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Abuelita: A Story of Resistance and Strength

Content Warnings: Terminal illnesses, death

My earliest memory of Abuelita is from 1998. Before then, I didn’t see her much since she lived thousands of miles away in Ecuador. Additionally, my Spanish skills were weak, so I was unable to communicate with my grandparents beyond standard greetings or farewells. That day in 1998, my parents were going on an extended vacation to China, Japan, and Korea. The moment they walked out the door, I frowned and Abuelita noticed. She gave me a smile and said, “Don’t worry, the time will pass by quickly.”

Despite our language barrier, we got along well. She made me my favorite foods and constantly reminded me that if I wanted more servings, all I needed to do was ask. She picked me up from school, made sure my clothes were ironed, and reminded me to comb my hair by gesturing the action. When my parents returned, Abuelita caught a flight back home. I thought I wouldn’t see her again for a long time, but fortunately, that wouldn’t be the case.

In 2001, my grandparents moved to Houston permanently. They wanted to be closer to family and since one of my cousins was a baby, he needed a full-time babysitter. Abuelita was the perfect fit. She tended to my cousin’s every need and never complained about her new responsibilities. When she was younger, she owned and operated a convenience store and managed Abuelito’s dental office. Most of my memories of Abuelita are of her cooking, cleaning, or chasing after my young cousin. Sometimes, even after spending several hours on her feet, Abuelita wouldn’t let Abuelito pick her up. She preferred to walk home for additional exercise. The energy in her body seemed infinite.

But when I was in high school, Abuelita was diagnosed with cancer. She required chemotherapy and because of her age, her survival chance did not seem likely. At the time, I was taking a photography class, so I offered to take portraits of her for her birthday in case she did not make it through the cancer. I still remember her wearing her best outfit, makeup, and hairdo and excitedly posing as I rapidly pressed the shutter button. The photos remain on an old flash drive and I did not look at them again until recently. There is a strip of tape just under the left side of her blouse – the area where her chemo port rested. Despite intense treatment, Abuelita was not overly affected and went into remission quickly.

One of the portraits; the port tape is slightly visible. (c) Darlene P. Campos, 2009

Not long after finishing treatment, Abuelita exhibited strange behaviors. She often danced to nonexistent music. One afternoon, she suddenly stood up and recited Ecuador’s National Anthem. In the evenings, according to Abuelito, she saw unfamiliar people walking through their apartment. One of them was a man who dressed entirely in white. After doing research at a library, I discovered a condition called Musical Ear Syndrome in which people have auditory hallucinations of music or singing. I figured the syndrome was a side effect of her chemotherapy and assumed it would resolve on its own.

Around 2010, Abuelita was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Aside from the dancing, singing, or visions, Abuelita wasn’t much different than before. She still cooked, cleaned, tended to anyone who needed her, and relaxed by watching telenovelas or the famous Sábado Gigante variety show. Eventually, Alzheimer’s showed itself more frequently. She regularly forgot how to use a washer and dryer. She would put her clothes on inside out and try putting on lipstick by rubbing it on her palm. In 2016, my now-husband and I were at my grandparents’ apartment. We were going to give them a ride to a family gathering, but Abuelita was not ready to leave. My film buff Abuelito and I chatted in the living room about various movies, yet Abuelita never seemed to join us. At one point, Abuelito went to their bedroom and asked, “Why are you taking so long?” I followed behind him and saw Abuelita folding and unfolding laundry. She grabbed one of Abuelito’s boxers, folded it perfectly, and then unfolded it, and proceeded to re-fold. Abuelito grabbed the rest of the laundry, tossed everything into a hamper, and firmly said, “Please stop playing around. We need to go.”

A year later, Abuelito unexpectedly died from the effects of heart failure. Abuelita was devastated. She had spent over sixty years by his side and thought he would outlive her. In her younger years, she was generally a quiet person and did not express her emotions. She was not too affectionate nor would she charm people with words of praise. But during the aftermath of Abuelito’s death, Abuelita became totally different. She stopped holding back her tears and often said, “I want to die, why am I still living?”

My grandparents at the Rainforest Café in Katy, TX. 2006.

As time passed, Abuelita’s mind experienced waves of reality and fantasy. Whenever she saw the shed in my backyard, she would say “Wait here, I’m going to get a few things at the store” and start marching towards the entrance. She started seeing Abuelito daily and swearing to everyone that he never died. During a conversation with my mom, Abuelita kept repeating “Your dad is alive, I see him all the time.” My mom responded, “No, he died in 2017. You were at the funeral.” To my surprise, Abuelita answered, “I know, but sometimes I like to think he’s not dead because it makes me feel better.”

A constant hallucination Abuelita experienced was a man who followed her everywhere. She first saw him when Abuelito was still alive. At the start, he was only present in their apartment, usually in the bathrooms. She claimed she saw him peeping at her from the vents, so Abuelito found creative ways to cover them using open umbrellas or small boxes. Following Abuelito’s death, the hallucination became more serious. Abuelita shared with me that the man’s wife and children were coming into her apartment and leaving it in shambles. She said they were eating her groceries, using her washer and dryer, and taking turns taunting her. Desperate, she begged me to call the police and I always told her I did, hoping it would give her a sense of peace. Unfortunately, the man continued following her. He was at her doctor’s office, the grocery store, the mall, my house, and even inside my car whenever I picked her up. While there were many times when Abuelita shouted at the man, there were also many occasions when she burst into tears because all she wanted was to be left alone.

In the winter of 2019, Abuelita asked if I could take her to a church. She wanted to pray for her stalker to go to prison. Not wanting her to embarrass herself in front of strangers, I took her to a chapel inside our local hospital since it was usually empty when there weren’t services taking place. When we arrived, Abuelita sat in front of the altar. She breathed deeply, closed her eyes, and began praying. I anticipated she would tell God about the terrible man and his boundary-defying wife and children, but she did not say a word about any of them. Instead, she whispered, “God, there’s something wrong with my brain. I am not sure what it is, but I need help.” Until then, I thought Abuelita had no idea what was happening to her, but she did and there was nothing I, or anyone, could do to repair her mind.

By 2020, Abuelita’s stories of the man became less frequent because her ability to speak diminished. Her speech was regularly tangled with nonsense words like “maca” or “paca.” Though she went through a terrible fall in 2018, her bones recovered, but she needed a walker or wheelchair to get around. Then one day, in the summer of 2020, Abuelita never rose from her living room couch. Family members tried to pry her up, but nothing worked. From that day on, Abuelita was bedridden. Her voice also mostly vanished. Sporadically, she muttered a word or two, usually a greeting or a family member’s name.

The remainder of Abuelita’s life was eventful. She was put on hospice care in late 2019 and even with medical scare after medical scare, she pulled through. In the spring of 2022, her hospice staff advised us to prepare for the end. Her vitals were tumbling, especially her oxygen levels. Since her 83rd birthday was about ten days away, my family and I joined forces to give Abuelita a special birthday bash. We had bright balloons, tons of delicious food and dessert, energetic music, lively dancing, and photography. Abuelita had no idea it was her birthday. As we took turns taking photos with her, her gaze was distant and confused. I looked at her intently for a few minutes and thought we’re having this huge party and she’ll have another birthday next year.

My thought came true. Abuelita made it to 84. Additionally, after being under hospice care for two years, she was released because her health improved. There were times when I thought, though unrealistically, that she would live forever. But other times, especially when I traveled, even to somewhere close by, I was not able to enjoy myself. My mind raced with thoughts like what if she dies and I’m over 1,000 miles away? Some mornings, I’d be at work, busy with my duties, and then more thoughts emerged. Take tomorrow off, just in case. Go visit her tonight, just in case. Give her a hug, just in case. Cook her something good to eat, just in case.

In June 2023, Abuelita was hospitalized once again. By this point, she was extremely frail. Her once round and hearty face became scrawny. The hospital room was large and bright and overlooked the nearby interstate. Abuelita seemed relaxed, but the reports from the doctors were far from comforting. In 2018, Abuelita was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare cancer of the plasma cells. However, her oncologist was not confident she could manage chemotherapy alongside her other illnesses, so nothing was done. Sadly, Abuelita’s Multiple Myeloma had strengthened to stage IV. Her organs were also rapidly declining. Upon her hospital discharge, she was given an estimate: three weeks.

During those three weeks, my sleep schedule became a disaster. When I was awake, I never felt at ease. All I wanted was for Abuelita to pass peacefully, in her sleep or right after enjoying a tasty meal. But what I forgot during those weeks was Abuelita’s resistance. She made it to four weeks. Then five. Then six. Then seven. Then a full two months. Once she entered week nine, I felt calmer. Judging by her defiance in the face of death, I assumed Abuelita would live until Thanksgiving or beyond. Maybe, I considered, she would make it to her 85th birthday.

Alas, these considerations were short-lived. On Saturday, August 26, 2023, my mom and I visited Abuelita, as we did every Saturday and Sunday. When I got closer to her, her breathing sounded like a baby’s rattle, as if something had lodged in her throat and she was frantically trying to get it out. My mom fed her sips of soup, but Abuelita did not savor the taste like before. Every so often, while she ate the food my mom or I prepared for her, she would say “está rico” (it’s delicious) or lick her lips. That evening, Abuelita looked incredibly exhausted.

The following day, my mom and I visited again, but my mind grew tense before we even entered her apartment. In college, my minor was medical studies and I remembered reading various death reports in which the sound of the death rattle was described. If those descriptions were correct, Abuelita was about to die. Once we were inside, I carefully listened to Abuelita’s breathing. The rattling noise was much more pronounced. I recorded the sounds and sent the audio to my dad, who is a doctor. He immediately called and said, “Call an ambulance. Now.”

The paramedics tried taking her vitals, but after a moment of silence, one of them said, “I can’t find a heartbeat.” They immediately hooked Abuelita to an oxygen monitor and she was still breathing lightly, but it was clear to me that it was time. I took a deep breath to remain calm. I did not speak to her nor did I approach her and neither did the paramedics since Abuelita was a do not resuscitate patient. The last thing I wanted was for Abuelita to die with strangers or with the sounds of urgency, which is why I held in my emotions. Within a minute or two, Abuelita turned her head to her right side and the oxygen monitor stopped. One of the paramedics adjusted Abuelita’s pillow, caressed her white hair, and whispered, “I am so sorry for your loss.”

Before Abuelita’s illnesses took over her life, we had countless memorable moments. Years ago, I took her to a podiatrist to have an ingrown toenail removed. As the podiatrist explained the process, Abuelita could not stop laughing. Within seconds, the podiatrist laughed with her and soon, I joined in. During the procedure, which looked very painful, I asked Abuelita if she felt any discomfort. She responded with more giggles.

On Christmas Eve 2016, we exchanged gifts at my aunt’s house. Abuelita asked me for new underwear, so I got her a jumbo pack, wrapped it carefully, and whispered to her, “Open this at home.” Abuelita’s hearing ability was not the best and she only heard, “Open this.” Suddenly, she ripped the wrapping paper and exclaimed, “Darlene got me the underwear I wanted!” I put my hands over my face as Abuelito wolf-whistled and said, “You got new underwear, huh? Well, Merry Christmas to me, too.”

After Abuelito died, I started accompanying Abuelita to her appointments as often as I could. The first appointment I took her to was the ophthalmologist. She had undergone cataract surgery a few years earlier and her vision needed to be checked often. Before the ophthalmologist came in, his assistant conducted the usual “tell me which lines you can read” exam. The assistant spoke perfect Spanish and asked Abuelita to read the smallest letters she could see on the chart. She answered “One, two, three, four, five.” After Abuelita repeated these numbers several times, I requested the chart be changed to one with numbers instead. The assistant swapped the chart and Abuelita recited, “A, B, C, D.” The assistant and I told her there were not any letters on the chart, only numbers. As one final attempt, the assistant switched the chart again and Abuelita confidently stated “One, two, three, four, five.” A little agitated, I reminded her that there were not any numbers, just letters. She gave me a little wink and laughed to herself.

If I had to pick a favorite memory, it is one from the summer of 2017. As I stated earlier, Abuelita was not an emotionless person. She was a person who did not express how she felt unless she absolutely felt strong enough to do so. I never had a deep conversation with Abuelita about her childhood and the details she told me are fuzzy. I have wondered if she grew up in an environment where it was not safe to share feelings. In the oldest photos I have of her, even from when she was a little girl, she is not smiling. In more recent photos, she is smiling, not to the point where her teeth are visible, but enough to be noticeable. On that day in the summer of 2017, Abuelita and I sat on her couch. I do not remember why I was there or what we talked about. At one point, I turned to her and said, “Abuelita, I don’t think we have ever said this to each other, but I love you.” Within a split second, Abuelita’s face brightened and she smiled widely and immediately responded, “Oh my God, I love you, too! I have loved you since the day you were born!”

Abuelita, circa 1958.

The days following Abuelita’s death, as with anyone’s death, were filled with responsibilities. I took on the tasks of writing her obituary and reserving a floral arrangement. Morbidly, each flower shop I contacted said it had been a ‘high death’ week and none were able to accommodate more orders. Thankfully, I was able to secure flowers from my local supermarket. I requested a wreath with Ecuadorian white roses and touches of yellow flowers. However, less than 24 hours before Abuelita’s funeral, the supermarket called to say they were unable to fulfill the order. I turned pale until the employee added “We’re totally out of material except for a heart-shaped wreath. It’s an extra $100, but we’ll make it for you at no extra charge.”

On the day of her funeral, I inched towards Abuelita’s casket already assuming the worst. During her final months, her face and body declined to a point where she was barely recognizable. Embalmers are certainly talented, but they are not miracle workers. The moment I saw her, my jaw dropped. She wore her favorite blue dress, pearled jewelry, and carefully placed makeup. Her expression was peaceful, like she was taking a much-needed nap. Her hair was smoothly combed, just the way she liked to style it. After over six years of watching her deteriorate, I forgot what she really looked like. Underneath numerous layers of struggles and sickness, Abuelita remained immaculately beautiful.

A minute later, I took a seat and admired the elaborate heart-shaped wreath next to her casket. For about three years, it was rare to hear Abuelita’s voice and when it was heard, it was seldom coherent. Yet, Abuelita was never one to give in to a challenge, as she constantly proved to everyone around her, especially her healthcare providers. Since her words did not work anymore, she found a way to say one final “I love you” from the other side.

The heart-shaped wreath. (c) Darlene P. Campos, 2023.

Eloisa Bienvenida Martinez

April 23, 1939-August 27, 2023

"Place me like a seal over your heart,

like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death...."

Song of Songs 8:6

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