NEW YORK – On March 15, Constanza Alva de Urmeneta got in the car behind the hearse for the funeral procession of her 15-year-old daughter, Pía Urmeneta. Typically, somber occasions, it was apparent from the second they drove off the church lot that this was instead a celebration of Pía’s life, just as she had wanted.
They drove through Santiago, Chile, where people sporadically lined the streets to cheer. When they arrived at Pía’s school, Colegio Everest, students, teachers and staff were outside to show their support. They lined both sides of the street waving white towels, cheering and releasing heart shaped balloons into the sky.
“I was such in glory,” Urmeneta Alva told Crux. “I was just screaming ‘Pía Power, Pía Power forever’ out the window and saying ‘thank you’ because I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Pía died two days earlier, on March 13, after a two-year plus battle with a rare form of cancer, Ewing Sarcoma. It occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones. For reference, it affects about 200 minors in the U.S. per year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Those two words “Pía Power” that Urmeneta Alva cheered that day aren’t arbitrary, but a movement her family created after Pía’s diagnosis was confirmed on Nov. 8, 2018. Through the movement, they seek to inspire people to get through life’s hardships the way Pía did: With faith, positivity and a focus on the present moment.
“Fighting against pain with love, with prayer, with community, with strength,” Urmeneta Alva said of Pía Power. “That’s what her story’s been. She fought until the very end and in such a beautiful way, so accompanied with love, with prayer, with faith, with strength.”
The movement is marked by pink pins labeled “Pía Power” in thin black letters that slightly overlap a white paper crane. They’re now all over the world. Her family also used an Instagram account, @thepiapower to document Pía’s journey.
As for that journey, the Nov. 8, 2018 biopsy revealed what Urmeneta Alva described as a grapefruit-sized cancerous tumor. Pía started chemotherapy the next day, which entailed weeks of Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday treatments.
Urmeneta Alva remembers through that time they treated the clinic space like home and livened the atmosphere with things like blankets, pillows, music, movies and popcorn. The clinic also provided the Eucharist, so they could continue to live their Catholic faith.
“I couldn’t be thinking that when we leave the clinic we start living life. No, we live life even when we’re at the clinic because that’s our life. That is our time that we had to live at the present moment,” said Urmeneta Alva, “That’s what Jesus taught us to do.”
One day, after one of Pía’s earlier treatments they returned home to a thousand fabricated cranes on the walls, in rooms, hanging from the ceiling – everywhere. It was a tradition a classmate’s mother decided should be passed along to Pía.
With each crane representing a Hail Mary, it was the impetus for Pía Power.
“It was so beautiful. It was so amazing. Pía Power was born out of an act of love from the community,” Urmeneta Alva told Crux.
Months later, in March, 2019, tests found Pía’s tumor was gone.
She was cancer free until January 20, 2020 when the cancer returned as a tumor in her nose. Urmeneta Alva knew the chances it would heal a second time were slim. But, she doubled down on her faith and mindset that “we have to keep fighting and praying and I believe in miracles.”
Sure enough, Pía was cancer free in April. She would live free of the disease until Sept. 29 of 2020, when a bump appeared on the roof of her mouth. Back for a third time, the doctors informed the family it was terminal, and all they could do is manage the pain.
“At that point, I was like I am just an instrument and I have to be strong because I have a whole family that I have to keep up,” Urmeneta Alva said. “That’s how I lived through Pía’s whole journey. Just being God’s instrument and being strong because he keeps me positive with my faith that whatever happens is God’s will.”
Pía lived out her remaining months among family and friends. Her cousin Sophia Bullock in the U.S. was with her in November in North Carolina. Looking back, Pía’s strength stands out.
“Every day for her instead of battling cancer and being let down she enjoyed life because they had the day to live. It was the gift of life,” Bullock told Crux. “She lived every day with strength. She maintained her grace and her dignity.”
She further described her cousin as a “beautiful girl” that “held attention, she was funny, witty, she was confident as all get out.”
In mid-February things took a turn for the worse. Pía woke up one morning and couldn’t feel her legs. On March 13, Urmeneta Alva held a Mass at their home, where, with a priest’s blessing, she was able to administer Pía the Eucharist one final time.
She died at 6:15 p.m. “surrounded by love,” Urmeneta Alva said.
The week before, she remembers a moment that Pía told her she was ready to be an angel.
“It was such a gift from God that my daughter was accepting to be an angel, was accepting to die. She was accepting to go forth with her mission, which was to go to heaven, in such a beautiful loving way,” Urmeneta Alva told Crux. “The miracle is that Pía’s in heaven.”
Then, soon after she died, white rose bushes at their home and the school turned from white to pink, which she took as Pía telling them “she’s OK and she’s enjoying heaven.”
Going forward Urmeneta Alva said they will continue to share the message of Pía Power. She has plans to write a book and eventually start a foundation. They will also continue her “Giving Hope Foundation,” in which she sold succulents and donated 30 percent of the proceeds to a children’s cancer organization in Chile.
For Urmeneta Alva, prayer nurtures her and gives her strength every day.
“All I feel right now with my loss and everything is just so much peace. So much gratefulness for the gift of Pía, for her love for her strength, her testimony of her fight,” she said.
Blessed be God that Pía’s mission on earth can change people’s hearts, can help people love again, can help people believe in God again, can help people fight again and give them a mission, give them a purpose in life. I just think it’s so beautiful.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg