Mary Vella McInerney

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:”…so that the proven character of your faith–more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire–may result in praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 1:7.  I  learned the depths of this truth through a path of various winding roads.  It was anything but effortless.
     I was a Sophomore at Mount Sinai High School the day I first found out my mother, Mary Vella McInerney, was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a skin cancer that was located in her inner ear canal.  Luckily, it was a minor form of it at the time as it was caught in the early stages.  Even still, at the age of 15, I watched my mother have surgery followed by radiation treatments.
     I spent that summer with the feeling of constant urgency to escape.  Music was that escape for me.  A friend introduced me to a band called Westlife, who soon became my favourite and sole form of escapism.  That summer, I went upstate to Albany to see Westlife perform, bringing a letter that I had written to them regarding how much they and their music meant to me and helped me through this time.  During the performance, I made it to the front of the crowd closest to the stage against the barriers, and one of the members leaned over and grabbed the letter directly from my hand.  I’ve never forgotten that day and kept that memory close to my heart.
     The first semester of my senior year already had a rough start, with 9/11 a week and a half in.  I was taking harder classes (i.e. marine biology) that year in a desperate effort of mental strength to prepare myself well enough for college, even amid life’s chaos.  As the next few months progressed, Mom became ill with what we thought was the flu or a virus.  Doctors had confirmed the cancer’s return. Unfortunately, this time, it returned with a vengeance.  Mom returned to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital for more tests as most of the family came for support.  I stood in the upstairs foyer of the hospital with my dad and cousins waiting around for answers.  My cousins were holding back tears as I tried to comfort them by mentioning that if they were able to catch the cancer last time, then they could this time as well.  One cousin had a breathless and shaky tone as she bleakly responded, “But…she might not this time, Meg.”  She already knew and was trying to tell me the outcome subtly.  I was yet to find out until only a few hours later.
     I drove home with Dad that evening and repeated what I said to my cousins.  Dad was silent for what felt like an eternity.  He was on the verge of choking up as he broke the news.  The place where the cancer returned was so difficult to get to that if they continued with surgery again, she would be completely maimed and still only have a 5-15% chance of survival.  She decided against it by responding, “God’s going to take me no matter what.”  In addition, he mentioned that she only had 4 to 6 months left.  The next few moments consisted of my brain freezing in utter shock that the coming months would be saturated with the reality of her death.  I wept aloud in disbelief as I was on the verge of a panic attack.  Though it felt like a combination of numbness and panic, I still asked Dad how he was.  He later mentioned that my sister, Annie, and I asking him how he was even amid our pain was one of the most selfless things he’s ever heard.
       I turned 18 a few months later, just before graduating from Mount Sinai High School.  It was a hot day, and the only seemingly shaded place was underneath the bleachers, where dad pushed mom in the wheelchair to make her more comfortable.  Her health was heading downhill fast, and she could barely speak or focus but still showed up.
       I had just entered adulthood and was already watching Mom slip into eternity.  It was a quick process, but it felt like the longest summer of my life.  I watched her with several feeding tubes, morphine, doctors and hospice workers in and out of the house.  Through cancer spreading in the Lymph Nodes and all the medication, her mind was slipping away.  It was as if she was no longer there.  One afternoon, I was on my knees crying over her as she lay in bed.  She was muttering something back in an attempt to comfort me.  Though her mind was barely there, her heart was completely.
     Eventually, it became too much for my family to look after her, and she was transferred to Southside Hospital in Bayshore, Long Island.  I would often visit and spend the night on the floor next to her bed.  Every time I would leave her, I always told her, “In hobbok hafna,” which means “I love you very much” in her native language, Maltese (from the Mediterranean island of Malta).  She always responded in Maltese.
      The day before she passed, Dad told me I needed to visit Mom as she was hanging by her last thread.  I drove down Sunrise Highway to Bayshore for what I had not realised was the last time.  When my car tires hit the highway, I spotted a bright sunbeam shining through the clouds on the road ahead.  I’ve seen this before, but this time it was quite different.  It was brighter than anything I’d seen before.  I drove right through it as if the sunbeam engulfed me.  When I arrived, the entire family surrounded her, holding her hand and/or comforting her.  This time she was unable to speak at all.  I could see her tumour through her neck.  It was massive.  She was trying to speak but couldn’t say anything at all.  She was murmuring with every desperate attempt to force out words.  As I was leaving, I gave her a hug and a kiss and said, “In hobbok hafna.”  She forced her words out as much as her last bit of strength would let her, “I.i.i. h.h.b..”  Visiting hours were closing, and we had to leave.  This was the last time I saw Mom alive.  Dad and Uncle Sammi returned early the next morning and watched her slip into eternity at around 9 o’clock.
      When he came home, he woke me up, and I was teetering between sleeping and waking as he sat next to me and solemnly whispered over me, “Your mother…passed away this morning.”  I was numb.  I did not feel anything but a sense of relief that she was no longer in pain.  He then added that she passed away with a smile on her face.  That gave me more comfort than I knew I needed.  I didn’t have a dramatic response. It hadn’t truly hit me yet.  It felt like any other typical morning except for an odd stillness.  It was undoubtedly different, but I couldn’t feel it.  A couple of hours later that morning, I walked over to the radio in my room and turned it to any random channel.  The moment I switched it on, the first song I heard was a song that I’d never heard before.  It was “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe, a Christian song about the first time seeing Jesus when someone enters eternity.  That song became my anthem every time I thought of Mom.
     That evening I went ice skating as I normally did on weekends at what used to be an arcade and sports warehouse called Sports Plus.  A friend of mine who was a rink guard saw me on the ice and started talking.  I nonchalantly told her that my mom had passed away that morning.  She paused with a shocked face.  “Why are you here?”  She muttered.  I told her that I didn’t want to stop my life.  I had a sense of fake strongness.  All I ever knew was to be strong.  All I wanted was the determination and willpower not to let it slow down or stop my life.  I was soon to find out just how wrong that mindset was.
       The next day was the funeral, and two moments hit me the most.  The first was when I was driving with Dad and Uncle Sammi to the funeral home in Miller Place, and I pulled her funeral card out of my pocket.  It had her name, Mary V. McInerney, on the back of the card, and I couldn’t shake the thought of how she didn’t belong on a funeral card.  It was starting to become very real.  It was far too real.
       Along with her name, a particular scripture was on the back that read, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me.  In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3).
       The second moment and the moment that truly hit me to the core was when we finally arrived at the funeral home and walked inside.  All it took was seeing her in the casket, even from a distance, while standing in the foyer, and I fainted.  Dad and my cousin caught me.  I felt like I blacked out for a few seconds as the words kept echoing in my mind and welling up throughout my entire body, “She doesn’t belong in a casket.  SHE DOESN’T BELONG IN A CASKET!”  It was indisputable that I felt the sting of death at that moment.  I spent the next several hours in the room next to her as I could not bring myself to sit in that room.  Eventually, I slowly mustered up the courage and carefully entered the room step by step and sat in the front row.  I was motionless while trying to feel and process any emotion.
       The funeral was at St. Louis Demontfort Church in Sound Beach (the church I grew up in).  The eulogy at the funeral spoke about how the family would say that when someone was born, the angels opened a window.  August 23, 2002, was the day the angels closed the window.
       Merely four days after her death, I started college at Suffolk Community College.  Again, I felt like I had to prove to myself that I was strong through this, so I signed up for harder courses like pre-Calculus.  That semester was a fail, as was my reattempt the following year.
       I was lost without my mom.  I had to navigate my entire adulthood without a mother figure.  Every milestone triggered memories of her and caused me to miss her progressively. It was even heavier years later than when I first lost her (time is not always a healer).  I constantly wondered what she would think each step of the way.  I picture her through all my accomplishments and failures as if she were with me.
      I eventually found a home in Texas where Jesus found me (as opposed to the common misconception that I found Jesus).  I soon returned to college to finish my undergrad (graduating honours and summa cum laude).  During that undergrad, God opened my eyes and exploded my heart for the world issue of human trafficking while researching a speaking project for my public speaking class.  Almost immediately, it became a lifelong passion.  Since then, I’ve done numerous advocacy projects and mission trips in helping to fight against this and countless other mission trips.  I went back to Malta years later to apply for citizenship.  Eventually, I made Liverpool my home. I continued as a self-employed dance teacher and choreographer with aspirations to use it as a Christian company and therapy for human trafficking survivors.  Since living in Liverpool, I also entered and won my first pageant and currently reign as Ms. Exquisite Global United 2022 and Ms. Heart of Global United 2022.
      Last summer (August 23, 2022) was two decades since the “angels closed the window.” They say time heals all wounds. The last 20 years have honestly shown me that you never truly get over the loss of a loved one.  It can sometimes get even harder as years pass since milestones can be constant reminders that she’s not here to share them with me.  Additionally, decades later are when society expects you to have moved past it.  That’s anything but the truth.  Instead, you move forward with them.  I can never say that it got easier, but with God’s help, I learned to cope.  Everyone grieves differently, and there is absolutely no right or wrong way or even timeline to grieve.  One thing I know for certain is that if you try to hold it all together, it can and often does come out later.  Grieving is inescapable but can be beautiful if you let it.  The only way to truly heal is not to escape from pain but rather to embrace it and move forward.  Your soul grows to such an extent that you become incapable of returning to the person you once were.  That person no longer exists anymore.  In this case, that person I once was died with her.
       At a time when I was the most vulnerable, I had to learn to cope with life’s milestones and challenges seemingly alone.  I wish the Anne V. Graziani Foundation had been around at the time to partner alongside me in the journey of watching her through Hospice until her last day.  As a teenager, I longed for someone to guide me and befriend me through the entirety of her treatments and illness.  Even still, God was definitely with me even though I didn’t feel Him there at the time.
       The one thing I learned just a few years later was a parallel that the Holy Spirit taught me.   After losing my mom, my old self died.  In the same way, from faith in the death of Jesus, my old self also dies.  However, the story does not end with death.  From faith in the resurrection of Christ, I also live.  Because He lives, I also live.  While there’s a death, there’s also a resurrection.  He doesn’t make a bad person good.  He makes a dead person alive into a new creation.  So many people ask me why I am so strong through this.  My answer is when strength and growth are the only options; the decision becomes a lot easier.  In other words, when my only option is to fall on my face to Jesus and let my soul lament, He becomes my only decision.  When He is all you have, that’s the moment you realise that He is all you need.  “Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)