He lost his wife, but not their baby; now he’s a dad in progress – Orange County Register

People ask James Alvarez all the time how he manages to carry on.

The question could be sympathetic or prying or annoying. But to Alvarez, it’s understandable. The sad part of his story is pretty well known.

On Aug. 11, 2020,  Alvarez and his pregnant wife, Yesenia Lisette Aguilar, were touched by the kind of tragedy you might see in a movie. They were walking on an Anaheim sidewalk when a Jeep, driven by a woman with a history of driving under the influence, jumped the curb and mowed into Aguilar, literally pulling the 23-year-old woman out of Alvarez’s grasp.

Aguilar died. But the baby, delivered via an emergency C-section, survived.

So, when people ask Alvarez how he keeps going, his answer is simple — Adalyn Rose.

He gave his little girl the name the couple had picked out together. And, every day since, he’s tried to live up to Adalyn Rose’s first word:


A Father’s Day for them

Over the past year, his first as a dad, Alvarez, 37, has become something of a parenting inspiration. More than 30,000 people follow him on social media accounts, most cheering him on in the wake of his wife’s death.

Many of the men in that crowd learn something about fatherhood from Alvarez’s posts, and from his growing role with the Orange County nonprofit MOMS Orange County.

The routine he chronicles is familiar to any single parent.

Over the past year, Alvarez and Adalyn Rose have moved to his childhood home in Burbank. During the day, while Alvarez works as an injury investigator for a law firm, his mom watches the baby. But, after work, Alvarez takes over, feeding Adalyn Rose, and bathing her, and playing with her.

About once a week he and Adalyn Rose come back to Orange County, where she can visit with his in-laws and he can visit his wife’s grave.

This Father’s Day is his first but, Alvarez insists, it’s not about him. It’s more for Adalyn Rose, a dark-haired, chubby-faced sweetheart who appears to be thriving after spending her first three weeks of life in a hospital.

Father’s Day also is about his late wife, whose last thought, Alvarez is certain, was about the welfare of their baby. The bruising on Yesenia Aguilar’s arms, described in her autopsy report, suggests that before impact she wrapped her arms around her belly to protect the baby in her womb.

He also knows there’s a void.

Even with all manner of support coming from family and community, including more than $116,000 raised through GoFundMe, Alvarez believes the key to Adalyn Rose’s happiness — despite the circumstances of her birth — will be how he fills his role as a father.

“I’m not going to lie, it is hard,” he said. “But she is going to need me. She is going to look up to me and only me. I have to step up.

“It’s all for her now.”

Life, interrupted

For two years they’d been trying to get pregnant. Then, in late 2019, Aguilar confirmed what her morning sickness suggested — they were going to be parents.

Everybody was excited that the baby would be a girl. Her parents had only grandsons and for Alvarez’s family this would be the first grandchild.

And the couple, Alvarez said, was thrilled.

“We knew she was going to be spoiled and the queen of the household.”

At the time they shared a large apartment in Anaheim with Aguilar’s older sister, but their plan was to buy a house.

When the baby was old enough, they figured Aguilar would get her beautician’s license. Then Alvarez would go back into the field as an ultrasound technician, hopefully at a hospital, and Aguilar would find work at a hair salon. In fact, on the week that she died, Aguilar was scheduled to take the state cosmetology test.

But Aguilar worried a lot about having a healthy pregnancy. Two months before the baby was due, her obstetrician suggested she get outside and walk more. So the couple made it a routine to take a stroll together every day. Often, they wound up at Stoddard Park on Ninth Street in Anaheim, a short distance from where they lived on a block dominated by apartment buildings.

On the evening of Aug. 11 their walk took them to a nearby shopping center. They took the long way home, on Alvarez’s suggestion, so Aguilar could get more exercise. They were about five minutes from home, around 7:35 p.m., holding hands and discussing where to find curtains for the baby’s room, when they spun around, prompted by the sounds of screeching tires and someone screaming “Oh, no!”

Alvarez saw an out-of-control Jeep had hopped the sidewalk and was barreling at them. They both froze.

“I was just like, ‘Wow this is how I’m going to die.’ I can only imagine my wife thinking the same thing. I guarantee you she was thinking about our daughter.”

He closed his eyes against the impact. But nothing hit him.

Instead, he remembers he could no longer feel his wife’s arm. He opened his eyes and saw Aguilar trampled on the sidewalk. The Jeep, which had crushed a metal news stand on Katella Avenue, near Bayless Street, had come to a stop up ahead.

As he recounts the details, Alvarez’s voice still shakes.

“It just keeps running through my head; those last moments, and then seeing her laying there.”

Later, he would beat himself up with questions of why he froze and didn’t pull her closer. But at the time, he immediately set to work, trying to give his wife CPR, all the while thinking “What am I going to do?”

Months later, he sums up the moment: “Our future, our plans that we had together, were just gone.”

Paramedics arrived and started to work on Aguilar. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Alvarez could not ride with her to the hospital, but as the ambulance left he pleaded with the technicians to save his wife. And, if they couldn’t do that, he had this request: “Save our daughter.”

Alvarez waited for his in-laws, who lived close by, to arrive, but he did not know where Aguilar was taken. They learned from police that she was at UCI Medical Center in Orange. By the time they got there, she was gone.

But the baby wasn’t.

“How?” Alvarez remembers thinking. “How did she survive?”

Adalyn Rose had suffered a small stroke while in her mother’s womb. Doctors worried about brain damage and thought she would spend months in the neonatal unit.

Alvarez didn’t get to see his daughter until midnight and, when he did, she was in critical condition, a tube helping her to breathe. That night, watching her struggle, the brokenhearted Alvarez made a vow.

“Seeing my daughter fight, to not give up, taught me to not give up myself. At that moment, she gave me a new purpose in life … For me to take care of her.”

Learning to be dad

Police say the Jeep was driven by Courtney Fritz Pandolfi, 40, of Garden Grove. She’s been jailed since the crash, held on felony counts of murder and driving under the influence of drugs, along with a misdemeanor count of driving on a suspended license.

Alvarez avoids talking about her; he doesn’t want to jeopardize the case.

But records show Pandolfi was convicted of DUI in 2008, 2015 and 2016. Two days after the crash, when charges were announced, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Aguilar’s death was not an accident but was, instead, a “deadly” choice allegedly made by Pandolfi, who he said ignored previous warnings from prosecutors about the danger of driving under the influence.

Alvarez wants justice served and hopes that being public about what his family has been through might discourage other people from driving under the influence. But his focus isn’t on the case, it’s on the choice he made after losing his wife: Be the best dad he can to Adalyn Rose.

A year ago, Alvarez and Aguilar were already learning some basics — how to diaper and bathe an infant — when they took no-cost parenting classes through MOMS Orange County. Alvarez was eager to be an active parent.

Months later, with his wife gone, he brought Adalyn Rose home, which at the time was still his sister-in-law’s apartment in Anaheim. Both sides of the family were supportive, he said, but a baby’s sleep schedule left him feeling like a zombie and calling his mother for help.

A counselor from MOMS reached out to ask how he was doing, and Alvarez soon began taking MOMS classes on his own. He also moved in with his parents, Baltazar and Socorro Alvarez, staying with his daughter in his childhood bedroom in Burbank.

Between what he was learning from his mother, and from MOMS, Alvarez’s confidence grew.

He understands that changing diapers and other routines of child care are all about love and bonding.

“I feel that connection every time — changing her diaper, bathing her, changing her clothes, feeding her, tummy time.”