Family and friends remembered Juliana Peña, 2, as a cheerful girl who loved to dance and play with Play-Doh in her “cutes,” her affectionate name for her bedroom and playroom, at a memorial service Friday.
They also remembered the strength she showed through the 10 months of illness that culminated in her death on Feb. 24 from neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer.
“In those times of fear and weakness, think of Juliana’s strength and courage,” said Ray Martinez, Juliana’s great uncle. “For she can teach you a lot about bravery and determination, as she has done for me.”
The four-hour service included photos slideshows and videos of Juliana, speeches by friends, family members and her parents, and a blessing from a priest. The altar was decorated with photos, balloons and flower arrangements, including one that spelled out “Cita,” Juliana’s nickname.
The service at Duggan's Serra Mortuary, which was standing-room only, followed a viewing, rosary and photo slideshow on Thursday evening.
“I’m going to miss you taking my hand and rubbing it while we were walking,” said Jesus Peña in an emotional remembrance of his daughter.
In videos streamed before the mourners, Juliana could be seen as a baby at a Giants game decked out in panda gear, “driving” a car from her father’s lap, talking endlessly about a recent trip to Hawaii, dancing, running and giving her parents kisses.
In later videos, after she was diagnosed with cancer and started chemotherapy in April, her appearance changes: she loses her hair and has a feeding tube running from her nose. But her spirit doesn’t change: she’s still energetic and playful, always eager to dance when her favorite music is playing.
Speakers repeatedly praised Jesus Peña and Patricia Watson, Juliana’s parents, as tirelessly committed to their daughter’s health and to giving her the best life they could.
Gail Yost, a nurse at Kaiser, where Juliana was treated, described how one night when Juliana was in the hospital, it became clear that Watson was ill, too.
“It took the staff at Kaiser quite a while to talk her into leaving her daughter for even a minute,” Yost said.
It turned out Watson had appendicitis and needed immediate treatment, Yost said.
“Jesus spent the evening going between the room of the two women he loved most and did not want to leave,” Yost said.
The family formed a special bond with other families whose children were being treated, Jesus Peña said, in part because they spent most of their time at the hospital, which he dubbed “Hotel de la Kaiser.” Juliana had a roommate there, a young boy whose parents came to the memorial service.
“He’s too young to understand,” Colleen Palmer said about her son, Gavin. “But unfortunately, he’s going to have to.”
Juliana endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery over the course of her illness. But by early this year, the disease appeared to be waning, and even a week before her death, doctors offered a positive prognosis.
But detailed tests revealed aggressive masses in her body, including visible ones in her stomach and neck and one that Watson said looked like a “speed bump” on her back.
Elisa Peña, Juliana’s aunt, recalled visiting Juliana shortly before her death.
“Her skin was yellow, she had scabs on her face and she was in so much pain,” Elisa Peña said.
“Jesus called us two times in the middle of the night, crying, saying ‘She is getting worse,’” Peña said. After Juliana died, Peña and her family returned to the hospital.
“Jesus was carrying her on the bed,” Peña said. “She looked like she was sleeping.”
Elisa Peña said she imagined Juliana now in heaven, accompanied by sons the family had previously lost to stillbirth.
“I know she’s bossing the boys around and dancing to party rock,” Peña said.
“I did everything I could, and I told her I was sorry I couldn’t put breath back in her,” Watson said. “I told her as she took her last breath I was so proud of her.”
Patricia Watson and Jesus Peña plan to start a Juliana’s Journey foundation to combat neuroblastoma, fulfilling a promise they made to their daughter to keep fighting.
“Even though I keep hearing she was suffering, I don’t think so,” Watson said. “You only suffer when you’re weak. She was strong.”