Her husband and five year-old son walked down the church aisle towards her casket. That’s when I began to lose it. Red-faced and with a quivering jaw, Jeremy held his son’s hand tightly, and little Jeremiah bopped alongside his dad. We were all heartbroken, but none more than these two, even if Jeremiah didn’t fully comprehend everything.
Maya was lying peacefully in the same spot where she and Jeremy had gotten married several years before. I remember sitting in those same pews on their wedding day, watching them exchange vows and grinning and chuckling at how choked up my homegirl was as she said, “I do.” That was a glorious day. Now we were all gathered for the most unthinkable of occasions: to say our final goodbyes.
She was first diagnosed in 2009. Only 30 years old, if you can believe that. When the news first reached me, my own mother was recovering from a pretty serious cancer fight herself. But for Maya, young and healthy and a new mother with a rocket ship of a career about to take off, the news seemed especially cruel.
But cancer’s beatable, right? I mean, my mom beat it. My mom beat it twice. Surely Maya’s case was beatable, too. Even until the very end when emails ramped up about palliative care and prayer circles, I still thought she would come out on top. Oh, the naïve hope of the uninformed.
I’d deliberately not googled anything about Maya’s specific cancer. I didn’t wanna know the prognosis. But I just hoped and prayed and hoped and prayed and felt guilty when my own mother recovered.
That was the thing. Maya wasn’t some feeble, old lady. She was one of us. She was my peer. This wasn’t some stranger whose work I followed professionally. She wasn’t just part of my networking circle. I’d known her since grade school. As a kid, I’d stayed at her house for days at a time, and she at mine. I knew her family. And though we’d lost touch after high school, that made our reconnection after college that much better. More than anything, she was a sweetheart who was smart smart smart. And my God, she had a man that loved her dirty drawers, y’all.
When the time came to close her casket, half the church turned its head, including my mother who was sitting beside me. The heartache was just too much.
A church soloist sang “Take Me to the King,” a beautiful gospel tune that was quite appropriate and that I’ve gone out of my way to avoid hearing ever again. Meanwhile, Jeremy, adoring and resilient as ever, showed the inner strength of ten men when he tucked the decorative padding inside the casket, looked at Maya one final time, and closed the lid firmly.
Like almost everyone else watching, I reached my hand out towards Jeremy and pleadedprayedbegged, “Father, give this man strength! GIVE ‘EM STRENGTH!”
Jeremy then smoothed his hands over the casket, took a small step back, and raised his arms straight up and out, as if presenting his wife’s body to God. His head slowly moved back and forth and he looked to be saying his own silent prayer. I couldn’t hear much over my own wailing and the lady singing. I seriously thought I might faint. But I didn’t want to miss anything because to date, watching Jeremy do this whole thing is the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him because most of the men I know tout their strength and masculinity and toughness like an Olympic medal around their necks. They believe themselves capable of handling anything. But it’s so easy to break the seams in that kind of bravado, and I’ve seen it broken more times than I can count. In Jeremy that day, I saw something else: a man taking care of his woman until the very last moment — as he had throughout her entire illness — and showing what manhood looks like for real.
In the six months since Maya’s death, I have recounted this experience maybe four or five times. Every time I tell it, I tear up.
Today would’ve been Maya’s 34th birthday. And I want her family to know – and if it’s possible, for Maya herself to know – what an inspiration her life and her family’s example has been.
There’s a fund for Maya that her sister set up. I encourage you to go here to contribute. And if you wanna hear from the woman herself, she gave a testimony to her church only a couple of months before she died. You can watch that here.
Let her words do for you what they continue to do for me. When I’m running out of patience or out of kindness with someone, I think, “Pull it together, girl. Maya would want you to do better.” Or on a really busy workday when my fatigue or frustration tempts me to abandon what I’m working on, I think, “Push through this for Maya.” She even sneaks into my workouts. “One more set for Maya.”
“Hold this yoga pose for Maya.” “Two more laps for Maya.”
This chile’ is everywhere for me.
I don’t know a lot about religion. But I think that’s what God wants for us a lot of the time: to help and guide each other by example; to make each other try harder; ya know, not to settle for complacency. Maya is my personal ambassador for that. Today and always, I will honor her memory.