We’d go to these trips around the country with her friend. We even hiked the Andes and one day, we went swimming without our bathing suites! Oh, she was so free. Nothing could stop her from living her life.
But it was in that pizza place that I actually saw her:
We had just arrived from Venezuela to a small place called Smiths Grove in Kentucky. This was the second time for her to be here. First time she arrived from native Iran as an exchange student and got her Master’s in Public Health at Western Kentucky University. But then she met my father whom she married after graduation and went to live in Venezuela with. I was 8 years old when she took this step to come to America with me and my brothers, alone. And all she did was work at a pizza place that her brother owned. She felt so obligated to return the favor to him because he helped her start a new life after she divorced my father. She brought us on a student’s visa that later expired, but even after many years when she got her green card, it was difficult to find a job in her field because she had no experience in it. And that’s when I SAW her as single Mom sacrificing so much to provide for her kids!
She was gone on weekends because pizza place was so busy, and I had to watch my brothers at home. I never looked at her in this way in Venezuela. Never.
I lived with her in Smiths Grove until I got married in Bowling Green, about 30 miles away. But she didn’t want me to leave home. She was very traditional. And I wanted to be independent. So we had our differences. But I was already dating my husband, and we got married in 2002. Then she finally decided to move out of Smiths Grove. She went to live in California where my younger brother was. She spent four years there. But the very last year in California, she received her diagnosis of lung cancer.
I flew out that same day to be there.
And I thought there are many new technologies, we could beat it. Things started moving forward. But it was when my son was born that we realized the cancer was never gone. At that point I was faced with the reality: I started researching lung cancer. It was a death sentence! But how is this even possible when she’s not a smoker? But more than likely, it was that restaurant; they allowed smoking.
I then realized that life is too short and precious, and I don’t have a lot of time left with Mom. I didn’t want to work 48 hours a week when I could be spending time with her.
I quit my job.
I said I’m going to take care of my Mom and my son, and the job will come. But I loved my job. I worked as an educator, advocating at Hope Harbor—center for victims of rape and sexual assault. But I needed to be there for her. And immediately after I made the decision, I knew it was the right thing to do. She went into radiation, and someone had to take care of her. Had I not quit my job, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
After the hospitalization, my brother who lived with her in California got a scholarship to go to Vanderbilt, so she did a cross country with him and came to live in Bowling Green. She even bought a house here, something she always longed for it! But soon after my son turned two in 2010, Mom was hospitalized and the doctor said she couldn’t stay alone anymore. She stayed with us. But the one week we put her to Hospice Care to recover, it was the week she passed..
I was mad. This was not supposed to happen. We were supposed to have her forever. I was upset because I always felt my father was the bad guy, but she, she dedicated her life to us. She cared and protected us.
And even to this day it is difficult talking about her.
But after my daughter was born, I realized how much I wish she was here, and how much my kids were missing out on knowing this incredible woman. Then I became so self-conscious. I started to think of myself. I started asking myself, why did she get sick? What is it that I missed? So, what kind of a life-style should would bring me a better, healthier, and longer life for my own kids? Because I did not want to leave them behind, I needed to protect what I have, and treasure it. I stared eating and leading a healthier life. I stared exercising. I jumped into my workflow, and suddenly it was 11 years since she’s been gone.
But what my Mom went through, impacted me, and still continues to do so. Seeing that she was held back as a woman, I decided that I did not want anything or anyone hold me back. I wanted to be self-sufficient and not have to depend on anyone. And I don’t even know why we have these traditional roles when I can decide if for example, today I will cook, and for tomorrow it’s alright if I don’t have to have the food on a table at a certain time like my dad expected from my Mom.
I became more empowered as a woman, and because of that, I can do the same for other women, especially refugee women. And it is today that I see what Mom
did to face all odds to say: “I can’t live in this country anymore,” was the most powerful step that she took. She said nothing will stop me! Had she had not taken this step, who knows what kind of life I’d have in Venezuela. And this changed my life forever.
Sometimes I think she was crazy, but with such an attitude and a smile on her face, if I had to live the life she had, I don’t know how I would handle it. And I thank her for that. I wish I could tell her that now my kids are safe here, that I don’t have to raise them in war, or poverty. And that nothing can stop me from living the life I have, from having my own voice in the community that I live and work in. I am strong and free, all because of her.
And I owe her that that grit of gratitude.
In 2000 when Leyda Becker arrived to Smits Grove, Kentucky, with her Mom who sought a better life for her and her brothers, it took them many years to become naturalized. Today, Leyda works as an International Communities Liaison in Bowling Green, and some of her programs and work include helping other immigrants and refugees gain legal status, empowering and helping women.