I took a day off on the 22nd of February, with no other plan but to attend the Ash Wednesday mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta. I chose this church despite being 12.5 kilometers away and further than other churches I often go to because I’d like to make a connection with a trip to St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 2016 with my wife. Both of us are fond of making such peculiar travel arrangements — such as the trip from similar-sounding Oslo, Norway to Oslob, Cebu later that year.
The mass was scheduled at 12:30 pm, and the cathedral was well-attended. The slight drizzle did not discourage fellow Catholics to get their foreheads marked with a cross from ashes of burnt leaves gathered from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. On the streets of Parramatta, I was proud to wear that cross on my forehead like many others from various walks of life and ethnic origins.
I was on a train on my way to go for groceries at Rooty Hill when I got a phone call from my cousin Bong. When I answered the phone, it was the sobbing voice of my sister Eileen, informing me that our mother had died. I was calm and did not show emotions, and went on my way. I was anticipating that her news would sooner sync in and lead me to an emotional breakdown. I waited, but it did not come. I realized that my mom’s death coincided with the time of the Ash Wednesday mass I attended. This year’s Lenten season opened with death in the family.
My mother Cresencia was born in Valencia, Bohol as the youngest of eight children. She barely received care and attention from her mother, who died when she wasn’t even two years old. Under the supervision of their elder siblings, she had a rough time growing up. While other kids were in the classroom during primary school, she would spend extra time doing house chores like fetching water and gathering firewood. She told me she goes to school with an empty stomach and was often beaten as a delinquent young child.
Seeking to uplift life from a poor farming village in Bohol, she ventured to Cagayan de Oro, where she stayed with a sister and got employed as a housemaid for a Filipino-Indian family while finishing her high school education. She eventually met my father and got married shortly after.
Soon as I got home, I arranged a call with my younger siblings and discussed immediate plans, such as the date of interment and the choice of the funeral service provider. But I first asked how they were, and how they responded to the news. As the eldest in the family, I need to ensure our relationship was stable, now that both of our parents are gone.
When I visited Davao last December, she was already bedridden, with her breathing often supported by an oxygen supply. She was fine when I made the trip a few months earlier for my wife’s kidney transplant, but soon figured in an accident at home that resulted in a fractured femur. She eventually recovered from surgery and was on her way to walking unassisted. But a subsequent hospital visit had her catch a community pneumonia infection. Her condition deteriorated and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for a week. By the time I arrived for a month-long Christmas vacation, she was already unable to move on her own, and could barely communicate with anyone.
Raising her children
We were raised partly by our grandmother, my father’s aunt who was widowed to a US Army member killed in action during World War II. As young kids with a close age gap, we were far from being rambunctious children, thanks to our grandma’s strict laws at home, and my mother’s close attention as a stay-at-home parent. When my grandma died, we soon left that home for an unfinished dwelling that allowed us to experience doing our homework under the black soot of a kerosene lamp. Life was difficult as my father’s little store’s earnings cannot support our studies, although we were lucky to find scholarships in high school and in the university.
Even when she had no collateral but the small stall at the market selling assorted items from nail cutters to lighter fluid, my mother was gifted with the ability to hustle through life, even if it meant looking everywhere to borrow money and occasionally alienating friends just to give us allowance to school and pay for our tuition fee. There were times our white school t-shirts were tattered and our shoes wore down, but my mother’s advice to keep the shirts neatly pressed and shoes washed weekly indicates how we carry ourselves in public despite our poverty.
Upon arrival Sunday following my mother’s death, I was unsure how would my emotions behave when I’ll see her in a casket. Earlier that day, I told my two choir groups I will fly to see my mother for the last time. It was probably the darkest moment in my life, a time when I was desperately seeking someone to talk to. Simple condolence messages appeared perfunctory as I was waiting for those who could spare me a moment to chat at a time I needed them the most. There were a few who made the effort — special mention to Jonilie who called me while I was queuing towards the Sydney Airport check-in counter — and I am grateful for that brief interaction.
Memories with my mother
I was away from home for more than 20 years, and part of me felt bad I wish I spent more time with my parents during that period. But I did not feel guilty for being away that long. My conversations with my mother made me feel I spent quality time with her even only through the phone. When you decide to work abroad, you can’t help but sacrifice spending time with your family.
Working abroad broadened my horizon and also helped me transform from being a timid, reed-thin wannabe who finally got a break with a job offer at PCCW in Hong Kong. During my interaction with a diverse community, I learned to fix my awkwardness in social situations. I managed to say “I love you” to my mother even if doing so was unimaginable growing up in a family where expressing our feelings seemed like a taboo.
As a young boy, I always wanted to join my mother and go downtown on a jeepney, in hopes to get a new pair of shoes or cheap toys. Most of the time she’d gesture for me to stay home, but when I’m told to dress up, I know I’ll have a good day, even if I’d mostly go home without a new pair of shoes or cheap toys. Holding her hand while crossing the street or taking the escalator felt the most reassuring, knowing that if either of us let go, I’ll be lost and helpless.
I was nine when I was struck with a severe illness. My mother carried me from home all the way to Dr. Tolero’s clinic. I thought I was too heavy to be lifted, but my mother did not mind. She was worried sick over my condition as I was told I was suspected to be a “blue baby”.
When I was in first grade, I made my first memorable mistake: stealing coins from my mother’s purse to buy extra snacks. When she found out about my offense, mom struck my finger with an object that I had punctured a wound. She would later reveal to me that the moment she saw blood from my fingers, she wept in silence for doing it. She only did it to make me realize what I did was wrong and that I won’t become a thief. I thanked her for doing it at that young age.
Later that year, when I was awarded first honors from the class of Mrs. Teresita Camcam, both Nanay and Tatay honored their promise and bought me a new digital wristwatch, one that had lights when checking for time in the dark.
Before graduating from high school, we had a recollection facilitated by Filipino and American priests. The session was rather filled with laughter at the beginning, but later became a room filled with sobbing teens. We were made to discern our wrongdoing and how our parent’s efforts were in vain if we don’t honor them by striving hard and finishing school.
We were later asked to invite our parents to show our remorse and gratitude in public. Each of us who brought our parents had the chance to stand in the middle of the church to thank a parent, ask for forgiveness and give a tight hug. While other classmates were either too shy or too proud to not bring their parents to that gathering, I was so thankful I brought Nanay because it was the only moment I showed the entire school I was proud of her.
A week before my Nanay died, I consumed Stephen A. Smith’s memoir, detailing his fractured relationship with his dad, while hailing the efforts of his mom. Although I did not have any rift with my father nor he was irresponsible, my mother’s hard-working efforts kind of mirror Janet Smith’s valiant effort to raise a family.
I was in a gathering of young people in a Rydalmere church hall today, which also coincided with exactly three years since my wife flew from Sydney to Davao to embark on a kidney transplant journey, and shared a bit about my experience. As I am now formally an orphan, save for my in-laws now acting as my adoptive parents, I can only look back to the good memories I built with my parents.
Life is too short to build squabbles within the family and not settle them before sunset. Make the most of your time while you are with your parents. When you move out, get married, and have your own families, your time with your parents will be limited, so don’t wait until you become like myself — who moved out from home more than 20 years ago, and had few, albeit meaningful, interactions with them.
I gave a short eulogy on my mother’s day of interment and shared similar advice to attendees mostly school friends of Nanay’s children. At a time when too many distractions come our way, engagement with parents whether to share a meal with them or resolve longstanding disputes may have become relegated to a low priority or subject to perpetual procrastination. Don’t wait for tomorrow; treat today as if it were your last and
Before my mother passed away, she had been asking for forgiveness. While I playfully dismissed it, I was serious enough to put a good thought into it. I also reciprocated by asking for her forgiveness for the times I broke her heart. None of us her children was by her bedside when she died, but I am certain that both my brother and sister settled with her in peace, and she died without a struggle after a three-month-long stint as a bedridden patient.
A time of grief is a blessing in disguise as true friends will always show up. As I sat with our grade school friends during the wake recalling all the embarrassing moments Rodel Garsuta vividly recalled, I didn’t realize how I missed that type of laughter I enjoyed since I went out with the same group just seven months ago. Now I am alone, grieving as I cope with the death of a loved one, a world away from that refuge that accepted me wholeheartedly. There are those friends who proactively offered help, sent monetary assistance, and offered prayers. If I can’t thank you, anonymous benefactors, God will repay you.
I have always been fascinated with near-death experiences. I would often brainstorm with my mother about what happens when we die. Will we see a brief flashback of our life or will we walk through a dark tunnel chasing light at the end? Growing up, I had dreamt many times my mother died. I cried in my dream but was relieved when I woke up upon realizing it was not true. Before she died, I was told she seemed to hallucinate seeing people on a blank wall, appearing to pick her up. She called the names of her elder brothers and sisters who passed on many years ago.
Now, she has passed away and that dream has become a reality. I wonder if Nanay will show up in a dream and tell me what she found out.
Now that my mother is gone from our sight, she will remain in our thoughts, and I pledge to make her proud. She died on Ash Wednesday, and my prayer is that when the time comes, she’ll also follow the same path to witness God’s eternal light on Easter to conclude the Lenten season.