Goodbye, Mom

I said goodbye to my mother for the last time recently, and, in true pandemic fashion, it was over a video call. 

She had been in a hospital in the Philippines for a couple of months recovering from a surgery that took place shortly after the new year to alleviate some pain but previous underlying conditions made her prone to secondary infections which ultimately took her life. I’m the only one in my immediate family who lives outside of our native Philippines so I was a virtual spectator and cheerleader all the way in Sri Lanka while she was in the hospital.

Several weeks turned into months and I watched my Mother’s condition get better, then worse, and then better again, cycling through good and bad times depending on the day of the week. The rollercoaster of updates kept my wife and I glued to our phones. Every time it pinged, we would take a deep breath before we read the daily update from my brother or sister-in-law, who were both by her side as much as possible. We would do the same with every video call because there were days where she wouldn’t even make eye contact with us while some days lead to a wave and a smile on her face.

A week before she passed, my wife turned to me while we were on a video call with her, muted us, and told me – “I want you to think about what you want to say to your mother. She doesn’t have a lot of time left”. I didn’t want to believe it but she was right. The last few video calls were all more downers than bright spots. A few days later, we spoke to her medical team and came to a difficult decision to place her on palliative care after digesting all the opinions from the various specialists she worked it. There was very little more they could do that would move the needle and we were better off making her as comfortable as possible instead of subjecting her to more harsh antibiotics and other procedures.

On March 8, 2021, my brother video called me. As soon as the call connected, it was a shot of my mother laying in her hospital bed with crying in the background getting more intense with every passing minute. At first, I was a little confused about what was going on but as soon as I saw my brother, with his back turned to the camera, leaning over my mother’s bed crying – I knew that she had just taken her last breath. My heart broke into a million little pieces. The heartbreak was the most intense I’ve ever felt in my life thus far.

The tears began streaming down my face and an overwhelming sadness suddenly enveloped me. I was able to verbalize “I love you, Mom” at the phone in the midst of my sobbing but couldn’t muster any more words. My wife, crying alongside me, urged me to hang up the call but I couldn’t. I watched as hospital staff unplugged her from the various medical devices she was hooked up to for the last few weeks. All I could think about were all the things I’ve wanted to say to her after my wife mentally prepared me to do so a week ago. I closed my eyes and kept repeating in my mind how incredibly proud I was of her for being so strong throughout her 10-week ordeal in the hospital.

Grief is truly one hell of a shot in the arm. Even with getting on the first available flight to the Philippines, I had to contend with a 7-day mandatory quarantine as soon as I landed before I could see my mother. While I was in quarantine, the grief would come and go freely like it had a key to my hotel room. One moment, I could be sitting quietly watching a TV show when all of a sudden my attention and thoughts get hijacked by sadness. My mind replaying my mom’s final moments that I witnessed on the video call on that fateful day.

I eventually got out of quarantine and went straight to my parent’s house where I finally was able to see my Mom in real life for the first time in over a year after I hugged my sobbing father. Both of us stood over my mother’s open casket and my Dad exclaimed “Look Ma, your youngest son is finally here with you”. My already broken heart broke into a million more pieces. 

The last time I saw my Mom before this was my wedding in Sri Lanka, pre-pandemic. She was beaming, radiant, and so happy for my wife & I as well as for our entire family. I looked through many pictures of her from our events and saw her dancing the night away with the biggest smile plastered on her face. Those memories starkly contrasted the next time I would see her again, in her casket with a smile engineered by the Funeral officials, a far cry from her glorious smile from when she was alive. This was a grim reminder to make every single minute with your loved ones count and to not take it for granted because time is never promised.

Family portrait during our wedding with my Mom in the far left
My mom (left) with my mother in law

We laid her to rest on March 18, 2021, with a pandemic-approved, socially distanced church service and burial. At the cemetery, I threw a white flower on top of her casket along with the rest of my family before they lowered her casket and piled on more and more earth on top. I didn’t stop watching until I couldn’t see any more white from her casket while I clutched a framed picture of her tightly in my arms.

It has been a week since her funeral and I am in my parent’s living room typing this out. The house is still littered with pictures of her and I smile every time I look at one. It has been a few days since sadness has overtaken my mind & body and every glimpse of her now brings joyous memories and laughs reminiscing her quirkiness. I often wonder if I have mourned her loss too quickly but I strongly believe what I said during her eulogy at the Church service which brings me great comfort:.

“As deep as the pain is knowing that my Mom is no longer going to be with us, I want to remind all of you of the long and full life she has lived. She lived a life free of regret and full of love & selfless devotion for her family, friends, and community”.

Goodbye, again, Mom. I’m so incredibly proud to be your son and I your memory will live on through me.

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Nico Atienza

Chief Storyteller

An expat remote worker based in Colombo, Sri Lanka with a penchant for window seats on planes, travel, and technology that makes everyone’s lives easier.