My mother’s suicide note contained only the word “ano,” which would have been funny if her body, heavy and cold, weren’t slumped over the steering wheel in the airless family car.
All my life I had heard my mother use that word in various settings, but her favorite usage was as a placeholder for a word she’d forgotten. “Anak, can you get me the ano?” she would yell from upstairs as I mindlessly watched reality baking shows in the living room.
“The ano!” she would cry. “You know! It’s blue. In the lower right cabinet in the kitchen.”
I would pull into the driveway from work, and before I could even get off my bike, she would be at the front door. “Don’t forget to put your ano in the laundry! It’s dirty na!”
“Which ano? My pants? My shirt? My underwear?”
She would storm off, frustrated that I hadn’t understood.
Once, she had even abruptly awoken me from a nap. “Anak!” Her eyes were bright, her voice excited. “Ano is on fire!”
Panicked, I had thrown myself out of bed. I rushed to find what in the house was on fire, only to realize that she had been referring to a particularly good contestant on a singing competition show.
I had spent so much time discerning what my mother meant throughout the years, and now, staring at the small scrap of ripped paper bearing her often-used word, I knew the question of this particular meaning would haunt me for years to come.
I didn’t cry at the funeral. My mother had always admonished me for crying when I was young—“It’s not manly to cry, AJ!”—and I felt disturbingly smug about my lack of tears as I threw my handful of dirt into her open grave. The clump burst brilliantly around the smooth, deep oak of the casket.
Elaine stood next to me, dirt balled up in her fist as tears streamed silently down her face. I stared as her knuckles turned white from the pressure of her grip and wondered if she was rebelling in her own way. She had been against the casket our father picked.
“She would have hated it,” she said when he came home and showed us the details of the funeral services. “She would say it looks cheap and panget.”
“This, for once, is not Mama’s decision to make,” our father replied softly but without emotion. “Mama made her decision when she left.”
Now, rooted to the spot, my younger sister refused to throw her dirt in. I expected our father, who was standing on her other side, to nudge her or whisper to her or do something, anything, to stop her foolishness.
Instead, he turned around and gestured toward the gravediggers, who were milling around at a respectful but still close distance.
“We’re finished here.”
The gravediggers swarmed forward as we walked toward the family car, Elaine letting the dirt quietly slip through her fingers and onto the cemetery’s main road.
We did not hold the traditional novena for my mother’s soul after the services. We didn’t refer to her death as a suicide. We rarely spoke of her death at all, actually. Three days after the funeral, we had resumed the roles we played before: Elaine was in her dormitory in Baltimore, our father was on a business trip to Indianapolis, and I was behind a register at the local CVS, ringing up a disheveled woman’s purchase of Plan B and ibuprofen.
My parents hated that I worked at CVS, but what they hated even more was that I worked at 1) a CVS that was 2) ten minutes away from their house which 3) I still lived in, and that 4) said CVS was managed by my old high school classmate Reynaldo, who had barely scraped through our senior year with a 1.9 GPA. My mother’s hatred of all this had been particularly fiery. She insisted to anyone who asked about my CVS job that I was a pharmacy technician.
“Oh yes, Ate Emmy,” I overheard her once telling her older sister on the phone. “AJ’s always been interested in healthcare. Being a pharmacy technician is just a stepping stone for pharmacy school.”
In reality, I was a “CVS Store Associate,” as my official job title read. And I was a shitty store associate at that.
None of my coworkers spoke to me on my first day in after the funeral. There were no awkward pats, no mumbled apologies, no sympathy cards. Instead, business proceeded as usual. Within the walls of the store, I transformed into the painfully uncomfortable and somewhat inept store worker the customers tried to politely avoid unless absolutely necessary. The glaring fluorescent lights turned my customers pallid and my grief nonexistent. So, I worked a lot.
I didn’t—couldn’t—think about my mother while I was working. For eight hours, my brain sang in harmony with the store heater’s static rippling just below the cheery pop music and random announcements pulsing through the CVS. As soon as my shift ended and I stepped out into the blustery winter wind, my mother’s shell once again slumped against the insides of my eyelids.
Days passed this way, dull and then abjectly slicing and then seemingly never-ending. Elaine called every two days instead of her usual once a week. Our father’s two-week-long trip was extended due to a blizzard. When he finally returned, the only hours we shared together in the house were spent with at least one of us sleeping.
We left my mother’s things untouched for four months. My father tiptoed over her woolen sweaters and beige underwear, dotting their bedroom floor. When I’d rest my feet on the coffee table, I made sure not to disturb her magazines splayed haphazardly on the dusty wooden surface. Perhaps that should have been the first sign, disarray so unlike my mother’s usual strict tidiness that demanded even the tiniest dust mites have their correct place. But what did we know about troubling changes in behavior, what did we feel besides relief that she hadn’t yelled at us for sticking the pancit noodles in the lower left cabinet instead of the lower right? That she made no mention of the mugs I left scattered around my bedroom? My mother, always so quick-tempered and imperious, mute and far away from the misplaced noodles and the unwashed cups. My mother, always so hawkeyed and critical, moving through the last months of her life as though in a trance.
Then there were strange boxes in our driveway. “Should we wait for Elaine to come home before we figure out Mama’s things?” I asked our father. When I looked inside one of the boxes, my mother’s Burberry sunglasses, perched atop a floral Vera Bradley sundress, glittered back at me. My heartbeat quickened. My mother had worn that exact outfit to Easter Sunday mass two years ago—the last mass I had attended before I had accidentally revealed my atheism to her in one of our many fights. “Maybe she wants to keep some stuff. I think they are the same size.”
“No,” our father replied, not moving his gaze from the basketball game on the television. The Lakers were down by twelve points. “Elaine wouldn’t want any of that.”
He was right, but I said nothing. I’d hoped Elaine would visit the house more often now that it was just me and our father, but she hadn’t. Instead, she kept her normal distance, dutifully and regularly calling but never offering to drive to the house. She would stay the coming summer in Baltimore, doing research on cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. As before, I wasn’t sure when I’d see her in person next.
“Are we going to throw everything away? Or are we going to donate anything?” I didn’t ask if we would keep anything. I knew that answer.
“No,” he said again, still unmoving. “No donation. They were her things. She would want them to stay her things.”
He spoke with so much authority I almost believed him, as if he knew what my mother had wanted, as if anyone ever had.
The question caught me off guard. Elaine and I didn’t speak of my mother. When Elaine called, we mostly discussed her undergrad life, and even though I had only received my bachelor’s two years earlier, college felt worlds away: the genetics class she was a TA for, a book she’d read for a South African literature class, the other executive board members of the Filipino association she headed. Sometimes she’d talk about a boy she was seeing. Sometimes she’d ask me if there was a boy I was seeing. She was the only one in the family who addressed that.
“Do I miss her?” I repeated somewhat incredulously, wanting to make sure I had heard her correctly.
She snorted. “Yeah, I guess it’s a kind of dumb question.”
“No, no,” I said hurriedly. “It’s not dumb. Just… unexpected.”
Elaine was quiet.
“Sometimes,” I admitted, the answer so honest it must have surprised both of us. “Sometimes, when I have the time to think about it.”
Elaine exhaled loudly. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. I think it’s the same for me, too.”
“Even after everything?”
“Especially after everything. She wasn’t my mom and she never tried to be, but she was the closest thing I could get to one. At least she didn’t stop me from being close to our dad.”
“So you still miss her?” I asked, the need to confirm suddenly overwhelming me. “Even though she hated you?”
“I mean…. She hated you too, Kuya. And here you are still missing her.”
Now it was my turn to be quiet.
Elaine cleared her throat. “Is that fucked up?”
I laughed a little. “I think it’s all fucked up.”
Six months after my mother’s funeral, I visited her grave for the first time, not because I wanted to, but because the guilt was slowly eating me away. Her headstone looked cold and hard despite the day’s heat, the ground strangely mottled as though the decay of bodies seeped through the surrounding soil.
I didn’t bring flowers. I didn’t pray.
Instead, I stood staring at the inscription on the headstone: GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN. No LOVING MOTHER, no CARING WIFE, no FRIEND TO ALL that shone on some of the other graves of departed women. Just GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN. A premonition, and a threat.
At least it was true.
Three rows ahead, a crowd was gathered around what was presumably an open grave. A man was leading the group in a solemn prayer.
Suddenly a child cried out, the evident pain in his voice piercing through my body. “Mama!” he yelled frantically. “Mama! Mama!”
No one answered. The man continued praying.
“Mama!” the boy shrieked between deep gasps for air. “Mama, please!”
Without thinking, I took a step forward, extending my arm out as though to touch the screaming boy I couldn’t see. My hand grasped air.
“Shh, AJ,” I heard a voice softly cooing. The boy’s shrieks ebbed. “Hush now. You’re a big boy, aren’t you? Shh. Big boys don’t cry.”
I squinted to see if I could discern the cooing voice and the boy in the crowd. I searched as though seeing their faces would open a door for me, would put the woolen sweaters back in the closet and the beige underwear in the drawer, would make the fluorescent lights in the CVS dim and shudder off.
I couldn’t make the two out in the sea of black-clad mourners. I inhaled, clenched my fists, and turned away. I walked toward the family car, the dry grass crunching under my heavy steps forward.
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