Laughter, Faith, Love

By Gretchen Eichenberg

The Carranza Family  

Pictured: Twenty Toes Photography, twentytoesphotography.com

Cardiac nurse practitioner Melissa Manchego Carranza lives and breathes care. With more than 20 years of experience, she cares for her critical heart patients with understanding and compassion. But as a single mom, her heart is with her family of five as she guides her children to grow and achieve their dreams and to never give up. Melissa is the ultimate multitasker — with her busy life, she has to be — so I took a seat in her kitchen, and we talked as she prepared a Sunday night family dinner.

WACOAN: Melissa, tell me a little bit about the members of your family.

Melissa: I’ll start with the ones who live here with me. Nathaniel, 14, is my youngest. He’s a freshman at China Spring High School, where he’s very involved in the band.

WACOAN: What instrument do you play?

Nathaniel: I play clarinet.

WACOAN: How long have you been playing clarinet, and do you think you’ll keep playing music even after high school?

Nathaniel: Yes, I probably will. I’ve been playing since sixth grade. I’d like to go to a college with a marching band and be involved in a band program. I’m thinking about Colorado State University.

WACOAN: So you’re a freshman. How are things at China Spring? What’s your favorite subject?

Nathaniel: It’s good. I would probably say I’m a history person.

WACOAN: What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened this year, Nathaniel?

Nathaniel: I went to London.

Melissa: The China Spring band marched in the New Year’s Day parade in London, England. I would say that’s the biggest event of our year, for sure.

Nathaniel is sort of an introvert. He is the baby of the family, and I think my girls, since he was born when they were in high school, tended to baby him. Both girls were active in the China Spring band.

Matthew, 26, is my oldest son. He is autistic. He lives here with me, usually. His dad lives in Colorado, and he goes there a couple of times a year.

Matthew: In August.

WACOAN: Are you going to Colorado soon?

Melissa: He will be going to stay with his dad for June and July and coming back in August. Matthew can be very funny. He has a good sense of humor.

WACOAN: Is he considered high-functioning?

Melissa: He is more high-functioning than some. He stayed in the school system until he was 21. But he is not high-functioning enough that he could live independently. I think he could probably do a job with a lot of supervision. There just aren’t a lot of opportunities like that out there for autistic children.

Jacqueline, 29, is my oldest daughter.

WACOAN: What does she do?

Melissa: She has an apartment here in Waco, and she teaches algebra at University High School. She went to Texas A&M [University]. She started out majoring in aeronautical engineering but decided she wanted to teach high school math. Jacqueline has always been very studious and very serious and an introvert. Thought they are just a year apart, my girls have very different personalities.

Felicia, 28, is my youngest daughter, and she’s more of an extrovert, very outgoing.

WACOAN: Felicia must be the one who lives in California.

Melissa: Yes, she lives in Studio City, California. She went to the University of North Texas for radio, TV and film. She wants to be in production, so she came home after graduation to save money and then moved out there about a year and half ago. She works at a Starbucks on the Warner Bros. lot. She had an internship when she first moved there, and then she’s done a couple of 48-hour film projects. She’s trying to make it big.

Nathaniel: She’s served coffee to Tim Allen and Tom Hanks.

WACOAN: Sounds like she’s putting herself in the right position to do that.

Melissa: Yes, we hope so. Both girls chose a college that fit their personality, and they both excelled in college and enjoyed their experiences. Jacqueline is still the more serious one, the more responsible one. She joins us for dinner sometimes during the week and comes to Nathaniel’s school events.

WACOAN: You have some experience with your chicks leaving the nest. How do you deal with that?

Melissa: It’s been OK, but maybe that’s because I still have two at home. Matthew will always live at home, either with me or with his dad. So I don’t think I’ll ever have a completely empty home. But when I am alone, I enjoy that time by myself.

WACOAN: You’re preparing a yummy-looking dinner. What is it?

Melissa: I am making shish kebabs — steak, shrimp and chicken. And I skewered some vegetables earlier, so we’ll have those too.

WACOAN: Just for the three of you?

Melissa: No. Jacqueline usually comes over. My mom and dad live here in town, and my sister lives here, as well as my brother. We do Sunday dinners together, and my sister and I take turns doing the cooking. Tonight it’s my turn.

WACOAN: What else will you serve with it?

Melissa: Well, in addition to the meat and vegetables, I have some potatoes, so I’ll probably do those.

WACOAN: Is this meal a family favorite?

Melissa: It’s not something I’ve made lately because my grill has been out of gas. I had to ask my dad to go and get a gas tank for me. But I usually start grilling when the weather gets nice, so this is the beginning of that.

WACOAN: Do you consider yourself a cook? I mean, do you like cooking?

Melissa: I like to cook, but I wish I had more time to spend cooking. And I do cook a lot. I like to explore my cooking horizons, but I do tend to make a lot of the same things over and over again. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut.

Matthew is very particular about what he eats, and so is Nathaniel, for that matter. So if I’m going to do something different, it will usually be for one of our Sunday dinners.

WACOAN: And tell me what you do when you’re not at home, cooking?

Melissa: I’m an acute care nurse practitioner. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1995 [from University of Colorado-Colorado Springs]. My first job was in cardiology. I moved to Waco about 20 years ago where I worked in ICU at Hillcrest [on Herring Avenue].

I went back to school and got my [master’s degree in nursing from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi] as an acute care nurse practitioner and worked with Waco Cardiology [Associates] for about eight years. In 2010 I started working for Scott & White in pulmonary critical care. At that time I was commuting to Temple, where I worked in the ICU for about two years. I came back to Hillcrest, where I was the pulmonary critical care nurse, working in ICU on the floor, and I also did a little bit of clinic. I’m now in the Advanced Heart Failure Clinic at [Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center], and I’m the nurse practitioner there. It’s kind of a circle. I’m back in cardiology, where I started my career. It’s kind of like going home.

WACOAN: What do you like best about working with heart patients?

Melissa: I’m very acute-focused, and I like taking care of the sick patients. Our congestive heart failure patients are really sick. I enjoy cardiology and the heart — it’s what I know. I think once you know something so well, it’s where you feel comfortable and like you can make a difference.

WACOAN: Sounds like a busy job. Do you have normal work hours?

Melissa: My hours are normal. Our heart failure clinic is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I’m usually able to leave around 5:50 or 6 p.m.

WACOAN: What time does you family’s day officially start on a typical weekday?

Melissa: We’re kind of late risers. [Laughs]

WACOAN: Really?

Melissa: Yeah. I’m usually up by about 6 or 6:30 a.m. Nathaniel has to be at school by about 7:55 a.m., but I try to drop him off about 7:30. He gets up about 7 a.m. — that’s when I’m knocking on his door to make sure he’s up.

WACOAN: Do you make breakfast?

Melissa: We don’t get up early enough for me to make a big breakfast. But I have discovered making scrambled eggs in the microwave. Have you done that?

WACOAN: No! But I might want to. How do you do that?

Melissa: You scramble an egg in a coffee cup and put it in the microwave for a minute. You can add cheese, salt and pepper or whatever you want, like leftover bacon or sausage.

WACOAN: What does Matthew do during the day?

Melissa: He’s kind of a late riser too. I think he stays up late, until 1 or 2 a.m., kind of like a teenager, except that he’s no longer a teenager. He probably gets up around 10ish. He stays here, and he’s usually here by himself while I’m at work. My mom and dad will stop by, especially if anything’s going on with him. He just kind of putters around the house.

Matthew: But I don’t open the door.

Melissa: The rule is that he’s not supposed to open the door. But we still do that, don’t we, Matthew? [Laughs]

We’ve talked a lot about visiting some of the day programs that are out there, but he always tells me no. I think he’s happy at home, doing his own thing. We try to go out a couple of times a week. In the evening we’ll go to Target or someplace to get him out of the house.

WACOAN: So what time do you get home from work?

Melissa: I get home about 6 p.m. and start making dinner, depending on the day.

WACOAN: What kinds of things do you make on weeknights?

Melissa: With Matthew’s autism, he does best with routine and a set schedule. Mondays we usually make pizza, and I’m kind of rushed because I make homemade dough.

WACOAN: Wow — that’s a lot of work.

Melissa: A couple of times I’ve tried buying an already-made pizza crust, but Matthew won’t have anything to do with that. [Laughs]

WACOAN: He likes the good stuff. Are your boys helpful in the kitchen?

Melissa: Not really.

WACOAN: Well, not many people with boys would be able to answer yes to that question.

Melissa: They do have chores, like doing the dishes and taking out the trash.

WACOAN: What kinds of things do you do with the boys on the weekends?

Melissa: We go to a lot of movies.

Matthew: Captain America.

Melissa: Yes. Yesterday we saw the Captain America and Iron Man movie [‘Captain America: Civil War’]. A lot of the things we do together are tailored to Matthew.

Matthew loves the zoo, so we have a membership to the Cameron Park Zoo, and we go there pretty frequently.

WACOAN: We have a wonderful zoo here.

Melissa: Yes, we do. He also loves the Dallas and Fort Worth Zoos. We go the aquariums and places like that. We’ve gone to some [Texas] Rangers games in [Arlington], but Matthew gets a little restless there. We like Cameron Park or the Lake Waco Dam, though he’s not big into exercising. We’ve gone to a Baylor game at McLane Stadium.

WACOAN: So Matthew is curious.

Melissa: Actually, when we go to the zoo, he just zooms right through the place.

WACOAN: He’s just happy to be there.

Melissa: Yes. He loves being there, and it’s good for him to be out and getting exercise.

WACOAN: What does a typical Saturday look like for your family?

Melissa: We don’t get up early. And we try to do something fun. But it’s also our run-around day. If we need to go to the grocery store or Lowe’s or the mall, Saturday is the day to do that.

WACOAN: Where do you guys like to go out to eat in Waco?

Nathaniel: I like Olive Garden.

Melissa: Matt, what’s your favorite restaurant?

Matthew: Peter Piper Pizza.

Melissa: He also likes Chili’s.

WACOAN: Have you been to the new one?

Melissa: A couple of times, actually! Matthew likes burgers and fries. So it’s usually Chili’s, BJ’s or Cheddar’s. A lot of what we do centers around what works for Matthew.

WACOAN: Do you feel like the world is giving Matthew a fair shot?

Melissa: I have to say that I do. He was in the China Spring school district until he was 15, and he did great. We had one year with a teacher he didn’t do well with, but other than that we’ve had great teachers. He was the kid in school who would go around to the classrooms and collect attendance, so everyone kind of knew Matthew. It was a much smaller school then too.

WACOAN: So he fit in.

Melissa: Yes, but when he turned 15, he went to live with his dad in Colorado. He was going through puberty, and suddenly he was bigger than me and didn’t always want to do what I said. So it was difficult. He went to live with his dad during the school year and spent summers with me. It worked well.

WACOAN: What’s the outlook for Matthew?

Melissa: There aren’t enough resources for adults with autism. We focus so much on the school-age years and getting them through school that when they get out, we say, ‘What now?’ In general, there aren’t enough resources for people with mental health issues. I’m not saying autism is the same as mental health. But for instance, people with bipolar [disorder] or schizophrenia. There just aren’t enough resources to go around for the people who need care.

WACOAN: Matthew is lucky to have you.

Melissa: We are blessed because my ex-husband and I are able to take care of him and provide whatever he needs. And I think his sisters feel the same way. If there’s anything he needs, I think they will do right by their brother.

WACOAN: What have you learned from Matthew?

Melissa: I think he’s taught me that … I don’t mean to get emotional … you go with what you’ve been given and appreciate it. Even though he has the disabilities that he has, that’s not the way Matthew sees himself. He just knows his world. He doesn’t see himself as disabled. And I think that’s what he’s taught me.

You take what life gives you and run with it.

WACOAN: Nathaniel, how do you see your mom? I mean, when you think about all the things she does, all the things she balances to make life work for your family, how does that make you feel?

Nathaniel: She’s very patient. She’s also very passionate and persistent, I’d say. She comes home after work and makes dinner and then sits down to relax. She takes care of us first before herself.

Melissa: That’s what moms do.

Melissa’s daughters, Jacqueline and Felicia, were unable to join the family for dinner that night, but they each had plenty to say about their mom and their family via phone.

Felicia: My mom is a superhero. As a single mother, she was incredibly resilient in good and bad times. She has always been very dedicated to her children’s happiness. She’s worked so hard her whole life. I brag about her all the time to my friends. Her success in life is my goal. Her independence and bravery as a single mother has taught me to never be afraid of being alone. I can only hope and pray I can instill this much belief in my own children someday as well, whether I’m married or a single mother. I have no fear in that respect because of the fantastic job she is still doing raising me and my siblings.

Jacqueline: I most admire my mom’s work ethic and compassion. She is a very hard worker both at her job and at home. From the stories my mom shares about work, I can tell that my mom loves what she does for a living and always does the best she can. I can also tell how much she cares about her patients.

She has always been able to provide for her children while also having a career that she not only enjoys but also excels at. I think it’s amazing that she raised her children while also getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but honestly, I didn’t even notice sometimes because she never let it distract her from her responsibilities as a mother. My mom has also provided for us — my brothers, sister and I — with what we needed and has always shown us how much she cares for us and how proud she is of each of her children.

WACOAN: Melissa, how do you take time for yourself?

Melissa: On Sundays I like to drink my coffee in bed. Since I’m up and out the door on weekdays, this is a day I can relax a little bit. I like to go for a run on the dam or down Arnett Lane, not too far from our house. Arnett Lane is very peaceful to me. There are just a couple of houses, lots of trees, a few cows. There’s nobody else around. That’s my time to kind of unwind and think about things. And of course, our Sunday night dinners with the whole family.

WACOAN: How would you describe your family? Are you a close family?

Melissa: We are close. All of us are going to Florida together this summer, including all the nieces and nephews. We’re also a very … Hispanic … family. [Laughs] We’re kinda loud, and we all have our own opinions. You know the TV shows where there’s that [stereotypical] family where everyone’s talking at once and talking over each other? That’s us. We’re very open. We know each other’s business. And in our house, just the three of us, we’re kind of a smaller version of that too.

WACOAN: Family is important.

Melissa: Family is very important. I sometimes take care of patients whose kids live a thousand miles away and haven’t been home for a year. That is heartbreaking to me, when somebody doesn’t have family. I can always count on my family to be there for me when I need them.

WACOAN: What are the most important values you try to instill in your kids?

Melissa: To work hard. Family comes first.

I don’t like the word ‘successful.’ I think it’s more important to me for my kids to be happy. Whatever it is you choose to do with your life, make it something that makes you happy. It’s not about the money. It’s not about who you know. It’s about doing what you enjoy. Enjoy your life. Love what you do.

WACOAN: What are some of the things your mom tries to teach you by the way she lives?

Nathaniel: To never give up.

Jacqueline: My mom has always told me to do what makes me happy, and those words have definitely guided me in the decisions I have made in my life, such as what career I should pursue and other personal pursuits. She has also shown me how important it is to spend time with my family and to always be there for them.

Felicia: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my mom is to stand your ground. Find your passion in life and work hard for your goals and dreams. Never be afraid of what others think and always remember to be who you are and always know someone loves you unconditionally. I owe my strength and independence to my mother.

WACOAN: Melissa, your kitchen wall is decorated with inspirational words: laughter, faith, love. Are those words you live by? How did you choose those words to be placed in the heart of your home?

Melissa: Yes. You know, we’re on this earth for a very short period of time. Working in critical care and in ICU, I’ve really seen that. I also work for an organ donor procurement agency. I’m on call seven days out of the month. If there’s a possible organ donor in our area, I handle the referrals and work with a team that comes from Austin. So I’ve seen young peoples’ lives who have ended from a car accident or something like that. I’ve seen firsthand that life is short and we should focus on the important things in life.

WACOAN: Are you religious?

Melissa: I’m not a religious person. I grew up Catholic, but I’ve always questioned. Is there something after we die? I don’t think we know. But what we do know is that our time here is very short. It could be over at any time, so we need to enjoy every minute that we can.

WACOAN: So is that your motto?

Melissa: Yeah. Life is short. We need to forgive. I don’t think we ever forget, but we need to forgive. Don’t live with anger. Treat people the way you want to be treated. And just try to do the right thing.

WACOAN: What’s the most important thing a family can give to each other?

Melissa: I think support and love, especially when someone’s going through a difficult time. I see too many families fight for no reason about things that aren’t really important. With my work, someone’s grandmother might be dying, but someone isn’t speaking to someone else. I think we have to try and remember what is important — love — and show that to each other always.

Join the Conversation