For the first time in my life, I dreaded going back home.
I was working at the time. I stood inside the Oklahoma State Capitol getting pictures of the State of the State on a Monday afternoon when my phone buzzed in my pocket.
I didn’t think much of it as I pushed the buttons against my thigh to make the phone stop.
I silenced it and decided to concentrate. I wanted to get the best pictures I could as the Governor entered the floor.
It was getting weird, but I was too focused to be distracted. I couldn’t take a break. Not now.
I finally reached in to take a look. I had missed calls, facebook messages, and snapchat messages from multiple people. I still didn’t think much of it. I told myself I’d call them later.
The last buzz made me walk outside. I had to know what was wrong. My mother spoke in a desperate tone. She said “It’s bad, you need to make arrangements.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had three days to prepare. My flight was on Friday.
I lived in South America for ten years. Ten life-changing, vulnerable years. The first person to welcome us with open arms was my grandmother. In the time my family was finding a place to live, she gave her home to us. She taught me kindness.
In the time my parents worked, she cooked and fed us. She taught me selflessness.
Every Christmas, she would tell us to help cook and give food to the poor. She taught me empathy.
I know I didn’t talk to her as much as I could’ve, but in the moments we did, and in the moments we were together, we had conversations that mattered. She was giving, she was nurturing, and she was honest.
She became a widow in the year 1970. My father, Victor Hugo, was 12 years old at the time and was one sibling of six. My grandmother held the resolve and determination to raise them all with wonderful successes in life.
Exchanging conversations with my aunts and uncles gave me a deeper glimpse of the rough childhood they had. My father has told me small anecdotes of his early days, but hearing the brothers and sisters reminisce at the dinner table was a whole different experience.
I knew they grew up poor. The family of seven struggled to get by every single day. My father would tailor clothing with his mother for change while the younger siblings would cause trouble in the neighborhood, stealing and fending for food and groceries where they could.
My uncle Alvaro laughed about the time they stole an actual goat. I laughed when I heard that too. It provided milk and company for six growing children during the time they were together.
My father then recalled the time he and his brother Alvaro went to the close mountain to find ‘Tuna’, which is the fruit that grows on cacti. They had to be quick, as the owner of the hillside was not kind to thieves, threatening most with his gun. They grabbed what they could and ran like hell, putting the fruit they could into their shirts that they held like a basket, grabbing it from the bottom.
They laughed and laughed, remembering the pain of being scolded by their mother, and the hours they had to sit and wait for the thorns to be taken out of their chests and upper backs from running through the bushes.
There were thousands of times she could’ve given up. Thousands of times she could’ve said “I’m done.” However, she worked and thrived as a single mother of six. Living in poverty, and living in a third world country.
As a country, during the years of my father’s childhood and young adulthood, Bolivia came with changes in governmental power, dictatorships, military coups, and civil unrest. They survived it all. I remember a story my father told me of tossing mattresses against the windows when they heard gunshots.
It’s a life I know little of, but a life my family went through for me to exist. It’s a time and place I completely disassociate with when I’m in my grandmother’s house, even though it’s the same house my father, aunts, and uncles grew up in.
I hesitated walking through the gate when I arrived from the airport that Saturday afternoon. I saw the four dogs who recognized me after a few barks, and as I walked in, I saw the faces of people losing hope.
I walked in the house, catching a glimpse of the end of a hospital bed around a wall that led to where the dinner table was supposed to be. I made sure to take extra time to say hello to everyone in the house, family and strangers alike. My father looked at me as if he had not slept in years.
I can’t describe what I felt when I saw her. I couldn’t make myself look at her. I froze. Honestly, I just remember holding her extended hand and being on my knees. My hands are shaking even as I write this. I really have no idea how long I had my head on top of our hands, but I remember how hard it was to breathe and hearing muffled whimpers around me.
That was the moment I said goodbye. I knew it was the last time I would see her.
People told us she was having conversations days before my sister and I arrived. She was still chatty and lovely.
She spoke with two of my younger cousins over the Internet in those days before. They sent their love to her and the people around her.
After that conversation she said, “All that’s left is to see my last two.” She was speaking of my sister and I.
Her body fought to stay alive. Her heart rate rose to frightening heights and faint lows. She couldn’t speak.
That was the hardest part. She was waiting for us.
I’m not one to show bursts of emotion, but watching the reason for your existence wither away didn’t compute. It didn’t mean that those memories were gone; it just meant the person I shared them with would be. I’m slowly becoming okay with it.
What I’m not okay with is the piece-of-shit disease that takes a hold of our bodies and kills us from the inside out. Something that stems from nowhere, for no fucking reason at all and decides to kill. To create pain and suffering for the people around it. No cure, no universal solution, just a hope that it can go away.
It took three days for the cancer to take control.
When my grandmother was diagnosed, she said “No.” No treatments, no operations, no needles or knives. She said “whatever may come can come. Let it run its course.”
What followed was a year of harsh change. Change in diet, activity, and lifestyle–something she was not used to in the slightest. She was the definition of an independant woman. She managed a business, she bought all her groceries; she even ran and attended multiple church groups on her own.
She was a woman of faith. Catholicism is embedded within Bolivian culture and was a very big part of her life. The times I went back to Bolivia, every Sunday without fail we would go and see my grandfather and great aunt at the big cemetery to pray and lend fresh flowers. Church closely followed the visit.
The way I see it, it’s not necessarily a religious following, but it’s a ceremonial and ritualistic one. One of tradition, which I keep very close to my heart. I consider myself a Catholic but not a normal one.
She taught me that formalities only go so far. You don’t need a church or an altar to tell you want you can or cannot do. We set our own faith, any way we want to. The labels are just that: labels. As long as you’re confident in what you believe in, who cares?
I choose to believe she’s in a better place. I want there to be a better place. A place where she can rest and share her life to her husband and our ancestors. This is my choice, and I’m okay with that.
I hope she reads this when she gets the chance.
There are few ways to express the pain I felt watching my family go through the process. Brothers and sisters planning and organizing something so morbid, so shattering. Six successful and wonderful human beings, reduced to hollow shells. Making phone calls and talking out of obligation.
I watched my father age ten years in three days.
He had stayed in Bolivia for a month and some before I arrived. He told me of the sleepless nights he had with his other brother, Javier. They would just sit together and cry. They were prepared; at least that’s what he told me when we talked in her backyard.
The hard part was over, at least for me.
I felt sick about a week before I got all the buzz in the Capitol. I wasn’t eating well and could barely sleep. In the phonecalls I had with my father, he didn’t sound like himself; he sounded weak.
The lack of sleep and appetite came with everything else, I guess. I’m still feeling a bit off. It’s only been a week since everything happened. I hope writing this helps.
There was really nothing more I could’ve asked for in her. Who she was and the life she led left a dent in the city of Cochabamba the day she left us. There were hundreds of people who reached out, hundreds of people who came to her wake, and hundreds of people who said goodbye.
When I say I’m sorry, I’m not apologizing. I choose to feel the weight of my soul for losing someone so close to me. I feel the sorrow with full force, and I don’t know how long it will take me to recover.
Her name was Maria Elma Soria-Galvarro de Pozadas and her body surrendered on Monday, February 13.
I love you, and I’m sorry.