Short but Sweet
Jose Paolo S. dela Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - My mother was a woman of many names.

As the fifth in a farmer couple’s brood of nine in Nueva Ecija, she was known as “Ine.” As a Filipino, she was referred to in the census as Zenaida Sabino dela Cruz. As a petite office girl in Makati in the ‘80s, she was called “Sweet.”

Sweet had very fair skin and a beautiful face (not to mention effortless charisma) explaining why a lot of men in the workplace enjoyed calling her by that nickname. In the end, it was my dad, Jun, who took Sweet to the altar in 1983. And for almost 30 years, for richer or for poorer, for better or worse, he called her just that. As for my dad, he became the other “Sweet,” aptly knighted by no less than the original, his wife.

But to me and my sister Snow, Sweet was Mommy — our first love.

Mommy was a woman of many talents. Her cooking was excellent and the house sparkled whenever she cleaned it. Even clothes looked brand new whenever she took care of the laundry. The operative word though, is “when.” My mom hated house chores. The moment she could afford to farm out the chores, it was “Hasta la vista, baby.”

Growing up, I would often tease my mom in the vernacular. “Mom you’re so lazy! Our friends’ moms cook for them. You always just order!” And in haughty giggles she would always reply, “Anak, ang mommy hindi ginawa ng Diyos para magluto at maglaba. Nandito ako para kausapin ka, pagalitan ka, hingan ka ng pera pag nagtatrabaho ka na…”

And then she would laugh, like she’d got everything figured out.

My mother was also a woman of very little ambition — which was odd. Legend of her academic prowess as a student still lives on in her hometown to this day. Everyone thought that the girl, who was consistently on top of her class from the first grade onwards, would grow up to be someone significant.

As a young girl she dreamt of being a journalist or an ambassador. But life destined her to become a mother and a wife. At one point, I remember asking her, “Do you ever get bored? Doesn’t it frustrate you that you never made your childhood dreams come true?”

“Well, you’re a writer and your sister works for an embassy. You’re already making those dreams come true for me. That’s my achievement.” she said matter-of-factly, as if answering the most ridiculous question in the world. “Plus your dad already provides for everything. What woman would want to work if she could stay home and raise her family?” she would even add jokingly.

Roles soon found themselves reversed with the passing of time. The mother I looked up to as a little boy, became more of my baby as I turned into a man. The more I earned her confidence, the more I wanted her to depend on me. Aside from occasionally seeking the wisdom of her counsel, all I could think of was how to pamper her.

My sister and I became doting children. Nothing excited us more than her birthday (Dec. 22) or Mother’s Day, because it would give us an excuse to buy her flowers and gifts. Nothing pleased us more than putting a smile on her face. Nothing pleased her more than seeing us try.

My mother was also a woman of many fears. She was scared of criminals and rogue taxi drivers. She was scared of riding planes. She was even afraid of pressure cookers (meat in our home is slow-boiled for two to three hours.) Yet, she wasn’t afraid of death.

Upon learning that cancer had started to consume her a few years back, my mother, with daring that was unusual for her, decided to stare it in the face. Only my father was privy to the secret, and even he learned of it in the nick of time.

I always felt that everyone loved my mother a little too much. She was the favorite aunt, favorite sister, favorite neighbor. And one downside of being “too loved,” I guess, was that she owed too many people their peace of mind. And in light of this debt, my mom made the ultimate sacrifice. “Hindi dapat malaman ng mga bata,” she apparently told my dad in quiet tears. “Hindi dapat malaman ng mga kapatid ko, dahil malalaman ng mga bata. Hindi nila kaya, Sweet.”

In a secretive pact that only a husband and a wife could fully understand, my father conceded. All he could do, from that point on, was pray.

My mother was also firm in her decision to not undergo chemotherapy, or any operation. She was scared of losing her hair. She was scared of the medical bills. But the one thing that scared her the most, was her family being witness to it all. In the end, she thought it was best to spare us from a heartbreak we might never recover from. 

Instead of fighting for survival, my mother decided to live. She started sleeping in the room I shared with my sister about a year ago. We didn’t know why (or how we ended up agreeing to it) but all of a sudden, we were there, sleeping side by side every night. Only before the sun rose did she go back to their room to stay by my dad’s side. “Sinusulit niya na pala,” Dad would say, later on.

She also started going out more, bragging about how happy she had become to friends old and new. “Ang saya-saya ng mommy mo. Nakakainggit,” my aunts and my mom’s friends would always tell us.

And finally, on July 19, 2013, she left us. At 54, the most beautiful part of my life, the softest part of my heart was no more. With God as her strength and the promise of heaven in her heart, Sweet, Mommy, glided towards death valiantly.

She was beautiful even in the end, serene in her peach gown, a faint smile almost breaking from her slumbering face. Everyone who knew of her passing was surprised (even more so when they learned of the severity of her condition). Up to the last moment she was vibrant — thinner than before, but just as radiant. She was never in pain.

And for the first time, I began to understand the wisdom of her exit. I understood that fighting wasn’t her only option; that while her body may be doomed to succumb to sickness, the memories she made with us can always soar like doves. I understood that her joy could become the joy of those she left behind. These days, Mom’s happiness is the one achievement my sister, my dad and our entire family hold onto, when grief tries to conquer our hearts.

Short and sweet — and never bitter — that was how Mom lived and died in peace, staying true to her other nickname, Zen.


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