Detours from home: Mothering my mother, the cancer survivor

[Editor’s note: Detours from home is a Rappler column where readers can share about the new things they have been doing while in quarantine. In this essay, a content marketer shares how one devastating event after another brought her family closer together. You, too, can share your own Detours from home story.]

It’s been 3 months, 17 days since my mother became a cancer survivor. It could be longer, depending on when you started counting. I began when I heard that dreaded stage number 4. 

Terri Clark once said that when someone has cancer, the whole family and everyone who loves them has it, too. It does seem to feel like that to some extent. This is not, however, a story about defeat but of strength and deeper connections. 

My mother flew to Manila from our province late in February. The plan was to get her treated here. We consulted with doctors, got her admitted to a hospital, had medical tests, changed her diet – all the bases were covered. We were in a state of urgency in getting this done, getting her treatment right, getting her to complete recovery. 

I’ve seen relatives and friends go through almost the same thing. I knew it was difficult and complicated but knowing is miles away from having to experience it yourself. Difficult and complicated doesn’t even begin to describe it. There’s no single checklist we could follow to cope with this. There’s no carefully laid out plan that will magically make cancer go away. There’s none. It’s messy and it’s emotional. 

And then the pandemic happened. 2020 is like a badly written novel. We haven’t even wrapped up the first ordeal yet and here comes another. 

Even without the government announcing quarantine protocols, we were already meticulous with our health and safety. We changed schedules and routines, improved our diet, and modified medical plans. Family roles were upgraded, too. From a daughter, sister, friend, marketing and creative professional, I am now all those plus a nurse and caregiver, a nutritionist, a fitness trainer, and sometimes, a faith healer. I have to put on different hats during different hours of the day. My favorite though is being a daughter. 

Since the pandemic, my body clock adapted to my mom’s. That means getting up at around 5 o’clock in the morning. We start the day early. My sister and I make sure she’s eating right and she's drinking her meds. I bug her to walk around and do a couple of exercise routines. We’ve also started a vertical garden at home. My mom personally loves gardening. That’s one of the things she misses from our home in the province where she has a lawn to walk around but she has to make do with the small veranda we have here in Manila. We end the day at around 9:00 in the evening with worship songs that rock her to sleep. 

If it were not because of cancer or COVID-19, my mother would have been in the province on this very day. Since entering college, the most that I’m able to spend with my parents is a two-week vacation whether I’m back home or they're here in Manila. It’s been months now and we still see each other everyday, still talk about silly things every chance we get, still spend time building an urban garden, still bond over shared meals. 

Sometimes she'd tell us random stories she remembers about home, her siblings, or even about the food we eat. On rare occasions, we'd talk about things which are more serious. We'd talk about dreams, my career and outlook in life, and politics. We'd talk all the time about anything that there was this one time when she turned to look at me and, even without words, I knew what she meant. 

In the most bizarre turnaround of circumstances, the same universe that gave us cancer and coronavirus, gave my family time to spend with each other – time that I never thought we needed. 

During particularly bad days before the pandemic, I remember telling myself I needed a hug – my mother's hug to be precise. But I couldn't. I'd have to spend a couple of thousand pesos and travel miles just to get that hug. Instead, I'd make do with calls and text messages, and I'd convince myself I'm a big girl now, that I'm a grown woman. That works too but I would never choose that over the actual physical connection and tangible interaction with my mom. 

These days, my mom prepares my merienda and reminds me to drink water when I'm caught up with work. She's there listening when I have to blow off steam, occasionally combing my hair even when I tell her not to because she'll ruin my curls. She still does that classic motherly way of teasing my fat thighs while bringing me food every now and then. And she tells me childhood stories while I imagine them in sepia. 

I'd go quiet, look distraught and she'd know what to do, what to say or not to say. As the bunso, I've always felt we have a deeper connection, different than what I have with other members of the family. It's only with her that I feel the kind of security and protection while wanting to protect her at the same time. I feel her care and learned to care for others as well. She's the one with cancer but she never forgets to take care of us. 

Suddenly I feel like a 12-year-old daughter again – dependent on a mother's love, seeking refuge on her touch, strengthened by her smile. 

She is comfort personified and she feels like home. 

The year started with a jolt, all of us in a constant state of panic, fear, and anxiety, and roles were reversed. With my mother being diagnosed with cancer, my sister and I felt like we were mothering her at times. We'd tell her what to eat, when to drink her medicine, where we'll go for medical appointments, and who to contact in case of an emergency. I was mothering my mother. And as if getting in tune with the jolts of this year, we felt the pace become slower. It wasn't long before my mom took back the reins of motherhood and myself, a child again. 

The day we got confirmation of her cancer, she told me she wasn't afraid. I asked her about it recently and she stands by her words. I don't think I'll ever fully understand where she gets her strength. Cancer is still messy and emotional but it's more bearable now that we're all together. 

It’s been 3 months, 17 days since I’ve felt like a small child again. It could be longer if you ask my mother. This isn’t merely surviving, this is loving and thriving in the middle of a badly written novel. – Rappler.com

Almira Manduriao does content marketing by profession, works with nonprofits and social enterprises to strengthen their cause, and advocates for the protection of women & children in the country. She travels (before the pandemic) to collect local paintings, eat whatever’s on the menu, and get lost in crowded train stations. She lives in Mandaluyong.