present suffering over an offer of health. I asked him why, and he answered that it is because of the way in which the suffering brought him, me, and our whole family closer to God. Before I had finished repeating the question in various ways and listening to his answers, tears were streaming down my cheeks. By the end, Arnoldo was sitting up in bed and tears were streaming down his cheeks, as well. 

Our story is too good to keep to ourselves. At that point I began to write a book in order to capture the insights and moments of clarity that had come to us during the illness. I called it Prayer of Power. I would sit by Arnoldo’s side, working on the book, and reading passages to him. He enjoyed hearing me tell our love story, his illness, and the transformations that followed. Writing the book was the first step in what will become my mission to share the story with others. I too have realized the truth learned by a survivor of the Nazi death camps, named Corrie Ten Boom, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

The biggest take-away from our story is our awareness that we had been motivated and sustained by love during each part of the journey. My continuing love for Arnoldo, the memory of his love for our children, the demonstrations of love that so many showed to us, and the precious years the two of us had to love and be loved were all energized and sustained by the underlying love that God showers down upon us all. 

Of course, nothing has really ended. Helen Keller said that death was no more than moving through a doorway from one room to another. Someday I will rush through the door into that other room and into the arms of my beloved Arnoldo who even now is joyfully waiting for me. 

Photos By Melissa Van Ruiten and Provided

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