There’s this thing going around Facebook wherein you post your mother’s picture in your profile…
And indeed, Mother’s Day is just around the corner. Having said that, let me tell you a very detailed retelling of my most unforgettable Mother’s Day eight years ago…
It was a usual summer day for some when on May 9, 2003, I received the most paralyzing phone call in my entire life. I was a thirteen-year-old girl on her way to a summer theater workshop when my sister called me to go back and head straight to the University of Santo Tomas Hospital. I was told that our mother had finally said her final goodbye.
Rosario Dioquino Chiong, my mother, died of cancer at the young age of 56. From the day she was diagnosed, she fought her biggest battle in just the short span of three months. They say, a battle may be lost, but there’s still a war yet to come. But with the passing of Mama, my family realized that yes, she may have lost her battle with the Big C, but the so-called “war” that is “life,” she had already won many times over. She was a person who touched the goodness in people; a woman of courage and determination. When she found out that she had an aggressive form of cancer, she never questioned God nor did she give up. She chose to fight it till the end, and she kept that promise until her last heartbeat.
Rose, Baby Ruth, or simply Baby were names my mother was called by. Ironic as it may seem, her nickname doesn’t fit the person she had become. She was never a “baby” to anyone. All her life, she was dedicated to babying the people she met. She was a very selfless and valiant person, doing things not out of obligation or personal gain, but because she loved being herself. She found happiness in serving other people, putting their needs before hers. She was a caring friend, a generous sister, an obedient daughter, a loving wife to Papa Pete, but most of all, she was a great and loving mother to me and my three older sisters, Anne, Malou, and Patty. Her professional life was spent on endless balancing of numbers as she was an accountant, but her personal life was mostly spent, aside from being a mother to us, in baking. And yes, my love for sweets definitely has its roots in her culinary talents.
Her love for baking was like a nun’s pursuit of a “calling.” She attended every baking class she could have her hands on. Before the Yuletide Season, every year in our household, as early as September, would be the time for baking her famous fruitcakes. Even though her market was limited, mostly to really loyal customers, that didn’t stop Mama from doing what she loved. From my childhood days up to the last Christmas season she was able to celebrate with us, my nose didn’t become a stranger to the scent of freshly-baked pastries coming out from our kitchen. Mama even became a student of the person who started the famous Becky’s Kitchen. In fact, it was Becky’s Kitchen that became her inspiration in opening her very own bakeshop back in 2001, The Pastry Vault. It was a big leap for Mama because running a real bakeshop along Nakpil Street was a whole different thing compared to her then made-to-order homemade goodies. Unfortunately, we had to close the shop because the very location of it proved to be a favorite place of hold-uppers and other petty criminals.
As her youngest child, born after an 11-year age gap from my third older sister, Patty, I was the one who spent more time with Mama during her last 13 years. Two of my sisters were busy with medical school, while the other one followed in her and Papa’s footsteps in accountancy, passing the board exams as the 5th placer. I was busy being the taste-tester of her tempting sweet creations and a full-time student. My oldest memory of Mama with regards my schooling was in first grade. I called her on her office phone crying for help because I was scared that I might’ve forgotten the words of the “Our Father,” which she had helped me memorize the night before, and was supposed to recite in my Religion class on that day. Of course, loving mother that she was, she reassured me that everything would be okay. And indeed, she was right.
It has been eight years since and a lot has changed. I graduated from high school, earned a college degree, and started earning my own money — all with the help of my sisters and of course, Papa, when he was still alive. And just for a quick explanation, Papa followed Mama after four years of grieving and he also died of cancer. I was 17, but that’s a whole different story.
Mama’s “send-off” was a bittersweet occasion. My two older sisters, Anne and Malou, made sure that all her instructions were followed, from the all-white flowers surrounding her coffin to be made by her “suki” flower shop, to the catered dinner after every mass during her wake, the serving of her famous Pastry Vault pastries, and the overflowing food. However, my sisters chose to dress her up in cream and gold, a dress she wore at a family friend’s wedding, instead of the blue and silver number she chose because they deemed it more appropriate. Mama, they made sure, agreed with them on this because even when she was still alive, both of my sisters were her fashion consultants.
When she died, she was bloated because the fluids being pumped into her were rejected by her body. At the funeral parlor, my sisters Anne and Patty were being brave when they told the embalmer that they wanted to see everything that would be done to Mama. After all, they were both medical doctors — ergo, they both could handle the preparations. But seeing your very own mother being pumped with chemicals and her body and arms being wrapped in plastic sheets like a corset, so as to keep chemicals from seeping out of the many puncture sites on her body is excruciating. They had to thin her out a bit to make her fit into her dress. The trauma was beyond what they imagined because seeing our mother’s body like that, they knew that Mama was really gone.
At first, my sister Anne said that she felt very pressured because they couldn’t fix her wig and makeup properly. Mama stressed to her before that she wanted to be beautiful even in her last moments. So, my sister tried her best to instruct all the manongs and the make-up artist at the funeral house to make Mama beautiful — telling them to change her eyeshadow from violet to brown; to remove the pillow; and to fix her casket. Even so, Mama sort of had a frown on her face, so my sister made a joke to make her smile. She said, “Ma, smile! You look like someone we know!” And afterwards, although we don’t know how to explain it, an upward curve on her lips had been formed, and with that very beautiful smile and peaceful face was how Mama was seen by all.
Mama’s wake was a joyous occasion — in a different sense of course. There were a lot of visitors every night; after each evening mass, dinner was served for everybody. We felt blessed to be her children because all those who visited were one in saying that we really had a very special person for a mother. She was and will always be one-of-a-kind. We realized that she was able to help a lot of people, one way or another. Even the barbecue stand lady near her office was sad, and she said that it was as if she knew us because all Mama talked about with her was us. It was all so overwhelming, but in a good way.
May 11, Mother’s Day, was the third day of her wake. We made a poster for her with “Happy Mother’s Day, Mama” printed on it. We posted it on the wall and we told everyone who attended that they could write a little something for Mama there. Four cartolinas were filled up with notes for her.
On May 13, we brought Mama from Mt. Carmel in New Manila where the wake had been, to Malate Church for the requiem mass at one o’clock in the afternoon. It was celebrated by Father Kevin McHugh, our longtime family friend and Mama’s spiritual adviser during her sick days. The Gospel he chose was Proverbs 31 — the story of a valiant woman. Once again, the church was packed with people just like a weekday evening mass. We were really very surprised. Four eulogies were read: one from an officemate who’s also a long-time family friend, two more were from a close neighbor and a relative, and finally, from my sister Malou. After my sister’s turn, we showed a PowerPoint presentation that was filled with Mama’s pictures from her childhood days up to her last moment — a picture of her wearing my blue flowered bonnet because of her hair loss, while waving goodbye but still with a beautiful smile on her face. Gary Valenciano‘s “I Will Be Here” was the background music and many tears were shed by so many people, even those who did not personally know her.
At the Manila Memorial Park where the internment took place, the crowd was still big. Father Kevin said some prayers and then the choir from Malate Church sang “Love is the Answer” while her coffin was being lowered to her final resting place. Flowers were thrown and one of my sister’s flowers landed perfectly on Mama’s heart — a fitting tribute to a person whose life was always driven by her love for others. In fact, during the last days of her life, even if all of her organs were slowly failing, her heart remained strong — typical of the life she chose to live, measured by many lives she had touched with her heart.
Our “pabaon” for Mama included her wedding ring, her favorite pearl earrings and necklace, her red rosary which kept her sane during her painful three months, and letters from my father and me. In her right hand, we placed our 1994 Mother’s Day gift to her, a narrative of how much she meant to us, even though I was still very young when my sisters presented it to her many years ago.
But even if she’s physically gone, my mother proves to be still present in our midst, guiding each one of us and making us happy. One concrete example happened on the very first day of her wake at Mt. Carmel. The fact that we were able to have a slot in one of Mt. Carmel’s mortuary chapels was a miracle in itself because when my sister called the church on the day Mama died, Friday, they said that the chapels would be occupied until Saturday. We chose Mt. Carmel because it’s located in a very serene place, with ample parking space, and close to Mama’s workplace in Quezon City. We believe that Mama was still helping us out and I was a personal witness to that. Again, I was 13 and I had the biggest crush on a local matinee idol then. I always wished to see that celebrity in person, and guess what? He attended a wake in the room right next to us! I finally saw him in person and with that, I believed that that was Mama’s last way of making me happy while she was still in our reach. And the musings did not end there.
A few days after we got home, my sister was finally able to find the file of Mama, my eldest sister Anne, and Mama’s mother, Lola Daleng regarding their accident in Manaoag. It was because a relative told us during Mama’s wake that that accident also occurred on May 9 some years back. As a brief background, the three of them went to Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan for a day-long trip; they used our first brand new car and our loyal driver for more than two decades now was driving it. With them was a neighbor. On the way back to Manila, in Lingayen, Pangasinan, they met an accident. An owner-type jeep hit them on the left passenger side, where my sister was seated. In the middle was my lola and on the right side was Mama. Mama’s side was the one which fell heavily on the ditch. Passers-by were one in saying that nobody could’ve survived that accident. In fact, our insurance company declared our car a total wreck and replaced it with a brand new one. Thankfully, my sister suffered minor head bruises, while Mama surprisingly had no injuries when in fact she was the point of impact. However, my lola had serious injuries — she suffered a stroke then and had to be transported back to Manila from Dagupan via ambulance. When we checked Mama’s files at home after her funeral, we found out from the police report that that accident happened on May 9, 1993 at 2:00 PM. Mama died on May 9, 2003 at 1:10 PM.
It meant for us that that Our Lady of Manaoag granted Mama her second life way back in 1993. At the time of Mama’s illness in 2003, she was praying for another ten years. We all think that Mama Mary couldn’t extend her life anymore, as it was already extended ten years ago. Up to now, that story never fails to make the hairs of my back raise whenever I hear or remember it. Mama still continues to teach us one of the most important things in life and that’s faithful acceptance.
We all know that Mama is up there in Heaven, safe in the arms of our True Mother and Creator, and reunited with Papa. It still hurts a lot thinking that we’ll never smell her scent again nor hug her tight, but she did leave us with something to work on: to be the best she taught us to be, so we can join her there someday. We sent her back to Heaven with the promise that even if she’s physically gone, she’ll be forever in our hearts.
So I was thirteen when my mother died. But those thirteen years I had with her are the ones I consider as the luckiest years of my life.