When I was ten years old, I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. My left leg was throbbing, gripped in an invisible vise tightening by the minute. I hopped to my parent’s bedroom for help. They were in bed, lying face up, the blanket crumpled and askew at their feet. They were snoring synchronously, a phantom conductor keeping time of their whistling inhalations and the guttural sputters erupting from the backs of their throats. I shook my mother’s arm.
“Nanay,” I whimpered. She continued to snore.
“Nanay,” I said, louder and more insistent. “Nanay!”
“What is it now?” she thundered, her eyes remaining closed. “Diko! Why are you awake? Go back to sleep! Right now!”
She muttered under her breath and shifted to her left side. My father remained asleep. For the next few hours, I bore the pain, now shooting up my torso. I crawled slowly to the sofa, each move searing my insides.
The morning came and the sun began to shimmer through the sheer curtains covering the living room windows. I was going in and out of consciousness, but I recall the alarm in my mother’s voice, saying something about my leg swollen to four times, and getting to the hospital, right now, right now.
“Why,” I asked my mother on the car ride to the emergency room. “Why didn’t you wake up?”
“Oh my God, child,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I don’t remember you trying to wake me.”
I vaguely remember the emergency room, just a lot of nurses and a doctor fussing over me until I blacked out. Hours later, I was recovering in a small room.
“Diko, there’s something wrong with the bone in your left leg,” my mother said, mustering up some composure. “You had an operation. You’re going to be fine.”
Years later, when I was old enough to understand, I learned that my bone had been severely infected. The pathogens were quick and ferocious -- had we arrived at the hospital an hour later, my leg would have been amputated. “B.K.,” my mother would say, between sobs. “Below the knee.”
For weeks I was angry at her. I had suffered a blinding pain in silence for hours and she had refused to help. I resented what I took to be her laziness, her lack of concern, her cruelty. Mystified by my quiet, intractable hatred, she responded with confusion and anger, which deepened my hatred. Children aren’t innocent, at least not the child I was then. I looked for an opening to exact my vengeance.
"You're healing well,” said the doctor. “But I wanna know how you got sick.“
“Okay,” I said.
“Did something hit your leg?”
“Yes,” I said, looking up straight into my mother’s eyes. “Yes.”
“What was it?” Here it was. My opening.
“My mother kicked me,” I lied to the doctor.
She reeled back, as though hit squarely in the chest by an arrow. I immediately regretted my lie. Lucky for her, the doctor figured out I was lying, and in those days Social Services weren’t as vigilant as they are now.
My anger didn’t last too long. I was in Montefiore Hospital for 42 days and every night my mother slept in a fold out cot next to my bed. Her snoring was not just an act of loud contrition -- it was a familiar lullabye that lulled me to sleep. My appetite was poor and she brought me the only food I could hold down: soda and canned fruit cocktail. For weeks, that was all I ate.
My mother, like most mothers, used guilt as a lever to manage her children’s behavior; to comply with her wishes. But I don’t recall her using such guilt tactics with me, not really, since she grappled with her own unbearable guilt: she was the doctor who neglected her own child. As I continued to heal, my mother and I formed a singular bond. We were fellow soldiers in the battle against unseen pathogens and partners on my road to wellness.
Of course, I hold no grudge against her now, since she has made up for her frailties. Her love for me was fierce and uncompromising, requiring neither my reciprocation nor acknowledgment. I recognize now how lucky I am that she was my mother.
Today, my left leg is slightly shorter than my right, but it is barely perceptible. I have learned to adjust my stance and my walk. The surgery scar is jagged and ugly, and to my proud delight, elicits gasps from those who see it.
Her passing also left me a jagged scar, visible only to those closest to me. But my illness and recovery transformed me – and my relationship with my mother – forever. Whether or not I was ever aware of it, she had my back. And my leg.
She’s in heaven now. At least that's what I prefer to believe. There she is, waving to me. That’s her, with her lips pursed to kiss mine. Those are her arms, open for the coming embrace. There are her hands, a bottle of soda in one and a can of fruit cocktail in the other.
Happy Mother’s Day, Nanay. Mahal na mahal kita.