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A young man's fateful dance with death

Jesús had just turned 19 and had hopes for himself. Never mind the brain tumor.

December 22, 2012|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

Jesús García saw no reason to be afraid of death.

"It's not good to fear anything," he once said. "Death is always around, but you've got to laugh at death."

After leaving the hospital that afternoon in early May, he boarded the bus at Vermont and Sunset and headed south. The shops and congestion of Koreatown streamed by.

He didn't bother calling his mother. She was in Idaho and would get the news soon enough. Besides, she would only start to cry, which was more than he could deal with. He turned off his phone to avoid any calls. He just wanted to hang out with friends, smoke some weed and play video games.

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The bus stopped at Pico Boulevard, and he made his transfer. He was feeling better than he had in the morning when he was dizzy and had thrown up.

Jesús had just turned 19 and had hopes for himself. He held his chin high, had a straight-ahead gaze and dressed carefully, coordinating black baggy shorts with a black and white T-shirt, a gray and white hoodie and white Converse sneakers with red stripes. A Yankees cap covered a scar that stretched from his forehead to above his right ear.

He got off the bus at 5th Avenue in Arlington Heights and walked up the street. He found his friends hanging out in the back bedroom of their apartment. He didn't share details of his visit to the hospital, and they didn't ask.

The week before he had received an MRI, and the doctor had just given him the results. The tumor in Jesús' brain was larger now and had been bleeding. Jesús wasn't discouraged. He had faith in his doctors.

Since his first seizure eight years ago, he had had three operations, the last in September 2011. There had also been radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Jesús thought he was doing fine.

He was going to get his GED and get a job to help support his mother. He even thought about being a cop; only he'd go after the hard-core gangsters and not harass the kids on the block.

He loved his family and was loyal to his friends. He had no intention of leaving any of them or making a plan for his final days. Leave that for someone older, for someone who had more money, more opportunities.

For Jesús, the world was just coming into focus, and no matter how difficult the treatments or debilitating their effect, he was determined to live.

Everything is fine, he said to his mother over the phone that night. Don't worry.

Home was a converted two-car garage in the neighborhood of Exposition Park in South Los Angeles, where the streets were narrow and the houses small and tidy. The entrance was off a cul-de-sac, long in need of paving.

Jesús and his family had moved four times in the last seven years. Once their apartment burned down; once a relative threw them out.

Another time their landlord accused Jesús of being in a gang and they had to leave, and their most recent apartment was infested with bedbugs.

Last December, his mother, Valentina González, left for Idaho to visit a friend and decided to stay when she found a cheaper place to live and a better job for her boyfriend.

When Jesús learned in February that the garage was available, he and his sister Jessica, 22, moved in. Another sister, Claudia, 23, eventually joined them, bringing her 2-year-old daughter, Itzel.

They paid $750 in rent, about what Jesús received in disability each month. The rest of the family's monthly income — about $1,400 — came from child support, unemployment insurance, welfare and whatever relatives could send them.

The garage's owner was a family friend who tried to make the two rooms comfortable. He laid down carpet in the back room. Jesús and his sisters could keep the cockroaches away, but they had to put up with the rats that came out at night.

Above the door, Jesús placed a memorial to St. Jude. There were family photos on one wall, and in the back room, they hung a small print with verses from Isaiah. "Confiad en Jehová perpetuamente." Trust in the Lord always.

In mid-May, Jesús was prescribed a steroid that controlled swelling and made him feel more comfortable.

He was also beginning a new type of chemotherapy; his doctor was unwilling to give up. The drugs and the treatment were enough to blur the line between hope and denial, and the summer started to feel normal.

Valentina, 39, had returned to Los Angeles by then, and moved in to care for her son. She had brought her youngest children, Jocelyn, 3, and Stuart, 15 months. Jesús was her oldest boy, the one she called "Perro" — dog — an affectionate nickname from the time when he was little and wouldn't leave her side.

He was 6 when his father left the family. Jesús idolized the man whose temper often turned violent when he drank.

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