When mothers go bald, children would start to think that there is something going on. I guess it is a spur for every child, or perhaps it is only a way of thrusting into my mind that I wouldn’t think differently; that the curious mind of a six-year-old would think of the bald boy in school whom she laughed at, and then she would look at her mother again. She would look at her twice, thrice, until there would only be her mother and the void. Finally, it would sink in that her mother is beautiful even without her crown of black hair, and that she need not wear a hat.
It all started with a slip. I hunkered down to my mother who was lying on the bathroom floor, naked. Her lips were pale and her eyes were half open. A little while ago, mama and I were bathing together in the bathroom. She lathed me with soap from head to my tiniest toenail until she could consider me clean. Clean, for her, was the immaculate whiteness of our bathroom tiles and the dustless walls and windowpanes inside. I flushed stark and dark against the bleached background, and was a disappointment in her sight. She rubbed my brown skin patiently until it reddened, and then she washed the soap and body dirt away.
“Maryosep! Kang kinsa man kang anak?” My mother just disowned me and continued complaining that if only my father listened to her and refrained from taking me every weekend to Cuaco beach, that according to her standards was a place no better than a garbage dump, her only child would have had fairer skin. In a fit of pique her rantings caused, I defended Papa and proved her how cool he was by telling her how he threw me from a dock into the water without my floaters on for me to learn how to swim. It provoked her more and made her address my father by his full name.
“Kani jud si Samuel Ruiz,” she paused to catch some air, “Bantay ra gyud na imong amahan pag uli niya.” She can threaten my father freely while he was still not home yet from work. Her fury flared as she ruthlessly scrubbed my knees. I tried to calm her down with the assurance that Papa always got my back and would never allow the sea to take me away. Her mouth kept on blabbering about the said matter as if she did not hear me or deem my excuses considerable. She stood up from a squat and lost her balance.
I thought she fell asleep. The sight of my mother lying against the white tiles disturbed me after long seconds passed. I felt the cold seeped into my soles as slow as the pace of panic. I called her name a few times and paused for a moment, then I screamed for help.
Mama went home after a night in the hospital. She waved at our snooping neighbors and gave them her warm smile to tell them that she was okay. Her other hand was clinging to Papa’s shoulder, hunching in on herself. When I saw them coming, I ran past the balcony without my slippers on and hugged her legs. I told her to never sleep inside the bathroom again because I have already set the banig and arranged the blanket and pillows. She laughed and remarked that I was a good girl. I should have bragged about it to my father but something had kept me from doing so. Perhaps it was her placid eyes or her sparse laughter. I could not pinpoint what seemed to bother her because both of my parents were discreet in telling and showing.
Unlike other married couples, Mama and Papa did not show their affection for each other in front of me. Before the three of us went to sleep after the lights were turned off, I could only hear a frail crisp, sweetest in its ephemerality. Where did it land every night? On the forehead, the cheek, or the lips? I had to make it up in my mind.
While they were not showy with their love, I also hadn’t seen them fight. Mama would just retreat into her library of recipe books while Papa would do the cooking and other household chores when he got home from work. There was only silence between them and I had to guess if it was a tired day from work, a normal day, or a quarrel with an absence of words.
Mama and Papa never fought until a wreckage of a Little Mermaid cake became a part of our world.
The familiar scent of newly baked bread and vanilla syrup wafted in the house. It never failed to wake me from an afternoon nap. I was in kindergarten back then when I would wake up to a table full of measuring cups and spoons, bags of flour, eggs and egg shells, baking powder, and baking tools. It was a wonderland, a playground in the kitchen, but it was a holy ground for mama. She would let me observe while she does her craft on the table until my itchy little hands would start to grab the cyclone whisk and mix the volcano of white flour and the lava of yolk inside the mixing bowl. When she returns from the oven area and catches her nosy child, she would hit my hand and shove it away.
Sometimes, Mama would let me touch the utensils and make my own cake. She would give me the leftover egg yolks, and I would experiment by mixing other leftovers with anything I could find inside the fridge. I was more of an experimental baker than her. One time, I blended ketchup and pepper with the yolk, beat the mixture with a fork, and prayed that it would turn into a fluffy chiffon cake after heating it inside the oven beside mother’s cake. I bragged that my cake would taste better than hers, and she shrugged me off with a smirk. The slyness followed with a lift of a shoulder and a wink which she was best at. “Apasa gyud ko,” her eyebrow raised irking me to keep up with her. Sometimes, Mama would not let me stay in the Baker’s World with her. She would tell me to leave the kitchen and would give me coloring activities and book assignments. But there was this instance when I got in her nerves.
She was doing the final touches, lettering the name of the birthday girl on the Little Mermaid-themed cake. She instructed me to refrain from moving while she thoroughly formed the cursive letters with calligraphic elegance. An hour later, the cake would be delivered to Mama’s bakery in Matina where the buyer would pick it up. How were Ariel and the kingdom of Atlantica put up? I wondered. I climbed up the chair to see a world under the sea and to marvel at the site of sea grass and superficial reefs. For a second, it made me feel like I was in my element, and every sway and swoon of waves made by her hands might move any moment. The frenzy made me flip my imaginary fins, or so I thought. I couldn’t recall how I accidentally moved the table and caused a seaquake. I could simply state that the cake fell into ruins but time slowed down. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played in my memory lane with all the grandiosity and finality of its rhythm, and there went the cake with all its thick icing of foams and a figurine of Ariel falling like an anchor against the density of water and the high notes hit by a soprano siren singing in my mind until it crashed against the red-waxed floor, helplessly distorted and dirtied.
When father arrived home from work that day, I hid from him. I remembered what Mama begged me to do a while ago. Mama and I both knew that father was too sensitive about disciplinary methods. He was welcomed by an empty living room. Mama went to the bathroom while I locked myself inside the family room. It was strange for him because I would usually greet him with a mano and a kiss. I knew that in a matter of minutes, he would soon find out about the bruises.
It’s just a cake. It’s just a piece of cake.
I overheard them, but I could not completely make out what they were saying. I did not bother to turn off the whirring electric fan beside me. It was one of the moments when I just stared blankly at the ceiling to empty my mind. Passivity when dealing with fresh pains, such as spacing out, had since become an agency. All I could see on the white space above me was the projection of the cake and its guts spilled on the floor.
I took a peek outside and saw Mama coming my way. She entered our room and I quickly composed myself. I started to say sorry to her, but she apologized first. She cried in silence. I did the same. When father taught me how to swim, I had been countlessly submerged in water, and the meekness of our cries equated to it. Under the water, everything seemed muted but as I immersed deeper, the pressure bemused me. Mama grabbed the large backpack that was for family outings and packed up her clothes. Little did I know that the disaster of the cake would trigger hurtful words from each other and push their relationship into a pitfall. Through time, I tried to unravel the undercurrents of the juncture and thought if the cake was an awaited excuse to voice out the lapses of the other. Finally, the cake broke the silence between them, but the supposed cathartic moment did not turn out well that it took one to leave the house.
“Nak, opaw na si Mama.”
She told me that she was already bald. I stared at her head, still carrying my school bag. I hadn’t seen her for weeks, and I was surprised to see her sitting on a chair in the balcony. She explained it to me, but I couldn’t understand the jargon so she simplified it.
It all started with a slip. Just a bathroom slip. Then a slipped disc. Then a disharmony of the infection-fighting white blood cells, the oxygen-transporting red blood cells, and the clot-impeding platelets in the bone marrow. Then a deterioration due to the abnormality of white blood cells.
Leukemia was a ghost as transparent as the white blood cells dominating my mother’s veins. She knew she was possessed by it, but father was late to know, and I never knew.
Mama hid her bruises too, but she was good at it unlike her daughter.
I recall hospital hopping and six-digit bills when I was in first grade. Despite this, my parents still enrolled me in a private school. They told me that my education was the only thing left worthy of their savings. But it was hard to study when coming home meant being welcomed by the sound of vomiting and the sight of back-patting.
Mama told us one time to stop taking her to the hospital, to stop the costly check-ups and the chemotherapy. “Pasagdihi nalang ko ninyo diri sa balay,” she once said. That was the night when our neighborhood took over the narrow street in the village to make space for the plastic tables, monoblock chairs, and a wave of mourners. Nong Mario, a freelance photographer in the city square turned baranggay kagawad, had died of lung cancer. The people in his wake had played cards all night long, and regaled on free food and Tanduay rum. It was festive.
My grandmother got angry at Mama for giving up easily, but what was there to give up in the first place? To my mother, once you have it and once it has taken over you, it would only be a matter of time to become faceless under a headstone. She knew that it was like dominoes lined up to topple over each block, one after the other― treat one part of the body and damage another part. It took me some time to realize that in those moments, she looked to her illness as an old pain and she was ready for the new one whatever it will be; that cancer was something one can get over with. The sad thing was that, to the family, “not giving up” meant prolonging the inevitable. Endlessly paying bills for medication that won’t really cure anything. It will only exhaust the person’s life and wallet.
I once thought how many more households were there with someone suffering from cancer. How many were made slaves of hospitals burgeoning a business out of helpless families who try to postpone the death of their love ones? Cancer haunts the country making it one of the top in ranking all over the world, and I could not help but think how my harrowing experience is just one of the millions, one of the thousands in my hometown. The battle against cancer exceeds our house. Tens of thousands are diagnosed every year and not even half of them survived. The phenomenon of the disease had spread all over the city and it has extinguished lights off the map and vanquished lives and dreams. From our room to other houses that cancer has perched on and loomed over, mirrors have been turned away to deny the face of hopelessness.
One day, I saw the bald boy in school. Maybe he noticed me staring at him because he tried to cover his head with his good morning towel. I passed by him and whispered an apology. It might not negate all the times I yelled “opaw siopao murag gidaro sa kabaw” whenever I chanced upon him in the hallways but I felt that I did something for my mother. Seeing my mother in pain made me mature to the extent of trying to see her suffering in other people’s suffering.
But sometimes people get tired.
One night, Papa told me to brush my teeth and go to sleep early. Papa and I settled on the banig in our room while Mama had foam under her mat. I told Papa that I would not brush my teeth because it was too tiring to get up. He asked again with a tone of finality, “Manoot-brush ka o mo layas?”
I chose the latter because I thought he was not serious. Then Papa dragged me outside the house. He later threw my toothbrush outside with me. I was six years old that time, and it was almost eleven in the evening. It was a moonless night and almost pitch black outside. I sat on the hammock beside the kaimito tree in our yard and swayed it to ward off some fears. I couldn’t even peer at my own hands in that night’s darkness, but it made me see a lot of things―the ethereal glow of the stars, the gleaming and glaring eyes of stray cats, face of the kapre living in the barren tree beside me, the crisscrossing pattern of the banig, and the greasy blue icing of the distorted cake on the floor.
The moon would be absent and the mind would be at work every time one closes her eyes before dosing off to sleep, or so I thought. The images I saw in the dark canceled out the enigma of nothingness, but they themselves were riddles. Besides them, a vision of little hairs growing from an expanse of barren land kept on recurring. I wanted to uncover the mystical machinery behind the flow of images and thoughts in my mind. Maybe this was so because people consoled me with physical solace and had spoken no words. The silence had triggered the gears of my mind to make up for it. I heard the screen door open that night after an hour or two. Papa hugged me and carried me back inside.
Many suns had risen since that night, and mother became paler. It was as if the mornings had taken away her glow each time. Things started to bother me and I got tired of it. I longed to have my mother back, my mother who was not possessed by cancer. The disease spread weariness that had been bottled up around the house until it became turmoil. The attention had all been taken by the cruel being inside my mother. I was too selfish to not understand that Mama needed her husband more than I needed him as a father. I didn’t know that Mama was about to die, or how heavy Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia weighed. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the ghost that time. I refrained from entering our room. Instead I only peered at Papa wiping Mama’s sweat with a wet towel from a basin and spoon-fed her breakfast through an open window.
The only times I could help alleviate her suffering were the brief silent ones when I helped unhook her bra before going to sleep because she could not anymore reach the middle part of her back. She would always say, “Nak, pakitanggal ko sa akong bra,” and then she would push herself hard to face the other side of the room so that I can remove it with ease. When we were all ready for bed, she would take a moment to ask me if she was still beautiful, “Nak, gwapa man gihapon si mama no?” Then I would only answer with a nod that she could feel through a slight movement of the blanket we share which I used to cover my face. Although she always attempted for a conversation, I constantly avoided it because I didn’t want to bring myself to tears in her presence. Everyone in the house seemed to treat her like I did throughout the days of her suffering and I regret that she had to bear with such silence. All of us seemed to fail at words confronted with the gloom the disease had brought. I cursed myself every time I remembered her last days. “Nak, ali ra gud diri nak. Sabak kay Mama nak.”
She pleaded me to sit on her lap one time when I got home from school. I was beside the door of the family room while Mama was bedridden. She pushed herself hard to sit up. I looked at her for a moment from head to toe, and then I ran away, confused. I guess it was a spur for every child, or maybe I was different from others in dealing with lows and climaxes. This had become the corollary of my hesitance to every response, and this mechanism of shunning away emotional peaks had been haunting me since then and has led me to a series of impasse. Little did I know that it was my last chance to have closure with her.
At the dawn of 17 February 2005, Mama fell into her deepest sleep. The mornings had completely exhausted her zest. It was a peaceful dawn, a silent one. Farewells and apologies were unsaid.
Since then, Mama never appeared in my dreams.
The road was hazy after a heavy rain as the taxi drove away from Sta. Ana wharf. My father and I were seated at the back listening to the Sunday radio. He leaned to the right window, and I, to the left. Don Mclean’s Vincent was playing when we were halfway home. A while ago, the two of us went wave gazing amidst a grinning storm and folds of boisterous thunders. Behind the sea wall, my father stood still facing the troubled waters despite its desperate attempts to grab us with its fingers of sprays. We surrendered ourselves to silence like we did almost all of the time since mama passed away.
In the cab, I wished that I could see a star out of the moist glass. I thought about the things I saw in the darkness. How they could be mere imaginings and how they could be real. How those stray cats must have felt threatened of my presence in a late hour. How the kapre living in the tree beside me must have been disturbed from his slumber due to the weight of the hammock and mine. How I seemed to miss the bed marks brought by the crisscrossing pattern of the banig that a mattress and a renovated house could not inflict. How that Little Mermaid cake could have been everything to mother at that moment. That in the time of labor and sweat, the mind would only driven by a practical goal. Her reason was often overshadowed by toil and tiredness, and I knew she did not mean to harm me.
In moments when I feel alone, I always filled the void with made-up dreams for in them I am away from the things that bear heavy in the memory. Although the past can be recreated through remembrances, it cannot be rewritten. Nothing can be done but to remember and accept. Don Mclean, with his soulful voice, sang starry, starry night and plunged me into thoughts and imaginings. In a space of make-believe that I allowed myself to have, I repeatedly told her that she was beautiful and eased myself that the world was not meant for her. It was a way of making up for the times that I was silent around her when she was still in pain and the absence that came after. The passing cars and flashing lights lulled me to sleep. The heavens hid the stars that night, though I saw a faint light in the sky.
Janne Ruiz graduated with a BA English (Creative Writing) degree from UP Mindanao.