I must write this down before I forget about it. Or I must write it down, perhaps, to forget.
Everyone has done at least one thing they will never forgive themselves for doing. Regardless of how many hundred people will tell you that it wasn’t your fault and it was God’s will, there is one will well within your control, and the unforgivable thing was that you didn’t use its full potential. Yours.
I will never forgive myself for falling apart when my father died.
My father’s strength was our family’s strength, and when we lost him, I allowed myself to wallow. I allowed myself to be taken away by the tsunami of horror and grief, forgetting that there may be people hurting more than I was.
After his death, I may have subconsciously decided to disengage from life. Sure, once in a while, I resurface. But in my sorrow, I alienated the people who needed me more. My mother, for instance, who knew my father far longer than I did, must have been in more physical pain. And her health, to everyone’s knowledge including mine, was in a far frailer state than my father ever was. She was a breast cancer survivor who has lost the use of her left eye. She who struggled to write the checks for the household; the woman who her two daughters never saw as the foundation of the family, but in hindsight may have been the authentic glue of the whole family. The woman, who for all outward seeming, was most fragile, was actually the strongest of us all. Mummy lasted exactly one month trying to carry on.
A few weeks after my father’s death, I saw her struggling with her breath. How do I describe the fear that washed over me when I saw her barely able to sit up on her favorite chair? I thought I have felt horror. But it’s nothing compared to terror. It was that moment I realized the subtle difference between the two words. I realized their dissimilarities go beyond the spelling. Some people think it’s interchangeable. Curse the day you realize that they’re not.
The language we use will not be sufficient to describe that long taxi ride which will become the last night my mother saw the outside world. I was alternately slumping on the seat, trying to gather the strength I knew I’ll need, and sitting at the edge of the leather seat willing the vehicle to move faster. In my head, one phrase keeps repeating itself over and over: one fell swoop. One fell swoop. One fell swoop. And my life, as I knew it, was over.
What I’m not sure of now is if it was ever a good idea to step back from the whole terror and to remove myself from any great distressing emotion. I vaguely remember now, I kept telling myself, hold, hold, don’t fall apart --- a meaningless phrase because I knew I was already beyond repair. But I tried for strength, and the only I way I could manage it was to apply myself to the role of rock, of pillar, of stone. I wish I allowed myself to feel more. Perhaps it wouldn’t take me three years to write this story. Maybe I would’ve healed faster if I immersed myself not just body and soul, but heart as well.
It’s hazy now, that month and a half in the hospital. I gave in to applying myself to raise money and resources we needed. I felt alive if only because I don’t know where to get tomorrow’s payment for medicines and treatments. I was being propelled forward by the intense purpose of keeping her alive for one more day.
What I remember clearly is my severe conviction that we will pull through. My faith did not allow me to plan for death, only recovery. Hope, I remember clearly. Doctors gave it, and it amazes me now how people manage to survive by being led on by a microscopic fragment of hope. Our hope was to get her out of Intensive care, and thereon to home therapy. It was such a small hope but it kept me going for weeks. On a normal day, I cannot imagine undergoing sleepless nights staring at a blank hospital wall. I would not have thought it possible to sleep for weeks on end sitting on a chair, in a lobby full of people coming and going, day and night. By that time, we could not afford a room anymore and my bedroom has become the intensive care unit lobby. My legs became elephantine for loss of blood circulation, I started smelling like the sewers for lack of a proper bath, but I wasn’t connected to these worries. They were foibles at that point. My amateurish faith probably even saw it as some sacrifice to be offered to God, who might be inclined to offer my family a boon if I make myself miserable enough.
I pretended to go to work during these times, seeing it as the least I can do for the surprising support my employer has shown. But I was elsewhere, always, and my real day would only start at 5:00 in the afternoon, when visiting hours commenced. Since we’ve been there so long, some semblance of normalcy was restored by the rituals we engaged in. I would let well-meaning visitors go first, friends and co-teachers of my mother, relatives who could not look me straight in the eye because they say they fear they will cry. I nod and say I understand, but deep in my heart I thought they were cowards. I felt invincible for withstanding the pain. I didn’t know the recriminations of my pretend strength will disable me years after the moment in question.
When finally, they have all gone, and it’s just my mother and me, I become alive. Two weeks into the treatment, they had to bore a hole in her throat and put a tube in. She couldn’t speak, and our communication was limited to scribbled messages on cheap notebooks and yellow pads. She will ask how the house was, and I tell her still like a jungle and she would laugh. How is my sister, really, and I will say she’s staying strong. Then she will ask me how I was, and I answer she can depend on me, and I will launch on how many people were helping us, pulling us through, and she would smile. One time she wrote, “You make me happy,” which further reinforced my theory I should not mess up. I have to be a veritable Stonehenge.
This is the night I realized I have let her down. What if I didn’t withdraw into myself after Daddy’s death? What if I became more engaged, and caring, and made them laugh instead of mirroring the despair we all felt? Why didn’t I realize that I had every capacity to lighten our spirits, which could’ve boosted our sense of life, and Mummy’s will to carry on? If I had this strength all along, why the fuck didn’t I use it when it wasn’t too late?
My mother died on Valentine’s Day. I went to work, had a private breakdown, and lived life in a bubble. When I reached the hospital, she was already in a coma. Fifteen minutes after I arrived, she gasped her last breath. Just like with my father, I also never got to say goodbye to her.
My borrowed strength lasted through the funeral preparations. I don’t know when it did it run out though, because being stone became a habit. I didn’t notice that it wasn’t strength anymore, and that lichens were starting to grow on me.
I think I have been disengaged ever since. I do things to make me feel alive, but after a short while, I inevitably return to a sleeping stone. Who knows, maybe I used up a lifetime of will in those short three months. If I never feel again, it sounds absolutely okay to me.
But writing this, tonight, changes things. Maybe, writing about the other side of the story, the one imperceptible to outsiders, will be my belated restoration. There are things -- unforgivable things -- you have to absolve yourself of first before blazing a light. I am not there yet. I still measure my time in years and months since their death, and I think I always will.
Soon, I will celebrate another birthday. But do stones know they have withstood another year? What does it matter since they’ll still be mineral and earth through the new one? In fairytales, those who turned to stone are beyond deliverance, at least until some pure-hearted third son manages to save the day. In Narnia, Aslan gave his breath to Narnian warriors frozen by the White Witch only at the very end, for one last final battle. I guess this is why I still want to believe in fairytales, passé as it may be. I suppose I’m awaiting the day of my redemption, whether by my hand or the gods.