Reflections of a guilty son – part one

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In January 2012, I got the phone call that all migrants dread. Without being told, I immediately knew my mother had died. The time of the call, midnight, using a cell phone to call long distance and all the minute details that could only be a family death were evident.

In what seems like a long time, but was just probably a minute, the screaming in my head was silenced by the side that has seen much tragedy. I come from the Philippines; we have all experienced misfortunes in abundance. When I calmed down, I gently told my wife we would return the call in the morning, brushed my teeth and went to sleep without preamble.

The following day, after a long phone call made away from my children, in the hotel bathroom, I found out the circumstances of her death. Suffering from dementia, she was unable to find her way home. She walked past the village, to the city, out of it and to the next town, many miles away. She walked under a scorching tropical sun with no water and no idea where to go.

She somehow ended up on a solitary village on the edges of sugarcane fields, near a beach where we once went when I was a child. And in what could have been a very long, lonely, confusing and terrifying night for her, she stayed there, unable to take her medication, on her own, in pain, disorientated and freezing.

She was found dead the next day, more than 24 hours after she got lost.

Unable to scream and grieve, I spent the next day on tour in London with my children. We did the usual touristy things; London Eye, parks, garden, shops. They were blissfully unaware that their ‘Lola’ who they have heard so much of, talked to on the phone but have not met, was dead.

On our return home, we sat them down. We told them what had happened. My wife and I are always frank about things with our children, and death is something we talked to them about. We answered their questions and they were predictably sad, as grandchildren would be in moments like these.

However, I was aware that, having not met her was good for them. They had fewer memories, especially not those of an elderly woman suffering the indignity of dementia. Memories are our salvation, but they are also the ones that cause us grief.

I did not have the luxury of pausing to gather my thoughts. I was the eldest and everyone would look up to me, including my father. Philippine funerals are extravagant, dramatic events; I had much to think of. There were relatives to house and feed for the usual two weeks’ wake. Flowers to buy, coffin colour to choose, funeral plot to find and hundreds of other details which I suspect were meant to occupy the living to distract them from the death.

I will always be grateful to my employer at the time – VSO – for understanding my circumstance. The organisation lived up to its character, as that of an understanding and humane organisation. Colleagues commiserated and I was given two weeks off from work to fly home and attend to my family, who by then were slowly trickling to our island by boat, busses, planes, jeepneys and whatever transport they can manage to get onto from all over the country.

Unfortunately or fortunately for me, there was a plane delay. I was stuck at Heathrow airport, unsure if I had to go back to Colchester and when could I fly out of the UK. Two days late, and after two plane rides and many other vehicles; I arrived home numb. Because of the delay, I managed to sleep in a hotel at the airport. Two weeks of a funeral wake is very much waking time.

You can find the second article in this series on ehospice tomorrow. 

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