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.
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. 🙂