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Students navigate many challenges. One I never expected to face while in college was the death of my mother.
My mother was always my No. 1 supporter and so proud that I was in college. She would cook for me whenever I was studying or doing homework. She would get enthusiastic when I shared my experiences in college and what I was learning in my classes. It was our daily conversation during breakfast.
While finishing my spring semester in 2021, I observed that my 69-year-old mother was not her usual self; she was losing energy and not as motivated in her daily activities. She stopped cooking and shopping, and would stay in her bed for longer periods of time.
The morning of June 25, my mother asked me to take her to the emergency room because she was not feeling well.
Without imagining how sick she really was, we waited for her blood tests, ultrasounds and CT scan results, assuming we would go back home and take whatever medicine the doctor gave her.
While waiting for the doctor to call, she and I were making plans for my graduation — she even mentioned she wanted to celebrate with mariachi music. But that day our plans changed. The doctor said that my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer.
That night she told me that she didn’t want this situation to change my life plans, especially my educational goals.
We had no idea how deadly pancreatic cancer can be, how quickly symptoms start showing, or how fast it spreads. As the time was running fast and my mother’s cancer was progressing, my brothers and I struggled to know what to do. We wanted to do everything possible to help her live, but circumstances played against us.
We could not imagine a life without my mother; processing the idea of losing her had been one of our biggest challenges. I knew continuing with college would also be a challenge.
Since transferring from El Camino College to California State University, Dominguez Hills, my education has been covered by government financial aid.
As the summer of 2021 was starting, my mother and I were talking about how close I was to graduating — one more year — and how glad we were to have my classes financially covered. My goal was to graduate in spring 2022, which meant taking summer classes in 2021 and keeping my GPA above a 2.0 for financial aid.
Although I didn’t want to give up on my dream of a journalism career, my mother needed my support and assistance. To me, helping her during those moments was a way to thank her for the support she gave me all her life.
Making the decision to drop my summer classes was very hard, but I had no more choices. Fortunately, I was on time to drop them with a “W” (withdrawal) meaning I would be classified as a continuing student for the next semester with no record of enrollment.
At first, I hoped I could manage the time to take care of my mother as well as attend my online classes. The truth is that to be the caregiver of a clinically terminal person means to dedicate all your time, 24/7.
A few days after dropping my summer classes, I received an email from the financial aid office asking me to pay back $1,045 for the summer tuition. At the moment I didn’t even have a job.
I felt frustrated, sad, and with a debt I was unable to pay. Not only was I losing my mother, but I might be losing the possibility of graduating.
During a visit to the emergency room that summer, the doctor determined that my mother’s cancer was at stage 4 since it had spread to her lungs. The best option for her was to stop treatment and choose hospice, which provides comfort care for terminally ill people.
The next four weeks my mother was at home being monitored by doctors and nurses, but I also took care of her every day and night, and was her translator from Spanish to English to all the medical staff.
I called the college’s student financial services and explained what was happening — that my mother was dying, that I didn’t have a job. The person who answered my call understood and asked me to email her a letter from my old job proving that I was not working there anymore, and a letter from the doctor proving that my mother really was in home hospice.
I emailed the two letters immediately to the office. I had to pay my tuition expenses out of pocket at that moment, but two months later the financial aid office refunded me the money. I am thankful for that support.
While I was between emotional pain and physical fatigue, I was witnessing how my mother was losing her life. I could fix the summer classes issue but could not do anything to cure her cancer.
A few days later I started to receive emails that my fall semester was about to begin.
One morning, as I contemplated what I should do for that semester, going between confusion and heartache, my mother took my hand while I was giving her a protein shake. With a peaceful face and a lovely smile, she told me that everything was going to be fine.
The morning of Aug. 19, 2021, at 4:45 a.m., my mother passed away while I was sleeping next to her. A few minutes before this, I told her that I was not afraid of what would happen to me anymore, that she could leave when she was ready.
Four days later, on Aug. 23, I started a new semester that would take me closer to my career. In May 2022, I could not see my mother during my graduation ceremony, but I believe that she could see me. That day, I understood that my mother was right, everything was going to be fine.
Annais Garcia is a graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills and a member of the California Student Journalism Corps at EdSource.
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