THERE are stories about my mother that I may never know. That’s one of those things the greeting cards leave out. No matter how much you love someone, no matter how deeply bonded you are, it remains impossible to know everything there is to know about them. This is one of life’s essential mysteries.
There are, however, some stories I can tell you that will give you an idea of what she’s like. Perhaps you’re wondering why this Sunday Essay has taken such a personal turn when there are more newsworthy issues to explore. Kind reader, I ask for your indulgence. Tomorrow, International Women’s Day, is my mother’s birthday. It is also the birthday of the basketball legend and former senator Robert Jaworksi, a fact that my mother takes some pride in.
Her affinity with Jaworksi was such that in the eight years when his squad was one of two that dominated the Philippine Basketball Association, she always cheered for him. In a household full of Toyota Tamaraws, I was the lone Crispa Redmanizer fan. Rather than take my side and pretend to favor the team I rooted for, she taught me to stand my ground; to endure the teasing and get comfortable with being in the minority in a heated rivalry.
This became a recurring childhood theme. Don’t do something or take a position just because everyone else has done so. When I pleaded for something (a toy, usually, or a few more minutes of outdoor playtime after dusk) by saying that most of the other kids had been allowed, her standard response was, “If those other children ate shit, would you do the same?” To be fair, it sounded a lot less harsh in Cebuano. It was also a valuable early lesson about becoming true to yourself, no matter how unpopular your position was.
This came back to haunt her much later. Some of the opinions I expressed horrified certain of her church-going friends. They could not have known that I ran many column ideas by my parents. Where did they stand on divorce? Were they for or against the death penalty, and why? What were their views on legalizing abortion? Their more conservative friends perhaps did not know that one of the best gifts my parents had given me was a home environment where no question was taboo, where curiosity was often rewarded.
Once, while she waited for sleep to protect her on an operating table, my mother heard one of her doctors ask, “So that columnist in SunStar is your daughter?” Sleep arrived on the beat right after the doctor dismissively said, “She’s pro-choice, right?” and kept my mother from retorting. I would have loved to see her hear my mother’s answer to that.
Once I became a student of writing (first in high school and then as a newspaper worker), most of our relatives and family friends assumed it was my father’s influence. He was, after all, the literary one in the family, the one who recited long, complicated poems from memory; the one who told stories and never stopped exploring what made them work. They have half the story, at most.
In preschool, I struggled. The young teacher couldn’t pry more than a few words out of me. She found me uncommunicative. So my mother did the best thing she knew. Every morning before she left for work, she picked out a story from an American news magazine and told me to encircle every word I did not know. And every night after work, before taking some time for herself, she sat beside me, put her arm around my shoulders, and helped me look up in a dictionary every word from that day’s story that I did not know. By the time I applied for a place in a private high school at age 12, I was reading at the level of a Canadian college junior. At least that’s what the admissions officer said. My father told that story for weeks.
What I write does not always work. I often do not tell a story well. But when I do, when voice and language and intention fall into place, it is not just my father’s pride that I remember. It is my mother’s love and attention and hope that I feel. I hope to do her story justice one day.