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Father and son fight for each other

August 17, 2008|Steve Lopez

At 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Juan Estrada was lying in bed at St. Vincent Medical Center telling me it would be pandemonium in the hospital the next night when his son entered the boxing ring in Beijing.

"His mother screams a lot," said the retired garment cutter, wondering how the other patients would handle the noise.

He had awakened that morning unable to walk, his feet as fat as boxing gloves, and now he was waiting for dialysis and a blood transfusion.

But if he could just recover fast enough, Juan said, maybe he'd be able to watch the fight at home in Maywood, where the family could raise the roof as 23-year-old Shawn went at it with a middleweight from Great Britain. Juan had already seen Shawn make mincemeat of an Argentine in his first Olympic bout, and with two more wins, he'd be boxing for a medal.

Juan Estrada was a boxer, too, back in his day. At 64, he's still fighting, but now the battle is to stay alive. Eight months ago, doctors told him he was done. His heart, kidneys and liver had been failing for years, but Juan was determined to make it long enough to see his son box in an Olympic ring.

Juan told me he knew when Shawn was 5 that the quick and tough little kid had the moves. He coached him, worked out with him, maybe pushed a little too hard at times. "Focus," Juan had implored when Shawn briefly drew away, weary of his father's unrelenting expectations. "You choose your path in life."

Now, all these years later, the son was fighting for his father, and the reverse was true as well.

OK, I told Juan. I'll be back Friday night. Either here in the hospital, or in the family living room, I'll watch the father as he watches his son on TV.

But on my way out of the hospital, a nurse told me Juan wasn't likely to go home any time soon. On Friday morning, I got a tearful call from Juan's daughter Ursula.

"My father's taken a turn for the worse," she said. "We're on our way to the hospital now."

Some time before noon, Juan's heart stopped. Doctors brought him back, but now he was on a ventilator. They moved him to critical care, and with all the beeping, flashing monitors, Room 401 looks and sounds like a medical arcade when I arrive Friday night.

When Juan realized weeks ago that he was too sick to make the trip to Beijing, he made a video to send to China with relatives. His son watched it at the Olympics, Dad telling him he knew Shawn would come home a winner. The family decided not to tell Shawn that his father was in the hospital. This was no time to distract him.

All day Friday, St. Vincent administrators tried to wire the hospital for cable, so that if he was conscious and well enough, Juan could watch his son's fight live on CNBC just after midnight. When the cable hookup failed, Time Warner technicians spent hours setting up a wireless connection so the family could watch the fight on a laptop.

But as midnight approaches, CNBC is streaming everything online except boxing. How could this happen? After cheering him on for years, Shawn's family is going to miss the biggest fight of his life.

Juan's wife, Sandy, and daughters Emma, Sonia and Ursula begin calling relatives with Plan B. Maybe someone at home could record snippets of the fight on cellphone video and send the images along, so Juan can at least catch a glimpse of his son.

If that doesn't work, maybe someone can hold a cell up to a TV at home and someone can put a cellphone on speaker at the hospital, so Juan can at least hear the announcer call his son's fight.

But as Juan's wife, children, brother and sister take turns at his bedside, two at a time, he is unable to speak and is barely lucid.

"It's so frustrating," Emma says. "He looks like he wants to say something, but he can't say it."

The waiting area is filled with the anguished sobs of another family. Their loved one is in the same unit as Juan, barely hanging on. These two families are united in grief, one Asian American, the other Mexican American.

I wonder how many families have been here in the past, wandering the halls in the gray light of the living, traipsing through memories, fighting fears, waiting for the end. I reach for a pamphlet: "A Catholic Guide to Critical End of Life Decisions," which begins, "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

A TV is on in the waiting area, but it doesn't carry CNBC. Only NBC, which is showing track, diving and swimming. No boxing. The worn but inspirational music of the Olympics blares. Michael Phelps takes his seventh gold medal. The Estrada family watches the replay of the last-second touch that wins it for Phelps, his mother collapsing with pride, winners and losers separated by fractions of time. Sandy Estrada wipes a tear.

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