A woman who lost her husband is a widow; a woman who loses her parents is an orphan. There’s no word for a mother who loses a child.
Pablo Velazquez loved music, “Star Wars,” Oreos and mac and cheese. “Just like a normal little kid.”
A normal little kid who died of leukemia. The irony of Pablo’s diagnosis and death a year later, his mother, Erika Velazquez says, is that no one in her immediate family has had cancer.
It’s been three years since Pablo’s passing, and this year, for the second time, Erika will be participating in Calvary Cemetery’s Día de los Muertos altar event. Last year’s altar included a lightsaber in honor of Pablo’s love of “Star Wars.”
“It’s just to remember a kid who was full of life,” Erika says — a kid who played his favorite video game, “Black Ops,” with his friends even when he was in and out of the hospital, as a way of maintaining communication with them.
Erika doesn’t build an altar at home, but she always has his pictures out, along with candles. “I try to do something for him at home,” she says.
Among the photos are a picture of Pablo with his twin sister, Stephanie Lazo. It’s a way of trying to “keep him alive for the whole family.”
Since Pablo’s death, Stephanie keeps to herself, but “she understands” that Erika wants to keep her brother’s memory alive. She admits that seeing the altar can be difficult for Stephanie because it brings back memories, but she helped set up the altar last year and is helping this year as well.
Erika also works at Calvary Cemetery, which has proved to be a great resource in her healing.
“A lot of priests have offered their services. They were attentive. Now that he is gone, there’s a special priest, Father Abel [Loera], that each year on his anniversary of his death he does a special memory Mass at his parish. And I get to invite all my family and friends, I take a photo of my son, on the day of his passing.”
She says that she still feels blessed, even though the aftermath of her son’s death can be difficult. Even during last year’s Día de los Muertos event — which was overall a very positive experience she would “definitely” encourage others to participate in — Pablo’s passing was a source of new pain.
Several of the photos on Pablo’s altar showed him wearing a beanie. Erika says he wore them due to his hair loss from chemo. While families were exploring the cemetery, visiting their neighbor’s altars, Erika heard people notice Pablo’s beanies.
“So a lot of people were saying, you know, maybe he got shot, or maybe he was on a bad path, and that to me, in a way it was hurtful, but I understand that we had to educate people.”
She says this year, she’s going to put one of the photos in a frame with orange ribbons — signifying leukemia awareness — in an effort to bring awareness to the fact that “cancer, unfortunately, doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can get cancer.”
Despite this, Erika is open about the event’s value in the healing process. “And that altar has helped me. With the family, with the faith, with trying to educate people.
And it was also nice to go around and see people, because each family has their own story and this is what the altars mean.” She says it’s helpful for families to share their loved ones’ “love of life.”
Last year, another participant had built an altar to a deceased daughter. She and her husband had brought stuffed animals and were giving them out to children at the event, in memory of their daughter, who even as an adult was an avid collector of stuffed animals.
“That helped them remember,” Erika said. Similarly, for Erika, the act of putting her son’s favorite things on the altar isn’t about the food, “but him.”
She notes the benefits of these acts of remembrance among a community of believers. “It was very helpful to me to know that I’m not the only one, that other people go through their grieving, that things like this, they really help.”