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About my mother

July 12, 2019 - Friday 4:07 AM by Eva Aranas Angel

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This is about my mother. Not entirely, though. 

Cinephiles are likely to accuse me of ‘stealing’ the title of Pedro Almodovar’s critically acclaimed film, ‘All About My Mother.' I plead guilty before you could (accuse me). But, maybe, this is a story about your mother too. ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien,’ a film by Alfonso Cuaron that propelled Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna into A-listers in Hollywood. The film has been both a critical and commercial success.

I first heard of Pedro Almodovar when I was in St. Luke’s in the late 1990s. Back then, I was always looking forward to doing something on lazy weekends because the boyfriend, a junior associate, was busy impressing his bosses at Puno and Puno Law Offices in Tektite Tower, and then soon after, his new bosses, when he transferred to Castillo Zamora Poblador (CPZ Law) in Legaspi Village, Makati, where most lawyers were from the UP College of Law, unlike the former, which teemed with graduates from Ateneo (de Manila). 

I was supposed to watch a film at a festival sponsored by Instituto Cervantes. I freshened up in the perfumed restrooms of Greenbelt. I left my straw bag for a few seconds on the lavatory as I pulled a few sheets of rolled tissue in the toilet to dry my hands more quickly. When I went back, my purse and my passport were gone. I lost all my ID’s, my monies, and almost my mind. I was on my wits end. I was supposed to watch a special screening of Almodovar’s iconic 1988 firm noir, ‘Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios’ (Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown). 

The irony of it all.

I have watched most of Pedro Almodovar’s movies, from the soft porn Ata Me (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down which starred Antonio Banderas) to Volver to Habla Con Ella. Except this, Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown. So there I was, about to watch a movie with that title for which I woke up early and queued up for hours under the heat and the drizzle, and ended up with the loss of my month’s allowance and passport. At that moment, my entire life became the live version of the movie I was supposed to watch. 

When one is a family member-caregiver of a patient with Alzheimer’s Disease, it is not difficult to put in one sentence the words ‘women,' ‘mother,' ‘nervous breakdown,’ and God forbid, ‘tie me up’ in the context of physical restraints.

My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease. She’s 83 years old. She started showing signs of it when she was in her mid-seventies. That was when she started becoming forgetful, misplacing objects like the expensive gold necklace with a religious icon pendant. She had accused the kasambahay of stealing it, a paranoid-delusional symptom. When we all looked for it, we found it, along with her other jewellery, under the statues of saints inside the wooden antique urna or the altar.

For the longest time, Mama remained such. She plateaued for a good six years until Papa passed away last year. She deteriorated. She deteriorated fast. She became more accusatory. She was more suspicious of other people. She wouldn’t eat the food in a packaging other than what is served in her own plate and flatware. She abandoned her garden, that which ‘sparked her joy.'

Once I dropped by her room to check on her before I left for work. She asked me me to come back because she wanted to see me more closely. I was wearing a midi long sleeved black dress with pan collar. She inspected my hair that I wore loose, slightly longer than shoulder length. She inspected the white pan collar and run her fingers on the hem that reached mid-calf. 

Astonished, she exclaimed, ‘Anak, madre ka na pala.'

For weeks she remained in her room, still disoriented. There was this one time when I told her I was leaving for work. She casually asked me what time my flight was. I was flummoxed. I told her I was on my way to work. She reiterated what time my flight was. I said I was not travelling or flying anymore (on account of my husband’s demand to spend more time with my son, him, and Mama). Mama looked up worried, ‘Anak, wala ka nang flight? Wala ka nang trabaho?’ I was more confused now and asked ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Di ba flight attendant ka. O ayan o, meron kang bib!’ pointing at my Niñofranco Bagobo-Tagabawa scarf. (Many AD patients have difficulty finding the name of the objects they are supposed to name or identify).

Other than listing the amount of money people owed her, Mama seldom went out of her room. 

In the last three months, however, Mama started to show dramatic improvements, by the grace of God. Besides spending more time with her, or at least making her see a familiar face each day (mine), she started feeling more secure. She’s managed to cook her own food. She has resumed playing the piano, this time with a more varied repertoire for a much longer time. 

She gets along with her new caregiver Rhea, and has become less suspicious and accusatory. She would refuse assistance now in taking a bath. She’s again in control and is more aggressive in reminding and collecting from those who owed her, managing the payment of the utilities like cable and the water. She makes an inventory of her medications, which she would ask my driver to purchase for her.

The disease might have caused a significant chunk of nerve cells to shudder under the weight of the aging process, the inflammation and oxidative stress. However, I have seen for myself that more than therapeutics, non-pharmacologic, behavioral modification have been significant in decreasing Mama’s functional and mental decline. She likes being given reassurances of love, of our constant presence and attention. Her propensity to recall hostile, adversarial, and negative reminders of past events is neutralized by a hug or a kiss. Once, when she woke up with dishevelled hair, I combed her hair first before I did mine. I gathered her hair into a small bun. When it was my turn to comb my hair, she pulled something from inside her purse. She gave me a stretchy black band for pony tail.

Perhaps the greatest catalyst to Mama’s improved interaction and engagement, a more coherent, less tangential conversation was when I started rehabilitating her garden. I fashioned the layout into a more updated version and modern landscaping (I used less and less of her terracotta or clay pots and replaced them with more colourful glazed ceramic or porcelain pots). I gave her the plants that were visually stimulating. Colored flowering plants in big container gardens – red carnations, yellow-bell, purple portulaca, pink, red, and peach hibiscus. She was fascinated by the grafted bougainvillea that has deep pink, light pink, orange, and white petals. She also requested the plants she was used to seeing in the compound we lived in in Princess Urduja – San Francisco, Rosal, and Dama de Noche. 

I have spent a small fortune converting the garden into a more liveable, breathable space where Mama can have her whiff of fresh air in the city. The pergola shelters her from the heat. She even asks me every now and then if the plants have been watered. In return, I would ask her the date, and the news and current events she watched on TV. 

One neurologist stated that in his 40 years of medical practice, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens."

There go my Mama’s piano playing, and time spent in the garden. Every day.

I hear you. I believe you, Oliver Sacks.