A Mother's Day 2019 Special: A Son Remembers His Late Mother & Talks About Managing The Pain Of Loss
My mother, Helen Torres Cu-Unjieng, passed away in 1996 at the relatively young age of 62, succumbing to a particular form of cancer of the ovarian wall.
I recently passed that age of 62, so I can’t help but feel a whole lot of regret and grief, and a twinge of irrational envy when I read posts of friends celebrating the 90th, and even 98th, birthday of their Mom or Dad—my Mom would only have been 85 this year.
There’s that "Why couldn’t that be my Mom?" that flits around my mind, and I start daydreaming about what that birthday party would be like, the conversations we’d still have, the pearls of wisdom she’d share with my boys and her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren.
My father left us some five years ago, and to be frank, he was the old-fashioned kind of family head who took it for granted that as pater familias, events and things would revolve around him, and not much effort on his part had to be expended.
My mom knew better, and she was the fabric, the glue, that kept the family together. She was the one who’d make it her business to know about the pettiest of things happening to any of her children, down to the grandchildren. And sure, as it was happening, you’d sometimes resent how nosy she was; but since she left, I can’t help but miss her pakialamera disposition.
There was the public persona that my mom provided her friends and the circle who knew of her. She was close to fashion designer Auggie Cordero, who considered her one of his real-life muses. There were afternoons that I’d accompany her to Auggie’s Ermita atelier, where they’d spend hours talking about French films they had on Betamax and had lent to each other, or just gossip and laugh about events and people they knew. Her fashion sense had a nonchalance about it: looking more natural, than studied or curated.
But the Helen I knew was the mother who carried that same veneer of nonchalance to parenting. More than sitting us down and imparting weighty lessons or dictums, her style was more about teasing you, and poking fun at the things we had embarked on when she sensed a different approach would serve us better.
And she was never far from a rap to the knuckles or even a slap to the face when she felt you had truly transgressed, or offended her sensibility. Even if at times she may have seemed distracted or caught up with her friends and socializing, we should never doubt her devotion to us and that her heart was in the right place, and we should reciprocate.
And here’s the kicker, she was a "tomboy" at heart. She was the one who taught me how to play basketball, golf, and badminton; sports she excelled in in her own way.
In basketball, she had a mean back to the basket flip that I just had to learn, opening to me the world of "pektos" or "english." With golf, it was all about Form. For her, if you had a nice, fluid, camera-ready swing, then everything else would follow. And she hated the sun, playing with surgical tape all over her face, so that it looked like The Mummy had been let loose on the course.
At badminton, she was a Mixed Doubles Champion at the Polo Club even in her 40s and playing with her was not some gentle instructional. Her method was to get you running left to right and back to front, until your tongue was hanging out. For her, that was lesson learned, and you’d try harder the next time. I asked her once how she’d do those angled drop shots from the back of the court, and all she gave me was a Cheshire smile that said, "Galing that shot, right?"
If there’s something I’ll always regret, it would be how my boys don’t really have any memories of their Lola.
My eldest was five when she left us, and while he has some stray memories, I’m sure they’re partly reenforced by his older cousins, or triggered by stories we tell him about the two of them. My second son was just two when my mom died, and my youngest was born in 1999. We all talk about how different the love of a Lola can be, and it’s unfortunate that this isn’t something they experienced first hand (their maternal grandmother also passed away in 1996).
People like to say that time heals all wounds, and that the grief, the hurt, dissipates. But I don’t subscribe to that; what time does provide is better and more efficient ways of managing the pain of loss—but it’s still there.
If you liken it to a wound that’s now scabbed over; there are moments when something happens to you, it can be something really sad or even something of great joy, and the intensity of that moment acts like a scratching of the scab, and a fresh wound reappears—different from the first time the wound appeared, but still there to be felt. And it could be because you’re struck by the thought of what it would be like if your Mom was still alive, and you could share this vivid moment of happiness or sadness with her.
And I don’t deny myself the onset of these passing thoughts. For me, they’re part and parcel of how much my mom meant to me, and how she lives on in my memory banks. If the odd tear that starts to form in the corner of my eye is the price I pay for maintaining a closeness to my memories of her, then it’s a very small price to pay for all I owe her.
Even after the twenty-three years that have flit by, I treasure the fact that these feelings linger, and occur out of the blue.
Photographs courtesy of Philip Cu-Unjieng