Love Gift by Tala Roque
By Mila D. Aguilar
My mother was a prayerful woman. As she approached her sixties, she would sit on her big chair in one corner of the master's bedroom feeling her rosary beads in the darkness. She would pray and pray, hardly getting out of her room, to my consternation—for at the age of nine, when she was 55, I had started not to believe.
She had not always been that way. Before we transferred to the only house my father managed to build on his university salary, she had been an active member of the Garden Club on campus. In her younger years, it seems, she had been quite outgoing.
I emphasize the seeming nature of her social life because I was born late, when she must already have undergone a sea change that I was not aware of. My only indications of her outgoing nature are, first, the square pre-war table that she had brought to Manila from the province, with its four small right-hand drawers on each side, common equipment of provincial upper middle class housewives with hard-working husbands; and second, my brother's story of how he had overheard her telling her amigas that of her three sons, he was the one she disliked the most.
In my imagination I see a woman in her thirties whispering her little secret to three other women about her age, one on each side of the square table, while she shuffles the Mahjong tiles with her dainty fingers and her young son listens tearfully behind the curtains in the next room. She is pretty, with soft, wavy hair and an aquiline nose set in a triangular face, her skin fair, not pinkish but Chinese-white, almost as eighth- or sixteenth-Chinese as her eyes; her son, about five, perhaps, has skin like hers, he too handsome, with big eyes and adequately large lips like his father, and a slightly elongated face like his mother. At five, he must have thought the Mahjong table and her friends, as well as she herself, his mother, enormous, indeed monstrous, her voice insidiously grating as she pronounced him strictly unwanted in her sight.
It could, of course, have happened some other way. My brother wasn't very specific when he told us – me and the sister I followed after seven years. We, my fourth sister and I, had been quarreling about our mother, on what account I could not remember, when my only surviving brother, fifteen years my senior, butted in with his story.
What struck me then was how it must have hurt him doubly—since, of her three sons, only he had survived. Our eldest brother had died at seven when he, the sole male survivor, was about a year old; our third brother had died in infancy when he, the sole male survivor, was two.
The feeling of having been mistreated was perhaps the reason behind his rescue of our second sister, two years older than he. My mother treated her like a maid, he said, making her do all the heavy work especially during the war, while our eldest sister stayed in the house doing nothing. This, of course, is disputed by my eldest sister. But my brother recalls helping our second sister and our father carry cans of water from the spring, dig for root crops, and carve wooden slippers out of light wood, our eldest nowhere in sight. He may not have known that our eldest could have stayed with my mother to cook and keep house in their island of refuge. But how could I tell for sure? I was born four years after the war, their youngest. Those were details in their lives I could not have known, just as my brother, having left the house to marry by the time my mother gave up her social activities, could not have known that she had chosen to eschew amigas when she reached her sixties.
My mother had affected my brother so much that when we all moved to the campus so my father could join the academe, I could remember that he, a college student then, would lie in bed with a pillow covering his face, crying, while my Dad sat calmly by his side talking to him. My third and favorite sister, the one who followed him, would tell me constantly that when I was a baby, he would beam a flashlight onto my face, maddened by some unmentionable mental sickness that seemed to have come together with his tuberculosis and the misfortune of falling off the rear side of a jeepney which had bumped into another while he was seated at the end of one row.
MY MOTHER was a most unusual woman. I wish I could say that by the time she had her last three children, she had changed completely, but I couldn't, because she also did not particularly like my fourth sister—the one I followed—and treated my third sister—my own favorite—as well as me, with particular favor.
Sometimes I think that maybe, my mother did not like light-skinned children, because my brother, second sister and fourth sister are light-skinned, like her. But then I remember that my third and favorite sister, the one who followed my dead infant brother after two years, is also light-skinned. Sometimes I wonder if my mother hated all who looked like her, because my fourth sister, the one I followed, another one she oppressed terribly—scoffing at the only award my sister ever got in her whole life—looked most like her, and so did my brother and my second sister, in a distant way; while she loved all those who looked like my father, loving him so much she was willing to leave behind all her children and be killed with him during the war, telling her eldest 13-year-old daughter so, thereby causing the latter’s nervous breakdown after the war. But my favorite sister looks half as much as she did, a most beautiful combination of our parents—which is perhaps why I myself love her—and today, though I swear I look like my handsome square-faced father, who had a biggish nose set on swarthy Moorish-Malay skin, people who knew my mother keep telling me that I remind them of her.
It could have been more complicated than just looks; it could have been a matter of intelligence, for my mother, it seems to me, loved intelligent people; or, for that matter, rebelliousness, for my mother, it seems to me, did not particularly like pliant people. But on each of those counts there would, again, be fatal exceptions, so I dare not pursue either of them. I was a favorite, and maybe, having been unexpected at her age of 46, the most loved, so I have no way of judging the source of my mother's fancies.
Besides, having been loved, I am apt to forgive.
Looking back, it was not so much I who had difficulty with my mother, but she with me, for I was a rebel from the start, as I suppose all baby boomers are, to one extent or other. She had wanted me to become a doctor so that I could take care of her when she grew old, but I refused the proffer at the age of four. At first I wanted to be a ballet dancer, but realizing that I was knock-kneed, I decided at the age of six to be a writer. And at the appropriate time I ran to the hills, awarding her after almost one and a half years, via the hospital where I had to leave him confined, with a three-month-old son.
She was already 69 at the time, but gladly accepted him, loving him as much as she did me, though he looked like his father, and not my own.
When I got back to them after twelve years underground and one and a half years in prison, both my father and husband long since dead, she had changed considerably. My fourth sister, the one I followed, told me that my mother had been born again from watching the “700 Club” in the late seventies, in the thick of my watch underground. She added that she herself had been born again first, a fact that no one could attest to, since my brother and other sisters were all abroad at the time, and would not have believed it anyway, or even cared to know, since they had all become inured to faith.
In saying that my mother had changed considerably, I do not mean that she had lost her favoritism. I mean that this time, she was the one who was hard on me. Having lost husband at 77 and regained her daughter only six long years after, I suppose that she did not want to lose me again, and so tried her demanding best to detain me in her house, to my consternation. After four years I found her so difficult to deal with that, utterly helpless, I, who had been an atheist, prayed to God to change her, or take her.
To my surprise, He changed her. She stopped pestering me the next day, and became the sweetest old woman who ever lived.
And so I too, awed by God’s power to change my mother, was born again, like my sister and mother before me.
I do not mean it to sound that easy, of course. Though intellectually an atheist from the age of nine, I knew “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” and “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” forward and backwards, like all Filipinos brought up in Catholic households or in public schools with their extra-curricular catechism classes. Though we were not a religious family—my father having been brought up a Protestant and having had to undergo his own crucible early in his married life with my Catholic mother—I would also go to mass from time to time with my parents and fourth sister, the only sibling I had left in my father’s house when I reached ten; Christmas eve and New Year’s eve being obligatory for the four of us till my sister got married and my parents became too old to bring me to church. In the underground, I had met not a few nuns and priests who introduced me to Jesus as someone who cared for the poor, a fact that astounded but did not immediately move me. In prison, I had prayed, together with my fellow political prisoners, to be released, and when we were, by virtue of that phenomenon now popularly called EDSA, I took it as a miracle from God Himself, though we all suspected that the U.S. had something to do with it too.
It was a different thing altogether, however, when, in the face of my mother’s intransigence, I couldn’t help but completely surrender my whole life to the Jesus who cared for the poor and helpless, Son of God sent to redeem the world, whose name one had only to utter to be saved--so desperate had my personal situation become.
It encouraged me to know that since my mother had been a prayerful woman even before she was born again, she invariably got what she wanted. She got the sister I followed to be a nurse and in her old age give her the special baths she needed. She got me back whole, without a scratch in my body. She got me to live permanently in her house, to take care of my son. And though she never got me to be a doctor, I ended up staying with her, praying over the swollen joints of her once-slender arms and fingers, my love and Christ’s healing her instantaneously.
My mother’s prayers were so effective that she even managed, in her fifties, to bring up a maid, who came to her at the tender age of 14, to become her daily nurse till she, my mother, reached the ripe old age of 93, afterwards even passing on this maid to my son and me, beyond her own lifetime.
She also knew when it was time to go. She had survived her beloved husband, the father we all adored, by sixteen years, unimaginable for a woman who had wanted to be buried with him—all because she was waiting for her youngest to come home so that she, the youngest, could take care of her son, now a man; and that took not only twelve years and one and a half, but ten more of growing into motherhood, ever so reluctantly.
I had sensed my mother's last mission in life and had tried to postpone the moment, fearing that she, a woman in her nineties, would leave me; but one day I spontaneously kissed my son in front of her, and the moment I did that, I glanced askance at her, realizing what I had done. It was too late. I could see the glint of recognition in the one old eye she had left after the doctor replaced her other glaucoma-infested eye with a marble, and the imperceptible sigh of relief in a half-open mouth filled with two complete rows of false teeth.
I had feared another thing with my mother, and that was to fulfill her desire to have me sleep with her on her matrimonial bed, for I knew that the moment I did, she would die on me. Even when, to my distress, she fell sick after my kiss of life, my kiss of death, and we had to bring her to the hospital to see what was the matter, and the geriatric specialist had told my brother, now back from abroad, that she had no germs whatsoever inside her, I wouldn't sleep with her, not even when she'd been brought back to the house and wouldn't eat anymore. I just cried to her, cried unbelievingly in our dialect in front of her tired, blind visage, "Bayaan mo ako? Bayaan mo na guid ako?" You’re going to leave me? You really mean to leave me?
But after three days of wrestling with my God and hers, I could not stand to see her suffer anymore, knowing how she had been missing my father all these years, conversing with his absence in the room where she had once prayed the rosary; and so as I sat on the edge of my bed in my own room, I let go of her, telling God to take her since He wanted to, just so she would stop suffering.
THE NEXT DAY she asked for my siblings and my father's niece, who most looked like my father. Only my father's niece came. She was beside my mother's bed together with my mother's maid when I came up from my room newly bathed. My mother had just received a good scrubbing too the previous day, and looked happy, neat and well laid out on her side of the bed, her sparse white hair streaming down to her pillow, her aquiline nose still pretty as ever on her sunken Chinese-pale face, now much longer than before. I sat at the foot, between what would have been the space between my father and her; then I lay down by her feet. Everything looked so peaceful that I fell asleep, my legs still dangling from the mattress.
I came to when I heard my cousin saying that my mother had stopped breathing.
When my fourth sister, the nurse, arrived, we tried to revive her, pumping her heart and massaging her hands and legs, for she lay so softly and calmly that we thought she could still be saved; but my brother, who arrived shortly after, said, "Patay na yan." That one’s dead, kaput, done for.
He called the funeral parlor to make arrangements. Weeks before, upon his arrival from abroad, he had judiciously inquired into the state of her life plan. It was good, because those things were entirely out of my hands by choice as well as by inclination. In fact, I was beside myself with grief, not even thinking of where my son was or how this would affect him—the death of the grandmother who had been his true mother— able only to call my sisters abroad and being told by my second sister that she could not come, no, not to the funeral of her only mother, because she had been to the country some months before on what she already knew was her last visit. Besides, she too was sickly, and getting sicker by the year, though she valiantly fought it, as she always had all her travails in life.
When the undertakers came and wrapped my mother head to toe in a white sheet, placing her on the tiled floor before carrying her ever so secretly onto a rather rickety white Asian utility vehicle, a Ford Fiera without any marks, then put her down on the dirty, un-matted steel floor of the Fiera, I did not think of asking any questions. I was underground when my father and my husband, one year after the other, had died, so this was the first death I experienced first-hand. Though a full-fledged black funeral limousine was what I had expected to see, I thought, well maybe this was the modern method, and mine was antiquated, so I just did all that my brother instructed, for he was the oldest man left in the family.
My mother’s bank account was another problem that my brother fixed quickly. We were not to tell anyone outside of the immediate family that she had died, he said, so that we could still get her bank deposit. I could not make that one out, because my mother in her wisdom had chosen a bank where her teller became the wife of our former driver after her matchmaking, and our former driver happened to be the brother of her trusted maid, so we could very well have gotten the money without much ado, if we wanted. But I could not question the oldest man left in the family, not in my grief.
The wake lasted three days, long enough for my eldest sister and my favorite sister to get back home from abroad, but not long enough for others to know about my mother’s death; in any case our former driver showed up on the second day, having been informed of my mother's death by his sister, my mother’s trusted maid, despite my brother’s instructions.
As my brother recited "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" at the mass before the funeral procession, his voice broke and he cried. At the final send-off in the cemetery, before an assembly of close relatives and our three sisters, I bawled into the mike like a child, unaware of anyone, not even my son and his best friend, but seeing, as I dried my tears with the back of my hand, my brother, emerging from the bushes at the back of the audience some distance away, still sobbing as he tried to dry his eyes and nose with his handkerchief. My three sisters, though stupefied with sadness, were tearless, so I imagine that each must have hidden her grief behind her own memory: the eldest, perhaps, in the financial help she always got from my parents whenever she needed it, my favorite sister in the almost daily letters she and my mother exchanged while the latter could still see, my fourth sister in her final silent service to a pliant old mother.
It took many years for me to discover that, there having been no announcement at all of my mother's death in the newspapers, as is the custom among the middle and upper classes in my country, none of the neighbors she had known in her almost forty years of residence in the area—not even the one nearest to us, who could peer into our kitchen—nor those who considered her their friend, or godmother, had heard about her death until they inquired of me about her.
But since it seemed clear to me that my mother, having deliberately lost her social world more than four decades before her death and now already in heaven, did not mind it, neither did I. For we, long forgiven, had also learned to forgive.