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Last Acts of Love : A Terminally Ill Woman, 44, Prepares Her Four Children to Go On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Not for Rosa Varela, a hard-working single mother whose life was devoted to caring for her four children. Not for a person so determined to stay off welfare that she occasionally worked three jobs at a time to keep food on the table and a roof over her children’s heads.

Her persistence had seemed to be paying off a year ago when she settled her family into a comfortable, new Monterey Park apartment and finally worked her way up to an important job: administrator of a Caltrans staff of 12 working with engineers handling earthquake repairs to Los Angeles freeways.

Then in November Rosa Varela was told she is dying of cancer.

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Trying to be helpful, her doctors advised her that now was the time to take a vacation, to do what she had always wanted to do.

“So I am,” says 44-year-old Varela. “I’m watching out for my kids.”

That’s why she has spent the past months lining up new homes for her children.

And as her energy has dripped away like medicine trickling from some intravenous tube, she has fought off bill collectors intent on repossessing her bed and the dining room table.

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The glass-topped table is where family meetings are held and where Varela discusses her hopes for her children’s future. And it’s where they discuss their plans for her funeral.

It’s odd, Varela says. But the only anger she has felt during her ordeal has been over the bill collectors’ badgering.

There were $7,000 in payments to go on the family furniture when Varela was forced to quit working last fall. When her disability and retirement checks started arriving in late spring, she was behind on monthly installments.

By then the creditors were firm: Pay the full amount now or we will repossess the furniture or slap a lien on your retirement pay, they told her.

Panicking, Varela went to see a lawyer who advertised a free initial consultation on bankruptcy. She showed him a letter signed by her doctor telling of how the cancer has spread from her breast to her lungs, bones and chest wall and how she has three to six months to live.

“I just want to talk to a judge and tell him that I’m not in this situation because of anything I’ve done,” Varela told the lawyer.

“It’s not because I’m some sort of flake. I didn’t ask for this--I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, I’ve always tried to eat right, I’ve always exercised. I’ve always worked and paid my bills.”

The attorney shook his head. “The judge won’t listen--there are so many sad stories out there,” he replied. And anyway, “you’re going to die, so don’t waste a minute thinking about it.”

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It’s hard for Varela not to.

“My kids are going to lose the only person in the world who has cared for them. And before they see that person in her coffin, the things around them are going to be taken away from them,” she said as she sat the other day in her Wilcox Avenue living room.

Behind her--stretched across the brick fireplace--was a hand-printed banner inscribed with the words “We Love You Mom.” On the mantel was a card addressed “To the #1 Mom in the World.”

Across the room, listening wordlessly, were her daughters, Ann-Marie, 13, and Ruth, 23. Down the hall--waiting shyly behind their closed bedroom doors--were sons Abran, 15, and Rudy, 17.

“My children have shared this all the way,” Varela said. “I have to prepare them to go on. I knew I had to tell them the truth but motivate them to have faith at the same time.

“When you raise four children on your own you have to have a positive attitude,” she said.

That was Varela’s attitude the day in 1990 when a lump was found in her right breast during a routine visit to the doctor.

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“I was certain that they’d tell me it was benign,” she recalled. It wasn’t, but surgeons were hopeful that removal of the breast would catch the cancer. It didn’t, and in 1992 another tumor was found in the area. There were radiation treatments and chemotherapy after that. Then came the diagnosis in November that she is terminally ill.

Earlier this month Varela learned that the disease appears to be refractory to chemotherapy--meaning that the solution of a drug called 5FU that is continuously pumped into her chest by a portable intravenous device apparently isn’t working.

Varela stepped down from her job as a Caltrans administrator in charge of a freeway engineering support group in November when fatigue and pain made it impossible to work.

Co-workers in the agency’s Downtown Los Angeles office broke down in tears when she told them her prognosis and said goodby. Over the next half-year they donated more than $1,000 a month to cover Varela’s rent and grocery bills while she waited for Social Security disability and state retirement payments to kick in.

Future financial and living arrangements for the children have been worked out during the family meetings.

The youngsters will divvy up her monthly $600 retirement check and receive individual Social Security benefits until they turn 18, provided they remain in school, she has told them.

But she has warned them the IRS may seize the proceeds of her modest life insurance policy. The reason: She owes $16,000 for taxes unpaid during a period when she was buying Laetrile, a discredited cancer treatment drug derived from apricot pits that was not covered by medical insurance.

Varela has filed papers to have Ruth appointed guardian of her younger sister and brothers upon her death; a final court appearance making it official is scheduled Sept. 25.

In the meantime, the family has agreed that Ruth will return this fall to UC Riverside, where she will be a senior majoring in psycho-biology planning to apply to medical school. Ruth will come home to head the family “when I’m on my deathbed,” Varela said.

“I know there’s no one else out there to treat us like my mother has. But I’m going to try my hardest,” said Ruth--who plans to take Ann-Marie back to Riverside to live with her.

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Varela said her own five brothers and sisters and her 70-year-old mother who lives in Arizona are not in a position to take in her sons.

“My youngest will probably go with Ruth’s aunt and uncle on her father’s side in Yorba Linda. My oldest son will go to Colorado, probably, to live with a cousin on my side. I cried when I made those calls, but it feels good that they won’t be homeless.”

There were tears at the other end of the phone too. “We didn’t think twice. If he needs a place, this should be it. We care about him a lot--we want to provide a home for him,” said John Bell, a career soldier who lives in Colorado Springs.

Making funeral plans have been just as hard for the family.

“I asked, ‘What do you want us to do for your funeral?’ ” Ruth said. “What do you want to wear?”

Varela has picked out the dress she wants to be buried in and specified “no pantyhose--I’ve always thought they were uncomfortable.” She has also selected a funeral home and asked for a closed-casket service.

“I don’t want people filing around me, looking at me when I can do nothing about it,” she said.

Besides bringing the family together and forcing them to confront challenges head-on, her illness has had an individual impact on them all, Varela said.

“Everyone’s school grades improved from November to June,” she said with a smile. “I guess it was their gift to me--to let the good grades help me grow good white cells.”

And each day is a gift too.

“The trees outside all look so green. The sky looks more luscious than ever before,” Rosa Varela said.

“I’m getting more thrill out of the little details.”


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