Playing with heavy hearts

Anilu Saldana, headshot.
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Anilu Saldana
Anilu Saldana

The voice was a constant source of comfort.

Anilu and Ruby Saldana didn’t need to actually see their mother in the stands at Pacifica High girls’ soccer games to know she was there. They could hear her screaming words of encouragement and motivating them to play harder.

Their mother rarely missed a game. She would even bring the children from her daycare as extra cheerleaders.

But the comforting voice has been replaced by silence this season.

Maria Saldana died of breast cancer last August and her daughters are still struggling to come to terms with her absence.

They have used soccer as a temporary escape from the pain, but can’t fully outrun all their grief and worry.

“It’s hard,” Anilu said. “Everyone is falling into a depression because she used to manage our family so good and was always on top of things. She scheduled our doctor’s appointments and reminded us to be places. She was our everything.”

Their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. She initially went for a checkup two months earlier, but was informed nothing was wrong.

But persistent back pain convinced her to ask for an MRI exam.

The doctors discovered cancer in the late stages. Maria and her husband, Rafael, broke the news to their daughters and two older sons a few weeks later.

“We were shocked. Nobody really expects their mom to have cancer,” said Anilu, a senior midfielder. “You hear about it, but you never think it is going to happen to you. It’s usually something that happens to someone else.”

Although their mother’s diagnosis was a surprise, there is a history of breast cancer on her side of the family. Anilu and Ruby’s grandmother died from breast cancer at the exact same age, 46, as their mother.

“It really makes me more aware and concerned about my future,” Anilu said. “I need to make sure I go more frequently to get myself checked and I want to make sure I go to the right doctor.”

Soccer has always been a constant bond shared by the Saldana family.

Rafael played most of his life and Maria started her daughters in AYSO by the time they were 5 years old.

“If it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t even be playing soccer,” said Ruby, a junior defender. “I hated it at first, but she was the one who pushed me to stay with it. I ended up loving it.”

Despite her diagnosis, Maria continued to attend games for as long as possible last season.

“She tried her best to be there even when she got sick, but it was hard for her to go places once she was in a wheelchair,” Anilu said. “But she was always still asking about our games and would even get mad at me if I didn’t run hard or play the way I was supposed to.”

As the cancer spread to her mother’s brain and her condition worsened, Anilu asked to step away from Pacifica’s team a week before the CIF-Southern Section playoffs began.

“She wanted to spend as much time as possible with her mom, but was very concerned that I thought she was going to quit,” Pacifica coach Rachael Sims said. “I told her absolutely she should go. She was making the right decision. She needed to be there for her mom. That was way more important.”

Ruby began last season as a member of the varsity team, but was moved down to JV because Sims felt it would be less pressure with the turmoil in her life.

Ruby Saldana
Ruby Saldana

“I couldn’t even concentrate on school that much and was dazing off the whole time,” Ruby said. “But my sister went to the counselor and told me to talk to them and it helped a lot. They talked to my teachers about helping me.”

But there are certain things that can’t be alleviated through just talking.

Their father quit his manufacturing job last year to care for his wife and has been unable to find another job since her death.

The family is staying with an aunt while searching for a new place to live.

“My mom died in the apartment we had lived in for nearly 14 years, and it brought up too many memories for us,” Anilu said. “We are in the process of trying to finding something else of our own, but it’s hard. There are not many options.”

Anilu constantly worries about her family because her mother was “the rock” that held it together.

“I feel like it falls on my shoulders now and I have to have that responsibility,” Anilu said. “I have to be like her and make sure everyone is doing the right thing. It’s a lot to deal with.”

An honors student, Anilu promised her mother she would graduate from high school and attend a university. But she is afraid she may need to alter her plans.

“I can’t leave my dad alone because I think he needs me,” Anilu said. “I am trying to stay here and still do what I told her and study to be a pediatrician. I promised her I would keep that dream. I’ve had it since I was 10.”

Ruby is trying to heed her mother’s advice and stay on track academically as well.

“She said to keep studying and keep my head up and don’t listen to what others have to say because I am really self-conscious,” Ruby said. “She always knew that and told me to believe in myself and listen to my heart.”

Although their mother is no longer in the stands cheering, Anilu and Ruby can still hear her voice during games.

They know it’s not the same, but it’s a comforting reminder of better times.

“She was like the loudest one of the parents,” Ruby said. “She was screaming the whole time and our whole team would laugh. It was ‘Ruby, start running.’ or ‘Ruby, get that girl.’ I really miss that.”

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