Nothing was more consoling than hearing the whirr of the stretcher’s wheels on the tiled floor as the stretcher approached our room. She dozed with eyes half-closed, letting out breaths to assure us that her sleep meant survival. Four lanky men lifted her body to place her on the hospital bed. It was easier to carry her after her dramatic weight loss. The skin on her limbs wrinkled like the ones on a dried calamansi. The nurse handed me a small transparent jar with my Mamang’s cut-out small intestine floating in the formalin solution. In front of me was a green wall, warm enough to shout of vitality and hope. Mamang’s desperate rhythms of air also seemed to say, ‘Nak, Mamang is okay. At times like this, it’s hard to say we could lose her anytime. Hard to say.
She had never been sickly before an intestinal obstruction. Papang thought her diligence slowed her down. She would take her meals at nine, two, and half-past eight. After dinnertime, she would head straight to the sink to wash the plates and glasses, wipe the dining table, and scrub its dark spots. Then at morning, we would find her at our sari-sari store. I’d often see her accommodate all kinds of customers: ladies her age back-chatting their neighbors, men asking for a beer before midday and promising to pay before dusk, and Ilonggo kids who do not know what snacks were good for them.
I was convinced she was too busy that she forgets herself at times. Mamang often complained about her ulcer. She brought a tiny White Flower menthol balm everywhere she went. I remembered how many times I would wake up at midnight by her footsteps. She paced around the kitchen and the lounge room. I could sense that she was trying hard to conceal her noise, but I could also imagine her eating snacks perhaps to bear the pain she had. Her favorite midnight snack is a biscuit so crunchy you could hear her teeth breaking it in two. Her spoon often hit her ceramic mug while she stirred her hot milk.
Despite all that, she was fit enough to have her belly cut open thrice. Mamang would cook vegetables. She cooked the best pinakbet. The slices might be of irregular sizes, but the okra and string beans were cooked to perfection. I may not have learned how to speak Ilocano, but she made sure we’d be known as one by the food we preferred to eat.
There was one dish of hers that I hated though: ampalaya with egg. She’d slice the ampalaya thickly, and wouldn’t bother soaking them in a bowl of water and salt. I’d much prefer them squeezed out of their green bitter juice, but Mamang disagreed. She said that that would remove the vegetable’s nutrients and anti-diabetes effects. She said I might as well eat eggs with garlic and onion, without the ampalaya.