“She was unstoppable. Not because she did not have failures or doubts, but because she continued on despite them.”
That is what a post on my friend Iris’ facebook page read last week. The person who posted it knew her well and the quote described her perfectly. Sure she was insecure, just like most of us, full of doubts and conspiracy theories, we shared that in common. And she had definitely scored some defeats throughout the time she was with us. But she kept on going and she got up every time she fell or someone made her fail.
And many people did fail her often, even fate played several tricks on her. Yet, she never demanded anything for herself nor lost faith in God. She turned all the hurdles into lessons and experiences that made her wise and strong. She was in fact unstoppable, courageous, and persistent until she was no more.
We met when I was only 18. At first, I thought she was bossy and at times cruel. She was just too honest. She had a hard time sugar coating stuff. But at the same time, she was loving and accepting. She did not judge. She only tried to warn us about what could be, the damage we could or were causing or the damage someone could inflict upon us. Many times, I swore she could see beyond, and into the future. She was definitely very intuitive and in tune with other “dimensions” to put it simple.
She believed in the power of dreams and we even had a dream dictionary, which many times only made things worse and increased the doubts we created in our heads. Though she knew better, she always asked me to focus on the bright side of the dreams. She said the dark side of something was only there to appreciate the “bulb” when it was turned on. The “bulb,” not the situation.
She laughed about it all. Even for the saddest, most ridiculous and desperate situations, she found a joke. Her contagious laugh, JLo’s style kind of laugh, Puerto Rican kind of laugh, always made us laugh so hard, that even laugh tears would come out uncontrollably right after the sad tears. She was special that way.
Her life was not easy. She lost her mother way too early to cancer. Her father, a Vietnam Vet and purple heart, was no longer the same man, after returning from war. So she become a mother to her siblings almost automatically. She had it rough. And though she had lots of help from her first and only love, the man she married until death did them part, she was one of those people who hardly asked for help. She wanted to resolve everything on her own. She always found a way. She preferred not to inconvenience anyone.
In the office for example, she taught me how to file, answer phones, sort mail, find facts for reports or BS my way through them when such facts were not available, “cover your hinny,” she would say, so that the people who had not done their jobs couldn’t blame their neglect on us, and yes, she taught me how to use tape. She fixed everything broken with tape and a little tool-set she kept in the file cabinet. It was a true art and we loved watching her do it, because her face would light up in an amazing way once the broken something was fixed. Just like Tinker Bell, the little fairy that turned all sorts of junk into amazing, useful devices. That was Iris.
I was blessed to spend almost 10 years next to her in that office. Five days a week, 8-10 hours per day. That office was our second home. No wonder I struggled when I left that office and saw her less and less. No wonder I feel like an arm is gone now that I can’t even expect a message back from her. I have never spent as much time with anyone as I did with her. Not even with my mother, sisters, brother or anyone.
And to top it all off, our taste in music, room temperature and food were very similar, we were totally in tune. Sometimes we got to work while it was still dark and we left when it was dark again, and we never had disagreements as to the ambience in the room. That is why it felt like home.
Aside from being compatible like that, she inspired me to always do my best. She made me better all the time.
How could I not? This woman was diligent as could be. While she recovered at home from the surgeries that took her breasts due to breast cancer, I did my best on our side of the office. Lourdes got the other side. Holding the floor was not easy, we had a super demanding boss. But it was possible because Iris was always guiding me. Even if that meant she had to schedule a phone call to me just a minute after she had finished puking (side effect from the chemo) early morning.
“How are you holding up honey? Make sure you synchronize Dr. Garro’s schedule and print a little one for his pocket. I saw he changed a meeting at 8:00 pm last night, so make those phone calls. Call the promotion Committee and have them moving, their deadline is coming up… and please don’t forget to water my plants. I love you.” she would say.
Her plants. She loved those plants. Each and everyone of them. She knew the exact amount of water they needed (If I put more or less water than I should have, she would know by the color of the leaves the next day, or the next week.) and she also knew the exact spot where they should be placed so that the sun from our windows could get to them just right.
My point here is: Who thinks about how I am holding up? Dr. Garro’s change of plans? Reminding overpaid grownups (the committee) of their responsibilities? or the plants in the office? all of that while kissing the toilet for the third time in the morning, and completely nauseated with pain? Only her. She always thought of others first, and especially her loved ones.
Her priority were her kids, husband and family. She gave her all for them. She loved them unconditionally and she nurtured them the best she could. Though I couldn’t join her often at family affairs with her sister and baby brother, I know she was constantly there for them. She took their phone calls without hesitation. Even, in the busiest times in the office and while she had two lines waiting and a demanding boss calling her into his office to do the mail. That to me was an art in its own, not only because she proved to be the master of multitasking, but because she somehow managed to put her family first and foremost. One time, I apologized for bringing a personal issue to work and she said to me: “Sweetie, it’s not life that gets in the way, it is work that gets in the way of what really matters in life.”
She was a family oriented woman.. She loved her husband since they were just kids, even if he may have doubted it, and she cared lots about what he would think about any situation. Sometimes I thought she even feared him or his reactions to things. She was mostly afraid he would get tired of the cancer battle situation. She feared the consequences that all of the physical stress, financial stress, and emotional stress that the illness was bringing into their relationship and home would finally end their marriage. I know that she became very insecure with her changing body from the surgeries. What woman wouldn’t? Things got tough… and though, I started drifting from some details of her relationship in the last few years, after I moved out of NY, I know they did grow apart. But for one reason or another, she showed to be in the marriage for better or for worse, and she proved it continuously by her actions and not just words.
As for the kids. That is a subject on its own. She loved them unconditionally. This woman would give up her slice of pizza, dessert, movie choice, or an hour of necessary rest for them immediately and as often as necessary. She would rather put up with the gossip and the criticism around the building for having the three boys in our office, after school time, and during still work hours (we kept them under our desks, sitting quietly on our guest areas, or behind closed doors at Lourdes office or with other kind co-workers). She rather do that, than taking them to a baby sitter, where she would only be wondering if they were fed and treated kindly.
She would walk a couple of miles to go pick them up from school and bring them with her, even in the extreme cold or heat and with all the pain she endured in the joints result of some medications. She worked so hard for them, to give them a good life. Her biggest fear was to not see them grow up.
She wanted to spend all her free time with them. That is why she smothered them. Not because she wanted to annoy them, or because she was over protective, but because she knew her probabilities to live a long life had been tainted by cancer.
I am convinced that the love she had for her children kept her with us longer. That love never changed. Not even when they turned teenagers and may have said or done things that hurt her, typical of kids in their teens. Her love for them was unconditional and pure.
Just as the love she had for her sisters and brothers. Or the love that she had for us, her closest friends (Lourdes, Joy, me and probably you too). Distance, time and circumstances did not change our bond. She protected us all from pain as often as she could. Even if that meant she had to carry some of that pain with her. She listened to us, respected us, encouraged us, scolded us when necessary and she gave us strength to continue our fight. She prayed with such conviction for many of us. I always envied her faith and I am sure that it was her prayers that pulled many of us out of rotten spots we once or twice had fallen to.
She was not perfect and she made mistakes in life. I am of the opinion that she wasn’t lucky enough to live life as passionately as she should have done so. She had many fears for too long and the cancer held her back. There were so many things she wanted and was not able to experience. In my view those may have been her biggest mistakes. But I do believe, she lived her life doing what she wanted most: protecting her family and fighting to stay around them for as long as she could.
I love her and I miss her every day. I see her on my files, whenever I book a meeting, get ready to write reports, organize committees or when I listen to Blue October, Kenny G, the Black Eyed Peas, Whitney Huston or Beethoven, and definitely every time I look at the damn tape.
When I was told she was almost gone, I did not believe it. I thought I had time to see her. I thought she would win yet again. She was unstoppable. But I was wrong. I didn’t make it. I didn’t want to cancel a meeting or two on that Saturday, so I opted to leave first thing on Sunday. I put work in front of her. I failed her again.
I cried in my bathroom for about half an hour, refusing to open the door. I couldn’t breath. Not that anyone noticed. Everyone was too busy that afternoon. My lungs were getting tight again, just like when I had those asthma attacks during the cold months in NY.
For the second time in my life, I felt regret. I should have left on Thursday when Lourdes said I had to go, or Friday when I booked the flight for Sunday. I shouldn’t have hesitated as Henry said.
It hurt so much to see who I really was. She had warned me so many times about just that. How I often put my job and career choices first rather than family and emotions.
The lessons that one really learns come often with pain. So, thanks to her, I have made a resolution. I will tend to my family matters immediately and when a “sentimental” situation surfaces in the middle of the day and in the middle of a work commitment, I shall see her smile and blink, and I should tend to it, rather than ignore it as I have done since always.
Rest in peace my friend. You are now free! Free of pain and anything and everyone that held you back. You are shining above us, right where you belong, and free at last.
You will always be unstoppable.