There are some images that won’t go away.
The silent boy marshals a fleet of plastic cars at 4 a.m. in a cramped flat on Leon Guinto St. Midway through an obstacle course of shoes, slippers and backpacks, he abandons the toys. His mother feels the weight of his gaze. She gives him a smile. This is their quiet time. She is 25. He is a serious two-year old. He rubs an index finger around a red corvette. She stops writing. The air prickles at her neck. They stare at each other.
It takes a long minute for his tilted little eyes to fill up. First comes a pink flush at the corners of the orbs. It is his “counting” look, the one that tells you he’s looking at all angles before accepting an answer to “Why?” She doesn’t know what’s coming but knows enough to let him run with his thoughts.
“Mama.” She almost misses the low whisper, too husky for a toddler. He is standing. He is shaking his head. She sees he has done the math. It is a lesson she had hoped he did not have to learn so early.
“Wala na si Papa.” The tears fall. “Patay na si Papa!”
Almost 30 years later, she still wonders. How did he make a leap from Papa-is-with-Jesus to Wala-na-si-Papa. (Papa is gone. Papa is dead.)
The girl has bigger eyes than her brother, but there is that same upward tilt and the same stubborn chin.
Strangers wail over the orphans who have just lost “Tatay”. The girl smiles, says thank you. She bears the hugs and the hands that muss her hair. Like her mother and brother, she does not tell them of the decade of separation, of the chasm that loomed when Mama turned her back on the fighting.
In the car, away from the strangers, getting ready to head for home, the boy weeps. She holds her older brother’s hand.
The girl does not cry. But in her room is a rough carving of a rifle-totting guerrilla. Above her bed is a framed picture of a slight man in a green beret with a star; he sports a square jaw and light brown eyes that mirror his smile. The girl does not cry. Her eyes say she will not weep for what she cannot have.
She does not cry but she makes people weep, up there on stage, at nine-years old the youngest of the contestants, in a simple lace dress, singing, vowing to be “part of your world.”
Two children: The one who weeps is stolid, steady, dogged but laid back. The one who won’t is mercurial; with an all-or-nothing approach to life.
His wit is gentle, the humor deadpan. Hers is sharp, like a rapier. And she knows just where to flick that tip.
They come up with surprises. She is the artist who rushes in to fight back to back with friends. Yet her work space is a marvel of order and logic and she has color-coded notes and fine penmanship medical school could not ruin.
His writing scrawls and sprawls. Yet he never swaggers. He stands back and observes and then, with impeccable timing his mother has never figured out, pounces to claim his prize.
She is bold but her art is delicate. He is gentle and serene but churns out a dark painting of an apocalyptic world and a short tale of animals in a jungle power struggle.
She is questing, a lover of fiction, a raider of her mother’s library, a singer, and the partner of a tattoo artist. And she is a doctor.
He sticks to news and science and anything that doesn’t deviate from reality. And he creates fantastic, unreal, scary burger sculptures.
She was a holy terror of a child. She needled her brother. Yet she was — still is — his protector, rushing to lawyer for him the very few times he got in trouble with Mama.
He always was more conservative. Yet he thrilled to her wilder ways, promising “suportahan ta ka” with an admonition to decide what she wants from life.
He always knew what he wanted — mostly what Mama didn’t have, couldn’t give. And so he learned to cook with his high school gang of wrestling aficionados, the first experiment the result of former President Cory Aquino on TV, cooking some Hawaiian chicken dish.
She liked to scold and could cut friends to the quick. But she got suspended for keeping faith, being there for some little lost girl.
In that, they were her children, sure they could approach her when friends were in great need, when mothers got cancer, when fathers went missing. Home was where they brought their friends.
He started working as a student and went off right after school to work on a cruise liner. He wore hip-hop shorts and sports jerseys and that cap tipped backwards. Colleagues stared, asked if he was of legal age, and then comforted their bunso for having to leave the family so young to work for our survival. He smiled. His companions scoured Walmart. He went to see the Aztec pyramids. The seafarers wouldn’t believe him on the plane coming back home. He couldn’t be an OFW, they said; he looked like a college freshman.
She ran away briefly and Mama couldn’t rail. Mama was living life on the lam herself at 18. She sold banana-q on the streets, this daughter who couldn’t even cook hotdogs. And then she came home, as quietly as she left, and took up where she left off, surprising everyone but her Mama and brother with a smooth transition to medical school.
He is stolid and steady, but she is the one the cousins come to for advice, for blunt lectures tempered by compassion and a wry humour that often makes an example of her foibles.
Commie is now Zarks and he is made. He is also an exceptionally dotting Dad who makes much time for Sophie — as mercurial and talented as his sister — and Vitto, just the little man he was, and Sam, who is the spitting image of Lei, the woman he chose because she had brains and the feminine, more traditional skills Mama lacked. He is a capitalist and his math thrills his mother: Happy Workers = Happy Customers = Happy Boss.
Mutya has the style her Mama didn’t have as a young woman. She is outwardly brisk, secretly introspective. She laughs at setbacks, her eyebrows as arch as her mother’s.
Motherhood. How else does one talk about it, except to describe one’s babies, now all grown up?
Last year, Mutya’s training elders asked her to write about a memorable experience. Mama always thought it was the boy who had the writer’s eye, except that he decided making money was more fun. Knowing she was wrong was one of the best days in her life.
This is Mutya’s tale. Reading it, I thank our Nanay and Daddy. Reading it, one thought flashed: Errors a-plenty; but in all those turbulent years, I must have done something good.
Her white uniform. Black shoes. And the required pin reading – Junior Intern. It’s the usual start to her day. Getting ready. Preparing for the day ahead.
Goodmorning – a greeting thrown at every person she sees. Guards. Co-JIs. Patients. Folks. Nurses. The whole hospital team. Thereafter, she knows she’s almost half ready to welcome the hustle and bustle waiting for her. Always with a smile put on – to shield her thoughts of another tiring day – an armor, a defense, nearly perfected to conceal her emotions. Excitement. Nervousness. Anxiety. Its 7:30. It’s her cue.
Bed rounds. Questions fired but left unanswered – disappointed. Patients to accompany. Laboratory results that are hard to interpret. And the never-ending ward calls.
She’s tired. With only a quarter of the day done. Her patience tested and gradually diminishing. Her smile waning but still carrying on. Getting her work done. Wishing for a 15-minute break. Wondering for a moment – for everything to come to a halt.
Suddenly, she was called by the nurse-on-duty. One of her intubated patients was arresting. She ran to her patient’s bedside.
She knows this patient – an old maid living with her nephew. She started CPR. First dose of epinephrine done. CPR continued. Another dose of epi. Patient’s folks were already crying. CPR – her patient is not responding. Her heart is beating hard – in the recesses of her mind she is talking to her: “don’t give up on me now”. 3rd dose of epi. Still, no sign of life.
She asked the nurse to replace her and decided to appraise the family. The patient’s nephew was not around. She talked to the wife, who told her he was on his way. He is a pastor. She was also told that they already prayed over the situation days before. They had already asked for guidance. The wife only asked her for a single favor – to continue to revive the aunt until her husband arrived. They wanted to bid her farewell with their last prayers.
4th epi.. She asked one of her co-JIs to lend a hand. They alternated doing the CPR. The nurse provided the 5th dose..She thought she was ready to lose her..6th..Her mind repeating the words: “get back, get back. Please”..7th epi..the nephew arrived. A brave soul. Prayers were started. 8th epi. He took hold of the JI’s hand and looked her in the eye: “It’s alright. Thank you”.
She backed away. She felt defeated. She touched the shoulder of the nephew and his wife: “I’m sorry”. She was about to turn her back when the wife took a step forward: ” thank you, I Iknow you all did your best. She is happy now. Thank you very much”.
Coming towards her with outstretched arms, she knew: “”please..don’t..”. She stammered. She was given the embrace of life. Her eyes welled. She embraced back and walked away. Tears now pouring down her face. She was humbled.”
Congratulations, Mutya. At the graduation ball message, you expressed love, quipping that, like me, you weren’t good at showing it.
But words are easy, especially when the going is good. When chips are down and you are called to pour out your love, and you do it unstintingly – this is what matters.
To see Nanay in my children is this mother’s greatest gift.