Thursday, December 29, 2016

Consoling feedback after 'Yuletide without Mom'

My essay "Yuletide without Mom" came out in yesterday's Highblood section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I received feedback in my email and in text messages. Some friends who I haven't been in touch with in awhile were surprised to learn Mom had passed away. I also learned of recent deaths in their families.

First to respond was my kumpare (godfather to my youngest daughter Ida), the writer Amadis Ma. Guerrero. He texted early yesterday: "A moving tribute to Mommy Lolarga was we at Raya (our former office) called her. She was our Mommy, too!"

From painter-actor Ivi Avellana Cosio (daughter of National Artists Lamberto and Daisy Avellana) came a longer message that cried to be shared with those who are grieving: "My dearest Babeth, our deepest condolences on your Mom's passing. A special hug for you and your youngest sister with whom I truly empathize. My Mom passed way (also in May) of 2013 on Mother's Day, a few days before my birthday. In December, my older daughter insisted we celebrate the first Christmas without Mama in Beijing with her and her family. It was so different that it helped to get us through such a painful time. But back in Manila, same same. I still cry when I think of her, or my Papa who left us in 1991, or my favorite brother in 2011, or my grandparents who passed away when I was much much younger. Grief is really so personal and different for each one. And I truly believe no one has a right to tell you how, when, or how long to grieve. Also, no such thing as 'getting over it'. You don't, well-meaning friends notwithstanding. You just learn how to cope with it one day at a time. And there will be good days and bad days. That being said, I wish you and yours a better New Year in every way. Tama si Helen Mirren. Much love from us."

Smiling grandmother with grandchildren Ida and Kimi Fernandez and Carlo Trinidad (foreground) several Christmases ago

“Would you rather I clean the house or write a poem? A poem lasts.”—my Mom

“I want to write poems instead of notes, but each ending is a death,
and I cannot handle the finish of words.”
RenĂ©e E. D’Aoust in her essay “Gratitude is my Terrain: Maybe”

This time of the year last year, she had just been discharged after a prolonged hospital stay. There was no exact term for what was ailing her, but it was enough for my siblings and me to have her home for the holidays. She missed reunion parties with her amigas and favorite nephew. We thought she would rally and recover in the new year.

But as actor Helen Mirren put it succinctly in summarizing the year 2016, “I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a big pile of sh*t.” It was the year when Mom’s worst fears about the betrayal of her body came true. We, along with hired caregivers, took turns cleaning her up after a “lapse.” Never could I erase from memory the helpless, pained look on Mom’s face every time this happened. I could sense that to her it was the ultimate humbling, and her look carried an apology with it.

Even if I tried to humor her when I tidied her up, the smile that used to light up our house was gone. That smile was the most eulogized part of her on the last day of her wake. Writer Efren Yambot told of how he was welcomed to the small feasts Mom prepared for her Manila Bankers Life colleagues by her smile. It encouraged him to return to similar occasions she hosted even if it meant covering miles to get to the office. When my Singapore-based daughter Ida would come home, it was Mom’s smile that greeted her first.

This Christmas my husband ordered chicken galantina from two sources to replace the irreplaceable—Mom’s yearly supply of morcon. He once had a meal at a restaurant in San Fernando, Pampanga, that boasted of the best morcon. He even had a beef roulade wrapped to take home. But his verdict was it was close to the taste of dog food and couldn’t approximate Mom’s morcon.

His assistant then, a recipient of Mom’s largesse, used to say that even only the sauce of the morcon sufficed for a meal. That was how good it was: We would ladle leftover sauce on a steaming mound of white rice when the meat roll was gone. Nothing was wasted.

A sister and some cousins were able to observe Mom in the act of preparing morcon, but even if it is ever replicated, the matriarch-cook who ruled over the kitchen and the rest of our house isn’t there to pronounce judgment on another’s take on her dish.

Mom with her five daughters

It isn’t just her dishes that we miss. Nightly the youngest of my four sisters weeps from the pain of the loss. Recently, she suffered chest constrictions and had to take herself to the hospital emergency room because of the stress of prolonged grieving (Mom died last May). Despite our assurances to her that Mom is at peace, she still isn’t prepared to go to the next level of the stages of grief and loss according to Elizabeth Kubler Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Grief counseling has been advised, but it is up to her if she will take it.

To sort of pierce through the cloud of sorrow hovering over the house, I right away volunteered to host Christmas carolers from my Grade 11 class. The sound of young voices, the guitar strummed by a fellow teacher, makeshift maracas and drums brought the tidings of comfort and joy straight to our hearts.

Although my sisters and I didn’t prepare anything homemade from our kitchen (we cannot hold a candle to our mother, cooking-wise), the store-bought pancit, roast chicken and mini siopao were wiped out by bottomless adolescent appetites. I truly felt Mom’s spirit approving.

To those having a hard time coping with the holiday frenzy because of mourning that cannot be kept at bay, keep saying “This, too, shall pass” and leave some space for the occasional joy to surprise you.
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