I lit a candle the shade of blue outside St. Peter Parish Church on Commonwealth Avenue. The blaring of horns and the sound of the engines of passing jeepneys and buses might as well have ruptured my eardrums, but I became oblivious to stimulus of any kind the minute I started praying. My prayer was simple, yet I could not bear the way it consumed me. I wanted to subdue the sobbing, even for only a moment, but I couldn’t. I could have attempted with a box of tissues until the tears ran dry, yet even if I succeeded, I knew the weeping would just get louder inside, almost insanely, each and every time.
There has not been a day in which I do not wish that I am just having another nightmare, another night in which I’d wake up with a stream of tears on my face. I have awakened from a couple of gruesome dreams and I expect to snap out of this one, too, at the soonest possible time. But as I lie beside her every night, and as her hair drops from her scalp, brows and nostrils after each treatment, I try to wake myself up from a different dream instead. That one dream I know I will never have to sleep to endure—the dream where she is healthy and well, and not afflicted with cancer.
“Invasive ductal carcinoma,” the doctor says. Thereupon, the thing people say about feeling your whole world crashing down becomes an understatement. No other pain hurts the way it does; no other pain becomes existent. Learning that a loved one has cancer traps you in a lunatic state of incredulity. Denial, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross would call it. Superseded by a seemingly irrevocable form of anger: Why her?
I lost my father at about the same age I kissed childhood goodbye, and Mama raised us by herself from then on. I was very fortunate at the time; my two younger brothers had to continue weaving memories of their own childhood for a few more significant years. When I cook, what an arduous task it is for me to emulate the way she does it, even with her supervision. I complain about not inheriting her gift. My first love is teaching, having been exposed to the field while tagging along with her to class when I was little. She is a mother, a father, a teacher, a cook, a laundress, a doctor, a nurse, a friend, an unwavering love machine—rolled into one. She is my heroine, and the warmth of her embrace marks my fortress.
I zap myself back to reality. Life will never be the same. Something has been remarkably altered just like that, in one day, in two fine needle aspiration biopsies on one of her breasts.
I never thought my mother would get sick, let alone of cancer, of all the sicknesses in the world. In the eyes of a child, parents are indestructible, invincible. I knew this day would come, though—the natural order of the universe demanding its due place in time—but never this soon. I was hoping for an illness related to old age, one that is probably degenerative in nature, for both of them, even if it means changing adult diapers every now and then.
My father never got to wear adult diapers or use a cane or a walker. Mama, on the other hand, still has a chance.
Family members and friends merged at once into one staunch, consoling squadron after we disseminated the unfortunate news. We were gravely shaken, yet my brothers and I fought hard and long not to cry in front of one another. I felt helpless and pathetic, being unemployed and having no savings whatsoever, yet truly grateful that I belong to the medical field. Relatives are supportive and we owe it to them big-time; however, these people have lives of their own, problems of their own. We wouldn’t want to burden anybody, but that is almost akin to denying my mother treatment. I could use a job—just anything there is to earn and raise funds, but I know this ordeal entails more than just amassing a gargantuan amount of cash for chemotherapy. My mother needs us. She needs me. I would not want anyone else to take care of her than myself, and I want to do it full-time.
God provides, as always. He does so in a lot of ways and He provides well. You may not recognize Him the first time, but when you do, you’d be awestruck the second it hits you.
I run to catch the next train bound for southern Manila. I have only been to Pasig a couple of times, including one in pursuit of a job application. Armed with elaborate instructions and a considerably reliable sense of direction, I found myself being handed the medicines needed for the next cycle. “I was told by Dr. Montales to give these to you,” the lady in her late 20s—I reckon an ICanServe Foundation volunteer—says with a genial smile.
Hundreds of people pile up at one of the gates of the Lung Center of the Philippines. It has only been a few minutes since the clock struck four, and there I was, already the 200th person to fall in line on this provoking Tuesday morning. People asking for financial assistance from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office—from dialysis to prosthesis, from hospitalization fees to chemotherapy drugs, among other things—gather under one roof.
Mama dons her wig for the first time. Strands of hair still cling to her scalp, but this time, counting them becomes an easy task. Holding the bag of supplies and medicines in one hand, I twist the doorknob of the chemotherapy room with the other. Her oncologist beams at the sight of us.
I could not imagine it happening: I am in a room full of fighters. All these IV fluids, all these reclining chairs, coddle only the bravest of souls.
There has not been a day in which I do not tremble in fear, not a day in which I could triumphantly suppress the incessant gush of tears from within me. One cannot hold fire in this kind of warfare, however; it is the kind that assaults to get even with the world. You have an assailant to vanquish and your faith is your greatest weapon. Faith that God always listens. Faith that this is only a test of faith. Faith that this is just another story of hope and survival you can share with an army of cancer warriors and their families one day.
You know it is.
Cancer can be fought and the battle can be won.
Cancer is ruthless, but so are we.
*Above article first published August 2012 on the Youngblood column of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
PDI August 25, 2012 issue