Our mother stood motionless and stared at her like she had seen a ghost.
Our youngest sibling Chai, not a ghost, but very much alive and well, arrived from Saudi where she works as nurse. All of us, except our mother, knew that she’d arrive that day.
For a moment there, my sister and I didn’t know how to react. Our mother was obviously surprised. But the reaction on her face showed she was not exactly pleasantly surprised.
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A week prior that day, in the late of night, our mother was experiencing a different level of discomfort in her abdomen that she summoned me and another sister, Chee, to bring her to the hospital.
At the hospital’s emergency room, we spent the wee hours having our mother go through various laboratory tests.
There, it was known that she had fluid build-up in her stomach. It explained why she felt her stomach was always bloated. It caused so much discomfort that she could hardly eat and sleep.
The doctors had to drain it off, and we were told she’d stay in the hospital for a few days.
Some test results were also made available right away. A resident doctor talked to me and Chee as she was flipping through a thin pile of papers on her hands.
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When she left, our mother asked: “What did the lab test results say?”
“I don’t really understand the medical terms.” I gave a white lie and retreated to sit at the corner.
“Come home immediately while there is time.” I messaged our three siblings who are all based abroad: Ate Meiyeen in Ireland, Erick in Qatar and Chai in Saudi.
The first to arrive was Chai.
“Why are you here?” My mother asked.
“To surprise you!” She replied.
It was a rather awkward moment. Perhaps, unexpectedly seeing Chai provided her the answers I did not give. Perhaps, it confirmed her fears. For why would her daughter from afar suddenly come home?
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In March of 2016, following a vaginal bleeding, our mother was diagnosed with Stage 1 uterine cancer. A white lump was found on the lining of her uterus or womb, and immediately she underwent a surgery to take out her entire ovary. She also went through a radiation therapy.
During and after her surgery, all of us five siblings were around her. After a few months of therapy, her doctor declared her as cancer-free.
For six months after that, she lived a happier life with a renewed spirit. For her, it was a second life.
But in February last year, the lab tests showed her cancer recurred. Hers was called Mixed Mullerian Malignant Tumor (MMMT) or uterine carcinosarcoma, a mixture of two cancers — carcinoma (or epithelial cancer) and sarcoma (or mesenchymal/connective tissue cancer).
Carcinosarcomas are extremely rare and very aggressive tumors. True enough, my mother’s carcinosarcoma came back with a vengeance! From Stage 1, it shot up straight to Stage 4. Seedlings of tumor lined the outer lining of her intestines, a process called carcinomatosis. It is a condition where the cancer cells has spread widely throughout the body. In my mother’s case, there were multiple cancer cells in her lungs, kidney and liver.
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She must have known something was wrong upon seeing her youngest child.
A day after Chai arrived, we had to bring our mother back to the hospital as she was experiencing severe fatigue, discomfort and breathing difficulty.
In the few days that followed, our brother arrived, then our eldest sibling, tagging along her toddler-son. Our father had been with us from the start.
We set out on what has been a difficult journey of pain and struggle as we look for healing and meaning.
Upon the prodding of my concerned husband, we made a decision to change doctors and bring her to the top medical institution in the country. The decision must be collective as it required substantial financial resources from us. During this time, my financial troubles from my struggling entrepreneurial ventures were already drowning me. But I raised my card, anyway, and gave it a go.
We provided our mother the best care possible. She was attended to by a team of doctors, led by no less than the heads of departments, which were tapped to manage her multi-organ ailment.
One of the doctors was very familiar to me. She was in the medical team of former President Gloria Arroyo. She also stood as the spokesperson then who regularly updated us in the media on the health condition of the then-president.
I whispered to my mother. Her doctors are for the famous people, including presidents. “Mang, you must be special.” She smiled.
There were several things the doctors had wanted to do. Among them was chemotherapy. But it must be that she regains her energy first. There were also plans to do surgery on her colon. With her intestines malfunctioning, there was none to process the nutrients in the food she was taking in. One doctor worried that she’d die not of cancer, but of malnutrition.
We called our relatives, especially those closest to my mother. They are mostly her nieces and nephews. They dropped at once whatever they were doing and flew to Manila right away.
Our mother’s hospital room was often filled with people during the day. It’s a clan reunion of sort. There was a lot of laughter while talking about funny memories. In between were prayer sessions, too, where we were made to come to terms of an impending loss.
My mother cried. “You all must love me,” she kept saying.
Our cousins were not only visitors. They came to spend a meaningful time with her. They fed her, watched her day and night, washed her, kept her clean. It was when I understood how deep the relationship my mother had nurtured with each of them.
They also allowed us siblings to go home and rest. We were, after all, getting exhausted. My siblings and I, together with our father, were taking turns in taking care of our mother.
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The doctors had suggested we hire a caregiver or a private nurse. But none of us siblings wanted to. We wanted to do it ourselves. It’s the beauty of having many siblings. We get to share the burden among five of us.
It was not easy. Many days were like this for me: At the hospital at night to keep watch, go straight to business meetings in the morning, go to my office to check on my team in the afternoon, go home to eat dinner with my own family, then go back to the hospital to spend the night. There was hardly any sleep for us.
It was worse for Chee. At one point, she had to think of two very important patients, our mother and her husband who suffered a mild stroke and was admitted for treatment in a separate hospital.
It was also equally difficult for our Ate Meiyeen whose husband and three other sons were left behind in Ireland while she was here in the Philippines to take care of our mother.
The times that we were not there, Chai covered for all of us. She did the best part, actually. She is a practicing nurse. She knows the job so well. And she is single. One night, while she was left alone with our sleeping mother, it sank into her the pain of trying to prepare to lose our mother. Having seen patients in their terminal stages, she surmised we only had about two months left. She burst into tears. The nurse who came to check on my mother sat down beside Chai and hugged her.
Our mother was a simple woman. She was a retired public school teacher in a small town near our place in Mindanao. Our father was a foot soldier, a Scount Ranger in the Philippine Army.
We grew up in a very modest home. But since we were young, our mother taught how us to dream, to imagine a good future for us. When we were going to college, she never relented until our father agreed that we’d be sent to good universities, away from home. At one point, there were four of us all at the same time in college. But my mother persisted. Our father then opted to take an early retirement from the Army so he could have something to fund our education.
Our mother prepared us well for the life ahead of us. Apart from the education we received, she also taught us early on in our lives – in our teenage years – the skills to finding our best mate.
She kept reminding us, “Your choice of a spouse will define a lifetime of your happiness or your misery. You cannot fall in love with anyone else. Teach your heart to love nobody less than the right person.”
So even when I was 15, I already wrote down a list of all the attributes (from the physical looks, to the character and even to his profession) of a man who should become my husband. That young, I already had a clear idea of my right man. My mother said, “Pray that God will give him to you.”
My mother was far from perfect. There were several times when we couldn’t see eye to eye on certain things. But she armed us with the capacity and the character to build a good and happy life for us.
In the several weeks we stayed at the hospital, the doctors had come to know more of our mother. One morning, the doctor — the “presidential doctor” — came to her and said, “I envy you.”
My mother let out a silly laugh. Probably in her head, she thought the doctor must be kidding. For how can someone of her stature and accomplishments envy an ordinary woman like her?
The doctor in a more serious tone continued: “In this hospital, you will find patients who are among the richest and most successful people in the country. They are surrounded by private nurses and professional caregivers. But very rarely will you find someone who is taken care of by their own children. Some even pass away without their loved ones see them.”
She paused and cleared her throat, “I don’t even know if any of my own children will do it for me.”
My mother understood. She replied, “It’s not yet late, Doc. There is still time.”
The doctor nodded and smiled.
In the days and weeks that passed, my mother’s health had continued to deteriorate. The most the doctors could do was provide palliative care. One doctor came to her to ask for apology as she was so weak, they could no longer do the surgery she would have needed. My mother smiled and replied, “I have accepted it.”
But we were not ready to let her go. I started researching on alternative medicine. I came across the potential of marijuana to heal cancer. In the heat of the bloody war the government waged against illegal drugs, we managed to get hold of some marijuana extracts and gave it to our mother. We also tried other herbal supplements that claimed to provide therapeutic values. A cousin brought in an “albularyo” (a folk healer). We practically opened ourselves to anything that promises healing. We prayed to God. We prayed harder.
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Then one day, our mother’s oxygen level in her lungs was so low, she could no longer breath sufficiently. She was provided with a medical ventilator to help in her breathing. As I was the one beside my mother. The doctor briefed me: “Your mother is on her end stage. Please call everyone in the family.” I thought I’d faint. I wept so hard.
My mother still fought for her life. She went on for about a month more. In the last few days though, she would tell us to ready her things because “they are already here” and she has to go. Then she went off to sleep, and quietly passed away.
No matter how many times we tell ourselves to prepare, when it happens, you realize that there is actually nothing that prepares you for it.
It leaves a deep pain. It bleeds at the slightest touch. You don’t know when will it heal, or will it ever get healed. But death allows you to look for a new meaning in life.
My brother finally had the courage to file his resignation from his work in Qatar, and is now set to come home to build his own business. But most importantly, it is coming home to be with his own family and personally witness his three-year-old son grow up. He also thinks of our father who is alone at home, and is struggling to move on. He can keep him company.
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Chai went to places that our mother dreamed of going to but never had a chance.
As for me, after a series of failed attempts, I finally launched “Kasaysayan” (historical documentary show) but redesigned it in a way to adjust to the online platform via Youtube. It was originally meant for television. With my team’s dedication and passion, we also launched (with almost zero resources) clairedelfinmedia.com, an online magazine on Philippine culture, arts, history and science.
These two – Kasaysayan and clairedelfinmedia.com – represent not only my passion and my art, but my pain and struggle, my hope and aspiration.
I wish to take a cue from my mother’s wisdom — the life that we want is for us to create. We have to take charge.
A lot of things have happened since the day Chai arrived and caught my mother in a total surprise. It happened exactly a year ago today. How can I forget? It was also my birthday. Today, I celebrate it with a completely new sense of meaning. And you know what they say? Life begins at forty.