Friends gathered on the steps of a Lodi home Thursday afternoon to remember a family lost in a car crash and a father who gave up drinking in order to reunite with his pregnant wife and their four children.
Josefina Suarec and her daughter, Brianna Hernandez, placed flowers and gazed at pictures in front of the family’s quiet red house, in a quiet neighborhood on Garfield Street.
Over the last six years, Irving Miranda, 11, Jose Miranda, 5, Stephanie Miranda, 4, their father, Luis Miranda, 30, and pregnant mother, Vivian Rodriguez, 31, became Suarec’s second family.
The only family member to survive was 9-year-old Eden Miranda, who is in a local hospital and listed in critical condition.
“We loved them so much,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.”
Suarec attended church with the family. Their children went to school together. Their daughters were best friends.
And Suarec was there when Luis Miranda, a long-time grape picker, decided to turn his life around for his family.
For many years, Luis couldn’t escape the bottle, Suarec said. He’d drink, and over time it drove a wedge between him and his wife and four kids.
But two years ago, Luis realized he no longer wanted to watch his children grow up behind blurred eyes. He put down the bottle and never picked it up again.
“He’d always say, ‘I lost a lot of time when I was drinking. I want to stay with my family all my life,’” Suarec said. “That’s really sad. He changed. My God, he changed. He changed for the family, and he wanted to do it for the baby.”
Early this year, Vivian became pregnant with the couple’s fifth child — this one a boy. Years of drinking kept Luis from throwing his wife a baby shower for any of their children. But now he was sober, and wanted another chance.
“He told me, ‘I never did a baby shower for my wife. I want to throw a baby shower for my wife. Can you help me, please?’” Suarec said. “He was really, really happy.”
And with her loving husband back, so was Vivian.
“(Vivian) said, ‘When my husband drank a lot, the family (life) was hard. And now my life has changed — everything’s changed,’” Suarec recalled.
Vivian spent years attending church with just her children. But in recent months, the entire family was united in the pew every Sunday, Monday and Thursday.
With the baby just a couple months away, Vivian, who at one time worked for Vaz Bros. Trucking, quit her job so she could stay home and rest. Spending the days with her kids made Vivian realize that’s where she wanted to be.
“She told me a lot of times, ‘This is my fifth kid. I don’t want to work anymore. I want to stay with my kids,’” Suarec said.
Meanwhile, Luis worked long, dirty days in a local vineyard. Every night he’d come home, leave his boots on the porch and hang his hat on a rack beside the door, and greet his family with a glowing smile.
Suarec also watched the children grow up from the time they were babies. While Irving, a seventh-grader, went to Lodi Middle School, Eden, Jose, a first-grader, and Stephanie, a kindergartner, attended Heritage Elementary School with Brianna, also in kindergarten.
In that time, Brianna and Stephanie quickly became best friends.
“She liked to play with me, to do homework with me,” Brianna said. “She was nice to me.”
As neighbors, Brianna would often go to Stephanie’s house, where the two would play outside and have sleepovers.
Vivian would watch the girls from the kitchen where she’d cook three meals a day for her big family.
“(Vivian would) pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, come over for some food,’” Suarec said.
On Wednesday evening, Suarec walked through her front door and saw Brianna full of tears.
“Mommy, my friend is dead,” Brianna said.
“Brianna, don’t joke like that,” Suarec replied.
Suarec walked into the living room, saw her husband crying on the couch, and knew it was true.
On Thursday, Suarec and her daughter took a few minutes to take one more look at photos of the family they miss so much. Soon the group started to file off.
But from the walkway, Suarec looked at the home and smiled. Dirty boots and a wrinkled shirt sat on the porch, while a faded, blue hat hung from the rack beside the door.
“These people are not rich, but they have a big heart,” she said.
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.