Filipineses


To Mama: Breaking Away
May 8, 2010, 9:40 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir | Tags: , , ,

 

“At the end of the street in the fading summer light as she turned to meet her bus, I felt she was gone, that she had finally broken away from my body, my heart.”

Forty-seven years had stained the lines my mother wrote in this diary I just found that summer I went away to university in Manila, twelve hours away from our hometown. I hadn’t choked on my tears when I would remember her for some years now since she died. But today, these threatened to well up as they did when alone in Manila I would miss her.

I was her only child for eleven years. In my university years, I used to send her tear-stained letters when nights of reviewing for exams drained me and I longed to curl beside her in bed. She would write back in flowing script, coaxing me to rise as if extending a silken crook like she did when as a child I stumbled on a stone, bruised myself and flopped on the ground in pain.

Shortly before I finished post-graduate school in philosophy, my father and I had a tiff about me straying away too far from a writing career he had dreamed for me; he threatened to stop paying for my tuition. When I wrote my mother about it, she had sounded friendly in her reply, telling me about how her life had opened up to the sky when it seemed doors and windows had closed. And then, she described how she picked the first fruits from the mango tree I had planted under my bedroom window, adding, “I hadn’t served your sister the way you like your mango fruit dessert, scooped close to the peeling, the fibers showing.” Those words so reassured me they transformed that night into a most unlikely lullaby. 

I didn’t finish my post-graduate studies and applied for a teaching job instead. An infection my doctor couldn’t name inflamed me with a fever for weeks while I was still teaching. I had gone to live with my family; my mother with my sister had by then moved to Manila. In my illness, my mother slept beside me; she cooled my brow and warmed my freezing palms with her breath. I had wondered then if I hadn’t gone back to her womb in spirit.

Later, a job that took me to the islands, traveling at dawn with strangers but adopting families in whose homes I slept and dined somehow made me feel like a squirming pupae bloating too big for its cocoon. Between my trips and deadlines in a government media office, my mother would be asleep by the time I got home. We had turned into “breakfast friends” by then.

I bared to her my pain only once before I met the man I thought was the soul for which mine pined. I had lifted up my agonizing face to her over that betrayal. She looked at me sadly but did not say a word. She had no tender word for me at my wedding as well, but she never took her eyes off me. Later, when I would cry on the phone begging her to tell me what to do when drugs for my husband’s stroke rendered him distant as if I were no one, my mother would simply repeat like a litany on the phone, “Pray, never cease praying.”

By the time my husband suffered his first heart attack before the last and fatal one I brought my husband to the emergency room, cruising haunted streets past midnight, our take-home dinner still in a bag—so much like my mother who showed no frazzled edge in an earthquake. I called her and my father only the morning after.

But I hadn’t really rooted on my own. That morning my sister called about the tests our mother just had—her stomach had bloated strangely and her indigestion persisted—telling me cancer cells had ravaged her colon to the fourth and fatal stage, I had wobbled to a chair, fearing I would collapse, while still cradling the phone. Younger than me by a decade, my sister braced me up saying, “You can’t break down now. We have a lot to take care of.”

City streets had turned into churning seas that bounced me from work to the hospital bed where she sank farther away each day. Yet, she held on, asking for flowers to spark the room when she lost her sense of color after a chemotherapy session. One morning, I filled up my breast with volumes of breath, sat by her bedside and asked her what she would want to wear for her first morning out to worship, in case she survives this dark night or she goes where she’s being called. She did not reply but asked me instead, “What about you? How then will you manage?”

I bolted out to the corridor and unleashed the dam in me, realizing the moment for both of us to let go had snapped. When my heaving had calmed, I walked back to her side. She gazed at me without tears. In an even voice I knew she would have been proud of I said, “I will be alright. You have given me all that I need, remember?” She smiled.

She left me with her last heartbeat, literally. I had laid my hand on her breast, feeling her sputtering heart as I prayed the litanies she had taught me. In the end, not I, as she felt in that diary entry, broke away first but she, though not in a fractured searing way–with wings like silk that softly flapped away, that’s how.

Copyright © 2009 by Alegria Imperial as published in Timeless Spirit Magazine

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