Softball teammates carry on mothers' legacies
They are their mothers' daughters -- Mercedes, with her blue eyes and "dorky" sense of humor; Alyssa, with her maternal ways and desire to see the best in people.
They honor their mothers' legacies of love and courage and wisdom. Mercedes, tangibly, with a tattoo that reads, "No matter what, we'll get through it together," her mother's words bearing her signature; and Alyssa, living her mom's advice to "Never fall short of your dreams."
They carry on because of their mothers, though their softball coach and teammates at West Texas A&M say they do much more than carry on. The Lady Buffs' double-play tandem of Alyssa Lemos, who was 16 when she lost her mother, Roni, to ovarian cancer four years ago; and Mercedes Garcia, whose mother, Marchelle Romero, died of skin cancer this past June, inspire even in their grief.
Mostly, though, theirs is a story of a friendship forged through pain but sustained by the strength of two young women who share the unthinkable.
Neither had previously known illness in her family. And when Wayne Lemos first noticed that his wife appeared a bit bloated in May 2005, he wasn't sure he should even say anything.
"It's not something to tell your wife: 'You're looking a little bigger, [honey],' " Alyssa said.
But Wayne did insist that Roni see a doctor, and over the next year and a half she was told she might have everything from PMS, to an ulcer, to a gallbladder problem, to nothing at all. But during gallbladder surgery late in 2006, a diagnosis of ovarian cancer was made.
"By then, they found that the cancer had hit seven major organs," Alyssa said.
"We were just blindsided," Wayne said. "Absolutely stunned."
Marchelle Romero's diagnosis was a shock as well. She'd had the mole on her leg for as long as she could remember. But in May 2010, she noticed it had changed and become puffy, and when it was removed, doctors told her they had to dig deep to get it all.
"When she told us 'melanoma,' we had to look it up on the computer," Mercedes said. "Me and my brothers didn't know what that was, and her doctor had to tell her over and over. We knew it was skin cancer, but we didn't know how severe it was."
Six months later, Romero had just begun rehab from a skin graft to fill in her calf and hip surgery to remove the then-cancer-free lymph nodes when doctors told her that her cancer had progressed to Stage IV and was now present in four different areas of her body.
Strength in friendship
Their first conversation occurred over the dugout fence in August 2011 -- Alyssa, a sophomore shortstop from Grapevine, Texas, leaning on one side, and Mercedes, an incoming transfer and junior first baseman from Tucson, Ariz., on the other.
"I had a tattoo ribbon for cancer and Alyssa asked what it was for," Mercedes recalled. "I said it was for my grandmother who passed away [from stomach cancer the year before]. She said, 'My mom passed away from cancer,' and I told her my mom was diagnosed with melanoma.
"So many people since my mom passed have said, 'How are you here? If one of my parents passed, I couldn't do it. How can you do that?' And if I didn't know Alyssa, I'd think the same thing. Your parents are your entire world. But that's what I saw in Alyssa, someone who was so strong, and I gained so much respect for her immediately."
Well before they first met, Alyssa was cognizant of the awkward words of comfort people often offer because of sickness and tragedy, the well-meaning but empty "I know how you must feel," and wanted nothing more than to avoid that with Mercedes. But the truth was, in many ways she did know how her friend and teammate was feeling.
"Ever since my mom passed, it has always been: Why did this happen? Why my mom? Why did she deserve this? Why did it happen to my family?" Alyssa said. "But when I met Mercedes, it was three years later and for the most part, I was past the real grieving process, so I felt I could help her get through it and still relate firsthand to what she was going through.
"I just told her, 'I heard what you're going through [with your mom's illness]. I went through something extremely similar and I want you to know I'm here for you if you want to talk about absolutely anything, that I'm thinking of you and praying for you and hoping you can get through it,' "Alyssa said.
Mercedes' response, said Alyssa, was almost shocking given what she was experiencing.
"It was the week before the third anniversary [of my mom's passing], a year ago September," Alyssa recalled. "I barely knew Mercedes. We had probably talked a grand total of two hours. Her mom was still alive but definitely battling. And she said, 'Let's hang out that day. I want to help you get through it. I don't want you to be alone.' I thought that was absolutely selfless of her, and from then on there was really an open line of communication between us."
"It came naturally," Mercedes recalled, "something my mom would've done. I just didn't want to see her hurting. Her mom's birthday is around the same time, and I knew she wouldn't want to be by herself."
From Alyssa, Mercedes said she gained something equally valuable.
"My mom always told us, 'We're going to fight through it,' and I never saw the ending of it. I really didn't think about the reality that she was going to pass away," she said. "When Alyssa told me about her mom, in a way it kind of prepared me that this was going to happen one day and that I was going to go through it for the long term but that it didn't have to conquer me."
Alyssa said the strength and maturity she has demonstrated since her mother's death -- two days after her 44th birthday in September 2008 -- was simply necessary. With her father's job as a regional sales manager for a food manufacturer requiring him to travel, new responsibilities suddenly fell to her.
"I had to drive my brother [Austin, then 12] to and from school and worry about groceries for the family and what we were going to eat when my father was out of town," she said. "I honestly never expected to have to worry about that, and I grew and matured throughout the experience. Hopefully, it will give me a leg up when I actually have a family on my own."
All of which is not to imply it does not still remain a challenge.
"My mom dedicated her life to us," Alyssa said. "She was a stay-at-home mom and the hardest part for me was figuring out how to live without her, how to get things done on my own. It's still painful on holidays and monumental times in my life like moving into the dorms, which she would have helped me do, and my 21st birthday is coming up in January. Those are the moments when I miss her most."
She said she is grateful, however, that she remembers and continues to be inspired by her mother's words of wisdom.
"I asked her point-blank one day," Alyssa recalled, "because it was getting toward the end, 'You're not going to be here when I have kids, when I get married and go to college. Is there any advice you can give me?'
"One thing that stuck out the most is that she told me, 'You have a chance to be great and succeed in life. Never fall short of your dreams.' "
Alyssa's decision to pursue a career as a physician, she said, is a direct result of that conversation.
"I always worried about being able to have a family and be in the medical field," Alyssa said. "But my mom told me, 'Never be afraid. Just go for your dream, and if your dream is to be a doctor, do everything in your power to succeed and everything else will fall into place. Having a family will come along with that.' "
For Mercedes, the pain is still raw, and her first visit home since her mother's death at age 49, over this past Thanksgiving, was indescribably difficult.
"It was good to see my brothers (who are six and four years older) and nephew and dad," said Mercedes, who lived with her mother after her parents divorced when she was 11. "My dad surprised me by having my grandma and aunt from my mom's side there. We talked and it was good the first few hours, but once reality hit, it was hard. I wasn't going back to my mom's house, I was going to my brother's. With my mother not there, Tucson just doesn't feel like home anymore."
Like Alyssa, whose performance on the field suffered after her mother's death to the point that recruiters stopped calling, Mercedes -- still attending community college close to home during her mother's illness -- said she had trouble focusing on school and softball.
"My whole dream was to go to a big school, but I was having a hard time during the recruiting process," Mercedes said. "As my mom got sicker, I stopped responding to schools and stopped caring so much. In the back of my mind I knew me leaving for college meant me leaving my mom.
"But she said, 'I know you're stopping your life because of me, and I want to see you pursue your dreams.' My mom fell in love with [West Texas A&M]. I remember saying to her on my visit, 'You're more excited than I am.' "
During her first season at WTAMU last spring, one week after she made the 10-hour trip home for Easter, Mercedes was beckoned home by her stepfather, who told her, "Something's not right with your mom."The cancer had spread to her lungs, kidneys and aorta. "That's when she said, 'No treatment anymore, I want to live the rest of my life without medicine,' " Mercedes said. "That's when everyone knew."
Returning to school just two months after her mother's death on June 6, Mercedes laments, "I really never got a chance to mourn." But Alyssa's support and her mother's words have helped.
"Alyssa told me to take my time with it, don't rush it," Mercedes said. "Not only did I lose the biggest part of my life but I've lost the simplest things. The hardest part is hearing people say something about their mom or getting phone calls and knowing I'm never going to have that again."
She admits leaving school crossed her mind.
"For a while, I thought maybe I'm moving too fast," she said. "But until she took her last breath, my mom told my brothers, 'Make sure your sister goes back to school.' It was her dream that I finish and I'm doing this more for her than for me."
'It's almost like fate'Lady Buffs coach Kevin Blaskowski said he recognized both girls' strength during their recruitment, which began while their mothers were ill.
"I just wanted to give them an opportunity," he said. "The key was that they're outstanding young ladies. I think both will be very successful in life because of the challenges they have had to this point."
Alyssa has started every game at shortstop since her freshman season (121 straight), most in the leadoff spot. Her first year, she helped the Lady Buffs to a 50-18 record and a postseason run that ended one win short of the Division II World Series. Last season, WTAMU was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation before losing in the conference semifinals.
After transferring from Pima Community College in Tucson, Mercedes took over at second base last spring, producing a formidable double-play tandem.
"We needed to let their relationship work itself out," Blaskowski said. "I didn't want to force something that might not be comfortable. But it was something where they just bonded.
"Mercedes is [uniform number] 2 and Alyssa is No. 3. They play next to each other. Their lockers are next to each other. None of it was orchestrated, it just happened. It's almost like fate has brought the two together."
Blaskowski said he feels fortunate to work with the two "because I'm learning so much from them. Just to see them coming through this and growing as young women is outstanding. And to see them do it together, they're role models to everyone else in the program, to everyone their age to stand through this.
"How can their teammates ever quit on them or not give their full effort every day knowing what Alyssa and Mercedes are doing?"
The short answer is they can't.
"Alyssa is such a mature person, probably the strongest and most stable on our team as far as making rational decisions and pushing herself to keep on top of her grades," said Buffs senior left fielder Meghan Slattery. "Mercedes is a rock, but it's an everyday battle. There are days when she'll tell me after practice that it was an awful day, that she broke down between every class, and I'll say to her, 'I couldn't tell' because she plays with the same intensity and fire. I honestly don't know how she does it. I don't know how either of them are capable of doing it …
"The way they both come out to the field every day and the way they represent themselves in class, the way their moms are their driving force, it would be very hard for anyone not to find them inspiring."
The two are united as well in their fundraising and awareness efforts -- Alyssa through her family's "Shoutout for Roni" benefits, raising money for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition; and both women through West Texas A&M's "Turnin' 2 for a Cure" weekend they're helping plan for April 5 and 6, which will benefit all types of cancer.
"Unfortunately, I won't be able to see if it actually saves any women," said Alyssa, who has helped raise more than $25,000 for ovarian cancer. "But by handing out brochures and notecards, if it changes just one woman's life and saves a family the grief and depression my family has suffered through, then it will be worth it."
A double major in biology and biochemistry with an eye toward medical school, Alyssa said she was inspired by a recent shadowing program she did in the area of OB/GYN.
"I prefer to stay away from oncology because I feel it would be too difficult to see families go through what our family did," she said. "But if I become an OB/GYN, it's still the first step in diagnosing ovarian cancer."
More than that, she said, is the kind of physician she aspires to be. "I feel I can be that doctor who will listen to my patients and go to the very end to find out the correct diagnosis," she said. "I really feel I can change women's lives, and I use that as more motivation."
I feel it would honor her to use what she taught me for the 16 years I had with her, and carry it on to my family.Alyssa Lemos
Mercedes, a health sciences major, said that while she once wanted to become a nurse and helped give her mother injections when she was ill, she now prefers to focus on the administrative side of medicine.
"Alyssa is more hands-on," she said. "I'm too emotional to be a nurse, but I really want to try to get into cancer centers. I'm passionate about that. I want to be a part of the coping process. I don't know what that may mean career-wise, but I want to be able to walk into a patient's room and change their day, change their family's day, and help them somehow get through the whole cancer process."
If they are strong, the girls say, it is because of their mothers.
Marchelle Romero worked three jobs, including as a longtime circulation manager for a Tucson newspaper, continuing to work from home until shortly before her death. Co-workers are still so heartbroken, they told Mercedes, that they can't bear to change her mom's voicemail message.
"She was just so warm-hearted and put everybody before herself," Mercedes said of her mother, who was a longtime supporter of breast cancer and other charitable causes. "I never saw her in a bad mood. She always had a smile on her face and she was the strongest person I'll ever know."
Roni Lemos fought her illness with the same stubbornness but, like Romero, thought mostly of how others were coping.
"She was very easy-going," said Alyssa. "She loved life and had a great sense of humor. She knew how to make people happy and looked for good in people, which is one thing I try to do.
"I want to be as great a mom as she was and dedicate myself to my children like she did. I feel it would honor her to use what she taught me for the 16 years I had with her, and carry it on to my family."
They are their mothers' daughters. And some things are instinctive.
She always had a smile on her face and she was the strongest person I’ll ever know.Mercedes Garcia
"Every month on the 6th, it hits me harder and Alyssa just knows," Mercedes said.
Each day is still a struggle for Mercedes. At the funeral service, she learned for the first time what a talented a softball player her mother was, and that she had even had offers to play collegiately. She finds herself thinking about that now.
"I remember last year when her illness really hit me and I struggled really, really badly on the field," Mercedes said. "My mom watched our games online and she had never tried to correct me before, but she said, 'Follow through on your swing,' and she was right. I never realized how good she was.
"I think about my mom just constantly. There's not one thing that reminds me of her, but everything. I look at my phone and wonder, 'Is she going to call me?' Some days I feel like I don't want to do anything."
It is during those times that Alyssa's words are most valuable.
"I tell her that she has to continue to fight, that it's so easy to give up after something so traumatic, to think, 'Why did this happen to me?' and it can eat you up.' " Alyssa said. "You have to fight through because there is a light, things will get better."
As she looks toward her last season as a college softball player, Mercedes is listening.
"I'm actually looking forward to it," she said. "I have to not let this break me but let it make me stronger. My mom has the best seat and I know she's watching me every day from up above. I think it's going to be a good year for me. I think it's going to be a good year in general."