My mother passed away suddenly last Monday. She was adamant about not having any type of public services. She was quite shy and was never comfortable being the center of attention. She had a beautiful voice and was a talented pianist, but she never moved forward with a career in music because the thought of so many people looking at her and focusing on her gave her anxiety.
You can tell from my media appearances list that I did not inherit my mother’s avoidance of attention. But I did inherit her stubbornness and independent streak. While I respected her wishes about no viewing or funeral, as a way to help me deal with grief, I’d like to shine a small spotlight on her and share with you a little bit about the woman who made me who I am today.
My brother and I heard that phrase a lot growing up. For those of you who don’t speak Tagalog, which is my mother’s native language, the phrase is a bit foul, but my brother and I heard them often because we were fairly rambunctious and often in some kind of trouble.
Those who grew up with us remember how strict my mom was – like no food being allowed on the living room carpet. As a matter of fact, no kids were allowed on the living room carpet. When the TV show CHiPs was filmed right in front of our house, my mother allowed a few of the actors to come in through the living room to use the kitchen phone. (For you young ‘uns reading, this was back in the days when phones were stuck on the wall instead of the palm of your hand.) I remember trying to retrace the actors’ steps, but was stopped dead in my tracks by my mom because we needed to keep the living room clean for guests. I think we were almost 30 years old when my childhood friend – A.J. – and I sat in the living room for the first time and said, “So this is the living room.”
Childhood friends might also remember that we didn’t have cable growing up and weren’t allowed to watch much TV. My mom still has my television watching in check. My husband and I decided to cancel our cable 18 months ago because nothing was ever on. And on my last minute flight to L.A., after finding out during my layover in Houston that my mom had passed, the Southwest Airlines free TV wouldn’t work on my phone. No TV. She’d want it that way. We’re supposed to be playing outside or reading, not dulling our brains.
We grew up with a basketball rim on the driveway, and bicycle and skateboard ramps that expanded perilously higher each weekend, and jicama and water breaks that my mom provided. There was always a supply of Bandaids and Bactine in the bathroom for any size scrape that occurred. Our house was a hub of activity with kids constantly going in and out, in and out…but only through the back door, not the living room.
In middle school and high school, we graduated from playing on the driveway to playing pick up games of football, baseball and all out stickerball wars when our end of the street was transformed into a cul-de-sac. My mom was usually at the living room window, watching to make sure no one got seriously hurt.
Throughout our lives, but most especially in middle school and high school, she was our chauffer, driving us in her 1972 Dodge Dart to practices, games and anywhere else that we needed to go. She sat in sun, wind and sometimes the rain, waiting to give my brother or me (and usually a few teammates) a ride home.
As one of the younger kids in her family and as a girl, she felt like she was never able to spread her own wings. So after she graduated from college, she saved up her money, applied for a visa, and definitely spread her wings – arriving in the United States from the Philippines in the 1960’s. She moved in with her American pen pal when she landed in Los Angeles, not knowing a soul. As it turned out, her pen pal was involved in extra curricular activities with the opposite sex in their apartment (possibly for pay) on an almost nightly basis, so my mom wound up finding a room to rent in a widow’s house. It was her landlady’s friend who wound up introducing her to my dad. They married after a whirlwind of dating and just celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary the week before my mom passed.
We grew up with laughter in our house. On a Friday or Saturday night, we’d watch a comedy show (not hours of TV, just one show) with the likes of Tim Conway, Carol Burnett or Vicki Lawrence. Later it was The Golden Girls we saw once a week. When my mom found something to be funny, she would bring up her knee and slap it on the way down to stomp the floor, all the while emitting a high pitched laugh. Watching her get a kick out of a joke was almost as fun as the joke itself.
My parents planned to travel after they retired, but shortly after getting their passports, my mom was diagnosed with a pulmonary disease. We take for granted that we subconsciously remove liquid from our lungs. This disease caused her to lose that function, so she had to cough in order to manually get rid of the liquid before it accumulated. She was embarrassed by the coughing and could do nothing about it, plus this disease weakened her immune system, so she began to withdraw from already-uncomfortable social outings. Despite the fact that you may not have seen much of her in the last few years, rest assured she still had that laugh – it just happened at home now.
Three years ago she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. She underwent an invasive surgery which removed all of her non-vital organs so that the cancer cells couldn’t spread and latch onto an organ. That cancer came back in April of this year in the form of a tumor. She began radiation treatments last week. Our worry was her immune system; we had no idea that we needed to worry about her heart.
With the birth of my brother and sister-in-law’s two kids, my mom found a new light in her life which helped her face her illnesses. My mom found a new purpose in life – to help take care of her grandkids. It brought a smile to my face to watch her teach the kiddos a song (in the living room, by the way) or tell them a silly story or trick them into taking a nap.
I take comfort in the fact that my mom spent her last days on this earth as a happy wife, mom and grandma. Just the day before, on Sunday, while on the phone, we had the week mapped out. I would arrive in L.A. on Wednesday afternoon, then we’d head to dinner and dessert at restaurants I’d read about in an airline magazine. On Thursday morning, we’d go to her radiation treatment, then pick up Filipino food to bring home for lunch. On Friday, she’d have her treatment in the morning, meet one of my L.A. colleagues/friends, then I’d fix a hearty Italian dinner for my family. Her last words to me were, “See ya on Wednesday!”
On Monday, her heart gave out. The doctors think that the combination of her pulmonary issues, a new lung infection, the cancer and the radiation treatments was just too much for her body to handle.
While my family and I are struggling with grief, we also celebrate the wisdom and sunshine that my mom brought to our lives.
Life is short. I hope you take the time today – and every day – to celebrate and appreciate the loved ones in your life.
I love you, Mommy.