In 1998, my cousin Miguel died at age 19. After years of having brain cancer, a tumor returned, more viciously than the previous ones. It grew so fast and so large, the doctors confessed there wasn’t anything they could do. The doctors advised my aunt and uncle to let Miguel go naturally instead of trying to save his life. He died just days later. The tumor expanded and popped part of his brain in the process.
I was six when Miguel died. His funeral at Forest Park Cemetery remains as one of my earliest childhood memories. I went with only my big sister, Yasmin, and my big brother, Felipe, since our parents were visiting relatives in Ecuador at the time. Miguel lied in the coffin wearing his favorite outfit – blue jeans, a blue button down shirt, and a black Metallica cap. His face, still round with chubby cheeks, stuck out from the silk pillow underneath his head. I asked Yasmin why Miguel was dead.
“People die,” she told me.
“I thought people could only die when they were old,” I said. Mom told me this principle shortly before she and Dad traveled to Ecuador. I experienced a nosebleed days before Miguel died. No matter how many towels Mom gave me, the blood soaked through. I became so frightened and I asked her if I was dying. She placed an arm around my head and assured me I couldn’t because I was only six years old. She swore kids never died – just old people.
Yasmin and Felipe sat me down at a pew in the back of the church so they could pay their respects in private. They were much closer to Miguel than I was since they were about the same age. Miguel used to mail them letters from Ecuador every week. When he got sick, my aunt and uncle moved him and his brothers to Houston so he could have treatment done at MD Anderson Cancer Center. They stayed in our house for a few weeks before finding their own apartment. Their Houston residence was supposed to be temporary but they ended up staying for good. Miguel planned on finishing high school and college in Ecuador. He enjoyed writing plays and wanted to have a theater career. But the tumor didn’t want him to.
Outside in the cemetery, Miguel’s younger brothers carried his coffin to his burial site. After the pastor blessed Miguel one final time, his coffin was lowered into the hole. Then my cousins stood together and placed dark red roses upon the fresh grave.
“Please don’t die,” Yasmin urged me as she squeezed my hand.
“But I can’t die yet,” I said. “I’m not old.”
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Hurricane Rita developed in the Gulf Coast and it was expected to be the same disaster. Ms. Ford, my 8th grade history teacher, panicked.
“Rita’s causing trouble!” she shouted as we silently took our weekly quiz.
“It is all ya’ll’s fault, ya’ll brought hurricanes to Houston with you,” Donny said to our newest classmates, evacuees from New Orleans. Ms. Ford scolded him, but I could tell she was worried about Houston’s future. We all were.
Right after lunchtime, Principal White’s voice came on the intercom. She announced Rita’s heavy approaching and informed us school would be closed for the rest of the week. As soon as I got home, Mom and I went to the grocery store to stock up on food. The shelves were nearly empty by the time we arrived.
Later that day, my parents, Felipe, and myself evacuated to San Antonio to stay with Uncle Elias, Dad’s little brother. We left at three in the morning, after most of Houston did, so we didn’t encounter much traffic. All the buildings we passed on the way, including my junior high, looked abandoned with their newly boarded up windows.
In San Antonio, we visited Riverwalk as a family. We did the boat ride, ate local Mexican food, and then walked briskly around Rivercenter Mall to burn off the fajitas. Uncle Elias’ cell phone rang. He answered, listened to the caller, and hung up quickly. Dad started waving his arms around. When I looked at him closely, I saw his eyes were swollen and they were red instead of their usual dark brown.
“What happened?” Mom asked and tried to hug him, but he pushed her away.
“My mother died,” Dad said. “Heart attack.”
We immediately left Rivercenter Mall and returned to Uncle Elias’ house. Dad got on the phone and he booked the next flight to Guayaquil. Mom didn’t book a ticket for herself because it would be too expensive. But she didn’t like Grandmother Ruth anyway. Nobody did, especially me. When I was a little girl, she would often compare my “beauty” to my cousin Michelle’s “beauty.” She said Michelle would be prettier because she was always much thinner and much taller than me. Michelle’s father was a white skinned Brazilian man and because of this, her complexion was lighter than mine. Grandmother Ruth always reminded me about Michelle’s white skin and her blonde hair.
When she died, it didn’t affect me at all. She was old, I don’t know her exact age, and I really don’t care. I’m not sure her death affected Dad much either. At the funeral, Dad spotted a younger woman. She was a doctor and a surgeon, like him. I assume they began talking because they had their professions in common. I didn’t go to the funeral, but relatives who did told me Dad spoke with the woman the entire time and then they watched them leave together. A few days later, Mom received an anonymous phone call informing her that her husband was with someone else. This affair caused my parents to divorce shortly after. When Mom became single again, she said her marriage died along with Grandmother Ruth.
One year after Grandmother Ruth’s death, my cousins put together an internet memorial for her. They spoke about her so well, it made me sick. They claimed “she loved all of her grandchildren equally.” I never mentioned what she said about me.
One evening, I heard the Houston Zoo had a Christmas lights display. I found a coupon on their website and I asked David if he wanted to meet me there. We had been dating for a month now. He told me the zoo was a great idea, but his mother wanted to join us with her youngest grandson. Since I hadn’t met David’s mother yet, I thought the zoo was the perfect place. That way, if I smelled bad, I could just blame it on the animals.
When I arrived at the zoo, I saw David standing by the food court with a slice of cheese pizza on a paper plate. He put on an arm around me and kissed my forehead.
“Are you cold?” he asked. I wasn’t, but I lied so he would hug me. We walked hand in hand to where his mother and her grandson, Eric, sat at a table, drinking cups of hot chocolate.
“Hello Darlene,” she said. “You can call me Ms. Pat.” I shook her hand firmly and I noticed she wore a pink head covering with crotched edges. A large brown coat covered her entire body, as if she was going skiing. Though Houston does get cold in the winter, it never requires extra heavy jackets.
“David really likes you,” she said. “You know how I know that? He bought a slice of pizza a long time ago and he hasn’t touched it because he was waiting for you.”
We walked around the zoo for an hour, looking at sleepy animals and different light arrangements. David’s mother couldn’t keep up very well. She walked slowly and took long, deep breaths between her steps. I suggested we stop walking around, but David didn’t want to leave just yet and neither did Eric. I would have liked to stay longer as well, but not if it meant making Ms. Pat use up all her energy.
My car was parked in a lot far away from the zoo and David asked his mother if she could drive me there. Before I said I could walk, she happily accepted. I climbed onto the bed of her new truck with David and she drove gently so the cold winds wouldn’t conquer us.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a long time,” David said and patted my shoulder. “You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen.”
“Thank you, David. It’s keeping me warm right now.” He placed an arm around me, holding me tightly. One of my initial thoughts was Ms. Pat, I’m probably ovulating right now, but your son is hot.
I spent Christmas Eve with my family and didn’t get home until past two in the morning. David called me early Christmas Day to wish me well. I muttered, “It’s not merry anymore, you woke me up.” He laughed and he asked if I would like to accompany him to his family’s annual Christmas get-together. I accepted because he told me there would be plenty of food.
David arrived at my house just before 11am, wearing his long, denim vest I couldn’t stand because I felt like it blocked me from seeing all of him. During the long drive to his sister Melanie’s house, David opened up about his mother. He told me about her breast cancer diagnosis almost two years earlier. By the time she started feeling sick, it had already advanced to stage III. She lost her hair months before we met, but David believed she would be healthy again soon. He swore she was tough enough to overcome her illness. I nodded, but in my mind, I disagreed. I didn’t doubt she was a strong woman. Having minored in medicine, I learned the human body naturally fights off disease as much as it can, though sometimes, it loses, which causes death. A person’s physical strength ultimately has nothing to do with disease survival.
When we reached Melanie’s house, no one else was there yet. I greeted Melanie, her husband Jake, and her three children, Jake Junior, Larissa, and Eric. Melanie served me a plate of smoked turkey, macaroni and cheese, and a homemade cookie doused with honey.
“My mother has told me all about you,” Melanie said. “She mentioned that you’re beautiful and you are.”
About half an hour later, David’s parents rang the doorbell. David’s father, whose name is Ramon, requested that I call him Mr. Ray. Ms. Pat took a seat with Mr. Ray on the loveseat in the living room. She asked David and I to stand by the Christmas tree so she could take a picture of us to send to out-of-town relatives.
“I don’t think I got a chance to tell you at the zoo, but you have beautiful hair,” Ms. Pat said. “I’m so glad David met a girl like you.”
I thanked Ms. Pat for her comments and shook her hand. To this day, I wish I had sat down with her and gotten to know her more. Christmas was the last time I saw her conscious.
Memorial Hermann Hospital
Mom baked Yasmin a cake for her 21st birthday and invited her over for dinner. But Yasmin didn’t come. I don’t remember what the fight was about. I do remember Mom crying and that the cake was never eaten.
That same night, Mom complained of a stomachache. She had been having stomach pains quite frequently, but she swore it was only indigestion. She drank some herbal teas and tucked me into bed. The next day, when I got home from school, I saw an ambulance in our driveway. I went inside the house and there stood three paramedics who were placing Mom on a stretcher. Her stomachache turned out to be stage II colon cancer. I didn’t know what any of that meant since I was eight years old. I’m glad I didn’t know.
The paramedics took Mom to Memorial Hermann Hospital, the same hospital where Dad performed surgery six days a week for hours on end. Every day after school, Dad picked me up and drove me to see Mom. He would give me a snack and then he’d disappear down the hallway for another surgery.
Every time I saw Mom, I always asked her when she was going to come home and she always told me, “Soon.” During her last stage of treatment, she had trouble walking and spent most of her time in bed. She was 40, but looked 60 to me.
My teachers became concerned with me because one day I accidently blurted out my mother was in the hospital. They asked if she was having a baby and I said no.
“My dad told me it’s cancer,” I told them. They looked at me with open mouths. Suddenly, they became more lenient with me. I didn’t have to turn in homework on time anymore and I was excused from class participation. But I still went to school every day and I never stopped doing homework, probably because deep down I wanted to keep my usual routine. Mom assured me she would be home soon and I believed her.
After a month, maybe longer than that, Mom finally did come home like she said. 15 years later, she is still home.
Once the New Year began, Ms. Pat’s health deteriorated. She spent most of her days in and out of MD Anderson Cancer Center. She lost several pounds of weight and every bit of energy left in her plummeted each week. I wanted to take time to visit her, but David said she didn’t like people seeing her sick.
My aunt Alexandra was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2011. She lived in Los Angeles, but temporarily moved to Houston to receive chemotherapy from MD Anderson. Like Miguel, she lost her hair and grew it back over and over again. Sometimes I gave Aunt Alexandra a ride to MD Anderson, but she never let me accompany her to her appointments. She said chemotherapy was something no one else should have to see. A year later, Aunt Alexandra’s breast cancer could no longer be detected. She went home to Los Angeles with her new hairstyle. She said MD Anderson refused to give up on her.
When March came, Ms. Pat was admitted to MD Anderson for an extended stay. I urged David to convince her to allow me to visit and Ms. Pat said she would love to see me.
“What day is good for you?” David asked me. I honestly didn’t know. Being in college full time and working two part time jobs didn’t allow me much leisure.
“I’ll let you know,” I said. By the time I had a free day to see her, Ms. Pat was discharged. I was overjoyed since I assumed this meant she was getting better. It actually meant MD Anderson gave up on her.
At the end of March, Ms. Pat’s energy disappeared completely. Her days consisted of minimal eating and numerous hours of sleep. David told me MD Anderson sent a hospice nurse to care for her. Hospice. I hated that word. As a medicine minor, I heard it several times. It’s one of those words that never has a good connotation.
The hospice provides final comfort for the patient, my textbook said. It’s important for a patient to be comfortable in his or her last stage of life.
I visited her, finally, on April 6th, 2013. She was in her bed, under a heavy white blanket, her pink head covering slightly exposing her bare scalp. But she did look “comfortable.” A few minutes later, Mr. Ray walked inside the room and greeted me with a nod.
“Do you want me to wake her up?” he said and was about to clap his hands together, but I stopped him. I whispered into Ms. Pat’s ear, telling her I’d see her again soon. She slept so deeply, she didn’t hear a word I said.
The following day, I wanted to visit Ms. Pat again, but work scheduled me for a double shift. Wonderful Truths Preschool at Bear Meadow Baptist Church often did this without letting me know in advance. I worked the morning shift, had two hours off for lunch, and went back for an additional shift that would last until past 9 in the evening. As I made sure the hyper children didn’t blow up the classroom, David texted me continuously.
I’m really scared
I don’t want her to die
I want my mommy
After I fed the children their dinner and got them involved in an activity, I checked my phone once more and saw David’s latest message.
Honey, my mommy passed away.
When Ms. Pat died, I didn’t know what to do. I told David I would be there for him, but I wasn’t even sure what that phrase meant. I am lucky. I’ve had pet rabbits die and though it pained me, it’s not the same as losing a person close to you. Miguel died when I was six. I don’t remember too much about him. Grandma Ruth’s death was a relief. Mom survived. So did Aunt Alexandra. I don’t know what death of a loved one feels like. No matter how horrible other people describe it, I don’t think I will truly know its agony until it happens.
Because I was completely lost on how to help, I put in a prayer request at Wonderful Truths Preschool. I asked the “prayer warriors” to pray for David and his family to have peace as they made final arrangements. David’s sister-in-law, Veronica, found out about this prayer request thanks to social networking. She called me and told me Ms. Pat’s death was none of my business and they didn’t want any prayers for peace or anything else. I was confused, since I thought Ms. Pat would have liked prayer. When she wasn’t busy being the registrar at an elementary school, Ms. Pat preached and sang in the choir at a local church. A week before she died, she delivered her last sermon and song, even though she had trouble standing up.
“We didn’t ask you to do anything,” Veronica said. “Tell whoever’s praying for us to stop doing it. We don’t want it.”
I called David at work to tell him about the incident. He didn’t say much, which upset me. I told him he was an asshole and the next time someone in his family died, I wouldn’t do anything to help. Then I said I wouldn’t attend the funeral, not if I was going to be sneered at by his family. For the next two days, I ignored David completely.
“You have to go to the funeral,” Mom told me.
“Why? If I want to be surrounded by flaming assholes, I can just go to work.”
“If you don’t go, you’re going to be the asshole,” Mom said, which surprised me since she never curses. “Go and then dump him if you want. I can put up with you being a heartbreaker, but I will not let you be an asshole.”
Even though I didn’t feel like talking, I called David and told him I’d be there.
A Thousand Years
Ms. Pat’s funeral was the first funeral I attended since Miguel’s 15 years earlier. The funeral home had pictures of her on the walls, pictures from years before she got sick. She had a full head of thick black hair, rosy cheeks, and a toothy smile, every trait I liked about David. As we waited for the funeral to start, David held my hand tightly.
“I’m sorry for how I acted,” I said. “If you want to break up, I understand.”
“I want to be with you,” David said. “I love you.”
When the funeral began, a gospel song came on a speaker in the corner of the room. A woman sang some lyrics about death and going to Heaven. David cried heavily. He clutched his hand around mine with much more pressure. I placed my head on his shoulder and he told me Ms. Pat sang that song right before she died. Sherman Alexie once wrote that “when anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old.” For some reason, I adored this quote when I first read it years ago. I didn’t understand its depth until Ms. Pat died.
As I walked to Ms. Pat’s open coffin to say goodbye, I noticed something different about her. Her hair seemed fuller and it was neatly combed, much more than in her pictures. Her makeup was applied on too well. I saw that her hands were slightly hovered over her stomach and her mouth wasn’t shut all the way. She didn’t look like the Ms. Pat I knew at all. She resembled a wax doll instead.
Outside, the pastor blessed Ms. Pat’s closed coffin and a bored usher gave out little packets of tissues as if they were peanuts as a baseball game. Every time someone cried, the usher walked slowly to them and handed them the tissue without a word or sad expression. I expected the burial to follow, but David informed me burials were done later nowadays, after everyone who attended the funeral was gone.
“People kept trying to jump into the open grave,” he said. “They didn’t bury my brother Glenn in front of me.” I didn’t know he had a dead brother until then so I asked how Glenn died.
“Drunk driving. He was so drunk, he drove into a ditch and died right away. Mom always said once she went to Heaven, she would hug Glenn for a thousand years.”
A year and a half after Ms. Pat died, I asked David if I could visit her. He agreed and we got into his truck. Brookside Cemetery was only a ten minute drive from us. When we arrived, he wanted to visit Glenn first. David showed me a few pictures of Glenn as a teenager before taking me to his grave. I was surprised at how much they looked alike since they were actually half-brothers. Like Ms. Pat, Glenn had thick black hair, dark eyes, and a big smile. Glenn died at age 19. David blamed his death on his alcohol addiction. I didn’t blame it on anything. Miguel died at 19 as well but I’ve never blamed him for having brain cancer. Death is inevitable. No matter how well we behave, it will find us eventually.
Right after visiting Glenn, David held my hand as we walked to Ms. Pat’s grave. Somebody had placed a large bouquet of flowers over her headstone. David told me how much he missed her. He said his favorite memory of her was when she would hold him in her lap, rub his back, and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Suddenly, I felt David falling down, so I caught him by extending my hands out to his upper arms. He cried on my shoulder. I didn’t know what to say, so I stayed quiet and held him.
“I want my mommy,” he said in the same way my preschoolers at work did. My instant, built in, preschool teacher response slipped out.
“You’ll see her again soon, she just had go somewhere for a little bit,” I said. I wanted to slap myself for saying something so stupid. But to my surprise, David hung onto me tighter. He held onto me until he stopped crying.
Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. In 2013, she won the Glass Mountain magazine contest for prose and was awarded the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. Her work appears in Cleaver, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, Elohi Gadugi, The Writing Disorder, Connotation Press, Word Riot, The Boiler Journal, Plain China, and many others. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has lived in Houston all her life. Her website is www.darlenepcampos.com