I called her “Mommy.”
Biologically speaking, she was my grandmother. However, she might as well have been my second mother. Coming to New York from the Philippines during December of 1999, the year of my birth, she forever signed herself up for a job none can rival– as a mother, for the second time within her lifetime.
My mother had always called her “Mommy,” and I suppose it just stuck with my two older brothers and I. My biological mother was called “Mom,” and my grandma “Mommy.” Despite being confusing to others, it only made sense to us. After all, up until the age of six, before her first trip to the hospital, my grandmother was my Mommy, and so much more at that. She was the one who taught me how to read at a young age, the one who cleaned and cooked for me like a maid, and the one who comforted me when my mother was working night shifts as a registered nurse and my dad was picking her up from the hospital where she worked. At that time, Mommy was there more often than my actual mother, despite both of them being very loving parental figures.
Since Mom was a nurse, she always had an eye out for any possible health issue, especially for our aging grandmother. Foolishly, when she had remarked about her “yellow skin,” we all dismissed it, saying it was just paranoia. Mom had lost her father (who we called “Daddy”) to diabetes before I was born, so it was understandable. Little did we know that, back then, this presumed paranoia would be the first warning sign of something responsible for stealing the lives of many others: pancreatic cancer.
It was a disease that, more infamously, took the life of Steve Jobs, the mastermind behind Apple products, in 2011. It was an ailment that, like most cancers, did not have a definite cure. It was a monster that made my grandmother, who could never hurt anyone else, suffer for years. She endured, among many other things, being confined to a bed, a limited diet, and being shipped off from nursing home to hospital and back again like cargo. As time with this illness went by, it seemed less like she was a living person and more of a statistic. She was constantly watched by someone– a nurse, caregiver, doctor…she was an infant, all over again. This cancer was an abomination that took her away just weeks before Christmas, and still, even to this day, is taking away much more than that.
December 11, 2007. It was approximately eight years after Mommy had taken her first steps in New York. Still, I don’t believe she ever saw the sprawling metropolis told about in the media. She was content with our small home in a southern Brooklyn neighborhood, taking care of me. When she was unable to because of her illness, this saddened me greatly, but at that time, this feeling was for more selfish reasons. For her, however, it wasn’t the pain of cancer that saddened her most. It was being unable to be with us.
Cancer taunted us– sometimes showing signs of recovery, allowing her to come home and be with us, and smile as if she was immortal. Sometimes it took her away so suddenly, having an ambulance come to us in the dead of the night to place her somewhere I couldn’t go because I was too young. It dangled the hope of recovery in our eyes, just to take it away with sweet sadism. It made me think my nightly prayers were working, only to snatch away this thought at the cruelest of times. These prayers were said nightly, from all of us. Having Mommy home for Christmas in 2007 was the greatest gift I could ever get.
Naturally, I didn’t receive it. Although all my memories of December 11 aren’t entirely clear, there are still quite a few I can remember as if they had been imprinted in my mind. I can vaguely remember eating Wendy’s and going to a Queens Burlington for, according to my mom, “a dress and hat for Mommy.” I believe I had thought that this would mean that my wish had come true– she would be home for Christmas, and we would throw a party. The letter I had written her days before, asking her to come home, would be answered. I couldn’t be more wrong.
While all those memories are somewhat like faded pictures, there’s one that plays like a movie over and over. It was my mother, asking me, if I had three wishes, what they would be. Naively, not even noticing that my mother wasn’t asking this out of curiosity, I answered that I wanted “to win the lottery, go back to the Philippines, and for Mommy to get better.” I put Mommy last. To this day, I can’t believe I put Mommy last, when she always put me first. When she had always taken care of me, up until the point where she was physically unable to.
Later that night, in my bedroom, which is supposed to be a sanctuary, my mother finally delivered the news. She did a wonderful job at fighting back her tears.
“Mommy passed away today.”
In fact, her composure was so great that I initially thought she was joking. I chuckled nervously, telling her that it was a bad joke, that the news couldn’t be true. She couldn’t be gone. She had suffered for so long, and that would all go to waste. All that pain, from her and from us, would be for nothing. Still, it wasn’t a joke. Even then, I think my eight-year-old self knew it wasn’t some sick humor, and was just suffering from denial. My prayers were empty that night.
I didn’t cry, at first, even at the funeral. As everyone around me bawled their eyes out, especially my mother, I can remember feeling guilt. I remember trying my hardest to cry, but I didn’t. Tissue boxes lined the room in the funeral parlor, but I didn’t use any. Even when I had to see my mother, eyes red and puffy, surrounded by equally mournful companions, I couldn’t cry. It hurt like tiny needles piercing every bit of my mind and body, but the tears wouldn’t flow. Some people see not crying as a sign of strength– I viewed it as a sign of inhumanity.
The time where it really did come to me to cry was during Christmas, a mere few weeks later. There was nothing we could have done to bring the Christmas joy back that year. It was always Mommy that put the decorations up, it was her that did most of the cooking. She hadn’t been able to do this since she was diagnosed, but even then, there was always a glimmer of hope during the Christmases she spent bedridden. But now, the holiday was mutilated. There was no hope. My mother was disconsolate, the table wasn’t filled to the brim with aromatic food, and the house was devoid of decor. Our home, supposed to be comforting and warm, was cold and desolate. It was a graveyard.
Even in 2012, Christmas fails to be the same. The food is here, but we have never touched the pine tree that sits solemnly in our basement. The memory-filled decorations are gathering dust. Mommy’s room is used mainly for storage now, but there’s a section of it dedicated only to her. It was a shrine to her, containing her box of ashes, which, one day, will be spread around our grandfather’s grave in the Philippines. There are also assorted pictures of her, including the one we used for her wake. Prayer beads, and statuettes of biblical figures surround this picture. A rose received at the funeral, coated in nail polish for a feeble attempt to preserve its life, sits sadly on the box of ashes. A stuffed toy in the shape of a dancing flower, that used to dance and sing, does not perform anymore. It’s battery has long died with Mommy. Still, it sits on a shelf next to her ashes, since it was her favorite toy. It used to sing “You Are My Sunshine.” That song is never sung again in our family home.
The calendar is permanently changed. July 27, her birthday, isn’t a day to celebrate someone’s birth anymore. Mother’s Day includes candles and mourning. On December 11, we usually don’t bother to bring up the significance of the day. Still, we all know it, and walk around with a heavy ball in our hearts that nobody ever verbally acknowledges.
I have a constant dislike for hospitals, especially the one where I was born. It’s sickly laughable how the place where I breathed my first breath was the one where Mommy breathed her last. During the final year of Mommy’s battle with this disease, my mother was the director of the nursing home where she had spent most of her life when not in the hospital. That place was more than just a job for her, at that time, and Mommy was more than just “some patient.” Still, she had to maintain the professional, business-like worker she always was. I think it was during this time that I forever decided that I would never go into the medical field.
Mommy’s death has had an everlasting effect on all of us. While I, being the youngest, may have been the one within my immediate family to have known her for the least amount of years, this does not mean that she has had any less of an effect on my life. With her, I formed memories that would stick with me. One of the clearest happier memories that remain embedded in my mind was during a blackout when I was younger. It was my first, and I was terrified by the lack of light and electricity. She let me stay in her room for the entire day and night, and continuously comforted a shivering, sniveling smaller version of myself. Strangely enough, it was even mentioned at her funeral that her first name, Illuminada, resembles the word “illuminate.” Clearly, even outside of the literal sense of the blackout, Mommy has illuminated my life, and continues to do so today.
Giselle Garcia, Age 13, Grade 8, Mark Twain I.S. 239 for the Gifted and Talented, Silver Key