Today is Mama’s birthday. I’ve written a few articles and blog posts (and one atrocious poem) about her over the years but each one always seems hollow or superfluous or just problematic in some way that I can’t quite pinpoint. So I try again and again. Here’s yet another attempt.
She’s the bravest and strongest person I know.
She climbed mountains and crossed rivers to provide basic healthcare to remote communities. She faced off with politicians, military men, communist and Muslim rebels, and run-of-the-mill bandits just to do her job.
She was my real-life example of feminism long before the concept became cool in college. She taught me about condoms and contraceptive pills when I was in grade school, long before the heated debates over the Reproductive Health bill.
I’m the daughter of a confident, determined and passionate woman but as a child, I often wished for a different mother.
She wasn’t a typical hands-on mom when I was growing up. She didn’t cook us breakfast or help me and my brother with homework. My dad did most of that. She was out in far-off villages vaccinating babies and caring for pregnant women.
I secretly resented her absence. I was jealous of other kids in school who had stay-at-home moms. I wanted a mother who was more like those in TV ads for Knorr beef cubes and Lady’s Choice mayonnaise, the kind who greets her kids after school with piping hot soup and a large bowl of macaroni salad. I came home to an empty house on most days.
One summer, when I was about nine years old, she brought me to her health center which took 13 river crossings to reach. I watched her vaccinate over a hundred babies in one day while also doing prenatal checkups, and attending to the aches and pains of the occasional septuagenarian who came by. The room was humid, crowded and smelled of sweaty underarms. I was restless and bored.
Years later, those summer trips to her workplace were my most vivid childhood memories with her. I didn’t have a TV ad kind of mom. I had a mother who worked hard for 25 years to make her corner of the world a better place.
My mother wasn’t there for breakfast and homework. But she made sure not to miss out on the big moments: birthdays, graduations, trips to the hospital, sending me off to college a thousand miles away from home, a long exchange of text messages at 3am during a bad episode of depression when I had an empty bottle of tequila and a kitchen knife by my side.
We don’t always have the smoothest relationship. She disagrees with a lot of my life choices, from my college major to my erratic jobs. She gets mad when I stay up late or when I pig out on potato chips and instant pancit canton. She thinks mountaineering is a silly, self-indulgent hobby with so many unnecessary risks.
Much like with the two of us, she also has a thorny relationship with her own mother. She ran away from home as a young girl because she didn’t want to be married off to some guy who owned a hectare of land and a carabao. She wanted more from life than to be a farmer’s wife.
The world wasn’t always kind to her. She fought her battles and earned her scars. Some are visible, such as the remnant of an incision on her abdomen when her uterus was removed due to a tumor, and the broken collarbone from a road accident that never fully healed. Other scars are buried deep: marks of betrayal, disappointment and the pains of a tenuous marriage.
She has a lot of emotional baggage, six decades’ worth of them. But she also has a big hearty laugh that often comes out while watching the cute antics of her two-year-old granddaughter. She cheers way too loudly and heckles way too harshly during a basketball game, as if the players can actually hear her through the TV screen. Life is tough and happiness is elusive but she takes her little joys and makes the most of them.
Some people say I’m like my mother in a lot of ways and I take that as the highest compliment. Yet there’s always that nagging feeling that I can never measure up to her. I can never be as fearless, as driven or as focused as her. But I’d like to think that whatever good thing I may have in me, I got from her. If only for that, I’m more than thankful to be her daughter.