Jonathan’s Journey: A Son’s Tribute
“My mom—even after her passing—continues to nurture, lead, and protect us…Her legacy is to ensure we’re all on a better track.” ~ Jonathan Huerta
The change that 34-year-old Jonathan Huerta noticed in his mother was almost imperceptible, yet there it was: sometimes she didn’t answer the phone when he called or didn’t return his calls quite so quickly when she missed them. Small things, but if you knew her as well as he did, you’d know something was amiss.
“From the time I moved out at 18, we spoke every single day of my life,” says Jonathan, sitting upright, clothed in a dark suit, navy tie, and pink and blue plaid shirt. “We had as close a mother-son relationship as you could have. I spoke to my dad a lot, but not like my mom. We could talk forever about anything or nothing, and had great fun doing things.” He laughs in recollection, “On Black Fridays, my mom, my brother Myk, and I would start shopping before 6 am. Everyone else slept in and didn’t join us ’til lunch.”
Lydia Huerta was the family matriarch, who married a man she loved deeply, raised five sons, and worked at Southwestern Bell for 40 years. And when she received a diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer near Father’s Day in 2015, she steadfastly continued to enfold her sons in her abundant love, shielding them from her diagnosis. She and her husband kept the news to themselves, not wanting to trouble their children. She was so proud of them, each living and thriving far from the Austin, Texas home where she and her husband Andrew lived: Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Lubbock, Texas.
Jonathan, the youngest child by 17 years, left Texas for Penn State Dickinson Law School, followed by a clerkship with a Lehigh Valley judge, and then a position as a litigator at KingSpry in Bethlehem.
He swipes through photos on his phone, and stops. “This is one of my most beautiful pictures,” he says, smiling. He is dancing with his dark-haired, vibrant mother at his August 2014 wedding to his wife Kelly, whom he’d met at law school.
In May, nine months after the wedding, Jonathan’s father had a heart attack. Jonathan flew to Austin for a few days to help care for him, and then returned for Father’s Day. This was the first time that he noticed his mother had changed. “She’d always been on my dad about smoking and eating better, but this time, she seemed…” Jonathan hesitates, searching for a word, “angry.” Still, he shrugged it off.
By summer, there were other changes. “I asked Myk, who also spoke to her frequently, if he noticed anything.” But, again, it was so minute that they initially discounted it.
That summer, the large family, spread across so many states, began to plan an October trip to the Texas State Fair. But Jonathan’s mother kept vacillating about coming. This was so unusual, muses Jonathan, hunching over the table. She blamed it on her husband’s health. “I asked my dad, but he wouldn’t say anything.”
And then in August, Myk phoned Jonathan from his Missouri home to say that their mother would call him. That’s all he would say.
Jonathan’s two hands are steady on the table top. “And so, my mom calls me. And I knew that she was going to say she had some dread disease. I just didn’t think it would be cancer. My family has never had cancer. Diabetes and heart attacks take us out. Cancer never crossed my mind.”
Lydia first became concerned around Father’s Day—the weekend Jonathan had flown to Texas. “In retrospect,” he says, “I wonder why I didn’t pick up on it when she said she was sore as I hugged her.” Now he knew why she seemed so distracted, so short-tempered. Something was on her mind, something she wasn’t willing to discuss. It was to be her own burden.
“My mom didn’t want anyone—including her seven siblings and her five sons—to know she had cancer. My dad was tormented by this secret. But he kept it.” Jonathan sits upright. “My mom always took care of others. That’s all she knew how to do. She didn’t know how to be taken care of.”
Once his mom shared the news, Jonathan immediately made an appointment with her doctor to understand the treatment: chemo, followed by a double mastectomy. He felt easier; there was a plan, and the doctor was optimistic.
Lydia completed chemo in December 2015 and had a double mastectomy in January. Her checkups were good, her blood work in March was good, and she felt good.
But the week before Memorial Day, she drove herself to the hospital, unable to breathe. Fluid had built up in her lungs, and tests revealed that the breast cancer had metastasized to her lungs, liver, and lymph nodes.
“A boomerang.” Jonathan runs a palm across the side of his head, smoothing back his black hair. He flew to Austin to accompany his mother to a doctor’s appointment. The lawyer in him fired up. Was her blood work really fine in March, or had the doctors missed something? And why had his mother detected the change to her body, and not the doctor, despite the checkups?
“I looked at my mom, and I saw fear in her eyes,” he pulls in a deep breath. “I stopped grilling the doctor. The first time she had cancer, she was a warrior, and I didn’t want to see her spirit defeated by me casting doubt on her doctor.”
Although the recurrence hit Lydia hard and quickly, she regained her momentum; she thought she’d beat cancer again. “She had fluid drained from her lungs two or three times a week, often driving herself to the hospital because she didn’t want to bother her church friends or have my dad take even more time off from work,” notes Jonathan.
He lightly touches the rose-gold wedding band on his left finger. “I don’t think we truly appreciated how bad it was until my mom refused to visit us in August, because she didn’t think she could make the steps.” Kelly and Jonathan had just purchased a new home and were excited to show it to his mom.
The family decided that Lydia and Andrew had to move near family. “My dad was still recuperating from his heart attack, and now my mom was being treated for cancer,” says Jonathan. The brothers determined that their parents should move to the small Missouri town where Myk was an O.R. nurse. She’d be treated royally in the hospital. “My brother,” says Jonathan, “bought a house for them. I went to Austin, pulled out the lawyer card, and got my parents out of their apartment lease, cleaned out their storage units, arranged the movers, and in less than a month, my brothers and I had them set up to move. I planned to take an extended amount of time off after the move to help them get acclimated.”
The brothers agreed to gather in Missouri on October 1st to greet their parents after their drive from Texas. Then they’d take them to their new home—which they’d only seen in photos. As planned, the movers packed them on Thursday, and the parents slept in a hotel.
“That night, I called my mom as I usually did. I’d just given a speech, and I wanted to tell her how it went. It was tough for her to talk on the phone those days. She’d talk, cough, breathe, cough, and talk a little more. As we hung up, I said, ‘I’ll see you in two days.’” Jonathan gazes at his hands.
The next morning, Myk–accustomed to speaking to families about loss–phoned to deliver the hard news: “Mom passed away in the hotel last night.” It was a rainy day, the last day of September 2016.
Since the family had already arranged to gather in Missouri, they decided that it would be best for their dad to join them to plan the funeral in Texas. Jonathan’s brother Len traveled to Austin to accompany their father on his drive to the new home. “It was bittersweet,” says Jonathan. “The home felt comfortable, almost filled with mom’s presence, but the truth was, she wasn’t there.”
Lydia had always wanted a home big enough to house visiting family. In death, she insured her husband would have it, and insured her family always had a place to go. The family gathered in that home to arrange her services.
Jonathan straightens his tie. “My mom—even after her passing—continues to nurture, lead, and protect us. I don’t think my dad would be here if she hadn’t agreed to move closer to my brother. He would have died from loneliness. My mom and dad were together all the time.”
He furrows his brow, and continues, “Although there are five boys, the relationship with our oldest brother, Victor, a teacher in Lubbock, was strained. But since our mom’s passing, we’ve reconnected with him. She would’ve loved that. And she would’ve loved knowing that my brother David, who also teaches in Lubbock, has made sure his daughters and granddaughter know of their grandmother’s strength, courage, and selflessness.
“And another thing,” Jonathan adds, “although my brother Myk works in medicine and would have been screened for colon cancer eventually, after our mother’s death, it became a priority. The screening revealed cancerous cells, which the doctors removed without complication.
“My mom’s legacy is to ensure we’re all on a better track. I am thankful for her ripple effect on the family, but,” Jonathan shifts in his seat, “I feel a little robbed.
“She was so generous. In my last semester of law school, I was hit by a car as I was walking. She put her entire life on hold to fly up to care for me for several weeks. That semester, I got my highest marks. I think it was because my mom was there to take the psychological and physical load off me.”
Jonathan stands. “I take great pride when people compliment me for being a good, respectful man or father. I know it’s because my mom raised me right.”
Even as he looks to the future, he carries some regrets for the past. “I never got to repay her for the wonderful mother she was, never got to take my turn taking care of her.” He wishes he’d taken his month-long sabbatical before his parents’ move, and that he could’ve told her that Kelly was pregnant. Now his son is two, and he wants to call his mom any time her grandson does something adorable.
Birthdays have been tough. “That was my mom’s day for me. She had a way of repeating herself when she left phone messages. She would say, ‘I love you, love you, love you, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy birthday.’” He doesn’t get those messages any more.
Jonathan heads for the door. His tie nearly touches his belt, and at its very bottom is a discreet pink symbol for breast cancer.
Jonathan is on the Cancer Support Community board of directors.