Last month, when his eighth-grade language arts class at Ponce de Leon Middle School started reading the memoir Why I Hated Pink, Adreyan Pena would quietly excuse himself and wait outside in the hall, trying “to think about other stuff.”
What most students in the class didn’t know was that Adreyan’s mother, Miami-Dade police officer Diana Cordova-Pena, was dying of breast cancer.
Diagnosed in 2009, Cordova-Pena, 36, had waged a successful battle against the disease until about a year ago when doctors discovered new cancer cells. Outwardly, she seemed optimistic. But she confided to a few close friends that the additional chemo she was undergoing was merely palliative. It would not save her life, said her close friend, officer Heather Grimes.
So Cordova-Pena began planning her last year.
She made a bucket list of things to do and places to go with Adreyan and six close friends, also officers at the Northwest District where she worked. Three months before the deadline, she filled out forms Adreyan needed to continue in the International Baccalaureate program at Coral Gables Senior High next year. She visited a photo studio to shoot the portrait that would be displayed at her funeral. She plotted the route from her mother’s house to the church. And she made sure she would be laid to rest in her uniform.
And then, as she slipped in and out of consciousness at a hospital just before she died Oct. 15, she told her only child she would not be coming home.
“She was braver than anyone I’ve seen in my life,” Grimes said. “She did everything she could to fill Adreyan’s life. That was the thing that concerned her most.”
In the end, friends and family say, Cordova-Pena died the way she lived: unafraid, happy and with her 13-year-old son foremost in her mind.
Every year, breast cancer kills nearly 40,000 women. One in eight women can expect to be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetimes. In 2012 alone, there will be an estimated 226,870 new cases. All those numbers add up to immeasurable sadness for families, particularly children. The National Institutes of Health reports that little is known about the number of children who lose parents to cancer. But of those diagnosed with cancer every year, the NIH estimates more than 22 percent will be between the ages of 21 and 55, prime years for raising children.
And for kids like Adreyan, grieving a parent’s death can be a complex and confusing time.
“It’s an enormous loss, like a physical amputation,” said Regina Melchor-Beaupre, a pediatric psychologist with Baptist Health and Child Psychology Associates in South Miami, who completed a two-year clinical fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, focusing on families and cancer.
Children suffer the same grief, despair and sadness as adults, but it may look different, according to the American Cancer Society. They may show sadness briefly, then seemingly return to their old selves and resume normal activities. But it is because they are so unprepared to deal with the magnitude of the loss that they revert to what they know. Some may even appear to be relieved by the death, if the illness was prolonged. But grief can reappear at any time, even years later.
Seeing his mother take such pains to prepare, Melchor-Beaupre explained, coupled with the work his teacher did in class, likely equipped Adreyan better than anything else Cordova-Pena could have done.
“All the preparation they did prior will make a world of difference to him,” she said. “It doesn’t mean he won’t need support, but it means those last moments were given meaning and purpose.”
Cordova-Pena only wanted one beautiful child, said her husband Luis Pena. The pair first met at Miami Jackson High School when he was a senior and she a junior, but they didn’t start dating until they reconnected as students at Miami Dade College. When they married, Cordova-Pena, who earned a degree in criminal justice, was eager to focus on her dream of becoming a law enforcement officer and having a child, Pena said. She got a job as a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent at Miami International Airport and applied to the police academy.
“She was so happy when they accepted her,” said Pena, a federal corrections officer at the Bureau of Prisons. “She was always studying, studying, studying. Her graduation from the academy was the best thing that ever happened to her.”
In 2006, Cordova-Pena went to work at the Northwest District, always staying on top of her son’s education.
“My wife made a point of meeting every single teacher and saying, this is my phone number. If he acts up in school, you call,” Pena said
After two years at the station, she joined the community service team, said Maj. Ignacio Alvarez, working with neighborhood crime watch groups and organizing events for the young and old. The job, he said, was perfectly tailored for her outgoing personality and relentless drive to help people. Even before her diagnosis, Cordova-Pena was a champion for breast cancer awareness.
“You would dread walking by their door, because in October you might as well bring all your extra dollars because you just had to buy a bracelet or a keychain or a T-shirt or a pink badge,” Grimes said.
At his mother’s funeral, Adreyan said a young woman introduced herself and said her mother had died when she was 14. When Cordova-Pena, who used to dress up as Mrs. Claus every Christmas to hand out gifts, learned about it, she brought presents to her and her brother.
“I didn’t even know she did that,” he said. “It really caught me off guard.”
The day Cordova-Pena learned she had breast cancer, she had taken Adreyan to the doctor’s office, unprepared for the devastating news. When she walked into the waiting room where he sat, she was crying.
“She explained nothing is going to happen to me. I’ll be in pain and have surgeries, but nothing is going to happen,” Adreyan said. “I thought OK, as long as she’s still with me.”
Over the next two years, Cordova-Pena immersed herself in work, particularly programs dealing with breast cancer. She began driving the department’s pink car and participated in walk-a-thons. On the day she finished chemo, she did a walk-a-thon in her wheelchair. At a dedication of a pink fire truck in Miami Beach, she and Adreyan both wrote messages on the truck. “You never know how strong you are until that’s your only choice,” Cordova-Pena wrote. Next to it, Adreyan wrote, “Together we are strong. But alone we are nothing.”
Adreyan, who attended Maya Angelou Elementary School, had picked Ponce middle school after attending a magnet school fair and being impressed with the presentation .
“She always said ‘do well in school because it will take you far’,” he said. So Cordova-Pena happily signed off, he said, as long as he found transportation.
At the school, he has flourished, said his language arts teacher, Lynn Bryan. This year alone he’s taking four high school classes.
For the last three years, Bryan has been incorporating Breast Cancer Awareness month into her class s. She reads parts of Why I Hated Pink out loud, skipping parts she feels are inappropriate, and asks students to write memoirs. Bryan also had a personal stake: in 2001 her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and was successfully treated with radiation. In addition to the memoirs, students sign pledges vowing to remind loved ones to have mammograms, then wallpaper the cafeteria with them.
“In a weird way, it’s fun too. We laugh. It’s a bonding experience,” she said.
But when the class started the unit at the beginning of October this year, she was unaware Adreyan’s mother was sick. Once she found out, Bryan gave him the option of staying in class or leaving. And when it got rough, he excused himself. She also sent a copy of the book home to his mother.
“And then she gave me a pen and she sent it through him. We sent things back and forth through him,” Bryan said.
The Monday after his mother’s funeral, everyone kept a careful eye on Adreyan. Because Cordova-Pena texted him every morning to make sure he’d gotten off the school bus OK, Grimes made sure to text him.
“I was afraid that as bad as it was for me, because we always texted each other in the morning, that it would be worse for him.”
And when he returned to school Tuesday, Bryan made sure to keep things light, including him in the class’s final preparations for Breast Cancer Awareness month, and encouraging him to attach his mother’s picture to a banner that would hang in the cafeteria.
“When he walked in, I said I’m not going to hug and kiss him. I’m going to high-five him,” Bryan said. “I was not going to add to the sadness. I looked at him several times in class and he was laughing and I thought, touchdown.”
Giving him a choice, and a voice, Melchor-Beaupre said, “is an extremely important option for an adolescent in life.”
“It used to be that the most severe illness you would hear about in school was asthma. Now you know kids with diabetes. We have children with cancer actually undergoing chemotherapy and still in school,” she explained. “It’s not just the three R’s anymore. We’re addressing very important social issues and issues relevant to the world today.”
The approach prepares them for an inevitable reality, she said.
“Cancer puts a person in a situation where they have to muster up the courage and energy they didn’t have before,” she said. “He saw her literally engaging in that. It will definitely have an impact on his life, but he’s probably as resilient a kid as his mom was.”
And when asked what advice he would give to other kids in his position, Adreyan said he’d tell them to set a goal.
“You can ignore the fact that it’s happening, but sometimes that doesn’t work,” he said. “I know she’d want me to keep going in school. So that’s what I’d say. Set a goal. And I just have to fulfill that goal.”