On August 4, 1937, a baby girl was born to a frail and ailing young mother in Baybay, a sleepy backwater town in the western coast of Leyte where less than five years later American and Japanese forces would wage a bloody, annihilating war. In July of the same year the famed female pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared mid-flight over the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate in San Francisco opened in May with fanfare, and closer to home in the same month of August the Japanese forces landed in China in a build-up to the Sino-Japanese war.
The baby girl, delivered by her paternal grandmother- Baybay’s favorite kamadrona or midwife- would later be named Flora. Why and who first thought of my mother’s name, I do not know, but as a child, I thought it was a special name as it recalls lush greenery, the comfort of gardens and the allure of tropical forests. Flora is foliage in my mind, a covering, a mysterious camouflage.
My mother’s birth year was also a milestone in Philippine history as it was in that year that the women’s suffrage movement succeeded in a plebiscite to turn their right into law. At least 90 percent or more than 440,000 out of 500,000 Filipino women voted for it, while 52,275 voted against in the plebiscite held on April 30. The year of my mother’s birth was a watershed, not only reflecting the stature of women at that time, but also informing their voice and political sensibility. It was a signpost that earned credit for the Philippines as being one of the first countries in the region that worked for female advancement.
When World War 2 broke out in 1941, and the fierce fighting climaxed in the Visayas in 1942 to 1944, my mother was five or six years old, perhaps already orphaned after her mother succumbed to an unknown illness. For a child of five or six years to live in desperate times, seeing bombs flattening your village, or subsisting in root crops, and later to survive, that child must have nerves of steel or at least the resourcefulness and spunk to prevail. My mother had vague memories of the war, but she remembered the urgency, the bombings, and the distress that can only be understood by those who lived through it. In some mysterious ways, our body’s cells must have encoded those death-defying and defining experiences.
My mother’s soft-spoken ways hid her true nature of quiet determination. I often saw it in her eyes, how they shifted, focused, or glance away betraying her steely resoluteness, decisions already made in her mind even when my father was still fumbling with his careful assessments. In their arguments on which options to take, my father would present and look at both sides, but it was my mother, nimble and razor-sharp in her calculations, who would win hands down, the card of aces falling out of her sleeve, catching my father unaware.
If my father was devoted and creative, my mother was a level extra. She was decisive, in-depth in her psychology probes, and often spot-on with her forecasts. Sometimes I thought she would have made a fantastic judge or a mathematician with an eye for applied science. At any rate, both of them I’m sure would have condemned the misogyny and fakery that are now the norm and trigger for easy applause in our current society.
As I think of my mother’s hour of birth, I also think of her hour of death. On January 4 this year she breathed her last, succumbing to late-diagnosed lung cancer. I watched her die for 45 days, kept watch at her bedside for 44 nights, missing just one night when I yielded to exhaustion, and not only of the physical kind. On December 25 last year, half-delirious and in constant pain, her body wracked with gut-wrenching coughs, she whispered that I sing. We shared the same pillow or at least the same part of the raised bed as I sang the most obvious, her head cradled in my right shoulder. The crickets of Baybay intermittently interrupted my version of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” My version was not only off-key but also a lullaby. She fell asleep, something that I dearly wished for that night since her coughs was the most tormented type, preventing her from getting a decent sleep even for a few hours.
Ten days later, in January was the second death of a loved one that I experienced up close in nearly five years. Nothing can prepare us for the death of a loved one. I rehearsed the most likely details of this goodbye in my mind, probably an attempt to dull the shock, but at the very moment of death, all preparations in my mind fell away like ash. What was left after the burning was that core of goodbye, interminable and deeply etched. Death sneaks its head, and we can only nod, our mind turned acquiescent and tongue-tied.
At the hour of her birth, my mother arrived at a world that could have already shaped her fortunes, defined her character, and limited her opportunities. Her birth year was at the cusp of rapid changes, including unfortunate global events that would sweep the world into the deadly disaster of war, into the void of human deceit and utter folly.
From the hour of her birth to her hour of death was eight decades. In that seemingly long sweep, compass or measurement of our moral lives, those 80-plus years can only mean a split-second, a flutter, hardly making a mark in our evolution. Our goals and motives are often in cross-hairs, with human judgment fallible. We now see a repeat of failed history, the talons of tyranny. Such is our destiny, our predicament.
Joel Vega works as an editor in Arhem in the Netherlands. His first book of poems “Drift” was published by the UST Publishing House last December.