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Shadows fall and I try |


Shadows fall and I try

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan - The Philippine Star
Shadows fall and I try
Whispered by the breeze: Elena G. D’Bayan, reimagined via Midjourney by IGAN D’BAYAN

To stumble upon an essay about grief techs, ghost bots and AI-recreating the “essence of the deceased” on the very day I was supposed to write an article about my mother, Elena — who passed away in October of 2021 — smacks of black humor. Nanay, if it was actually possible to get her response a la Black Mirror beyond this restrictive veil of existence, would find it weirdly funny. She was fun to talk to and to share jokes with, despite the hardships we encountered living in the Blumentritt apartment where the landlord was constantly throwing us out (rented a room to another family simultaneously with us still as occupants) or on Extremadura St., where Nanay found a small living space for us (beneath the stairs barely enough for a bed, a stove, a cabinet, a few stuffed toys, a poster of a young Isabel Rivas in denims to cover a dilapidated section of the wall).

Every day, I had three-fourths of a saucer of picadillo with rice that Nanay cooked. It’s the most delicious dish I’ve ever tasted. During better days, we had bottles of Coke and Magnolia ice cream. Nanay always told us things were bound to get better. All we needed to do was study and be good in Math or something. In my case, it was — well, I thought at that time — writing essays in English. I was the best in Nanay’s eyes, to the point where she got her last crumpled five one-hundred-peso bills from her fake leather wallet to buy me my first and only typewriter: a vintage Smith Corona. I still have it. I’ve lost a lot of stuff, moving from one rented space to another, but that machine will follow me to my final abode before my own inevitable season finale. It was the same spirit that spurred her to buy me my first guitar, which was a copy of a copy of a Lumanog. To reward Nanay’s belief in me, I played her the intro to Asin’s Cotabato song. You’d think she heard Slash.

Well, if your mom is not your most passionate cheerleader, then I’m so sorry for your lack of luck in the cosmic bowl.

I initially started this essay differently: about how unfair it is for dictators and drug lords to die peacefully in their gold-posted beds with the skin of baby seals as comfy bed sheets surrounded by their leprous-souled offspring with gold stashed somewhere, while my mother — who all her life lived honestly, authentically, and selflessly for her kids — spent her final days writhing in agony beside her caregiver and the most dramatic of her sons. Tell me again how karma works. Oh, how we scrambled to find a hospital that would admit her while COVID was raging, when another round of lockdowns was imposed, and most medical places were no longer admitting patients. (We would’ve failed in getting Nanay hospital care, if not for friends such as Dr. William Chua and Sari Ortiga, who helped out without hesitation.)

My mother was incommunicable right before she died. She was gone before we even realized it. The spark had left her eyes. She no longer had the capability of laughing at our dumbest, dirtiest of jokes, or saying something inappropriate. (Like absent-mindedly calling our landlord with a legendarily flat nose, “Mr. Bulaklak.”) The strong, uncomplaining, cheerful, always-humming-a-tune-like-in-an-Aaawitan Kita-special woman, who became a widow a lifetime ago in 1977, left us just when we needed her the most. We couldn’t be at her bedside. We were reduced to being in a Viber group staring at our matriarch’s last few breaths on our mobiles. Such was our misfortune during those days: our loved ones meeting the Maker while surrounded by family — but only virtually.

Not one of us in the family has been the same since. We’ve run out of tears through years of grieving, so I am choosing to conjure only good memories.

My brother Dennis recalls coming home for a vacation from his job in Singapore and calling our house in Malabon. Nanay answered and asked him where he was. My brother told her that he was in Cubao. Nanay was puzzled, demanding to know, “May Cubao ba sa Singapore?” Both of them laughed whenever that story was brought up.

My sister Jelly tells the story of a road trip to Batangas where, at a pit stop, my brother-in-law bought ears of corn from a roadside stall, relieved himself in the bushes, removed the corn husks, and proceeded to offer corncobs to the rest of the group. Jelly and Nanay adamantly refused, having witnessed the peeing-and-peeling incident. Another sister, Erlene (who was unaware of what happened), took up the offer and nibbled away. She nearly threw up when she found out. Jelly and Nanay rolled with laughter.

My brother Boy’s fondest memory is Nanay teaching him how to cook her signature salmon in onion, tomatoes and garlic dish, as well as her always being present in PTA meetings. For Pity, another brother, Nanay proudly got up on stage to pin his numerous medals in elementary and high school. My sister Ochie bonded with Nanay during stays in hotels and meals in restaurants. (Richmonde and TGI Friday’s in Eastwood were staples; they also called Max’s for deliveries.) They were always giggling about someone or something. Ochie’s daughter, Jennifer, was Nanay’s favorite: going on field trips with Jen to museums and zoos. Nanay even became friends with the moms of Jen’s classmates in noughties Malabon. They were a tightly knit, happy bunch.

Eventually Nanay would move to Bulacan with my sister, Pure. I wonder if Nanay’s friends found out about her passing. They’d be gutted.

My mother did not run a company or create anything. But what she built was my life, as well as the lives of all her children (biological and otherwise). Nanay was always there for us, through good times and mostly bad times. She was selfless and always felt she should give more, do more, be more. Ochie remembers, “Nangutang pa si Nanay sa doctor para lang maipagamot ako when I had meningitis as a kid.”

My mother was not well-educated. She couldn’t read well. Heck, she constantly murdered the English language. But she was the wisest person I have ever known. She was Yoda and Obi-Wan rolled into one (or sometimes Darth Maul whenever I’d come home drunk). “Yung sikreto ng pagluluto ng masarap,” she once told my brother Boy, “eh kailangan masaya ka.” That was Nanay’s philosophy, and it should be ours, too.

In this day and age, while we are all courting relevance, chasing riches and earning misery in the process, all I can remember is Nanay gazing at how her adobo or almondigas was turning out, with Cliff Richard’s Constantly playing in the background, thinking of her children someday becoming responsible adults successful in their own right.

The memory of Nanay haunts us constantly. It is all her. We are all hers. And we don’t need postmortem deepfakes to reconstruct that loving mother for us.

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