It was a cold, long winter when I lost someone who was close and dear to my heart.
My best friend Andrea [names are changed here for privacy] lost her mom to the terrible disease of brain cancer. At only 14 I lost a person I considered to be my second mom. It was so short yet so long at the same time. It felt like the whole thing had lasted weeks. Looking back at it, it only took one week.
To give a little bit of context to the story, I will start by explaining how long Andrea and I have been friends. We met when we were both two years old. My mother had been friends on and off with her mother for nearly 20 or so years. They obviously both intended for us, their kids, to be friends. Even though at the time we could barely speak to each other, my mother swears to this day she knew we would be best friends for life. I’m sure if you were to ask Andrea’s mom, she would say the same thing. The strange thing about Andrea’s and my relationship is that she lived in New York, while I lived in New Jersey. So how did we actually become friends as opposed to just knowing each other at two years of age? Well the simple answer is that when I was four my mother signed me up to St. George’s, a Ukrainian school in New York. It’s also important to note that Andrea was also Ukrainian. That’s how my parents were friends with her parents. From a very young age Andrea and I went to pre-school together and were best friends, mostly because you don’t really know anyone at four years old without school. So coming into kindergarten we were already great friends. Our parents always emphasized how important out culture was to the both of us, as both of our families were very active in the Ukrainian community. In addition to my seeing Andrea every day at school, our parents made it mandatory to go to Ukrainian school and join a Ukrainian organization called UAYA: Ukrainian-American Youth Association (CYM in Ukrainian, a Scouts-like organization). These both play a crucial role in making Andrea’s mom Maria so important to me.
Maria was an amazing mom, wife, artist, organizer, and many other things, but my favorite quality that I will always remember about her was always putting her kids and people she truly cared about ahead of herself. When I would spend time with Andrea, her mom would always make sure we were well fed, entertained, and just generally happy. As kids we didn’t appreciate this enough. All we thought of was what was there to make us happy and entertain us. However, as the years went by, she became so much more to me. She became a teacher, a motivator, and most true to my heart, a second mom.
When I was a youngster of 6, Maria became my first CYM counselor. Every Saturday Andrea and I would go to Ukrainian school and CYM meetings. Since Maria was our counselor we saw her every weekend. During these meetings we would learn about the importance of our culture, how it’s changing, and what we can do to preserve and develop our culture. Maria was an excellent teacher and cared much about passing down the culture to us. I remember when I was a child I was always a troublemaker at these meetings, and other parents whose kids were also at the meetings would say that I should be punished and taken out of the class. Maria, on the other hand, saw a lot of potential in me and would always tell the other parents that there was no way she was ever going to kick me out. She always had my back, even when I didn’t have my own. At the time I saw these meetings as taking up my free time and pointless. As the years went by, I started to love coming to these meetings since most of my best friends were in her meetings. In many more ways than I can express, Maria was an excellent teacher because not only did she care about the kids, she went far and beyond the expectations of her role as counselor.
Even though Maria wasn’t a life coach or motivational speaker, that aspect was a large part of her role that helped me grow into the person I am today. Not everything she said was as intricate as being a teacher, but the small things she instilled in me I still hold true to this very day. She would tell me things such as, “Stand up straight, or you’ll have health problems like our elders” or “just because some people are older or in charge, doesn’t make them right.” At the time I didn’t think much of it. Looking back at it now, she was right. There were a lot of elders and power hungry people in the organization, but she was the one who taught me to stand up to them if I felt like I was right. This was not as a sign of defiance, but rather as a younger brother who stands up to his older brother who is just being a jerk. As I grew older I began to admire her because I had a lot of the same beliefs and ideologies. She motivated me to pursue any and all dreams I’ve ever had, because she saw the potential in me that at the time I did not see in myself.
I will always say that Dec. 10, 2007 was one of the scariest and darkest days of my life. That day Maria and her husband, Vladimir, got into a very serious car crash. They both ended up in the hospital, but fortunately for everyone all the injuries appeared to be non-critical. While at the hospital the doctors ran MRI’s, and this is when everything changed. Two days later the doctor diagnosed Maria with brain cancer. She had Stage 3 brain cancer.
We knew this wasn’t the end, and everyone did a lot to help Maria. In early 2008 Maria underwent brain surgery. It was so sad to see such a great mind have to undergo torturous treatment. She also underwent chemotherapy. When she underwent these treatments I saw drastic changes in her appearance, but also the people around her. You see, Maria had to change her lifestyle, and because the people around her loved her so much they decided to make lifestyle changes as well. Maria started exercising, so Vladimir and Andrea started exercising. Maria started eating healthier, so Vladimir and Andrea started eating healthier. These changes didn’t just affect the immediate family they also affected her other family, friends of the family, and, to my own surprise, me. I used to go over her house and we would order pizza, Chinese, or Italian food; but when she made these changes I saw a lot more greens and beans on my plate when I came over. This made me a little salty, but I did it for Andrea and Maria. As a result of this I would almost always eat before I came to hang out there. However, when I was there I did eat the “hippie” food. As the year went on Maria got much better and many of us thought she was going to be ok.
When it seemed Maria was going to recover, I wholeheartedly believed that the cancer was gone and we were going to start eating pizza and Chinese food again. This was not the case at all. The cancer metastasized into her spine in November of 2008. So when I found this out, my heart broke again. There were some clues to this happening, but because I was so young I didn’t think or know much about it. I do however remember Maria often saying, “My back hurts more than ever now.” I just thought that she needed a new mattress. In 2009 Maria had back surgery, since that is where it metastasized. After I found this out I told Andrea that her mom was a strong woman, she’d been through it once and she could do it again. This may have been naïve of me, but I actually thought she was going to make it past this.
For a while it looked like I was going to be right, but in late 2009 it got really bad. Everyone including me knew by mid-December that probably the end was near. The last week of her life was in February of the following year — a week that I will remember forever. Maria didn’t look like herself while lying on the hospital bed just waiting for the end of her life. She looked emaciated as a skeleton and was as pale as a ghost, so weak and tired all the time. It hurt me to look at and be around her. Fortunately for me that week happened to be some sort of school break: I think it may have been a mid-winter break. I decided to use that time to be with Andrea as much as I could possibly be. Every day we would spend the entirety of the day together. We’d play pool, go get food, watch a movie, and most importantly visit Maria together.
Feb. 10, 2010 will go down as one of the saddest days of my life. This day is my own personal September 11. After the winter break, we had school the following week. I wake up and my mom tells me to go to school. She drives me to school and it seems like an ordinary day. At around 12 p.m. I get a text from Andrea, and till this day I know the text read, “Today at 11:23 Maria K has passed away because of losing to cancer.” Once I read the text I start crying immediately and get out of class. I call Andrea, but she doesn’t pick up. I know she’s distraught and probably doesn’t want to talk. I call my mom from school and she says, “I’m on my way”, and hangs up. I go downstairs and get in the car and we drive straight to the hospital. We get there and I see Andrea. We are both bawling our eyes out. I hug her and tell her I love her. As all this is going on in my head my mind is racing. What were my last words to Maria? Did I ever thank her for all she did? Did she know how much I loved her?
We should never take anyone we care about for granted, because we really don’t know when will be the last time we ever see them. We always have to be very direct with our feelings with the people we love. We can never say “I love you” or “I care about you” too much. There is no too much. If you think it is, it will be too late. It will haunt you just as it haunted me for years. Even though Andrea swears that she did know that I loved her mom and I did thank her enough, all these questions still bother me to this day.
Cancer is a very unforgiving disease. It is among the most deadly of all major diseases. Per every 100,000 cases 171.2 people die, according to cancer.gov. However, the number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024. There is constant research and hundreds of charitable organizations trying to solve the cancer puzzle. While our race is slowly figuring out how to outlive/beat cancer, we need to understand the effects that the disease has on the families around those diagnosed. Fortunately for the people stricken with cancer and their families and friends, talking about the “C” word is no longer taboo, as it was for so many generations. That makes it easier for those nearest the cancer patients to communicate with them and help them through this great ordeal. The biggest lesson I learned from this terrible experience is that the most important thing for the patient is for the family to be taken care of when they can no longer be around. This was made abundantly clear to me when Maria’s last words to me were, “Please, Theodore, take care of my daughter…”, I knew in that moment that the most important thing for Maria was for her daughter to have a beautiful life. I try to honor those words all the time, because I really feel like I matured a lot when I heard that. It meant so much to me at just barely 14 for Maria to put that kind of trust in me. I felt honored and respected like never before, and I will most certainly never forget that moment.
Two days after Maria died, the family held a funeral service at which I was obviously in attendance. I have a pretty vivid memory of that service: so much so that if needed I could reimagine the whole event. But the most significant moment for me was when Andrea gave her condolence speech, and I lost it like never before.
I’ve had a number of family deaths in my life, but none compare to that of Maria’s. Through this all I have learned a great deal about myself, and I hope that in the telling, my words get my message across: just as much as you care for the patient, you must also care for and love the family and those surrounding the patient, for his or her sake.
In Loving Memory of Maria K.