“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 this mission. He dropped me off at the airport expecting me to board the flight quickly and uneventfully. However, by the time he got home 40 mins later, I was still trying to get through security. The government shutdown had left TSA bereft of personnel which aggravated the shift change and checkpoint drama of servicing 258 ft of people an hour!
“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. This line wasn’t going to work to my advantage, and many were already complaining of missing the original plane and its future connections. My sister had already made it to in San Juan a few days earlier, so the family prayed hard for me to make it home before the light in her eyes was extinguished forever. I did my best not to be overly optimistic, even though friends and loved ones kept telling me she was patiently waiting for her baby girl to arrived. It almost seemed cruel that the government shutdown was making her wait longer than needed. Ironically, this was an event she had dealt with a few times throughout her career as a federal employee.
The pressure was on me, the untimely procrastinator, to make this departure happen for she had been adamant weeks on end that she wanted to see us both, no exceptions, before leaving this earthly reality. If anyone could hang on to dear life, and move mountains, to make this reunion possible it would have been her. I couldn’t fail her nor leave her hanging. It was a ride or die moment, one that required nerves of steel and the patience of a martyr. The fact that airplanes have been responsible for most of our hellos and goodbyes slowly dawned on me as I sped through the lines to make it to MSP and then SJU before the end of the day.
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 while I was 30,000 ft up in the air. Resilience only gets you so far in these cases, even when mentally prepared to expect 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. Schnell! Schnell! 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 all were about my mother’s exponential deterioration – F U brain cancer – the family still found joy in the impromptu Día de Los Reyes reunion. I hugged titi tight and stuffed my carry on in her car’s trunk hoping it would be over soon. Bystanders wouldn’t have noticed our grief and exhaustion from our actions. They wouldn’t have noticed how preoccupied we were about delivering a eulogy in less than a couple of days. The end of the Colonel’s war was near; the enemy had the higher ground and was making its last push come dawn.
Exhausted after 18 hrs trying to get to her, I finally reached my grandma’s house that same Saturday’s evening. Although mom’s condition was dire, her movements slow and breaths labored, we’d sensed a wave relief envelop her. To have both daughters by her bedside brought her some sense of happiness and joy, discernible to those who had seen her rapid decline. 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 guttural reaction titi described she had when hearing her mom’s (our grandma’s) last distressed gasps for air. Abuelita had died of natural causes less than three weeks before my arrival, from what I adamantly believed to be a broken heart and not old age. I’m sure she noticed mom wasn’t going to visit her anymore. A mother’s heart knows when her babies are in danger…
Three King’s Day would take a whole new meaning after 2019 was over…
To reinforce the subtle beauty of the moment, each member of the clan made the rounds to check that everything was in order with our beloved Iris. Titi and my cousins made sure everyone was well fed and engaged in witty banter. Around 6pm on the Sunday of the actual holiday, we made a quick beer run to continue the party as this was celebration of life and love; 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, and regardless of how long she lasted, it certainly wasn’t going to be optional.
My mom was never afraid of dying, only of leaving us at a stage that would be inconvenient for us her girls to learn to live without her. Truth be told, leaving us mother, would always be an undelectable eventuality, just like working, death and taxes. No one ever wants to bury their best friend and favorite warrior. No one wants to learn to live without their greatest hero, cheerleader and angel investor. My heart broke for my sister, whose 30 years on this planet were tough as nails emotionally. My soul all pins and needles waiting for the day I had to face life without her.
I went to bed that night stewing in agonizing anger and ire. She wasn’t suffering in the truest sense of the word because of medication and at home care service but the body that had borne me wasn’t hers anymore. It belonged, in my mind, to someone else; to a person whose spirit needed to be set free after being imprisoned by such a merciless warden. My mom had done her best to lay out plans for every decision needed to be made until her last day. We were at peace because we even had memorial and burial instructions. She was doing this on her term and no one else’s. All the T’s and I’s were crossed. Sleep in eternal solace was the goal. The wait was unnerving. A miracle now seems impossible.
I love you mom! 💝
Around 5 am on my second day back home January 7th, the cellphone 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, satisfied with the knowledge that we were all there to guide her to her mother’s and father’s arms in heaven. We were all released from the ordeal that had consumed our final months together; my sister flying between Tampa and Puerto Rico, and me facetiming from the PNW between MBA classes and work commitments. Now, I would have to go through life with a heavier heart and a restless mind. It’s a burden, a curse even, to have to live for her while learning to exist motherless, unshielded without her vigilant protection.
Dress up, woman up, and push through. Batter up!
With the matriarchs’ death, titi was officially anointed as the head of the family. In theory, I’d be the next in line for the throne as the eldest daughter of the eldest heir, but destiny had interfered. Keeping things in perspective was going to be a challenge because everything was happening years ahead of schedule. Life was going 1,000 mph. The sonic boom was deafening. Executing a send off fit for a Queen, a human of high caliber, kindness and achievement would be the most humbling challenge of my lifetime. I stood in awe of my sister who managed to take the reigns and lead while I was still picking up the pieces of my busted armor. Tears failed me as shock and rage took over me.
Welcoming the new normal wasn’t going to be easy…