Photo Credit: Joyce D'Errico (Nana)

Nothing can break the bond between a mother and a daughter. Sarah(38) Alysse (5) on Halloween.

By Alysse D'Errico, Niles Middle School

Sarah Elizabeth Matheny- D’Errico. The strongest woman I know, and will ever know. She fought every day until she could no longer. All she wanted was to come back to my dad, brother, and me to live normally again, but she never got to. Our family will never be like it was because it never feels like it used to be. I know she’s still here in some way–maybe not physically, but through our hearts and our minds.

Papa, Nana, Alysse, Mom, and Dad (Photo credit: Chris and Debbie D’Errico)

I still remember the day we found out about her cancer. I  was around seven years old and my brother was about four or five. My brother was getting a haircut and my dad was on his way from work to get one, too. It was just my mom Sarah, my brother Gavin, the barber Joe Merlo, and myself. Mom had gotten a blood test because she started bruising very easily, and she wanted to make sure everything was fine. Well, my dad had gotten the results back. All I remember next is that he told my mom they found Leukemia and they had to go to the hospital. Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the bone (bone marrow) then spreads to the blood. The lowest stage of cancer is stage one (I), highest being stage four (IV). My mom ended up being diagnosed with stage four Leukemia. She immediately started crying, but tried to hold back because Gavin and I didn’t know what that was and didn’t want to scare us.

She went home, packed what she thought was going to be a week or so worth of clothes, and headed for the hospital. I asked my nana and papa, who are my dad’s parents, where she was going but all they said was, “She’s having an overnight stay at the hospital, Mommy will be back soon.” I don’t know if they just said it was just overnight to make us feel better, or if that is what they really thought it was going to be. An “overnight stay” turned into a year and a half very quickly for me,  and unfortunately slowly for her. She had been in the University Hospital (UH) in Cleveland so much that it was my second home. I knew my way around the hospital like it was my own house, and knew her room number by heart. My grammy and pappy, which is her mom and dad, and my dad would all rotate staying with her so that my dad could go home to take care of us and go to work. When it was my dad’s turn to be with my mom, my brother and I would either be staying over our nana and papa’s house with them, or they would stay over our house.

Alysse and Gavin visiting at the UH. (Photo credit: Joyce D’Errico)

School was a struggle for both of us. We would lug bags of clothes over to our grandparents’ house and back constantly. Usually, we went to see her on weekends or days we were off of school. There were a few times my dad would let me miss school to visit. As much as I loved seeing my mom, school was our priority. She was a teacher and wanted the best for us and our education. I now feel guilty for not skipping as much as I should have. I should’ve put my mother first more often. It was hard going to school especially on Mother’s Day. When the kids were making cards and crafts for their moms, I was the only one making one for my nana. I didn’t really care what people thought then because I was younger with not a care in the world, but now it bothers me for some reason. I got used to people asking rude and intrusive questions. Back then I would answer politely, but now I feel I have so much more to say. Innocent comments turned into annoyance over the years- probably because they were the same questions over and over. “Where is your mom?” was the most common, but it turned into “Everyone has a mom. You’re  just lying to get attention.”  I didn’t talk back or stand up for myself because I was too sweet, too caring, and too respectful- exactly how my mother raised me.

Dad makes Mom feel loved after shaving her head.    (Photo credit: Joyce D’Errico)

Like all chemo patients go through, my mom had lost her hair. She had some of the most long, thick, healthy, brown hair I’ve ever seen. She would straighten it or pull it up into a ponytail everyday. She took a selfie on her Ipad a few days before her birthday with her hair. That was one of the last pictures with her long hair. She started off small and only cut it to a bob style, which she didn’t think she’d end up liking. My mom hadn’t had her hair that short since I was only months to a year old. After a while it kept falling out, until eventually she had to shave it. She began to wear fuzzy hats and scarfs which we all still have. I can never wear them, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be wearing them because they aren’t mine. They have stayed in her hospital bags which still need to be unpacked to this day. None of us really wanted to take everything out, probably because everything was hers and we felt like it just belonged there at this point.

Every once in a while after her chemo treatments she would get discharged and allowed to visit home. I remember one time Gavin and I came off the bus and there were balloons by the door waiting for her to get home. She would surprise us when she got home- it was the most relieving feeling. Our faces would light up with pure happiness to know that our mom was back home.  The worst part about her coming home was wondering how long she would last until she had to go back. Sometimes it was so urgent that my dad would call for an ambulance in the middle of the night, and I would wake up to my nana telling me that my mom had gone back to the UH. Whenever Mom needed urgent attention, my dad would always take her to the nearest hospital. Sometimes an ambulance would take her from that hospital back to the UH because that is where she got the best care. She would always request to be brought to the nearest hospital but Dad insisted she would be driven back to Cleveland where the doctors and nurses knew exactly who she was and what she was diagnosed with.

There was one time she got to stay home for what felt like a long time. It may have just felt like that because I hadn’t been with her for that amount of time in what felt like forever. She had gotten so sick that she stayed in bed all day for about a week. After staying in the Hope House for a while, then finally making it back home, she went back to the hospital for the last time. But this time it was in the intensive care unit where she was admitted to. My dad went up with her and stayed with her throughout that whole time. She was put on a ventilator and was given fourteen days until they agreed to unplug it. Whatever happened, happened. The fourth of July marked the fourteenth day. They unplugged her from the vent and astonishingly, she was alive. She couldn’t speak, but she would open her eyes and look at you in a way that you knew she was listening and understood what you were saying. My dad brought Gavin and me to his room where he was staying, and sat us down on his bed. He looked us both in the eyes and explained to us what was happening to our mom. I will never forget the look on his face and the tone in his voice when he said these exact words: “Mama is going to die.” He hugged us for a while, but I don’t remember crying. Again, I was now eight and didn’t understand what was happening.

When my mom was on the ventilator,I got the option to choose if I wanted to see her or not. On my own, I chose not to. I could not even look at the doors to the room she was in, nor see her attached to this machine that was the only thing keeping her alive. As soon as she was off, I went to go see her. I hate to admit it, but I was scared of her. To be scared of my own mother felt very unnatural to me. It was so selfish and ignorant, but I was terrified to step in that room. I didn’t want to look at her, not because she was physically scary, but because I didn’t want to see her in pain and in the conditions she was in. Even though I was scared of her pain, death didn’t affect me. I knew she wouldn’t be hurting anymore and would be at peace. I went in as soon as I could now that she was off, and I am glad I did because that was the last time I saw her. I sat in her lap and rubbed her head. I noticed how her head was covered in rings of curls when her hair had grown back out. It was  just like how mine was as a baby. When I left I looked back in that room and didn’t see my mother the way I’ve seen her for years. She looked heavenly and angelic.  I looked away immediately because I wanted that to be the last time I saw her. And I wanted that picture of her in my mind forever. I didn’t want to see her suffering like she had been for so long. When we pulled out of the hospital, I would always look up and into this window where she would always stand and wave to us when she was able to get up and move. Hoping she’d be there and that it was just someone else in that bed I went to see, but it wasn’t.  When I looked out the window this time, there was no one waving to me. This is when I knew life was never going to be the same.

Baby Alysse and Mom with her short hair. (Photo credit: James D’Errico )

Two days after we saw her, on July 6th at 6:45 a.m.in the morning, she passed away. I remember the exact time because every year for the past five years on her anniversary, I coincidentally wake up at 6:42 a.m. three minutes before she passed. As soon as my dad and papa walked through the front door, I knew. I knew because my mom didn’t walk through the door either. No one had to say anything; we understood. It takes a lot for my papa to cry; he’s full Italian. Italian men in general hide emotions because it’s not manly or is too soft. My papa cried that day, a lot too. That was one of the only times I think I had ever seen him cry. He was in the other room because he didn’t want anyone to see him. That is how I’ve learned to bottle up my emotions from everyone. I would rarely ever cry to someone about it. I still have trouble with that, now. Not showing your emotions and not crying is such an unhealthy habit, but that is the route for me now. I can cope– I just do it through writing and listening to music.

Alysse, Mom, and Apsley on her second birthday. (Photo Credit: Joyce D’Errico)

My mom’s death affected so many daily things. You don’t realize how important something is until it is taken away from you. It hurts when people have their moms and I don’t. It’s not fair, but then again– life isn’t fair. She didn’t deserve one bit of anything that happened to her. She pushed through so much and she could have given up at any time she wanted, but that woman fought through it just for us. That was how much we meant to her. She was a warrior, a fighter, and now an angel. My mom was always my biggest role model and supporter. I’ve grown to do things on my own and teach myself things that she should have been teaching to me. I had to grow up by myself in a way. I had no mom to braid my hair, do my nails, or even just talk to.

Now, I talk to a wall or a mirror and hope somehow she’d hear me. I try to keep a positive mindset through my home life and in school. Whenever people find out about her they usually say something like, “I would have never guessed” or, “You are always so happy and bubbly, though.” I don’t mind it, but it makes me feel like I shouldn’t be acting like nothing happened and instead be depressed and withdrawn. A lot of people say you don’t accept death and that’s true- you just get better at hiding it. I have pretty much mastered building my emotions inside and keeping them there. It doesn’t affect me anymore like it used to. You have no choice but to  accept and move on. If I had to give advice to someone who had just lost someone so close to them, it would be to give into grief and dwell over things. Get up, do something, don’t sit there and wait for it to reverse itself –because it won’t. You have to make something out of it, find that one positive thing and focus on it. Writing, listening and playing music, and being with my friends “‘distract’” me from my past. I’ve done things and had experiences that would have been so much better with her by my side.

The Jr. Miss Nile’s Pageant was probably the hardest one to get through. While the other contestants had their moms to help them slip on their shoes and zip up their dresses, I had to do without. Although I had that missing piece that day, I had the rest of my family and friends cheering for me.  When I won, I felt her presence with every hug I that embraced me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without everyone’s help throughout the years. They have pushed me to continue doing the best I can achieving anything I put my mind to. Everything I do is for Mom, and I will always ‘Stand With Sarah’ and do it #Sarah’sWay.

This story was originally published on NMS Press on April 14, 2022.