Don’t give up the machine!” my 91-year-old uncle was telling my 89-year-old father last year, tugging at my dad’s wheelchair as he tried to wheel his closer.
My father, though younger than my uncle, was hardly able to speak and communicate anymore, unlike my uncle who could still talk a little, laugh, and even summon some memory of a naughty past.
My uncle was Daddy’s second-cousin-in-law and a pioneering businessman in the garment and movie industries, who loved cars and women. By “machine,” he meant body, indeed life.
He was nudging Daddy not to give up on his body, not to let go. The two weren’t seriously infirm then—just the usual pneumonia and infection common to their old age.
When Daddy was hardly reacting to him, my uncle, with a conspiratorial laugh, said, “You remember kuling-kuling? Let’s go!”
We all looked at each other at the dinner table, wondering what kuling-kuling was. Then we realized that the term referred to the cheap girlie dance halls they must have frequented as young footloose men in Malabon, Caloocan and nearby Bocaue, Bulacan.
At that reunion lunch early last year, Daddy couldn’t match the high spirits of my uncle. He gave up “the machine” a few months after that, in October. My uncle, who must have felt sad knowing that he was being left behind by his generation, followed a few months later.
That last lunch we had with him reminded me how the old, even knowing that death is a near future, could still have the fighting spirit. But the body yields even as the will does not.
We lost Mommy and Daddy within six months of each other last year. Their deaths made me realize that there’s no such thing as unfinished business-—you go when you have to go.
I didn’t know this when Mommy was having a cardiac arrest in the hospital and had to be resuscitated. So I told her not to go.
She was being given CPR on the hospital bed, the shock to revive that body was being delivered one after another, as I held her two feet—the only part of her body accessible to me—and beseeched her, indeed ordered her, not to go just yet. Stay, Mommy, my mind talked to hers as my glance panned upward—upward, for hasn’t it been written that the spirit leaving the body first hovers above it, most likely in the ceiling?
Come down, I ordered that spirit floating up there, and go back to the body. You cannot leave us this way, I mumbled. We have unfinished business.
After about 20 minutes, Mommy was revived, but she was in a state of critical coma. She was to stay that way for three months until her death.
She never got to talk to us, and vice versa, at least not in the normal sense. Instead, we had to talk to her in prayer, in thought, if not in dreams.
While she was still in a coma, we’d run into mediums who’d tell us that Mommy couldn’t move on because something in this world was holding her back, and that she was in pain and in bewilderment, not knowing really where she was, whether she was in this world still or beyond it. She must have been floating in limbo.
A friend, a clairvoyant in a cool, glamorous way, offered to “talk” to her to ask her to move on and leave her mortal existence—and burden—behind. But, my friend said, “I couldn’t get through to her. She was ‘telling’ me, No.”
When you live with the uncertain, unknown fate of a loved one, you grasp at anything that would give you proof of life, just to stay connected, even if that connectivity was what some would find weird or hokey. You didn’t care.
Although we wanted Mommy to live and be with us like it used to be—with her in mega control—we knew that she wasn’t really living anymore. It was a body attached to tubes for feeding, for sustenance, for fighting infection, for collecting fluids.
When I finally convinced my only sibling that Mommy would never really wake up, he let her go. In less than an hour after my brother said his goodbye, Mommy was gone.
Perhaps she, too, realized that there was no use trying to stick around to finish whatever pending business she had.
While she was not in pain because her brain was almost dead, Mommy took a circuitous route to dying.
In contrast, Daddy’s death was swift, if not smooth. He had breakfast that morning, the day of my son’s birthday—he had asked us the night before if my son’s birthday would be tomorrow—and it was as if he had waited for me to wake up.
As I read the morning’s Inquirer, his caregiver called out to me that Daddy was having a hard time breathing. Sitting on his wheelchair, he gasped for breath as I nudged him to spit out the phlegm. We thought he was only near-choking from coughing.
I patted his back as I held his hand. He took a deep, labored breath, then closed his eyes. Just like that.
He didn’t even let on that he was dying, perhaps not wanting to scare me. I didn’t even know he was gone until the paramedics came and showed me the flatline.
He let me experience a daughter’s ultimate privilege and blessing—to be able to hold your father’s hand as he transitioned to death and the new life. Without feeling fear.
It must have been because Daddy had no unfinished business. Like many husbands and fathers, he loved to surrender to the guiles and will of his family in his old age. He didn’t argue with women (that’s I and Mommy, basically).
Indeed, there’s no such thing as unfinished business. What you did today belongs to the past. While you can try to make up for it or improve on it tomorrow, you can’t undo it.
When you go, you leave everything and everyone behind. If you think that way—and I’ve come to think that way ever since I lost my loved ones last year—you realize how you must try and live each moment as if it were your last.
It’s dumb to spend the days fighting and arguing with your loved ones.
My last talk with Mommy, it would turn out, was:
“Oatmeal and apple,” she insisted, after I told her no, the doctors wanted her to have the nasal-gastro tube. “No,” she said. “No,” I said. The woman who served us hand and foot wouldn’t take no for an answer.
One matron said, upon the death of the husband she had been estranged from for years, “It’s a pity, so many years we wasted on anger.”
You try to fix your material possessions—your estate—if you can. But even if you haven’t, you go anyway when you have to go. Your heirs are on their own.
One night, walking away from my Mommy’s room where she lay still in coma, and stepping into the car, I caught a strong scent of the sweet sampaguita, the flowers Mommy’s green thumb could grow in abundance in the garden, along with roses. It filled the car. I knew right there and then that Mommy was moving on.
Not to have unfinished business is a blessing we can only pray for. It comes when you have the humility to accept the given—that you will not live forever.
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