When I was young, my siblings used to tease me that I am Mama’s “eyes and ears.” I would spy on them and report everything back to Mama.
I always had a very close relationship with her. As the youngest among four children and the so-called “baby” in the family, I enjoyed the privilege of being the one left at home, the one closest to the parents, the one always favored and loved. And so at an early age, I came to realize that the youngest was most often the “Mama’s boy.”
We always joked around that Mama was an accountant, engineer and doctor rolled into one. As our “resident accountant,” she would teach us the importance of saving. As our “in-house engineer,” she would know how many bags of cement or pieces of tiles would be needed to renovate an area at home. As our “family doctor,” she would always know what medicine to take for any illness, how often to take it, and how long it should be taken.
I am truly my Mama’s boy. Even when I was already in high school, I still slept beside her when I was sick. She would laugh at how meticulously I counted her plates and spoons as she made sure that something special was on the table during my birthday.
One of my fondest memories of Mama was how she would take us to Iloilo City every December so we could buy clothes to wear on Christmas Day. She always let us pick whatever clothes we want, and she made sure that each of us came home happy.
Mama had her own way of imposing discipline on us. Every time we misbehaved inside the church, she would scold us the moment we arrived home from mass. She insisted that we come home before dinnertime so we could all sit together at the table during the meal. Sleep overs at a friend’s house were not allowed even during our teenage years. She argued that we have a house to come home to, therefore there was no reason for us to sleep at someone else’s.
No matter how busy she was at work, she was there whenever we needed her. She would always find time to attend parents’ and teachers’ conferences, recognition programs, and other school-related activities.
Growing up in the comfort of our home, I was fortunate to have her by my side. She would listen as I talked about my dreams and what I hoped to reach in life. She was proud of every little thing I had achieved and would remind me every so often to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.
She wanted my life to be good. And no matter how surprised she was by my sometimes foolish choices, she would still welcome me with her arms wide open every time I came home bruised by life’s battles, exhausted by my choices, and consumed by my passions.
Mama had an enormous heart for other people. Both her generosity and compassion extended beyond the confines of our home. She was there when somebody needed to go to the hospital, when somebody needed to be picked up from the airport, when somebody needed a tour guide. Those who came to her and asked for help in securing jobs would get employed in stores and companies ran by her friends and acquaintances. Help was one thing she would cordially extend to others and this was something that I, her son, was extremely proud of. She selflessly gave herself to people who mattered to her and she expected nothing in return for her kindness.
It was in 2001 that Mama got sick and was diagnosed with a disease called polycythemia vera, a slow-growing blood cancer that results in an excessive amount of red blood cells. The disease is not curable but it can be managed. Despite available treatments, the doctor said the disease may shorten Mama’s life.
The 14-year-old that I was then could not understand the explanation given to us. I could not even pronounce the name of the disease correctly. All I knew was that Mama had to be rushed to the hospital every time she was not feeling well. Laboratory tests became a weekly routine. Every month, we had to take Mama to the hospital to undergo phlebotomy.
Mama had never been sickly. Except for hypertension, she was truly and remarkably healthy. The news of her illness came to us unexpectedly. Suddenly, our “family doctor” needed a doctor of her own.
We sought help from doctors and friends in the medical profession and we were told that people with polycythemia vera who receive treatment often have a normal or near-normal quality of life. That information became a tiny beacon of hope for us at a time.
Despite her medication, Mama suffered a stroke. It affected her mobility and she had to stop working.
We were informed that within 10 years since she was first diagnosed, all complications would arise. In time, they did. What started out as frequent headaches, excessive sweating and visual disturbances escalated into constant fatigue, an enlarged spleen, and bruising. Congested heart failure made her body vulnerable.
There were no medical books, no instruction sheets, no manual that could tell me what to do when I saw Mama in pain. All I could ever do was just be there beside her, and let her feel and understand that she was not alone, and would never be alone in her suffering.
Those years were a testament to how our family had worked together for Mama. Two of my siblings decided to work abroad to give us much needed financial support. Countless people came and cried with us, prayed with us, gave us encouragement and support. In a way, Mama’s condition brought each of us closer to one another. It also brought us closer to God.
I remember the time we celebrated Mama’s 60th birthday. When I greeted her earlier that day and told her how I was looking forward to seeing everyone who would celebrate with us, she was more than willing to convince me that perhaps nobody ever remembered. She was wrong. Many people came and cherished the day with us. And I knew, looking at Mama that day, how happy she was to be loved and remembered by everyone who mattered to her.
Mama had been very brave. She persevered despite her physical pain. Certainly, her disease weakened her body, but it did not diminish who she was. Despite her physical frailties and limitations, she remained loving, caring and thoughtful to all of us.
Mama lived. Those ten years given to us by the doctor became eleven.
But I knew Mama wanted us to be prepared. She wanted us to accept whatever happens. She would always tell us to carry on whatever it is that we do in life, whatever dreams we wanted to pursue, whatever path we decided to take, even long after she is gone.
No amount of time could prepare us for her passing. No amount of mental conditioning could prepare a family for emotional loss. No amount of words could ease the grief of the so-called “Mama’s boy.”
I thought I was preparing myself every day as I saw her slowly becoming weaker. But it was a lie. How can I be ready for the death of my own mother? The pain of losing her was real and unbearable. The days that followed were long, hard and difficult.
A part of myself died that summer when I ran through the hospital corridor, only to be hugged and told that finally, after a long battle, we lost her.
The last time I saw Mama’s face was on a warm Sunday in May 2012. I stood up and went to the altar to deliver what would be my ultimate tribute to her life. I tried to encapsulate every facet of her life in a poem I made for her and read that afternoon. All along I tried so hard not to cry because I promised myself to be strong just as she had wanted me to be.
Here I was, before a sea of familiar faces of relatives and friends inside the church, bidding farewell to Mama while the rest of the world rejoices and celebrates Mother’s Day. It was unfair. It was hard to say goodbye to someone who was very close to my heart. If only I had a chance to be with her once more, an hour or a second would be fine.
I would always remember Mama as someone who cared greatly for us. Even in her last few weeks, when she was already confined in the hospital, she worried if we’re okay or not.
I learned a lot during those challenging times. I learned to be more disciplined, more responsible, and more loving. I learned that in times when the tunnel becomes too dark and hope becomes just wishful thinking, there is nothing and no one I could turn to except God.
A lot of who I am came from Mama. My siblings were right all along: I am truly Mama’s eyes and ears; I am truly my Mama’s boy. It was her love that carried me through and sustained me all those years.
I may have become a teacher, a brother, a friend, but I would never forget that my first role in life had always been her son.
I still miss how she looks, how her voice sounds on the phone, how she smells every time I kiss her cheeks. I miss coming home knowing that everything is okay because Mama is there. Every time I think of her or see her photos, tears would well up in my eyes. It is Mama whom I love the most. It was she who taught me everything I needed to know about loving. She had loved me more—more than anybody else did in my life.
There is no substitute for a mother’s love. Her care, patience and love would forever linger in my heart. Her guidance and the sacrifices she made for us would always be treasured. Her thoughtfulness and compassion would be forever remembered.
When I was a grade school kid struggling to learn how to write, I told myself that someday, I would write something really nice about Mama. This may not be the one I had in mind back then, but this one is for her.
My heart would always be filled with so much gratitude that I have truly been, and would always be my Mama’s boy.
Joey Balatayo, 29, is a speech and journalism professor at Capiz State University-Main Campus in Roxas City.