The Light in the Kitchen

Note: This piece first came out as a social media post in 2013 after a dream I had about my mother. My friend Joy Rojas, from Hinge Inquirer’s now defunct LOOK Magazine, asked me to write a longer piece for publication. I welcomed the opportunity not just for catharsis but also to honor the memory of my Nanay. With my current residence in disarray, I cannot find a copy of the magazine’s issue where it came out. So here is the piece as I emailed it to Joy, before it was lovingly edited by Alya Honasan. Alya told me she shed tears while she was editing it. I hope it connects with you the same way.

In loving memory of Nicanora Bulanadi Torres Badelles, Jan 10, 1928 – October 2, 2011.

Ever since we were small, Nanay would always be the first person up at dawn. She was our cook, housekeeper, seamstress, laundrywoman, bookkeeper, transportation manager, security manager, waste disposal manager, in-house guidance counselor, etc. In later years, when we already had househelp, she still insisted on doing certain things herself.

In the silent hours of the morning, she flicks on the light switches to light her way as she moves from her bedroom, down the stairs, to the dining area and finally to the kitchen. From the open door of my bedroom, I would wake up and see the light cast from the kitchen. I breathe in deeply and say, “Oh, fried chicken!” or “tortang talong” or whatever would be my packed lunch at school.

Returning home from school, sometimes when it is already dark, I would find the light at the gatepost switched on. She always remembers to turn on the lights for us. I think this is more so that she could see the faces of whoever would be on the gate when she opens the door for a peek before she lets them in.

Later on, being with an independent streak, I decided to leave and be on my own. Everytime I visit, Nanay’s welcomes were always happy. I would help her cook. Or when I have just learned a new dish, I would prepare it and she would always say that it was “masarap.”

Before cellphones, she had this list of our phone numbers beside the telephone so she could call us when she needed to. I had an answering machine once and it recorded her voice. I would erase all the other messages after hearing them, except hers. Her voice had been melodic and though she never sounded disappointed that she wasn’t able to catch me at home, I knew she preferred my real voice over the recorded one. She left messages asking how I was. She would always end with “Sweet kisses to you, my dear.” She also ended her letters to my sister who worked and settled overseas that way.

The answering machine got busted and I couldn’t retrieve her messages anymore.

I would give anything to hear her voice again.

In 2009, two mornings after her 81st birthday, the lights inside her head flickered.

Some turned off, never to turn on again.

It was the morning of her stroke.

We all suffered with that stroke. But she suffered the most. After a long confinement and treatment, after a huge hospital bill we stopped computing and calculating again and again after we hit the one million mark, and heavy debt, we all wished her suffering and ours would end.

On the night she died, I went home after my brother told me she is gone. I felt her forehead with my hand. Cold. It is true what they say, “Malamig na bangkay.” [A cold corpse]. She is gone.

When the funeral people came to pick her up and put her in a body bag, I felt it was the end of a long journey. It was relief.

Most funerals are a time for families to get together. The reunion that I thought would reunite all my brothers and sisters never happened. And I know it pains my mother that it never did.

Maybe I should have done more to put the family together.

A few weeks ago, I had a dream that I was with Nanay. Yet, I knew I was dreaming. I told her, "Ayoko magising, ‘Nay, kasi pag nagising ako wala ka na." [I don’t want to wake up, Nanay, because I know when I wake up you will already be gone.] We were in our old apartment in Boni, Mandaluyong. I kept hugging her tight and telling her I love her. I closed my eyes and tried to capture with all my concentration how soft and warm the feeling of hugging her had always been. She even had that light scent that did not come from any cologne, perfume, or soap. But just from the purity of her heart and soul. Mothers, as they should be, are like that with their sons and daughters. Pure in heart, soul, and intention.

I asked for help regarding work, regarding paying all the money I owe, regarding helping find someone who will make me feel less alone.

She smiled and said yes to a lot of things I asked. Then she walked out of the apartment, crossed the street, looked back and smiled.

I took Psychology in college and knew what the dream meant. It meant she was ready to let us go, and that we only need to remember how much she loves us, that she has forgiven us, and the only strength we need is the strength from our family (which was why it was set in Boni, during happier times when the family was whole). When she crossed the street and looked back and smiled, it meant she had already moved on to a happier life and she will be fine.

And so will we.

Each morning when I come down to the kitchen, I would find the lights on. I tell myself I had forgotten to turn them off again last night.

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