Death seems such an ordinary occurrence in the hospital that even as a student nurse many years ago, I have regarded it with complete impassiveness. As part of the healthcare team, we were never afforded to indulge in an emotional connection with our patients more than what was called for in a professional environment. When a patient dies, I remember in automation what needs to be done: after the physician’s declaration of the death, we carefully remove the tubes- the IV, the respirator; we remain a respectful distance from the grieving family and offer our customary sympathies as we continue the procedures for post-mortem care. I was always philosophical about death- it is simply the way of the world, a cosmic turnover to be rid of the old and replace with the young. Little did I know, that the mnemonics I have memorized so well in class: DABDA, Kubler Ross’ stages of grief, would hit home. I was in my third year when my mom, who was once a staff nurse at EVRMC before she became a USRN, passed away.
I had been excited to finally have been exposed to the clinical areas, when one day I got a call from my brother informing me that she had been hospitalized for pulmonary embolism. During those days when she was feeling better in the ICU, we talked over the phone- she told me in a weak voice they would be moving her to a private room soon. I tried to sound cheerful but each time she coughed, I said a silent prayer pleading to God to keep her well. On a Tuesday morning at 2am, the phone rang- it was my brother who told me between sobs, that our mom had died.
The past few days went as a blur to me. What made it especially difficult was arranging the transfer of her remains from Louisiana, USA to Tacloban. Our grandmother took charge of the pa-syam- the Filipino Catholic custom of nine day novena for the dead in our home, while in America, Papa and my brothers had a memorial for Mama. The prayers offered some measure of comfort, but it seemed I had a huge void full of questions- I was still numb and disbelieving. I was expecting it was only a nightmare I was going to wake up from; the last image on my mind had always been the time we vacationed with Mama in Samar- so alive and happy.
When my brother brought home her ashes, the reality hit me like a hammer- it was then I cried hard, because I knew I would never see my mother again. During the mass, the priest said something to me: we may view death as something devastating, but it also meant that Mama was already in God’s arms, free from bodily pains and all too human hurts. Faith was the only thing holding me together; I never even questioned anymore why it had to happen.
Two short years later, another tragedy happened as I was reviewing for the Nursing Board Exam- heralded by yet again another ominous phone call late at night with an aunt who told us that Papa had a massive heart attack. This really put me in the pits of despair, in possibly the most trying times of our family life. The same rituals were observed: pa-syam, pa-kwarenta, with the strange superstitions like we were not supposed to take a bath, not to say goodbye to visitors who visit the wake, cutting a blessed rosary into several pieces and placing it inside the urn of ashes and sealing it, as we were told it would stop a “series of deaths”. We did not dispose of the dust, dry flowers, burnt matches swept to the corner of the house until the interment. On the day we said goodbye to Papa, I was holding the urn, walking slowly down the steps of our house- the last to leave as everyone else had left the house empty. As I stepped on the last stair, there was a thunderous roar and shards of glass that hit my back, as one of our relatives smashed a glass plate behind me. Let all the bad things leave the house. My grandmother uttered, still in tears. We buried Papa the day before the board exams.
I remember my final days of hospital duty in the delivery room, prior to my enrolling in medical school. I was beside the obstetrician ready to assist, but I froze when the membranes burst. The baby was stillborn. The feet of the baby came first; the head was stuck in the vaginal canal and took almost an excruciating ten minutes to deliver. The doctor was apologetic, really there was nothing that could be done- the fetus was not viable and weighed only 500 grams. Lying on the delivery table, the mother stared at the ceiling, unmoving. We asked her if she had a name for the baby, so that we could baptize him before we give him to the waiting relatives.
Our eyes met as she fingered the plastic rosary on her neck. She came out of her reverie and from her moving lips sprung a name. I nodded. I could never forget the look in her eyes- regret maybe, or emptiness. I carefully wrapped the fetus and took Holy Water to baptize him. I had no time to linger on those feelings because there was another lady giving birth. I was asked to change gloves and assist, and this time the mother gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Funny how the ebb and flow of life in the hospital almost goes unnoticed. How new life is born in an instant, and how deaths become merely statistics. I suppose when one deal with these things on a daily basis it becomes routine.
As I lay the crying neonate on her bassinet, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in the same Neonatal Intensive Care Unit my Mom worked in many years ago. I looked around the room and saw her for a moment in the nurse on duty changing a neonate’s diaper.
Somehow I knew at that instant that my brothers and I would be okay. Through the passage of time things change. Some wounds heal as we learn to accept the will of God, some remain abstruse like the young mother’s loss, while some are renewed in the hearts of their progeny, like our parent’s legacy.
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