Last Sunday, on the two-year anniversary of the death of her father, Jenni Nogueras’ mother made a surprise visit from Puerto Rico. She saw her daughter and senior setter help No. 3 UW beat Stanford.
By Monica Lee
SEATTLE -- Two years ago, Jenni Nogueras lost her father to kidney cancer in Puerto Rico.
Last Sunday, two years to the day of her dad Juan’s passing in her hometown of Cayey, the senior setter’s mother Emily “Stella” Seilhamer flew on three days’ notice from Puerto Rico to UW to be with her daughter.
It was an anniversary full of coincidences.
Sunday’s match between third-ranked Washington and then-No. 7 Stanford was Husky volleyball’s annual “Dads and Daughters” day at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“I thought it might be hard on her because he wasn’t going to be here, first of all, and it was a reminder of so many things,” Seilhamer said Wednesday, sitting beside Nogueras following practice for UW’s trip this weekend to UCLA and USC.
Seilhamer flew in on Saturday, Oct. 19, only a couple days after her discovery that the “Dads and Daughters” day coincided with the anniversary of her husband’s – Jenni’s father’s -- death.
“It was really surprising because it was a little bit spontaneous,” Nogueras said, “and mom doesn’t usually do spontaneous.”
Dr. Juan Nogueras was a professor of psychology at the Universidad de Carlos Albizu in San Juan. He got his Ph. D. from Penn State University, which is where he met Jenni's mother. Stella Seilhamer teaches English at universities and high schools in Puerto Rico.
Mom’s surprise visit this week was a definitely a thrill for Nogueras – especially considering what was going on around her before the Huskies beat Stanford in five sets.
“Stanford was my last game before I had to leave for Puerto Rico halfway through the season in 2011,” she said, “so I was like, ‘Wow, geez. All these coincidences.’”
“I was a little freaked out about it because it shouldn’t be anything terrible. But at the same time, even though it shouldn’t be too worrisome, it’s still there and another reminder.”
Two years ago Nogueras was preparing to play at Stanford when her phone rang. It was a cousin from back home in Puerto Rico telling her that Nogueras' father, then 69, was likely to die in a matter of days from kidney cancer. Nogueras had known her father had been sick since that March, but she had no idea his condition had deteriorated so rapidly.
Nogueras' mom didn't call Jenni that October day when her cousin did "because she's my mom and she's not going to tell me anything before the game," Nogueras said.
Alarmed, Nogueras called her mom instead and asked if she needed to fly home from San Francisco. Her mother said no and assured her that her father had stabilized under the care of the hometown hospital.
So Nogueras played that night at Stanford. She had a team-high 14 assists in a three-set loss.
The Huskies flew back to Seattle on Sunday. On Monday, Oct. 17, 2011, Nogueras' phone rang again.
It was her mother with a clear, chilling directive this time: "You have to get home."
Nogueras was on one of the next planes bound for Puerto Rico.
"At this point, I'm doing really well in the season. I've picked up my game. Then this happens. There was just a mixture of emotions," she said in 2011. "It's incredible how your mind works. Because I was like, `Wow, tough decision' - not a tough decision in that I knew what I had to do, to go back home, but then I was leaving so much back here, too."
She spent much of the longest flights of her life in silent prayer.
Her older brother Kelly picked her up at the airport in Puerto Rico. Their sister Michelle, who played volleyball at Saint Leo University, a Division-II force in Tampa, Fla., had arrived a couple of hours ahead of Jenni. They were coming to see Dad one last time.
When they got to Hospital Menonita de Cayey, their father had lost consciousness. One side of his face drooped, the result of a stroke. He had lost weight. He was pale.
Juan Nogueras also played guitar and he liked to sing. Make that, he loved to. Several years ago he reunited a band that had been founded in the early 1960s, La Tuna de Cayey, but had disbanded as Nogueras pursued that doctorate degree and raised a family.
A few years ago, he was at the funeral of one of La Tuna de Cayey's founders when everyone began singing the group's old songs. Papa Nogueras decided then to lead the reformation of the band, which his daughter says is "kind of a big deal back in Puerto Rico, especially at Christmas time. They play a lot of what would be like Christmas carols here."
"He was always writing music, being in the band. Just always a happy kind of person," Jenni said. "Always positive. Always happy."
The re-formed band became the bond that inspires Jenni to this day.
Her father asked her to sing in the group for a few years while she was in high school. She eagerly accepted, even though she said, "every other person in the group was, like, three decades older than me, maybe more."
She and her father wrote songs and practiced together on his spare hours.
It strikes Jenni as the time of her life.
"I am so happy that happened," she said. "I got to see my dad in what he liked to do the most. It is amazing how much he enjoyed music.”
That bond is what made last Sunday’s anniversary of his death so impacting to the Huskies’ setter.
When her mom called to ask if she should visit, Nogueras replied exasperatedly, “Yes! Please come. Yes, that would be lovely.”
She hadn’t seen her mother since UW’s spring break in March because of the team trip to Italy this past summer and then summer workouts.
Inspired, Nogueras posted a double-double against with 27 assists and 10 digs as the Huskies beat Stanford amid continual reminders of her father.
“They announced at the game that Don James’ death was of pancreatic cancer,” Nogueras said of yet another coincidence. “My father’s cancer was kidney cancer, but they often confuse it with pancreatic cancer.
“My mom and I made eye contact and were like, ‘Wow, coincidences everywhere.’ Just the little things that happened.”
Seilhamer sat in the UW parents’ section during the match. Usually, she only gets to watch her youngest daughter in action during the week of Thanksgiving because she has the week off from work and the 12-hour flight.
“I was not expecting it at all,” Nogueras said of her mom’s phone call. “She usually never calls me. I’m usually the one that calls her and I try to call her as often as I can.
“I’m always like, ‘Mom, if you’re ever sad, call me, I’m here.’ And she never calls me,” she said to her mom.
Although Seilhamer was the only one to travel to Seattle, the process involved the whole family.
“It’s just we all have each other’s backs, you know?” Nogueras asked. “And that’s what made me realize it because I know mom’s the one that came here, but it was my sister who told her and my brother, he’s the one that did all the transactions.”
Jenni’s older sister, Michelle, and older brother, Kelly, don’t live close by either.
Michelle is currently a member of Evreux Volleyball in Paris. Kelly works and resides in Baltimore.
“We may be scattered through different timelines,” Jenni said, “but we have each other’s backs and that to me… it’s just powerful.”
For the second anniversary of Juan’s death, his daughter and wife didn’t have anything special planned. Instead, the two will continue a family tradition and treasure their rare time together.
“For his birthday after he died – it was Jan. 27 -- we just wrote a card and tied it on balloons and then just sent it up,” Jenni said. “It was really cool. Sometimes it’s hard because a lot of things that you do to remember someone who’s passed away is a little bit morbid and a little bit sad.
“So that just felt good. It felt uplifting. You feel like you’re doing something.”
Jenni and a friend released the balloon message in front of UW’s Conibear Shellhouse facing Lake Washington. She sent her mother pictures of the celebration and it’s become a tradition.
“She told me she had done it over here,” Stella said, “So I took my daughter and my son, who were there in Puerto Rico at that time, and we did it over there in Puerto Rico (for Valentine’s Day).”
“I always wonder if somebody found it, read it, and maybe it lifted their day up,” Jenni added.
Stella stayed with her daughter until Thursday. The opportunity to be together was just what they needed.
“It’s weird,” Stella said, “because it was a sad moment in the sense that it’s his anniversary, but I didn’t feel sad.”
Jenni sweetly agreed.
“Me, neither,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Whoa, I get to see my mom!’ I haven’t seen her in a while and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to take that!’
“I always hold on to the bright side of everything.”
Including the memory of her father.