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What I've Longed to Hear Since My Mother Stopped Singing

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What I’ve Longed to Hear Since My Mother Stopped Singing

A story about death, waiting and karaoke.

I was supposed to buy a karaoke machine even though I didn’t want one.

It seems almost “un-Filipino” of me to say that but, since my voice has the tendency to croak on high notes, you could say that my dislike for it is something of a patriotic trait. I’m not always off-key as far as I can tell. But, I also do not like being subpar at something. I’m most certainly not the singer of my family. That title goes to none other than my mother—the one I wanted to buy the machine for.

I was supposed to get it sooner and I could’ve. I wasn’t swimming in wealth but I did catch something of a windfall. Years before the pandemic, my finances have stabilized and it did so in a manner that allowed me to afford the costly pursuit of living away from my parents. But, I held off on buying the device. I wanted to wait until its cost was something I could trivialize. When that time came, however, the pandemic was already here. It kept us in our homes and it endangered our sources of livelihood. Online, I saw people suffering one loss after another and eventually, I had a clearer idea of what that felt.

In a time when people were losing things left and right, I lost the person I wanted to buy a karaoke machine for.

T o say that my mother loved singing would be an understatement.

Think of family Sundays at the mall before the pandemic. In those days, there would only be a few places where I would find her: at the department store, the turmeric stand (buying bags of powdered turmeric) or the gadget store that has one of those portable karaoke machines on display.

Surrounded by eager salespeople, she would be there holding a microphone with one hand, singing Chiqui Pineda’s “How Did You Know.” I used to stand back, ready to run, should she see me and try to pass the microphone over. She would never. She would just keep singing until my dad arrives and pulls her away—with much difficulty—from the crowd.

“Bye, Mam Beverly!” They used to call out after her, waving. I’d follow them, amused at the happy but slightly disappointed looks on the salespeople’s faces before finally heading home.

Her love for karaoke cannot be stated enough. Some days, I wouldn’t even see her until evening. She’d be out all day at a birthday party in another neighborhood or next door, singing karaoke with kids. It didn’t bother me until she started singing “Pusong Bato,” a song which I loathed (but never told her of course). At home, she would play those old karaoke VCDs to sing along all day with my sister who also inherited her love of singing. They would go on from late afternoon till evening, and I would just listen to them while lying on the banig in a tiny bedroom with no door.

You see, my family wasn’t doing so well in those days. We were surviving but there were a lot of things we couldn’t afford and a karaoke machine was most certainly on that list. Our home was a dark, cramped, two-story house in a compound that had a poor angry dog. It was in a cage that was placed at the entrance by the landlord to guard the house. Unfortunately, it only managed to terrify the tenants and guests alike. One of the bathroom doors had no lock, and there was even a time when it leaked on the second floor where we slept because of clogged roof drains. It woke me and my sister up in the middle of the night. We discovered our mattresses soaked and we spent the next hour wiping up the floor with rugs.

That house was barely livable. But, in spite of this, we still had plenty of visitors because of my mom.

Nobody could have done better as the family’s unofficial PR person at gatherings. And, we didn’t even have to ask her to do it. Naturally friendly and charming, she would talk to anybody easily. Her charm didn’t always work on everybody but, most of the time, she’d leave parties with the names and numbers of new friends, excited to catch up with them after. The family had this running joke that she could run for mayor or any government position just because she was so naturally cordial. And given the kind of politicians we’ve been exposed to in recent years, it would be a definite plus that my mom—aside from being friendly—is also committed to helping anybody who came to her.

Of course, this meant that my mother had a strong personality which had negative attributes. She could be intense and controlling. And since we had differences in the way things should be handled at home, we would at times butt heads. Her memory was also pretty sharp. She remembered birth dates and details, which was bad for anybody who crossed her because she could easily bring up past incidents. Another downside to her personality, as far as I’m concerned, is that she would often force us to interact with people we didn’t particularly like. My sister and I would usually hide out in our room whenever there was a visitor so we didn’t have to chat with them.

Ga!” she would call out. “Andito si tita niyo! [Your aunt is here.]” My sister and I would groan and put on loose shirts to hide the fact that we’re not wearing bras and go out to meet the said tita and then excuse ourselves after a while. Back in our room, we’d hear their laughter and voices for hours, and, later on, after our guest leaves, we’d go out to talk to my mom and find out why that particular tita visited.

There were too many days like that: of familiar faces visiting our tiny shack, which made me realize that in spite of everything, it wasn’t too bad.

I still wish I could’ve helped more at that time. But, while all of this was happening, I was still struggling as a professional. My job was alright but as anyone working in the media would know, the starting salary for us writers was barely enough to keep a family afloat. It was most certainly not  enough to purchase expensive non-essentials. It was only by the end of 2020 when I started to do a little better. And when that happened, I decided that I would finally get my mom the karaoke machine she had always wanted.

But then, tragedy occurred and it became too late.

W hen my mom got sick, I was living in an apartment close to work because traveling from Parañaque to BGC was arduous. The lockdowns had already begun, and I was working from home.

It was at the end of August and I was in the middle of work when I got a call from my dad saying we had to take my mom to the hospital because she wasn’t feeling well. My mom kept resisting at first, but my dad finally had to put his foot down and have her brought in for a swab test. The result took a few days, and waiting for it was nerve-wracking. But, I suppose it was not as nerve-wracking as finding out that she was positive for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19.)

My dad, sister and our longtime family helper, Carmen, had to be immediately tested and isolated. My mind was spinning: what if everyone tests positive? What would we do? How would we pay the bills? And I couldn’t even be there to help out.

The following weeks were brutal to say the least and I wasn’t even there to witness it firsthand. My mom had to be intubated. She also had to receive doses of Remdesivir, which still triggers my anxieties now whenever I hear it. My sister watched over my mom while wearing personal protective equipment. My dad had to ask his company for advances to pay the hospital bills, which just kept piling up. And all of this sent me into fits of panic.

My mom told my sister she didn’t want anyone to know she was sick, but at the same time, I knew there was no way we would be able to afford it. So, in spite of my mother’s wishes, I started an online fund. I expected a few people to pitch in, but never did I imagine we’d get more than P300,000. It was a testament to my mother’s character and her ability to make friends; a blunt reminder of the kind of woman she was and why she was worth fighting for.

I worked from home while I transferred payments to the hospital account, managed finances online, sent people thank you messages, and bought my family meds and everything else they needed while they were isolated.

My sister had to be relieved from watching over my mom when she was transferred to the intensive care unit. A couple of weeks passed and my mom was slowly getting better. She was finally eating and my sister said my mom gave a wave and a smile when she visited.

We were so close, I felt. So damn close to getting her home and finally moving forward. Never mind the bills that we still had to settle. That could be fixed later. At least we would have her home and all would be OK.

On the evening of September 17, my sister’s birthday, things turned for the worse. My mom was losing blood from an ulcer, and she needed a blood transfusion but the hospital didn’t have enough supplies. My dad headed to the Red Cross the next morning with a cooler, but it was already too late.

She died on the 18th from blood loss, and there I was sitting on the couch at the apartment silently weeping while packing my bag absentmindedly to head home. I was so distraught I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me or if I had just forgotten, but the bathroom lights were on again after I remembered turning them off.

“Don’t worry, Ma. Uuwi ako, [I’m coming home,]” I said with a stifled chuckle. The lights remained off after that.

We wanted a funeral but it wasn’t even an option. Her remains had to be cremated right away because the doctors said there were still traces of the virus in her body. I’m certain she would’ve wanted a funeral so her friends could see her and say goodbye.

My dad had asked me if I wanted to go with him to identify her so the hospital would release her, and, well, see her for the last time. I regret now that I didn’t, but at the time, as difficult as it was to tell him, I told him I would rather not. I just didn’t want that image of her—lifeless and still after all the pain during her last moments—to be the last thing I remember of her.

And so that afternoon, she was set ablaze into ashes; placed in a white urn, and forever gone. Just like that.

I t’s been a year since my mom’s passing and it hasn’t been easy.

A month after her death, my dad had to get a minor operation, which again sent me into panic. I couldn’t sleep when he was admitted to the hospital and called him immediately after the operation. In the same month, I was diagnosed with ulcer, the same condition that caused my mother’s fatal blood loss so this was both a mental and physical blow.

I’ve also become more restless than usual, constantly rattled by anxiety over anything related to my mother’s final days. Additionally, I’ve found myself furious at people claiming COVID-19 isn’t real. I’ve found it utterly intolerable how people—armed with pseudo-science, group chat gossip and poorly researched conspiracy theories—invalidated the virus after everything our family went through. I have also become cranky, telling people off for not wearing masks, chastising anybody who doesn’t have the slightest concern for safety. In a way, my mother’s death appeared to have given birth to these traits of mine that she used to have: her intensity, for example. Her need for control.

I’ve stopped browsing Facebook, which has become a collection of obituaries and the center of discontent for a government poorly managing this pandemic, using the pandemic funds for their political interests and basically just leaving everyone to their own devices. I’ve also spent a lot of time waiting—waiting for things to get better, waiting for life to go back to normal and for me to start feeling OK again.

It got me thinking. There is an old saying that rings true on certain situations: good things come to those who wait. If you wait for the right time to say the right things, you increase your chances of achieving intended results. If you wait for your turn, you avoid having to deal with conflicts arising because of your impatience. If you can find it in you to suppress your need to gallivant while there’s an ongoing pandemic, you may find yourself more fortunate than the millions who have died because of this disease.

But there is a time and place for waiting. While good things indeed come to those who wait, I’ve come to learn that if you wait too long, you only end up waiting for death, regret or both.

Within my close contacts, for example, there were people who avoided political discussions. They were the same people who chose, for a time, to not exercise their rights to vote. They justified these choices with cynicism—this belief that every politician is more or less the same and, because of this, life in the Philippines will remain vastly unchanged regardless of who is in power.

Of course, this could simply be a convenient excuse. It could be that these people were merely privileged. Politics, after all, is a complicated topic filled with uninteresting but crucial nuances. Voter registration, meanwhile, is a tedious process much like a lot of pursuits that deal with government red tape. If you are someone who has the financial stability to withstand the inconveniences caused by the tomfoolery of local officials, you can be easily tempted to ignore local politics.

A number of them are not like that anymore. Now, many of them are voters who are active participants in political discussions characterizing our chaotic country. But, they didn’t change before experiencing what we all did in recent years. They had to wait until the barefaced corruption and incompetence of local officials started to directly endanger their lives and their loved ones.

Meanwhile, there are still some who wait for the perfect candidate to come along; ignoring the opportunity to lead the country to a better direction through candidates who are promising but imperfect. There are also those who remain quiet, uneager to show support for candidates that they know can help the country. They want to live quiet lives for now, unbothered by online trolls paid to intimidate or gaslight the supporters of progressive aspirants. By doing this, they surrender the chance to sway other people to vote as they would—conscientiously and knowledgeably. Should their inaction lead to six more years of national turmoil, then these too would be case studies for the subject of misplaced patience.

I’m guilty of this myself.  I waited to live away from my mother before I could appreciate her despite her (and my) flaws. Ours wasn’t a steady relationship but it got better over time. It took a while, but maybe distance does have a way of bringing people closer.

Despite our differences, I admired my mom and really felt for her. She grew up in Sara, Iloilo, with my uncle and grandmother, who raised them on her own. Not having a father around back then was a cause of gossip among neighbors, and my mom and uncle were taunted for not having their dad around. Despite those things, my mom worked hard to prove herself, always making sure she was at the top of the class – and she did. She was quite lovely and turned several heads too – including my dad of course, who met her through a friend and won her over because he got my grandma’s approval.  They got together, broke up, got together again and finally got married in March.

My mom called family and close friends “ga,” a shortened version of pangga in Ilonggo, which means “love.” Around her friends, she referred to me as “bunsoy” as I was her youngest. I wasn’t supposed to be even born, but after losing my brother, she and my dad decided to give it another go, and well, there I was. Born cesarean at a fancy hospital that required my parents to sell a precious piano they owned.

Despite the difficulties that happened in her life, she fought and tried her best. She was tough and generous. She was a good cook (her pinaupong manok was amazing.) She took care of my friends, and she never judged me for my bad decisions. I remember one instance in particular. She went with me to resign from work. We snuck into the office early in the morning while I left the resignation letter on the desk of my boss and we hurried off to the elevator to escape. She could have scolded me for being so wishy-washy at the time, but she just laughed at how badly I wanted to escape from the office. 

I also kept delaying and waiting to get my mom that karaoke machine. I could have just saved up for it and not waited until I could trivialize the cost. Despite our lives not turning the way she wanted to, she would have at least gotten to sing her heart out, forgotten her worries for a while and just be happy, which was all I ever wanted her to be. Unfortunately, I waited too long. And now, all I have are these days that continue without her; these days when all I can do is wish.

I wish I could eat marang with her again. I wish I could hear her favorite stories. I wish she would cover me with a blanket when I’m half-asleep. And yes, I wish I could hear her sing—even if that means having to listen to that song I still don’t like.

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