Undying Love in the Face of Sorrow: A Father’s Story of How Love Helped Him Survive the Loss of His Son with Special Needs

Samuel and Gabe on an early morning ride.
Photo Courtesy: Samuel Rodriguez

by JANE KATHLEEN GREGORIO

“Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a love can be…”

These opening lines of the theme from Love Story by Andy Williams describe the depth of love Samuel Rodriguez feels for his late son Gabriel, who passed away on February 3, 2019 at the age of 38. 

Born to Samuel and Mary Lou Rodriguez, Gabriel “Gabe” Levi Rodriguez entered the world on  September 28, 1980, already facing many challenges. 

“Gabe was born three weeks premature and had aspirated some amniotic fluid, which led to pneumonia, then meningitis, which caused brain damage,” Samuel recalls.

“He was considered mentally retarded, but we didn’t discover this until he was 13 months old when we noticed a delay in his development. We took him to a pediatrician, and a neurologist who confirmed that Gabe was encephalitic and his head was larger than other children.”

As a result, Gabe Rodriguez was three years old by the time he could walk and was age five by the time he was potty-trained. For the Rodriguez family, their child’s health issues led to a lot of frustration.

“We were young parents at the time, and as a 26 year old dad, I was in denial and reacted badly when I first heard his diagnosis,” Rodriguez said. 

“I was angry with God, our family struggled financially, my other children were affected, Gabe was very hyper and would hit other kids, and later my marriage was affected.” 

When Rodriguez enrolled his son into elementary school, there were no adequate programs existing at the time to help Gabe in his condition.

“School was a disaster for Gabe because people didn’t know how to react to him; he was ‘lukewarm’ – not extremely retarded, but not normal either and he was prescribed drugs like Haldol which had a lot of side effects,” Rodriguez said. As time went by, a new teacher helped the family handle Gabe.

“He had a great teacher, Art Hobbs, who shed some light on ways we could help Gabe as he got older, and taught us what to expect.” 

After his divorce, Rodriguez made a decision which would change his son’s life for the better. 

“Gabriel was 16 years old and still hyper, and my intuition told me to try other avenues like removing all his medications, which as a father, I felt were not working and made him too hyper or too sedated,” Rodriguez said. “I also wanted to teach him a new way to behave without any type of scolding.”

Each time his son would misbehave, Rodriguez would simply take him home. 

“After several instances of this, Gabe eventually caught on, and the more he hung out with normal people, the more his personality changed for the better. It’s like he went from an ugly duckling to a beautiful man. Gabriel started believing in God and even became an altar boy at church, and later a church elder’s assistant.” 

Rodriguez has been a cyclist for 20 years, and one of the most surprising moments for him happened when his son requested they go bike riding together.  

“We bought Gabe a 3-wheeler bike with a rear basket from a local bike shop, and first practiced around the block, later on adding a mile, and then 5-10 miles,” he said.

In 2015, Gabe Rodriguez took part for the first time in Conquer the Coast, an annual cycling event, which circles the Coastal Bend from Corpus Christi to Aransas Pass and Padre island and participated each year thereafter. 

“The nickname ‘Gabe’ was chosen by my son for himself and despite his challenges, he was very smart,” Rodriguez said.

 “He loved fitness activities and cycling with me every week around the city. He loved sports and was a fan of the Corpus Christi Ice Rays, Islanders and Hooks, the Chicago Bears and Cubs, the Houston Texans, Rockets and Astros, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the San Antonio Spurs. He had an enormous spirit and he offered his smiles, love, and kindness to each person who had the opportunity to meet him. We even visited Wrigley Field in Chicago. He loved traveling to cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas.”

The last photo of Rodriguez and Gabe together was taken on February 3, 2019. 

“He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly while we were getting ready to watch the Super Bowl and was so happy being surrounded by his immediate family. I couldn’t believe that within a few hours later that day, he would pass away so suddenly at 34 from an aneurysm,” Rodriguez said.

The funeral took place on February 8, 2019. 

“Gabe had touched many lives, and despite that day being cold and rainy, over 500 people arrived to his viewing, ranging from current and past physicians, attorneys, and special needs teachers. Many others including fellow cyclists, friends, and family from several states made a long trip to attend his services.” Rodriguez said.

“His death was painless and Gabe didn’t suffer, nor did he have to endure life in a vegetative state. As his father and primary caregiver, Gabe and I had been inseparable and I was so overwhelmed with grief that I even put myself on top of Gabe’s coffin and cried saying, “I wish I could go with you!”  

For three months, Rodriguez stayed home, grief-stricken, unable to get out of bed and go to work.

“It was horrible, and I was angry with God again and as a father who dearly loved his son, I didn’t want people to see me and feel sorry for me,” he said. 

“But deep in my heart, I knew I had to endure the pain and be smart because I was approaching 65 years old at the time, and would need to continue working to pay my bills, take care of my Social Security, Medicare and help my family who needed me.”

Rodriguez, a licensed vocational nurse (LVN),  currently works as a hospice clinical liaison.  

“As a father, the grief never gets better, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with my loss while still striving to be good and productive, and even as I grieve on my own, but I don’t blame anyone,” he said.   

“My friend who is a practicing physician said Gabe taught us how to live and he taught us how to die.  As a hospice nurse, I help people deal with death and dying, and one of my favorite quotes is Life is a gift, living is the process, death is part of living, even though we don’t approve.

“What helps me as a father is I have no regrets for what I did for Gabe and he had a very good life, I just wanted to give him more. And God had blessed me with the means to give him a good life. I adored him and took care of all his needs within reason.  Am I lonely? Yes, do I cry for him. Often. But I believe that I still want to live my life. My hope and prayer is that  when God calls me, I’ll be ready and that Gabe will be there waiting for me.”

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