Knowing that somebody in the family has cancer is very scary. Despite advances in modern medicine, it remains one of the leading causes of death everywhere and you just can't grasp the thought that someone dear to you is afflicted with it.
Ma's ailment was diagnosed rather late. She ignored the initial back pains thinking that they were just menopausal symptoms. When the cervical cancer was finally discovered, it was past the curable stage.
When Ma broke the news of her illness to us, she tried not to be too concerned about it. She conditioned herself to believe that she'd get well. We admired her courage and the great lengths she took not to complain too much about the pain, but my father said that Ma silently wept (in church, usually) when we, her children were not around. My grandfather helped out in defraying the radiation treatment expenses which we obviously couldn't afford.
Because she was our family's bread winner for the past several years (my father's small business went under), she continued to teach despite her illness. She was a high school Physics teacher and she was quite good having graduated with honors from San Carlos University. She was the mild-mannered and religious type who avoided gossips and intrigues. During her more than 20 years of service in Masbate National Comprehensive High School (MNCHS), she didn't take days off for flimsy excuses. She cried, therefore, when after undergoing radiation therapy in Manila for two or three weeks, she returned to learn Mrs. Lourdes Bartolabac, the school Principal, giving her low marks in annual performance because of her absence. Other teachers who also had several absences but whose personalities were of the type who would not accept low marks sitting down, were generously given higher ratings.
This was Ma's biggest fault. She had always been an easy target for oppression because her personality was transparently non-confrontational. I grew up not having seen her engage in a quarrel with anybody. The only time I saw her in a fighting stance was when the MNCHS principal then, Mrs. Patria Butalid, called her then erased and lowered my grade (right in front of my mother) which eventually resulted in the non-proclamation of class valedictorian and salutatorian that year. Thinking that Ma was a pushover, she perhaps thought that my mother (who was her subordinate) would be cowed and would just keep silent. However, Ma unexpectedly wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper questioning the legality of the principal's action. Scandalized, the principal instantly called a faculty meeting and rebuked my mother in front of all the MNCHS teachers (incident that some of my classmates and I witnessed outside the Conference Room). It was one of her shining moments, I think - standing up against a powerful superior knowing that the other teachers who supported her (and a majority silently did) could not openly oppose the principal nor express their sentiments. (Though she taught in the same school, Ma intentionally did not handle classes I was in and didn't go out of her way to closely follow-up my grades and class standing.)
For lack of money to pursue the case, we lost the fight by default (one year after our graduation, Mrs. Butalid arbitrarily proclaimed as valedictorian my classmate she favored - even while the case was still pending at the Department of Education National Office). Later events, however, vindicated my mother. She was viewed in a new light by those who under-estimated her while those on the other side earned stigma instead of the honors they wanted. In retrospect, that fuss about class honors was a trivial and almost ridiculous event, but it showed in final analysis the great lengths and crooked paths some people would take just to feed their egos. It disillusioned my young mind then seeing how some people in authority could use their power and connections against a powerless family just to save face. It however made my barely five-foot mother stand taller in my eyes because she was so small and fragile yet she courageously went to case hearings in Bicol, sometimes all by herself and on borrowed money, to defiantly face an entourage of personages in the opposite camp. That was when I realized that she was made of tougher stuff than I first thought.
When my mother's ailment worsened, she walked noticeably slower but continued to report to work. We also encouraged this because teaching provided diversion from her pains. Apparently however, it annoyed the new Principal, Mrs. Bartolabac (who is a relative of the ex-principal, Mrs. Butalid), because she told other teachers that Ma should just retire because she was affecting the quality of the school's education. This Principal hadn't even visited Ma's room to observe her teach. She just assumed that because Ma had terminal cancer, she was no longer fit to work.
When Mrs. Bartolabac made a policy of closing the school's main gate during certain hours (everybody had to use the gate at the back instead) one of Ma's co-teachers appealed to exempt Ma from the policy so she wouldn't have to walk the much longer route from her classroom to the back gate. Mrs. Bartolabac's answer was emphatically firm. "She shouldn't use her cancer to demand special treatment. If she's that bad, then advise her to retire."
Well, Ma didn't have to. While having breakfast and preparing to go to school on January 21, 1997, she ran to the bathroom when she felt blood flowing down her legs. It was the second time she experienced excessive bleeding and she was scared. After just a few minutes, my father entered the toilet and found her sitting there - lifeless. She had cardiac arrest.
Ma's face in death was very peaceful. I believe that God took her suddenly so she wouldn't have to go through the most painful stage of her illness. Before she passed away, we have resigned ourselves to the fact that she would eventually be bedridden and would suffer cancer's pain more frequently and more severely. I thank God that He spared her from that.
The day before her death, I called Ma to tell her that she had a package (sent through my sister Jane) from her best friend, Mrs. Cleofe Maristela-Hicks, who's now in California. They had been bosom friends for as long as I could remember, and Ma was naturally happy to learn about the package. I told her that I would send the package via a fast-delivery service so she would receive it the following day. I also enclosed a one-month supply of pain-killers which were the only medication that sustained her that time.
The next day, the package arrived five hours after she was gone.
Ma's picture at the top was taken by one of her tutorial students, Jerome. She was already sick then but she still took tutorial jobs (Mathematics and Science) to augment our family income. I was paying for my sister Jane's studies in Manila, and her tutorial income helped pay for Rose's and Raynel's education in Masbate.
When I posted my old homepage in April 1998, one of Ma's former students who's now in the U.S. visited the site through a link from Alumni Net. Not having heard about Ma's demise, he wrote in my old guestbook the following (full text in my old guestbook) :
Ma would have been happy to read that.
Except for the low performance rating which Ma personally told me when I went home for a vacation once, I first learned of the other incidents involving Mrs. Bartolabac from Ma's co-teachers during her wake.
Since I put up this site, I have received a number of e-mail from my mother's ex-students and I am proud to say that all letter-senders have written positive words about her. I have not saved the early letters but I am putting here some of the notable ones starting with this one from someone who was my mother's student during her short stint at Ovilla Technical College during her first few years in Masbate:
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