F@%k Cancer, Part 9

“It’s a matter of days now…”

Calmly, I booked the next flight out and took my time packing. If the message was accurate, I’d need to take with me clothes fit for a military funeral. The saving grace was that my husband was staying behind and could bring me anything I’d miss; Mom wanted him to remember her as she was, vibrant and full of joy, so he wasn’t part of the mission. He dropped me off, and by the time he got home 40 mins later, I was still trying to get through security which was screening passengers at a snail pace of 258 ft per hour. The government shutdown had left TSA bereft of personnel which aggravated the shift change and checkpoint drama.

TSA Line at SEA around 10pm, Jan 4th.

“Hang in there mom, your baby girl will make it come hell or high water!”

Trained by the Colonel to be proactive, I called Delta Skymiles from the line to ensure there was another flight available that would get me to my destination within hours of my original plan. My sister had already landed a few days earlier, and the family wanted us both to make it home before the light in her eyes was extinguished forever. I did my best not to be overly optimistic, especially since friends and family kept telling me she was patiently waiting for her baby girl to arrived. It almost seemed cruel that the shutdown was making her wait longer than needed, a reality she had lived a few times as a federal employee. I had to make this happen for she had been adamant weeks before that she wanted to see us both, no exceptions. If anyone would hang on to dear life to make this reunion happen it would have been her. I couldn’t leave her hanging.

She wanted a peaceful death, a good one, and we were about to give it to her.

Mid-flight I begged the screenwriters of my life to give me a happy ending, just this once, and spare me the news of my mom’s passing. Resilience only gets you so far in these cases, even when mentally prepared for the worst. As her girls, and most prized treasures, we wanted to do right by her, just as she had done right by us. A million dreams realized, and a million crushed too soon. Words cannot do justice to the void that was growing in my soul, a vortex so powerful it was sucking all the life out of me. I couldn’t really feel anything other than urgency. Rushing to her side was the last grand gesture I would ever be able to offer her.

As luck and life would have it, my phone didn’t have any bad news for me upon arrival.

My aunt picked me up in San Juan with a big huge smile. As stressed and distraught as we were about my mother’s exponential deterioration due to the metastasized but contained to her brain cancer, the family still found joy in the impromptu reunion. I hugged titi tight and stuffed my carry on in her trunk as we had done before. Bystanders wouldn’t have noticed our grief and exhaustion from our actions. They wouldn’t notice how preoccupied I was with writing a eulogy, or with the thought of hosting the wake. By the end of the week hundreds of people could be gathering at the Funeral Home, many excited to tell us how much their beloved supervisor/manager/chief had accomplished for the Army National Guard; others distraught due to the loss of a great coworker and friend. You’d be surprised to know how many people she helped along the way, a trait I managed to pick up from watching her become a true servant leader, even until the end.

Dealing with people’s grief was going to be tough because in that moment of loss many can’t extend their sorrow beyond themselves. They forget that the family is in greater or equal pain due to their loved one’s departure. If the inevitable occurred during the trip, I would have to steel my emotions to shepherd people along. With grandma gone and titi acting officially as the head of the family, an honor that had been originally reserved for my mother, we were in for a wild ride. Keeping things in perspective was going to be a challenge but, when all else failed, mom taught me to smile, make a joke and chug along.

Dress up, woman up, and push through.

After 18 hrs trying to get to her, and running every possible scenario through my mind, I finally reached her on Saturday evening. The rest of the day came and went fast, and so did Sunday amidst the Three Kings Day celebration. Although her condition was dire, and her movements slow and her breath labored, we’d like to believe having both daughters by her side brought her some sense of happiness and relief. In less than four months my mother lost her independence, her communication skills, and her physical strength. We still didn’t know if she had sensed grandma’s passing beyond the reaction mom had displayed to hearing her mom’s last distressed gasps for air. That had occurred less than three weeks ago.

Time flies when you are amongst great company.

To reinforce the subtle beauty of the moment, the family took turns visiting with mom and the nurses. Each one of us made the rounds to check that everything was in order and everyone was well fed. After 6pm we made a quick beer run to continue the party, as this was celebration of life and love, and we expected people to be enjoying themselves. The kids played. The adults reminisced about the glory days. As a unit, the clan managed to garner enough composure to hold her hand, tell her how much we loved her, and place gentle kisses on her forehead, gestures that required immense kindness, compassion and strength from all of us. Saying goodbye wasn’t going to be easy but it certainly wasn’t optional.

Not everyone gets the blessed chance of saying farewell to their loved ones. Accidents, suicides, overdoses and sudden illnesses can claim anyone at any point of the journey, which can be even more traumatic than dealing with a cancer diagnosis. My mom was never afraid of dying, only of leaving us at a stage that would be inconvenient for her girls, a very unique perspective about the realities of leaving a legacy behind to be managed by the “estate”. Leaving us, mother, would always be an inconvenient truth that we had to face daily as we all aged. No one ever wants to bury their best friend and favorite warrior, regardless of how much ahead in years that hero is when compared to us.

I went to bed on Sunday night with a lot of anger in my heart. She wasn’t suffering in the truest sense of the word because of medication and at home care service but that decaying body wasn’t hers anymore. It belonged, in my mind, to someone else; to a version of her whose spirit needed to be set free and rest after a mission so successfully accomplished. Mom saved, guided us and explored every option and decision to be made until her last day. We even knew the memorial and burial instructions. All the T’s and I’s were crossed. The wait was unnerving, as hope dwindles that a miracle is possible.

I love you mom! 💝

Around 5 am on January 7th, my phone rang. My heart was so full of relief I felt like I was betraying her for wanting her gone. Just like that, she was no longer with us. Her wish of passing peacefully as she slept was now a reality. We certainly hope she passed to a better plane satisfied with the knowledge that we were all there to guide her to her mother’s and father’s arms. She was finally free of the cancer that had consumed her, and we would finally be able to resume our lives, with heavier hearts and restless minds. It’s a burden, a curse even, to have to live for her while learning to go on without her.

Executing a send off fit for a Queen, a human of her caliber, would be the greatest, most humbling challenge of them all.

Saying goodbye wasn’t going to be easy.

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