An Ama Reverie

By An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen
Essay

After staying for twenty-one days at Davao Doctor’s Hospital, it was time for Ama’s life support to be unplugged. It was a family decision, which was decided upon after Ama’s doctor told the whole family that, at that point, he had no chance of recovery. After all, in those twenty-one days, he never even opened his eyes. That time, the stroke proved fatal. Most members of the family also thought that if they were in his shoes, they would have preferred dying in his home back at Dalican in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, than in a hospital far away from his birthplace. By removing and unplugging every machine hooked up to his body, they spared him of further suffering. They thought it better to let him rest in his home.

In those twenty-one days at the ICU, my grandfather died three times. During those three times, the life support had been able to revive him, giving us enough time to bring him home. He was brain-dead, but his heart kept on pumping, his lungs begging for air from the dull, rusted green oxygen tank beside his bed. “Sundalo talaga siya,” some relatives concluded. “Lumalaban pa rin.”

I only saw him once in those twenty-one days. I also never cried, or even felt the urge to cry. I was still ten then. And it has been nine years since his death.

That lone time I saw him, I thought he looked cool, like the cyborg from Teen Titans, with plenty of wires connected to his fingers, elbows, nose, and mouth. He also had a translucent plastic tube inserted down his throat through what I assume was a long and wide cut covered only by plasters. My mother said that it was helping get air into his lungs, but back then, I did not know how a person could ever need such a painfully large tube inserted down his throat. As a kid who drowned himself in cartoons and toys, I never really felt the gravity of the situation. Looking back at it now, as a kid I would’ve never been able to fathom the pain he had to endure when the doctors intubated and took care of him. All the injections, the bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to—everything that he suffered through seemed too alien a thought for me back then.

If only I could somehow talk to him now, I would ask him how the experience was, like at what point did he lose consciousness of his surroundings, or was he able to have visions of heaven and hell, like how some people claim to have a glimpse as their light dies out? I think it would be such a killer bonding moment. After all, I never bonded with my grandfather that much. If only that were to happen, I would’ve been able to ask him, before he drew his final breath, how it felt to have a grandchild like me.

Looking back, I wanted to slap my younger self across the face for not realizing that after his first death, after the life support revived him, my grandfather might not even remember anyone, anything, or even his self anymore. He might not remember the face of his children, his wife, how he lived his life. He was brain-dead after all.

At that moment, when my mother sat there crying outside the ICU, I remember feeling sad. Sad, but not devastated. I even had fun during our stay at the hospital. All I looked forward to during those days were going to the cafeteria at three in the afternoon to eat spaghetti and binignit, as well as buying compact disks and watching anime on my portable DVD player. I used to buy those counterfeit CDs at a bazaar fronting Davao Doctors Hospital. Never did the gravity of my remaining living grandfather’s death affected me or the fun I had in our stay there. At those moments, I cared more about my food and the lives of illustrated characters than the life of my grandfather. Call it a child’s ignorance, but how I wish I had realized earlier that I ought to be standing there outside the ICU waiting for the grand cosmic miracle of him waking up, winning the battle that he was fighting.

I was very close, yet so emotionally far.

On our way home to Dalican, I remember nine cars in the convoy: the ambulance, our car, the other cars owned by our relatives. We arrived there at around five in the afternoon. Along the way, we had to constantly keep an eye on Ama’s oxygen tank because three hours into the travel, it came awfully close to being empty. Dalican was still two and a half hours away; everyone was on guard. This forced us to drive so fast that the cars seemed to fly. The ambulance ran at 140 to160 kilometers per hour. The convoy of cars followed behind. Mama never stopped crying for the rest of the trip. In desperation, we played verses in the Quran on repeat in our car, as if that would give my Ama some air he so desperately needed to breathe.

I also clearly remember enjoying the ride, which was the fastest one I had ever been in my whole life. Before that afternoon, I just finished watching an anime about drifting and driving in the uphill roads of Tokyo, Japan. This is just like Initial D, I thought. I felt the thrill, the speed, the exhilaration of experiencing what it was like to be in the anime I had watched. It felt like we were in a race. As I try to remember, I want to scream at my ten-year-old me for failing to realize that we were in a real race, not against other cars but against time, that we were skating on thin ice. I even remember loving the moments the car zoomed past strangers on motorcycles, vehicles, and pedestrians.

While inside the car, I never thought of what might happen in Dalican. I never even thought about what would come next if ever Ama gave up while we were still on the road, or if the tank ran out of oxygen. I never thought of losing someone important, or maybe at that moment, he wasn’t important to me. Looking back, maybe I just lacked the compassion for my grandfather, or maybe at some point, I never even cared; after all, like I mentioned earlier, Ama and I had never spent quality time together.

As a kid, I loathed his prickly mustache that stabbed me every time he kissed my forehead. I despised the times when he would ask for kisses. I hated the way he smelled; he smelled like a glass of warm milk, and I hated the smell of milk. Every time I asked him for five pesos to buy a sachet of Milo, he would intentionally give me four pesos and demanded a kiss on my forehead before he handed the last peso. “Kagyabu nengka bulingit’n,” he would usually tease, telling me to stop eating Milo with my fingers because I looked gross every time I did so. I also hated Ama’s big round eyes, which he used to scare children as a way of having fun. I cannot count the times I stopped playing and cried because of those eyes. Those eyes, they gave the scariest glares. But despite hating his mustache and his eyes, I liked his round belly. Every time he asked for a hug, I imagined that that was the sensation of hugging Barney the purple dinosaur.

That round belly of his got severely small in those twenty-one days.

Reflecting on it now, I wish he had gotten better. That way, his belly could’ve grown bigger again and I would’ve been able to hug him for much longer. That way we could’ve spent more time together. I could’ve spent afternoons with him just sitting, sipping coffee, listening to stories only he could tell. I could’ve spent more time with the only grandfather I had.

In the small amount of time that the people were preparing his corpse for the burial, I felt like I did not belong in the room, that I shouldn’t be there, that that space was exclusive for those who loved Ama truly. Back then, the past me loved him because he was the only one whom I could ask Milo money from, but further than that, I was not sure. If only I had known how to handle things more professionally at that early an age, my last moments with him would not have been as useless. Looking back, I didn’t deserve to be present in his burial. No dead man deserves somebody who takes him for granted in his own burial.

The day of his death in Dalican, the house bustled with stories about Ama and his bravery as a soldier, the way he treated relatives from the uplands of Maguindanao whenever they visited, along with other tales of his generosity. I remember an aunt telling stories of how he helped her and her family find lodging when they went to Mecca for pilgrimage. Another relative told stories of how Ama always had a jar of native coffee from Cotabato City at the ready whenever a relative came to borrow money, then offer him a cup alongside the money he lent, as well as stories of how he used to never ask for the money back, because of his faith in the innate good nature of his relatives. This only amplified my thoughts of not deserving to be in his burial. After all, all the stories I could tell of my moments with Ama were all filled of me being annoyed at his milk-like scent and his mustache.

Many of the most notable stories about Ama were the ones told by my mother of her times with him when she was still a little girl, as well as that one about my parents’ wedding. According to her, Ama had always been her companion since she was a little kid. Ama’s wife never really treated my mother with compassion. As a child, my mother was a hardheaded, strong boy in the body of a girl. She often disobeyed my grandmother and played with other boys her age. She would play swords, jolen, and hulog-piso with them and other games boys typically played. For my grandmother, this was unacceptable and unbecoming of a little girl, so she tried her hardest to keep my mother inside the house. She taught her how to knit and sew to take her time off playing. She taught her how to cook to keep my mother in the kitchen. My mother never enjoyed these, and neither did Ama. He resisted for and with my mother. He would take her to Cotabato City (which was a two-hour travel from Dalican back then) just to let her escape the housework. My mother bonded with Ama the most out of six other siblings because of that. That’s the reason why it broke my mother gravely when he died. Then I learned how Ama played a gargantuan role in my parents’ wedding in 1998.

My grandmother was headstrong in disagreeing with the wedding. She was not in favor of my father because of his low financial capability. What Ama did was that he faked being sick, demanded to be checked at Davao Doctors Hospital, and forced his wife to come with him, just to give my parents ample time to marry. The wedding was kept secret from my grandmother. Of course, after she later discovered what went down, she fumed and disowned my mother.

During my parents’ wedding, my mother walked down the aisle alone, without her parents to walk her toward the man she wanted to marry. She was accompanied by her eldest sibling, and he took the place of Ama in the wali, a tradition among Muslims where the father entrusts her daughter to the groom and goes into an agreement between two noble men. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, accompanying my mother down the aisle as well as entrusting his only daughter to the man she loved, but he understood his role and made a once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice to make my mother’s dream a reality. Until now, my parents’ wedding invitation, which Ama hid from my grandmother, is still in his most treasured attaché case, untouched and collecting dust. That was the only tangible thing he held or saw that had a direct relation to the wedding.

When my mother told me this story, I realized the immense impact Ama had in my parents’ lives. I also realized that what he did was one of the reasons why I came to be. If my father and mother had not married, I wouldn’t have been born.

In the future, it would have been nice if he would be able to come to my wedding. Sadly, my own ignorance took that opportunity away from me.

After hearing that story, the ten-year-old me slightly longed for a much deeper interaction with my deceased grandfather. It had left a hole in me, small at first, but gaping at present: a type of jealousy that could never be filled. The end of that story took a part of me that I know I could never regain. A part forever lost with his passing, irretrievable, unobtainable.

His first stroke happened back in 2007. We brought him to Notre Dame Hospital in Cotabato City, and we stayed there for fifteen days. Luckily, he wasn’t incapacitated by the sickness, but his memory was impaired. Since then, he became extremely forgetful: we needed to introduce ourselves to him repeatedly whenever we met. The only ones he could remember were his children and his wife. Around that time, he also lost track of his bowel movement. He could not feel the urge to go to the bathroom anymore. When he stood up or walked around, pee dripped from his shorts, and he constantly pooped in his pants. Sometimes his poop would be dragged on the floor by his own feet, which infuriated my grandmother. From then on, she started hitting Ama on the legs or buttocks with broomsticks and other long hard objects. He never retaliated. At times, Ama just grabbed the broomstick and held it right there in midair. He would look my grandmother in the eyes till she let go. Most of the time, tears just fell from his eyes.

I can never imagine how my grandmother felt like, seeing those eyes and those tears that just fell from them. I wonder if she ever felt pity after all those moments she inflicted pain upon Ama. I wondered if he ever felt like speaking up, retaliating, or was it that he was already numb of the searing pain of being hit in the legs and buttocks and the only thing that made him cry every time was seeing the woman he married, the first woman he could remember, hit him over and over?

Reflecting upon it, that type of treatment was unbecoming of a woman who had stayed in a marriage for over half of her life. But at the end of the day, it was she who took care of him through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, despite the tedious job of cleaning after his mess, and she continued doing so until his last days. She was there with us at the hospital, at the burial, at the grieving period. I am sure that inside of her, there was also a gaping hole that came with his passing. I now wonder about the way she showed her love for Ama. How did their wedding go? Was it consensual or arranged? How about the courting? Was there even any courting? I never heard of the story, nor could I find someone willing to tell me. I couldn’t ask my grandmother, for she didn’t want to talk about it. Every time a conversation had closely veered towards that subject, she would skillfully divert it into another topic without fail, like how a relative was doing in school or anything other than their marriage. In rare moments where the conversation had nowhere to go, she would tell us that she was not comfortable talking about it and that she would slap our mouths shut if we continued pressing. We would then laugh, and then she would laugh. It would be clear to us that they were jokes, but still, nobody dared to try because everyone was scared, especially if she were to become mad.

I know that only Ama could tell that story.

The devastating part is that at this point, I could only speculate.

In 2011, hypertension and stroke got the better of him yet again, which led us to Davao Doctor’s Hospital. He finally took his rest on April 23 at Dalican.

I vaguely remember that during his burial, a small part of the younger me tried to assess the impact of his life on mine, his relevance, and the emotional connection I’ve had with him, and I remember failing.

I remember faking tears.

It was hard to try and develop fake sympathy. I really tried, but at the end of the day, I could only muster as much.

In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house at Dalican to pay their respects; the stories I heard about him that day, like the one on my parents’ wedding, as well as tales of his unselfishness, made me see him in a better light. I also realized that it wasn’t that we lacked the bonding moments necessary for me to feel attached to him; it was just that I tried my hardest to reject those opportunities instead of grabbing them. I rejected the moments when I should’ve just given him the kisses he repeatedly asked for. I frowned at his prickly mustache and glaring eyes; I failed to see that those were the only prickly mustache and glaring eyes I would experience from a grandfather ever. I took the only grandfather I had for granted. Now I’ve forever lost the chance to feel an extraordinary kind of love from a grandfather in the form of giving four pesos, of asking for hugs and kisses, of being stabbed by ridiculously pointy mustache.

It’s funny how you can learn to love somebody just by the memories that you both could’ve shared, not with the underwhelming memories that existed between the both of you.

Could he ever forgive me for not valuing his presence? Could he still love me despite my reluctance towards spending time with him? Could he still remember me? Could he dare say that after everything, he still sees me as a grandson?

All of these questions inside my head will forever remain questions, for the one who could answer them is gone. But sometimes, there are moments when the questions you are dying to ask do not need answers. There are moments when not knowing the answer is beneficial, because it reminds you of your mistakes so that you could never make the same mistake twice.

Sometimes, on starless nights, I would raise my cigarette toward the sky out of loneliness to show him that I smoke. Even just in my imagination, I would like to be reprimanded by him just to try to remember how he spoke, how he got angry, how he used to tell other people stories about his high school and college years, his friends, his family, his role as the eldest among them siblings, during which I would sit somewhere and eavesdrop. If I had only known better, I could’ve been the one asking him those questions.

Nine years has passed, but I still couldn’t make myself go to Davao Doctors Hospital alone. I am afraid of seeing the all-too-familiar staircase just a few meters from the entrance to the ICU, the watchers’ area that I guess still weirdly smelled like a nail salon. I could still vividly remember the corridors that led to the cafeteria, or the elevators I couldn’t dare ride alone back then, even in broad daylight. The place where I used to buy DVDs is now replaced by a KFC stall. I cannot dare go up and pass by the room we occupied in those twenty-one days—Room 512. I am scared of that place, not because of rumored ghosts that walk by the corridors at night or the souls that ride the elevators with you when you are alone. I am scared of the memory that that place makes me remember every time, with no fail.

I am afraid of seeing my past self in the form of another kid, running around the halls, the elevators, walking around the reception area toward the exit, toward the DVD stalls while a grandparent of his fights for his life in the ICU. I am scared of passing by the ICU area and seeing the staircase where my mother and her siblings used to sit while waiting for updates. I am scared to see the space where I took off my shoes and wore a green lab gown that one time I entered the ICU. I am scared to see myself riding one of their elevators as I remember how I had fun in those twenty-one days. I am scared of the apathetic, ignorant ghost of a ten-year-old kid, and it kills me that until now, I cannot make myself go to that hospital to make peace with my regrets.

Passing by the cafeteria and ordering my usual 3 PM binignit and spaghetti still scares me. I am scared of the emergency room, the reception area, the entrance, the exit. I am afraid of remembering the routes I took as I walked around the vicinity. I know that eventually I need to face these fears, my ignorance, my apathetic view at that time. I know that someday, I need to muster the courage to be able to look at that child, running, walking, having fun, while his grandfather relied on machines to keep himself alive. It will be the first part to my catharsis. To remember is to kill myself and suffer the pain that I should’ve felt. To remember is to suffer under the “what-ifs.” To feel the pain is to think “I should’ve known better.”

Now my family visits his grave once a month. Since I started going to school at UP Mindanao, I can only visit him during my school breaks. I usually bring nothing with me, except a bottle of water if ever I get thirsty, and a sachet of Off lotion to keep mosquitos away. Now that he is gone, I cannot bring him any gifts.

For now, this will have to do.