"Babe, I leave this for you"

Mark Graham

"I don't know if I should say this or not," she says, her voice shaky, her hands pressed together in front of her mouth. As she sits in her modest Fort Worth home, Lydia Galvan recalls what she found days after her husband, a Dallas police officer, was killed in a car crash so violent that his body was ripped apart and his face mangled beyond recognition. So gruesome was David Galvan's death that police never granted her wish to see him one last time. And later, at the funeral home, one of her three sons had to restrain her as she desperately tried to open the casket to say goodbye to their 27 years together.

"I didn't get to see nothing," she says, in a tone laced with the bitterness of what she believes is an irreparable injustice. Short and hefty, she sounds and looks younger than her 53 years. Maybe it's because of the extra weight that softens the edges of her face, or the "Winnie the Pooh" T-shirt she's wearing today. Or because of how, without any self-consciousness and with the utmost adoration, this homemaker still refers to the father of her four children by his nickname, "Big David."

More than six years have passed since the center of her life -- her "Big David" -- was ripped from her. It was then, one late morning, that Senior Cpl. David Galvan was rushing down a street in his patrol car to aid a fellow cop in pursuit of a stolen vehicle. He never made it. As his car sped by at 80 mph, a woman pulled out of an apartment-complex driveway and clipped the rear of his vehicle. In the tiniest fraction of a second, Galvan fought frantically to regain control of his squad car. It swerved some 300 feet before ramming into a utility pole, where his Chevrolet Caprice was shredded in two. He died instantly -- at 11:32 a.m., according to when the watch he was wearing stopped ticking.

If all Lydia Galvan wanted was to see her husband one last time, she believes "Big David" granted her wish, if only in part, following his funeral. It was then, three days after the crash, that she and her family visited the site on West Ledbetter Drive in southwest Oak Cliff where his 48 years ended. There she saw something both heartbreaking and reassuring that she cherishes to this very day.

"I had found some part of his body," she says, sitting on a sofa in a small back room, where faded photos of the children she and her husband raised together adorn the wood-paneled wall behind her.

Three raw, red pieces of flesh, she says, had been overlooked by the mortuary service that police had employed to clean up the wreck. There the remains rested near the base of the utility pole. "Like pieces of meat," she says, her mouth slightly drawn in disgust as she holds her hands up to convey the size, similar to a football.

"My sister-in-law found one and buried it there. My son found one and buried it there."

As for the third one, she says nothing...yet.

"After he got killed, I didn't get to see him," she says, her voice breaking. "I don't know," she adds, the tears now streaming down her face. "It's just..." She stops, shakes her head, and in a pained, subdued tone, lets out what sounds like an "ooh." Then, silently, she wipes away the tears with her hand.

"It still hurts," she says. "It will always hurt because we were married 27 years, and that's half of our life together."

Her husband's presence is everywhere. On a case rest some framed photos of David Galvan. There's one of him with his wife. Another with his children. One, in black and white, shows him during his days in the U.S. Marines. Near the case hang the medals and other awards he received, some posthumously, as a police officer. And by another wall stands a large eagle, carved from wood, which Mrs. Galvan commissioned for $3,000 as a way of commemorating her husband's love of the bird. The sculpture, which took the artist a year and a half to finish, easily looms over Mrs. Galvan's frame of barely 5 feet.

But for Mrs. Galvan, there is no place more sacred to her husband's memory than that stretch of road where his life ended.

"For me, he stayed there," she says. "I don't know if I can tell you this or not," she continues, in an almost childlike tone, as if confessing something, "but I have one in the icebox. A piece of meat. Of David. That's the only thing I have from David.

"Do you want to see it?" she suddenly asks, smiling as if she's about to share a hidden treasure. Every few months, Mrs. Galvan takes it out of the box, "just to check on it," she explains, in a voice that reveals both Texan and Mexican inflections. "I just see it like it's something special to me. Like if David would have said, 'Here, Babe, I leave this for you.'"  

Mrs. Galvan gets up from the sofa and walks the three small steps up into the kitchen. There, before her, is the refrigerator door, adorned with magnets, including one with a small photo of Senior Cpl. Galvan, a man with dark features, smiling broadly in his uniform and cap. As if she's about to perform a sacred ritual, she becomes silent; only the sound of her heavy breathing fills the room.

With her mouth clenched shut, Mrs. Galvan solemnly pulls from the freezer what looks like a small, brown box of chocolates. Setting it on the counter, she reaches for a knife to cut the cellophane tape around the rim. She lifts the lid. Inside, a blue-and-white paisley handkerchief shields a square object that occupies half the box. It's the same handkerchief "Big David" loved to wear because, as his wife says, he "sweat a lot." He would wear it all the time, whether doing odd jobs around the house or even at work, where he tied it around his open collar so as not to dirty his uniform. Any rookie cop would have been reprimanded for violating the police dress code, but to this 16-year veteran, not a word was said.

"I used to cuss the bitch that took the father of my babies," says Mrs. Galvan, as she unwraps the handkerchief to reveal a Ziploc bag. There, inside, rests all that remains here of David Galvan -- a brown object in the shape of a fish fillet. Through the years, Mrs. Galvan has seen the piece get smaller, drier, less red.

"That's the meat that came from the thigh," she says, slapping her side.

She opens the bag, which lets out a musty smell tinged with freezer burn. Inside, amidst the meat, is the white congealed fat that helped pad David Galvan's 5-foot-10-inch, 250-pound frame. And mingled with it are the small, brown pieces of grass and leaves from the grassy knoll where he died.

For a moment, Mrs. Galvan holds the bag. Then, without so much as a word, she retrieves her husband.

Somehow, her long nails and the gold rings that adorn every one of her fingers give the slab of meat resting in her hands its due honor.

The fat on the meat is the first to respond to her warmth. It melts almost instantly, coating her hands, her gold rings, and her wedding band, with a luminous, oily sheen.

A moment of looking solemnly at the piece is all the time she can afford this precious perishable. She tucks it in the bag.

"But like I said," she says solemnly, as she goes to the kitchen sink and washes her hands with Dawn soap, "that's all I got of him."

Every month, Mrs. Galvan visits the stretch of road on West Ledbetter Drive where she found her husband's partial remains. She stays for 15 minutes or so, just to talk to him and tell him how she and the kids are doing. There, alongside the road, she maintains a memorial, where a white, wooden cross, stenciled with his name, stands in his honor. On the cross is a small porcelain angel, with hands outstretched to the world. And a few feet down stands the utility pole, still as indestructible as the day her husband collided with it. The pole is now adorned with the cloth flowers she stapled to it. At its base, buried beneath the dirt and the tattered, faded American flags that fellow officers left behind years ago, rests some part of David Galvan.

In a sense, David Galvan has three homes, there on West Ledbetter, at the cemetery, and, of course, in his wife's freezer. And in the past seven years, Mrs. Galvan has tried to mend her own fragmented life. She has tried to find her center.

In the midst of her quest, she has never shied from telling people about the piece in her home. That meat represents, she says, some bit of "justice" in the midst of all the injustices: the driver whom she blames for her husband's death, the mortuary service that failed to pick up all the remains, and the final, devastating blow from the police who denied her request to see him.

She has tried to claim some justice for her and her family, for David Galvan.  

After years of court proceedings, she won her case against the apartment complex, Smith Creek, from which the other driver was exiting. Mrs. Galvan claimed that bushes several feet from the curb obstructed the view of an already reckless driver, who failed to yield the right of way. Last March she says, Smith Creek settled with the Galvans, paying $45,000 to be divided among her and her four children. As for the driver, Gwendolyn Lucas, the court ordered her to compensate the Galvans with $12 million. She'll be paying for the rest of her life.

Lucas didn't apologize then, and she isn't in the mood to apologize now. "The only thing I can tell you is to talk to my lawyer," the 27-year-old says combatively when reached at her home in Dallas. "I don't even want to go back seven years. All I can say is that God has a reason for everything."

For Mrs. Galvan, the main culprit is Lucas, not God. She's seen her only once, in court two years ago. They've never spoken. Nor has she received a penny of the settlement money.

"She has not called me," says Mrs. Galvan bitterly. "No. Uh-uh.

"Look how long David stayed in the service risking his life," she says, her voice rising. "All I wanted was for her to go to jail."

Lucas never did.

"My mom has real deep feelings toward the lady who did that," says Isaac Galvan, a soft-spoken man of 27 who bears a striking resemblance to his late father, the man for whom he named his firstborn son. As for the driver, "I really have no concerns about her. I could care less. It's not going to bring my father back."

For Mrs. Galvan, the feelings run hotter. And that whopping settlement is the closest she can come to a just retribution.

"If I can't have David," she adds, "she ain't gonna have nothing."

And if Mrs. Galvan can't have her husband, at least she has a part of him to keep forever.

"It might be against the law for me to have it," she says of the relic in her freezer, "but I don't know how. He's mine anyway.

"He is my man. My husband," she says, raising her voice defiantly. "I never plan to go bury it."

Even at 53, when Mrs. Galvan recalls how she met her late husband, she giggles like a schoolgirl.

Lydia Soliz was all of 18 when she and her family attended a Jehovah's Witnesses church picnic in Brownwood. When a 19-year-old David Galvan, fresh from serving in the Marine Corps, saw her that day, he knew she was the one for him. He asked her out. She said yes, and a week later, their courtship began, as he made the nearly hour-long trip from Fort Worth to see her at her family home in Venus.

One of four children born to a farm worker, Lydia, a self-described "country girl," gave David a welcome reprieve from military food by making him homemade tortillas, rice and beans, and chicken.

When, a month later, David asked her parents for permission to marry her, the answer was swift. No, they said; she's too young.

Within months, though, Lydia was pregnant, and shortly after the birth of their first child, Lena, they married.

"David was the kind of person who wanted to help people no matter what," says Mrs. Galvan. And so, in 1977, he joined the Dallas Police Department and worked in its southwest patrol division.

"We lived daily by what he made," she says. "No big home or expensive cars, but for me it was happy because he had a home for me and my kids."

David Galvan was the consummate family man. "He wouldn't lead me astray," says his son Isaac, now a worker for Fort Worth's water department. "If someone was bothering me at school, he would tell me what to do before it escalated."

For all the stability that he provided his family, David Galvan -- in his brutally honest fashion -- always prepared them for the possibility that someday something might happen to him on the job. And if he were in an accident, he told his wife, he would rather die there than be a "vegetable."

As time passed, though, Mrs. Galvan pushed such grim thoughts to the back of her mind. And after 16 years of seeing her husband thrive as an officer, after seeing him receive 18 commendations as well as awards for marksmanship, saving a life, and safe driving, that possibility didn't seem likely at all. So many were his achievements that the pay cut he took in 1985 for being in a preventable accident barely tarnished his record.  

Even after working long hours, David Galvan often stayed late at work, advising a younger cop about how to fill out the rookie evaluations due at day's end. "He didn't have to hang around, but he would," says detective Daniel Moreno, now 36. That was just David Galvan's way, he says, of regarding his fellow officers as brothers -- brothers, Moreno adds, for whom Galvan would have put his life on the line.

At six on the morning of December 14, 1993, David Galvan gave his wife his usual goodbye kiss. He told her to be ready by evening so the two of them could buy a go-cart as a Christmas present for their youngest son, then 7 years old. On most days, he told her he loved her, but not that morning. He was just too rushed.

Mrs. Galvan was home, taking a lunch break from her job as a nanny, when she turned on the TV to The Young and the Restless. A news bulletin interrupted the program. An auto accident involving a police car had occurred on West Ledbetter Drive, the report said.

"That's where David works," Mrs. Galvan thought.

She felt a pain surge through her chest. She picked up the phone. Called the police. They told her nothing. Just as she put the phone down, she looked up and saw, from her living-room window, a chaplain and several police officers leaving their cars.

David Galvan always told his wife that if anything ever happened to him, someone would come to their home to tell her.

She opened the door.

"It was David, wasn't it?" she asked frantically. "Take me to him. I want to see him."

"You can't do that," the chaplain said. "Because David's dead."

Lydia Galvan cried day and night. The home that her husband had worked so hard to fix up became a wretched place to live. It was filled with too many memories: Sunday-morning breakfasts of eggs, fried potatoes, gravy, and sausage that he would make for the family, or the times after a long day's work when he would lounge in his brown recliner, watching Star Trek with his 3-year-old grandson and 7-year-old son by his side.

Now, every time her youngest son heard noises in the night, he would wake up and tell her, "Daddy's home, Mom." She heard noises too. Every creak, every sound, kept her up until three or four in the morning, until only the aid of a sleeping pill knocked her out.

What would she do, she often asked herself, now that her biggest support was gone?

He always looked after her every need. If, on occasion, she was curious enough to ask him how he managed to pay the bills, he wouldn't elaborate. "What for, honey?" he would say. "It's already taken care of."

Now that he was dead, she secretly expected, secretly hoped that he would walk through the door some evening at 6:30, his usual time. Or call on his way home from work to see whether he could pick up something at the grocery store.

The routine was gone. And her evenings became unbearable. She would do anything to escape the house. Visit her in-laws. Go to Wal-Mart. Finally, she couldn't stand it any longer. She had to leave for good. Within the year, she sold the house to her sister-in-law and moved blocks away to the home in which she now lives.

A year after her husband's death, though, the pain was just as acute. She was going every week or so to the site where he died. There, she would talk to him. Tell him how sorry she was that the accident happened. She found no comfort.

If family and friends even mentioned her husband's name, the tears would stream down her face. Her friend Ray saw her grief. He advised her to see a religious figure of Santería, a spiritual elder known as a godfather, a padrino. Santería is a mixture of Catholicism and the mystical rites of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. A godfather, he said, could help ease her pain by praying for her.

The idea wasn't too far-fetched for Mrs. Galvan. A year before her husband died, she had heard of Santería when a friend of Ray's, a woman, had hired the same godfather to perform a ritual, the sole purpose of which was to finger the culprit of a drive-by shooting. Out of mere curiosity, Mrs. Galvan attended the ritual at the woman's home, where the godfather used a coconut to divine a god's will. Breaking the hard shell with a hammer, the godfather removed the fruit's meat and divided it into four equal parts. When he threw the pieces on the floor, they fell into one of five separate patterns, all of which have a specific meaning and are interpreted by the godfather as the god's answer. That day, the godfather predicted both the approximate court date for the drive-by case and who actually did the crime.  

When, weeks later, his predictions came true, Mrs. Galvan was no longer skeptical. She told her husband what had happened.

"He started making fun of me," she now recalls, chuckling. "He would ask me, 'Are you going to turn into one of those witch doctors?'

"This one," she says, pointing to the house next door, where her son Isaac lives, "does the same thing to me."

It wasn't until after her husband died, though, that she felt a need to reach out to Santería. Nothing, it seemed, would heal the pain of "Big David"'s death. She had lost the most solid, dependable presence in her life, the man who had been not only the father of her children, but, with her parents' deaths, the only real family she had.

A grasping faith was born.

On the advice of her friend Ray, she recruited a Cuban godfather all the way from California. Along with paying his way here with the money she had in savings, she put him up in a motel by the freeway for four days. She didn't care about the money. Like so many other practitioners of Santería, she was willing to part with however many thousands of dollars it would take to find peace. That first time, she gave him $5,000.

The godfather prayed for her; he told her that "Big David" wouldn't want her to be so sad. And he gave her two books to read on Santería. For her part, she told him about her husband's grave, how only his plot was covered with dead grass. David, he told her, was not resting in peace. There was something, the godfather explained, that her husband never had the chance to tell her that last morning. He didn't have the time to say "I love you."

The godfather prayed at the cemetery. And at her home, he sacrificed a goat, a chicken, and a pigeon to ward off the evil he said was lingering at David Galvan's grave. He assured Mrs. Galvan that when she returned to the plot in three weeks, the grass would be green. It was.

In the four years she paid him, he did some half-dozen jobs for her. There was the time he sculpted the Yoruba god Elegguá for her, and as a way of initiating her relationship with the elder saint, he again sacrificed a goat, pigeon, and chicken. He performed a similar rite for Oshún, offering up a chicken.

Then, when he was away in California or Florida or wherever, she would call him every other night for half an hour or so just to see how her godfather was doing.

Along the way Mrs. Galvan parted with a lot of money.

When asked how much, she lets out a whoop of air. "Uh, let me tell you..." She starts counting: "Nine thousand, uh, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17..." She looks up. "About $17,000 -- or more."

In those four years she employed the godfather, she exhausted her family savings, as well as the monthly $3,000 she receives as her husband's death benefit.

"He knew I had money, and that's why he was taking advantage of me," she says. "I was so blind that I didn't know what he was doing. I trusted him with all my soul."

She began doubting him when she noticed things weren't happening the way they were supposed to; she wasn't at peace.

"Me and Michael were fighting a lot," she says of her 33-year-old boyfriend, who lives with her and whom she started seeing eight months after David Galvan died. "I hated him like a purple passion. And I was screaming at my baby when I wasn't supposed to," she says of her youngest child, now 13 and the only one still living with her.

"Uh-uh," says Mrs. Galvan, shaking her head. "Something's going on."

It wasn't that she thought her godfather was a phony. After four years, she was simply beginning to realize that he was charging her too much money. To this day, she believes that despite all the money she lost, her godfather's work is sacred. He may have been dishonest, but for her, the same can't be said of Santería.  

"He did the things I needed," she says, referring to his role in initiating her relationship with the gods through sacrifices. "But now, he can't touch them. They're mine."

There are the jobs he neglected to finish, such as providing her with all the collares, the sacred necklaces she wears most of the time as protection against evil.

She needed to find someone else, and a female friend advised her to see a madrina, a godmother, who runs a shop in Arlington filled with relics of the Santería faith. Today, Mrs. Galvan believes that her madrina, whom she identifies only by her first name, Francisca, is an honest practitioner of the faith.

"Well, heck yeah," says Mrs. Galvan, who has given her $1,500 in the past six months for religious rites, such as providing her with the remaining collares that symbolize many of the Yoruba gods and goddesses. And there was the time this past January when her godmother prayed for her after Mrs. Galvan received an ominous message, left behind by a friend of her former padrino as a way of expressing his displeasure that she had terminated his services. This friend, whom Mrs. Galvan will only identify as a "bad person," made the godfather's feelings known by throwing a dead, black chicken at her parked van. For such a devoted follower of Santería as Mrs. Galvan, she knew all too well what it signaled -- bad luck. But she says her godmother's prayers put a stop to any future incidents.

"I'm happy," she says. Other than that declaration, she's reluctant to elaborate on the rituals her godmother performs, the rituals she credits with making her so content.

One thing is certain: Mrs. Galvan will be very angry if this story makes her religious devotion "look bad." If that happens, there will be a price to pay. It's a warning she relays, albeit half-jokingly, by simulating a hex: biting her lower lip, exhaling a muffled breath of air, and flicking her fingers at this reporter.

When asked about the possibility of seeing her pray to Elegguá, she agrees and gives a date. Days later, she backs out, saying that her godmother has just told her no one is allowed to see her with the god.

"I have to go through her," Mrs. Galvan explains. "She's my teacher."

Though she will not allow visitors to view her secret rites, the items she holds dear more than make up for her reticence. Most telling is what's in her living room, where, a year after her husband's death, she began gathering the relics and idols of Santería. This is where Mrs. Galvan has centered her search for peace, any peace.

When she speaks about her faith, Mrs. Galvan sounds as if her spiritual search is fueled more by emotional needs than by intellectual ones.

"They listen," she says of the gods. "You can feel it in your soul. It makes me feel good inside.

"I used to be a bitch and a half," she adds with a hearty laugh. "For real. I used to get mad real easy."

Long before she embraced Santería, Mrs. Galvan had been loosely affiliated with another religion. As a young girl of 10 or so, she sometimes gave speeches at her Jehovah's Witnesses family church in Robstown, Texas. But she can't remember what she ever talked about. "Well, I don't know," she says, laughing. "The Bible, I guess."

Whatever lack of interest she once held in religion, she has more than compensated through her commitment to Santería. In her home, which is located in a predominantly lower-middle-class neighborhood of blacks and Hispanics, she has created a kind of sanctuary, filled with Catholic images, such as Jesus on a wooden cross and a picture of the Virgin Mary, as well as statues of gods, the Yoruba deities, which she forbids anyone -- even her family -- to touch. "Because I'm clean for them," she says. "They're my gods."

And for religious reasons all her own, she bought a dove, which flutters around the room, often resting on the window sill. "When Jesus died, they had a dove with him," she says, demonstrating a fuzzy recollection of a New Testament passage that actually describes Jesus' baptism.

The gods surround Mrs. Galvan, and she prays to them daily for health and the protection of her family.

Made of clay and painted black, Changó, the tempestuous god of fire, a god used to overcome enemies, sits cross-legged against a wall. Mrs. Galvan went all the way to Monterrey, Mexico, to buy him.  

But of all the Yoruba deities, there are none whom Mrs. Galvan worships more than her grand elders: Oshún, the goddess of love, marriage, and gold, and Elegguá, the messenger of the gods.

A small print hanging from a wicker chair depicts Oshún as a beautiful young woman with pale, luminous skin and refined features. On the floor, standing guard before Oshún, is a small, plastic doll dressed in yellow. This chiquita, as Mrs. Galvan calls her, looks as if it could have come from any toy store. But Mrs. Galvan, who received the doll from her former godfather, takes her very, very seriously and dutifully baptized her according to Santería's dictates in the nearby Trinity River.

"She likes yellow," she says of Oshún, this goddess who claims unlimited powers. Mrs. Galvan honors Oshún by placing before her a glass filled with crushed, liquefied yellow flowers, the scent of which fills the room.

Just as important to her is Elegguá, an unremarkable-looking lump of clay, about the size of a baseball, that sits in one corner of her living room, standing guard against the world. Every morning, just before she prays to Elegguá, she introduces herself to him as his daughter. And he never fails to stare back with his seashell eyes.

"He's like the king of my house," says Mrs. Galvan of this messenger of the gods. "I cannot," she says, stressing every word, "go out of this home without his permission." Every Monday morning she dutifully honors him by filling her mouth with vodka and spraying the stone with the liquid. She then lights a cigar and blows the smoke toward the image.

Even if Elegguá's love for her is so conditional that he needs a cigar and some cheap vodka to pacify him, she doesn't care. She worships him -- and all the gods -- for what they seem to have given her since her husband's death: A place. A purpose. A peace. Perhaps.

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