Mamá

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.
5 min readJun 11, 2020

Since I was little, I’ve found comfort in writing.

I distinctively remember the time when I was gifted my first journal. I was very young, probably seven. The journal was purple and had the face of Mickey Mouse on the cover. The thing that puzzled me was the fact that the little notebook came with a lock. “Why would someone need a lock on a notebook?” I asked my mom. She explained to me that journals are notebooks where we write our thoughts, our most intimate feelings that we don’t want anyone else to see, and so we need a lock to make sure that no one without our permission would peep inside. “But I don’t have secrets” I told my mom. “Then — she said — you can just write about things that happened to you during the day and how those things made you feel”. And since then, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Many years have passed and I still write journals, though they don’t have locks anymore. The last few pages are filled with memories of my mom. She’s just passed, and I never felt such pain before in my life. Grief is the most complex bundle of emotions and no one prepares us to deal with it.

This is one of the pages from my journal:

My mom was a happy person. She smiled a lot, talked a lot, she always gave people second (and third) chances, and she knew how to look on the bright side of life. She loved her family over all things, and she showed it to us every day of our lives. She was fun to be around, never in a bad mood though she could get very angry, very fast. But as fast as she got angry, she would calm down and smile again. She didn’t like arguing with people, but she would do it to stand up for what she believed in. She was blonde and blue-eyed. She taught me to write and read before I even started school, and that’s probably why I was so bored for the first few years of elementary school. She always helped me to be ahead of the rest of the kids in the class. She’s the reason why I love writing and reading. She thought life was too short and unpredictable to go through it worrying about petty stuff, putting ourselves down, or surrounding ourselves with toxic people. She was also a remarkably amazing Tetris player. She was strong and brave. She’d just turned sixty.

I thought I was prepared for her passing, as she lived with metastasis for a decade. But I was very wrong. I was also not prepared to live this loss through a world pandemic that prevented me from immediately taking a plane to be with her and my family when things took a turn for the worse, due to a ridiculous travel restriction that interestingly enough, doesn’t affect US citizens. We’re all dealing with the unrealistic situation of lockdowns and a broken society, and it’s unfair anyone has to deal with any other traumatic experience on top of all that. But my family and I had to, and accepting that I have not been able yet to go and hug my dad and my brother is the thing that burns my heart the most, to say the least.

I heard many times “you are strong, things will get better”. I wasn’t sure if that was true. In the beginning it just feels like you’re stuck at the bottom of a dark well: you know there’s an exit, but how do you make it up there? Well, the answer is “with help”. People have reached out to me and have given me their unconditional support (sometimes unexpected I must admit), especially a few friends who also lost a parent way too soon. For that support and love, I will be eternally grateful.

But the biggest help to accept mom’s death is my mom’s attitude towards adversity. She was the strongest person I ever met who did not let cancer stop her from living her life the way she wanted. I’d be happy if I can just borrow a fraction of that strength and bravery of hers.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was thirty-seven. That’s only three years older than me right now. She had a husband and two kids: my brother who was eight, and me, eleven. During one of our last conversations through a videocall, she told me the first diagnosis was a blow to her, she felt desperate, sad, and hopeless. But I don’t remember that, I remember a woman who accepted the situation, spoke openly about it with her family, and faced the entire process with bravery and optimism. I’m sure she tried to keep a happy face for my brother and me, and yet she never hid anything from us. My mom and my dad did their best in a situation that was terrible. The doctors got rid of the cancer. She got cured, they told her. She was the best patient, thanks to her optimism, and joking around and gifting smiles to everyone while sitting through chemotherapy sessions. The doctors admired her and told her many times “You have the right attitude to beat this disease”.

For many years she was free of cancer, but when I moved abroad to start my Ph.D. they gave her the news: metastasis. There was no solution for it but try and keep it under control with medication and hope for the best. It sounded less than promising, and it was a source of much anxiety and questions: “Should I give up and come back home, be closer to her so I can help if needed?” But she never wanted me to give up any of my plans for her, she wanted me to pursue my dreams, my career and reach my goals. I can’t help but wonder: “Would have I been happier if I gave up my dream and stayed closer to my family?”, “Would it have been better if I never left and we just enjoyed life in a simple manner, together?”, “Would have it been different if I stayed and spent with my mom our last years together?”, “Would this pain feel different now?”. But she, and the rest of my family, have always been beyond supportive and encouraged me to always reach for more, follow what I wanted to do and achieve all my goals in life. There is no possible way that I could ever repay them for what they’ve done for me and the love and encouragement I received from them every single day.

She told me in more than one occasion: “I envy you, how you want something and you go for it, the life you’re building for yourself and how independent you are”. She said, until her last day, that she was proud of me. I am proud of her forever too. “I love you. Have a good day” was the last thing she said to me.

I will miss her every day for the rest of my life. I owe her everything; she made me the person I am today. The best thing I can do is to keep her memory and strength alive. I learned from the best how to walk through life, no matter what it throws at you.

Te quiero, mamá. Gracias por todo lo que me diste.

Mom

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Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D.

Neuroscientist, science communicator, ukelele player. I write about brains and sometimes other stuff.