Looking back at the life of an extraordinary woman I call Nanay Luming, my grandmother who had been our wellspring during the days our OFW parents worked abroad, I could not help but feel gratitude. For almost 32 years she had been a beacon of love and wisdom in my life- ready with a gentle smile or an upturned mouth when she was displeased. Even now, I still can not believe she’s no longer around- because usually the first thing I do when I get home and she greets me at the door is pagmano, a Filipino custom to show respect to elders.
Like most of the women of her generation, she was conservative and strait-laced. She raised us all to be respectful of others, to obey our parents and never talk back, to pray, and hear mass during Sundays. But she had a funny side too, she loved the attention we lavished her as she told her stories. Born in pre-war Philippines, she had lots of tales to tell, but mostly we get our guffaws from our parents’ and our own misadventures as kids which she told with such fondness.
She was very protective of her children and grandchildren, and would even rationalize or play down their mistakes and indiscretions. For some reason however, she was quite strict with me. In my mid-twenties she would still get mad at me if I came home late for dinner without prior notification; in the meantime, a teenage female cousin would get home at 3 AM without the slightest reprimand. She was generous with praise of everyone’s littlest achievements, yet she simply gave a curt nod when I told her of my many plans.
I did not think she knew, but she had a huge influence on my life’s trajectory. I was a half-hearted Nursing student who cared nothing more than making good marks, but as her 80’s approached and she became ill more often, I realized the value of what I was learning in school about health care. It was not unusual for me to be roused late at night or early morning, to check on her blood pressure and administer her medications. In a way, Nanay gave me a reason why I had to learn about the action of drugs for hypertension, understand the principles of nursing, or master the procedures of bedside care- she became the paradigm for all my patient interactions in the hospital.
During the culmination of our journey in nursing school, she was beside me as we walked up the stage beaming- my comrade and parent-figure in one, who had been with me and shared both hardships and triumphs.
She was heavily opposed to my plans of studying medicine in Iloilo or Manila, and once more that was a big factor for me to consider. She was happy when I finally enrolled in a medical school in Tacloban and I told her jokingly, “Nay, we better get you another new dress, because we’re going up the stage again.” From then on she would brag about me to her friends that soon she’ll have a doctor for a grandchild- which later resulted in ambush questions from relatives and friends about anything from body aches to laboratory interpretations. I had to remind Nanay that I still had a long way to go, but she’d just give me one of those mysterious, knowing smiles.
When she was diagnosed with Invasive Lobular Carcinoma, it struck fear in our hearts, especially after losing our mother and father not too long ago. The night the mass on her right breast started bleeding profusely, I knew it was something serious. Nanay was so calm and brave as we drove to the Emergency Room.
She looked so frail during those days. I reassured her I’ll be with her all throughout, and that we’d better start planning for her upcoming 86th birthday which she was looking forward to. I was in the Operating Room (OR) with Nanay as she was about to have her operation. Normally, she was the chatty one but on that day it was me who was stuttering nonsense and explaining trivial things about the OR, while she remained quiet. It is doubly hard when the patient you are attending to is someone you love- after the anesthesiologist intubated her it was as if my breathing was as forced as the mechanical respirator that gave breath to Nanay.
I always try to remember her during happier days, and for a woman in her eighties she had shown remarkable resilience battling breast cancer for more than three years. Back when the lump was still small, she refused a lumpectomy fearing that she would die on the table. But now the tumor had spread and a major surgery was what it took to remove it. During those nights I hardly slept, thinking a lot about what ifs- what if she agreed to the lumpectomy three years ago, if we opted not to removed the tumor, would that help prolong her life? Even during our final exams in medical school that same week, I kept thinking what else we could do.
There were a lot of us- her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who were with her during her final days in the hospital. During one of those sleepless nights, as we took turns watching over Nanay, making sure she was fed, bathed, provided with her many medications, and observing for signs of distress, I held her hand and told her it’s okay to let go if she could not keep on fighting. She raised us well, strong and resilient as she was. I held her hand- her skin was paper thin, almost translucent, her breathing was slow and labored. In many ways, I thought, Nanay had lived such a full and well-rounded life. Even during her last moments she passed away peacefully in the arms of her kin.
How does one say goodbye to the three persons who have been such a huge part of one’s life? Too bad Mama, Papa, and Nanay, you will not walk with me on my graduation, but I promise you I’ll endure all the hardships to see that all our hopes and dreams come true. Failure is not an option- and like you have always said, we’ve worked so hard to get to where we are.
Sometimes, as I’m walking home, I gaze at our house at a distance and I remember the many happy memories of our family together. I never once thought that we are alone, because every time I feel sunlight on my face, or the breeze caressing my cheek, or rain softly falling on my back, I know it is them telling me they love me.