On Losing a Dad: “I often still feel like a piece of me is missing. I was 21. I just wasn’t ready – who ever is?”

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Loyalty. 

It’s a word that gets thrown around so often these days that is hardly means much anymore. 

That’s because it’s hard to find true loyalty among short attention spans, immeasurable iPhones and screen time, and a constant deluge of information that makes us all a little bit distracted, even at our most focused. 

But the value of loyalty is inherent. Its desirability is why the word pops up in marketing campaigns and classes. It’s a trait each of us looks for in others, and at least attempts to cultivate in ourselves. 

Of course, they say millennials killed loyalty – as they say about everything. That it’s a characteristic of a bygone era.

But that can’t be true, not with the legacy of men like Alberto Diaz being passed down. 

You see, loyalty requires sacrifice. Sacrifice for something bigger than yourself, perhaps even putting your life on the line for it, again and again. 

Alberto Diaz lived a life defined by loyalty and sacrifice, by a dedication to camaraderie, humanity, justice, and democracy. In doing so, this shy, “klutz” of a man, as described by his daughter, was put in the national spotlight many a time. 

  • First, he was honored with the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the same honor given to President John F. Kennedy, among others. 

  • Then, he was called the “Real Miami Vice” by Rolling Stone Magazine after he and his team accomplished one of the largest drug busts in the country in the 80s. 

But outside his accomplishments stemming from his pack mentality, he was a man driven by the convenience of comfort, chocolate cake and pizza, who fiercely adored his children, his dog, and the natural landscape of his adopted country. 

This is the story of Alberto Diaz, a man who knew no feat too difficult, no circumstance too serious, and no disco he couldn’t dance. 

Winning the Same Honor Medal as John F. Kennedy Means Doing the Right Thing, Every Day

Alberto was born in Cuba only a year before the Communist Regime took over and his family fled to Puerto Rico.

Years later, the construction industry was booming in Miami, and once again, he and his family members picked up and made a move for better opportunities. 

It was there that Alberto, at 15, met his future wife and mother of his children. 

The high school sweethearts were quickly married after high school graduation, with the permission of their fathers – who had known one another back in Cuba before Castro – and the duo was quickly on the move to North Carolina. 

Alberto was already stationed there, in the marine corps, after all. It was the middle of the Cold War, technically peace time in the U.S. He worked on helicopters – the Huey in particular - before his platoon was sent on a mission. 

Things didn’t go well. 

“They were stationed on an airport runway. It was in the valley in a very jungle-esque place. They had set up permanent tents, and were living there,” says Natalia Diaz, Alberto’s daughter. 

“Then, a flash food hit.”

Alberto was able to make it out quickly, but realized his platoon mates had not. They were stuck back in their tents, unable to get out because of the strong current. 

They were drowning. 

“He went back. He saved four of his platoon mates from those flood waters. He almost died doing it.”

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That decision and his success won him the Navy Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded for heroism by the United States Department of the Navy to the members of the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. 

It’s the same honor that’s been given to American President John F. Kennedy, and multiple marines who were at the Las Vegas Shooting in 2017. 

Landing the Cover of the Rolling Stones: Mullets, 80s Sunglasses, and American Era Captured

By the 1980s, Alberto and his wife were back in Miami. Now off base, Sergeant Diaz was on the hunt for a job. 

With few armed forces opportunities available in the area, he joined the Miami Police Department and paid his dues serving on patrol for the first few years. 

He then landed in the Special Investigation Sector, where he was dealing directly with the cartel, drug smuggling and money laundering. He worked right alongside the DEA.

That’s when he was featured in Rolling Stone Magazine, for participating in one of the largest drug busts in the country in the 1980s.

“The most ironic part of all of his recognition and honor is that he actually was such a shy person. He was very shy and kind of nerdy. A little immature,” says Natalia, with a laugh. 

“But then, there he was featured in Rolling Stones along with his department, because they had just had a huge drug bust. It was titled ‘The Real Miami Vice.’ All the guys in there made sure to wear their huge sunglasses, because obviously they were still working, and they didn't want people to recognize them.”

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“I feel like people don't realize, but being in the police department is just like another frat house in the United States. It's all these guys, just messing around with each other, constantly. It is a high profile and high hazardous, of course, but they really have so much fun doing it.”

“Then again, I don’t think my dad ever realized how dangerous his jobs were. For instance, in the early 80s, my mom, dad and brother, in a stroller, were at an art festival in Miami. 

“My dad was walking ahead of my mom looking at some stuff when all of sudden, he stood up very straight, turned around really quickly and grabbed my mom by the arm.” 

  • ‘Turn around, we need to walk the other way, right now,’ he told her. 

  • She said, ‘Albert, what are you talking about. We just got here.’ 

  • ‘We need to leave, right now. That guy, right over there.’ He was pointing through his chest behind him. ‘That guy, right over there is a drug lord. I just arrested him last week. I don't want him to see you, me or Albert. We need to go right now.’”

That story sticks with Natalia, even though she wasn’t yet born. It is one of only a few instances she’s heard her dad showing any fear, with loved ones, family members, to anyone at all. 

"He just didn’t have any fear," Natalia says. 

It was a quality that won him a medal and national news coverage.

It was also one that led to his passing. 

The Keys to Mental Health and Happiness: North Carolina, Junk Fund, and Disco

North Carolina was a home away from home after Alberto moved back to Miami. 

He and his wife were divorced in 1994, 18 months after Natalia was born, and she and his children moved back to North Carolina for six years. 

During that time, Natalia and her older brother would spend the summers in Miami with their dad, and see him over holidays. 

“I was young then. I didn’t realize the distance, and what he was sacrificing to keep us  happy,” says Natalia. 

“But then, when we moved back to Miami, I started seeing him every other weekend. We'd go kayaking, hang out in the pool, and take the dogs on three walks a day. We were always doing something outside.”

There was also dancing. Lots of dancing. 

  • In the living room. 

  • At the pool. 

  • Out at the clubs. 

Disco was Alberto’s passion, and his resemblance to Elvis Presley only made him love it even more. 

“He had really, really dark hair and light eyes, and  a really pretty smile. I think that's why people would always tell him he looked like Elvis.” 

“And gosh, he was always on such a high –– for days –– anytime someone would stop him and say: ‘You look like Elvis Presley!’”

Later in life, after he had retired from the Miami Police Force, Alberto began making more regular trips back to North Carolina. He even bought some property up there. 

He’d take Gunny, a Bernese Mountain Dog, the second of the breed he’d had (the first was named Elvis, of course). 

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Gunny was named after the nickname Marines use for the infantry gun unit.

There, he and Natalia would snack on pizza and coke after their many walks, laughing over how Alberto always tripped over his crocs on the walk. 

“For having such a dangerous job, he was such a creature of habit,” says Natalia. “I always told him, ‘Dude, if someone really wanted to find you, it'd be so easy!’ He’d literally order the same thing off the same menu at the exact same restaurant at the same time every night.”

“There was this pizza place next to his house. It was always a medium size mushroom pizza and a two liter of Coke. His girlfriend didn’t even eat pizza! So, he’d guilt me into finishing it off with him. 

“That was our thing –– eating and laughing.”

Natalia was his partner in crime. His “sacrificial lamb,” as she described it, for all of the chocolate cake, and apple pie, and so much pizza. 

“For years, his place was the Original House of Pancakes. He'd get the 49er with diced ham and eggs, and a coffee. He would have that by himself,” says Natalia.

“After nine years of going there every Sunday, he decided he wanted to change to the Cheesecake Factory. Then, we would always go to the Cheesecake Factory and we would split the farmhouse omelet with russet potatoes and toast. I'd have a glass of milk, he'd have his coffee, and we would have apple banana nut french toast. 

“It was such a ritual. He was so loyal to those places.”

Even in North Carolina, he had his spot: the Come Back Shack. 

It’s a spot Natalia still goes to on the way to her mother’s property in the area.

It’s a burger, she says, she eats in his honor. 

Loyalty, Fearlessness, and a Father's Death

North Carolina, too, is where the accident took place, one that took both Alberto and Gunny’s lives. It happened on one of their beloved walks. 

On October 28, 2014, Alberto did what he always did, for the last time. He went for a morning hike with Gunny, living out his creature of habit reputation. 

Toward the end of the hike, the trees opened to what seemed to be a small creek. Gunny went to get a drink of water, but slipped on the rocks. 

The current swept him up, and Alberto –– as he had done before –– jumped into action to save a life. The two ended up falling 18 feet into a gorge the creek emptied into.

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“After receiving the call, I flew alone to put Gunny down due to severe internal bleeding,” says Natalia. 

“At 21 you don’t expect to send your parent on vacation, and have they come back as ashes.”

For many, you might expect Natalia to stay far away from North Carolina and the property her dad bought up there. 

But she refuses to let one terrible memory erase all of the good ones. 

“I think about what my dad would do in this situation, if the roles were reversed. I don’t think he would allow a permanent stain to ruin a place he loved –– just because something bad happened there,” says Natalia.  

“I grew up there for the first part of my life. My dad took off the whole week of Halloween once and drove up to North Carolina. We took the week off school to hang out with him, and those are just some of the best memories I have.” 

“And, my last vacation was there with him. There’s just no way I’m going to let one really, really bad thing that happened ruin a state I have so many happy memories in.”

It was a state that had won Alberto’s heart, and where he and his girlfriend were planning for their retired future. 

“North Carolina spoke to his heart. It’s where he and his girlfriend were planning their future,” says Natalia. 

“Because of that, I do everything I can to think of it positively, to make a good thing out of a bad thing. That’s all any of us can ever do.”

Celebrating His Legacy, Clumsiness, & the Life Milestones That Come Next

Today, Natalia lives and works in Miami, frequently venturing back to North Carolina to visit her mom’s second home on the Beech Mountain (which is a 20 minute drive from Boone, where the accident took place), honor her father, and soak in the nature of the state he loved.

Loyalty, it’s a word Natalia take seriously. 

She is the daughter of a man who let it guide him, after all –– from the marines, to the police department, to his disco, and even to the end: trying to save the life of his dog, Gunny. 

“I often still feel like a piece of me is missing. I know a lot of people feel that way. I was 21. I just wasn’t ready –– who ever is? 

“My life was totally and utterly turned upside down. That is still very, very hard. Every milestone that happens, that special person is missing out on it. My dad is missing out. It’s very hard.”

But Natalia has a plan to bring him with her, to do the best she can with the situation she’s been given. She’ll be turning some of his ashes into a diamond.

“I like the idea of having the physical aspect of him. I think, maybe, that will help bring peace to the situation.”

It’s a piece she’ll bring with her through life, back to North Carolina, through all of those important milestones, and, of course, as she continues to grow up, and more and more of her dad’s tendencies appear in her own.

“These days, I’m the one who trips! Just last week, I scared myself thinking I heard him in the hallway, tripping over his crocs, but it was me. It was me tripping. 

“Just like him, a klutz wherever I go. I’m his daughter, for sure.”

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Tracey Wallace

Tracey is the Head of Brand Marketing at Eterneva, where she works with customers to tell the incredible stories of their loved ones to help us all live better, more thoughtful lives right now.