It took strength to lead the life my mom had. She only cried once when my father died, as far as I recall. She kept much of the problems she faced to herself, even if it meant that she was at first misunderstood by the people she loved.
I would later learn she would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to join the anti-Marcos rallies in her 20s. Her father saw her pick up a knife before leaving one time, prompting him to tell my mom’s eldest brother to watch out for her.
Her family and friends called her Chiquit, which was fitting of the petite frame she had—something I inherited. To me, she was mama. And I never knew what that word really meant until I understood what she sacrificed for her family.
Growing up, my mama was the “bad cop” between my parents. She’d be the threat my papa would use if I was up to mischievous kid things. My mama had that ability to stop you with a look. (The occasional spanking with a rolled up newspaper helped also.) I guess the vibe also came with the responsibility of being the eldest among all her siblings and her cousins. I would later notice that among them, they only reserved the term ate for her and another elder female cousin. They wouldn’t even call the eldest male cousin kuya.
The childish fear of my mom also came from the respect I had for her. I never knew anyone who was so devoted to her children. I always tell people I never grew up without a yaya. My mother was my yaya. She would sew on the loose buttons on my school blouse, cook all three meals I needed per day, bring my slippers to me as I took off my shoes. She ironed my clothes with her personal concoction of starch spray. She’d be the one to silently take my dishes to the kitchen sink after I had a TV dinner.
On my 18th birthday, she made a crochet piece with flowers and the message, “Happy 18th Olivia” on blue cloth and hung it over my bed. She organized my entire room, from every piece of garment to the last earring, when I left for my first international trip. So can you imagine how comfortable and peaceful it was to come home to that?
She would correct the friends she would see on very seldom occasions when they call her “Dra.,” and insisted that she was a homemaker.
All this time, I didn’t suspect that there was something bothering her.
Shortly after New Year’s Day of 2018, my mother was diagnosed with meningioma. There was a growth in her brain that was affecting her mood and her memory.
It takes meningioma at least 10 years to grow, marked by seizures and headaches which are few and far between. The symptoms would later evolve through mood swings and memory loss. It explained why, for the last 15 years of my mom’s life, she pulled away from her siblings, her friends, her colleagues. Her mood swings slowly escalated from fights with her own parents to paranoid narratives against her brothers and sister. Sometimes, she asked that I never mention my dad again, which hurt me. I didn’t understand what was happening, why she was like that to other people.
I assigned this behavior to just quirks my mom had. Which family didn’t have drama anyway?
For all the odd things she would do, I couldn’t really see how there was something wrong. My mom never faltered in caring for me and my sister. She was always home, up at 4 a.m. to sweep the yard, cooking an elaborate pochero over the fire at 10 a.m., and then listening to the stories we, her daughters, had shortly before bed.
She would pass the time by painting the furniture, making jams and jellies, and revamping old dresses into cropped tops for me and my sister. She didn’t own a cellphone and didn’t bother to reconnect the landline when it was cut. A few of her high school batch mates lived nearby and would offer to take her out for lunch. My mom would refuse them at times because she didn’t want to leave my sister alone in the house while I was at work.
One of my uncles even said that he admired her because in a way, “she lived like a monk.”
She perhaps knew something was wrong but every time the suggestion of going to the doctor came, she’d shut it down. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was also that motherly instinct that she was supposed to be the one to take care of people, not the other way around.
Incidentally, the start of the meningioma’s growth coincided with one of the most traumatic losses in her life. A year or so after she gave birth to me and while pregnant with my sister, she was booted out of her job as a university professor due to violent internal politics. The details of which don’t matter as this past only haunts and doesn’t heal.
It’s easy to say how my mom once had it all. A great job, a loving husband, two kids. Soon though, she was left with a few documents that didn’t even begin to describe her talent. She worked on papers that were cited in The Freud Encyclopedia: Theory, Therapy, and Culture among many other accomplishments. In our library sits her thick doctoral dissertation, written and defended entirely in French. It’s how she finished her PhD in Psychology at the University of Paris V.
I wonder what life she would’ve had if she wasn’t my yaya. All of her colleagues have big titles, post-doctoral degrees, rankings as university fellows, and professor emeritus from prestigious schools.
Did she lose everything? Did she only get a consolation prize?
That doesn’t sound right. That’s not how my mom would have seen her life. For all that she had before me and my sister, she didn’t make us feel like there was something missing in her life. After her professional career went up in flames, she inadvertently taught me what really meant everything to her.
It was that she could make a warm meal for her husband after working the odd jobs he’d do to help us get by. It was the fact that my sister and I had new toys almost every week.
She took my call when I got my first heartbreak and comforted me that love will find me again. She consoled me when I cried over school works. She made sure that she told me how happy she was when I brought home my first paycheck and when I got my first job.
When I treated her for her birthday one time, she didn’t want me to buy anything for her. My mom insisted I bring a few meters of cloth to support my sister’s passion to make clothes.
I don’t know how she managed to raise me and my sister alone, 12 and seven years old at the time of my father’s death, while the tumor was already growing for a good 10 years already in her. I don’t know how she was able to mask the depressive mood swings for as long as she did.
I don’t know how she was able to smile and say, “My daughter’s home” when I visited her in the ICU, two days after her brain surgery to take out the meningioma. By the time I signed off the operation consent form, the tumor was already pressing down so much on her brain’s left hemisphere, she was dragging her right leg. Not to mention how the tumor first made mood swings so violent, I had to admit her to a mental institution for a year.
Yet she was still stronger than I was. I burst into tears as I was overwhelmed with all the machines attached to her and the stitches along her scalp. She asked me, very bewilderingly, why I would be crying. I told her between sobs, “Mama, you’re so strong.”
“I am,” she promptly answered.
Chiquit died five days after she was released from the hospital, when doctors saw a steady recovery two weeks after her surgery. It’s a mystery why she let go when she conquered so much more than a person would ever encounter two lives over: losing a sparkling career, getting widowed, battling a mental disease while raising kids, and finally a major brain operation.
She battled through all of it and died peacefully in her sleep.
I don’t know what heaven is like. But I do hope that if only for her, it means endless dates with her husband, my father. I do hope they are out there exploring the world as they once said they did before they had children. Because if there is one person I know who deserves all the happiness she made sure her daughters had, it’s my mom. It’s Chiquit.
Art by Marian Hukom
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