Sometimes you meet people in life that change your entire perception of the world. For me, this individual was Iliana Olivares. Iliana passed away three weeks ago from breast cancer. I wanted to share with you a story of this courageous woman who embodied compassion, faith, and optimism in the toughest of circumstances.
I met Iliana almost four years ago when her husband Ricardo hired me to work at Villanova. Ricardo was not only my boss, but we also coached the girls’ basketball team at Villanova for two years. After moving 3,000 miles away from everything and everyone I knew, Ricardo ended up becoming a mentor and dear friend to me. I also got to know Iliana better since she came to basketball games, but it wasn’t until this year, when I spent time visiting Iliana in the hospital and at home, that I learned the true meaning of compassion, faith, and optimism.
To know how special Iliana truly was you must know part of her story. Two years ago, Iliana found out she had stage four breast cancer. As a mother to four beautiful and caring children, the news was beyond devastating. Yet, to her and Ricardo’s credit, they remained optimistic and strong in the face of adversity. I remember sitting with Iliana at a Villanova football game (one of her favorite things to do was watch Ricardo coach), and she was sitting there with all of these nuts and seeds. I asked her what the deal was. “Dude, I’m trying to beat this. This worked for a friend of mine, so why not give it a try, you know? But I can’t eat all of this, so you have to help me.” She had such a great sense of humor. She was witty and could talk smack with the best of them. Every time I was with her she kept me laughing. So we sat there, laughed, and did our best to eat her allotted amount of nuts and seeds. As I drove home, I was taken aback by how joyful and optimistic she was. The thought of death did not keep her down. I’ll never forget that day.
Fast forward to February. The pain was getting worse as I approached her hospital room door. I could hear her writhing in anguish. Scared and nervous, I walked back downstairs and waited ten minutes. I again approached her door, heard nothing, and walked in. It’s evident she was hurting and tired, but she flashed a smile and gave me a warm welcome. No more than a minute later two nurses entered to let her know their shifts were over. Normally nurses let their patients know when their shifts are over; however, they weren’t taking care of Iliana that day. At one point I’m sure they took care of her (she was in and out of the hospital a lot at that time), and through those small interactions they had with her, they formed a connection. That’s why they came back each evening to check in with her and say goodbye. I witnessed this each time I visited her, and I was blown away at how easy it was for her to connect with people. She had great people skills since she was a strong listener and had an empathetic tone, but the fact the she had enough energy to connect with others even with all she was going through was nothing short of amazing.
Now we’re at the memorial service this past Saturday. After Mass, people were invited to come up to the mic and share their memories of Iliana. As people went up to share their stories, the common thread time and time again was how compassionate and courageous she was. One of her friends in Ojai, who at times felt ostracized from others, spoke about Iliana’s kindness: “I felt very uncomfortable in social situations in the Ojai Valley, yet Iliana made me feel comfortable. Whenever I entered an event I immediately searched her out. She was so kind and caring. Our boys are the same age, so we were at a lot of the same events. I lost a true friend.”
Friends weren’t the only ones who spoke. Students she connected with when Ricardo was working at a boarding school in Arizona also shared their memories. Some of those students flew in for the occasion once they heard of Iliana’s passing. They reflected on the role Iliana played in their lives: “Sometimes you need a motherly figure there when you’re hurting. I played football so Coach O (Ricardo) always told me, ‘Suck it up, buttercup,’ but Mrs. O would always check to see that I was all right. Being far from home I needed that, and she was always there.”
As I continued listening to stories, I thought about her people skills. She was emotionally intelligent. She knew when people were hurting or needed a hand, and she reached out to them. She connected with them in a genuine way. That’s why students flew in for her service. That’s why nurses came in to say goodbye. That’s why there were so many tears shed when she passed. She had a gift of connecting with people. She was the strongest woman I ever met, and Ricardo is the strongest man I know. He stood by her as her body broke down. He read a powerful eulogy about the strength and courage of his wife, his love. He reiterated how Iliana’s memory will live on because of the people she impacted. How right he is. I know I am a better person because of what I learned from Iliana. Words cannot describe how much her friends and family will miss her.
The most important lesson I learned from Iliana is to be kind to anyone and everyone, but you have to do this without letting people step on you. Iliana was a tough woman with a big heart. Most importantly, Iliana reached out to people when they needed it. The world lost a caring mother, beautiful wife, and genuine person. Heaven gained an angel.
If anyone is interested in seeing pictures of Iliana and her family, or hearing more about her life, here is the link to her GoFundMe page. Please do not feel any obligation to donate. My only goal was to share a story about a woman who has permanently impacted my life.