All these thoughts came all at once, like an avalanche, right in the middle of my conversation with my niece. I couldn't stop it, the floodgates of memories opened. It was a very sentimental day for me. Here she is, at 19 years old, celebrating milestones without her mom.
When she was about 3, her mom and dad left her to me to look after one summer. I was still in college then. So I have to juggle between going to school and taking care of her. And as she sleeps right next to me, she has this habit of cuddling up to me and trying to open my eyes and say "Gising Na." (Wake Up). When I get home from school, she'd squeal and say my name out loud running to the door to greet me.
When I finished college, I declined some job offers and decided to help my sister take care of her and her siblings for a while. I couldn't very well say no to my sister when she asked me. I used to tutor her, make mock examination papers, her chaperon on school-sponsored field trips. Just like any other kid, she used to have tantrums. Looking back, I am still amazed at how I kept peace between her and her brothers, Kitkat and Ken; fighting over toys, TV time, comparisons and all the little things that can make you lose your patience if you don't remind yourself they're just kids and that once upon a time you were just like that. When I see them today, I can't help but be proud, I helped raised these kids. When they come to visit, they always sleep with me.
I can still remember the night her mom, my sister Nyrissa, died. My father, my brothers and my sister and I flew to Manila to be on her bedside. It was February of 2006. A week before she died, my sister Lysa and I used to take turns to be with Ate Jack, as she was fondly called, massaging her arms because she said they were numb. She lost a lot of weight then, undergone mastectomy and she's so gaunt. After just one cycle of chemotherapy, her oncologist said the cancer has metastasized and her cancer was now Stage 4. One morning, as I was talking to her massaging her arm, she just stared at me, saying nothing. Just gave me that piercing, melancholic look. I can see she was very very sad but I didn't look into her eyes because I know if I did, I would cry. And I didn't want her to see me weak. I didn't want to acknowledge she was giving up fighting cancer. I excused myself and ran to the bathroom and cried. We were not that close when I was younger. We're opposites. She's feisty and outspoken, I am more reserved and shy. In fact, I'm a little scared of her. A year before she was diagnosed with the Big C, she came to Davao. Just her. She said she wanted to spend time alone with me and ate Lysa. We visited Ama (as we call my father), slept in the same bed, talking and laughing all night. I didn't give it too much thought. I figured she just missed us. When I lived with them, she used to request that I cook at least twice a week. She says she loves my cooking. Just the way Mama used to do it. I used to bring her her favorite coffee with peanut butter sandwich on some nights especially when she gets so sweet in asking me. "Sige na please," she'd say. It was an unspoken act of love. I never really told her how much I love her. I hope those gestures helped.
But when she died, it was deja vu, that same moment my mother died. Again of cancer. Ysa was just 12 years old and will be graduating from grade school. When my father said "she's gone", it's like losing my mom all over again. And this time, the pain is twice as devastating. How do you explain to her kids to make them understand. She, Kitkat and Ken were with me and my heart was broken into pieces looking at my niece and nephews. It's like tearing a part of your soul; you're too helpless to do something.
My mom died a month shy of my college graduation. And the only thing she asked of my father was to escort me on my graduation. There she was, on her deathbed, and all she was thinking was my welfare. I would never, ever question my mother's love for me. There was a time I did. I really am my mother's favorite, I realized. On the day of my graduation, I was fighting so hard not to look at my father because I know I would break down. I was biting my inner cheek and pinch myself so I won't cry. Deep inside, I was a mess. All through my education, my mom was a constant figure; attending PTA meetings, getting up on stage to pin my ribbon at the end of each school year, agonizing over a difficult homework and waiting up for me when I get home later than usual. I know my father was fighting just as hard to contain his emotions. I take after him in that sense, never the showy type or affectionate in public. Up to now, I know he has not recovered from my mother's death. Eversince then, I can only count the times he has come to our house in the city or stayed at the room he and my mom shared. I can understand his grief. He preferred to stay in our house in the country, right near the place where we buried Mama. I know when he sees us, he see Mama. I get too emotional whenever I see him. The thought that I might lose him just terrifies me. I am not so sure I can go through that again. Losing a loved one has, I think, made me scared of getting too attached with people because in my mind they would all leave. I was putting up a wall, the need to shield myself from pain. But you do get attached to some, putting yourself at a vulnerable risk of falling apart when they leave.
My elder sister has this notion of me being so ambivalent and distant and detached. She just doesn't know the inner battle I'm fighting. Because, contrary to what she believes, I feel too much. I hurt more than she does. At least she's not afraid to show her emotions. She's the sappy one. She cries easily whereas I, I'm left with all the pent-up emotions. The trouble with pretending to be strong; you suffer alone.
I wonder how our lives would turn out had one or two variables were changed. Next year, Ysa will be graduating from college. I can't help but think if only her mom was still here. What her life would have been if she were here. And I kept on brooding about that, melancholy gripping me hard. And it's not out of anger or bitterness. Just the usual sentimental reasons with a tinge of sadness for what might have been. I felt my niece and nephews were robbed of something essential. Just as I was when I lost my mom. And I will always have this desperate yearning not bound by time or space.
You never fully get over a loss, you just learn to live with it. There's that void nobody can fill. Not even time.
Someone once said to me, you can only find the true meaning of a moment until it becomes a memory. And that's all I have, memories.
To Mama and Ate Jack, I miss you. Everyday.