The week before Christmas of 2021, a year full of blurry political upheaval and pandemic anxieties, my aunt died of breast cancer. Christmas was her favorite holiday. She would dress up her home in El Salvador with lights, wreaths, and color. She’d make her exquisite paella with mariscos that tasted like you were eating them in front of el mar. She always made it a point to pull you aside and dive into conversations that made you feel it was just you and her. And she always, always, welcomed you with the warmest hug that felt like the sun.
My tía was like a mother to my sisters and me, so much so, we called her Mami Celina. Almost every summer, we'd go live with Mami Celina and she'd become our second mother and representation of what my Salvadoran identity was in the motherland. She wasn't only our tía; she was the center of my Salvadoran family. A matriarch, she was a woman full of joy, wisdom, and confidence. Every single person who crossed her path found a home in her laughter, her advice, and her stories. She was the foundation that held our family together and defined the close ties we have today. So what is our family without her and what does El Salvador mean to me now that she's gone?
Months before my aunt’s cancer advanced, I started experiencing anticipatory grief. That is, the beginning of grief when a loved one is still alive. I’d listen to podcasts trying to understand it, read articles on how to deal with it, and spent hours researching her cancer. Within six months of her diagnosis, her cancer started to spread, and the news was so shocking that I couldn’t sleep. I lost my appetite. I fainted one afternoon and woke up to a pain so deep I literally did not have the language to understand what was happening. Imagining life without Mami Celina was like imagining a life without the sun. Of course I did all the things I should have at the time: go to therapy, talk about my feelings with my family, and cry it out. But that wasn’t enough; I was bursting at the seams. So I started running. Some days, I didn’t know where I was going, or what I was training for, but I knew I needed to move. I needed to be outside on the trails among the trees and the birds. The forest is forgiving. Nature didn’t judge me if I decided to quiet my cries or allow them to belt out.
I had the privilege to visit Mami Celina a couple of months before she passed away. You should have seen her, a warrior in heels. If there’s one thing you must know about my tía, it’s that she was striking. She was known to be coqueta, loved to go shopping, and always had her long natural nails done. She’d go to her chemo appointments with lovely earrings, a full face of makeup, and comfy heels on. I remember as a little girl, I’d stand behind her as she’d sit at her vanity getting ready to go out for the night. Today I value these moments: the smell of cosmetics and perfume, the sound of a blow dryer, and her carefully eyeing her lipstick while looking at me through the mirror with a smile. This is how I remember her.
The morning before I saw her since her diagnosis, I ran. I was in the beach town I grew up visiting her in, often having conversations for hours in the warm Pacific water and playing with the volcanic sand. That morning, I intentionally took my time analyzing the palm trees, listening to the songbirds, and exploring all the fruits I grew up picking: guayabas, marañones, and sometimes limes. I knew that day would be special. We spent it in our home in San Salvador surrounded by dozens of family photos, talking about her memories, singing with my grandmother, and laughing so hard our bellies hurt. I remember making a promise to myself that day that I’d never spend so much time away from home again. The last day I saw her is one I’ll carry in my heart for eternity. It’s too precious to share, some memories are best left untouched.
When I came back to Los Angeles, I felt a weight lift off my chest. I started smiling more, going out with friends again, and even feeling more adventurous, more like myself. I started calling Mami Celina every week, and she kept sharing herself with me. Even amid her exhaustion, she always made time. I loved hearing all her stories, the good and the bad. She talked about the earthquakes, the corruption, and the war. She shared memories about joyous beach days, the moment she gave birth, growing up as the eldest daughter of seven, her recuerdos of my Honduran great-grandmother. She told me how much she missed her own father and gave me advice about children. She wanted me to show her the views from my home and planned to visit LA with my mom. She wanted to go to Washington, DC, for Christmas because, oh, she loved being with the family on Christmas. We had plans. Don’t we all?
Then one day, she didn’t answer my call. She didn’t respond to my texts. My WhatsApp voice messages went unheard.
So I ran. I ran and I chose a half-marathon because running without purpose did not make sense to me anymore. I needed something to hold on to, a reason to keep going even when it hurt too much, even when I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
This last Christmas, our home in El Salvador was not as bright as others. But, to my surprise, there were still pieces of her there. I looked for her everywhere, and ended up finding her in my cousin’s smile, in my uncle’s jokes, in my Papi Juan’s hugs, and in my mother’s eyes. I heard her voice at the salon as we were all getting dolled up to spend her favorite holiday together, days after burying her. She’s in my dreams, in the butterflies that appear when I’m sad, and in the hummingbirds that approach me uncommonly close. She comes to me when I’m running almost 10 miles straight and my vision is absolutely clear. Even when my knees want to buckle and my feet want to give up, I see her smile. She is everywhere.
As I'm approaching my half-marathon on February 19, which happens to be my 31st birthday, I owe so much of my understanding of what grief is to me to running. Grief is such a personal and intimate process. Though some of us may have communities to lean on during tough times, at the end of the day, we're the ones who go to bed trying to make sense of the void we're left with after a loved one has passed. For me, running has been my guiding light toward healing. I’ve come to understand that where there is deep grief, there is a deeper love. And yes, I still have days that are hard, but I also have days that are incredibly beautiful. For me, grief is expanding myself vast enough to hold it, all of it.
Mami Celina would say, "recordar es vivir." To remember is to live life fully.
And for me, running is remembering—and noticing her everywhere I go is living.