Till We Part with Death
By: Selena L. Martinez
“I’m tired, mommy,” I said.
My eyes were fluttering shut as the night and snow surrounded us in the quiet of my room. My mother said nothing and put her hand up to my forehead, worry creased within her brow. She looked to my younger sister, and only sibling at the time that always stared with an empty, then back to me with a determination set.
My mother was as much of a strong woman then as she is now, and once she set her mind to something, nothing, and I mean nothing, was getting in her way. It was her “mommy instinct” as she called it that saved my life, more than a couple of times. My siblings and I trusted that instinct like we trusted our own guts with our own predicaments.
In that moment, I didn’t know what she was thinking as the pain in my stomach grew stronger, squishing my insides like lemons for a lemonade stand. I allowed my eyes to wander around the room, filled with my drawings of snowmen and a painting of fish, before I gave in to sleep.
At that point, I didn’t care about anything. I had my Mr. Snuggles, a brown bear and pillow in one, without the button to loop itself in a single thread of string to make him a bear, tucked beneath my arm as I let sweet serenity come over me. Dinner that night had long set itself in my stomach—my wrenching stomach, and my comforter was a fluffy cloud. I let my eyes close indefinitely—ready to go to a world of my own creation filled with fire and flying, but then I was forced to wake up.
The room was cold while tears were streaming down my face—I lay on a hospital bed that was clunky and large for my small frame as I held my stomach, yelping, exhausted. A few minutes passed, with my mother peppering me with reassurance and my baby sister making small sounds one moment, and staring with an empty I wish I had in the next. A nurse came in, tall with dark wavy hair with a clipboard in hand that had me alert. She looked to me, and then to my mother who had already stood up at the nurse’s appearance.
“How is she?” my mother said, eyes wild and hands grasping for an invisible force. The nurse examined me for a second, and I wondered as I sat there how much longer I needed to feel this insufferable pain. I wanted my Mr. Snuggles.
The nurse flipped through her clipboard before taking a deep breath.
My mother grew silent and stared at the ground before moving her attention to the nurse—her heart shattered with a single nod. The silent conversation went on and I focused on my stomach, looking for pressure points to stop the pain, but it was useless. I wanted it to end and I just wanted go to sleep—maybe then the pain would be gone. It was getting harder to breathe and think, sobbing while curled up in a ball on the bed.
I looked to my sister, only six years old and so distant from the rest of the world, and was thankful she didn’t have to feel this pain. Our eyes locked for a moment before she yawned and started hugging herself in our mother’s coat. Sometimes I felt alone with her, wishing she would understand me as a fellow kid, but that was a distant dream. Where was Mr. Snuggles? My stomach was clenching its fists to my insides when I heard the word “surgery”. In that moment, the pain disappeared, but with a fear that still haunts me to this day.
“Surgery?” I panicked.
The nurse said nothing—I don’t think she cared one way or the other on what happened to me.
My mother went to my side and brushed hair out of my face, smiling, before leaving the room to call my father, as I later found out. I had heard about surgery and that many people died soon afterwards. I didn’t want to die, but the next few moments had me thinking, quiet and alone in my own thoughts.
What would happen to me? How would my sister be without her big sister? Would I ever see my Mr. Snuggles, a childhood memory I got when my sister and I were too tired to get out of our winter coats, and each woke up with a new friend next to us in bed? What about school? The biggest question that rang in my head though was—would anyone really miss me? All I remembered was my mother’s voice before seeing sheep jump over a brown picket fence—one, then two, then three, under the pale moonlight.
It was January 31st, 2006. My mother, like I said, was a strong woman—and her instinct to get me to the hospital is the reason why I’m still here today. We got to the hospital at 10 o’clock at night—the same hospital my siblings and I were born at, now torn down and a distant memory. My mother, my sister, and I were directed to the emergency room, with bleak walls and white tiled floors to guide us—nausea came and went with my mother whose mind was on one thing and one thing alone—getting me help.
From what my mother told me, she said I had never been so pale, crying about something she wished she could take care of herself. As I’ve told her before, she did take care of it, by listening to her gut. After I was wheeled away into surgery, my mother was pacing back and forth, not eating or sleeping while I was under, dreaming about those sheep jumping over the brown picket fence.
It was minutes before my dad showed up, racing from work to get to the hospital. He took my sister home for her to sleep and eat, while my mother stayed—she told me that it was one of the hardest nights of her life, staring through the doors I went through, hoping, praying that I was going to be okay. It wasn’t until after the surgery that she told me she left the iron and the stove on while rushing my sister out of the house—everything else was moot in that decision to get me to the hospital.
It was four in the morning the next day when I came out of that room, still under. My mother flew to my side when the doctor and nurses placed me in a recovery room.
“Why does she smell like that?” My mother said.
The doctor just smiled, happy that the surgery was a success.
“It’s just the anesthesia, she’s going to be okay,” he said.
My mother only nodded and pulled up a chair to my side, crying for hours and hours that I was right there in front of her—alive and ready for a future she had dreamed of time and time again. Later, when I asked her about that day—something she’d rather not talk about—she said she didn’t move from that spot for anything or anyone—not until I woke up the next morning. She told me,
“I wanted to be the first face you’d see, for you to know that your mama was always here for you.”
I would remember that forever, and be entirely grateful for her because if not for her, I wouldn’t be here now.
I was in the third grade when I knew something was wrong. For about a couple years, I had stomach pains or cramping that no matter what doctor my mother took me to, they had no answers for us. I would often shrug it off while playing outside with my sister in the snow, or at school with my friends in gym class, but not before the pain reminded me to stay in place.
But what did death mean to an eight year old?
To me, death was nothing—it simply didn’t exist in my mind. In my mind, my precious thoughts, life was forever when standing in the cafeteria line at lunch—it was stuck on the pages of my mathematics book that threatened my sanity—it was in the cracks on the sidewalk we tried so hard not to step on so we wouldn’t break our mothers’ back.
I just wanted to be a kid, enjoy the life that many eight-year-olds dream of—mine was writing and drawing little “books” and playing pretend, often by myself in the field behind our house. Life was everything and it shaped every aspect from friendships, family, to those people you’d rather keep in the corner at break time.
But death was always there, and after the surgery, I was careful about everything. I didn’t want to make things worse or open up the stitches in fear of bursting at the seams. I was scared—terrified that something else would go wrong. But I was also mad at the doctors who had no answer for me—what if they had solved the problem earlier? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever know—no, I don’t think I want to know. I’m here and that’s all that matters.
I’ve wanted to learn as much as my brain would allow, admire everything around me, from ancient cultures to being a college student and learning to be independent. I was learning to take risks and trying hard to not have pesky regrets.
When I woke up, I saw my mother’s face smiling at me. I was maybe a little loopy, but that pain was dull now—almost nonexistent but replaced with a new pain, a pain that would soon heal and be gone forever. I was in a different room with a television on, showing the movie Aladdin, a movie I would watch for the next couple of days before leaving the hospital. I searched for my sister and my dad who looked relieved and grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire cat, but I felt something. Once realization hit, the first thing I said to my mother, despite the fact that there were nurses in the room was,
“Mommy, I wet the bed,”
At that moment, I had forgotten why we were there at the hospital and afraid of my mother being disappointed in me about a small thing.
She only chuckled.
“That’s okay, baby.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes, really. Now just relax.”
Three white teddy bears, each of varying sizes stared at me as they propped themselves up on the floor. Get Well Cards made from Kid Pix, the popular art program we had in the computer labs at school, lay in a neat pile beside me that my classmates made for me, while I gobbled up beef fried rice from my favorite Chinese restaurant in my hometown. It was a few weeks since the surgery, and I was happy as I could be. My mother’s mother, Granny as I liked to call her, had flown in from Minnesota to see me and stay at the house until I was well enough to be walking around, doing my own thing.
Every now and then, I would grimace as I tried to walk back and forth from the bathroom to the den, that was a small space in our house and my previous and temporary bedroom, and try to peek at the stitches, but my mother would stop me with a look.
But when I was feeling well enough to go upstairs and to take a bath, my mother showed me the stitches, and that realization came flooding back.
I went to the hospital—I was cut open.
I remember freaking out and crying as I stared at the slips of gauze lining across my bellybutton. It didn’t feel real even as I traced the slips with my fingers, letting my mother lean the wound with an ointment with a distinct smell I’ll never forget. Even when I was well enough to go to school, I was well aware of my stitches, self-conscious even when people asked about them.
At the time, it was just another day I went through—at least that’s what I told people from time at recess to spelling and science in the classroom. Even on Valentine’s Day, I feigned ignorance about the fact that I almost died—still not understanding the consequences that could have been, that life was strange and unpredictable. Life is unpredictable and can blindside even the healthiest people in an instant. It’s fucking terrifying.
As I got older, middle school age, the memory of my surgery resurfaced. From my knowledge, they had removed a teratoma tumor, an unborn twin eating away at my insides that had latched itself to one of my ovaries and my appendix. It was set with teeth, hair and the beginning stages of a fetus, but never making it to full term. If that didn’t freak me out, I don’t know what would.
But this information wasn’t given to me until I was a few years older when I stumbled upon pictures stashed away in a file cabinet—pink and red blood vessels with a strange gray blob attached to something pink and what I only assumed was important. It was mesmerizing and strange to look at before I shoved the pictures back where they came from, trying to forget the surreal images.
There were at least five pictures of my stomach that I found once, but I didn’t find them again later until I was in high school, when I was coming to terms with what life really was. But does anyone really know what life is? I’d like to think that it’s death that people both avoid and talk about more than the joys and tribulations of their lives. Hearing other people talk about death was surreal as I got older, and every time I would remember my own experience and try to repress it as much as I could. I failed, but at the same time, I succeeded. I only succeeded because of the situation that affected not just myself, but everyone around me. Those pictures would be a constant reminder of that night, but in a way that would help guide me through life.