Updated: Jun 11, 2020
My mom, always the wanderlust and world traveler, in 1991 at the “young” age of sixty-two decided to join the Peace Corps. She was assigned as a community nurse in a small village in Paraguay called Natalicio Talavera.
She was a petite, spry lady who was always looking for an adventure. After her husband, my stepdad passed away, she felt inclined to do something different. Although some were incredulous that she would leave her comfortable home to spend three years by herself in a third world country. Personally I thought it was the coolest thing ever and enjoyed telling everyone that my mom was in the Peace Corps.
I wasn’t terribly surprised that my mom selected this challenging path so late in life. I’m not sure if it was her stoic Czechoslovakian background, surviving the frigid winters in Minnesota or perhaps her vocation as a nurse, but my mom was tough as nails. My brother and I learned early in life to not go running to her about small problems as her response was always dismissive. She never actually said “suck it up” but we knew what she was implying. I never once recall her complaining about what life threw at her; especially going through her breast cancer treatments; the first time with radiation that caused a pneumothorax that she never quite recovered from and the second time with chemo that made her violently sick and hauntingly gaunt.
As a breast cancer patient currently undergoing treatment now myself, I wish I had talked more about her cancer journey; asked her how was she diagnosed, what type and stage she had and was she as terrified of it metastasizing as I am now. And how in the heck did she manage living all by herself going through treatments when I can hardly get through the day myself with the ample help I get?
I think of my mom this morning as I moved through the guest room dusting the floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of wooden carvings, statues, dolls and ceramic plates; a kaleidoscope of colors from all over the world. Dusting this room was a daunting task even before cancer; now it’s overwhelming.
I carefully picked up the hollowed grey and black cow’s horn called a guampa with my mom’s name beautifully engraved in red on the outside of it. Already fatigued this morning, I sat down to rest. As I slowly removed the light layer of dust it brought back all the memories of that short visit and our time together in Paraguay. Has it really been over twenty-five years since that journey? And over three years ago that she passed away? I still miss her every day. My mom, my beloved mom, my mentor, my hero. So full of life, compassion and strength; resilient even through two separate breast cancer journeys.
My mom lived a modest life for three years in Paraguay helping out the village nurse with everything from childbirth to splinters. She encouraged me to come down there and visit. So in the spring of 1993, while I was stationed in Panama I journeyed down to visit her.
Where my mom called home was actually quite nice in comparison to some of the other dwellings but it was extremely rustic by my standards. It was small building with a tan exterior and three small windows. There was no running water or electricity. Bathroom facilities were a sturdy outhouse complete with a roll of Charmin and a Reader’s Digest that I had sent her in a care package previously.
I’m a little light headed right now. My oncologist mentioned that there would be days like this. Days when I would struggle with my normal routine. I considered taking a nap and finishing the dusting later, but instead I just leaned back against the headboard and reflected on that journey. I remembered being so impressed at my mom’s courage, at her age, to take on such an extremely different life style.
As I lovingly picked up the guampa laying by my side, I reminisced about my last night in Paraguay. Some of the locals invited us to join them in drinking some terere’, a local tea. Terere’ is a shared drink, meaning everyone drinks out of the same guampa. The tea was strong and bitter. Yuck! I almost spit it back out. My mom caught my expression and it was all she could do to not laugh.
The next day, after to saying goodbye to my mom, I headed back to Panama full of stories and memories.
The dogs loudly barking outside jolts me back to the present; back to my stark reality where she’s no longer here and I’m facing life altering cancer. A couple of tears flow down my dusty cheek. I think of my mom. She wouldn’t want to see me in this state, all sentimental and sad. She’d want me to remember and cherish the memories of our time spent together. But she’d also want me to move on; to push forward no matter what obstacles I faced, to fight this cancer head on and to embrace my life’s journey just like she did. So I reached up and pulled off the blue bandana that matches my blue, eyelash-free eyes and to cover my pathetic looking bald head. I used it to wipe the tears from my eyes and then expertly tied the bandana back on my head. I gently placed the guampa back on the shelf, closed the guest room door shut and continued on with the dusting…