He should have been preparing to enjoy his last Christmas break as a high school student. He should have been planning for graduation in May, and anxiously awaiting a letter from the University of Texas – San Antonio to arrive in the mail letting him know that he’d been accepted to college. He should have been pursuing his dream of becoming a police detective.
But, he’s not.
Instead of celebrating his 18th birthday this week, his family is mourning his death from a rapid-growing, unrelentingly aggressive brain cancer that left a hole in their hearts as surely as it stole his life.
His name was Daniel Rodriguez.
He was a loving brother to two sisters — Jennifer, 24, and Cira Alejandra, 16, whom he watched over as only a protective brother could. He was also son to Zoila Rodriguez, a soft-spoken woman who beamed with pride when recounting her son’s unshakable faith, even in the final moments of his life.
“We were more worried than he was,” Zoila said, speaking in Spanish, of her son after they learned he had cancer.
One day, as his illness worsened, young Daniel noted the fear the cancer had instilled in his mother and grandmother. “I’m going to be cured when you all have faith,” Daniel told them.
When a confused Zoila told her son she did have faith, he replied, “You are afraid.”
If Daniel was afraid, he never showed it. Instead, his family says he never stopped smiling. “He never complained. Never, never. He was always smiling,” Zoila said. Indeed, in photographs of Daniel in a Houston hospital room, his bald head bound by a colorful cloth, what’s most noticeable is the warmth of that smile.
At just 17 years old, Daniel was the anchor of his family. He attended Mass regularly, and often sought to help others. Zoila recalled how Daniel would sometimes ask her for a dollar so he could give it to the homeless they encountered. Though they themselves had little, Daniel would tell his mother they never knew when the person they chose to help was really God in disguise.
But it wasn’t just strangers on the street Daniel sought to care for. He kept such close counsel with his two sisters that Zoila rarely worried about her three children. She knew Daniel was there, being their friend, their confidante, their brother.
“I felt that the three of them matured very quickly,” Zoila said of her children, whom she has raised by herself since separating from their father when Daniel was just 2 years old.
In March of this year, things began to change, however. That’s when Zoila said she began to notice Daniel becoming forgetful. And he would ask her questions, over and over again. Then, he began to have vomiting spells.
Worried, Zoila took him to a pediatrician, who sent Daniel home with a diagnosis of a viral infection that would likely clear up in 72 hours. But when it didn’t, the doctor sent the family to an Edinburg hospital for further examination.
There, a scan of Daniel’s brain revealed a tumor that doctors said was inoperable. They recommended a course of chemotherapy to be administered locally in six sessions over six months, followed by a schedule of radiation therapy to be administered in Houston.
By the fifth session of chemotherapy doctors had grown concerned. An MRI showed inflammation, Zoila said. The family was told their trip to Houston would have to be accelerated, so they went.
In Houston, they received worse news. The tumor wasn’t inflamed, it had grown. “The doctor says, unfortunately, the chemotherapy didn’t do anything. It didn’t do anything. Nothing,” Zoila said.
Not only had the tumor grown, but it had entangled itself even more severely in his brain. The only option was a series of three surgeries that would have to be completed while Daniel was in a medically-induced coma. When she said she had been told surgery wasn’t an option before, the Houston oncologists told her it was a last resort.
Doctors proceeded with the surgeries, which went well. But a month post-op, Daniel still had yet to regain consciousness. And the left side of his body remained paralyzed. He could open his right eye and move the right side of his body, but his responsiveness to commands was minimal at best.
Doctors decided to perform another MRI to figure out why he wasn’t awake. They showed Zoila the scan. “There was the spot where they’d removed the original tumor,” she said. “And there was one above and one below that spot. There were two,” she said.
Her heart dropped.
The team of doctors who had been treating her son conferred with each other. Some urged ending treatment. Others said more aggressive chemotherapy and radiation could help, but it would be a big risk and the decision was hers to make.
“I will fight for my son,” Zoila told them.
But, when Daniel continued to worsen, she ultimately asked if she could return to the Rio Grande Valley so her son could die at home. They agreed and he was brought back first to an Edinburg hospital, before being transferred to hospice.
Within days, Daniel succumbed to the illness he had not feared. He died on Nov. 20 at 2:30 a.m. — just a week and a half before his 18th birthday, Zoila said.
“They told me later that (the church) was full during the funeral,” Zoila said. “The church was full of people. I didn’t notice.”
Zoila sat quietly after sharing the story of her son’s life — and of the end of his life. She sat on a small sofa which was set against the wall in a dimly lit room, across from a twin bed set along the opposite wall.
As she had spoken, the sound of hammering and sawing threatened to drown out her soft words, her quiet tears. The home, located in a rural colonia in the Mid-Valley, is a work in progress owned by her parents. They are currently renovating it.
It’s a small, wood-frame house where she and her two daughters share a single room. Daniel often pleaded with his mother to rent them an apartment of their own, but her paycheck as a cleaner didn’t quite stretch that far, she said.
And when Daniel fell ill, her paycheck disappeared entirely.
Zoila used all her time off to care for her son, whom she called the man of the house. When that time off ended, so did her job cleaning apartments after tenants had moved out. She hasn’t worked since.
“I know if he was here right now, the only thing he’d be telling me is, ‘Get up, go to work and look for a good job,’” Zoila said.
She’s hoping she’ll be able to find a new job come the new year. “I tell my daughters I don’t want to start until January. Right now, these days are going to be difficult for us,” Zoila said, recounting how the family always spent the holidays together.
For information on how you can donate to the family, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign.
All donations go to the family. United Way does not keep any of the proceeds donated.