I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for my father. It sounds cliche, but it's true. My dad is Catarino Vasquez. I'm Catarino Vasquez.
Outside of sharing a name, there’s not that much else we have in common when it comes to character traits. Well, we’re both short, though I have him by about 2 1/2 inches.
Dad has worked with his hands since the age of 15, probably even before that. He’s been a mechanic and engine builder at various testing facilities for most of his working life.
In addition to his regular job, which he still works at 64 years old, Dad has always worked on cars on the side. My dad is the hardest worker I know, evidenced by his big forearms. I don’t see how it’s possible anyone could work any harder than a man who somehow hustled enough to keep me from having to pay off student loans for the rest of my life.
So it was the most jarring and terrifying experience when he got suddenly and severely ill six years ago on Father’s Day.
What began as a fever turned very frightening when Dad started stuttering and chattering his teeth as he slipped in and out of consciousness. He kept telling us he was fine, smiling and joking with us in an attempt to keep us from taking him to the ER. Though we probably took him later than we should have, it likely ended up being just in time.
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Once in the ER, the doctor could tell something was very wrong. Dad had trouble breathing and couldn’t walk or stay alert.
We were there for a couple of hours before the doctor made the call to intubate him. That was a chilling and startling piece of news. He was deteriorating at an alarming rate, so much so that he was put on life support. He was so out of it that he didn’t feel any pain from the two spinal taps administered in the ER.
Tests revealed that he had encephalomyelitis, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, typically caused by acute viral infection. We still don’t know how he contracted the illness.
Dad would be in what doctors called a stupor state, a level just above a coma, for about eight days before opening his eyes again. He would be intubated for 15 days. In that time, everyone in my family came to see him.
And when I say everyone in my family, that is a lot of people. Dad has eight siblings on his side of the family, and there are six siblings on my mom’s side. They all had to come see Cat, mostly because nobody could believe he was that sick. Not Cat, a man who hardly missed a day of work.
Despite working so much at jobs that pay, my dad is also the most readily available person in the extended family. Dad's willingness to lend a hand doesn't stop with family members. I remember many times as I was growing up when we would stop on the side of the road to help a stalled car. "Help 'em, Gato," my mom would usually say. But Dad would stop even when my mom wasn't in the car.
So when he got sick, there were many people praying and hoping for a recovery.
One moment that sticks with me is when Dad’s older brother Emilio visited. Emilio is a big, macho dude who my dad always looked up to growing up. So when Emilio saw my dad, his little sidekick, in what looked like a coma, he nearly broke down. “Ah, mi Cat,” I remember him saying, mixing a little Spanish in his grief.
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As it turned out, though, that was a good night. My dad reacted to Emilio, and after that he started to slowly come back to us. My mom was the Secretary of Good Signs and noted and held tight to any piece of good news, however small, she witnessed. The good signs slowly started accumulating.
And then it happened. One day at the hospital, my mom and I stepped out of Dad's room to finally get her something to eat. When we returned, he was awake and no longer intubated. My sister had remained in the room and told us about the scary sight of my dad turning purple as the nurse struggled a little to take the tube out.
It was just a matter of time and some rehab before Dad made a full recovery. He had to learn to walk again and needed to regain a lot of the muscle he lost while being laid up for 30 days total. But his forearms are back, and so is his busy schedule.
I still have a little height advantage on Dad, but he’ll always be the biggest man I know.
Cat Vasquez is sports bridge editor at the American-Statesman. This is part of a series of our staff's personal Father's Day stories.