Talking with one of my best friends about what to say at his funeral isn’t something I ever thought I’d do. But Agustin, or Gus as we called him, was pretty matter of fact about it. We discussed his memorial on several occasions and after spending a few weeks thinking about it, one day he told me in his blunt way; “Chris, why don’t you just speak from the heart? You have one of the biggest of anyone I know”.
I’m not sure about my heart, but what I do know is Gus had a knack for telling people exactly what he wanted and believed. When he did, he was usually right more-often-than-not. And therein lies the crux of what made him such a good person to have in your life; you always knew where you stood with him and he always gave direct (and blunt) feedback. In this world of platitudes, political correctness, and patronization, his direct approach was refreshing.
Even in disagreement, Gus was never mean-spirited. In fact, he often surprised me with his level-headed conversation about political issues, which sometimes we vehemently disagreed on. I always loved and respected his calmness, as it embodied a discipline and decorum that have practically vaporized in our current political landscape. We can all learn a powerful lesson from his example.
After he died September 29th, 2017, the days leading up to the funeral service were hectic and busy. I’d just started a new job and was traveling all over the country so it struck me as awkward that I had to continue “living” life in the wake of losing someone we all loved and would miss so much. I had occasion to mourn, but never really felt like I’d gotten it all out because I was simply working too hard and never had a minute to contemplate. It felt wrong, but like everyone who was close to him, we had to continue functioning and move forward. This awkward struggle especially affected Gus’ wife Cadi, and their daughter Mali as I’m sure it does everyone who loses a loved-one far too soon (to cancer in this case).
The pain we all felt was a wrinkle in the space/time continuum, but it was nothing compared to the supermassive black hole that had just consumed Cadi and Mali’s entire universe… and yet, there was a real sense Gus was in a better place now. He’d put up a respectable fight against one of life’s greatest antagonists for almost a decade, and after an entire year of suffering and disruption to his life, his family, his students, and everyone around him… he was at peace.
In the days leading up to his memorial service, I woke up one morning thinking about what I could possibly say that would do him justice. The fact is, I’d only known Gus for a relatively short period (about 9 years), and before he came into Cadi’s life and our circle of friends, he’d done a lot of meaningful things including service as a Boatswains Mate in the Navy during the first Gulf War, and taught math as a highly-respected teacher. I realized pretty quickly, there wasn’t anything I could say that would sum his life up, and the best way to honor him would be to speak about the experience of his friendship.
Gus and Cadi were married on “Pi Day” 3/14/09 (In reference to the fact PI is 3.14). It was appropriate since he was passionate about all things math, and both he & Cadi had dedicated their lives to serving as educators. We all remember the day as joyous and positive… despite the elephant in the room, cancer, which most of us found out about shortly after they met and prior to their vows. Gus was about the toughest math teacher we’d ever known, and everyone (including him) believed he was going to beat it, and we were happy to celebrate such a wonderful time.
In fact, many of us “crashed” their honeymoon, a scuba-diving trip to Cozumel where we proceeded to form bonds and make memories that would last a lifetime. As Pastor Bob Hutson said in their wedding ceremony; “As we watch Gus and Cadi get married, we’re not just observers. It’s our job to keep them married. It’s our job to do everything we can to keep them in love. We all have a stake in this”. And that’s exactly why we were there. We all felt Gus hadn’t just married Cadi and Mali, but that we’d become a family. I got your back, you got mine…
Initially they lived on the west side of the Phoenix Valley in Gus’ home, but when Cadi’s mother passed away and left them her home, they decided to move to Cave Creek where Gus started working at Cactus Shadows High School as a math teacher (Cadi had been there for years as a well-respected counselor). At that point, our “Cave Creek Crew” developed rapidly into a very tight circle of friends & spouses who shared milestones, holidays, birthdays, and random weekends for many good years.
During that time we all shared so much life, watched everyone’s kids grow into beautiful adults, and unfortunately, watched and participated in Gus’ continuing battles against cancer as he went into remission, and suffered relapses. Along the way, Gus remained stoic to some extent, never giving up his true fears to anyone but Cadi and a few of his closest friends. They had faith, but underneath it all, cancer was always present.
Each time Gus went through treatments, they would last for months. Perhaps his Navy training and experience helped because he showed an uncanny discipline about certain healthy and positive behaviors he simply wouldn’t compromise, and it was that determination I believe helped him “beat” cancer, not just once, but twice more in the years to come.
Even on his worst days, in his darkest hours, sometimes alone because Cadi had to stay in Cave Creek to work and care for their daughter while he was in Houston… even on those days, Gus forced himself to get out of bed and go for walks, make phone calls, read books, eat, drink, and take a shower… despite the fact his body was so weak from the chemo and radiation that his blood had almost no oxygen in it. I honestly think he stayed alive out of sheer will-power and a healthy dose of faith. It was tragically beautiful, if you’ll forgive the description, but watching him and Cadi navigate this journey was at times terribly sad and simultaneously awe inspiring.
In the last few months of Gus’ life he and I grew closer than we’d ever been and we had many heart to hearts. During one of those conversations he said accepting death had been the most difficult decision of his life, but once he did, it allowed him to truly live. That decision removed a great weight from his shoulders, and freed his mind to focus on exactly what was important; making the most of his time. Instead of fighting as he had for years and years, he was now making responsible preparations for when he was gone. These were arduous tasks nobody thinks about until they must… but he showed the same deliberate disciplined approach to this as he had with his treatment and recoveries. He knew his efforts would ease the burden on his loved ones, once he was gone.
And therein lies the defining memory of a man who faced death and didn’t give up or feel sorry for himself (although I know he felt that way privately sometimes as anyone would). The night before he passed away, a lucky few of us were able to sit with him outside on their patio and chat about life, reminisce about meaningful and funny times, there was laughter, there was sadness, and underneath it all there was a sense time was running out, we just didn’t bring it up… and it was during that final conversation I realized he was doing whatever he could with the few ounces of energy he had left, to make the whole experience easier on us. It was the perfect way to say goodbye, for a guy who’d lived a life of service and wanted to go out on his own terms.
One of Gus’ favorite books was “Every Day I Fight”, written by Stuart Scott. It’s a great book regardless of whether you’ve been affected by cancer yourself or not. It holds within it, many sage bits of advice on how to approach and live with someone who does have cancer. One of Gus’ favorite passages in the book is a transcript from Scott’s speech at the 2014 ESPY’s, when he was honored with the Jimmy V Perseverance Award”. And I think it’s the perfect quote to end Gus’ memorial:
“When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell. And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and rest and let somebody else fight for you.” Stuart Scott.
On November 4, 2017 Gus (a devout Arizona State University graduate) was honored at Sun Devil Stadium during the Colorado game as part of ASU’s Salute to Service. While the announcer read a short eulogy and played pictures of Gus on the Jumbotron, the stadium stood and cheered offering a “Pitchfork Salute” showing their support for his family and friends standing on field.
One of his friends, who shall remain anonymous, may have spread some of Gus’ ashes on the field during the salute. It was a fitting spot for his final resting place.
Rest in peace my brother…
Written by Christian Burns McBeth. USMC-R Veteran – Gulf War Era (Desert Storm)