I am afraid to talk about my mother because it instantly plunges me to that hell called depression. So I won’t write about her, not at length, not yet. I just want to share our unplanned visit in May 2013. It was just a 4-day journey but one that always leaves me shaken every time I remember it. My 16-month-old daughter Aryana and I boarded a 4-hour Singapore –Cebu flight on May 27. We arrived in Cebu at about 1 p.m. and had the famous Cebu lechon for late lunch. At 7pm, we were on our way home to Surigao for a 12-hour boat ride. We arrived in Surigao at about 7am on May 28, ate breakfast and freshened up, and by 11am, we were on our way to an island called Buenavista where I spent the happiest summers of my childhood, and where my mother lives now. It was another 45 minutes’ ride by motorized boat. We went back to Cebu the next day, May 29. By May 30, we were heading back to Singapore. Forgive me for being so obsessed about the dates. My mother is battling Alzheimer’s disease- although ‘battling’ is not apt; she was conquered a long time ago, a slow but sure descent, which started 12 years ago, to be exact. And I vow to always hold clear in my mind special dates and memories.
I was with my siblings and my mother’s favorite niece-in-law and sister-in-law when we visited her. Aryana was sleeping when we got to my aunt’s house where my mother is living (although again, ‘living’ is a misleading word in this context) so I had to put my baby in bed first before anything else. Everybody was sobbing when I got to my mother’s room. Not the wailing kind. It was more of a silent scream, one that is so distorting that the face dissolves into a million unrelenting tears. I almost backed down. I almost ran away from that scene that seemed straight out from a horror-tragedy movie. I remember that I felt so strange and my first thought was: it’s a good thing I haven’t unpacked yet, I am going to bundle up Aryana, now, while I am still unscathed, and I am going, going far away from here, now, now, go, go! But I couldn’t move. For the life of me, I felt paralyzed. My mother was lying in her bed, unseeing, unfeeling, unknowing, un-remembering. For the longest time, I always say maybe Alzheimer’s disease is a blessing in disguise because it made my mother forget all the cruel things that she went through in her married life. ‘Blissful forgetfulness’ was the phrase I would constantly use. Now I know it was just me, defiant amid her sickness, defensive amid my pain.
Where do I start? What words should I use so that I won’t invite pity? I don’t like pity. It is pathetic. I am not comfortable about compassion either. I always have this tendency to evaluate sincerity and try to distinguish it from curiosity. But let me tell you a little about who my mother is to us, her children. She created a life, another world, for us, one where everything is and will be okay, one that will not disturb our studies or wreak havoc in our daily lives, one that will allow us to be the best that we can be, to become good persons amid the violence in our home and the hatred in our hearts. In our world, peace and harmony reign, and love is always the answer to whatever is troubling us. There were no regrets and recriminations in our world. I never heard her sigh or wonder about what-ifs: what-if she had left soon enough and accepted the offer to work in a big lab in Manila, which was a big deal to a Chemist from Surigao? What if she went to the US with her bestfriend, worked there and be free from the seemingly endless abuse and unbearable sadness it brings? Or what if she didn’t marry against all odds, especially because it turned out to be insurmountable in the end? She didn’t have time for that. It was always about us- what we need, what we want, who we will become. I learned early on that education is our only ticket out- to where I didn’t have the exact picture, but from where, I understood exactly. But even though she was adamant about our studies, complete with tutorial lessons and home-made review materials, there was the constant reminder that she would rather raise good children with bad grades than bad children with good grades. There was this steady and strong emphasis on anything “good” because we all knew we had every excuse to be bad.
That is my mother in a nutshell: loving, nurturing, giving. And she loved to laugh, the hearty, tears-in-my-eyes kind of laugh which was so infectious. There was always a reason to laugh and be merry and be grateful amid the suffering and sorrow. I found it very difficult to understand – this gratefulness- so I was compelled to ask her. And she said: I had a happy childhood, you don’t. But still, you get good grades and help me in the household chores. That is a lot to be thankful for.
All of these memories of her love and laughter were suddenly alive in my head and in my heart when I saw her. And I became the bitter child that I was once and asked God that same old recurring question in my childhood years “Why God?”
That is not my mother lying in a sorry state of bewilderment, muttering gibberish words, suddenly wailing her hands, suddenly laughing, suddenly stopping, suddenly silent. My mother, who always reminded me about posture- sit up straight, walk with a straight back, never slouch- she cannot sit up anymore, she cannot walk, she is either slouching or lying. They have to carry her outside the house for her morning sunshine. They have to either support her from both sides or tie her to a chair every meal time. She is all but gone. And it breaks my heart. That I was too busy studying and working and helping send my siblings to school and starting a family that I didn’t call her often or told her how much I appreciated her sacrifice. That she doesn’t know she has 3 grandchildren, all of whom resembles her in some ways – Isaac loves the sciences and is enthralled with chemicals as well; she would have loved Yesica’s passion for reading (and her bias towards Dr. Seuss) and doing art stuff; and Aryana inherited the curve of her smile. That I cannot tell her that I am ashamed every time I scream at my children, whereas she never yelled at us, not once, when she had every right and reason to go berserk. That I cannot tell her I love her and mean every word- I love her, I honor her, all that she is, all her laughter and tears, all her sacrifice and struggles, all that she gave, including her sanity, to keep us sane and make us whole.
I know in my heart that it is impossible to make my mother lucid again. Even for just a day. But I pray just the same. Every night I ask God- sometimes screaming in anger, sometimes crying, sometimes cajoling, always begging in the end- I ask God to give my mother just one moment of clarity. So that she will know that we turned out just fine, that we finished school with merits, that we have our own families now and we don’t have to create another, more peaceful world for the children, that the fates were kinder to us.
Ma, I dream of you more often these days. And it’s always in that fictional world where you are still healthy in mind and body and spirit, and you are always laughing in my dream. How could you laugh when what is most important – memories of your children and our whispered-but-happy conversations and our tight group hugs that spoke volumes about our strength and love for each other amid our daily fears and our dreams of rebuilding our lives, just us, finally free – has been taken away from you? How could you laugh when fate was cruel to you, up to the very end? But then again, I humor myself: maybe you are laughing because you are happy that we are living the life that we have always dreamed of- peaceful, secure, stable.
I miss you ma. Everyday. Memories of you assault me more and more these days. I remember you when you were my age now – 36 years old. We were in front of the mirror, you were telling me that you’re getting old and fat and wrinkly. I remember being deathly afraid and I told you: don’t die on us, ma. And I started to cry. And you said, oh no, I won’t, we are going to travel to many places and we are going to have fun for once.
I would give everything to go to many places with you, ma. But we always had fun. You made sure of that. Thank you, ma