Kevin Cullen

A lesson in courage

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 13, 2007

Marvin Garcia was sitting in a big chair on the ninth floor of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, watching the drugs that keep him alive seep from a bag, through an IV line, into his arm.

"I can't feel my fingers," he said. "My whole hand is numb."

That's better than the pain that follows, surely as night follows day, a pain so heavy that his bones ache. Then there's the nausea that washes over him, relentlessly, like waves pounding the beach in a storm.

Marvin Garcia is dying. He cannot beat the cancer that has invaded his body. He can only fight it, and he's giving it hell. He is 37 years old, he has a son, and he wants to live.

His goals, what made him get out of bed every morning, have changed so much since he came here from his native Guatemala on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1993. He got a job at the Marriott Long Wharf, working his way up to catering supervisor. He got married, had a kid, had a dream. But in the spring of 2006, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach. Doctors found a tumor. They also found a rare sarcoma that no one has ever beaten.

The cancer threw him for a loop. He couldn't work. His marriage collapsed. He rented a small, single room in a house on Harvard Street in Dorchester, venturing out for his treatment or to visit his son.

A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of his ninth cycle of chemotherapy, his landlady told him he had to leave his rented room.

"She needs the room back, for her sister," he said. "Her sister's really sick, she's in the hospital, but she's getting out soon and they need the room for her."

He bears his landlady no ill will.

"That's family. You've got to take care of family first," Marvin Garcia said. "I understand."

He has no relatives here. His mother came up from Guatemala to tend to him after his surgery last year. She slept on a cot, in the hospital, for 19 days. But she had to return home.

He could leave his adopted country for his homeland. He would have the succor of family, but not the medical treatment that is keeping him alive, nor the visits with his son that keep him holding on.

The people who have been taking care of Marvin Garcia have been scrambling to find him a place to live. In doing so, they learned something that stunned them: When it comes to finding emergency housing, there is no preference given the terminally ill.

"Marvin's one of those cases that falls through the cracks," said Laura Brigham, his social worker at the hospital. "He's a single male, no minors with him. He's way down the list."

Garcia's physician, Dr. Gregg Fine, says his health will be severely compromised if he is forced into a homeless shelter.

"You can't give someone chemo and send them to a shelter. It just doesn't work that way," said Fine.

As a legal resident, Marvin Garcia possessed an American dream that was limitless. He could do anything. Now he wants only a place where he can rest, where, down the road, his mother can come back to care for him.

It would be easier to give up. No one would blame him. But he would blame himself if he doesn't live every single possible day.

"My boy," he said, smiling weakly. "I can't give up. I have to keep going for my boy, my son. I want to be here for him as long as I can. I can still teach him things."

Eduardo Armani Garcia is 4 years old. His father is determined to teach him one last, great lesson: how to live, and how to die, with something called dignity.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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