My mother smoked. In the old days when we were quite young, she would oftentimes send Ennie or me to Gochang’s store and buy stick of her preferred brand, Old Gold, usually after lunch. Ennie or I would go, and I always got a minor thrill from asking the seller if I could light the stick right there and then, and they always said yes without a second thought. I would then place the cigarette on my lips, put the lit match to the tip and puff away at it to get it going.
Inay smoked not for any other reason than because sometime, somewhere, somebody: a doctor? a quack? At this point it doesn’t much matter any more, told her that cigarettes would help control the attacks of blackouts that for the longest time had plagued her in her adult years and prevented her from doing a lot of things.
Thinking back, when I was the youngest, I now realize that we’ve always really had two babies in the family, Inay being one of them. The random attacks of her illness took away much of her self-esteem and courage, and effectively shrunk her world into the limited space of her store, only venturing out and never without a companion very rarely, to visit sick relatives or attend an occasion briefly.
The blackouts, like the many petty thieves that usually descended on her little store, would come randomly at any time of the day or night. A day could start well with no signs of anything wrong at all, but this could change quickly. It was much better I suppose if the attacks came in the middle of the night in her sleep, in the relative safety of the presence of only her family who have gotten used to seeing it all happen. Sometimes they did, and the only indication would be that she’d wake up from the attack and would have wet herself. But she’d come to, slightly embarrassed, change her bistida, her cotton dress, and fall back asleep again.
But the most terrible times occurred usually during the day, when she would be right in the middle of chores, and without warning would get this vacant look, spit sometimes running down one side of her face, and start mumbling incoherently. Like the time when the attack came in the morning as she was heating up her day-old pandesal in a frying pan, that in the course of the attack went down with her on the floor and gave her severe burns on her arms and thighs: big ugly angry burns that were excruciatingly painful even to look at and that took many months to heal.
Or the worst one, when the attack was so severe that she bit her lower lip so badly that it split and bled, and was badly swollen thereafter. I am not sure how much of this she remembered for she took to bed for many days afterwards. I could still remember waking up in the middle of the night for days afterwards and find her still in the throes of the attack that seemed to last forever, mumbling unintelligibly, sometimes praying but without making sense. It was a most scary and frightening incident, but mercifully for us and especially for Inay, nothing of similar severity ever occurred again as far as I can recall.
Oh, sure, she was receiving treatment; that was the whole reason that Tatay brought his young family to a larger town, so that Inay could get the best care that was available at the time and which he could afford. But even the daily dose of Mysoline could not seem to control the blackouts and seizures. But for all those horrible things that she went through, it was the seizures that occurred during the day, the ones that happened in her store in front of strangers that concerned her most.
If I were with her when it happened, and after she came out of the seizure, she would always move towards me and ask, “May tao baga ng ako’y mahilo at ako ga’y naihi?”, worried that a customer, a stranger would have witnessed her predicament and the mess she might have made.
And I, with all the innocence of childhood that never allowed for dishonesty, would always have told her yes. I supposed she always knew that I could never have lied to her, so always came to me for the honest truth. But how I wish now it could have been different, that I could have at least, even at that early age, learned to spare her feelings.
Right after she had asked the question, the very same question whose answer deep down she already knew, she would quickly lock herself in the bathroom, and through the thin wooden door that protected her from the rest of the world, I would hear her slapping her own head repeatedly, out of frustration, silently but nevertheless audibly crying. For this bathroom, dark and gloomy as it always had been, was the only retreat in the whole house where for a brief moment she could weep, locked away and cocooned from the harsh and unforgiving reality of her epilepsy.
© August 2007