My mother passed away last week. On Friday, to be more specific. Friday, February 1, my father’s 65th birthday. She was only 54 days away from her 62nd birthday.
The phone rang at about 4 o’clock Friday morning. It woke us, but as we were hoping it was a wrong number, we didn’t move right away. Then the machine picked up, and whomever was on the other line hung up and called right back. Cute Husband got up to answer the phone, and he brought it to me, telling me that my sister was on the line.
“Are you sitting down?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”
I heard her take a deep breath before she said, “Mom passed away last night.”
All the events after that are a big blur. I remember Baby C was crying (probably in response to my yelling, “No!” repeatedly into the phone), and I went into his room to pick him up and hold him. And then my sister’s words rang through my head again and I sank to the floor, still holding him, wishing – no, praying – that it was a horrible misunderstanding and that my sister simply mistranslated my cousin’s husband.
Big Sis E called back and I asked her if she just misunderstood everything, and she told me that she wished that were the case, but sadly, it wasn’t. And PS – we need to go to the Philippines. Immediately. Thankfully, my brother-in-law had the presence of mind to call his company’s travel agency, and he booked flights for us.
So Big Sis E and I mimicked the Amazing Race and jumped on planes in our respective home cities to meet up at LAX and hop onto a Philippine Airlines flight that would take us to Manila. All I kept thinking during that first leg was, “I need to get to my sister. I just need to get to my sister.” I ruminated a bit, too, and wrote down some thoughts (which I will post another time), and cried quite a bit. At the end of the flight, though, I felt better, though I was still in complete shock over everything.
After meeting friends for dinner at the airport, we then proceeded to the Philippine Airlines counter and checked in. About an hour later, we were on the plane (in Business Class, which I highly recommend for transoceanic flights) and preparing ourselves for the longest 16 hours we would ever endure. Now, my only focus was on getting to Daddy.
We arrived in Manila and stood in line at Immigration for what seemed like an eternity. It was chaotic; the line we joined was actually two lines merging into one – and the Immigration Officer at the end of the line was the s-l-o-w-e-s-t man ever. We didn’t check any luggage, so there were no bags to claim (this was done on purpose – we had no idea what Daddy would need us to take back to the United States), and once we passed the slowest man on the planet, we rushed outside to look for Dad. Or any of my cousins. Or any of my cousins’ husbands. My sister said the neatest thing about going to the Philippines is that when you get out of the airport, you’re greeted by a sea of faces that all look the same, but then you find that one beacon, the one face you recognize, and you know that you’re not alone.
We ran to him, our carry-on luggage trailing behind us, and hugged him fiercely. My sister burst into tears upon seeing him. He gathered our bags, and we stood at the curb, waiting for my cousin’s husband to arrive with the car. Once inside the car, he relayed to my sister and me the story of how he found Mom’s body, how he knew his efforts to resuscitate her were in vain but he still desperately needed to try, and how she was pronounced dead on arrival at the Manila Hospital but he still insisted that they try to revive her, as well. The head doctor told my father that she had passed three or four hours before he found her, so there was truly nothing that could be done. Later that day we learned that the preliminary autopsy results showed that she had a massive cerebral aneurism. Two days later, the actual cause of death was listed as a massive cerebrovascular hemorrhage.
I’d like to think that she went quickly and didn’t suffer.
We arrived in Manila on Sunday morning and went straight to the funeral parlor where my mother’s ashes were waiting. There were flowers everywhere, which Mom would have thought was a waste (“Don’t give me flowers when I’m dead – give them to me while I’m living! What good are they to me when I’m dead?”) but I’m sure would have secretly appreciated. We met with my mother’s older brother and my father’s oldest brother, then went to my parents’ house in Pateros to get cleaned up and changed into appropriate clothes for the funereal mass that evening.
It was so weird to have people who I’ve never met – often with names that have never been mentioned to me – approach me and tell me how close they were to my mother and how often she talked about me. Whenever this would happen, it took everything in me to not blurt out, “Really? Because she never mentioned you.” Instead, I would nod and graciously accept their condolences with an obligatory, “Salamat.” After a few hours of this, I sat on a bench outside the room to get away from everyone’s messages of sorrow.
The next day, we went to the ossuary and picked out a nice resting place for Mom’s ashes. Mom made it easy on us. She had picked out a very nice church (the tallest in Manila!) where she wanted my brother’s remains transferred when she and my father returned to the Philippines in 2009. We found a very nice spot underneath a beautiful stained glass window, and I know that she would have approved. Then we went to their condo in Eastwood City and had lunch at a Vietnamese pho restaurant, before returning home.
We placed Mom’s ashes in the ossuary vault the following day, and my sister and I tried to clean up a little bit while Daddy entertained some of his friends. Daddy doesn’t do well on his own, so we were glad that he was having people over. In the meantime, my sister and I uncovered a lot of food that had already gone bad but was still in her pantry. [sigh] Mom didn’t know how to shop for a small number of people. She always over-purchased, and that was just her way.
The next day was Ash Wednesday and also our departure date. The Lenten season will always remind me of Mom because we had numerous conversations about my feelings toward abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent. It always seemed hypocritical to me, and it was further driven home when the bishop at the cathedral where we went to mass told the congregation that balut is really considered an egg, so that’s okay to eat. Never mind that balut is kind of expensive for what it is, and, as a delicacy, is more of a luxury food than anything else (akin to sushi or lobster tail for us). Mom was a little disappointed that I refused to follow the letter of the law, but she was happy to know that I understood its origins and was happily following the spirit of the law.
Wednesday was a very busy day. We packed our bags, taking items of Mom’s that we felt were appropriate to take (and that Dad was willing to let go) and taking those things that she bought for her grandchildren. She bought Baby C the most beautiful paintings of Filipino boys at play, and I intend on putting those up in the guest room as soon as I have that cleaned out and painted. She also bought me a little carved statue of a mother nursing her son, and I know she thought of me when she saw it because she was always asking how well I was nursing. We also took a short trip to SM, the Filipino mall, to pick up some things for the kids and thank you presents for our mothers-in-law who stepped up and looked after our respective husbands and children. Then it was back home to finish packing and cleaning.
Once we were packed, we said our goodbyes to the family in Pateros and went back to visit Mom’s vault one more time. Then it was a mad dash to the airport, and my sister and I began our 24+ hours of travel back to our respective homes. I arrived early this morning, tired, hungry, and anxious to see my husband and son. Cute Husband brought the baby with him to the airport, and it took everything in me to not scoop Baby C out of his stroller and smother him with kisses on the spot. My bags arrived (both checked pieces in tact!), and we headed home.
I’m still struggling with losing Mom, but I think it’s getting a little better each day. I find myself having “conversations” with her; after all, we chatted on the phone like friends more than mother and daughter. And I’m really thankful that I had that kind of relationship with my mom at the end. I’m glad that I thanked her for the way she raised me every time I spoke with her. And I’m so glad that I heard her tell me that I’m a good mother and making good choices in raising Baby C.
My sister said she was hoping to feel Mom’s spirit once we got to the Philippines, but I knew I wouldn’t feel it there. Mom wouldn’t have her spirit lingering with objects; she’d rather be with people she loved. So I knew I would feel her spirit when I’m with my son, like a guiding hand there to reassure me when I have doubts. That’s how we were towards the end of her life, and I have tremendous faith that’s how she’ll remain with me now that she’s passed.