What would Mama say? It’s a question I would frequently hear from our four children. They don’t mean: How their mother would react to something, but how she would interpret a situation or problem with her remarkable clear-mindedness, without passing judgment or assigning blame or telling them what to do. It is what they most miss about her.
I assure them that there’s a particle of their mother embedded in each one of them. And that all they need to do is to speak to her, because in more ways than they realize, they are every inch like her in temperament. She had raised all of them to be self-reliant, morally sturdy, impervious to disappointment and never cynical, respectful and loving. Like her.
It has been two years now, almost exactly to the day, since she left. She knew that her diseased heart would one day just stop beating. But she never gave up yearning for a bit more time. One day at a time—she would whisper to herself, whenever she found herself struggling to breathe or to fall asleep. She was, till her last breath, a paragon of courage and equanimity.
I had hoped that my own grieving would diminish with the passage of time. But the restricted movement occasioned by the current pandemic has only produced, particularly for seniors in my situation, a prolonged period of thoughtful mourning. Having seen her passing up close, I often imagine how death announces itself to every one of those who have succumbed to COVID-19. The breathlessness, the sensation of life’s slow ebbing, the helplessness, the end of consciousness, the release from all pain.
My only prayer, when my time comes, is that I leave exactly the way Karina did—happy in her final moments, buoyed by the thought of having witnessed the birth of the last of her grandchildren. And, most important of all, free from fear.
I am not sure how she did it, how she overcame the dread of leaving. My hunch is that her own mother had shown her the way. About a week before she died, Karina’s nurse told us that whenever “Ma’am” fell into a restful sleep, she would talk in her dream like a child conversing with someone by the name of “Ming.” This went on for days, the nurse said, wondering if we knew who she was. We all smiled; that’s how Karina called her mother who died, cradled in her arms, barely two years before.
I can only suppose that in the evening of our lives, we all somehow find our way home to the bosom of our mothers. We become children all over again, even if only in our sleep. But some of us are lucky enough to be able to relive and relish with our loved ones those moments when we felt secure in our mothers’ unconditional love.
The other day, over lunch with my brother Nestor, our conversation turned to the meals that our mother used to cook for the family, and how we, as adults, sometimes vainly try to recreate the familiar tastes and scents of the dishes of our childhood. The dish before us that day was a simple clear soup of fresh okra, bitter gourd, eggplant, pumpkin, string beans and whole tomatoes—laced with generous slices of fresh ginger.
Something could be added to this stew, I said, and it would be like Ima’s “abró.” “I think it’s the leaves of ‘saluyot,’” my brother volunteered. “Maybe that,” I said, “but it’s more the burnt taste of leftover grilled fish that I’m really missing in this soup.” We laughed at this Proustian remembrance of things past. For it wasn’t the missing flavor we were trying to reconstruct, so much as the exigencies that compelled our mother to invent memorable stews from repurposed leftovers. With 13 children to feed, she was forever stretching every peso that our father, an honest public servant, earned.
When we look back at our lives, our inclination is usually to connect the dots—the key events—that have brought us forward to where we are today. It’s the conventional way of summing up one’s life. But life is far from linear. The things that profoundly shape us often lie in the quotidian—in the unnoticed ordinary events of everyday life. We don’t always see these things unless we learn to look sideways. Yet, they leave an indelible mark on our habits.
My brother consumes his meals with deliberate slowness, almost cat-like, wiping his plate clean. In contrast, I tend to eat fast, taking only the minimum that I can’t do without. I now believe that both eating habits were shaped by the necessities of dining in a big family.
Our mother always ate last, usually from whatever was left on the rest of the family’s plates—even when there was more than enough for everyone. She saw to it that nothing was wasted. She expected nothing more for herself. It was how she loved.
But, beyond looking after our needs, she also found time to guide our intellectual growth. She was our first and abiding teacher—helping us with schoolwork, whether it was in math, science, history, or literature. In our eyes, she was a genius: She seemed to know everything. Yet, she spent barely a year in college. The war had cut short her own formal education.
My children, too, always turned to their mother for help in their school lessons. She was also their primary teacher—whether it had to do with schoolwork or with life’s more complex problems. As adults, they never wondered how their mother would have cooked any particular dish. They knew that her forte lay elsewhere—in the clarity of her mind, the artistry of her hands, and the enormity of her heart.
Happy Mother’s Day!