Fifteen years ago on Easter Sunday, Adrian took me home to meet his parents. I quickly saw that on the course, Adrian was his Dad; confident, bold and determined. Off the course, Adrian was his mother’s son; quiet, gentle and measured, with his feet planted firmly on the ground.
I was so curious about his parents. Like my own, they were immigrants from Mexico who had come to the United States in search of an opportunity to build a better life. With modest resources, they had managed to raise not just one but two visually impaired sons to see themselves as exceptional instead of disabled and to believe that they could still achieve whatever they wanted in love, life and career.
I knew it had not been easy or linear for Adrian once he lost his vision. He had suffered mentally and emotionally. It was hard to hear that he had laid out a plan to commit suicide. His love for his devoted parents was what had stopped him. They had walked along this dark path with him and at every step made him feel that there was still hope. Causing them any pain was too much for him to bear.
As I got to know Adrian and developed serious feelings for him, I found myself grieving for the loss of his vision. I was angry at the insurance company policy that denied him steroids that could have preserved some of his vision. I was also overwhelmed by sadness when I learned how his vision loss had upended his life. He’d been deprived of running cross country and was forced to change high schools to one that offered special education classes. In just six weeks, he went from being a normal teenager learning to drive a car, to living in isolation.
How could this have happened to such a kind, caring and sweet person with so much to offer the world?
When I finally shared my feelings with him, I was surprised to hear that Adrian didn’t feel this way. He surprised me by laughing wistfully at a plan he had concocted to pretend he was sighted and be re-admitted to his former high school so he could hang out with his friends again.
He didn’t see himself as a victim at all. He saw himself as a metal rod thrown into fire, then forged into a sword. He believed his vision loss had transformed him, rubbed off the hard edges and made him more adaptable and ultimately stronger.
It was a powerful image. For all of the girly lists I had written about the man I wanted to find, resilience was not a quality I had noted. Sitting here in front of me, resilience was incredibly attractive. Perhaps even more so than a successful career or six pack abs.
It also highlighted for me how different Adrian and I were. We were both very driven and ambitious. Adrian’s drive came from purpose. I was driven by my creativity and quite honestly, fear. Fear of instability and fear of failure.
Adrian’s metaphor was rooted in the Bible. His perspective had also been shaped by having watched his parents face adversity and come out the other side. It was easy to see how his gregarious and imaginative father who looked out onto the world with an “anything is possible” lens, was a survivor. Adrian’s Mom was more of a mystery to me. She was always warm, sweet and cheerful but was a woman of few words and rarely displayed any emotion.
She was so stoic in fact, that as I got to know her better, I was compelled to ask her if she had felt anything when Adrian lost his vision. To her credit, my mother-in-law, took the question like a champ.
“Si. Lloraba en el camión.” Yes. I used to cry on the bus.
She quietly nodded her head as she placed a piece of gum into her mouth and carefully folded the wrapper.
“Pero, cuando fui a el Campo del Junior Blind, los consejeros nos dijieron que necesitábamos ser fuertes para que nuestros hijos pudieran adaptarse.”
But when I went to the Camp for the Junior Blind, the counselors told us we needed to be strong for our children, so they would be able to adapt.
This conversation shifted my feelings toward Adrian’s Mom and however slightly at the time, my perspective on how to face uncertainty.
Ten years later, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and as always, she faced it with her usual stoicism. At every step of her treatment she was calm, brave and despite the hardship, her heart was full of faith. Not long after she began her chemotherapy, she joined us in Oceanside for Adrian’s second Ironman 70.3. She had been there the year before with Adrian’s Dad to watch Adrian cross the finish line at Oceanside for his very first time.
That night at Adrian’s carboload dinner, I could see she was tired and nauseated but the only words she spoke were ones of appreciation and gratitude. She was happy to be out on such a beautiful day and grateful for the weekend with her first born son. As we walked along Ocean Avenue enjoying the delicious breeze, I was grateful for her and her view of the world as abundant. At the awards ceremony the next day after the event, she smiled with her eyes as she watched Adrian and his guide, Justin, go up on stage to accept his 1st place trophy.
After almost two years of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, my mother-in-law was finally in remission from her breast cancer. Unfortunately, it coincided with the pandemic shut down so we were unable to see her for most of the year.
The new year (2021) brought us vaccines and a reprieve from COVID deaths, but that spring, my mother-in-law found some bumps on the skin of her breast. A biopsy revealed the bumps were more cancer.
It would have been completely understandable for my mother-in-law to feel victimized by her diagnosis but instead she chose to be rational and positive. Sadly, this time around she did not respond to treatment. Even a “Hail Mary” play in early 2022 involving a newly approved chemotherapy at the City of Hope did not produce desired results.
As our southern California winter turned into an early spring and Adrian’s Ironman 70.3 came into focus, I saw the collision course his race and his Mom’s illness were on. It felt selfish but I couldn’t help think about all the Ironman training Adrian had done over the last two years only to have his events cancelled by the pandemic or most recently, by bad weather.
My mother-in-law’s decline was shockingly steady. Every week, she was in more pain and lost one of her critical faculties. Our visits to see her were heartbreaking. Still somehow, she remained hopeful and her heart was full of gratitude for what she could still do, still say and for what she still had. Over and again, she told us all how much we all meant to her.
“Los quiero mucho.” I love you all very much.
It was in these days where I saw for the very first time that my mother-in-law had an iron will of her own. Despite moments where she spasmed in pain for multiple minutes at a time, she defied the cancer that was spreading in her body by refusing to let it fill her with fear or resentment. She refused to allow it to deplete her of her gentle spirit or of the love she always carried in her heart. It turned out that my mother-in-law who never had the opportunity to learn to swim as a young girl and was afraid of riding a bicycle, was an iron woman after all.
Two weeks outside of the race, my mother-in-law could no longer sit up. She was prone in a hospital bed in the bedroom she had shared for so many years with my father-in-law. She was on oxygen 24/7 and her voice had been reduced to a hoarse whisper. This tragic sight reduced me to tears. At her bedside, I held onto her numb hand and it was she who comforted me.
“Todo va estar bien.” Everything is going to be alright.
As I listened to the steady click of her oxygen machine and watched Adrian kiss the silver haired crown of his mother’s head, I felt he needed to cancel his race. As best as I could through my blubbering voice, I told him it was the right thing to do. My mother-in-law suddenly made a great effort to turn her head toward her son. Her voice was weak but full of conviction.
With her eyes closed, she continued.
“Tenemos que seguir adelante. Toda la familia.” We need to continue onward. The whole family.
Her eyes fluttered open and she made eye contact with my father-in-law who was seated across from her in a chair.
My father-in-law nodded reassuringly at his wife of forty-seven years.
I didn’t know why I was so surprised by their response since they knew better than anyone that marathons (and now triathlons), had brought their son back to life all those years ago when he lost his vision.
By race weekend, Adrian’s Mom had begun hospice care at home. It was difficult not to think of her at virtually every moment in Oceanside. We had so many happy memories with his parents in that little beach town.
Race morning the ocean waves were huge and the air was in the low 60s. Even sighted athletes were struggling in the surf and frigid cold. Adrian’s Dad shook his head in disbelief at the countless athletes happily running toward the water in groups of five.
Adrian finished the swim twelve minutes behind his division rival Scott Woolsey. By the time they started the run, the gap between Adrian and Scott was now twenty-two minutes. Waiting near the finish line, even Adrian’s Dad couldn’t believe the seemingly insurmountable task his son had in front of him if he wanted to win his division.
It was a come from behind win and more significantly an emotional victory for Adrian who later tearfully shared that when he felt like he didn’t have anything more to give on the course, he thought of his Mom who was fighting for every breath.
The awards ceremony was bittersweet. Afterwards, Adrian and his Dad raced to their family home in Victorville. In the middle of the night when his Mom finally woke up, Adrian proudly showed her his first place trophy and told her he had been thinking of her the whole time.
For the few minutes she was awake, his Mom was surprisingly upbeat and present of mind.
“Felicidades! Que bueno!” Congratulations! Well done!”
The very next day, my mother-in-law lost her ability to speak.
A week later, Adrian’s Mom passed away at home on Palm Sunday morning. Her timing was not lost on me. A devout Christian, I believe she would have been pleased with this auspicious day. Her departure also coincided with her son being unreachable — swimming with a guide in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Santa Monica.
It was a shock to see her lifeless body and it was very raw for Adrian. I was also overwhelmed by how until the very end, she had modeled the courage, trust and quiet strength we would need to carry on without her. Hours before the mortuary drivers arrived at the house, we all gathered around her holding hands and prayed in gratitude for having had her as the rock of the family.
After a long and disorienting day, it finally came time to leave the house for dinner. As we pulled away from the ranch style home and onto the dirt road, the German Shepherd in his yard across the street ran alongside the chain link fence, chasing our car. This was by no means a a novel behavior for the different dogs who had lived across the street over the last fifteen years. This time, the dust cloud kicked up by the dog generated a small rock that landed with a single tap, square in the middle of the hood of our car.
It was such a unique occurrence, that it was worth pointing out to Adrian. I continued my color commentary as we drove the mile to the paved highway. Adrian listened in amazement as I described the little rock resisting the force of the evening desert wind and the acceleration of the car. We both laughed when the car began to vibrate as the ground conditions grew even softer and the little rock flipped on its side to hold its own.
When we finally arrived at the main highway, the rock flipped again, bounced down to the edge of the car hood and took flight.
It was hard not to think of the little rock as a sign from Adrian’s mom. Always modest and humble, this would have been exactly the kind of small gesture she would have made to comfort us. The little rock symbolized her unshakable faith and resolve in the face of uncertainty and turbulence.
A few miles later, a song I had never heard before came on the radio. For some reason, the song made Adrian furrow his brow.
“This song has always reminded me of my Mom.”
He reached forward and turned up the volume so we could hear the soulful chorus.
“Todo va estar bien. Everything is going to be alright.” The lyrics were in both Spanish and English.
My mother-in-law was a quick wit and also a lover of irony. I could hear her laughing at the “incredible coincidence” that an obscure artist who had been a finalist on American Idol over ten years ago would suddenly come on the radio singing a song that had always reminded Adrian of her. Adrian blew his nose as he moved his head side to side in rhythm with the notes of the beautiful acoustic guitar and the singer’s heartfelt vocals.
“Oh, everything will be alright.”
As we descended through the rugged terrain in the darkness, past the centuries old sandstone rock formations that had been shaped by floods and fault lines, I knew my mother-in-law was still with us.Tags: #dannygokey, #Ironman70.3, #Ironmantriathlon, Mother's Day Tribute, proverbs27:17