This picture was taken almost 10 years ago, and when I say ‘almost 10 years,’ I’m not just rounding up by a few months or years. ‘Almost 10 years’ means: it’s been about 9 years and 11 months since this photo was taken. At first glance, you see a park with a pond in the background. You see a pothole, so the picture was probably taken in the middle of a not so busy street. You see nine people smiling including a weak looking woman bundled up and sitting in a wheelchair. You also see two gentlemen facing away from the camera on each side of the group. You see by the outerwear of the group that it was probably a chilly, perhaps autumn, day. You also might notice an overcast sky with the sun peaking out just enough to cast a light on this group of eleven.
What you wouldn’t know unless one of the people in this photo (or the one taking the photo) told you, is that it wasn’t a chilly autumn day but in fact, a pretty warm winter day in December in New Jersey. You wouldn’t know that 7 out of the 11 in this photo were just visiting — one from Minesota and six from Manila, Philippines. You wouldn’t know that the guy in the back wearing the dark green beanie is notorious for being the one to take and develop pictures, but on this day, he was actually IN the picture. You also wouldn’t know that the woman in the wheelchair had been battling uterine cancer for 18 months, and you wouldn’t know that the two guys standing off to the side facing away from the camera were her brothers pretending to be her trusty bodyguards.
My uncle, Tito Rene (the bodyguard on the left), posted this picture on facebook yesterday and tagged most of the people in it. I’m certain that everyone who was tagged in this picture recounted the happy memory of this day and smiled warmly at the screens on their computers or smart phones. I, too, was tagged in this picture, and I, too, smiled as I recounted the memory of what was going on in the picture. The picture, however, also makes my heart beat a little faster and my vision a little blurry because my eyes have swollen up with tears.
The woman in the wheelchair is my mother, but it’s not the fact that she is sick in this photo that brings tears to my eyes. It’s because I know, just as the people in this picture would tell you, that this was the last time my mom would ever go for a walk around the park. And where was I? I was in my pajamas in the house about twenty yards away.
At the time, our house was home to twelve individuals. Eight of my mom’s closest relatives from the Philippines had come in order to take care of her and be with her in, what would be, her final months. The clan included: her mom Lola Mommy, her dearest aunt Tita Dely, her two brothers Rene and Rey, her sister-in-law and dearest friend Bia, Bia’s husband Mon, Bia’s daughter and my “sister” Nina, and my pop’s sister Marita. They had arrived a month earlier on Thanksgiving Day after my pop and mom decided it was time to go on hospice care. Around that time, my pop told me that Mom had six months to live. Six months to live? What does that statement and time frame even mean to a fifteen-year old? To me, I knew she was sick, but I just… thought she would get better. To me, having all of our closest relatives in town simply meant a full house, and it was awesome.
The day this picture was taken happened sometime during my sophomore winter break. I was in the kitchen at the table when all of a sudden, my pop announces, “Mama wants to go for a walk! Come on, let’s go!” I had gone on many walks, bike rides, and drives around the park with my pop and mom — hundreds of them in my lifetime. We used to do it every afternoon at some point. The park wasn’t going anywhere. The house wasn’t going anywhere. We could go anytime. I’ll just join you guys the next time, was an easy enough explanation of why I decided to stay home in my pajamas that day. It didn’t occur to me that my mom had been cooped up in the house for, at that point, a few weeks already and how rare it was for her to muster up the energy to take this walk. It didn’t occur to me that the whole visiting family would go on this walk with the exception of my Lola Mommy and Tita Dely who had trouble walking far distances. It didn’t occur to me why my pop was so excited to round up everyone just for a walk around the park that we could take anytime. Those things didn’t occur to me. So for whatever reasons, I said, “No, I’ll just stay here.”
Our back door was the main door we used, and you had to pass through the kitchen to enter and leave the house. I sat at the kitchen table maybe eating or snacking on something; I can’t remember. I could hear everyone bustling around, putting on their winter jackets, tying their shoes, helping mom bundle up and walking her to the door. As everyone passed through the kitchen, they would ask me excitedly, “You coming for the walk?!” I gave them a version of, “No, not today.”
As the final stragglers hurried out the door, I can recall the thought crossing my mind, Maybe I SHOULD join them, but the fact that I had already made my decision and the fact that they were already out the door overrode the impulse to go. Somehow though, deep down, I just knew that this decision would sort of haunt me in years to come. Maybe haunt is not the right word. It’s not that I felt disturbed by this decision in subsequent months and years. It just… represented how unimaginably valuable quality time with your loved ones is, and I so painfully had to learn this in this way.
When the gang came back home, through the back door, I think I was still in the kitchen. Everyone was laughing, and they excitedly explained to me how funny it was that Tito Rene and Tito Rey pretended to be mom’s secret service agents. Even if mom wasn’t sick and it wasn’t a special sequence of events, it genuinely looked like they had a great time and that I would have had fun too if I had tagged along. In fact, I’m so fond of that story that I could tell it as if I really did go on that walk with them.
I’m not at all saddened by the fact that this picture resurfaced ten years later. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s always a nice surprise to see my mom’s pictures pop up on my facebook feed and notifications. I don’t wish for this story to make others sad either. My mom was such an important part of my living being. Going through her physical loss has actually been my life’s greatest lesson. If I can avoid it, I will never miss an opportunity to babysit my nephews or go for some ice cream with a friend or go for a hike with my boyfriend or take a drive to Costco with my pop or go to a concert with my brothers. There is nothing in this world I value greater than my family, friends, and loved ones, and I owe it to my mom for teaching me this.
Sometimes dropping things on your agenda or accepting invitations may seem like an inconvenience, but in the grand scheme of things, the laughs, joy, insight, exercise, whatever it is you get out of that time spent with your loved ones is so much more rewarding to the soul than any other activity or “obligation.” What it comes down to is this… Life is, how they say, a walk in the park, and it’s more beautiful with others taking the walk with you. If you can avoid it, don’t wait until you’ve lost someone physically to enjoy a walk in the park with them. Don’t hesitate, even just a bit.
Thanks, Tito Rene, for posting the pictures! I love you!