The fog that began to form over the sea at sunset moved inland as soon as it was dark, inundating the beach like a rising tide. Its long fingers slithered across the land like pale snakes, scaled walls and fences, then cascaded like a silent waterfall upon the grass before my feet. Terrified, I ran; the fog gave chase. Now moved to surging by the wind, it knocked on my door, begging to be let in. It then seeped through the door, insinuated itself into my room, and broke against the ramparts of my bed like ocean waves.
It is evening in Bangui, and the lights in every house in the village across the bay began to be lit, one by one, flickering like fireflies. The fog of the years comes unbidden, in waves no breakwater can break, in ripples that once begun cannot be stopped. The past comes, shrouded in a mist of memories so thick that anyone nursing a notion to die could just dive right into it and drown. I hear the lugubrious lowing of a foghorn; I remember my mother.
When morning comes, the same string of lights will go out, one after the other, all along the shore. It must have been exactly like that for Nanay, as the lights in her mind started switching off, giving out one by one.
The long slide to the befogging of Nanay’s mind was a protracted twilight that tarried and dillydallied like a truant child for as long as it could. When it came time to go, the greater light of day — of logic and reason, of judgment and memory — gave way to the lesser light of night—of befuddlement, of groping around a room that’s brightly lit and you’re not even blind.
What must it have been like, this shuttering of the skylight of the mind? It was as if she had been contemplating her own image in a never-ending series of mirrors, as if she had lost her bearings in a labyrinth and couldn’t find her way out. Perhaps her living in America for a time may be likened to an episode in an odyssey of sorts, a journey that brought her to the Land of the Lotus-eaters, where she partook of an ensorcelled ambrosial flower which caused her to lose her memories.
But there were magic moments of grace, when, out of the blue, a sudden shaft of blinding sunlight broke through the lowering skies. One evening as I was feeding her, she looked at me intently and said: “Ammoka. Sika ni Boy nga anakko nga ay-ayatek unay!” (I know you. You are my son Boy, whom I love so much!)
I realized then that the lights of Love — that which is rumored to be stronger than death, to be more powerful than even cruel dementia — had been switched on in Nanay’s mind, tiny, varicolored harbor lights that blinked and guttered behind the shifting veils of fog and mist. Ineffable grief rose in my eyes and held, the tears seemingly undecided on what to do next, while elsewhere my heart just broke. But at last—how could I have avoided it?—my eyes overflowed with something briny which did not come from the sea, with something hot that burned like ice.
This was what it felt like for me, as I sat utterly helpless and desperate, as in a wake, watching the beautiful harbor lights die out in my mother’s mind. I was fogbound, unable to sail or navigate, unmoored but not moving. I was on dry land, yet I was drowning.
With all the faculties of my mind still intact, I simply cannot disremember that moment, when a door, by the amazing grace of God, opened wide, allowing me to hear Nanay affirm her love for me once more! She has been gone four years. I tried my best to forget her, over and over again, so assiduously I now remember her by rote.
The wonder of it all is that, even with all this fog swirling around me, I can still see Nanay, as clearly as if she were a red fish swimming in a clean, clear pool. I can still hear her luminous voice, flying over the waves like the seabirds that frequent Bangui Bay.
It is when it hurts that one learns. I am condemned to live with a clear mind, damned and doomed by the knowledge that I can never retrieve what I have lost — the one chance in all the time we were living together to tell Nanay I love her. In my younger years I was a fool, both for the things I did and did not do. This is one of those sins of omission for which I am sorry, every single day of my remaining life. Sometimes I hurt so much I can hardly bear it! And yet, what has this old fool learned?
Only this: that when I die, my first love, my mother, will be the last thing on my mind.
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Antonio Calipjo Go (email@example.com) is academic supervisor of Marian School of Quezon City.
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