When Micheal Esguerra was injured during grade school football games, he kept moving.
“I think even once in awhile he works through pain,” said Christopher Lalko, president of the Catholic Youth Football Club (CYFC) for the Saints team comprised of students from St. Roman, St. Charles, Our Lady Queen of Peace and Blessed Sacrament Parish Schools in Milwaukee. “We saw if he’d get banged up or dinged up a little bit, he was able to shake that off and continue playing. He would hang in there all the time.”
Hanging in there is an attitude that Micheal, a recent graduate of Our Lady Queen of Peace School, applies to all areas of his life – no matter how grim the outlook.
The 14-year-old and his brother, Phillip, 16, hung in there when their father, Felipe Esguerra, died of a heart attack in 2001, and again when their mother, Shirley Esguerra, died from a pacemaker malfunction in 2009.
Until good news from doctors at Children’s Hospital Tuesday, June 14, Micheal had still been hanging on in a battle with Stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma, with which he was diagnosed last year after an end-of-the-season football injury forced him to visit the hospital, according
to Mark Hoffman, the school’s athletic director.
“I made him go to the doctor because I found out he cracked a rib during football, and he wanted to play basketball, and I said, ‘Well, dude, before you can play basketball, I want you to go to the doctor and get checked out,’ and that’s when they found it,” Hoffman said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. On Tuesday, doctors told Micheal that the mass had shrunk significantly through chemotherapy treatments and that he would not need radiation treatments. He will have another checkup in a month.
Lalko said when he learned of the news last year, he was shocked to find out that the young and energetic boy was ill, but that it didn’t affect Micheal’s outlook on life.
“He’s not a quitter; even though sometimes we would see pain on his face, he always played through it,” Lalko said. “So, (that’s) kind of the same way he’s dealing with the illness.”
Genevieve Herro, administrative assistant at Our Lady Queen of Peace School, said Micheal has qualities that resemble his late mother.
“If you need help, he’ll be the first one to help you,” she said “and I mean boys that age they don’t want to do that; they want to be with their friends, but he’s always (asking) ‘You need anything?’”
Herro got to know Shirley and the family because her daughter was in the same grade as Phillip, and because she sometimes took Phillip to soccer practices when Shirley’s jobs interfered.
“She wanted to be as much as a part of the boys lives as she physically, possibly could,” Herro said.
Shirley also wasn’t one to ask for help, according to Janet Orlowski, principal at Our Lady Queen of Peace, though the school did cover tuition when she couldn’t.
Shirley worked two jobs to care for her family, went for dialysis treatments as she battled kidney disease and still volunteered at the school.
“She would come and work our festival and then apologize because she had to leave for dialysis,” Orlowski laughed. “Yes, this is the kind of person she was. She was just a wonderful lady, a wonderful lady.”
Micheal said all of the challenges he’s encountered have been tough, but his family and friends help him get through everything life has thrown his way.
He especially looks up to his stepfather, Emeterio Cariaga Jr., who married Shirley on Jan. 13, 2007, and who adopted him and his brother after Shirley died, “because he was always there for us, and he’d take careof me and my brother all the time,” Micheal said. “He always tells us he doesn’t care about the money as long as we’re happy and he’s always nice to me and my brother even though we sometimes talk back to him.”
Herro, who doesn’t know Cariaga that well, said she knows he loves Micheal and Phillip.
“He’s stepped up,” she said. “I mean, he takes them to and from places – he’s trying to make their life as normal as possible.”
Adopting Micheal and Phillip was one way that Cariaga coped with losing Shirley, his childhood sweetheart in the Philippines before her marriage to Felipe. Cariaga, 53, a janitor at Old Country Buffet, is now focused on parenting her boys and providing for their financial needs.
Through translator Leo Vitangcol, a family friend whom Cariaga met during the adoption process, Cariaga said he also tries to live day by day.
“My friend here, Mr. Cariaga, for him to adopt the kids, I think that talks about really his personality – he adopted the children out of his love for not only for the children, but out of his love for his deceased wife, so I commend him for that,” Vitangcol said, noting that Cariaga treats the boys as if they were his own. “So, I’m really happy about that – I’m proud of him.”
Vitangcol recently invited Cariaga and Micheal on a daylong church retreat through a Filipino organization, to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion in the Green Bay Diocese, the site of approved Marian apparitions. Together, they prayed the rosary and toured sites like the basilica.
“It meant a lot because like I got closer to God,” said Micheal, who remembers traveling to the Our Lady of the Snows site in Illinois with his mother, who sought healing.
“I got to see like a lot of stuff – the churches there – and I was fascinated to see the apparition site, and I met a lot of people over there,” he said.
The Our Lady Queen of Peace School community and the Saints football team have stepped up by fundraising to help Cariaga cover general medical expenses.
The school raised a couple thousand dollars from a chicken dinner in February, and then contributed the proceeds from that night’s bingo to the family.
Though Micheal was an eighth grade student at the time, and technically no longer a football player, the football team and members of the CYFC fundraised for Micheal by collecting and recycling aluminum cans for cash during a weekend after Christmas.
“We try to teach them the fundamentals of football, but the most important thing is that we believe football can help kids prepare for life and the winning in life and the losing in life, more importantly, and we tell them that they are members of our club forever, and they’re welcome back to be on the sidelines or to come back as coaches at any time, and that’s kind of what was behind what we wanted to do for Micheal when we found out about his illness,” Lalko, a member of St. Roman Parish, said of the fundraising method he also used at home with his children. “He’s – we consider him a family member.”
At the end of the fundraising weekend, the CYFC had a dinner and movie night for the members of the football team and their families, and presented Micheal and his father with a $900 check.
Fr. Gregory Spitz, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, said it’s that kind of generosity in a community with limited resources that he thinks has had a positive impact upon Micheal.
“He’s had a tough go of it, but the parish and, most especially, the school and kid-related things have really done so much for him and I think that really helps to keep his spirits up….” he said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “It’s hard for me to really identify with what some of these kids have to go through and yet some of them are bright and happy or they hide it well – it’s really quite a study looking at what these kids go through today and how well a lot of them come out.”
Micheal has been in the parish’s public prayers of the faithful for quite awhile, and his name is mentioned at all of the Masses.
“This is not a wealthy parish by any means, but they’re willing to help and they can really turn out for something and come to the aid once they know about (a need),” the priest said.
Vitangcol, who attends the doctor appointments with Cariaga and Micheal, said that they can always use prayers. With the good news they received during their Tuesday visit, he said they were “celebrating.” They will continue to hope and pray that the good news continues.
“I can see that he’s a very strong guy…(he) lost both parents, even (had) cancer,” Vitangcol said of Micheal, who plans to attend Greenfield High School in the fall, “but he’s a survivor.”