Valerie Feria and the (oft repeated) Encounters with Death

Through many a foggy recollection as a young child of attending funerals and having to put on dark coloured dresses and stockings, I’ve no distinct remembrance of the first time I saw a dead body? Try as I might I can remember anything death or disease wise prior to 1985 except a cold here and one hazy memory of a flu serious enough to land me in hospital.

However, I do remember the first time dead sunk its fangs into my psyche. It was 1985, Madonna’s "Crazy for You" was my song du jour. So about the time I just starting to develop breasts, my mother Rebecca told me she had cancer in them.

This was the second time Rebecca had it, she’d beaten it the first time. However, I was a nursing baby and didn’t understand why I only suckled the right breast. In fact I’ve no *actual* recollection of the first time at all and only know that story from the aunts and uncles who’ve later told me about it.

However let me take you back just a bit … by the time I was old enough to realize my mom had one breast instead of the normal two she had been in remission for eight years and I believed things were fine. Another two years after I figured things were surely fine? I even remember playing as a child with the fake one she’d stuff daily into the left side of her bra. It was squishy like jelly and which I used to pretend was the “evil blob” from the Star Trek: TOS episode The Devil in the Dark.

Nevertheless, like evil Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter - breast cancer came back with a vengeance! It had metastasized and didn’t stop there but spread to the lungs, lymph nodes, and just about everywhere else. The doctor said it was just a matter of time before she was going to die as it spread too far to operate on and it wasn’t responding to chemotherapy. By the next year the shadow of death was all I could think of. I began to wear dark colours most of the time and words like Tamoxifin, MRI, blood-cell count, rolled off my tongue as easily as the lyrics to the latest pop song ... No I wasn’t pre-med ... I was twelve years old and death was all I could think about.

Over the summer I turned thirteen, was initially excited about starting high school at Raoul Wallenberg. However by the time Fall term rolled around my heart wasn’t in it.  For the first time in my life I did poorly at school. Distracted by my mother’s situation, it was like I had lost my life and the only thing I somewhat enjoyed was band. I dropped all other extra-curricular activities because I was exceptionally depressed. Life sucked as my father had become unemployed for the umpteenth time and (again) hit the sauce. Since the hospital was nearer to Wallenberg than home I decided to live off a roll-away in my mom’s room. The law really didn’t allow children under 16 to stay overnight but I got the nurses to lie for me and say I was older. Away from my father and nearer to the high school I was now flunking out of my life grew increasingly glum.

Eventually once we’d exhausted every cancer drug and holistic treatment known at that time, my mother made the decision that we would move to back to the Philippines so she could die in her country. I was out of school from November 1986 to January 1987 waiting for death, and then after two months I woke up to the feeling of her hand slipping out of mine as it final came and took my mom. To this day, despite being a fairly strong skeptic and leaning toward non-belief I could swear I felt as if something – not a soul but something - left her body.

Shaking her I cried, are you there? Wake up, come back! It was too late. Eventually she turned blue as we waited for the official examiner to arrive. In the meanwhile a different aunt-in-law who’s a doctor and had been staying with us temporarily came downstairs, pronouncing her dead. Pleading I said, bring her back, use one of those machines like on television! She said “Ehiya,* don’t worry. Your mom is in a better place now.” Wasn’t sure I believed her then when I was a “believer” and more certainly don’t believe her now that I’m not!   This was the first time I remember seeing a dead body – and when deaths weighty nature and the fragility of life sunk in.

For many years after I was the sad child, the loner, the one people didn’t understand. It certainly didn’t help that I knew death and that the majority my age had no clue. Cultural gaps of being the American in a sea full of Filipinos and/or Pommies exacerbated the issue as did my displeasure at the extremes in weather and being shipped back-n-forth. In the meanwhile others passed away … an older cousin’s young child from tuberculosis precipitated the breakup with his wife; one Filipino aunt who smoked too much died in a fire she accidentally caused and an Italian uncle from Chicago died while jogging. 

Eventually I moved back to the United States to pursue my career. Moving down to Southern California the glittering lights of tinsel-town beckoned what I thought would be an escape from death. Surely in health obsessed Los Angeles less people would die? If anything reasoned – because I’d be mostly surrounded by people closer to me in age? Wrong, wrong, all wrong.

First there was Stephen a slightly older gentleman who from the parish I used to go to when I was Catholic ( who in my first few months was like the older brother I wish I had, but never did. He was a sound engineer by day, discoverer of singers (Katy Hudson now Katy Perry got her start with him) and an amazing guitarist by everything else. Stephen died by falling asleep at the wheel when driving himself home from Las Vegas after having been there to take care of his sick mom. He was in his early forties.

Various parishioners I barely knew and an older professor here and there didn’t mean much, I thought well their old anyways and certainly I’m in the clear now that my friends are all under 50 … then there was Lisa Fucile. She was the best roommate a person could ask for – at thirty effervescent she bleed the energy and kindness of a much younger woman from every pore. Lisa worked as a kindergarten teacher and was compensated with a crap salary for hours and hours of hard work. Though I never told her I admired Lisa, because back then I couldn’t stand children. She taught me how to love being a kid again! More importantly Lisa showed me the difference between childishness and child-like wonder, and how to treat children as human beings. Additionally, she showed me how to properly prepare salty water for boiling pasta and how to make a mean Vodka sauce from scratch.

Then she got adrenal cancer, it was like mom all over again. I couldn’t face it and buried myself in my work, climbing the ladder gave me plenty of money but no comfort. Taking solace in religious experimentation, nothing made me feel better and I denied death. Throwing myself into the childish belief that it didn’t exist and that one would come back.

Since then I’ve vacillated many times back and forth as to what to do with my body – cremated and scatter in the ocean, bury in the garden, slowly disintegrating organic caskets – I’ve looked at the options all! I’ve just about as much religion and opinion as I can stomach on the matter. My only conclusion is that I don’t care anymore – as long as it’s not too impacting on the ecosystem – and that I’m not sure of anything anymore.

For me now – as anthropology major – I understand that the encompassing ceremonies of death aren’t really about the dead. Since we don’t know IF a soul exists or IF anything happens other than body decomposition after death, and more importantly have no way of scientifically verifying anything in those directions. It’s like my second favourite classical Greek Philosopher; Epicurus says “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.” So in essence the ceremonies are for those still living, to give closure and relief to them. To me that means if I died tomorrow I would like my husband Kevin to decide with the input of my closest friends as to what would be the best route to go. What would give them joy? Closure? Peace of mind? That is the ceremony I would like them to co-create. Something that lets them get on with living.     

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