Inay always cried whenever it was time for me to leave and return to my own life, half a world away from her. For days before my departure, I would make it a point to remind her that there were only so many days left before my flight leaves, if only to get her used to the idea that I would, again be gone for the rest of the year. I would try and soften the blow by reminding her that I would be back in a matter of months and would call her as often as I could. And yet the day would come nearer and she would always ask if I could stay another month, or even until Christmas, knowing full well what the answer will be.
* * * * * * * * *
This was all part of the routine that she and I had built up, the last few years of her life, when like clockwork, I would return a week before her birthday in April, keep her company for several weeks and leave again at the start of the rainy season. I think she always looked forward to these visits, if only because it broke the monotony of what by then had become her daily life. It was the sameness of her days made worse by the fact that by then she was unable to walk and barely able to see. The room she shared with my father for so many years, the same warm sunny room that held so many memories, had towards the end, become the only world she knew.
Not that she was not well looked after: my sister and her daughters saw to that, and she did have the house help at her beck and call. But as was her nature, Inay was happiest in the company of her own family, with whom she shared stories of days long ago, laughed and fought with; family and relatives with whom she can reminisce about my father, the common thread that spun and held her whole life together.
Everyone in my family always comment about how as I grow older, the more I resemble my father; the way I walk and stand remind them so much of him. A daughter of my Inay’s cousin, who for the first time I met as an adult at my mother’s eightieth birthday, casually told me that I had my father’s aura. In a way it is true: I have a blurred photograph of my father from when he was in his thirties, and stumbling upon it while browsing through a stack of old family pictures, even I was quite startled at the resemblance.
But exactly how much I resembled my father I didn’t know until one afternoon when Inay awoke from her nap, fixed her gaze at me and said, “Akala ko’y nabalik na ang iyong Tatay. Naringig ko ang boses niya, subali’t ikaw pala!” (I thought your father has returned; I heard his voice, but it was you!).
In a way during those visits, that was probably what I had become to her: a surrogate for my father, for like it or not, I had taken on the same routine he had while still alive. I would get up just after dawn, but to walk laps around the local sports stadium, so obsessed was I about keeping fit then, whereas my father would have gone to church. The clang of the front gate would signal to her my return, exactly as it did my father’s, and then we’d have breakfast together, the same breakfast of pandesal they always had. Afterwards, with not much else to do, we’d both lie down on her huge bed and chat, or rather, I would listen to her talk, whatever came to mind. I would deliberately ask questions every now and again, just to keep her talking until eventually she would fall into a slumber. To break the sameness of the morning, I would usually wheel her out to the front porch so she can have a change of scenery. There we would sit for a while, and like a child with poor vision, she would point to something and ask what it was: a newly installed green awning across the street, a blur of a bird flying by, or even the bago and malunggay trees my father planted for her which have been there for years but she had completely forgotten.
In time I took over the chore of bathing her, although her modesty initially made the task uncomfortable for both of us. I would prepare the water maligamgam, or lukewarm, bring her in and sit her on a plastic chair, draw the curtain behind which she would undress. Despite several cautions not to try to stand up by herself, she sometimes would, and on occasion I’d hear her cry out for help and find her slumped on the bathroom floor, luckily with no serious injuries. In due course, once she had gotten used to the idea, she would let me bathe her, and thoroughly enjoyed having her hair shampooed. Lunch and an afternoon nap would follow shortly thereafter.
On good days when she was willing and a ride was available, I would take her visiting relatives or wheel her around in her chair in the local mall. We would go in and out of shops browsing, sometimes with her favourite niece Betty, who would make her laugh by picking up the most ridiculous shoes or outfits and tell Inay how great she’d look in them. But these outings never lasted long; Inay would grow tired or bored and then we’d head home. Her rosary and supper would wind up her day, and she would always be in bed by nine. Sunday mornings were what she looked forward to, as she and I, sometimes with Sosie’s family, would go to Mass together.
I think it was the nights that were the most difficult for her. She would often wake up in the middle of the night and would not be able to sleep again. I know she always resisted waking me up unless she absolutely had to, whether to go to the bathroom or change her gown, which was always so heavily drenched in sweat you would have thought someone had thrown water over her. Sometimes she would get back to bed, more often than not she would ask to be placed on her chair, to sit and wait out the night all on her own until daybreak.
As short four years later, things would radically change. She had grown much frailer and seemed to have retreated into a world all of her own. I was warned before I came that she had grown quite ornery, sometimes to the point of driving my nieces to tears. She was also often confused and couldn’t recognize many people by then, including people with whom she lived. She mainly remembered my sister Sosie who lived with and took care of her, her husband Rey, and Sheila, the house help who looked after her during the day. In this small band of people she included me when I returned, but the only other person able to go into that ever increasingly small world was her great-grandchild Hiraya.
Everyone else had become unwelcome: she would grow quite restless and ask when Sosie was coming home once it grew dark, she would get mad at anyone who came near her to help her clean up or change her clothing, always yelling that she wanted Sheila. She knew I was there and still let me bathe her and feed her, but as the days went by the more I knew she was in a world all her own. The mornings in the front porch became increasingly sad, as her previous curiosity had given way to indifference about everything around her. She would sit out there in her chair, eyes closed and her forehead resting on her right palm, endlessly talking, about everything and in the end,about nothing. For they were all things she remembered from the past, things I could not even comprehend or make a connection with. With a heart much heavier than what she had then physically become, I would bring her back to her room where I knew she’d be more comfortable and feel safer.
She would hallucinate a lot during those days, no matter the time of the day. There were figments of her imagination that had at that time became constant and real to her: she would startle everyone by yelling to get this little girl dressed in red out of her room and give the girl a good scrubbing for she was so filthy. Or I would walk in on her in the middle of the afternoon and find her all smiles, and when asked, would say that my nephew Eric who of course was never there was playing hide and seek with her.
While these were initially frightening, I became used to them in a short time. Nights were increasingly even more restless, and I would often wake up to see her sitting up, and as soon as she sees me awake would point at something, I’m not sure what, that did not fit quite right. Sometimes she would wake me up and ask me to open the bedroom door and let the visitor in, and it would always be her long-dead cousin Luisa.
Those were the easy nights; much harder were the middle of the nights when I’d wake up startled by the sound of her falling off the bed, for once again she had dreamt that she was a child, playing tag with her sisters, and thinking that she can walk, she jumps out of bed to run after them. Or I’d wake up to hear her calling, “Ama, ama!” crying out for her own father. And it would break my heart, for I knew she was by then so far away, almost unreachable, and all I could do was hug her and calm her down, and sit up with her until the mania passed.
We never went to Sunday mass together that last extended visit I had with her, and had Communion brought to the house for her. We would still say the rosary together in the evenings, but because her mind had started to wander, I would usually lead the prayers, which fortunately, and before she had forgotten them, I had taken time to transcribe and write down. For the first time I could remember, she would increasingly fade away, sometimes falling into a stupor altogether while in the middle of prayers. Some nights I would lie her down on the bed and say the rosary out loud for her while holding her hand, for she was so ill and could not even keep awake and I needed to make sure she knew I was there.
Closer to the day of my departure, as I was saying goodbye to her one afternoon to go shopping at the mall, she called out to me as I was leaving, and asked me to buy a Christmas present of a shirt for Mamay Asong, her father’s brother. I rushed back to her and sat down in front of her; as hard as it was to actually say it, I reminded her that the old man had been gone for a very long time. She returned my gaze, surprised at what I had just said. “Ay baking ga? Di baga at nakita ko pa ang iyong Mamay Asong nuong aking kaarawan sa Pook, nakatalungko sa ilalim ng hagdanan at nakangisi sa akin!” (That’s not true! I just saw him at my eighty-second birthday in Pook, seated under the stairs grinning at me!)
* * * * * * * * *
Inevitably the day to say goodbye drew nearer. My youngest sister Angie had asked for a leave of absence at work and was due to come in two months’ time to stay with and take care of Inay for a few months. This was the news with which I consoled her and prepared her for my imminent departure, and as usual, I had asked her not to feel so lonely when I left, and not to cry as she always did.
As I was leaving on that last morning with her, Inay insisted on getting out of bed and seeing me off at the front of the house, something she had not done since my father died five years before. She had combed her hair, powdered her face and was seated on her wheelchair as I got in the car that took me to the airport. I kissed her goodbye, told her I would be back the next summer and reminded her not to cry. Before the car started, I rolled down the window, to wave goodbye one last time. She was sitting there, all smiles and not a tear in her eye, but she did not wave back at me. As the car left I started sobbing and could not stop until we were almost at the airport, many miles away.
* * * * * * * * *
Barely three months later I would be back to see Inay as she lay dying in the hospital. For several weeks she had been in a coma, until we finally took her home after all necessary medical intervention was done for her. She never really came out of that comatose state, except for a couple of times and briefly. One of which was when she finally was back in her own room: she opened her eyes, absorbed in the familiar surroundings and the noise of her children and grandchildren welcoming her back home. After which she again relapsed into unconsciousness until the morning my brother Al and I said our final goodbyes to her. Her eyes fully open, she turned around to my brother and stared at him for a long time.
About half an hour later, Al and I received a text message on the cell phone from Rey. He said that at the sound of the car pulling away to take us to the airport, Inay, with her eyes closed and seemingly in her deep sleep, had tears running down her face as the car sped away.
© August 2007