There are things about our mothers we may never understand. Sometimes they act and manifest values so contrary to good sense that we wonder if we know them at all. In their ripe age, they may continue to be haunted by the insecurities of their time, wrapping leftover food in old newspaper and stuffing it into the refrigerator, storing rusty tin cans of corned beef and sardines in the cabinet, or bundling up old clothes in large plastic bags, as if preparing for end times. Their seasonal generosity will often conceal an unrelenting frugality, mirroring a level of personal deprivation so thoroughly inconsistent with their actual means.
My mother outlived my father by twenty years. She had saved enough money in those twenty years to allow her to travel, eat good food, buy some nice clothes, and live comfortably. She traveled to the United States to visit some of her children only once. She came home after only a few months, finding life in America too monotonous. She preferred to live in the old house in Betis where all her children were born. There she maintained a minimalist life, selling ice candy and tending a sari-sari store in front of her house.
At her sickbed, my mother told us that she had saved all the dollars that her children in America had sent her over the years. She was hoping the money, which she hid in a pocket of her favorite bag, would be enough to pay for her coffin, funeral service, and a place in the cemetery. I was stunned when I heard this. Of course, we knew this was just her final way of telling us she didn’t want to impose on any of us.
She had accumulated some money in a time deposit she hardly touched. One time, without letting any of us know, she gave a portion of these savings to a money-lender in our town who promised her quick and handsome returns. She was paid a monthly interest. When she became ill, my mother tried to get her money back, but the moneylender told her that the man who borrowed her savings had not returned from Saudi Arabia. The whole thing embarrassed her so much she could not tell anyone in the family. Finally, after a year, she informed one of my brothers, who is a lawyer, so he could draft a demand letter, but he had to promise he would not tell the rest of us. She never recovered her money.
From her remaining savings she drew what she needed to pay for her medicines, tests, and occasional confinement at the hospital. She entrusted her bankbook to one of my sisters, confident that from year to year, she would not need to touch the principal to pay for her medical expenses. Her money, of course, ran out after the first year of her illness. But, from our individual contributions, we sustained the charade of an independent parent wishing not to be a burden to her children. Every month, all 13 of us, here and abroad, gave to a fund intended solely for our mother’s needs. That fund was rapidly depleted during long stays at the hospital, and so, quite often, a second collection had to be taken in the same month to take care of unexpected bills. Through all this, our mother thought her money was miraculously stretching out.
On the last year before she died, she had to undergo dialysis. We had to get two shifts of nurses to supervise the peritoneal dialysis. My sisters repeatedly begged her to stay with them so they could take care of her, but she insisted on staying at her own apartment not too far away from one of my sisters. Families of dialysis patients know only too well how much it costs to maintain a patient on regular dialysis. My mother suspected as well that soon her funds might run out. She kept asking my sister how much of her money was left. This was the third year of her illness. My sister told her not to worry. But I think she knew.
Two weeks before she died, she told me that the dialysis was not making her well, and that it seemed pointless to continue with it. She asked me to withdraw her from dialysis and to allow her to go peacefully. She was crying, and I did not have the heart to argue with her. She wanted to die in her own house. Her doctor, who completely empathized with her situation, explained to her that she would be more comfortable at the hospital. With great reluctance – because I think she was still thinking of the expenses – she agreed. She passed on five days after her confinement.
These days when we talk about our mother, we still look upon her as someone whose ways we perhaps never completely fathomed. But there is nothing mysterious in this. Our mothers are from another time. They are not our contemporaries. They bear the blind impress of the circumstances in which they lived. We cannot view them from our idealized representations of who they are and how they should act. I am certain that our own children often find us equally strange.
The other day, I was in the living room of our family home in Betis. I was gazing at the old nipa roof when I noticed something dangling from one of the bamboo trusses. Then it all came back to me like a strip of memory: when I was a child, these trusses used to hold the umbilical cords of all my brothers and sisters. As soon as the baby was born, someone would wrap its severed umbilical cord in gauze and tie it to the roof of the house. Over the years, those dangling umbilical cords have become dust, and only a few strings remain. Our parents are gone, but the house has remained the family’s womb.
We have rebuilt the old house in a way that would surely baffle our parents. It’s hardly recognizable now from the outside. But inside, in the words of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “the past returns, in the imagination, more new than it was in its present.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
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