Qwertyman for Monday, May 1, 2023
Pardon me if my column this week is a bit personal, because its subject is my mother Emilia, who will turn 95 next week, against all odds and through the grace of the One she prays to every night and every morning, and in the loving embrace of her five children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In this age of murderous Covid, rampant cancers, devastating disasters, and political turmoil, to reach 95 is extraordinary. To be 95 and be reasonably healthy, free of dementia (but for a few memory lapses that even I at 69 am prone to), able to walk a few hundred meters for her daily exercise, read without glasses, and comment tartly on the day’s political and entertainment news is almost superhuman.
Like today’s children, my mom Emy can’t be removed from her iPhone and her iPad; she loves to play word games, beats my wife Beng at Scrabble, devours Netflix by the series, and has her telenovela programming graven in stone. She has daily Facetime audiences with our daughter Demi in California and my sister Elaine in Toronto. She even gave up her US green card to spend, she says, the rest of her time at home. In her “Tuesday Circle” of elderly friends, she is now the most senior, but hardly the most infirm. Best of all, she looks forward to reading my books and columns, and although I suspect that they sometimes bewilder her as much as they do my other readers, she invariably likes them because they were written by her first-born, who cannot possibly write anything badly. (This week’s surprise column, I think, will be a hit with her.)
A quarter-century ago, shortly after my father Jose Sr. died, we thought we were going to lose her as well. That’s what they say often happens—one dies, and then the other follows, in the utmost expression of devotion and sympathy. Emy was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so serious and advanced that we felt we were gathering at her deathbed, her sheets spotted with the blood she was coughing up. I had never seen her so frail and so helpless. She was missing my father terribly, and I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded leaving us to join him at that moment.
Theirs had been a storybook, whirlwind romance. She was the youngest daughter of a landowner in Romblon, the only one in their brood of twelve whom her father had trusted to study and go to college in UP in Manila. She was her father Cosme’s pet, a girl who rode horses on his farm and who accompanied him when he took a boat to the big city to off-load his copra harvest and to buy necessities and a few baubles for his large family. It must have pained him when she decided to finish her high school in Manila (“I was walking on Padre Faura and saw UP High, and so I went in to see how I could study there,” she says) and to stay there so she could study to become a teacher.
My father Joe was the brightest boy in his school and, so the local legend goes, in the whole province. He was an eloquent writer and speaker and cut a dashing figure. The only problem was, his family was poor—his grandfather had been a sharecropper, his father a farmer. His parents had separated shortly after he was conceived—another story that deserves a telling of its own—and lived about a kilometer apart for the rest of their lives. Raised by my grandmother Crispina, Joe seemed destined for great things far beyond Romblon. He already had a girlfriend, among the town’s prettiest bachelorettes (I met her once when I was a boy, unaware of why she was looking at me a certain way.)
One day Emy and Joe met at the pier in Manila waiting for other people and other things. Some sparks must have flown, because not long after, they were together and engaged to be married. I was the first outcome of that improbable union, born in a nipa house in Alcantara, Romblon, pulled out of my mother by a midwife (whom I would meet about twenty years later, walking barefoot on the asphalt road, and whom I would rather awkwardly gift with a pack of Marlboros in token thanks for my delivery).
The decades following would be a mixture of toil and triumph, of struggle and hope. Both my parents had enrolled in law school, but the need to sustain us foiled that dream. Joe had even gone to the police academy, in the class of James Barbers. He clerked for Public Works, became a Motor Vehicles Office agent with a shiny badge, and took on all kinds of jobs to support us. My mother Emy, despite her pride as a UP Education graduate, soldiered on beside him and sold stamps as a postal clerk. We went through some very rough times, constantly moving around the city with all our worldly possessions on the back of a truck in search of more affordable lodgings. Sometimes my father would be gone for long periods, working as far away as Mindanao to be able to send us some money.
But one thing they always held up for us was the value of education. My parents slaved and my siblings sacrificed so I could go to a private school, thinking like most Filipinos of their generation that a facility in English would be my ticket to success. It was a huge relief for all (and a good excuse to buy our first TV) when I got a full scholarship to the PSHS. So it must have felt like a stab in my mother’s heart when I announced, shortly after entering UP on the swell of activism, that not only was I not going to be a scientist (my Math grades were miserable) but that I was also dropping out of college to find work (which I did at 18, to write for the Philippines Herald). Despite everything, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and gamble on my talent.
But I did come to my senses and many years later returned to school, where I remain to this day, with a lofty title my wife Beng prefers to downplay to “Chauffeur Emeritus.” Instead of following Joe to his grave, my mom Emy fought back, miraculously recovered, traveled the world, and cradled her great-grandchildren. So good things do happen to those who persevere and survive, for as long as we’re willing to give life another chance.
I honestly don’t think I’ll reach 95 myself, but I have the privilege—and the challenge—of living with someone to inspire me every day. Happy 95th, with all our love, Nanay!