LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 16, 2020 - 12:00am

It has been said that a mother’s hands shape the world. From cradle to college and even long afterward, a mother nags, laughs, cries, and goads you to be not just what you are but what you can be.

“Your mother belongs to the old school,” my father would say when we are baffled by her actions. She barks orders like a platoon sergeant, telling us children to fold our blankets, flatten our bed sheets, and not to leave our dirty clothes on the floor like molten snake’s skin.

She also orders us to arrange our books, dust the windows, and sweep the star-apple leaves in the yard now that the house maid has gone back to her hometown to join the fiesta and the baile (dance).

My mother is a worrisome woman who hates villains in soap operas, tends to her orchids as if they are diamonds, and plays well on our upright piano, which our father bought for her after they were married. My father bought the piano from the priest at Saint Michael’s Church in Basa Air Base, Pampanga, who was buying a new piano for the church.

My mother came from a musical family in Oas, Albay, and she required us to study the piano under her tutelage. I remember the many summers of my childhood days when I would rather fly a kite than play the piano, but in our time, children were obedient and so I just played the piano as expected. And when she has time, my mother would sit in front of the piano and play beautifully, her fingers running on the keys like swift spider’s legs.

Her warts of worry multiplied, though, when we all grew up to be lanky teen-agers. She thought it was a bad reflection on her, a Home Economics major who teaches Music in school. She requires us to eat, and eat a lot. Since I am a rebel and always do the opposite of what my elders tell me to do, I ate less and less. She is a good cook, all right, but sometimes, I would rather just sleep, or read, or watch television.

Her exercise of motherhood is simple but not simplistic. She sticks to the essentials: study well, do not quarrel with each other, learn the house work, and keep away from bad company in the neighborhood and in school. Moreover, she told us to look both ways when crossing the street, do not poke fun at the disabled, and attend Sunday mass.

Of course, she has her weak moments: she will frown when my father comes home late from work, she will frown when we come home late from school, and she will frown some more when the house maid takes hours to return from the market.

And she also talks a lot. I guess this happens, by reflex, from being a teacher. But I guess all these have made her more real, more human, and more alive for us.

We sometimes have our skirmishes. Being the eldest, I’ve been told to take care of my younger siblings until those words have clogged inside my ears like wax. Like most Filipinos, we are a tightly knit group. But sometimes, I just want to climb the roof of our house and stay there, under the aratiles trees filled with their tiny, red fruits.

Sometimes I feel smothered, lost in the confusion of voices and faces and movements in the house. Sometimes, I just want a space where my spiky elbows can move about without hitting anyone. I just want to be alone, and not bothered by any one.

But when I get sick, my mother becomes a mother again. No more drama from my part about wanting some space and distance. My mother’s blurred outline becomes sharp once more, clear and full in my mind.

When my tonsils swell, like a fatal fever in my throat, she will rush to the room I share with my brother. She will bring with her standard paraphernalia: blanket, rubbing alcohol, antibiotics, thermometer, and a glassful of lukewarm calamansi juice that she herself squeezed and prepared.

She begins the ritual, naturally, with her scolding me for taking cold soft drinks, for letting sweat dry on my back. But after this, she settles back beside my bed, takes my temperature, shakes her head, pops a capsule into my mouth and washes it down with the lemony juice.

And then once again, I become the child, remembering the lullabies and the warm, gentle hands and not caring a bit if I am called, uh, a Mama’s boy.

*      *      *

I went to the University of Stirling in Scotland to take my M.Phil in Publishing Studies in 1990, which focused on editing, book production, and publications management. After my graduate degree, I immediately returned to the Philippines. I had an offer to take up my PhD at American universities, but I returned to be with my parents, who were both growing old, and my sister, Jenny, who has Down Syndrome.

A decade later, I was taking PhD subjects at Rutgers University on a Fulbright Scholarship, and just as quickly returned to the country after my studies. The call of serving the country and being with my family were too strong to be resisted.

My American supervisor was aghast: “You mean to tell me you are coming home, turning your back on a very promising academic and literary career in the United States, to take care of your parents and your sister?”

I met her level gaze and look at the blue eyes of Dr. Smith. Then I told her, “Yes, there is really no contest here.”

So I returned to the Philippines, taught English and Literature at Ateneo de Manila University, and was later appointed as the first director of the Office of Research and Publications at Ateneo. I  published my books of essays and poetry and wrote feature articles and columns for the Philippine press.

I was here when my parents became sick and frail, going in and out of the Veterans Memorial Medical Center and the Philippine Heart Center. Before going to work as communications officer at the United Nations Development Programme in Makati, I would visit the hospital, and would do likewise, after my work in Makati. I would check on our caregiver, would double check the medicines, talk to the doctor, and hold my parents’ hands while they sank further unto ill health.

When my father died on Oct. 19, 2009, I was devastated. But when my mother followed him to the grave exactly a month later, dying quietly in her sleep, I was speechless for one whole day. I chose her white coffin and her cream-colored dress and the room for her wake at the funeral parlor. I emailed and called relatives and friends and did everything else that was needed to be done with clockwork efficiency, but only my mind was working.

But my heart, it had turned into a hole because everyone I loved was gone.

(Danton Remoto is the Head of School, English, and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia)

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