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Family Album / A weekly profile of a family--its history,
joys and trials. Eric and Erycia Hudgens

He lived recklessly and nearly died. Now he's made a new life raising his young daughter. Then cancer struck. Still, he hangs on, grateful for . . . Another Chance

May 23, 1999|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES ATFF WRITER

Cancer almost took Eric Hudgens, and as he watches his daughter Erycia play in the sand, he knows that still it might. Remission offers hope, but Hudgens trusts few things in life, least of all cancer.

In most ways, he is unafraid, even prepared for death, and when he looks back on his 53 years--the rippin' and runnin'--what is truly amazing, he says, is that he has lived this long.

He was 49 before he finally settled down--retired from drug dealing, became the father and grandfather he never was before. The cruel irony is that cancer waited.

After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation two years ago, he had a stem cell transplant in December. So far, test results are in his favor, and he may soon return to his job building movie sets, but he chooses not to look far into the future. There is, he says, only one thing left for him to do before he dies.

He wants to be a father to this child in the sand, a child whose mere birth took him from the streets and brought him home. Four-year-old Erycia helped her father see life and family for what it can be, and now he wants to do the same for her.

Hudgens moved from Denver to Los Angeles as a child. By 12, he had stolen his first car. By 13, he was in juvenile hall. By 15, he was in a gang. At 16, he dropped out of school. And at 17, he started dealing drugs and eventually developed a taste for his own wares, craving the cocaine-induced velocity that shivered and surged through his veins.

He went from car club to motorcycle club and worked odd jobs all his life, from factory work to bodyguard. He lived life fast, never staying still for long. He recalls from his biker days an incident in which he was running from police on a lightning bolt built from a Kawasaki engine and a Honda frame. More torque, less weight. More speed.

Inside his coat pocket was cocaine, marijuana laced with PCP and a bottle of Cuervo Gold. He was doing 90 mph when he decided to turn at a Compton intersection. Laws of physics held true.

"I was supposed to die that night, but I didn't. My head was supposed to go into this parked car, but some kind of way, it didn't."

And, so, he says, he was given a second life. He lived it much like the first one until his 4-year-old daughter Megan died in 1984 from leukemia. Her mother would call Hudgens and tell him he needed to come by the hospital to visit.

He told her he would, but it was usually two or three days before he showed up. He was in jail when she died. After his release, he quit using drugs but continued selling them.

When Erycia was born, her mother told him he would have to change or leave. No more dealing, no more fighting, no more trouble--words he had heard before. He didn't want to change, but when he looked at Erycia, he knew he could not leave, even if he didn't know exactly why.

In her, it seemed, he saw Megan. In her, he saw all eight of his children--by seven women--and he saw a chance for redemption. He vowed that he was going to be the kind of father he should have been to the others, most of whom are now grown.

It didn't work out between Hudgens and Erycia's mother, and he became the girl's primary caregiver. Now with cancer, he figures he's on life No. 3. He is calmer now, no longer living with his finger on the trigger. He thinks about family, what it should be and how he was absent from it for so many years. It took him a long time to grow, he says, but with Erycia he decided that he was going to do this one thing right.

It hasn't been easy. As much as he wants to be a good parent, he doesn't always know how. The most difficult part, he says, is understanding how a child thinks. Right now, Erycia thinks she would like his participation in building a snowman at a park in Winnetka, near his mother's Reseda home.

His reply is straightforward, to the point, practical.

"There's no snow," he says.

A twinge of disappointment passes quickly from her eyes, and soon she is off to the slide. Hudgens keeps careful watch from a wooden bench near the playground and reminds her to pay attention to her movements or risk injury.

She says she will, but before leaving the park, she turns a corner and smacks into a pole. Tears pour forth, and Hudgens wraps her in his arms and rocks her. They are learning about life together. Next time, perhaps, Erycia will be more careful, and, perhaps, her father will find a way to make a snowman out of something besides snow.

*

In April 1997, Hudgens was losing weight. A lingering sore throat sent him to the doctor, and tests revealed advanced non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Without treatment, he was told, he had three to six months to live. He weighed his options.

He was tempted to go out in flames, he says, quit his job, live it up until the end. Spend it all, leave nothing. Offer no resistance. But what would become of Erycia?

Because he and Erycia's mother are estranged, he didn't want the girl to go with her. At the time there didn't seem to be other options.

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