An Ama Reverie: Revisited

An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen

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 decision that Ama’s wife, sons, daughter, who was my mother, and other relatives came up with. Needless to say, it was an extremely difficult decision to make. It was decided upon after Ama’s doctor told the family that at that point, my grandfather had no chance of recovery. After all, in those twenty-one days, he was never able to even open his eyes. This time, the stroke proved fatal. Most members of the family also thought that if they were in his shoes, he would have preferred dying in his home back in Dalican, Maguindanao than in a hospital far away from the place he was born.

In those twenty-one days at the ICU, my grandfather died three times. During those three times, the life support was still able to revive him. 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. That tank has witnessed plenty of deaths in its life; looking back at it now, how tragic it is that the only constant thing accompanying the patients in that ICU was that green-rusted tank. How ironic is it that the thing literally giving patients air to breath bore witness to countless more deaths than anybody in that ICU facility. In those twenty-one days, I only saw him once. I also never cried, or even felt the urge to cry. An oxygen tank was a better grandson than me.

That one time I saw him, I thought he looked like the cyborg from Teen Titans, with all the wires connected to his fingers, elbows, nose, mouth. He also had a translucent plastic tube inserted down his throat through what I assume is a long and wide cut covered only by plasters. My mother said that it helps get air into his lungs. I was still a little kid back then. As someone who engrossed himself in cartoons and toys, I never really felt the gravity of the situation. I could never fathom the pain he had to endure when the doctors intubated him. All the injections and bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around the bed, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to.

If only I could, I would ask him how he felt during those moments: was he still conscious? Did he know that he was far from home? Did he feel any pain? Did the anesthesia work well or did he still feel all the pain from the procedures the doctors did to him? If we had the opportunity to talk before he let out his last machine-induced breath, I would’ve asked whether it was worth it: his additional twenty-one days of only laying down motionless, eyes closed, with only strangers to accompany him.

Looking back, I wanted to slap my younger self across the face for not realizing that after the first death, my grandfather might not even remember him 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, I remember feeling sad. Sad, but not devastated. I even had fun during our stay at the hospital. I spent those twenty-one days watching anime in counterfeit compact disks I used to buy from Moro vendors across the hospital building. I would then go ahead and watch what I bought in a pink portable mini DVD player with a built-in screen. At that moment, I cared more about the lives of those hand-drawn characters than the life of my only then-living grandfather. In those twenty-one days, I only saw him once. It was by design. Call it children’s ignorance, but how I wish that I realized earlier that I ought to be standing there outside the ICU, fighting the battle that he was fighting, being there and him seeing me in a grand cosmic miracle that he wakes up, that I loved my grandfather this much to dedicate an essay to him. I was so very close, yet so emotionally far.

I remember nine cars in the convoy: the ambulance, our car, the other cars owned by our relatives. We arrived in Dalican, Maguindanao around five in the afternoon. Along the way, Ama’s oxygen tank was in a constant watch because when we were around Cabacan, the tank was awfully close to being empty. Dalican was still two and a half hours away; everyone seemed to draw their shared tense breaths from the depleted oxygen tank beside Ama. Drivers drove so fast that the cars seemed to fly. The ambulance ran at around 140-160 kilometers per hour, its siren blaring one moment and then gone the next. Mama did not stop crying for the rest of the trip. In desperation, we played verses in the Qur-an on repeat in our car, as if that would give the family, especially Ama enough air to breathe.

I also clearly remember enjoying the ride. That was the fastest one I had been, up until now. Before that afternoon, I just finished watching an anime about drifting and driving in the uphill mountain roads of Akina, Japan. This is just like Initial D, I thought. I felt the thrill, the speed, the exhilaration of experiencing what it’s like to be in the anime I watched. It felt like we were in a race. In retrospect, I want to scream at my former self 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.

Did he feel the speed? The thrill? Did his breathing get tougher, raspy, more elusive? Did he sense the anxiety and depressing atmosphere enveloping the convoy?

While inside the car, I never thought of what might happen in Dalican. I never even thought about what comes next if ever Ama gave up while we’re 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, Ama and I 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 and dirty every time I did. 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 belly of his got severely small in those twenty-one days.

Now, how I wish he had gotten better, even for a few more months, or even weeks. That way, his belly could grow bigger again and I would then be able to hug him for a longer time. 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, but also, I am uncertain whether my former self would have been able to appreciate that extra time, if granted by Allah and his ever-loving mercy. Children could be stupidly blissful and oblivious to the passage of life and time. For children, blind bliss starts off as a blessing that later becomes a curse that follows them around life: specters that menacingly haunt the hollows of retrospection and memory.

In the small amount of time that 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 child in me loved him because he was the only one whom I can ask Milo money from, but further than that, I was not sure. If only I knew how to handle things more professionally at that early an age, my last moments with him wouldn’t be as useless. Looking back, I didn’t deserve to be present in his burial. No dead man deserves somebody who took them for granted in their own burial.

According to my mother, Ama had always been her companion since she was a little kid. Ina, Ama’s wife, never really treated my mother with compassion, especially when she married my father. 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, contrary to Ina’s commands. She would play, mingle, and socialize, as kids often do, which, for Ina, was conduct unbecoming of a young girl. Thereafter, Ina 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 this, and neither did Ama. He resisted for and with my mother. He would take her to Cotabato, which was a two-hour journey back then just to let her escape the housework. My mother bonded with Ama the most out of the seven 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 he faked being sick, demanded to be checked at Davao Doctors Hospital, and forced his wife to come with him, just to make leeway for my parents’ wedding. The wedding was kept secret from my grandmother. Of course, after she discovered it, she fumed and disowned my mother.

My mother walked down the aisle alone, without her parents to walk her towards 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 loves, but he understood his role. His sacrifice was and will forever be unparalleled and beyond compare in my eyes, even if somebody force-fed me the best romantic movie featuring the most beautiful set of casts, with the most heart-wrenching and fulfilling plot to defeat all romantic plots ever thought of in the history of mankind. That sacrifice made my mother and father’s dream a reality. Without that sacrifice, I would have never been born.

He was also the one who coerced my mother’s six brothers and his relatives to chip in some money for my father’s dowry, to which they reluctantly agreed to. Until now, my parents’ wedding invitation, which Ama hid from my grandmother, is still in his most treasured, albeit beaten and decaying, leather 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, a significant time has already passed since his demise. I realized the immense impact Ama had in my parents’ lives. That moment, envy started to form in me; I also longed for that impact, for that bond. After hearing that story, I longed for a much deeper interaction with my deceased grandfather. It left a hole in me, 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, unregainable, unobtainable.

I long for his grandfatherly presence. In the future, it would be nice if he would be able to come to my wedding. Sadly, life took that opportunity away from me.

As a kid, I never enjoyed my time with Ama, and my most vivid memories of him were those I disliked. That changed when he got hit by his first stroke back in 2009. We brought him to Notre Dame Hospital in Cotabato, and we stayed there for fifteen days. Luckily, he wasn’t incapacitated by the sickness, but his memory got impaired.

Ever since then, he became extremely forgetful: we needed to introduce ourselves to him repeatedly whenever we meet. The only ones he could remember were his children and his wife. Around that time, he also lost track of his bowel movement. He cannot 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 got dragged on the floor by his own feet, which infuriated my grandmother. He would look my grandmother in the eyes, with tears in his: maybe from the guilt of not being able to control his own body? I will never know.

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 was infuriated and uttered painful words out of exasperation and spite. I wondered if he ever felt like speaking up, retaliating, or was it that he already felt numb from the uttered words that inflicted unimaginable pain. Or was it that the only thing that made him cry every time was seeing the woman he married, the first woman he can remember in bouts of confusion and failing memory, hurt him over and over again over something he cannot control?

Reflecting upon it, that type of treatment is unbecoming of a woman who had stayed in a marriage for so long. But at the end of the day, it was her who took care of him through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, despite the tedious job of cleaning after his waste, 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 wonder, how did their wedding go? Was it consensual or arranged? How did the courting go? 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 doesn’t want to talk about it. Every time a conversation had closely veered towards that subject, she had skillfully diverted it into another topic most of the time without fail, like how is a relative doing at 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 wish I could’ve asked Ama about it over  coffee. What if instead of taking his presence for granted, I asked him how it went? Were there hindrances? Oppositions? Was it like my mother and father’s wedding? What hardships did they encounter and overcome to be able to have seven children and stay married for as long as they lived?

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.

Back then a part of me tried to assess the impact of his life on mine with this stupid brain of mine, his relevance, and the emotional connection I’ve had with him, but I failed.

I remember faking.

I remember forced tears.

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

In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house in Dalican to pay their respects. They shared stories about how he helped them with their problems financially, emotionally, and in other aspects. Those stories that people told of him 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 onto 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’d experience from a grandfather ever. I took his presence for granted. I took the only grandfather I’ve 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 a ridiculously pointed mustache.

Before, my family visits his grave once a month, but due to life, college, post-graduate studies, and everything in between, I seldom have the opportunity to visit him. I usually bring nothing with me, except a bottle of water for when I get thirsty. Now that he is gone, I cannot bring him any gifts.

For now, this will have to do.