Our beloved friend Chema died last night. He and his wife Rosa had eighteen children, but that wasn't the most unusual thing about him.
The first time we met him, we'd recently moved to Spain, and our toddler daughter was about to have minor surgery. Chema grinned encouragingly, urged us heartily not to worry, and reminded us how our children belong to God, who can be trusted to care for them at least as well as we can. Coming from such a winsome man, these sentiments carried a lot of weight. Chema was constantly finding novel ways to inconvenience himself for the good of others, and he always managed to look happy about it. We appreciated his optimism but cluelessly expressed some doubt that he truly understood what it was to face the prospect of a young daughter's operation.
Later we learned he had lost two children himself and had several others with life-threatening heart conditions.
Another memory that captures Chema: the time he lent us his car. Any friend might do that, you're thinking? Not exactly. He lent us--a couple of foreigners and our five very small and very partially civilized children--his minivan, to take a road trip from Barcelona to Rome, there to weave among the Eternal City's ancient cobblestone alleyways, mopeds, and notoriously high-strung motorists. For a solid week. In his car.
Greater love than that hath no friend I ever heard of.
American students of Spanish might learn to say "Mi casa es Su casa," but Chema took it literally. After we moved back to America, any of us Torreses who found ourselves anywhere near Spain found abundant food and lodging and family at our disposal.
The closest Chema ever came to complaining in my hearing was when commiserating with us. I was finding Barcelona's social expectations taxing and mentioned that we didn't always feel up to the challenge. He sympathized. He was one of fourteen children; Rosa was one of sixteen, and they had eighteen of their own. This meant that approximately every ten seconds somebody or otherwas celebrating a wedding, anniversary, baptism, birthday, name day, first Communion, confirmation, ordination, or funeral. It's not that Chema saw these as a never-ending stream of obligations. Not in the least. I remember him on a million such occasions, spreading joy and good cheer, never anything less. But he did a good job of sympathizing with us and our surprising lack of stamina.
Chema's good cheer and generosity made it especially startling when I found out just today that he'd been in a car accident as a child which left him in constant neck and back pain for the rest of his life. I did know, but never would have guessed, that he suffered from ulcers, too.
You might expect that a father of eighteen would run a tight ship, and Chema did...kind of. When necessary. Rosa mostly took care of that. Chema was more often seen pleading the case of the toddler who'd just scribbled all over the foyer walls. I remember him holding his daughter Lolita on his lap, poking her in the ribs to make her giggle and whispering that she had to remind us to pray for the healing of her heart condition. No dinner guest got away without agreeing to do this, and Chema and Rosa had a lot of dinners and a lot of guests.
When I heard he'd died, I thought a good motto for our family might be: Be Like Chema. What I had in mind was his cheerful presence, his bigheartedness, and how wildly generous he was with his family and everybody else's. And how reliable. And hardworking.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that might be biting off more than I can chew. Being like Chema means being cheerful, bighearted, and outrageously generous in the face of repeated family tragedy and unremitting physical pain--the sore back, the ulcers, and finally what turned out to be cancer, diagnosed two weeks before his death--decade in and decade out, down to the last ounce of his strength.
The death of someone like Chema reduces people to cliches, but I can't help that. The world really is a palpably sadder place without him. Our only hope of fixing that is for as many people as possible to Be Like Chema.