Herminio Cruz and Rosa Morales sat together in a small room at Hidahl Elementary School in Ceres, talking fondly about their youngest daughter, Lucina. In her arms, Rosa cradled a framed portrait of the 11-year-old. The red-eyed grief on the parents' faces was unmistakable.
A few feet away, the couple's 5-year-old son, Herminio Jr., played on the carpet with a toy car. Then the boy looked up and, for the first time, spotted in his mother's arms the picture of his sister. His expression brightened suddenly.
"It's Lucina!" he called out, bouncing to his feet and running over to his mother. He kissed his fingers and gently touched the glass covering his sister's portrait. When everyone in the room reacted to the bittersweet moment, shyness overtook the boy; he ran off and disappeared into his father's arms. Herminio hugged his son tightly, in no hurry to let go. Rosa reached for another tissue, and looked away.
"How do you explain something like this to a little boy?" Herminio said. "When we were at the hospital, he kept asking if Lucina was coming home with us? I kept saying, 'No, my son, she's not.' I was trying to find the right words to explain it to him, but he really surprised me. He said, 'Tell me the truth, she's already dead, right?'
"When the social worker asked if he understood what was happening to his sister, he said she was dead. When they asked him if he knew what happened to dead people, he knew they dig a hole and bury her with dirt. But then he said he wanted us to put a bed at the cemetery because that's where she's going to sleep from now on."
On the morning of April 17, Lucina Cruz Morales was walking to the bus stop with her older sister, Alma. The younger sister said she had a headache and was feeling dizzy, so Alma walked her back toward home. They made it to a neighbor's house, where Lucina collapsed and never regained consciousness. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital.
By the next day, while everyone who knew Lucina held out hope, a group of specialists returned a grim prognosis: Lucina was brain dead and never would recover from the aneurysm that burst in her brain. Family and friends visited her in the intensive care unit before her parents had to make the decision April 19 to take her off life support.
"Losing a daughter is not easy," Rosa said. "Lucina had a very big heart. The pain will never go away."
Family had fallen on hard times
As Rosa continued talking in Spanish, Hidahl administrative assistant Gloria Hernandez listened a few moments, then turned to me with more translation.
"Rosa is blaming herself for what happened," Hernandez said. "She said she believes this had to do with Lucina thinking too much about their family's problems. There were a lot of sudden changes in their life. Losing their home, moving to Ceres and changing schools. Lucina was lonely, and Rosa said she kept encouraging her that things would get back to normal soon."
Lucina's family has endured more than its share of grief in recent months. The hard times began last year when Herminio found it increasingly difficult to find steady work.
Bills piled up and, in December, the family was evicted from its home -- one of a growing legion of victims of foreclosure.
The family moved into a rental house in Ceres, resigned to begin again. That setback came on top of the uncertain fate of Herminio Jr., who has had three open-heart surgeries as the result of a birth defect. He is scheduled to meet with specialists at Stanford University Medical Center to monitor a condition that likely will require at least one more surgery in the near future.
"Being so sick, we always thought it could be him leaving us," Rosa said. "We've always known he could leave us at any time. But we never thought of Lucina. She never had any medical problems. She's always been a healthy young girl."
The past month also has been difficult for Hidahl teachers and parents, who find themselves doing their best to handle questions that often have no answers. The school had grief counselors on site for several days to meet with students, many of whom were experiencing their first brush with death. Lucina's teacher, Karen Klein-Lopez, said standing in front of the class and telling Lucina's classmates that the girl had died was one of the most difficult things she's ever had to do.
"It was hard because you just wanted to make everyone's pain go away, but there was no way to do that," Klein-Lopez said. "It brought up so many emotions for the kids. Some were getting angry. Some were calling their parents and crying on the phone.
"Lucina was such a sweet girl and a great student. You can tell she comes from a solid family background because she has great respect for her teachers. She came in here and was an 'A' student because she put in the effort. She was one of those rare students who could really make an impact. You wish you had 20 more just like her in every class."
Students try to cope with friend's death
Amy Perez, a sixth-grader at Hidahl, said she never will forget the great friend she met -- or the day in the intensive care unit where she had to tell Lucina goodbye.
"It was sad and scary," Amy said. "People have died in my family before, like grandparents and great-aunts, but not anyone I knew. When I went to the hospital, I sat next to Lucina and talked to her, but she couldn't hear me or anything.
"I brought her the letter I wrote and the cards that everyone made for her. I gave her a kiss on the cheek. My mom said we had to go because I was crying. I just told her, 'You're going to get better.' And I promised her when she gets better we could have a basketball game, just me and her, because she would like that."
"It's strange because she was playing the day before and she didn't seem sick or anything," said Eddie Cardenas, a Hidahl sixth-grader and another of Lucina's friends. "How can she be fine one day and the next day she's gone? That's the part that doesn't make sense. My mom said you have to celebrate life, but you also have to celebrate death. When someone dies, you have to honor them. And that's why you've got to live each day to the fullest. Because none of us know when we're going to die."
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or 874-5716.