Is Mommy just sleeping or slipping away?
Will she emerge from her coma?
We have gotten all the medical answers we possibly could. We are content and grateful for what our doctors have done and continue to do.
But this isn’t about medicine. It’s about how you connect to someone who’s in a coma.
Mommy, now 89, remains in a coma. She moves her legs a bit, she opens her eyes slightly but her gaze is glazed and empty, like she’s not really seeing you.
Even as they denote some brain activity, those physical stirrings, her doctors say, are mere reflexes, so I have stopped presuming that these were acts of approbation or censure by Mommy. No, this time, she’s neither scolding nor nagging me. She isn’t even communicating anymore, at least not in the way we’re used to.
She slipped into a coma after she suffered a heart attack and flatlined. But her medical condition isn’t my point here. Like I said, the doctors have that covered. What I want to share is the life-altering experience of having your mother—who used to rule the world, yours and possibly everybody else’s—in a state of potentially perpetual sleep and immobility.
Where is she really? Is she still here—or there, wherever that is? How do you communicate with someone in a coma? Can you really?
People say comatose patients can hear so we should continue talking to Mommy. And we do, our “conversations” running the gamut, from usual greetings to family updates and goings-on with the house help (her perennial pet peeve), to deep prayer.
We ask her to wake up so we could go home—and we did bring her home two Saturdays ago, after a two-and-a-half-month stay in the hospital—or we tell her that we are letting her move on so she can finally rest and find peace.
I also beseech her to seek Jesus and Mama Mary and find rest in their embrace. I tell my brother (we’re only two) to do the same, but I cannot dictate on him what to say. You cannot dictate on people to let go and when.
Some friends said that given what we’ve been whispering into her ear (the right ear not affected by the stroke), Mommy could be suffering from information overload by now, or at the very least, could be left confused by the possibly conflicting messages from me and my brother.
I know they’re just trying to make light of the situation, if only to make me laugh.
About two months ago, right after my mother flatlined, was revived and then slipped into a coma, I told my friend Louie Cruz how we wish she’d wake up so we could have a second or final chance with her—to bond, to resolve conflicts, to right anything that was wrong.
To this, Louie, a friend with a rather odd wisdom, said, “But a coma could just be that one last chance. Whoever said one had to be awake to bond?”
Weird, but my weird friend could be right. Whoever decreed that bonding has to be between two equal states of consciousness? Or that you have to be in the same physical universe?
All my life, Mommy and I have shared only static: We were good at drowning out each other’s noise. We couldn’t be together for five minutes without arguing or wrangling—with clockwork precision—so that you could set your watch by the time interval it took us to fight. I think it was those gladiator fights between mother and daughter that kept my Daddy on his toes, if not alive.
Today, all of a sudden, I’m staring at a body that can’t talk back to me, that can’t tell me what to do or not to do, or what I did wrong this time. It takes some getting used to. The other day I was walking by the fruit stand when, on reflex, I stopped to pick out a bag of grapes—Mommy’s staple sweets—when it dawned on me suddenly that the possibility of her eating grapes again, taking solids in fact, is less than nil. And she won’t be able to tell me anymore what to eat and what not to eat.
But then, the act of cutting the umbilical cord is a long, drawn-out process.
It’s not true that your umbilical cord is cut at birth. Mine and that of my brother weren’t, obviously. And we doubt if death could cut that cord, either.
Like I said, Mommy loved to be in charge, and she was, and I feel, she still is. I didn’t go through kinder or prep because Mommy didn’t believe in preparatory; she put me, at age five, in grade one (to this day I don’t know how she talked my early Catholic school into it—but who’s complaining? That always put me younger than my batch).
Later, she wanted me at St. Theresa’s. Since the school was known to put great stress on academics and books, on the entrance form, asked what books were available in our home, she put Collier’s, Britannica and every encyclopedia brand known to man at that time. In truth, I, at that age, couldn’t even spell Britannica. But she had her way nonetheless.
At labor with my firstborn, I was huffing and puffing the Lamaze way when, as it turned out, I was on my 17th hour of labor, Mommy apparently said, enough of that, cut her open. When I came to, I was surprised to hear the OR nun say, “It’s a boy!” and almost muttered, what, you went on without me?!
As I would learn later, Mommy decided, and got my husband to agree, that caesarean was best for me, and she made sure there would be a private nurse for my post-operative care and pain. So caesarean it would be from then on.
Now, I look at this inert body. It’s certainly not fit for world domination. Her face remains beautiful and wrinkle-free (hardly a wrinkle at 89), but it’s drawn and visibly thinner, her eyes shut tight and sunken.
Yet, in lifelessness, she can still strike fear in us apparently. As her comatose body was being wheeled to the OR for tracheostomy, the wheel of her hospital bed suddenly went askew, prompting my brother to turn to me and utter in a terrified tone, “Told you, she doesn’t like (what we’re doing—letting her undergo tracheostomy).”
That was more than a month ago. Since Mommy slipped into a coma, we’ve had all kinds of days and nights—and all sorts of advice—none of which we were prepared for; how do you prepare for a coma, anyway?
A well-meaning relative text-messaged us advice—“Pull out the plug because her soul is not there anymore. It’s only her body.” Delete. (What hospital gadget do you use, anyway, to indicate the presence of soul?)
Expectedly, I asked our Inner Mind columnist Jaime Licauco what was going on with Mommy in her coma. How do I communicate with her, verbally or telepathically? Both, he said. He came back with a message from his psychic friend, Plinky, saying that something was preventing Mommy from moving on, some unresolved issues with loved ones, so much unfinished business. (At 89?)
So again, we’d whisper or shout into her right ear what must be said, nothing left unsaid.
A month after that, Licauco sent me another message, this time from a friend who had a “message from Gabriel the Archangel,” which said that Mommy is in an “in between” region—she could not go back to our world and yet could not move on to the other world because spirits were pulling her back and trying to waylay her.
In short, my brother interpreted the message, Mommy is roaming, lost, so we must help her find her way.
Is that correct? One will never really know. Don’t expect an empirical answer.
Her neurologist says that a comatose mind is asleep—unable to decode messages or feelings. She can’t feel pain, at least we were assured. According to doctors, comatose patients say that when they wake up, they don’t remember a thing from when they were in a coma. But they can hear. (Do they understand what they hear?)
My (ex)classmate, whose mom woke up after a month in a coma, said her mom remembered taking a very long walk so that she felt exhausted when she came to. According to her, her mom said she was told to go back, and so she went back.
Will Mommy ever wake up?
Age is not in her favor. After more than two months, I don’t lose sleep over it anymore, because more than ever, I’ve come to trust in the power of prayer, and the peace prayer brings.
The hospital chaplain and priest have seen us through by being with Mommy regularly. My former teacher at St. Theresa’s, Msgr. Manny Gabriel, came to pray over her. My friend, Dom Martin, came to her hospital bed from Bukidnon to read the prayer of Bambino (he started me on a devotion to Sto. Niño decades ago) and to anoint her with the Bambino oil.
Another friend, Sheila Romero, brought a relic—the glove of Padre Pio—and gave us the prayer to Padre Pio and to St. Rita, a novena we now pray as a family at her bedside at home. At least, Mommy can hear that. Or can she—she who used to herd us at 6 p.m. every day, when we weren’t in school, so we could kneel and pray the Angelus?
I have also composed a prayer which we recite as a family.
Indeed, these past months, apart from prayer, I’ve drawn strength from my true friends. They have propped me up. If there’s one thing I’m glad about, it’s that I’ve chosen my friends rather well—the very rich and the very poor, and those in between (you know where you belong). Even my tennis trainers, without second thought, donated blood when Mommy needed transfusion, no matter that they lost playing hours in having done so.
I’ve also come to realize that there’s no such thing as unfinished business. You live each day only once; you can’t rewind and re-live a moment. I try to assure Mommy that—that she really has no unfinished business, not with her family, and certainly not with those outside her family.
A good friend, who lost his mother almost four years ago, gave me a good advice: “In low moments, focus on the happy times. You will help your mom that way.”
And that’s how we’re celebrating His Resurrection.
The author’s Twitter is @ThelmaSSanJuan (Any other account bearing her name is not hers.)
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