I was 15.
Mom was playing Solitaire on our old computer while I listened to music, which was one of our favorite ways to spend time together. At that time, I was utterly obsessed with “So Long, Astoria,” an album by The Ataris that had plenty of relatable songs for me to devour.
“This one reminds me of you,” I told her, turning the volume up as the first notes started playing.
Mom smiled, eyes still on the screen. “What is it about? What’s the name?”
“It’s called ‘The Hero Dies in This One,’” I said, holding the CD case up. “And I don’t know, some lines just remind me of you.”
She listened to it with me, her hand hovering over the mouse, not playing anymore. When the song ended, she smiled again, and looked at me.
“I also love you more than you will ever know,” she said. Then chuckled, and added: “Loser.”
Have you ever watched Gilmore Girls? Mom and I used to say that we were just like Rory and Lorelai, albeit more likeable… and funnier.
Just as annoyingly charming, though.
I held the phone in my hand as Mom told me the news, and I was trying hard not to break down in the middle of my apartment. My Mom had been diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer at age 50.
Both my maternal grandmother and grandfather had died from cancer (brain and pancreatic, respectively), and hauntingly enough, they both had been diagnosed in the month of August, different years.
My mom had cancer. Diagnosed in August. It was a nightmare.
“Cancer?” I asked. “But why? How? I thought it was a stomachache, but not –“
I remember that Mom interrupted me, tried to calm me down. Yes, it was pretty advanced. Yes, it didn’t look great. But according to her, it wasn’t a big deal. She’d have a surgery, she assured me, they’d remove the tumor and then she would go through chemotherapy. It would be okay.
“I’m a fighter, okay?” Mom said, sounding more confident than she probably felt. “I’ll be fine, don’t stress over it. I’ll be fine.”
When we hung up, I stared at the ceiling for a really long time.
I believed her.
Later that night, I played “The Hero Dies in This One” over and over again.
They weren’t able to remove the tumor. Her doctors realized that the tumor was compromising vital tissue and organs, so they had no choice but to stop operating.
“I woke up and immediately asked the nurse if they had been able to remove it,” Mom told me later. “She wouldn’t give me a straight answer, until she finally caved in. The moment she told me that the tumor was still inside me, I felt like giving up. I thought, this is it. I’m done.”
I traveled back home a week after the surgery. Mom looked so different, so fragile, and it was hard for me to pretend I wasn’t shocked. She had lost a tremendous amount of weight, and she would smile weakly every time we talked.
I spent every night in her room, didn’t sleep, and we talked a lot during that week.
Mom’s personality was almost intact. She still told me not to worry, that chemo was still an option, and that she would fight it until the very end. “I’m not going to die,” she said. “Stop worrying.”
I held her hand and nodded. “Alright.”
“We’ve been through worse,” she said. “What’s a little chemo, right?”
I made the decision to move back home and help out until Mom recovered, or until — Well, I didn’t want to think about that possibility. And although we had my aunt’s support, I also wanted to be there for my sisters.
Mom wasn’t too thrilled about my decision, because she said that I was leaving my life behind for her.
I told her not to worry about it.
The following months were a whirlwind of doctor appointments, chemo sessions, monthly hospitalizations for blood transfusions, bad days, good days, really awful days, sleepless nights. Mom fought anyway, even if sometimes she felt desperate because she couldn’t do the things she used to do, and she missed teaching.
“In a way, I guess this is like a class,” Mom said one night. “A lesson. We are all learning something.”
She was kind of right.
There’s a lot of things that movies and TV shows don’t show you about cancer. Here’s why: cancer is a devastating, crippling disease. To be blunt, it literally destroys your body, and the evidence is everywhere.
It consumes your body, usually before it consumes your mind.
And it also consumes everyone around you.
My favorite evenings were when we watched pro wrestling (to be specific, WWE’S RAW and Smackdown) with my Mom. We all had our favorites, and Mom’s commentary would crack us up.
That’s how Mom was: whatever we liked, she’d make an effort to understand it and appreciate it, and usually ended up liking it as well.
My sisters and I ended up buying Mom a wrestling t-shirt, and the expression she made when she saw it is something I’ll never forget.
That’s the amount of pills Mom took every day. Sometimes the number varied, because Mom would get infections or fevers or it was another round of chemo pills.
My sisters and I would usually stand next to Mom’s bed, encouraging her to take them. Sometimes I’d even play Rocky’s theme song for her, because I’m a goofy idiot.
“I’ll be so happy when I don’t have to take these anymore,” she would mockingly pout, staring at the tiny pill tray we had for her. “I feel like they’re piling up inside my throat!”
That always made me laugh.
My youngest sister, Mena, refused to talk about mom’s illness. She’s a smart, hyperactive girl, and would act like nothing wrong was going on. I assumed it was because she’s only eleven years old, but I was wrong.
One day I was driving her to school, and I asked her why she didn’t like talking about Mom being sick. She looked at me for a long time, and just shrugged.
“I don’t like to. What’s the point?”
I scoffed, thinking that she was being dismissive of the whole thing, that she wasn’t taking it seriously. I opened my mouth to speak, but she interrupted me.
“Mom’s going to be fine,” Mena said simply. “So I’m not worried. She’ll get to see me graduate from college, okay? So I’m not gonna worry about her being sick at all.”
I dropped her off, and I cried all the way back home.
After a year-long battle with colorectal cancer, my mother’s life was coming to an end. She was hospitalized on a Tuesday after having a stroke, which was caused by brain metastases that we were unaware of. She was dying. The first night we spent at the hospital I signed a DNR. Her doctor told me it was a matter of days.
After he left, I sat on the couch inside her room, and cried for hours. I was furious, devastated, and suddenly, alone. Mom was unresponsive due to the stroke, and I wasn’t sure if she was listening. According to the doctor, she wasn’t listening anymore, but I talked to her anyway.
I tried to remember the last conversation I had with her. I couldn’t at the time, and it frustrated me.
“I should play some music,” I said, and I did.
I played some of her favorite songs for the next few nights, and on Saturday night, I sang to her. I sang horribly, of course, but I went from Lionel Ritchie to The Police to Chayanne, and many others, even if sometimes I didn’t remember the words very well.
I tried to sing “The Hero Dies in This One.”
Mom passed away August 16th.
I was by her side, muttering lyrics and making dumb jokes she probably didn’t hear anymore. It was a sunny Sunday morning, her favorite kind of morning. It was also the death anniversary of Elvis, her all-time favorite singer, which I’m sure would have amused her to no end.
Her last breath destroyed my heart, and I felt like a scared little girl who had just lost everything. I held on to her for as long as I could, until the nurses walked in to check her vitals. I watched them check her pulse, her heart, and everything was silent.
My aunts and uncle were standing next to me when the lead nurse shook her head.
Mom was gone.
The moment we left the hospital to break the news to my sisters, the bright sun disappeared behind a cluster of dark clouds. It was like something straight out of a movie.
I don’t remember much after that.
She didn’t want a funeral or a viewing, so we had a memorial mass for her instead. The church was packed, and people I’d never met were offering me their condolences, telling me that my mother made a difference in their lives. One of the schools she worked for sent a group of students, and I know she would have loved that.
My aunt asked me if I wanted to speak to everyone, an eulogy of sorts, and I said yes. I wrote the eulogy before mass, and read it in front of the crowd, still overwhelmed that so many people were there.
“My mom didn’t lose her battle with cancer. Quite the opposite, she managed to spend an extra year with us after a bleak diagnosis, and she fought until the very end. My sisters and I are honored to have been able to be with her during this year, good days and bad days. We will miss her terribly.
I think she had a mission in life, I don’t know exactly what that mission was. Only she knew what it was, because she was so certain of it. But seeing all of you here, so many of you, I can’t help but think that she accomplished her mission, whatever it was. And that makes me so so happy. Thank you all. ”
I wish this was the kind of story that ends with me saying that I’m a stronger person because of my mom, that I’m happy I got to spend all that time with her, that I’m inspired, that I’ve learned to appreciate life differently.
While it is true that I view life differently now, this isn’t that kind of story. I’m still grieving, tremendously so. I keep myself busy every single day because otherwise I start thinking too much. The pain is still the same, and I miss my mom every single day.
I lost my best friend, and part of me died with her. That’s just how it is.
However, sometimes I remember a funny thing she said and it makes me smile. I remember all those students at her mass, saying how grateful they were to have her as a teacher. I remember sneaking in snacks into the hospital whenever she had blood transfusions or chemo sessions, and how she would hum the Mission Impossible theme.
She will always be alive in my heart, in my sisters’ hearts, and in the end, I think that’s what matters.
As I sit here all alone,
I wonder how I’m supposed to carry on when you’re gone.
I’ll never be the same without you,
I love you more then you will ever know.
So maybe now you finally know.
“The Hero Dies in this One” – The Ataris
For more information on how to prevent colorectal cancer and CRC cure/treatment advocacy, please go to: Fight Colorectal Cancer.