Nothing was more consoling than hearing the whirr of the stretcher’s wheels on the tiled floor as the stretcher approached our room. She dozed with eyes half-closed, letting out breaths to assure us that her sleep meant survival. Four lanky men lifted her body to place her on the hospital bed. It was easier to carry her after her dramatic weight loss. The skin on her limbs wrinkled like the ones on a dried calamansi. The nurse handed me a small transparent jar with my Mamang’s cut-out small intestine floating in the formalin solution. In front of me was a green wall, warm enough to shout of vitality and hope. Mamang’s desperate rhythms of air also seemed to say, ‘Nak, Mamang is okay. At times like this, it’s hard to say we could lose her anytime. Hard to say.
She had never been sickly before an intestinal obstruction. Papang thought her diligence slowed her down. She would take her meals at nine, two, and half-past eight. After dinnertime, she would head straight to the sink to wash the plates and glasses, wipe the dining table, and scrub its dark spots. Then at morning, we would find her at our sari-sari store. I’d often see her accommodate all kinds of customers: ladies her age back-chatting their neighbors, men asking for a beer before midday and promising to pay before dusk, and Ilonggo kids who do not know what snacks were good for them.
I was convinced she was too busy that she forgets herself at times. Mamang often complained about her ulcer. She brought a tiny White Flower menthol balm everywhere she went. I remembered how many times I would wake up at midnight by her footsteps. She paced around the kitchen and the lounge room. I could sense that she was trying hard to conceal her noise, but I could also imagine her eating snacks perhaps to bear the pain she had. Her favorite midnight snack is a biscuit so crunchy you could hear her teeth breaking it in two. Her spoon often hit her ceramic mug while she stirred her hot milk.
Despite all that, she was fit enough to have her belly cut open thrice. Mamang would cook vegetables. She cooked the best pinakbet. The slices might be of irregular sizes, but the okra and string beans were cooked to perfection. I may not have learned how to speak Ilocano, but she made sure we’d be known as one by the food we preferred to eat.
There was one dish of hers that I hated though: ampalaya with egg. She’d slice the ampalaya thickly, and wouldn’t bother soaking them in a bowl of water and salt. I’d much prefer them squeezed out of their green bitter juice, but Mamang disagreed. She said that that would remove the vegetable’s nutrients and anti-diabetes effects. She said I might as well eat eggs with garlic and onion, without the ampalaya.
Part of me wants to say that Mamang was the reason I devour books. I learned to read at a very young age, around four years old, with Mamang as our reading tutor. I kind of impressed them once when I picked The Bible (the only book in our house then), and read it aloud. The first few pages by Matthew talked about the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah. I couldn’t remember how I pronounced those names like Amminadab, Zerubbabel, and Jeconiah, but I remembered that our family friend sent me tiny stuffed animals as a reward for being a ‘good boy.’ Our neighbors knew about it as well. When I went near them and listened to them, they’d quiz me. Months after, Mamang and Papang spent their savings to buy us a 12-volume Macmillan Encyclopedia with pictures of the solar system, and a two-volume dictionary.
Mamang also taught me to collect dried leaves. She showed me once how she used the dried leaves to mark the pages she last read on the health and home remedy book, and I was stunned by the anatomy of a leaf. “Ka-gwapo sa dahon sa bayabas, mang,” I told her, and I pranced around to pick more guava leaves, as well as other leaves with different pigments, shapes, and sizes from different shrubs in the same backyard. Sometimes I would be impatient to wait for the leaves to turn brown, so I thought piling them with the heaviest dictionary and sitting on them would hasten the process. Sometimes I would stick thin leaves into books that would break apart in my fingers as soon as they dried up. I asked Mamang why this happened to some leaves, and she said no two leaves are the same. Like people. Like lifetimes.
Soon my favorite dried leaf is a rose leaf. How romantic.
They thought I was a good boy.
Until she found out about the box of cigarette butts and ashes we hid under the cabinet. I had never seen her so angry. My twin brother, whose notoriety had not worn off after a bad scene when we were in first year college, bore the brunt. Mamang snapped at him and yelled: smoking doesn’t make one cool, it is very expensive, it makes you smell badly, it burns houses, and it causes cancer! I was at the corner, and when my brother’s eyes met mine, I shrank. “Most of those butts are mine because my brother would bury them,” I thought. I knew I deserved my mother’s lashing too.
To satisfy my curiosity, I fancied preparing a long list of questions for her doctors. But when I had gone straight to her room after my day job, I just couldn’t catch them. In her unit, all that were left were the odor from the trash bins of tacky gauze, swabs, plasters, rubber gloves soiled with povidone-iodine, drugs, and perhaps, dead germs. While she was dozing, I held her swollen hands gently. She could not hold my hands back, nor flex her fingers. Without a doctor’s help, I tried remembering their words—inflammation, history of appendicitis, bacterial infection, bowel obstruction—to comprehend her sickness, and try to understand that maybe, it is a tough job to inform the sons of their mother’s illness. With every checking of her pulse and abdomen, I felt her doctors struggled not to feel.
When she woke up, I asked her if her hands feel a little numb when I touched them. She shook her head, and there was silence. It was always like this when I visited her. I ran out of words to say, but I was saved by the glass window with a view of the national highway. I described to her that the sun was going down, and the street started to get busy, and I lied that I saw children from the fast food restaurant waving at me. The tube of the respirator blocked her smile, but her mouthing was clear when she said, “Happy 21st birthday.” She didn’t know I heard her so she wrote with her fingers H and A on my palm.
Medical explanations do not make sense, they say. Science is a disturbing matter, and the supernatural is easier to accept.
Papang’s oldest sister, C, once saw Mamang weeding our backyard during twilight. C’s the type of a woman who would believe cutting nails at night would bring bad luck. She was convinced that Mamang unintentionally stabbed a dwende in her garden. We rushed to my grandmother’s manghihilot and told her about Mamang’s illness. She picked tawa-tawa leaves from her garden, and explained to us that the leaves would remove any supernatural harm that has been inflicted to my mother, which caused her stomach pain. She instructed us to boil the leaves and make tea. At the back of our minds, we knew it wouldn’t work because healing from these rituals were all psychological. We did what the manghihilot said, anyway. Faith ruled.
Mamang’s parents and siblings from Butuan knew she was not getting any better. They visited her at the hospital in General Santos City. Our hospital bill kept on devouring our salary, savings, and social life. Mamang had to stay for an extended period of time, so Papang had to shut our store in Koronadal to take care of her.
Papang and I accompanied Mamang’s old sister, D, to the hospital after we burned incense at our home. D thought that our house should be exorcised since bad spirits might be causing Mamang’s illness.
“Was your house blessed by a Catholic priest?” she asked me as we were leaving the hospital.
I shook my head.
D knew she was right when she offered words of apology to the invisible beings that lurked in our property. Mamang had been planting that cactus, she said. It had to be pulled out. The papaya at the end of the fence had to be removed as well since the tree sheds tears when you prick it. That was bad luck as well.
With images of the unfamiliar in my head, I wondered how they could heal my mother. I believed prayer was still more therapeutic. I decided to go to church. I lit three white candles, and knelt at the Adoration Chapel. Before leaving, my aunt gave me a booklet of prayers. She told me to place some candies by the statue of the Holy Child at our altar at home.
At first, we kept Mamang’s illness from my twin brother who worked overseas as a seafarer. Little did we know that his dream had its way of revealing the truth. In his dream, he saw that our house had an underground tunnel. The tunnel had stairs that were dimly lit. He walked towards the stairs and followed the light. He saw a woman facing the wall. That was Mamang in the long dress she loved to wear. In that vision, Mamang had no hands.
After three surgeries, blood transfusions, and weeks of stay in intensive care, Mamang survived. Her recovery allowed her to stop wearing a hospital gown, or the plastic arm bracelet wrapped around her wrist, or the colostomy bag attached to her stomach whose plasters slipped away after a few days.
She threw tantrums whenever we stopped her from washing clothes, or staying up late to do chores. She had to move around or she will die, she said. She washed clothes. And she stayed up late. And she strived to act normal. But she didn’t even have to try, because she was no longer the Mamang who taught me to read and collect dried leaves. With this collective pain we surpassed, Mamang has become larger than her weight loss, faster than her walking, louder than her frail voice, and warmer than the thin arms she had wrapped around us. She was even more complete than her slashed intestine.
I finally managed to ask her about what happened. She shrugged and said that perhaps, those things happen when you reach fifty-one. It is difficult to accept that our own body could betray us someday. Maybe she was the different leaf that I had stuck on a book. Maybe she was the thinner one. She was the other wilted, fragile stem of flowers placed beside the crucifix. I stared at the altar looking for answers but I only saw ants feasting on the candies I left there.
I often saw her palms trying to hide her protruding belly. The sight of her doing this brings me to the hospital when I held the jar of her intestine, and waited for Papang. He was drunk when he arrived. He wailed, asking why the intestine they removed was larger than normal. The nurse from the other side of the curtain could have had a better idea.
And what about the illness? None of us knew what exactly happened. Whenever someone would ask us about what causes bowel obstruction, I would stray away from the topic out of shame for not knowing. Did my ignorance hint at my lack of concern and assertion for my mother? Did I listen enough to the doctor’s explanations? Did we really hurt the dwende in our house? Maybe. Or maybe there are crises in the world that do not allow explanations. This uncertainty left a void in me that I will carry forever—it seems like a bit of my entrails were cut too. But I do not worry. I still have my Mamang, and that’s more than what I could wish for.
Kloyde A. Caday is a faculty member of the Department of English Language and Literature in University of Southern Mindanao. He divides his time among Kabacan in Cotabato Province, General Santos City, and Koronadal City.