Growing up, I never had much to lose. I made a lot of selfish choices. My life revolved around violence and seeking attention. When I was nine, my mom was sentenced to nine years in prison. That’s pretty much where it all began for me and my brothers. I was the third youngest of nine kids but I only lived with my two little brothers, and my stepdad who adopted me when my mom was arrested. Our family was very separated because of my mom’s alcoholism. My dad was a single parent doing everything he could to raise us, but in a way we had to learn how to raise ourselves.
I had interests that could have gotten me somewhere, but my peers mocked me for these interests. I was already insecure so image was everything. Being a rebel seemed like a better idea to me.
When I was 16, I met a younger girl named Arianna Cruz. She had a life very similar to mine. Her mother was abusive and her dad was never around. It was just her and her little sister, forced to raise each other with no lick of hope. We dated for a few weeks and it wasn’t long before her mother decided that she didn’t want us together. I was not the man that she had planned for her daughter. She saw me once and she saw trouble.
I had a history of running away from home, and Arianna knew that. She told me that she had dreamt of running away from her mom but she didn’t have anywhere to go. I knew exactly how she felt, but I also knew exactly where we could go.
We dropped out of school and went missing together. I had a lot of friends and “street family” that let us crash. Our relationship was practically perfect. We never fought, never really even argued. We were open-minded with each other and we complemented each other on pretty much every level. My insecurities were corrected and so were hers. We were teenagers just living on our own.
Some days we slept outside. Sometimes we got caught by police and taken back home.
It seemed as if no matter what we did, the cops would be looking for us until we were 18. And that’s not what we wanted. We wanted to be with each other. We made a decision to do something that would keep us together no matter what, so we would be committed to each other for the rest of our lives. We decided to have a baby. This would keep her mom from ever having a say about us being together. I was 17 and Ari was 16. After several attempts she became pregnant.
My family was thrilled and very supportive; her family was worried and disappointed. As for Ari and I, we thought we had everything under control. But it wasn’t long before we started to argue and grow more and more distant from each other. I thought having a baby was all I needed to make sure that I could have Ari in my life. I wasn’t thinking about the responsibilities that came with it. I was 17 years old and I didn’t want to give up my party life, so I would leave Ari at night to go be with my friends. I figured that if I gave her the morning, afternoon, and evening, I could give everyone else my time in the middle of the night. I also thought buying things for our soon-to-come baby meant I was a good dad. Image was still everything. And I wanted the image of being a good dad.
We found out that we were having a baby girl. I was so excited because I always wanted to have a baby girl. But I still wasn’t even close to being ready. I was still going out to get drunk and high with all of my buddies while Ari was at home.
She decided to leave me and I decided to act out in ways I never imagined myself doing. I got heavily into drugs for a few months. Just before Lily was born I was still struggling with my addiction, which Ari didn’t know too much about.
We were together on and off through the pregnancy. I started working my first job at a local grocery store trying to get my life back on track and to rebuild the relationship we once had. I wanted to give her the love she deserved but a slight part of me still wanted to live for me.
I remember the day, August 16, 2012, when Ari woke me up saying she was in pain from our baby girl kicking. She was only five days away from her due date so we were anxious already. I told her to tell me what she had in mind. She smiled and told me that she felt it was time to go to the hospital; she had a strong feeling our baby girl was on her way out.
Ari was in labor for about eight hours: her whole family had time to come out, and mine as well. The hospital was full of visitors. I remember standing there in the hospital room with her mom and her sister, exhausted. When she began to push a lot of thoughts were going through my head. What are we gonna do? Is the baby going to be okay? What if she doesn’t like me? Who’s gonna hold her first?
She pushed for about two hours and that’s when it really happened. I saw the hair on my daughter’s head and I screamed so loud that I went hoarse by the end of my excitement, “Push baby push! I can see her. Keep pushing!” I was so excited that I didn’t even realize at first that tears were running down my face, tears of pure happiness. My daughter’s whole body came out and Ari was finished giving birth. Everyone in the room that day was full of joy.
It was the first time that Ari’s mom ever reached her arms out and hugged me. She hugged me as if she were my own mother and thanked me for giving her her first grand baby. That’s when the doctor cleaned our baby and laid her down on her mommy’s chest. Ari was crying with joy and after holding the precious baby girl, she looked at me and put her arms out towards mine so I could be the first one, besides her, to hold our little angel.
I remember looking into her eyes, singing gently to her as she continued to cry. It was at that moment that I knew that I never wanted to let anything happen to her. She was my baby girl. She was mine. And I was hers. She was everything I ever needed. I looked at her mommy and the first words she said to me were, “She’s perfect.” I knew exactly what she meant. There was not one single thing that I would have changed. It was like holding a pure angel that God laid into my arms and there was not one single flaw about her.
Lilyana Maryann Munoz was born on that day and that day changed my life forever.
It gave not only my relationship, but also my life an actual meaning, meaning that could not be replaced by anything in this world.
Ari and I had a plan to make sure we both had time to bond with Lily, but also that we both had time to sleep. Lily was such a good baby. She never cried unless she really needed something. While I was at work Ari nursed Lily and when I was home, I was the one to feed her and change her every two hours.
I never got irritated when it was time to feed or change Lily. As weird as it may seem, it was something I looked forward to. Every diaper, every meal was an accomplishment for me and let me just say, that was a lot of accomplishments each day. For the first time in my life I knew what it meant to look in the mirror and say to myself, “I’m proud of you for what you’re doing.”
As months went on, Ari and I began to struggle in our relationship because of insecurities, constant bickering, and lack of trust in each other. I slowly but surely decided to go back to my old life. I was losing myself, but worst of all I was losing my family. I was lying to Ari about where I was and whom I was with. I started to use again. I made excuses about what I was doing. I figured as long as I saw Lily every day, and did a few things for her here and there, it was okay for me to go out and party. I didn’t realize that being a dad wasn’t a part time job. It was my actual responsibility and I was failing completely.
After Lily turned one, I was sent to jail for six months for getting into a fight with the police. I fought myself so much in there, telling myself how much I wanted to make it up to Ari and Lily. I was exactly what no dad should ever be. I was pathetic and I was not able to feel pride in myself anymore.
I started to make plans for when I got out, to be the best man that Lily and Ari could dream of. But when I got out, things were different. Ari had stepped down as I was ready to move forward. She began to fall back into her party ways as well, not being the mother she once was. When we first had Lily I could go to Ari for help or advice on what to do when it came to being a parent. Not anymore though.
It was only about a month after I got out that Ari started getting into drugs and stealing from people. As soon as I decided to get my life together, she crumbled to the ground. It hurt me even more for Lily. I felt that we both completely failed her and it showed; she had so much separation anxiety.
In July 2014, Ari was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. At this point I had no idea what to do. Trying to work full time and be a father wasn’t realistic, so I went to Arianna’s mother. Although we had many differences, I swallowed my pride and asked if she would take Lily on the weekends while I was at work. She took some time to make a decision and graciously agreed to moving forward with me as a partner. She saw that I was serious, finally, and she honored that.
When Ari’s mother moved to Arizona, I came up with a new plan. I was blessed to be set financially and to have my mother coordinate her work schedule with mine. Lily was with someone I trusted while I was working. And when I wasn’t at work I was with her, staying as involved in as many activities as we possibly could.
Lily is five now, but still my baby. There isn’t a year that would change that. I have my struggles and the hardest thing is always looking back on what I could have done differently. But I’m coming to the place again where I’m finding pride in what I do, and I can finally give myself grace. Although I am not the perfect father, I have the perfect daughter. Happy or mad, she is mine and I am hers. And I wouldn’t trade my life for anything else on this earth.