This past Shabbat was the first week in months I did not pray for my friend Annette Garcia and for her full and speedy recovery. Other than Annette being like a sister to me, her suffering pancreatic cancer was also deeply personal, and scary, because that’s the same disease which took my father 20 years ago. Learning of her diagnosis this spring, and inspired by her faith and determination to beat the cancer, made me all the more close to her because we shared something else in common that only people as close as siblings can, fear of the same often genetic disease.
I did not refrain from praying for Annette because I do not care, or because I forgot. I did not refrain from prayers on her behalf she had a miraculous recovery. I did not pray for Annette because, as Shabbat ended a week earlier, I received the sad news that she lost her battle.
Instead, I prayed for Annette’s family and the many others, like me, whose lives she touched and who were feeling loss and sadness with her passing.
Over the past decade Annette and I became close. I visited her a few times in New Mexico and got to know her family, as well as seeing her in other places during my travels throughout the US. In recent years we got to see one another a few times in Israel as well. It was a blessing the time we met in a Jerusalem café one night and she and my wife got to meet one another for the first time. Naturally they hit it off like sisters. Annette had that way about her, making everyone she was with feeling special. It was a gift. As much as I felt as close to her as a brother, I know my feelings are not unique.
This Shabbat, appropriately as we read from the Torah (Numbers 33) the recounting of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Israel, I recounted my journey with Annette.
Interestingly, my journey literally started with a journey. Some years ago, Annette led a delegation from New Mexico to a Christians United For Israel (CUFI) event in Jerusalem during which there was a parade through the center of Jerusalem. I showed up to cheer and thank the participants for coming to, and sharing their hearts with, Israel. About half way through the route I noticed an older woman moving slowly along the periphery, with most others passing her. I went to see if I could be of help and got to know Rosie whose dream to visit Israel had become fulfilled. Reminding me of my mother, and knowing that this woman really had no idea where she was going, I walked with her to the end of the parade route, helped her find her group, and eventually drove her and others to their hotel.
But it was at the end of the parade route, in the shade of the square outside Jerusalem’s City Hall that Rosie would introduce me to Annette, the birth of a friendship that will bless me until the end of my days.
Another time, Annette led group from New Mexico to Israel during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. In order to maximize my time with her, and because I already felt like family, rather than just observing the parade, I joined the New Mexico delegation and walked the whole parade route with them. Israelis were lined up along the length of the route cheering the participants. As an Orthodox Jew, perhaps in the entire parade, I walked proudly with Annette and her delegation.
At every CUFI Summit in Washington, Annette would always save me a seat with her, as close to the front as she could get.
Annette’s heart was especially moved for Israel and the threats we were facing during the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza, firing nearly 5000 rockets at Israel, creating lots of fear, havoc, stress and injuries. Annette championed the idea of a telethon to support Israel. She galvanized the right people and pulled off a spectacular event that aired on numerous Christian TV stations, giving Christians the powerful means to express their support for Israel, through prayer and through charitable donations. I was blessed to participate, and be a recipient.
I always looked forward to attending the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Convention, partly because I knew that I would see Annette. Also in 2014, the NRB led a solidarity trip to Jerusalem and Annette joined. Though I had seen her earlier in the summer and had just returned home from my trip, meeting up with my family already on vacation, I cut my vacation short to drive from the Galilee to Jerusalem to see her. Annette introduced me to others as an honored guest, thanks to which I have many new ongoing relationships that bless and enrich my life.
Annette sought my council on how to raise money for her ministry, and I sought hers. We helped one another raise money to support each other just because that’s what a brother and sister would do.
Annette honored and hosted me in Albuquerque and as the speaker at an event for Jews and Christians. She honored me, and I was honored to do it.
I’ll never forget the conversation where Annette counseled with me when she felt the representative of another Israeli non-profit was not being 100% honest and transparent with her. She was right, but she was too nice to come out and say “I don’t trust so and so.”
Being an Orthodox Jew, keeping kosher while traveling is not always easy. Among the places I have traveled, New Mexico is one that stands out as having very little by way of kosher food. One day on the way to the airport, she made a detour to be sure I had at least a couple of Snickers bars for lunch because she knew I needed to eat something, albeit not so healthy. And as my friend she knew that Snickers is one of my weaknesses.
My journey with Annette Garcia ended in the sense that she’s no longer physically here. Yet, she will always be part of me. This year, while traveling in western Texas and realizing I was only a several hour drive away, I called Annette and apologized for not thinking of going to see her. At this point in my itinerary, full of meetings in a different city every day, unfortunately it was too late to change plans.
But I will never forget Annette’s words. Despite the fact that she was the one suffering from what would be terminal cancer, whether she knew that then or not, and I was calling to give her comfort and encouragement, she is the one who inspired me. She was sure she was going to beat the cancer and said to me, “Jonathan, I’m not afraid to die but I don’t think God is done with me yet.” I am still inspired by that statement, and her faith.
Far be it for me to second guess God. But I do believe Annette was probably right that God wasn’t done with her. But maybe He just wanted her closer.
I pray that her family, and all those who loved Annette, and who she loved, will be comforted by the eternal relationships that she had with each of us. As she lives on through us, we carry that responsibility of her legacy in a way that will bless Israel as she would expect, and make her proud.