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/

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!”


Two and a half smiles

larawang karton ng isang ngiti

Our mother was a cheerful person by disposition, she usually greeted people with a smile/

Our mother smiled a total of two and a half smiles in the almost three years that she was sick. Her disease was cancer of the colon, stage four, when finally diagnosed. She refused tests. She didn’t want the atmosphere of hospitals and the sight of doctors.  According to her, being examined thoroughly meant that the doctors would find something awfully wrong with her. And she wasn’t the sickly type, which was true.  As far as I know, she was in the hospital only twice before that major illness. She was the kind of person always on the move, one who took rests regularly and on the dot, but not one that could be said to be under the weather. It was not in her books to get sick, as simple as that.

But that fateful year, she was uncannily thin. I noticed it during one of my visits. She was living in the city in the province, in a house our oldest sibling built for her, just across the sibling’s house. It was a huge and nice house but at that time, its second floor was still to be completed.  She was staying there alone, with one of my sibling’s servants accompanying her at daytime, after coming from work. At times, when my nephews were home early from school, they would stay with her – take snacks with their grandma, exchange stories and eat the fruits or chestnuts on the tray – one of our mother’s luxuries when she was still alive. At nights,  somebody would sleep with her – a sibling of mine come for a visit, a grandchild or sometimes, a servant from the house across. Sometimes, she would sleep at the other house.

Our mother was someone used to having people around almost all the time. She often had visitors – former colleagues, old acquaintances, a neighbor dropping by. She was always a busy person, by training and by habit. When not working, one would usually find her tinkering with something – designing a new flower vase, experimenting with curtains or moving furniture around. Ahaha, the last was a crazy habit of hers. It used to boggle me a lot, caused me to be disoriented countless number of times. I always felt like coming into a new home or a new living room whenever I would see that the sofa set was not the way it was, when I saw it last. Or I would be looking for the neat chair – kind of a foot rest that nobody uses to rest his feet on – and it would be in a different corner and adorned anew. Our mother was talented and crazy that way.


So, it was a weekend, I was at her home for a visit. That time, I have been living in Metro Manila close to a decade and a half. It was an arrangement long settled among us – my mother and her children. I mean, there were times when we tried to make her live with us in the metropolis, but she gave it up after a year. Said the big city was not for her. She actually meant she was too good for the big city – what with the pollution, the impersonal relationships and the throngs of people at rush hour. In short, she didn’t like it. She was missing the people she knew – her amigas, her admirers (lots of people adore her) and her students and proteges. She missed buying viands from the corner eatery and pretending that she cooked them. Our mother was someone with a very developed imagination, believe me.

We were then getting dressed, preparing to go somewhere when I noticed that her legs have thinned considerably. Had she been feeling unwell lately, was something hurting, did she think going to the doctor would be a bad idea? Surprisingly, she said she would, if I would accompany her. And so, off we went, to a small hospital in the city for a consultation. Nothing came out of that yet. She didn’t want to undergo tests ordered by the doctor. She said she was feeling something inside her tummy, it was hurting but could the good doctor just prescribe her something that would stop the pain? That was to be the first of our series of consultations with many doctors. I think we did the rounds of all the hospitals in the city – in all, the examinations would be halted at that point when she was to take the tests. She did not want to find out. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to know.

So, for several months, my weekend visits were turned into hospital visits for my mother and me – consultations and examinations that yielded no definite findings. In the meanwhile, she was getting thinner and complaining of more frequent spasms of pain. Then one night, a call from the province came in – our mother has been rushed to the hospital. Several tests were already performed on her. Against her wishes, of course. I do not know to this day how the hospital staff members did it peaceably – subject her internal organs to tests. To say that our mother was stubborn is an easy understatement. She was the type who, when she said no, it’s a no… Anyway, I took the bus promptly and got to the hospital in the city by midnight. I was there less than a minute when one of my siblings said that a senior doctor wanted to speak to me – urgently.


The doctor turned out to be a surgeon and a senior officer of the hospital – led me to a room, showed a series of plates, bombarded me with medical jargons and wrapped it up by saying mother had cancer and had to be operated on, immediately. That night, or dawn, there were two sisters of mine in the hospital, with our mother. Both of them are married and with kids. Both of them are older than me by several years. Both went to college, in the metropolis. Both did not want to talk to the doctors. Said that the doctors were liable to say something big and important about our mother’s illness and were afraid to hear it. So, they were waiting for me – the younger sister. According to them, I could comprehend the doctor’s language better (really?) and I could take the news more calmly.

Could I? Did I? There was no telling. I mean, I do not remember if I took the news that mother was terminally ill with a cool demeanor or a dead-pan expression. I did not receive it with glee, of that I’m certain. I remember rejecting the doctors’ idea that they would bore a hole in mother’s stomach. I flatly refused that. I knew how vain our mother was. In her bed-ridden state, such would demoralize her. I think I called up the oldest sibling. We agreed that if mother needed operation a.s.a.p., it had to be done in a hospital in Metro Manila – for many good reasons. The hospital officers agreed to the transfer, but not without a long list of conditions. I spent the next several hours complying with their requirements – the ambulance (the hospital’s  unavailable, had to source other ambulance service), the requisite medical personnel (a doctor, a nurse and an aide), clearance (after paying a truly exorbitant amount, the hospital’s the most expensive in the province and has a reputation for overcharging) and a high quality receiving hospital.

The last and most difficult requirement was securing a surgeon with excellent reputation in the field. The second oldest sibling, the one who has stayed in the big city the longest, called up her company’s physician for recommendations. The doctor suggested his former professor at the medical school and most senior officer of the hospital he was affiliated with. It turned out the latter was the best colorectal surgeon in the country, with the most impressive credentials. He agreed to take on our mother as his patient. Well done, we were good to go before lunch the next day. The hospital officers, all of them, knew mother’s new surgeon – he was their respected professor and idol, haha. Hours before, those hospital officers, surgeons, followed me around trying to convince me that mother had to be operated on – pronto – or else, she would die. I don’t know, it must be their duty to secure surgery patients but frankly, they did it in bad taste. I did not like it, they kept saying within my mother’s hearing distance – she could die any time soon – that day even.


larawan ng rosas na laso, simbolo ng paglaban sa sakit na kanser

Our mother fought a good and long fight against the much-dreaded disease/

Before the clock struck 12, the ambulance we were riding in was cruising the expressway at 140 kilometers per hour. Mother was in deep pain but I was assured by the presence of the doctor and the nurse inside the van. It was the first of the many ambulance rides mother and I would take, in the next two more years of her struggle with the Big C…