From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Faith of an Angel

Life lessons come in all forms. For me, inspiration came in the shape of a small, forty-pound, five-year-old cousin of mine. I’ll be honest, Debra bugged me. I was about to enter my freshman year of high school, and the last thing a teenager wants is a little tag-along cousin. What I didn’t realize was that although I felt like I was always the teacher and she was the pupil, roles can be reversed in a matter of seconds. We traded places one hot July afternoon when I discovered that, in the blink of an eye, happiness could be shattered.

We were all gathered at a friend’s outdoor wedding reception. The decorations were simple yet elegant, and the setting sun illuminated the bride and groom’s already glowing faces. Comadres traveled from table to table, catching up on the latest news, because when you come from a small town in South Texas, everyone is family. The children were running around, playing games of tag and greeting their extended family. The evening could not have been better. My friends and I gathered around and talked about our up-and-coming freshman year and all of the hot guys we would be meeting. After all, we were leaving behind the boys of junior high and looking for the “men” of high school. Debra wanted to join my friends and me, but what could a five-year-old contribute to our stimulating conversations?

I left the table where we were sitting, leaving behind my mother, Tía Jeri, Abuela and Debra. I walked inside the house and greeted everyone before making my way to the bathroom. The line wasn’t long, thank God, because one body can take only so much punch! As I was washing my hands, there was a thud and the bathroom door came bursting open. It was an older cousin of mine, Sylvia. I will never forget the look of fear, helplessness and shock on her face. She immediately began opening cabinets in a mad dash to find towels. I figured that one of the kids had hurt themselves playing when she blurted out, “Cristina, there has been a terrible accident. Stay inside!”

What kind of accident? Who was involved? Was anyone hurt? Was it anyone I knew?

The questions flooded my mind. I gathered with my friends in the living room amidst the screams and cries of parents panicking to find their children and more towels. A woman approached and told us that a guest who was leaving the wedding had lost control of his car and plowed through the crowd. I couldn’t believe it. How could there be so much joy one minute and tragedy the next?

Then I heard a voice calling my name. It was Paul, a student of my mother’s. He told me that I needed to find my mother because she was looking for me. He then told me, “Debbie has been really hurt.” My thoughts immediately went to the only “Debbie” I knew, my cousin Debra’s babysitter. Oh God, I thought, poor Debbie.

I ran outside. Nothing could have prepared me for the war zone I saw. Bodies on the ground, tables and chairs overturned everywhere, and there, the cause of the destruction: a runaway sedan that had finally been stopped by the fence in front of the tennis courts.

I found my mother. She hugged me with tear-filled eyes and told me that we had to leave immediately—Debra was badly hurt! My heart dropped to my feet. Debra? So the girl who got hit by the car was not “Debbie” the babysitter but Debra, my five-year-old cousin. It was little Debra. I was in shock. My mother quickly drove our van around and laid down the backseat. But where was Debra? I saw two men running from the barn with a piece of board, perfectly Debra’s size. I did not see my tiny cousin until she was hoisted onto the board and laid in the van. Her new white dress and shoes were torn and blood-stained, and on her left shoe was a tire mark, clear as day. We covered her with a blanket my mother kept in the van. It had a picture of La Virgen on it; how fitting, I thought. Debra never lost consciousness, but the trip seemed never-ending.

Just as my tía Jeri and I were about to lose it completely, Debra spoke in a quiet voice.

“Let us pray together,” she said, and she led us in an Our Father and a Hail Mary. Here she was, a child, broken and bleeding, yet her spirit and faith never strayed. She was trying to comfort us! She asked if she was going to die and told us how much she loved us—it felt like she was saying good-bye.

Upon our arrival at the hospital, we were met by her brother, Jacob, and my tía Stella. I had never seen Jacob cry before. It terrified me! Debra immediately went into surgery, and we prayed for the best. Six hours later, Debra was brought to the recovery room. We were told that she had suffered extensive injuries and might never walk again. My mother entered the room and took Debra’s tiny hand in hers. Debra awoke and asked my mother to lean in. In her ear, Debra whispered, “Tía Norma, I saw God with two angels.” My mother broke down and held Debra close.

I learned more that summer in a matter of minutes than I have in my whole life. I realized that I was so caught up in my “world” that I had not taken the time to see how precious my cousin was, and how lucky I was to be the object of her attention. I also learned from Debra to accept gracefully what life gives you, but to never give up, and to keep on loving and caring for those around you. Above all, I learned from Debra to hold tightly to my faith. Debra’s example that day showed all of us that the size of one’s heart and the depth of one’s soul cannot be judged by age, but only by actions.

Thank you, Debra, for waking me up, and for sharing your lion’s heart with us.

Cristina Cornejo

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Debra’s recovery was long and painful, but, not surprisingly, she persevered. She not only learned to walk again, but also to dance the ballet folklorico! ]

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