The Last Goodbye


Illustration by Karla Mejia


Wednesday. The middle of the week. Aug. 14, 2013 was just another day. It was the beginning of the end of a long, scorching summer vacation. After three months of stalking British boy bands and going to award shows and summer concerts, I was not ready to go back to school.

Retail therapy and a makeover were needed and I had planned one with a best girlfriend earlier that week. I texted my mother for some money. “Mom, can I have some money? I’m going shopping with Camille later today.” She responded with, “You’re going out again? Okay, anak (child in Tagalog).” That meaningless text conversation would be the last conversation I would have with her.

Growing up, the word “I love you” was always being said and shown. My parents were the overly affectionate type who loved to shower us with whatever our hearts desired. You could say they spoiled us rotten. As my siblings and I got older, those three words were said less and were only verbalized during special occasions to express our gratefulness. According to a survey done by the English Council where they surveyed 46 countries and 7,000 English speakers, the word “mother” is the number one most beautiful word and “love” topped number four. Those words convey warmth, comfort and the roots of human relationships.

My mother was my best friend and role model for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I felt so lost and insecure because I was bullied. I hated the way I looked and the way I talked. I was chubbier than most girls in my class, had a beauty mark on my nose, had one third of a missing finger due to a freak accident, and I spoke with a slight Tagalog accent. I felt different and wanted so badly to fit in with my bullies and be “normal” like them. However, my mom made sure to remind me that those qualities are what actually made me my own person. I was unique and beautiful in my own way. She healed the deep scars that the bullies left behind. When my closest friends in high school left me because of high school drama, she was there with a shoulder to cry on. She was just not my mother but my best friend.

Those who met my mother would describe her as extraordinary. She was warm, affectionate, and motherly to everyone and anyone. Her friendly persona made you feel like she was your best friend despite only meeting her minutes before. Whether it be the people she passed by every day in Downtown Los Angeles where she worked, to people in the supermarket, she would make each person feel like lifetime friends. My mother was also a “yes” woman. She took on everything and anything because she enjoyed life and believed it should be lived fully. She wanted to experience the world and she loved making memories. She always said, “As long as you’re happy and having fun, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter how much it cost or time you waste. As long as you’re making memories, it’s okay.” I didn’t understand why she loved making and capturing memories until she threw me a debut, a woman’s rite of passage in the Filipino culture when they turn 18. My mother wanted me to experience my own because being the oldest of eight and a daughter of a farmer, she didn’t have the means to throw a party or celebrate her 18th birthday. She wanted me to experienced the whole shebang and I did. It was one of the most unforgettable nights of my life.

Stress took a dramatic toll on her health. Being the busy supermom that she was with us, she also had to provide for her family back home in the Philippines. She became the honorary mother to her siblings at a young age because my grandmother was paralyzed from a stroke for half of her life and later passed away from a heart attack. She put all her brothers and sisters through college and even supported them when they started having their own families. She worked five days a week and had other side jobs I didn’t even know about just to make ends meet, and to make our family’s lives as comfortable as possible. Being busy and overworked gave her a lot more to stress about and added to her health complications that she already suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.

Three phone calls changed my life.

The first phone call was my uncle Jess informing us that my mom was having chest pains and they were on their way to the hospital. Two days before, she complained of having a hard time breathing and was having hot flashes. We all thought it was just signs of menopause and she did too. So she let it pass. My father, siblings and I were glued to the phone and were ready to jump in the car. The second call was that my mother had liquid coming out of her nose and was unconscious and they were on the side of the road waiting for the ambulance. By the third phone call, all my uncle said was, “They say they cannot tell me anything. They just kept repeating that she’s gone. She’s gone.”

The half hour ride to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles was hell.
It was the slowest car ride of my life. It was as if every stoplight was out for us and was turning red. If you were to look at us from the car window, you would have seen five people hysterically crying and praying. I remember crying so hard in the car that I felt like I was going to pass out. We had to put our faith in God and hope for a miracle to happen. We were all praying. “Lord, please have mercy on us. We’re not ready.”

The moment we stepped inside the cold over-sanitized, bright hospital emergency room, the aura just felt off. I was the first one to reach the information desk, and when I mentioned my mother’s name, the nurse gave me a poker, stoic face to ensure I would not panic, but the nurse next to her had an empathetic face.

We were not given any information or told if we could see her until the head doctor spoke to us. After ten minutes, the doctor in charge of my mom’s case approached us. He had a solemn face and was full of regret. “I’m sorry. We did all we could but after trying to resuscitate her, we couldn’t do anything else.” My world shattered at that moment and my heart sunk.

It was the most painful thing I have experienced in my life. My heart was ripped out as I saw her blanket covered body on a hospital bed; her body was stiff and her stomach bloated, tubes sprouting out of her mouth, and her skin was the same pale hue as the wall. She would never move again.

The scene that followed was something I will never forget. My father, who I have never seen cry, was bawling, shaking and screaming at my mother’s body. “Tess, no. You can’t do this. We told each other I would be the first to go. You cheated. You weren’t supposed to go first. I was. We agreed already.”

He was yelling at my mother’s lifeless body as if his pleading would bring her back to life. But it couldn’t. She had been dead for almost two hours. Her heart stopped beating at 8:06 p.m. from a sudden heart attack just two blocks away from the hospital.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.” “She was an amazing woman.” “I’m here if you need anything.” “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”

During those first few months, my days were filled with those endless questions and people trying to comfort me, but the person I really needed to comfort me was gone. My mother was the first person I have lost and I did not know how to feel or what I was supposed to feel.

I became the family representative. I arranged everything for her wake, from the casket, to the flowers, to informing our friends and family around the world. I was the first one to see her in the funeral home after the morgue made her up. It had been exactly a week since the last time that we saw her and she looked very different. That was the moment when I really accepted that she was gone. The still body laying inside the coffin was not my mother anymore. It was just a shell; a cold, stiff shell. I would never see her move.
I would never smell her familiar perfume. I would never feel the warmth of her hugs. I kissed her for the last time moments before she was cremated. That was my last goodbye. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. She was gone.

Healing is a day by day process. Grieving is different for each person. My father was married to my mother for almost 25 years and waking up without your other half who you have vowed to stay with until death do you part is hard. My father went through the stages of grief and is still in the acceptance stage. He was depressed for a while and we asked him if he ever thought about getting married again, “Your mother was my first and only true love. She’s irreplaceable.”

I grieved differently. Instead of going through the stages of grief, I distracted myself by staying busy with school and getting a job. I had never worked a day in my life because my family strongly believed that education comes first. I wanted to work because my father was now a widower that has to support four kids. I didn’t want to add more bills and stress. I got my first job as a part-time cashier at a fast food place, and remained a full time student. My parents, especially my mother’s only wish was to have all of us finish college and find a job that we love. And I won’t let her down.

Last Words

Not being able to say “I love you,” or “goodbye” properly to my mother before she passed away would forever leave a gaping hole in my heart.

Death makes you a stronger person. Every person that approached me at the funeral said, “You are such a strong person,” and I did not understand it at that time. Death makes you appreciate the things around you that you have. It makes you think about what to say to someone because those might be your last words to them. I would do anything to be able to say my last words to my mom before she passed away. I remembered my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Abernathy, sharing her experience with her father. She had a fight with him and the last words she said to him before a sudden heart attack was,
“I hate you.” Sometimes I think back and ask myself, what were my last spoken words to my mom? I texted her a couple of hours before her death, but the night before, we spent some quality time together. I would like to think that I said “I love you.”

Whenever I’m left alone with my thoughts, I play out scenarios where I have the chance to say my last words to her:

“ I love you so much, Mom. I know I haven’t been the easiest child to take care of. If I become at least half the person you were, I would be a great woman. You gave me, Justin, Joel and Abby and everything we have ever wanted because you only wanted the best for us, even if that meant not seeing your family for over a decade because we moved to a new country. There’s never a passing day when I don’t think of you. I know you’re here with me, always. You’ll be there when I graduate from college, when I pick my wedding dress, when I have my first child, when I take my last breath. You’ll be there. I love you to the moon and back. Everything I do, I do for you now. I love you. To the moon and back, Mommacita.”

As I said, everyone grieves differently. These are a few stories of people who, like me, have lost loved ones and wish they had the chance to say last words.

Seena Threadgill, a nurse and teacher at Rowland High School and Valley Alternative High School in Rowland Heights, Calif., lost both her husband, Travis Hempstead, and her son, Antaun Wheatly, to murder.

“Antaun was my middle son. While teaching in the classroom it felt like something hit me in my chest, not once but twice. Approximately 15–20 minutes later, while in the classroom, I received a phone call from my daughter-in-law, informing me that Antaun had been shot. I collapsed in the classroom in front of the students.

Wheatly was murdered on July 10, 2003 in Pomona, Calif. Threadgill believes it was due to the color of his skin.

“He was sitting on the bus stop in Pomona with a friend. A car with two unknown people pulled up in the parking lot. They both went into the smoke shop, made a purchase, and left. The passenger told the driver that he had forgotten something at the smoke shop and requested the driver to return. Upon their return to the smoke shop, the passenger got out of the car and started shooting at my son and his friend. Both were hit by bullets, my son in the back and his friend in the leg.”

We ate our last supper together the night before he were murdered. I told Antaun, “ You better stop hanging at that bus stop.” He replied, ‘Mom, I’m okay,’ kissed me and left home. That was the last time I talked to him; our last supper.

Threadgill would experience another loss two years later.

“I was in the classroom again, on a Tuesday, around 2:30 pm, the same day of the week and almost the same time of the day, I get another call, except that it is my husband’s Travis sister informing me that my husband was murdered. Murdered over a piece of wheat bread.”

Hempstead was at a Togo’s sandwich deli in Sacramento and asked to order a sandwich on wheat bread. The employee behind the counter said that she did not have any wheat bread.

“Heated words were exchanged. The young lady, angry, made a phone call to her boyfriend, telling him what happened. She closed up the deli and the boyfriend picked her up. They drove around looking for my husband and found him. Once again words were exchanged and the boyfriend shot my husband in the head. My husband had been planning to come home the next day. His suitcases were packed. He only had a few errands to run. Those errands were completed by me when I arrived in Sacramento to identify his body.

I did not get a chance to say goodbye to my husband. I would have told him, as I always did, that I love him, no matter how far apart we are. I was supposed to move to Sacramento with the kids. We visited each other every other weekend.

Toni Albertson, professor of journalism at Mt. San Antonio College, lost her mother to cancer in 2003. She said the grief never goes away and that there is not a day that she doesn’t miss her mother.

“My mother was the greatest mother and grandmother, the person everyone wanted to be around. She found the good in everyone and had the ability to turn any negative into a positive. She was always there for us, unconditionally. She was the glue that held our family together.”

When cancer struck, the family held out hope that she would not succumb to breast cancer like her mother did. But the cancer metastasized. She and her sister remained by their mother’s bedside until she took her last breath.

“’Don’t leave me.’Those are the last words I wanted to say to my mother as she began to take her last breaths. But instead, I told her it was okay to go, as instructed by the hospital therapist. I didn’t mean it though. I wanted her to stay forever, but cancer had taken over her breasts, her bones, and finally her brain. In hindsight, I wish I knew her wishes. We never discussed death so we made the decision to put her on morphine and let her drift off into a coma while Chet Baker played in the background. And then she was gone.”

Michelle Dougherty, an English Professor at Mt. San Antonio College, lost her entire family in a car crash. Her mother, Shizue, her father James, and her twin brother James Jr. were killed in a head-on collision with a semi- truck in 2006. Dougherty was not able to say any last words to her family, but said she had a very close relationship with them and spoke with them on a regular basis. She saw them a week before they died and spoke to them just two days before their deaths.

“I remember that my brother had just gotten out of rehab, and even though I had a lot of things to do the last night I talked to him, I made a point of not telling him I had to get off the phone. Since he was just out of rehab, I wanted him to know that I was there for him. I’m so glad now that I waited until he said he had to get off the phone because that was the last time I talked to him. I always told my parents and my brother that I loved them, so those were my last words to all of them.”

“If I could speak to them one last time, of course I would tell them I miss them. I would also want them to know that I’m okay. I know that sounds strange, but surviving their deaths with courage and grace is the last thing I can do for them, so I would want them to know that.”

Wayne Witherington, a 21-year-old LA Fitness employee, lost his mother to skin cancer on Aug. 5, 2005 when he was 10. After discovering that she had stage II cancer on her neck, the doctors gave her nine months to live.

“I told her that I loved her. Even though she couldn’t really talk or understand because at that time, she was already going. She knew what ‘I love you’ meant and she said it back.”

RJ Ganaden, a 26-year-old youth development specialist and graduate of California State University Los Angeles, lost his grandmother, Elvira Apilado, to dementia two years ago at the age of 90. His grandmother had suffered from Alzheimer’s for the past 20 years of her life, but it was during the last ten years that it became severe.

He said it was difficult for the family because she died not remembering any of her family members.

“My last conversation with her was probably when I was in middle school. That was the last time I had a proper conversation with her and when she was still functioning well. She remembered me, my name, and she knew what was going on with my life. The last thing she said to me was ‘Make sure you finish your education.’” If he could speak to her now, he would say:

“I wish this illness hadn’t taken you so I can be with you more and get to know you more. I think that’s one of the things I regret, not hanging out with you more.”

My siblings, father, and I all have a piece of my mom with us at all times. We wear a necklace that has a little part of her ashes inside the locket. My first tattoo, LXIII, was dedicated to her. Her birth year was 1963 and we were only 30 years apart. Our birthdays are three days apart and she used to say that I was her late 30th birthday gift. We have always celebrated it together, but this year, my 21st birthday, was the first one we didn’t.

There is never a passing day when I don’t think of her but it is especially hard on the 14th of each month, special occasions, and holidays where we all wish she is with us. If there is one thing I fear of the most, it is that one day I will forget her voice and her laugh. Her voice was the one thing that calmed me when I was over-stressed, and her laugh was music to my ears. It just made everything better.

I know she is in a better place now and that one day I will see her again. We are never promised of another tomorrow so never take your last words with someone for granted. Make every word count.

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here: