The first time I stepped onto the University of Texas campus was May 31, 2014. I vividly remember that day; it holds a special place in my heart as one of the single most influential days of my life. My family parked in the imposing shadow of DRK Memorial Stadium and we walked to a grass field outside the beautiful Lyndon B. Johnson Library. After a long, hilly walk we finally arrived at the location of Day 0 for Texas 4000, an event my sister tirelessly fundraised and trained for over the course of 18 months. At the time, I was living in Mexico playing soccer and I had little to no idea what the event was about. All I knew was that it was related to cancer and that my sister was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime over the course of 70 days. Before their departure, they held a small ceremony to allow students to give their testimony about what inspired them to participate in the mentally and physically challenging journey from Austin to Alaska. The speaker’s experiences with cancer were completely foreign to me at the time, but they deeply impacted me.
The passion I saw that day had real sticking power. I found myself thinking about the seemingly inevitable devastation cancer had on its victims and their loved ones. I prayed that my family would never have to experience that helplessness but, unfortunately, cancer has no sympathy. My cousin’s grandfather was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer that metastasized to his intestines, pancreas, and brain. While he was only a “distant” relative, Don Jesus Hernandez was a man I deeply admired and loved. I had known him my whole life, spending many happy afternoons kicking the soccer ball around in this backyard. But it wasn’t until I was living in Mexico after high school that I truly got the privilege of spending extended amounts of time with him. In the short period of time we had together, he gave me an excellent example of the type of person I should strive to become. Don Jesus was the type of man who would warmly welcome a stranger into his home and treat them like an old friend or family. He was one of the most strong-willed and reliable men I have ever met, to the point that he refused to take days off from work due to a chemical explosion in his factory in order to put more food on the table for his family. He was a kind, happy, loving man who always saw the best in everyone and supported them, no matter how far-fetched their goal seemed. Don Jesus did not know how to quit and refused to be beaten by cancer. Against the doctor’s best prognosis, the disease went into remission and he was seemingly stable. His once depleted energy levels were on the rise and everything was seemingly positive. A couple of months later, he had a routine check-up that devastated the family: his cancer had relapsed and was more aggressive; Don Jesus was officially terminally ill.
Don Jesus passed away on March 2, 2015, in the way he would’ve wanted: with one final Tecate Beer, a shot of his tequila, and a barbacoa taco from his favorite taco stand. When I heard the news of his passing, my heart sunk and I was truly devastated. I had never experienced that kind of loss. I quickly rushed with my uncle to his house and I’ll never forget the absolute despair I witnessed. The family was all in the room with Don Jesus, refusing to leave his side. I started to uncontrollably cry as his wife gave me a hug. She tried to comfort me by telling me that he passed peacefully and that he asked about me in his final hours. She said that the doctor told her that the brain remains active for 2 hours after the heart stops. She grabbed my hand, led me to his bed, and said “say your last goodbye before he goes to heaven. He loved you like one of his grandchildren.” As I wept, I thanked Don Jesus for all the support and love he showed me. Before I left his side, I promised him that I would always do my best, he always told me “Never give up and always give it your all,” that I would try to make him proud, and that I loved him like the grandfather I never had.
I found myself wondering whether the root of Don Jesus’ cancer was his exposure to chemical and if an earlier diagnosis would have changed the outcome of the situation. The more I thought of his passing, the more the University of Texas and Texas 4000 came to the forefront of my mind. I finally understood the importance of the pillar of Knowledge. That flagrant need for research, in addition to the resilience and toughness displayed by Don Jesus and other cancer patients, is what inspires me to ride in Texas 4000. I want to be part of this incredible organization that gives cancer fighters and survivors hope by showing them that they are not alone in the fight. I want the days where cancer is an unspeakable taboo that renders the strongest man I know hopeless to be over. I want to charitably raise as much money as I possibly can to fund research and increase the knowledge of cancer. The best way I can honor Don Jesus, those who have passed, and those who have fought against cancer is to actively participate in the fight and ride for them.