Jacob knows more about heartache than any 26-year-old should. His wife, Adriana, died of cervical cancer in August, leaving him to raise Emely, their four-year-old daughter who has Down Syndrome. Last week, Emely was diagnosed with leukemia.
Jacob came to this country with his family from Mexico when he was 14 years old. He started high school in McAllen, where everyone — including the teachers — spoke Spanish. He taught himself English after he left high school. He moved to Alabama, where he worked construction as a sheet-rocker and painter with his brother. It was there that he met Adriana. They were both standing at a bus stop and got to talking. It was Adriana’s birthday and she was having a party that evening. She invited him, and though he felt shy, he went. Before long, he started going to the park every afternoon with Adriana and 10-year-old Fryda, her daughter from a previous marriage. Jacob said it didn’t take long before they were in love.
Together Jacob, Adriana and Fryda formed a new family. When Emely was born, nothing in Adriana’s pregnancy had indicated Down Syndrome. They were both shocked, but it didn’t take long before she was the light of all of their eyes. However, she had health problems. At six months old, Emely had open heart surgery and ended up spending months in a hospital in a larger city far from their home. Fryda lived with her father while Jacob and Adriana spent their days at the hospital and their nights in their yellow VW bug in the hospital’s parking lot. Emely was intubated for so many weeks that it damaged her esophagus. Because of this, she is still unable to eat solid food and must be fed through a tube every three hours.
When Emely was two, Adriana started feeling unwell and was eventually diagnosed with cancer. They had moved to McAllen to be closer to family, but last year, they came to Austin since there is limited access to treatment in the Valley. She had chemo and radiation, but the cancer spread throughout her body, causing her a great deal of pain. 15-year-old Fryda, who had stayed in Alabama with her father, quit school and moved to Austin to help care for her mother. She was a constant, loving caregiver who brought so much comfort to Adriana, help to Jacob, and joy to Emely.
Fryda’s help allowed Jacob to work as much as he could. Jacob paints houses and commercial spaces, as well as hangs sheetrock. He used to have his own business in Alabama, but sold all his equipment and van to pay for the move to Texas. Shortly after coming to Austin, he approached a man wearing painting clothes in HEB and asked him if he had any work. Jacob worked for him until Adriana’s illness caused him to miss too much work and his employer regretfully had to replace him. Sometimes he would only be at work for an hour or two before Adriana would call and ask him to come home.
Unfortunately, Adriana’s cancer continued to progress. She came on Hospice Austin’s service in June and died in August.
Fryda returned home to Alabama, and Jacob decided to stay in Austin because the services are so good for Emely. Jacob returned to work, and Emely began attending the Rosedale School, a school for children with special needs. She loved it. She started bringing home artwork for her daddy, and he pasted it on the wall above the altar he had created for Adriana. The altar contains Adriana’s ashes in a simple black box, the rose and card he gave her on her birthday that he promised he’d never throw away, framed pictures, her neatly folded bedsheets, and fresh flowers.
It seemed as if their lives were starting to stabilize. They had even been accepted into the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring campaign. Each year, the Statesman selects 12 nonprofits and features one of their families to be the face of the nonprofit; they run articles about the family and their needs during the holiday season. Readers donate money and gently used items. The featured families’ needs are filled first and the rest of the money goes to the nonprofit to help other families in need throughout the year with rent, utilities, and grocery cards. Hospice Austin nominated them and we were so happy when they were selected.
Last Wednesday, Jacob took Emely to the doctor when the area around her feeding tube started giving her problems. It didn’t look right to the doctor so he ordered blood tests. He called Jacob at work the next morning and told him to get Emely to the hospital ASAP. She has leukemia.
Jacob is facing this as bravely as he faced his wife’s illness, but it’s agonizing to see this bright-eyed child, who wants to hug everyone, embarking on a similar journey of ports, chemo, and hospitals. He’s all too familiar with the difficulties that lie ahead. Emely had been in the hospital for two days when she came down with the RSV virus and became very ill. Fortunately, she appears to be responding to treatment and her prognosis is good.
The community has been good to this family during the Season for Caring campaign — numerous lawyers have offered to draw up a will for Jacob; Emely has received some toys, books, and dress-up clothes; ACC has offered a GED and tutoring class for Jacob; and Marty Butler of the The Butler Brothers has marshaled his friends, family and co-workers to donate gift cards, a used laptop, and painting supplies. Now, however, Jacob’s most pressing need is financial assistance since he is by Emely’s bedside every minute and unable to work. Season for Caring families receive no cash directly, but we can apply donations made on his behalf to paying his rent and other bills as he sees fit. We would also like to bring Fryda to Austin to see her sister. To help this family, please visit http://community.statesman.com/donate.php