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Saying Goodbye to Carmen

Dr. Francisco Canales as a baby with his parents

Dr. Francisco Canales. age one, with his parents, Carmen and Francisco Canales

This year began differently from others. Ever since my husband and I were married, we wished his mother, Carmen, Happy New Year. But not this year.

We didn’t even get to say Merry Christmas or Feliz Navidad to her, because on the day before Christmas Eve, she died unexpectedly. But there is much to be grateful for, since she went quickly without suffering, just two days after she’d seen The Nutcracker with her daughter, Sandra. Carmen was 85.

As with anyone who has lived a long life, her priceless memories died as well, and hers straddled three countries. She was born and raised in Mexico City, where she still lived with her parents as a young woman. They rented a room to a handsome dental student from Puerto Rico. His name was Francisco “Paquito” Canales. The two fell in love, got married, and moved to Puerto Rico.

While Paquito built up his dental practice, Carmen had her firstborn, a son named Francisco. My Francisco. Two sons and a daughter followed, and soon the household was active and loud. When they were old enough, the children joined a swim team, and their father devoted hours with his stop watch at their swim meets. As a decathlete himself, Paquito loved to see his kids compete.

What the kids didn’t know was that their father had a rare heart condition. When Francisco was twelve, his brothers nine and six, and his baby sister four, Paquito died. Carmen became a widow at age 40, living off her husband’s Social Security payments, since the life insurance company hadn’t liked Paquito’s heart diagnosis.

Life as they all knew it came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, Francisco and his brothers had scholarships to both an excellent Jesuit school and also for their swim team. Both became their second family. In time, Francisco and his brother Fernando would swim in the Olympics, Francisco in Montreal in 1976, while Fernando made three teams, 1976, 1980 (the boycotted Moscow Olympics), and 1984.

Despite the hardships, my mother-in-law made sure her sons were up at 4AM for morning swim practice every day, and she fed them dinner at 8PM after their evening practices. The school and swim team were the village that helped raise her children. When Francisco was admitted to Harvard, she said good-bye to her first born. He landed in Boston, a Spanish-speaking boy whose accent and English errors were teased out of him by his college roommates. Soon he was captain of the Harvard swim team. After ten years as a single mother, Carmen could see her firstborn had done just fine. Not long after, her other children would also graduate from college.

When she was 48, Carmen made one more big move, leaving Puerto Rico and her native Spanish language for Michigan. And that’s where Francisco and his siblings, Fernando, Harry, and Sandra, gathered to remember their Mexican mother who had raised them alone.

We’ll never again hear her sweet Spanish greetings or her accented English saying “Thank you for everything.” My own children will always remember their Mexican Abuela who raised their Puerto Rican father and then immigrated to the States.  Hers is a very American story.

Dr. Heather Furnas

About Dr. Heather Furnas

Inspired by watching her plastic surgeon father operate in African bush hospitals, Dr. Heather Furnas followed in his footsteps, training at Stanford and serving on the Harvard clinical faculty. She and her husband, Dr. Paco Canales, practice together in Santa Rosa, California, where they raised their two children. (To learn more about their practice, visit She believes an informed patient is more likely to be a happy patient and is committed to providing that education. If you have any suggestions for topics you'd like to learn more about, she would love to hear from you!

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13 Responses to Saying Goodbye to Carmen

  1. Raquel says:

    Your blog today was so touching it brought tears to my eyes. We don’t realize how much our mothers sacrifice for us as we grow up. They are our rock and our place of peace. I could not go through my own journey without my mom by my side.
    Please give my condolences to Paco and your family. I’m really sorry to hear this news. Good bye Carmen.

    • Dr. Heather Furnas says:

      Thank you for your thoughts. I’m so glad you have your mom by your side at this time. She, too, did a great job raising such a terrific daughter! 🙂

  2. Quyen Callinan says:

    This is very beautifully written. Dr. Canales was wonderfully lucky to have such a strong mother and you were equally lucky to have been blessed with a sweet mother in law!

  3. Tonita Hambleton says:

    Beautiful story!
    I know the Canales since we were kids also having a mexican mother and we were neighbors!
    Loved Carmen like she was my mom.
    Miss all of them ever since they moved to Michigan!
    Havent seen your Francisco since I was a kid but I treasure all the memories left behind he being the oldest and we looking up to him. Always a gentleman!
    Send him my love.
    All my love to you and family!

  4. Candy says:

    Beautiful, Dr. Furnas. Simply beautiful. Thank you.

  5. Bill Williams says:

    So sorry to hear…. She did live a much fuller life than your dad did. I know you lost him at a very young age and it impacted me a great deal. I struggled imagining your life and wondering what my life would be like without my dad and… Couldn’t fathom losing him. I really looked up at your bravery and character…. I enjoyed your friendship growing up and admired not only your swimming skills, but your kind nature. It was awesome to see you last spring as you were looking so good and doing so well!! All my thoughts and prayers are with you and your beautiful wife who wrote a warm and glowing story of her mother in law!! I could feel her love through her words and could tell how much she too, loved her. Abrazos Paquitín!! & Heather and your kids! May God bless you with strength and grace.

    • Dr. Heather Furnas says:

      Bill, Thank you for your kind comments. Amazing we have known each other for 46 years now! It was great seeing you in April and I hope that we can see each other sooner than later. Heather also thanks you for the good thoughts and prayers. Best, Paquitin.

  6. Jorge Arteta says:

    Hola Paquitín,

    Mis condolencias. Hermosas las palabras de Heather.
    Un abrazo a todos,

  7. tony dajer says:

    A vivid memory: Paco and I walking toward the airport gate on our way to college while our mothers and six younger siblings cried their eyes out. Another one: 8th grade (or 7th?) Paquitin coming back to school after we’d all heard the tragic news about his father. Paco was a skinny, short kid then (!), and I remember wondering, how could he still look so brave? Dona Carmen treated me like her own son, with the same love and consideration and sweetness she showed everyone. That day Paquitin reflected his mother’s courage, and the determination and character that led her to raise four spectacular kids. We will miss her very much. Oh, and one correction: whenever our college roommates had a question about English grammar or vocabulary, they all invoked the same motto: ask the Puerto Ricans 🙂 . Big hugs and lots of love, as always, to you Paquitin and Heather, your also-spectacular kids, and to Fernando, Harry and Carmen.
    Tony, Daniele, Em, Matt and Thomas

    • Dr. Heather Furnas says:

      Thanks very much for those memories, Tony.

      You’re absolutely right. When I’m not sure how to spell something, I ask my Puerto Rican husband.


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