Dolores Reyes was amazed at how much shit a body could expel. She cleaned up after her mother again, only this time she removed Pilar’s nightgown without replacing it with a fresh one. All concerns for modesty fell away as the old woman lay nude beneath pale blue sheets and a snowdrift of blankets, wearing nothing but a Depends diaper and a simple silver cross. The beaded chain with the tiny silver crucifix had been dropped off last week by Tessie DeLeon, her mother’s closest friend, one of a handful of women in Pilar’s prayer circle.
“I’d like to give it to her, personally,” Tessie had said, flashing the rosary while trying to push past Dolores when she opened the door. Dolores had forgotten to latch the security chain the night before.
“If only you had called ahead...” Dolores said, trying to relax her clenched jaw enough to smile. She gripped the doorknob tighter, but softened her voice just a bit. “Tita Tessie,” she said, placing her free hand firmly on the woman’s elbow, to keep her from slipping past her. “Thank you. And thank the other ladies too. I’ll give this to Ma, as soon as she wakes.”
Tessie sighed, reluctantly surrendering the gift as she stood on tiptoe to look over Dolores’ shoulder, giving the air above their heads an exaggerated sniff. As Dolores closed the door on Tessie, firmly setting the chain, she could only imagine the whispered tsismis that would swirl amid murmured prayers the next time the ladies’ circle gathered.
When the cell phone rang at 8 p.m., Dolores was stripping off a pair of soiled gloves in the bathroom. She thought at once about the insensitive caller and then about pale skin under blue sheets as she raced down the hall from the half-bath to her home office. The trill of the phone echoed through the house and startled the silence like a colicky baby left to soothe herself. It couldn’t be the hospice service, she thought. Not at this time of night. If the old woman woke again, opening those glassy doll-eyes, she would scream.
Her hands were still damp when she reached for the phone on her desk. In the time it took for her to dry them on the hem of her sweater, the phone fell silent. Dolores waited and held her breath. The quiet in the house was interrupted only by a deep and regular rasping sound coming from what used to be her bedroom. Dolores was relieved. Pilar did not wake. But relief quickly fell away as she looked at the phone panel before it dimmed. CALLER UNKNOWN. She was convinced that it was that same telemarketer from two days ago, and quietly cursed him for trying to sell her a timeshare in Maui as her mother lay cold and dying.
She slipped the phone into her pocket and winced. Returning to the bathroom, she stopped to examine her hands closely, the way she did her mother’s body for pressure sores. Dolores’ skin was so dry and chapped that the creases in her palms were starting to bleed. She blamed it on the powdery residue inside the sterile gloves. She pretty much lived in latex these days, after letting the last two nurses go for slacking off. The first one, a wide-hipped buxom redhead, who spoke with a heavy southern drawl, had insisted on taking a five minute cigarette break every hour and had smoked in her mother’s room while she thought Dolores was taking a nap. Dolores had occasionally overheard the redhead holding long one-sided conversations with Pilar, telling silly knock-knock jokes, and snickering as she sometimes blurted out racy ‘double intended’ punch lines, while gently brushing Pilar’s hair. The second one, a mousy strawberry blonde, with a barely concealed tattoo of chains across her neck, had let her mother sit too long in a urine-soaked diaper, and swore up and down that Pilar’s strong smelling urine accounted for the redness on her ‘privates’ and not from any negligence on her part. “Even babies get diaper rash,” she insisted.
Both nurses had smooth and pretty hands, Dolores remembered now as she absently rubbed her mother’s A & D ointment into her own chapped palms. Smooth and pretty. And beneath the rasping, Dolores could almost hear her mother respond in Tagalog, her voice strong and certain: Tamad ang mga magandang kamay. Pretty hands are idle; it’s the callused ones that do all the work.
Inspecting the hands of the next nurse would be a part of the interview, she promised herself. She didn’t think to glance at the hands of the last two before hiring them; they came highly recommended but lasted just three days. The hospice service convinced her to give their company another chance. “We’ll comp you the next four hour shift,” they had offered. Dolores agreed. But that was almost a week ago, and her mother’s health was deteriorating quickly. A massive stroke, almost two months ago, had reduced this strong-armed woman to a shell of her former self.
Pilar, barely five feet tall, used to be a hundred and ten pounds of solid muscle from years of busing tables, making up beds, vacuuming hotel lobbies and scrubbing other people’s toilets. Now she drank all of her meals from a sippy cup held to her lips and her thin rail of a body had to be turned in bed throughout the day, every day. She could no longer speak or even scribble on the small notepad by her bed. She could only moan. Dolores had used the pad religiously in the beginning, to record the times she administered pain meds, or to note her mother’s condition so she could report any changes to Dr. Stone, Pilar’s neurologist. However, by the third week, Dolores began using the pad to jot things down. Words and thoughts she would never say aloud, not to Tita Tessie, or the church ladies, or the nurses, and especially not to her mother.
When Dolores called the hospice agency yesterday to find out why there was still a delay, they told her the new nurse would contact her soon. “We’re sending you our best,” they reassured her. “Angie’s worth the wait. She’s on family leave right now, but she’ll be back at the end of the week.” In her frustration, Dolores had slammed the phone down on the desk harder than she meant to, causing a stack of her client’s files to avalanche to the floor. Damn it, she thought. Today’s Friday, how much more ‘end of the week’ can you get? Maybe Dr. Stone could recommend a new agency when she called him on Monday.
Dolores dried her hands on a fancy guest towel that was more for show than anything else. As she glanced into the bathroom mirror above the vanity, she noticed a small brown smear across her right cheek. Earlier, she had used the back of her glove to scratch her face while changing her mother’s diaper. Now that she saw the careless smudge, she could smell it. She scowled and scrubbed at the spot until her skin grew scarlet. Washing her hands again, she pursed her lips, blowing upward at a stray curl that had escaped her loosened twist-knot. She wrinkled her nose at her reflection.
Had all of this happened a month ago, Dolores might’ve laughed at herself. But the face in the mirror startled her, with its red-rimmed brown eyes, stringy black hair, and blotchy sun-starved complexion. Her frowning face didn’t hold the healthy glow of a thirty-two year old Filipina. It was the shadow of a much older woman, with a face slack and droopy, no longer capable of smiling. It was an image that reminded Dolores of the “before” pictures in the women’s magazines that she often found in Pilar’s room, when Dolores used to visit her at the Care Center.
Golden Oaks was one of Seattle’s premier long-term care facilities. Pilar had called it home, until six weeks ago, when the facility told Dolores that her mother could no longer feed or toilet herself. Unlicensed for that level of care, they couldn’t keep her any longer and Dolores had to become a private duty nurse overnight.
A sudden harsh gasping sound pulled Dolores back down the hall and into the bedroom. Tonight, it took a while to quiet the moaning. But with the help of the morphine syrup from the pharmacy of meds that stood on her mother’s nightstand, the low moans had stopped, and the old woman’s doll-eyes were closed again. Dolores wished she could sleep as deeply as Pilar did, with an arsenal of heavy drugs at her disposal. That way, she could nap for an hour or two, blissfully ignorant of the phone and work. It would help her forget what the doctor predicted, that Pilar would be gone--within a couple of weeks, maybe even in the next few days.
The hospital bed was huge and her mother looked tiny and sunken, as if the rented bed were in the process of swallowing her. When it was delivered almost a month ago, Dolores decided it was better to be a little cramped in here, than to have a sick-room set up in the middle of her living room. She actually considered putting Pilar in the smaller guest room, which doubled as a home office, but that was out of the question. The bed wouldn’t fit. So she had moved herself into the home office and let her mother stay in here. It was the best she could do.
As she stood there staring at the hollow in the sheets, she remembered the way she used to crawl into her mother’s bed as a child. When she was young, and woke from a bad dream, or felt lonely after having spent the day away from her mother, Dolores would often crave physical closeness. She knew that climbing into her mother’s bed would irritate Pilar, because no matter how careful she was, she would always startle her from a light sleep. Her mother would grumble through groggy lips: Ano ka ba? What’s wrong? Why are you here? But Dolores could never explain herself. If she told the truth, that she was lonely and scared, Pilar was likely to laugh at her.
So without saying anything, she would settle her skinny frame next to Pilar’s warm body, and listen for the return of the smooth and regular sounds of sleep. Only then, spooned up against her mother’s back, could Dolores whisper the answers to the woman’s questions—shyly slipping her words into sleeping ears. On good mornings, Dolores would wake to find Pilar’s arms wrapped tightly around her, the way she, herself, used to hug her favorite doll while caressing its thick blonde hair and chubby pink skin, the way toddlers nuzzle their crib-blankets. As time passed, those good mornings became few and far between, and Dolores was left with only a doll for comfort.
Later that night, Dolores awoke to the sound of ringing in her ears, and uncurled herself from the belly of her La-Z-Boy. Her cell phone had been perched on the armrest next to her head, and a slice of cold pizza sat in a melted, but now, congealed puddle of cheese in a greasy carton on the side table near her elbow; she had no memory as to how either one got there. Flipping open the phone, she heard a woman’s soft voice.
“Hello? Can I speak to Dolores Reyes?” asked the voice.
“Who is this?” Dolores asked, hoping it wasn’t one of her mother’s annoying church friends. “Do you know it’s after eleven?”
“Oh, sorry,” the voice said. “I just got in. I’m Angelica, from Seattle Home Hospice. Angie Escobar. They told me it was important I call you as soon as possible. They said that you were waiting.”
You have no idea, Dolores thought, but didn’t say anything. There was something familiar about the voice. The way the woman pronounced her words reminded her of the way Pilar used to roll her “R’s” and speak English sideways, with a tinge of accent. She held on to the memory of her mother’s voice for a few beats. By the time Dolores returned her attention to the conversation, the woman was in mid-sentence.
“I’m sorry?” Dolores said.
“Just asking how you’re doing, mija” Angie repeated. Her voice sounded patient, kind, non-judgmental.
“I’m sorry,” Dolores repeated, closing her eyes. Her breathing was short and ragged, her throat so tight it felt as if she were choking. “It’s been such a long day.”
“Fair enough. It’s late, after all. When can I meet the two of you?”
“Anytime you’re ready,” Dolores said, trying to keep desperation from leaking into her voice.
“How about tomorrow, after three? Can I bring you anything?”
Dolores fought back the urge to laugh out loud. She needed more than a cold compress and a band-aid, but she stopped herself from making the joke. She didn’t want to come across sounding sarcastic or bitter. “No, but thanks.” she said. “We can talk over tea and coffee.”
She answered a few more questions, gave the woman directions and after hanging up, stared at the phone for a long time. She wanted to change her mind, a part of her wishing she could take it all back. How could she bring another stranger into her home, after the two previous failures? There was no way she would ask help from Tessie, or any other members of her mother’s prayer circle. The feeling of hiya, or public embarrassment, was a big deal. Her mother would’ve been ashamed to have them see her this way. Dolores argued with herself, but could see no other choice. She wasn’t cut out to be a caregiver. She didn’t know the first thing about caring for the sick and dying. Coming from a country that offered generous hospitality and comfort with pride, how Pilar would have laughed! Totoo? Who ever heard of a Filipina who didn’t know how to give care?
The next day, Dolores worked hard to get her house in order, but only managed to do the superficial things like vacuum, pick up her own discarded clothing, and hide the overflowing laundry basket in a closet. She emptied the sink of the dishes that had been clamoring for her attention all week and stacked dirty plates and cups into the dishwasher.
What would their visitor think? Would she at least acknowledge how clean her mother’s room had been kept? Dolores sniffed the air like a bloodhound for any trace of lingering odor and gave the place a once over with a critical eye. She stepped into her mother’s room and was embarrassed to see the ugly bed dominating the tiny space. She took comfort in seeing that at least the linens were bright and fresh, unwrinkled and tucked snugly around Pilar’s frail body.
And then in that moment, a familiar sound came from beneath the sheets. Dolores tried to close her ears to the grumbling of the woman’s bowels, but there was no way to ignore it. Soon after, a stink began seeping through the covers. The odor of it made Dolores gag. It was if her mother had known that company was coming, and wanted to prove her incompetence as a caregiver. Even in her frailty, Pilar could still administer shame with great efficiency.
Dolores sighed and stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her. She slumped into the La-Z-Boy, waiting for enough time pass, to make sure her mother was done. Turning on the TV, she muted it, and watched as a little boy waited at a bus stop with his mother. As the bus drove away, the camera lingered on the spot where they had been sitting; a stuffed teddy bear with both eyes missing had been left behind, forgotten. Seeing that brought back an old childhood memory.
Dolores was four years old and it was snowing outside the old brick house they used to live in, just outside of Seattle. Pilar was getting ready for work, about to leave Dolores with yet another sitter, another in a long line of church spinsters hired cheaply to act as temporary companions and protectors—her stand-in mothers. Looking out the front window waiting for the sitter to arrive, Dolores saw her doll sitting where she had left it the day before, across the street, forgotten on a park bench. It looked sunken and tiny sitting in a snowdrift which had partially buried it. From that distance, Dolores recognized the pink snowsuit in which she had dressed the doll, the suit that matched her own pale blue one.
“Dolly!” Dolores said, pointing out the window. “Look mommy, dolly!” Her mother stood next to her, filling the space with the scent of jasmine. Tingnan mo! You left her outside, neglectful girl! her mother had said with a shake of her head. Wearing the frown that would eventually leave permanent traces on her face, Pilar rushed outside and crossed the street to the bench. When the doll was finally back in Dolores’ hands, its frozen eyes were accusing, arms and legs icy and water-logged. Her mother whispered into her ear: Huli na! Too late now! and threw the ruined doll into the trash.
Dolores was crushed and wouldn’t stop crying. Once Pilar left for work, the sitter--the only nice one in the bunch--helped Dolores secretly retrieve the doll. Holding the wet and bloated thing between her small hands, it no longer resembled the thing she had once loved. But together, they dried it off anyway and Dolores tenderly wrapped it in an old towel, then hid it in the corner of her bedroom closet. She was surprised when the doll reappeared, on the day she packed her mother’s things at the Care Center. There she was, pink snowsuit now in tatters, lying in the top drawer of Pilar’s dresser, tucked beneath her mother’s unmentionables.
Back in her mother’s room, Dolores gloved up. She dressed Pilar in one of her favorite nightgowns, a field of pink dotted with tiny daisies, with lace edging on the sleeves and hem. She combed Pilar’s thin gray hair and dabbed her mother’s favorite jasmine cologne behind the woman’s ears. Although it was pricey, and her mother was now oblivious to the gift, Dolores couldn’t bring herself to stop paying for the custom scent imported from Manila. Most of the time, Dolores tolerated the flowery fragrance, but this morning it went straight to her head and made her temples pound. When she finished ministering to her mother, Dolores surveyed the room one last time to make sure everything was in place, before rushing to take her own shower and get dressed.
The doorbell rang. The voice calling her name confused her for a minute, sounding eerily like her mother’s, before the stroke. “Dolores, it’s Angie,” the woman said. The way she said this sounded like secret passwords slipping in through the narrow gap between the doorframe of the tiny house and the flimsy security-chain. Dolores undid the latch, letting the chain dangle free. Once Angie was safely inside, she closed the door against the bitter wind blowing in from the cul-de-sac.
“Thanks for coming on short notice,” Dolores said.
Perched on the edge of her La-Z-Boy, she busied herself pouring coffee, as she furtively assessed the woman seated on her sofa. Everything about Angie Escobar caught her off guard. Although she was almost the same age as Pilar, this Pinay looked younger than her stated age of sixty-seven. She had a light russet face dotted with dark freckles, and a thick gray braid that circled her head like a halo.
The woman wore a nubby gray cardigan over a blue wool skirt. Below that, thick black tights hugged short chubby legs. Looking down at her own dark sweater and slacks, one of the many outfits she wore to work before telecommuting, Dolores noticed that the woman’s somber colors and no-nonsense style were similar to what she herself was wearing. Something about that made her feel sad. It was as if they were already dressed in mourning.
“So, mija, tell me a little bit about yourself,” Angie said, as she took a sip from the steaming mug of coffee that Dolores had just served her.
“Not much to tell,” Dolores said. “Mom’s sick and she needs more and more help. I do what I can. Even though I work from home these days, I’d like someone to be with her, so that I’m free, to do my real job.”
“Property management,” Dolores said carefully. The moment she said this, she could feel Angie looking at her differently, as if sizing her up and suddenly finding her lacking. She instantly regretted having said anything.
“Are you a real estate agent?”
Dolores shook her head. “Look, we should be talking about my mother,” she said. Her work was complicated and she didn’t want Angie getting the wrong idea, thinking her business was less than scrupulous. Despite working as hard as she could to help struggling homeowners refinance, she often couldn’t bring the magic that they were expecting. Despite her help, many of Dolores’ clients, some of them former Filipino friends of her mother’s, still ended up losing their homes to foreclosure. She never told her mother, but it was ironic--regardless of how things went with her clients, she was still paid pretty well.
Angie simply nodded, and smiled, looking down at Dolores’ feet. Dolores crossed and re-crossed her ankles, chiding herself for still wearing her fuzzy house slippers, and not putting on a decent pair of shoes before the nurse arrived. Magingat ka. Careful! her mother would’ve scolded. First impressions are based on the smallest things.
In that moment, Dolores tried to cover her embarrassment. “I’ve been on my feet all day, and they’re killing me,” she said. “You don’t mind, do you?”
“No worries,” Angie said with a shrug. “Your house, your rules.” Even though both women smiled at this, Dolores blushed.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “Listen to me. Ma moves in, and all of a sudden I sound like I’m eighteen again.”
“Is she doing that, or is that you?”
Exhausted after weeks of caring for her mother, Dolores was tempted to blurt out the truth. She wanted to tell this woman how tired she was of her daily rituals, and that keeping vigil over Pilar was taking its toll on her. Instead, she pulled sharply at a loose thread hanging from her sweater, causing the hem to unravel a bit.
“I can see you need help,” Angie said. “You’ll get no argument from me. The stress is written all over your face. This is tough, the whole role reversal thing.”
Dolores’ eyes filled with gratitude, but she quickly pulled herself together when she heard her mother’s voice, the way she would often warn: Huwag ka umiak! Tears are a sign of failure. Dolores focused her eyes on the bottom of her sweater and tried to tuck the loose threads back into place.
“Let’s talk more later,” Angie said, pushing herself from the sofa. “I’d like to meet your mother now.”
“She’s this way,” Dolores said.
When she led Angie to the back of the house, she was embarrassed at how it must’ve looked—small, sad and neglected. The curtains were outdated and shabby. The walls needed repainting. But Angie seemed to ignore it all, which put Dolores at ease. A soft moaning could be heard just outside the bedroom door.
“I’m late with her medication this afternoon,” Dolores admitted, looking at her watch while trying not to sound guilty. It was already half-past four. Angie nodded and Dolores was again grateful. Nothing in the look or gesture made her feel like she was being judged.
Despite her attempts to mask the unpleasantness, Dolores was convinced she could still detect lingering odors. The room smelled of jasmine, Ivory soap and the baby powder that she had used to clean up, and of Lysol which she had sprayed into the diaper bin. The thought of the soiled Depends made her blush with embarrassment.
Pilar was positioned on her side, facing away from them, with pillows tucked against her back for support. From this angle, Dolores didn’t recognize the frail body in the bed. Angie walked around her, so that she was facing Pilar.
“Nice to meet you Mrs. Reyes.” Not getting a response from the woman, Angie looked to Dolores, who simply shook her head. Angie nodded and lowered the side-rail.
From where she stood, Dolores watched Angie’s hands, noticing how calloused and dry they were. She saw the practiced way she placed the tips of her short brown fingers on the inside of her mother’s pale wrist, the way she let them rest there for a minute or two, timing the faint pulse beneath the cool bluish skin.
“Her heart’s beating a little too fast. You’d better attend to her right away. I don’t do meds, you know. Haven’t since I retired from the hospital…a legal thing.”
“No problem,” Dolores said. “I’m fine with that.”
Grabbing the tall bottle of morphine syrup from the nightstand, Dolores went to the bathroom to retrieve a sippy cup that she used for nearly everything: milk, juice, watered-down baby food. She poured the sticky red liquid into the bottom of the cup, then swirled the contents, diluting it with tepid tap-water. The color and smell of it reminded her of cherry Kool-Aid. Behind her, a low moan scolded her for her tardiness.
Back in the bedroom, Dolores was surprised to find that the head of the bed had been raised. It looked like her mother was sitting up, waiting. With calm practiced efficiency, Angie was quietly going about her business. She had thrown an extra quilt over Pilar’s feet and was smoothing wrinkles away from the covers. She had done this without needing to be told, and Dolores was impressed.
When Dolores wedged the sippy cup between her mother’s blue-gray lips, the woman suckled at it greedily and kept sucking, even after the liquid was gone.
“That’s her rooting reflex,” Angie explained.
“That sucking motion. They say it’s the first reflex that kicks in when we’re born.” Angie gently smoothed a loose gray strand from the old woman’s face. “From the primitive part of the brain. We do it without even thinking. A survival thing, I guess. It’s often the last reflex to leave… at the end.”
Dolores could feel Angie’s eyes studying her.
“What did Dr. Stone tell you?” she asked. There was such gentleness in Angie’s voice that it brought a lump to the back of Dolores’ throat. When she finally spoke, it came out in barely a whisper.
Dolores shrugged. “He said it’s hard to tell, with someone in Ma’s condition.”
“Maybe we should let her rest, then,” Angie said, placing a gentle hand on Dolores’ arm. “We can finish our talk in the other room.”
“An awfully big task you have for yourself here,” Angie said. They were back in the living room. Dolores, in the chair, her legs tucked beneath her. Angie sat across from her, posture perfect, on the sofa.
“I’ve got no choice.”
“No family, friends? Anyone else who can help out?”
Dolores thought of Tita Tessie, and the other well-meaning but meddlesome women in her mother’s prayer circle, who were no doubt keeping vigil in the chapel, and already making plans for the funeral.
“No, just me. It’s always been just her and me.”
“What about your father?”
Dolores fingered the fraying hem of her sweater again. “I don’t remember him, and she never talked of him much.”
Angie arched an eyebrow, which Dolores ignored.
“She was so busy holding down two, sometimes three jobs--cleaning, waitressing, anything--to earn enough money to put food on the table. She never thought about anyone else.” Dolores tried to stop herself from babbling further.
“Sorry, was that question too personal?”
“No, it’s OK,” Dolores shrugged. She was thoughtful for a moment. “You know, Ma never forgave me for moving away after college, for leaving her all alone. Once I left, she treated me like she treated him--like I never existed. It’s crazy. But sometimes? I think this is her way of deliberately punishing me.” Dolores brought her hand quickly to her lips. “I’m sorry...I can’t believe I just said that out loud.” Her face flushed with heat. Even though she felt thoroughly exposed by her admission, Dolores was actually glad she had said what she did. It felt good to unburden herself with a stranger.
“When can you start?” Dolores asked out loud.
She and Angie chatted about details for a while longer, and agreed to sleep on it.
They would call each other again the next day.
Later that night, Dolores sat at the tiny desk in her bedroom office, sipping on her third cup. Not tea this time, but strong hot coffee. Feeling restless, Dolores got up and wandered into the living room. When she turned on the TV, a rerun of her mother’s favorite Filipino variety-game show was on. Instead of muting the sound, she listened for a few minutes to the wordmash of Tagalog and English. It was unclear to her, but for some reason, the old man hosting the show was scolding a young woman from the audience. When the woman burst into tears, it reminded Dolores of the last time she and Pilar had spoken Tagalog together, the year she took the language class for college credit.
Dolores had worked hard to relearn the language hoping to surprise and impress Pilar, who instead had criticized and clucked at her. Maárte, namán! her mother had said. Dolores was hurt, and furious, that Pilar had misread her actions as pretentious, and was sorry she’d even bothered. She ended up dropping the class and switched to accounting instead. How sad, she thought. Though they were both bilingual, she and Pilar could never seem to find enough words, in either language, to make the other feel at ease.
Claustrophobic. That was the word that came to mind when Dolores slipped into her mother’s room—a word that, as far as she knew, had no Tagalog equivalent. She had drawn the drapes earlier, making the air surrounding them feel thick and heavy. Overcome with the heat and closeness of the room, Dolores got up and moved to the window, but paused before opening it. Her mother hated to leave windows open at night, warning that it was an invitation for restless spirits to pay them a visit. Multo, Pilar called them, opportunistic ghosts just waiting for a chance to haunt unsuspecting sleepers. Dolores parted the drapes and lifted the sash, allowing a crack of cool crisp air to rush into the room.
Swirls of fog, thick and damp, shrouded the window like shutters. Ignoring her own reflection, Dolores stared for a long time at her mother’s fragile face mirrored onto the pane. She stared as if there were unsaid words written across her mother’s brow, as if there were letters scribbled on both sides of Pilar’s cheeks, messages printed on her chin and penned in tiny circles around her lips. Like the phrases scribbled on her notepad, Dolores imagined the appearance of bold expressions across her mother’s face, popping up like beads of sweat. Words of kindness and praise, tender secrets, and endearments that her mother hoarded but refused to say out loud. From the time she was a girl, Dolores learned to stop expecting to actually hear these. She heard no apologies, no admissions of guilt, no murmurs of comfort. So she just stopped listening. Too late now, were the only words that kept circling her ears, it’s too late.
Then a weak moan came from behind her. Taking a deep breath, Dolores turned and hesitated for a moment before slowly and carefully climbing into the bed, just like she did when she was little. Only this time, instead of spooning against her mother’s back, Dolores lay facing Pilar, looking directly into those unblinking eyes. Suddenly shy, Dolores spoke softly, hoping that her mother would actually be listening for a change.
“Mama,” she began.
Her words came haltingly, but she soon gained momentum, knowing that time was robbing her of something she had previously squandered. With a voice now loud and clear, she held nothing back. Dolores confessed her sins. She admitted how tired she was of this daily vigil, how scared, but relieved she would be to finally say good-bye. She said that despite her illness, Pilar was still an impossibly intimidating woman who frightened her, and though she loved her, she sometimes hated her more. When Dolores began to cry, the words kept coming. She named her mother’s faults, listing everything she could think of, even the slightest infraction. When Pilar gave another low moan, Dolores reached for the sippy cup to quiet her once more. Then she kept on talking until the room grew too cold to leave the window open.
Coming from a large Filipino family, I’ve witnessed a number of our women struggle with caring for ill and/or aging family members. The role reversal that often occurs, when an adult child and a parent are forced to trade places as caregivers is a difficult transition at best. This story is my way of exploring what might happen when cultural and familial expectations clash, leaving a woman unprepared and emotionally ill-equipped to care for her dying mother.
Cyndi Vasallo was born in Manila, Philippines, and grew up in Stockton, California. She is a recent graduate from the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, where she focused her studies on short fiction. She is also a recent alum of the Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) Summer Writing Workshop. A member of the Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), her work has appeared in TAYO Literary Magazine, and one of her stories will be included in an anthology titled: Voices of the Asian American Experience, due out in January 2011.