It’s time to dust again. I used to enjoy it…okay…let’s just say I tolerated it. However, since I recently finished my breast cancer chemo treatments, dusting the house is now a bit overwhelming. I opened the door to the guest room. The light from the large window shined on the floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of wooden carvings, statues, dolls, and ceramic plates; a kaleidoscope of colors from all over the world. Ugh, I thought, this will take forever.
As I moved through the room dusting, I stopped in front of the shelf with all the Paraguayan trinkets. I carefully picked up the hollowed gray and black cow’s horn called a guampa with my mom’s name beautifully engraved in red on the outside of it. Already slightly fatigued this morning, I sat down to rest, holding the item close to my chest then placing it on the bed next to me. As I sat there and slowly removed the light layer of dust, it brought back all the memories of that short visit and our time together in Paraguay. Has it really been over twenty-five years since that journey? And over five years ago that she passed away? I still miss her every day. My mom, my beloved mom, my mentor. So full of life, compassion and strength; resilient even through two separate breast cancer journeys. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
My mom, always the wanderlust, in 1991 at the “young” age of sixty-two decided to join the Peace Corps. She was assigned a rural location as a community nurse approximately 180 kilometers east of the capital of Asunción, Paraguay, to a small village called Natalicio Talavera.
She was a petite, spry lady who was always looking for an adventure. After her husband–my stepdad–passed away, she felt inclined to do something different. Although some were incredulous that she would leave her comfortable home to spend three years by herself in a Third World country. Personally, I thought it was the coolest thing ever and enjoyed telling everyone that my mom was in the Peace Corps.
I wasn’t terribly surprised that my mom selected this challenging path so late in life. I’m not sure if it was her stoic Czechoslovakian background, surviving the frigid winters in Minnesota or perhaps her vocation as a nurse, but my mom was tough as nails. My brother and I learned early in life to not go running to her about small problems, as her response was always dismissive. She never actually said “suck it up,” but we knew what she was implying. I never recall her complaining about what life threw at her, especially going through her cancer treatments; the first time with radiation that caused a pneumothorax and the second time with chemo that made her violently sick.
As a cancer patient now myself, I wish I had talked more about her cancer journey: asked her how was she diagnosed, what type and stage she had. And how in the heck did she manage living all by herself going through treatments when I can hardly get through the day myself with the ample help I get?
My mom lived a modest life for three years in Paraguay helping out the village nurse with everything from childbirth to splinters. She encouraged me to come down there and visit. So in the spring of 1993, while I was stationed in Panama I journeyed down to visit her.
She was waiting for me once I cleared customs. It had been a long time since I had seen her and I was ecstatic, giving her a huge hug.
The bus ride from Asunción to Natalicio Talavera was a ride I’ll never forget. The bus was old. It was crowded. And there was no air-conditioning. The roads were rough, and every time we hit a bump, we almost knocked our heads on the ceiling. Along with the locals there were a couple of dogs…and chickens. We laughed when a lady boarded with a crate full of noisy chickens who clucked the entire way.
I smile at the memory of that bus ride. I’m a little lightheaded right now. My oncologist mentioned that there would be days like this. Days when I would struggle with my daily routine, days when it would be difficult to make it through the day. I considered taking a nap and finishing the dusting later, but instead, I just leaned back against the headboard and reflected on that journey. I remembered being so impressed at my mom’s courage–at her age–to take on such an extremely different lifestyle.
We arrived in the village in the late afternoon. Where my mom called home was actually quite nice in comparison to some of the other dwellings, but it was extremely rustic by my standards. It was small building with tan exterior and three small windows. She had a one burner gas stove for cooking. There was no running water or electricity. Bathroom facilities were in back of the building; a small sturdy outhouse complete with a roll of Charmin and a Reader’s Digest that I had sent her in a care package previously.
As I picked up the guampa laying by my side, I reminisced about my last night in Paraguay. Some of the locals invited us to join them in drinking some tereré, a local tea. Tereré is a shared drink, meaning everyone drinks out of the same guampa. I wasn’t really into the communal drinking idea but didn’t want to appear rude, so I took a drink. It was strong and bitter. Yuck! I almost spit it back out. My mom caught my expression, and it was all she could do to not laugh.
The next day, after to saying goodbye to my mom, I headed back to Panama full of stories and memories.
The dogs loudly barking outside jolts me back to the present; back to my stark reality where she’s no longer here, and I’m facing life-altering cancer. A couple of tears flow down my dusty cheek. I think of my mom. She wouldn’t want to see me in this state, all sentimental and sad. She’d want me to remember and cherish the time spent together. But she’d also want me to move on, to push forward no matter what obstacles I faced and to embrace my life’s journey like she did. So I reached up and pulled off the blue bandana which I recently bought to match my blue, eyelash-free eyes and to cover the peach fuzz on my head. I used it to wipe the tears from my eyes and then placed it back on my head and expertly tied it back in place. I gently placed the guampa back on the shelf, closed the guest room door shut and continued on with the dusting.
Deb Wesloh lives in Bulverde, Texas, which is north of the San Antonio area. She has been married to her husband Kevin for 33 years, and they have three boys: Kris, Joe and Josh. She retired as an Army Officer in 2005 and now currently work as government civilian. She is a breast cancer survivor. She
was diagnosed and underwent treatment in 2016. She was also diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called polycythemia vera that the same year. Hobbies include reading, writing, playing guitar, walking, biking
and supporting multiple Veteran and cancer organizations as a volunteer and advocate.