Doug Robinson: Former lunch lady Lily Garcia goes to Washington to run for the NEA

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 2:10 p.m. MST

The ready smile and joyous passion she brings to her career belie the personal hardships Lily has survived in recent years. As fate would have it, she was traveling on NEA business when Ruel, her husband of 38 years, took his own life in their Washington home. They had raised two children, Jeremy and their adopted son, Jared, who have endured hard times themselves.

She wrote in her blog: “You did not know that my gentle Ruel suffered depression to the point that finally he could not think through the pain. I found him when it was too late when I came home from work on Friday. … There are, of course, no answers when there is the darkness of mental illness. Ruel did not decide to end his life. The mental illness took my sweet husband away.”

Looking back, she says now: “He died while I was on a trip. There is some guilt about that. If only I had. … He just hated being alive. Depression takes away people just like cancer does." She has talked openly about suicide, about Ruel, about the people who are left behind. "People need to know it’s not their fault,” she says.

In the same aforementioned blog entry, she responded to those who wanted to help by asking them to write a letter to Jared, who was in jail for theft. “He was hysterical when I had to tell him that his father was gone,” Lily wrote. "I hoped the letters would let him know he wasn't alone."

The irony is that Lily has done so much to help other people’s children, but her sons both struggled. She says they both battled drug addiction (they have been clean for years), and she endured years of worry. “I used to open the newspaper and look to see if there was an unidentified body,” she says. According to Lily, Jared was abused before he was adopted by the Eskelsens as a 4-year-old and he has suffered for it over the years with repeated legal problems.

“We were told he would have problems for a long time and we were asked if we were up for this, and we didn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought, I’m so good with kids. … It was my last arrogant moment. With someone loving you, it doesn’t all go away.”

Many years ago she was speaking at a legislative hearing against a voucher bill that was tailored for a boys ranch for troubled youths. She told her audience that she had just barely placed her own son — 12 at the time — in the boys ranch, but she still believed the voucher was not an appropriate use of public funds. She began crying as she spoke — “because I’m a mom” — and afterward several people whispered to her that they had young family members who were struggling with drug and criminal issues.

“These were people from good families and they were telling me this secret they hoped friends and neighbors don’t find out and here I am talking about the same thing in public,” she says. There is some merit for such openness, she believes. She says all the good parenting, all the love and all the kindness does not mean depression and drugs and criminal behavior won’t happen.

Last year, Lily married Alberto Garcia, an artist she met in Juarez, Mexico, after contacting him about doing artwork for a children’s book she is writing. It began another long-distance romance, like the one she had with Ruel, only this time letters were replaced by Skype. They did this for months despite her bad Spanish and his bad English, and they managed to see each other as their schedules allowed (he was her date for the presidential inauguration when he still had a tourist visa). They married earlier this year in a San Diego courthouse in a hastily arranged ceremony. Lily put her siblings and sons on speaker phone, explaining, “We are about to get married.”

Barred from the U.S. by immigration laws, Alberto lives in Mexico and she lives in Washington. They plan to have “a nice wedding” when the paperwork is completed and they can live together. Meanwhile, she flies to see him in Mexico a couple of times a month, and they continue to Skype daily.

Says Lily, “He doesn’t speak English except these five words that I taught him – ‘I want what you want.’ Every husband should learn that.”

Having taken the next step in her personal life, she is about to take the next step in her professional life in her accidental labor career. But four decades down the road since her lunch lady days, she still returns to her roots by visiting classrooms in her travels to speaking engagements around the country.

“I love my job,” she says. “You get to be advocates for kids and their families and teachers."

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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