Two and a half smiles, reckoned

 

By the time our mother had fallen ill, our father had been dead more than a decade already. If we were to add the five (5) years that we were all schooling in the city and away from him, us, his children had been used to a fatherless existence for at least, one and a half decade already. But not our mother. We were all used to having her around. She was central to our lives – our decisions, our bickering and our sacrifices. Any move would require a leave from mother. Or, at least, a notice to her. Her welfare, her opinions and yes, even her whims, had to be considered.

When mother was diagnosed with cancer, the world was turned upside down for most of her broods. We became confused, terrified and for some of my siblings, crestfallen. It was just too incredible that somebody with the energy, determination and poise of my mother could get awfully sick. She was not your ordinary woman. She’s from a different cast. We have known her tenacity for decades – nothing and no one beats her – not the ordinary odds, not the major disasters and not your run-of-the-mill family troubles. She was not the kind easily shaken. More often than not, she was the shaker.

 

larawan ng isang babaeng buntis na may akay na munting bata

Our mother was the kind who patiently took whatever life dealt her, except cancer. My guess, she raised objections to that ;)/ stampotique.com

 

Mother is the kind of person who bites her lips. Whenever she’s in a dilemma or there’s something she wanted to say but knew would only cause more misunderstandings, she would bite her lower lip – hard. And, she would clasp her palm tightly. And she would say no more. Thus, we, her children, always knew when we had earned her displeasure. She could register her objection to something just by her facial expressions. We knew when it was a No, even if what she said or gave was a Yes.

But mother was only a different version of her own mother, our grandmother. Grandma was the rich one, the matriarch. She was a trader by profession, buying and selling goods on a large scale, at a time when most people from her place could barely eke out livelihoods. She had four husbands, that’s the most interesting thing about her. Our Lolo (grandfather), our mother’s father, was the last among them and was said to be the one to have squandered most of grandmother’s wealth and possessions. I suppose he was also a character. Alas, he died before I was born, never got the chance to meet him.

 

Mother’s mother rarely spoke. She was taller and more dignified in bearing than our own mother. She had a very clear and serene face that seldom got ruffled. She always wore a pair of big gold earrings, very tastefully done. She had no other adornments. When she was still alive and strong, she would visit our mother, her daughter with the most number of children – twice a year. She would come over to our place, stay for two days and prepare foods for her grandchildren. I remember that she cooked the best omelets in the country – different kinds, each time.

It was our grandmother who, more than five decades ago, decided to marry off our mother to our father, a mestizo country bumpkin who only finished first year in high school. Father was good-looking, barely looked like a Filipino but was more like a Spaniard, like his father and brothers. He wasn’t even mother’s boyfriend. Her beau then, was a college student from U.P.  (University of the Philippines), somebody more suited, so to speak, to her status and upbringing. At times, we would be asking mother why did she bother to stay on in the barrio, couldn’t she have gone back to her mother? Mother would say, in her usual wise tone, if she did so, then we wouldn’t be around…

Our mother was said to be a  spoiled, bratty and protected young woman, adored by everybody in her family. Our father then, was a man in his 20s, trying his hand at buying and selling of oranges grown aplenty at nearby, mother’s province. He was a peer of mother’s oldest brother and would always loiter in one of the grandest houses in that locality. This half brother of mother had the gift of gab, a man about town sort and, who had our father as one of his many friends. On a visit to our uncle one day, father dared kiss the young woman of the house. Grandmother was there. The two were married off on the same day.

 

Thus, would begin our mother’s journey into a life of poverty, children coming one after the other, sending them off to school and trying in her best way, to feed and raise them. Father’s economics was hardly the kind that could see us through. Father’s  father was a rich peasant, landed. But by the time most of grandpa’s grandchildren were born, most of the lands had been sold or taken by the banks. What would be left  for the grandchildren, were peoples’ tales of plentiful harvests, generous feasts and how the priest from the town and the music bands would be hosted at our Lolo’s place, decades ago. Grandfather was the cabeza de barangay (village chieftain) for many years, a post reserved for a personage with stature and property.

Unlike his father who was a hardworking farmer, our father and his brothers had little love for the soil, the earth and the plants that grow out of them. They wanted an easier life, one that did not entail scrutinizing seeds, plowing and smelling too much of animal manure. Father was into buying and selling of fruits and vegetables, a trade that at that time, could hardly raise a family. He had an orchard, a backyard full of vegetable plants that he tended after coming from his viajes (business trips). And like most of the men in our place, he was fond of drinking and the cockpit. Also, he was also a small-village person, a stark contrast to his wife who was once well-off and decidedly, a town-dweller.

 

So, the first sixteen years of her life, mother enjoyed a comfortable and prosperous existence. She lived in a big and loving household, studied in the best schools and socialized with the best folks in their province. (By the way, I had the chance to see grandmother’s original house, older cousins at mother’s side took me once, a long time ago) Then, it was almost four decades of utter and abject poverty for her, in a far-flung area with no concrete roads and mixing with the local people, most of whom were unlettered and uncouth. But father’s folks, most of them, were good-looking. They were men and women who were rather rough, uncultured and who, alternately admired and looked down on our mother – for being different.

Mother always wore shoes – with stockings – whenever she would get out of the house. Her face was always made up. She already had a blush-on and lipstick, within thirty minutes after waking up. This habit of hers puzzled us, her children, for a long, long time. I mean, we were living in the remote barrio where people often walked about barefoot. And as I have narrated earlier, it was a place and time where and when walking six kilometers a day was considered ordinary and usual. Mother would negotiate at least twelve-kilometer walks in a day for most of her lives, a feat that would stop us in wonder, whenever recalled.

 

Story was, mother already had three children but still did not know how to cook rice. She was used to having people do things for her. She even had a personal servant who followed her with an umbrella everywhere (I learned about this, summer break, after third year high. The times referred were the 50s). She did not know any house or farm chores before she got married.  She was also used to getting her ways with her siblings, being the youngest. This part of mother’s story, we know for certain. We have seen how her older siblings (most of them, half-siblings only) treated her – like a darling – even as she was already married and with children.

We witnessed how her siblings would often give in to mother’s whims and wishes, called her Ineng (young one) and never refused her a favor. When she married, mother eventually learned the ways of the poor and the neglected. Other than teaching, social work and selling Avon and Tupperware, she did odd jobs in other people’s kitchen. To supplement our meager resources, she would do menial labors in our community without complaints or questions – harvesting in other people’s farms and cleaning the houses of other people. She was sure that she had children to raise and they were many.

 

Ironically, at our own home, mother would not be doing any housework. If ever she did, those instances were few and far between. It was a given among us –  mother would be resting, doing her lesson plans or working on her creative endeavors – whenever she was around. It was her children, us, who would be in charge of cooking, cleaning the house and doing the laundry. Mother could not be disturbed whenever she was reading or writing in the house. One could, however, assist her whenever she was working in the garden, in her share of the orchard. Each of us loved picking eggplants, chilis and butter beans with her.

She was not your regular mother – would not help her children with their assignments, would not eat her children’s leftovers and would not prepare her children’s clothes. She always wore dresses and skirts and wore them with flair. Most of mother’s six (6) daughters took after her in appearance, but only one of us got a bit of her feminine ways, poise and charm. We took after our father – uncouth in manners, dress awkwardly and largely insecure in attitudes.  The one who turned out a bit like mother was my sister who was given for adoption to our grandfather – the one who lived in the bigger house, had better foods and was not expected to do any work.

 

So, in our neck of the woods, mother was considered strange – always dressed up, was not given to talking much and carried herself like a queen. She had ten (10) children, not including the miscarriages. The thing with our mother, she knew how to put up appearances, especially during dire circumstances. It was a private joke among us – mother’s best dressed days were those times we had no money even to buy rice. And her stockings were a constant reminder to us of her well-shod background. Her children, however, are of peasant stock – played on the cornfields, had calluses in their feet, knew how to climb trees and romped around in the hills and meadows.

Mother has had a hard life. Our father was a difficult, talkative man who never got over the fact that he married someone like mother. He had three brothers, one of whom died early, as a soldier in WWII. The other two also married beautiful, energetic women from nearby provinces, town-dwellers as well. Both wives later left their husbands (even with children already) for being insufferable (wives’ term). Looking back, I suppose it was primarily the small-village and feudal attitude of my uncles and our father that made them ill-suited for the fierce and fiery women they married. These men wanted their women to be servile and unquestioning, to be happy with their husbands’ good looks and the rather square community and lives that they offered.

 

Mother did not leave our father even as our youngest brother died when I was in grade five. He was to turn a year old in less than two months before passing away. Looking back and all things considered, mother should have, then. Or, at least, our father should have had the better sense to have driven her and us away after that harrowing episode. It is my humble opinion, that would have worked out the best for everybody. Later circumstances would bear this out – this was the point when our mother and father irremediably but unofficially separated. Now that we are all old enough, am trying to see if it were mother’s penchant for public appearances that held sway or, were it father’s usual oppressive ways that made them stay together still.

It was when several of us got sick. The three younger ones and I had high fever for days and were alternately in delirium. There was no money for medicines, not to say, fee for a doctor. Nay, there wasn’t even money for fare going to town. We hardly had anything to eat in those times. The year before, the oldest sibling got married. Both parents took the event badly. Father decided to stop working. That year, three siblings were in college. Funds were scarce and mother was then working day and night just to feed us. On the fourth day of our sickness, with nothing to lower our fever but the sponge bath of water boiled with orange leaves in the mornings, our youngest sibling passed away. Father tried to bring him to the hospital last minute, baby brother did not make it.

 

When mother was already very sick, after her second surgery when it was discovered that her cancer had already metastasized, she and I would still have arguments. Those were not just about her medicine intakes, of which accessing drugs had become even more difficult. She was then already in the pain management stage, the chemotherapy was hardly working anymore – but about her two sons, my  brothers. Mother wanted me to parcel out some of her budget for medicine and hospitalization and to take time to bail the two out of their troubles, things they rarely run out of. The older brother has two families, a rather sticky situation. The younger had been going around painting the town red, the time mother had been sick.

 

Right after mother’s first operation, the second oldest sister who lives nearby, enrolled herself in a sewing class, said she wanted to know how to cut clothes. She has only two kids, both schooling already. After work, sister would attend classes. I was hoping she could drop by after office some of the time, so I could go to the drugstore early. But she would often come at 915 pm or even 10 pm, bringing with her different foods – samples of her usual, delicious cooking. On days mother was in the hospital, I was hoping sister could come around so I could go home to wash clothes and tidy up a bit. That she would be the substitute at mother’s side. She was able to do so just three or four times, I think… I do not know, but even on weekends, she found it difficult to come by.

Often, sister would arrive after mother had already taken her sleep med and would appear even more tired and sicker than mother. At times, it felt like I was I was taking care of two sick persons… She seemed confused and was apparently trying to evade the fact that mother was terribly sick. Her compulsion to cook more, to practice domesticity more fiercely and to keep life the way it was, were signs to me that she was distracting herself from the reality that mother would one day die. She is, by the way, the middle class among my siblings. In her house, linens are carefully chosen and are all in place… The third sister, on the other hand,  lives in the province, is the one who never runs out of problems and able to see mother in the big city only twice…

The fifth sibling, the fourth sister, the one who was earlier given for adoption, visited only twice also. In one of her visits, I asked this sister if she and the kids could not come more often or at least, call mother on the phone more frequently. Her reply, she and the other siblings live “small lives” and they couldn’t afford to let a problem as big as cancer get into the scene. She said, “Ikaw na lang, matapang ka naman (Let it be just you, you are the courageous one).” I told her, “But she is our mother. Ours, commonly.” She repeated her argument about small lives. I remember that episode clearly. My nieces were in the room with their grandmother. Sister and I were talking in the kitchen where mother could not hear us. I cried…

 

When mother was already gone, the younger sister, the one who studied to become a lawyer, would say that I did not cry for the duration of mother’s sickness. That I only cried when I delivered the eulogy for mother at the church service… I think she was then propounding on the need to steel oneself during hard times, the need for people to be desensitized at certain points. I suppose, she was pointing out that tough episodes call for tough hides… Back then, younger sister would sometimes wake up with me at dawns, when mother could hardly be pacified. Or, on certain days, she would wheel her around in the garage for sunlight in the mornings, before going to work…

Sister would later on admit that she put on her earplugs during the period as well – there was the schooling and the job to attend to. And that was also what I wanted her to do, for the time being… But she was wrong, definitely wrong, about me not crying. I suppose, hardness was more like her cup of tea, not mine… Mother and the siblings likely did not see the tears. I suppose, there was no point in letting mother see. On the other hand, there were no points when the siblings asked how I was feeling about mother’s condition… I guess, they simply assumed that mother would be taken care of. But many were the times when I cried silly and unabashedly.

 

I remember two instances, after buying mother’s drugs, of sitting down at the plaza bench – staring ahead hopelessly, seeing nothing and alternately, crying inside, folded in half… I remember one weekend in the hospital when three siblings happened to visit at the same time and they let me off for three hours. I went to the mall and shopped – for things I had no need for. I remember buying clothes, knickknacks and three expensive CDs – CDs that I did not get to listen to, until after a year… I also bought a cartoon set of bicycle, the kind that one puts together, something like a do-it-yourself. I still have it on display in my room, a reminder of that moment in the escalator when it became crystal – Mother was dying and there was nothing I could do about it.

I do remember nights when mother was already lying down and I was waiting for the sleep med to take effect. I would watch over her – watch how her face would change from an expression of pain to one of relaxation, watch how she would sleep like a child, even for only an hour or so. I would watch her and wonder how far longer she could take the pains, how far longer she could carry on… The person on my bed was our mother, the proud daughter of our grandmother who had four husbands, the patient wife of our overbearing father and the peculiar mother of ten (10) children. She taught countless children to read, adopted and took care of many people in her life, wrote dozens of plays and bothered me senseless, so many times…

This was the teacher who took me around to cross foot bridges in areas even more remote than ours, deposited me in a corner to read before I was old enough to do so and always made sure I had a boiled banana, corn or egg to eat… She was the mother who always put soda crackers in her children’s bags, even until we were already grown and old. This was the mother who always told me to give the wishes of the younger siblings because they are younger and who told me likewise to follow the wishes of the older siblings – because they are older. This was the mother for whom I opened a bank account, who would call from time to time to say I must take out money to give to the younger ones.

She was a strange mother, indeed. And one day, one day soon – she would but die. I cried.

 

Both times mother was operated on, none of my siblings were around. If I recall correctly, one or two of them were in the hospital just before she was wheeled to the operating room. But they needed to leave soon – for work, for school or to attend to family matters. So, I was left outside the operating room for hours. Mother’s case was considered severe or grave by the doctors – her first operation took about about nine (9) hours and the next and last – almost 12 hours. Both times during the procedure, her lead surgeon came out of the room and asked where my siblings were. I replied that they were employed on some matters. He reprimanded me, did not like my answer. He murmured some more and ended with, “Her life’s on the line.”

It is not for me to say whether or not my siblings did right or wrong by our mother during her illness and sufferings. As I said, she is our mother – ours, commonly… Each of them respectively knows what was due her, what were owed to her and what she deserved from each of us and from all of us, concertedly. It is not for me to say who have been cowardly and who have been courageous during those months… I know for certain how terribly afraid I was – the whole time. That must have been the reason I stayed by her side: I wanted to make sure death would not pull its sneaky, ugly trick. That I would at least be notified when mother’s time is up. As though there were something I could do about it, as if I could prolong her stay awhile – five minutes longer, five days more or five years farther on…

 

I suppose this is not the first time any of you have read about, heard of or, listened to, a story of a fight against cancer. Said illness is sadly common enough, then and now. Cancer cells mercilessly ransack and ravage the body of their host, leaving little room for growth and life. Cancer tries (and usually succeeds) to collapse the systems of its victim, gnaws at his or her core and incidentally, attempts to bring down the people close by and around, as well… Meeting it at close range, undeniably an experience of a lifetime. Fighting it – a battle, by all means. And am afraid, it is the kind of war that nobody has won yet; the casualties abound. It takes down the strong, it makes merry with the weak and it derides life – in all its seeming complexity and simplicity.

On the other hand, cancer gives us time, time to deal with the inevitable and certain – death and dying. And when one is there, up close, when you are there – ironically – that is when and how you would know: There is never time enough — to know, to care for, to give to — your loved one. You would beg heavens, you would deal with the demons, you would storm the gates of kingdoms: for small mercies. For another day… Allow me to say – there is nothing in this world that compares to the hurt of losing one’s mother – regardless of a person’s age, gender, race, status, station in life, knowledge or accomplishments. Nay, when you know that your mother is the only person that has truly and genuinely loved you for all that you were, are and could ever be.

 

And I say, all of us – my brothers and sisters – suffered a huge and irredeemable loss – when we lost our mother to cancer.

 

When my oldest niece celebrated her 18th birthday, mother was already in bad form. But mother could not miss the debut of her first granddaughter, she was present on the occasion. It was held in a small hotel in the Manila Bay area. My younger sister had, as one of her guests, a classmate and friend who was a beauty queen. After the party, many people had their pictures taken with the guest, including our mother. In that picture, mother was very thin, awkward and shy, side by side with the tall and made-up lady. But her eyes were smiling… And I think, most of my siblings also saw that – one of those rare moments that mother smiled, albeit shyly. So, technically, for the duration of her battle against cancer, mother smiled not two and a half times – but three and a half.

Sadly, none of my siblings witnessed the occasions that begot the two and a half. Fortunately, I did… That was how I know. She was in pain. But smile, she did. 🙂

 

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The rain and quiet

 

One can hear it, can feel it –  the rain and quiet of an afternoon with soft pitter-patter of droplets barely making it to the grounds, announcing the nearness of yuletide. It’s the season of calm, of children freshly fetched from schools playing some one hundred meters away and the occasional tweets of common jays foraging for rice crumbs in the compound. Some forgotten moments before the traffic rush people and feet again at 5pm, before tires screech to full stops and before the hustle and bustle of another day almost over, but not yet. There is a host of needful things to be done – lists, carryovers and yesterday’s errands – crying for one’s attention.

 

larawan ng isang open parking lot sa San Francisco area sa U.S.

Small droplets of rain were falling on the ground one afternoon/ persquaremile.com *image of SF parking lot borrowed, not related to the post*

 

There’s something to be said for the season. Day times are generally hot and the gusts of wind come pleasantly humid. Yet, if one happens to be in an open parking lot before sunset, a shaded corner would gladly remind that indeed the season has changed. The vendors passing by are the same – same outfits, same greetings, same small talks. But their gaits have something about them – more energy, more anticipation, more hastes? More obligations, perhaps? More reminders of time passed and time remaining. More time to make or to catch up with? It’s hard to tell. A car instantly sped by, two employees in uniform walked fast, chit-chatting in a hurry, a delivery van parking its way into the area slowly – circling first, circling again. Several people started to mill about, in groups of three or four.

 

Suddenly, there’s commotion. Feet hustling. People running about. One man dashed in the center of the melee, a rather huge man in short-sleeved barong, looking much like a security guy. Several women and two men made way for him. He had with him a device, a tool of some sort. He was followed by two shorter men, one alert and the other, not quite. A circle was beginning to form around them as they bend down to scrutinize the fallen body. One of the men asked the people around to move 10 feet away. A woman security entered the semi-circle, clasping a logbook. She whispered something to the big guy. They both looked up, as though trying to size up something in the sky. They whispered to each other again and then, looked knowingly to each other. The big guy said something in low voice to his companion.

 

From a distance, siren sounds were closing in. One, apparently from a police car. The other, from an ambulance, some kilometers away. More and more people have come down from their buildings, it’s twenty past five. Men in their neckties, women in their dresses and several assortments try to make it through their regular routes in the parking lot. The surroundings has darkened considerably. The sun has set 12 minutes ago, but nobody noticed. Everybody was in a hurry. The traffic at the main avenue promises to be its usual. The delivery van was settled in its slot, its driver – nowhere to be found. Some of the curious onlookers have slipped away, many still had to clock out. But there were more who came by to ask what happened, what transpired while they were answering the phones in their respective offices, checking out the last-minute emails, sending out messages via LAN. What happened while they were putting away files and clearing the OUT trays? Nobody seemed to have the answer.

 

The soft rain has stopped. The wind has cooled somehow and darkness seemed to envelop the whole perimeter. Nights come early, a month and three days before Christmas. Several buildings far and near have opened their lights. The business district still feels and appears busy. A man with a DSLR camera was trying to make his way through the throng of people in the lot. There is no saying if those people gathered about were the same folks who were there 25 minutes ago. Policemen were already there, but they were not cordoning off the crime scene with yellow ribbon yet. They simply asked the spectators to move 15 feet away. Fifteen feet, this time. Also, they were waiting for the ambulance crew. The big guy conferred with the leader of the police in a corner. Meanwhile, his partner put a white sheet on top of the found mangled woman’s body. Then, the huge man went to the almost center of the crowd and gesticulated, seeming to drive the mob away.

 

The body has been dead two or three hours ago before it was put here. No one saw how it was done. It was raining… You may all go home.”

 

The man with the camera clicked his apparatus several times before the ambulance crew lifted the body onto the stretcher. The murmuring crowd dispersed as though on a clue. In less than five minutes, less than ten people could be seen in the open parking lot.  Only three cars and the ambulance on the way out could be discerned in the parking space that was full an hour ago. Relatives of the victim came last minute, delaying the vehicle’s departure. A minute later, there was hardly any evidence of the grotesque that took place. No sign that it has rained, either. Almost everything appear to be in their usual places. Once again, the place feels deserted. Only the quiet was hovering.

 

*Just trying my pen at fictions, folks. Not to spoil the season of giving, no. Btw, the idea came from the news items in the last two weeks. I would appreciate it if nobody would sue me. Yours truly has no money for the litigation. 😉 *

 

Singing one’s heart out, in the pits

 

Trapped. That’s how humans are. Three bands tried to put it for us, in big, bold and colorful music – loud enough to merit the world’s attention.

 

Hotel California says you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Just your perfect nightmare, with feasts, beasts, and champagne… It’s about being in the dark, prisoners of our own device, slaves to our own fears. There appears to be such a place and the Eagles would gladly welcome new entrants… 🙂

 

Bohemian Rhapsody, a son’s last plea to his mother. Mama, I f ___d up. Carry on, as if nothing really matters. Sure… Life deals us lemons. If not, we care to look for them. Pull the trigger. What better way to make a statement? Grandly, as grand as could be, so says the Queen band.

 

Bob Dylan’s Knocking on the Heaven’s Door, as revived by the Guns N’ Roses, spelled out desperation. Just how screwed up a person could be? Prettily… Like Freddie Mercury’s song, there’s a vivid mention of the gun, the phallic symbol. And one always returns to his mother. Should we say, apologetically? 🙂

 

Living could take some of us, humans, to the heights  of status, popularity, wealth and success. There is a spectacular range of experiences – ecstasy and depths of loneliness, the highs and the lows, the ebbs and the flows. Surely, these artists paint the landscapes brightly and larger than life for us. Their songs seem to say, “If we must fail, then we must fail terribly, horribly and loudly. For what else is there?”

 

Situations do happen and they make or break humans. For the better or for the worse – who is to judge? Definitely, these artists’ music speak to our souls and we sing along out loud, not discounting the possibility that one day, it could be us – in those very same pits. In the sewer, no less. But come to think of it, it’s an interesting place… 😉

 

 

 

 

It is said, pale and milky coffee drinkers have high admiration for those who drink their coffee strong and bitter. On the other hand, these musicians seem to say, sometimes, for some people, things could go very wrong. Life could sometimes hurt us badly. When we’re down and out, there is no other way but to fight on. Find the door, fight back, and as their music suggest, hard.   🙂

 

* I have not been a huge fan of hard or metallic rock. (I suppose the main reason is – am a little hard of hearing). But I have friends, close friends who are hard rock afficionados, then and now. Am glad to say, none of them turned “hardcore” in life. They have balanced personalities, happily. 🙂 *

 

Two and a half smiles, a reckoning continued

 

In the years that mother was sick, I remember only three instances when she smiled. The rest of the time, she had neutral expression on her face. At times, pensive, and at other, frowning, as though a child irritated. It was very different from her usual – jolly, cheerful and glad to be here. She had a radiant personality that people normally found fascinating.

When she would enter a room, faces naturally steer towards her direction, to take a glimpse perhaps of that sunshiny person, come to stir some happenings. She was like that, as though people ought to be glad of her presence. She would make it worthwhile for you, that seemed to be her personality’s promise. And for somebody small and who wasn’t keen on talking much, that was a lot. She was very sparing with her words, always believed that the less said, the better.

 

When we were still young, our mother would always tell us that one word is enough for a wise man. Of course, my siblings and I barely understood what she meant by that – we only wanted to argue our way into our mother’s favor or to get at each other’s throat. And what did she really mean by being wise? We only took it to mean one-upmanship or at least, not to have a brother steal your share of food.

We had no inkling that what mother meant was diplomacy, statesmanship and public bearing. It was she who was the public person, true and through. People always sought her for opinion, guidance or help, although she was not in anyway in an elected post in our locality. She was a teacher, a social worker and an Avon lady, haha. But she had many other roles – facilitator, trainor and a playwright. Oftentimes, even an arbiter of conflicts. She wore many hats. People would come see her all the time.

 

larawan ng isang orasang pandingding na walang kamay

Those were the times I was wishing for the hands of the clock to stop/ chriscorrigan.com

When mother got sick, it was time to put most of those hats down. Her physical state limited the things she could do, the places she could go to and the people she could see. Definitely, her heydays were over. She could no longer spin like the busy top that she was. Her body needed rest and plenty of it. It also demanded medications of varying sorts – to heal the wound from surgery, to arrest the pains, to supplement nourishment and to put her to sleep every night.

She was weak when she went home with me to the two-story house where I have been living with younger siblings. The sister would leave home early for work and come back from evening class by 10pm. The brother had stopped working two months before mother got sick, but  would also leave the house by 9am – to go about gallivanting. We would engage a house help every now and then, but most of them leave after two or three weeks, out of boredom –  it’s a house with no kids. For most of the time, it was just mother and me, arguing about medicine intakes.

 

For as long as I remember, our mother hated taking medicines. When she became gravely ill, this attitude even worsened. So time-for-your-meds was a time for arguments between us. She would come up with plenty of excuses not to have to drink one. And she needed to take several – five kinds every eight (8) hours. After taking one, she would try to outsmart me and say that she need not take the others. It was a challenge and an ordeal to make her drink those drugs and vitamins.

We had a chart for recording her intakes. At times, mother would tamper with the record, put a vertical line where there should be none yet. Then, she would make up yarns about how 30 minutes ago, I made her drink the blue capsule first, or the yellow. Oh, how excellently she wove her stories! Even I almost believed her fabrications, were it not that my memory was still working. She would always try to exempt herself from the ritual, even by just one tiny bit. So, completing the process turned to be a game of sort between us.

 

Mother would often scream from pain. According to her, it was coming from different directions, in varying intensities, in indescribable manners. She would groan, wail or shout – wishing the pain stopped. The younger brother said, it was this wailing he could not suffer, could not even bear to look at her. So, he would get away from the house as early as he could, to escape from what was becoming our regular domestic sound and scene. He broke up with his serious girlfriend a few months back, stopped working and months later, seemed to have drifted and was spending lots of time before the billiard tables.

 

Cancer just about forbids people from touching the afflicted. The ill person normally complains that being touched is like being attacked. Every part of the patient’s body hurts, making it difficult for the sick to move and to perform activities that otherwise require little or no effort. To touch our mother during her illness was often to invite further screaming and irritated groans. It was what she needed – to be touched, to be assured that she was still alive, loved.

For the duration of her illness, our mother was actually not bedridden. She had to be assisted, however  – to get up, to sit down and to go from one place to another. When lying down, she had to be turned the other way every 30 minutes, to prevent sweat from clotting on her back. She was the touchy-feely type. Her body’s new reaction to being touched baffled her, as much as it did us, her children. It was one of the most excruciating parts of her battle – to see people around her, to look and not to be able to touch. She would eventually resort to nagging.

 

Mother and I had to go to the hospital three times a week as an outpatient – for the chemotherapy, for the check-up and for close monitoring. At times, she would need infusions, especially when her vital statistics were going down due to her body rejecting nourishment and her system’s inability to metabolize. Had to go scout for nutrients stored in 500 ml plastic bags – glucose, amino acids and one other compound – in hospitals and drugstores in the metropolis at dawn.

Transfusions had to be done in the mornings. I suppose the process is an artificial process of ingesting foods, mixing them in the internal systems until they swim properly into the bloodstream. I would call a drugstore branch and salesclerks would say they have the last bag of amino. Upon reaching the place, it would turn out somebody had beaten me to it. Securing those frozen bags was a chase, nutrients that would sustain mother a couple more weeks, hopefully. At that time, the cheapest of the bags cost almost 5ooo pesos. The most expensive, more than 7000. Mother always needed three  – her 3-in-1 package – her combo.

 

The hardest part was still about procuring mother’s drugs. Most of them were pain killers and sleeping pills, substances that could instantly kill and prone to abuse. They were highly regulated – both at the hospital end and at the drugstore counters. Before mother had cancer, I knew prescription to be a one-page document, written on the doctor’s pad with his signature and license number. With cancer drugs, one  needed several Rx pads, complete with stubs that were color-coded – to be presented to the drugstore clerk, checked by superiors, verified at the inner office via several phone calls.

I imagine, it is several times easier to get prohibited drugs off the street. I’ve seen in the movies – passwords, a few minutes of waiting time, exchange of substance versus the money and then go – deal concluded. Getting mother’s medicines wasn’t as easy. Her surgeon would prescribe the least quantity, good for only a couple of days then one had to get another round of prescriptions. Depending on the drugs and their efficacy to kill, most of them must be bought at daytime. If one tried to get them at night, especially the sleep meds, the counter would sell you only two pieces, after interminable wait.

And yes, the clerks would eye you with suspicion, much like the drug dealers at the black market who look at the customer askance – could possibly be the one to tell them off to authorities. The odds that one’s going to use the drugs for suicide was let’s say, high – what with your haggard looks, your desperate pleas and the unholy hours you choose to buy them. Let’s put it to caution against assisting in suicide – there’s the pharmacy’s permit and the doctor’s license at stake. Those people were doing their jobs. Your mother was at home waiting, wailing, watched over temporarily by a sister with more than sleepy eyelids and a thinning patience.

 

It took more than a year after mother had passed away before I could bear to look at the major drugstore in the Philippines, much less enter one. My mind seemed to automatically shut off upon coming across any branch of that pharmacy. I would not even let it into my peripheral vision. For a considerable time, it did not exist – the scenes of my anguish, my debasement, my bargaining with the powers-that-be.

I would beg the money to buy from the oldest sister and then beg the drugstores everywhere to let me buy the full prescription. In between were the trips to the bank and to the hospital – to get the Rx from only three surgeons I knew to be duly licensed and authorized to prescribe them. Desperation became not just a word. It was a way of life.

Our financial situation did not improve. Prior to mother getting sick, household expenses were all on me. It did not in any way occur to brother that he needed to contribute, while sister’s salary was barely enough to cover her schooling expenses. With mother around and sick, our expenses seemed to rise dramatically. My savings would have been enough to see me through at least two years.

With the new situation however, funds seemed to evaporate like water on a humid day. There was never enough money. Adult diapers alone was running up a bill. Oldest sister would not deign to pick the tab on that. There were also the transportation expenses – mother could not be taken anywhere not riding a taxicab. And then, the miscellaneous expenses – they all add up, oddly. I had to accept freelance writing assignments, to be done while mother was sleeping.

 

It was only the oldest who would bother to visit our sick mother regularly. About three times a month, on the pretext of some business or the other, sister would drop by and see mother, all the way from the province. But the two of them would hardly be talking, two proud personalities that I barely knew to be in good terms. The sister has never been demonstrative, as far as I know.

Mother came from a well-to-do background, what people call, the leisurely rich. She had issues with her oldest daughter’s  harsh and hurried way of getting rich. The two women could hardly approach a topic during those visits. Impending death seemed to cast a shadow between those two proud souls. Sister admitted that she was also confused by mother’s illness, distracted and severely afraid. But unlike the other siblings, she would show up.

 

Mother’s first smile happened on her last Christmas day. The second, only half a smile actually, was caused by oldest sister’s friends visiting her at the hospital during her third major confinement. The last was about three months before she passed away – when she learned how to run and manipulate her wheelchair on her own. She was smiling widely, like a child proud of herself, calling the attention of her mother. Except it wasn’t her mother she was calling. She was calling her daughter, me, as though saying, “Look Ma, no hands!”