On countless Sunday nights at home in Woodhaven, Queens, my Titi Sonia’s fingers moved gracefully. Lifetime movies blared in the background as she and my cousin Lisette sat on their white leather couch. File in hand, swaying back and forth like hips, Titi Sonia shaped her long nails, squared at the tip. Sometimes orange. Mostly pink.
I never saw Titi paint her nails firsthand, but they were more than memorable—symbols of beauty and strength. Her talons declared she was no nonsense, and they didn’t lie. At work, Titi was known for getting shit done and making sure you knew not to try her. Men fell in love with her wherever she went. She couldn’t care less. She was unabashedly herself, unashamed and unbothered. She was a rare thing, a beautiful thing.
The pink inspired by her nails and her favorite lipstick emblazons my shoulder, etched with ink to form hydrangea—flowers that grew in front of the old brick house she bought for herself and Lisette in Richmond Hill. Years later, my tia found herself in Oceanside, Long Island. She sold her home and moved there to help Lisette care for her kids—to be a grandmother, which she was so delighted to do. But after a few years of caring for her grandchildren, like she had cared for Lisette and me all those years before, Titi started to experience pain. It was quiet at first. Dull but bothersome. She only mentioned it on occasion.
I wonder if Titi fractionalized and disengaged like I do. If she had grown so accustomed to ignoring her body’s discomfort that the only way it could get her attention was to up the ante, to make it impossible to ignore anymore, to incapacitate her. The pain grew beyond a bearable ache, jolting her attention inward, bringing her back to her body. It was Mother’s Day when she finally conceded to call a doctor.
Metastatic ovarian cancer. It spread to the bone as it does in less than one percent of cases. Eventually, it found its way to her brain and everywhere else except the stomach, where it usually goes. When things went wrong, she used to exasperatedly say, “Oh brother! Nothing can ever be simple, can it?” In this case, she was right. The cancer cells split with defiance, with a refusal to stop despite all chemo-imposed obstacles. The spread was stubborn, much like she was. She did things on her terms and so did her cancer. They were all her beautiful qualities twisted to a horrific end.
So instead of being a caretaker, it was time for her to be cared for and I was committed to the cause. Titi was a second mother to me since I was a butterball of a baby. When I was first born, she and Lisette still lived in the basement apartment of the same Woodhaven house as my parents and grandparents. My grandparents had the ground floor, and my parents were on the top. Titi Sonia would come straight home from work, just to get ready for her second shift—right after changing clothes, she’d come upstairs and pluck me from my mother’s arms. Titi would command, “Go, Chavela. I’ve got this. You go get some rest. Tuck Miki in and go to sleep.” Mom would carry my brother off while Titi watched over me, allowing my mother to sleep knowing there was no safer place for me than with Titi Sonia.
When I was in my last year of high school, Titi Sonia was the one who helped me feel beautiful as a fat queer non-binary teen navigating the torturous process of figuring out what to wear to prom. I wanted to wear a pantsuit, but my mom vetoed that idea. Titi drove me around Long Island to department stores and boutiques. She patiently helped me pick out an angular and structured black and white dress. If I couldn’t have a suit, this was the next best thing. She helped me find something that wasn’t pretty by her standards, but my own—a dress that wove the femme and the butch in me together. Maybe Titi saw it in me before I did.
Throughout the years, she drove us down the Rockaways’ streets again and again. Windows open, we blasted KTU’s house music mixes, sang and got ready to swim at Riis Park. She taught me to love the beach. She made sure we had provisions: Subway sandwiches and drinks in the cooler. There were bags of chips too. We were both fond of the guacamole flavored Doritos. As we sat on the sand, she said, “If you dip yourself in the water and then go in the shade, it’s like air conditioning outside.” I did just that, and felt the cool breeze brush against the droplets of ocean on my skin. I was in awe of nature, in awe of how safe I felt with her. As an adult, I travel with friends to the queer part of Riis Beach and feel in awe all over again
Titi and I were inseparable. I was her navigator when, for years, we braved downtown Brooklyn traffic to take my grandmother to the rheumatologist. Titi helped me pick paint colors for my first apartment, helped me organize my closets, and scoured fabric stores with me for the perfect addition to the space—vinyl teal snakeskin for my dining room seats. She listened to me spout bochinche about any issue I had with any person at any time and she always pushed me to stand up for myself. “You gotta get tough, Ale!” She was sidekick and dance partner and sage. She was my Titi Soba.
So I went with her to her chemotherapy sessions, sat with her as she was pumped full of chemicals that made her tired and cold and caused pain in the hopes of helping pain. She had to wear an infusion bag when she went home that kept the medicine going. She hated how the little bag hung from her neck, got in her way. She hated the cracking skin on her fingertips, so deep that they bled.
She stopped painting her nails.
One day, after I went with Titi to get her usual treatment, we sat at home eating dinner when I noticed one drop of blood on the floor. Then two. I looked up at her, searched her nose for a drip of red but found nothing. My eyes scanned down to her shirt, soaked through in blood. “Titi, you’re bleeding!” I screamed. I was on the edge of hysteria. I stood up from my seat and felt hot and cold all at once. My knees wobbled as I paced in the hallway outside her bathroom, my steps shaky as I tried to regain my composure. Don’t start crying. That won’t help anything at all. You’ve got to be calm. But in the back of my mind, all I could wonder was, what if this is how it ends?
She walked over to the bathroom mirror, picked up her shirt as blood is flowing out steadily now. “Wow. That’s a lot of blood.” She was nowhere near hysteria. She was damn near nonchalant.
We raced back to the hospital to find that some nurse’s improper technique cracked the bottle, made blood flow back out rather than take medicine in. They changed the bag and sent us on our way. Eventually, we came to laugh about it.
I wrote a poem about it later and in so doing I made connections that still haunt me now. I have a long history of ovarian cysts and fibroids. They’ve left me hospitalized and so debilitated that I couldn’t keep food down. Reproductive health issues are commonplace in my family and I can’t help but think that this is the legacy of generational trauma, of colonial and racist violence, sexual and otherwise, experienced by my bloodline. Traumas that found their way to me. I wonder if there’s a way that I can heal myself and heal them too. I worry about what happens if I can’t.
When I sat with Titi in a hospital room weeks later at 1AM for one of her impromptu emergency blood transfusions, I was bleeding heavily, losing blood while she was taking blood in. I was nauseous from the pain my doctor dismissed as a “natural” part of my cycle. I’ve been trained to believe that the pain experienced by people of color with reproductive capacities is unworthy of treatment, or even recognition. I see it in my care and in the care of my fellow BIPOC friends. I saw it in the care given to Titi.
She did her treatments, went to her doctor’s appointments, took her meds but new scans showed that the chemotherapy was only keeping the cancer in check, not shrinking it. One day, she went to get a nerve block, a routine procedure, when the doctor’s hand slipped. They rushed her to the hospital to check his mistake and instead found a tumor sitting on her spine, in her neck. Nobody knew it was there. It was fast growing and would have paralyzed her in a week. So they removed it. And she had one more thing to adapt to, one more set of symptoms to manage.
She was overwhelmed with the process, anxiety finally started creeping in more and more. Her small round dining table for two was covered in stacks of papers outlining the results of every scan and every claim put into her insurance. Scraps of papers lined with numbers littered around the fake fruit bowl she kept as decoration. I often sat on her beige couch and watched her make calls, a frown on her face, rectangular reading glasses at the tip of her nose. She took notes on possible drug interactions and what her next steps should be. She made herself reminders to follow up with the receptionist at her cancer treatment center. She routinely checked in with her insurer to make sure that it would approve her next chemotherapy treatment. Coordinating the means of her battle against cancer became her job. And as much as we tried to lessen her load, to help her in whatever ways she asked, there was too much to be done with too little reserves of energy.
Then her insurance was terminated. She needed to fill out some forms and didn’t do it in time. On the phone, they said they were very sorry, but couldn’t help her. The sorry didn’t soften the blow of what felt like a death sentence. She waited for an entire month before her coverage was restored, before we could get back to our regularly scheduled appointments. Although I believed she could beat anything, that she was invincible, it was then that I truly felt scared for her. The chemo was the only thing keeping the cancer in check. What would that month without it do to her?
There were seizures and a brain tumor. There were foley catheters and swollen feet that wept like I did. There were angry calls from my cousin to the reputable and profitable cancer center Titi was treated at when we realized how many things slipped through the cracks, once we understood that Titi was no more than a case file to an overworked oncologist who had forgotten to follow up even when Titi tried to. There was pain that got worse and worse and a transition from cane to walker to wheelchair. There was an attempt at rehab. There was checking back into the hospital when her blood counts were off. There was sorrow and fear and exhaustion until they told her that treatment wouldn’t work anymore. Her body was too weak to handle it. Hospice was our only option.
At some point, the tumors pressed on her spine, making it hard for her to use her legs. Then a hand. Then the other. So I, along with my family, fed her. French toast and cakes and M&Ms.
One Sunday night, Lisette sat with her and cut and shaped her nails, shorter now but still square at the tips. Titi asked me to bring my nail polish over and paint them for her. She looked at the colors in my collection, examined them with a critic’s eye. “Bring this one closer. Push those two back.” She settled on a light but saturated blue, like the summer sky at noon. I painted them and snapped a picture.
“Damn, Titi! You could be a hand model!” I gassed her up as she stared at her nails approvingly. “Yeah, an old lady hand model,” she rolled her eyes. She could barely move but she was happy. I painted mine the same color later that night.
Then she stopped eating. Stopped talking. And all we could do was wait. Wait for an end we dreaded and needed all at once. Wait for her to no longer know suffering, only sweetness. Despite our around the clock care, she passed when none of us were in the room. On her own terms and with her nails painted. And me? I wear her pink on my shoulder, a reminder to live without shame. And I wear blue on my fingers. Like Titi’s last set of nails. Like the saturated summer sky over Riis Beach, at noon.
Al Valentín (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary, Boricua, writer, educator and artist. In addition to their academic work on how gaming shapes our conceptions of (in)humanity, they are currently writing about grief, generational trauma and desire through poetry and memoir. @heauxstradamus | alvalentin.com
Thanks for reading! If you enjoy Raising Mothers, please consider making a one-time or recurring contribution to help us remain ad-free. If even a fraction of subscribers signed up to contribute $1 per month, Raising Mothers could be self-sustaining! Support Raising Mothers