I lost my mother last Feb. 29, almost four months after her 95th birthday. Her death came after some of the most difficult weeks of my life, filled with sleepless nights and frantic searches for her medicine.
But it came as I had hoped it would—quietly, after we had had time to say goodbye, and most critically, just before the pandemic could make caring for a sick parent an absolute nightmare.
It also came after years of internal struggle and much-needed closure on my part. My mom Alice and I were not the best of friends; although I loved her dearly, we were such different people that it was impossible to always see eye to eye.
I am outspoken, willing to thresh things out, and not inclined to care about other people’s opinions. Mama came from a time when you didn’t show much emotion, and was excruciatingly conscious of social scrutiny. When she was angry, you got the indefinite silent treatment, which drove me and my father crazy.
Mama was strong, soft-spoken, eternally poised. The flipside of that was, unlike my father—whose death when I was 18 probably launched my life of clinical depression—she was not demonstrative. Her reaction to my tears was usually an admonition to pull myself together, because that was what they did growing up. I never got a hug from her when I was depressed, nor when I was battling cancer. Mental illness and a life-threatening disease weren’t things you talked about then, I guess.
It was only in her later years that we could have earnest conversations—when I became old enough for her to respect as an individual.
That’s because after my father’s death, Mama’s idea of mothering was constant control. I had strict curfews, and she would insist on what I could or could not wear. She stated often that I was put on earth to take care of her for the rest of her life—a disturbing thought, considering that I had several brothers.
When I was briefly engaged and planned to move abroad, she actually assumed she was coming with me for good. She didn’t speak to me for days when my then fiancé and I decided that she should only visit for a few months a year. She also just told me to stop crying when that engagement fell apart; she never knew how I dealt with the heartbreak.
Later, things were compounded by her stubborn independence and unwillingness to get a yaya.
I found myself in a difficult place for years: resentful of having to take care of a mother I couldn’t talk to, and yet consumed with guilt every time I stood up to her.
Things came to a head after she got a bad case of pneumonia several years ago, and I simply could no longer take care of her alone.
I did find her a yaya, but Mama made life quite difficult for Dang for about six months. She was surly, accused me of siding with Dang, and constantly threatened to fire her.
It took hard work with my psychiatrist to change my perspective. My doctor advised me to stop trying to please my mother, and to live as separate—both emotionally and physically—from her as possible for a while.
It was a confluence of events that finally made things work.
First, Mama stopped terrorizing her yaya when my brother told her in no uncertain terms that she had no choice. I also credit Dang for her patience; before I knew it, Mama had become dependent on her, and they were peacefully watching telenovelas together.
Second, at age 49, I moved out (sort of), spending most of the week in a condominium unit I had bought. Naturally, Mama ranted every time I left, but I learned to minimize my reaction. The time and space were essential to my healing.
Third, even Mama couldn’t deny that she was getting frail. Also, after a lifetime of getting her way, she became more agreeable. She had been spoiled by her father, treated like a queen by her husband, and humored by her sons. I guess she wasn’t too happy that the one she expected to be most compliant, her only daughter (me), would put up a fight.
Mama and I became friends, finally, when she accepted (in my 50s!) that she was talking to an adult who had her own ideas, earned her own keep and no longer needed her mother’s permission to do anything.
It became a running joke at the family dinner table: As I kissed her goodbye to head to a party, she would insist, “What time will you be home?”—and my sisters-in-law would chime in, “Oo nga naman, Alya, you’re only 53, and you’re already staying out late!”
About a year ago, I decided to rent out my condo and move permanently back into the family home, because I knew Mama was always asking about me. And I decided this on my own—a move my psychiatrist considered a milestone.
It didn’t take long before Mama became weaker. I learned to change her diaper and feed her on Dang’s monthly weekends off, and take it all as part of my responsibility—a responsibility I had learned to accept. It became a gift knowing that, after all those years, a complicated relationship could still be resolved.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for the extreme stress of caring for a sick parent. She was hospitalized for several days in October 2019, and nobody else in the family seemed to realize at first how much work that entailed. Things got so bad after we brought her home that I almost had a breakdown, and ended up hospitalized for a night after getting suicidal ideations. I felt trapped and extremely exhausted.
I picked myself up after that, with help from friends, better medication and a lot of prayer. We managed to celebrate Mama’s 95th birthday on Nov. 9, a memorable gathering at home; in hindsight, I think everyone knew it would be her last birthday.
Toward the end of November, Mama was hospitalized again for pneumonia, and this time the whole family was mobilized.
She was in the intensive care unit first for five days, but on Dec. 4, after 12 days, we brought her home, bedridden but responsive. She had a feeding tube and a drain for the fluid in her right lung. We enlisted the services of a palliative care group, which meant she had 24-hour nursing care.
Since we shared a big room, there was constant activity—a buzzing nebulizer, a rattling oxygen concentrator, movement, lights, a change of shift for the nurses at 6 a.m. I am not exaggerating when I say that from the time we took her home to the time Mama died, I did not get a straight night’s sleep—except when I went out of town on assignment once, and stayed an extra night in Bohol just so I could sleep in before my flight.
It also meant I spent my weekends scouring multiple drugstores for medicines and supplies, doing groceries for a suddenly inflated household, and relying heavily on Dang, now promoted to chief cook.
I would say hello to Mama as I came and went each day, and she was still lucid, saying “I love you” often. And yes, prayer and my medications kept me afloat—which is why I will remain an advocate of supervised mental illness medication until I die.
That Christmas, also Mama’s last, the family was complete for the first time in years. My psychiatrist had advised me to say a gradual goodbye, so I would not have such a hard time when Mama died. It was a belief in some religions, she told me, that the spirit dissipates gradually, not in one fell swoop at the time of death.
When the clock struck 12 that night and people greeted each other, I saw Mama clutching a teddy bear her grandson had given her, oblivious to the occasion—and I cried, realizing that my mother really wasn’t quite there anymore.
Her deterioration continued. Her “I love you” turned into indistinguishable sounds, until she stopped speaking. I prayed the Rosary in her ear and reminded her frequently that if she was tired, it was okay to go. I told my two brothers to stop telling her to fight, to give her permission to leave, and to reassure her we would be okay.
My own slow goodbye was easier than I thought. I would speak to Mama, but she could no longer focus, staring into space. She became thinner, smaller; she no longer even tried to cover herself in modesty when the nurse changed her diaper. I’m not ashamed to say that, seeing this shadow of what my mother used to be, I sometimes prayed that God would take her home.
It was Valentine’s Day, a Friday, when, walking around the mall before heading to work, I saw a card for “Mother” displayed in a bookstore window—and it hit me like a ton of bricks that my mother was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. I wandered around Rockwell in tears under dark glasses, seeing nothing. All the memories, good and bad, came flooding back in huge waves.
Because yes, there were so many good memories, as well. Mama and I traveled, laughed; I took her to dinners and shows. When times were easy, they were wonderful. It was in times of crisis that I realized I could not turn to my mother for enough emotional support. I wouldn’t be surprised if she thought the same about me, when I had grown older and become a “disobedient” adult, even as I never abandoned her. We just didn’t have that kind of relationship.
The idea used to sadden me, as I know women who grew up calling their mothers their “best friend,” something I could never quite do. I guess we were proof that you shouldn’t impose expectations and roles on the people in your life—not even your family.
I’m glad I stood my ground, though. Yes, I also have friends who suffered psychic damage in the hands of a clueless parent. I learned that loving and respecting your parent does not mean letting yourself be swallowed whole. It means setting boundaries, and not losing yourself in their service, no matter how noble that sounds. Otherwise, you will have nothing left, and you may spend your days seething in frustration—a toxic seething that hurt me when I was younger. When I was still so angry and relatives would chatter about how Mama had me to take care of her in her old age, I wanted to slap them.
The resentment melted away in the face of Mama’s fragility, when I realized I no longer had to defend myself—and when she, I believe, finally accepted that she could not and did not have to run my life. I am grateful that, in the last years of her life, all the pain and conflict of the past had ceased to matter.
Ever proper, Mama chose the perfect time to go. Her doctor had made an emergency visit that Monday because of falling oxygen levels, and gave her 24 to 48 hours; she lasted until Saturday afternoon. Macky, the same nurse who first accompanied her in the ambulance home, told me, “Ma’am, hindi na tatagal si Lola.”
I had already repeatedly asked for her forgiveness, but it was only at that moment that I thought of whispering that I forgave her, too. Mama, with all her pride, would probably have wondered what she had to be forgiven for. But I felt she needed to hear it.
Her breathing slowed, her heartbeat weakened, until, with all of us around her, Mama gently breathed her last—just as I had hoped. Like I wrote on Facebook, in the end, there was nothing but love.
She had a short, beautiful wake, and we buried Mama on March 4. I will love and miss my mother for the rest of my life.
Ten days later, we were on lockdown—and I am thankful that she left when she did.