Chronicling Mama’s story
Saved in my phone gallery is a video clip that runs for a minute and eight seconds. These are 68 seconds seared in my brain, playing in an endless loop inside my head during sleepless nights.
In that video is my mother, singing and dancing along to The Monkees’ 1966 hit “I’m A Believer.” It was Mother’s Day, year 2020, and like any other occasion that year it was spent at home, in quarantine.
Four months later, my mother would take her final breath at this very home.
This year, I spent my first Mother’s Day as an unwilling member of a club of motherless daughters. Had I known that last year would be our last Mother’s Day together, could I have pressed the record button much longer? Surely, there was more to that day than 68 seconds. A minute longer and I could have captured on camera how happily she sipped her bubble tea. A few seconds more, I could have recorded her laughter, preserved by technology rather than just echoing in the cracks of my faulty memory.
In our family, cancer swiftly crossed from feared diagnosis to everyday reality. The biopsy results showed an abnormality in my mother’s cells, but it was a disease that permeated our household, suspending any semblance of certainty. Our language was colonized by this foreign invader. We feared the words “metastasis,” “malignant,” “terminal” even when we learned what they were, and more so when we understood what they meant for Mama.
I was terrified, and the only way I felt I could have control was to furiously record everything that was happening. I became the chronicler of my mother’s battle, carrying a thick black notebook with a spiral spine. At 5:05 p.m. on March 21, I wrote in small cursive, “Nurse Rowena started giving her a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs: epirubicin, fluorouracil, cyclophosphamide.” On April 11, “Mama wept to me as clumps of her hair began to fall.”
The meticulous journaling faded a few months in, when the cancer appeared to remain at bay. My phone camera this time became witness to how she enjoyed the chicken wings I cooked, to her transfixed eyes as she pored over another Neil Gaiman book, to her wide grin as she returned to her office after powering through six grueling chemo sessions.
The black notebook only made its return on my mother’s last few weeks. My paragraphs were much longer this time around, page after page of how she felt, spoke, responded. How long we held her. How hard we prayed.
I didn’t realize how much of a record-keeper my mother was, too, until my sister and I found a stash of journals dating back to the 1990s. She didn’t write at length as I did, but I can tell she wanted to memorialize. Nanay and Tatay arrived from San Pablo, she wrote after one of my late grandparents’ visits. On March 18, 1994, she scribbled the arrival of “JT.” Jhesset Thrina. It was her Mother’s Day.
Mama also left behind hundreds of photos, taken in the days of film cameras. Going through them, my sister and I felt like we were being introduced to another version of our mother: the woman long before we came, the beloved colleague, the beautiful daughter, the loving wife. In many of those photos, our uncanny resemblance shines through. I imagine it was me living her life, and her living what is now mine.
While I know my grief would eventually lead to acceptance, I still actively avoid embracing the reality of my loss. I shroud my thoughts and words in euphemism: She’s resting, or in a deep sleep, or on a journey somewhere where I cannot reach her. When I think of death, I do not think of her. When the word “dead” slips from my mouth, I bite my tongue hard, as if I had said something unforgivable and irreversible. I resolved that if words have power, then in my words, she would be full of life and love and laughter.
On nights when her last few days insistently plays behind my eyelids, I become overwhelmed with sadness that I did not try harder to record the better days, the days before cancer came. But I am still thankful for the trails my mother left behind: text messages telling me to take care on my commute to work, scribbled happy birthdays on books she gave me when I was younger, handwritten notes and audio messages telling me she loves me. There are so many stories of her kindness and warmth from her friends and people whose lives she touched, even some I’ve never met. I collect them like a marooned sailor on an island, gathering pieces of my wrecked ship. I hold them close and pray they point me home.
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Jhesset Thrina O. Enano, 27, is a journalist and a storyteller. She is the daughter of the beautiful Teresa Orioste Enano. She misses her Mama every day.
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