Much has gone back to normal, many days after Mom passed away. Though I am far from feeling melancholic, I still do not know how to reply to friends asking “How are you?” Here’s my attempt to process.
A few days ago, my brothers and I lost our mom in her 3-year battle with cancer. We have been picking up the brightly-colored pieces that she has left in this world. By now, we have bonded over the experience that we never thought we’d share too soon in our lives — losing a parent.
My mom is best known for her career as an educator. She spent literally her entire life in two schools, where she has touched so many lives with every student, faculty, class, batch, and school year that she showed up for tirelessly.
While she is best known as “Ma’am”, we have known her all our lives simply as “Mom”. Yet, being kids of an educator, we realized early on that we are not her only sons or daughters. We share her with a multitude of people across generations who have called her “Ma’am”, “Mama”, or “Madam Principal”; who saw her as a “second mom”, a “role model”, or a “favorite teacher”, titles she cherished until the very end.
Growing up, most of our family’s lives centered around SBU*. This is where my parents met, got married, and had children. Since it was an all-boys school, my brothers studied from elementary school to college (and even up to law school for Kuya) while I studied in the other schools in Mendiola. I never thought I’d ever study in SBU, but when they moved to Rizal a couple of years ago, they became co-ed. I spent my last two high school years there.
As if having your mom around during high school isn’t awkward enough, to my horror, she became my teacher during my senior year. I have always been known as “Sam” in my previous schools. Now, for the first time, I was more known as “Ma’am Arlene’s daughter”.
At first, I resented it (haha!). Can you imagine dealing with a normal high school experience — the awkwardness of puberty and teenage crushes, making friends at a new school, and trying to figure out what to do after graduation, under the lens of your parents and her friends — some of whom are your Ninongs and Ninangs who’ve known you since you were born?
When I was younger, I thought mom and I were very different. She was confident and fashionable while I was awkward and shy. Later on, I discovered I loved the outdoors and mom liked staying indoors. Mom loved decorating her space while I, given a choice, was hardly home at all. We didn’t have the same taste in clothes and I didn’t inherit her well-known love for bags and shoes.
High school and post-college were the toughest years of our relationship, until I moved out right after college. Strangely, having this time and space apart was when our mom-and-daughter relationship improved. I realized that my mom was also a product of the environment she grew up in. I started seeing her as a human with wounds and scars, someone who was doing her best with the cards she was dealt with. This allowed us to have a more compassionate relationship. We started sharing our lives from one adult to another.
I learned that Mom, beneath her big personality that makes her stand out in a room full of people, was a very private and selfless person who has endured so many quiet battles in her life — her childhood, school life, marriage, career, and cancer. On the first days of her death, I mostly cried because she deserved to have, not just more, but better years.
Like both my parents, mom wasn’t born to privilege. Her mother died when she was just a toddler. Her father was an OFW who later remarried. Her family was apart when she was growing up and she had to mainly fend for herself. Being a straight-A student, she landed a scholarship under Caritas Manila to study in UST. She realized early on that teaching was her passion, an industry she stayed in until the end.
Aside from loving teaching, mom selflessly spent decades of her life in SBU just for us to have discounted tuition fees on school education. It was only until the boys were about to finish their college and law school, respectively, that she decided to take her life back again. She quit the job she has known all her life to take on the risk of being a founding principal at St. Dom*, a school in our hometown — it was the best decision she ever made. Here, she had the “golden years” of her life.
Mom accomplished many of her personal goals that she set aside for us. She cherished the role of being Madam Principal. At age 50, she learned how to drive and eventually drove her own SUV to school. She went to the US for a month-long Christmas vacation without us. She tried all the hotels and fancy restaurants she possibly can. She was able to treat her family (our Lolo, uncles, and aunties) to vacations and special celebrations.
While us kids were no longer center stage of her life, we deeply enjoyed seeing her become the very best she can be. Still, she saw the milestones of our 20s. She witnessed kuya’s oathtaking as a lawyer and watched him his first car. She urged me to take up MBA and saw me buy my first property. She saw my younger brother get regularized at his dream job. Mom met all of our current partners, whom she saw as her own kids — and gave the blessings for Josh and I to get engaged.
Mom was living the life she has always wanted. She reaped the rewards of decades of being a career woman and mom. After all her years of hard work from her childhood until her days as Madam Principal, nobody deserved a good life more than her.
A few years ago, I received a message that Mom had been diagnosed with cancer. It had been a couple of months before she told us. Mom’s privacy was an act of selflessness. This is why she never broadcasted about her battle with cancer except for those who absolutely needed to know. Even then, she spared us from the gory details until after she has overcome them, much to our frustration. Still, we respected her decision, which is why we kept quiet even if it was difficult.
Mom slowed down, but never diminished her love for life. Thankfully, St. Dom supported her to hold on to being “Madam Principal” as long as she can. She simply permitted herself to arrive on normal work hours, instead of being the first one in the faculty room. She delegated some of her roles by mentoring and training others. For the first time, she allotted hours to be under the sun, to live outside of airconditioning, and to jump on a trampoline to sweat.
We shared more interests as adults. I remember her excitedly bringing back the news that she tried surfing for the first time, proudly showing her photo as proof. We both loved eating healthy meals, so we’d exchange stories of the vegetarian food we ate on a daily basis. We’d watch TV, have pizza delivered, and hang out just to talk about life and current affairs. We have a New Year’s Eve tradition where we book bed & breakfasts and watch fireworks. Even during the ECQ, when she kept her distance because she is immunocompromised, she said “how are you?”, “good night”, and “I love you” every single day.
In her final moments, I was there. It was a gift in a way, that she was able to see me breathe my first and I, her last. She was able to see all her kids, some friends and extended family, say goodbye, and pass away peacefully. And even though her death was always a lingering possibility for the past three years and we did everything we could to maximize her time on earth, as soon as she was gone, I realized it wasn’t enough. Life, though full of good intentions, is still finite after all.
On the day mom died, many of our family members have started posting tributes to mom. While I wanted to post as well for practical purposes of confirming her death from the immediate family, for the next 24 hours, I was at a loss for words. I wanted to say so much and nothing at the same time. I never felt like my grief could be eased by a social media post. People reached out anyway, even if I have no idea how to answer calls or a simple question like, “How are you?”.
As soon as she left, my brothers and I had to hit the ground running. We had to work around the grief of laying our mother to rest amidst the unique challenges of a global pandemic. For the first time, I realized that my brothers and I turned out to be good human beings. If a good upbringing is all parents left their kids, they would’ve given them more than enough.
Her passing sent a shock wave of grief across the many “children” she had through the years. My brothers and I are suddenly comforted by the many “brothers” and “sisters” we had from her, students young and old who loved her like their own mom. Sometimes, they even know our names and remember us as kids. They shared photos we’ve never seen before and stories we’ve never heard before. It was like getting to know mom all over again.
Although the pandemic discouraged us from physically meeting the people who loved her and giving each other a hug of comfort, we have never felt alone during this battle. During the first week of her death, my brothers and I (plus our partners) would huddle in a small room to talk, laugh, and cry about mom before we sleep. In the morning, we would find new messages of love for her from a stranger who knew exactly how we felt. Life with mom, no matter how short, was truly meant to be shared.
They say you are not supposed to say “Thank you” to “Condolences”, but I find no words that would suffice to the warmth and gratitude we feel to those who showered mom with love.
To SBU, thank you for allowing mom to grow within your tight-knit community that our family’s foundation was built. To St. Dom, thank you for believing in mom, giving her the free hand to realize her dreams during her golden years, and being fully supportive during her battle.
To the many students, classes, batches, friends, and colleagues of mom, thank you for keeping her in your thoughts and prayers, for organizing memorials and posting tributes, for sending flowers, support, stories, and comforting words. I know mom, given her brief time with us, has lived a good life and all of you will always be part of that.
Together, let us keep her memory alive.
*Names of schools have been abbreviated for privacy