Unconventional, but technically within the parameters of our Folks on the Road Series—my mom visited this week. After a few days of quality time (and much red wine), I am reminded of all our parents do for us.

Driving back from a long goodbye hug in Vienna (once on the highway and up to 5th gear) I thought about the exceptional life my mom has lived, much of which is still unknown to me; I only know what I’ve seen of latter years and and what I’ve gathered from her stories. I thought about the the pay-it-forwards way in which life ebbs and flows. How generations pass one thing down to the next, then the next. Quirks. Heirlooms. Genes. And how many stories are lost in the process, not only from waning memories but waning effort to really talk to one another.

This CBC Non-Fiction Prize submission outlines a few of those precious and course-defining moments in my mother’s life. And mine. The kind we should take more time to safeguard.

Perhaps it’s homesickness talking. Or maybe I’m just grateful for another chance to tell my mom that she’s been a flippin’ rockstar.



The Far Side of the Moon

The first winter, my mom needed five layers to leave the house—a tank top, a thermal, a shirt, a sweater, and a parka. She must have found it challenging to function bundled like so, but she hated the cold that seeped into her bones, stole her breath, and cracked the skin on her hands wide open. She hated the cold because it was her loneliness personified.

We immigrated from the Philippines in 1995. My dad believed that Canada was a safer place for us, and a better place to raise two daughters. For my mom it may as well have been the far side of the moon. But whether it was chemotherapy that had weakened her into submission, or the notion that good Filipino wives must always obey their husbands, she didn’t put up a fight. She bottled it up with the same resolve with which she packed our bags. Perhaps the best performance of her life was making us believe she had wanted to move.  

At first, we lived with my grandpa and his second mistress. I had never had a grandpa before, so I was upset when we suddenly moved into a tiny apartment a few short years later. My mom painted the place deep blue—two coats of her sadness splashed all over the walls. Much later, I learned why we left my grandfather’s house and wished we’d left sooner. 

Our new little apartment was a haven for her, but while dad was at work and we were at school, she would still sit in the closet—her safe place— and cry to her mom over the phone. Sprint was making 19 cents a minute from her sadness alone. I couldn’t understand then how fights about the Sprint bill were really fights about their life abroad. At the age of six, so many things flew right over my head. Mom would gave us the tightest, longest hugs after school every day—years later, I learned it was because we were all she had.

There were so many other things that became apparent over the years; I was too busy falling in love with reading, learning to ride a bike, and enjoying my first white Christmas. Kids complained about recess in the cold but I loved eating Fruit Roll-Ups that didn’t melt like glue between sticky fingers. I didn’t notice that we had stopped speaking Tagalog at home, or that my dad was no longer vice president of a bank. Ironically, his first job was delivering overweight balikbayan boxes, as someone else had done for us during our big move.

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But I did notice how mom was changing. Our second winter, she only needed to wear four layers out of the house. She had finally passed the test for her driver’s license and after taking us to school, she would join other moms for coffee. To our detriment, she learned many things over the course of a latte: that cooking enough food for ‘leftovers’ was socially acceptable, as was teaching her kids to help with chores. She still called grandma everyday, but her ‘safe place’ had expanded beyond the closet. 

I would see the biggest change in her whenever she had to take me and my sister to work. In the Philippines, my mom had been a pop star—and I mean top of the charts, sold out shows, screaming fans kind of pop star. She had released twelve albums, gone platinum, and decorated ‘Female Artist of the Year’. She was only 25 the first time she filled a stadium with 20,000 fans. Despite all this, my mom left the Philippines believing that her career was over; she was unaware that a fan base of overseas filipino workers were waiting to see her in concert. My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter so my sister and I skipped school to tag along.

We were at a Jekyll & Hyde themed restaurant in Manhattan when I first realized that mom also had two personas. There was our stay-at-home mom; she would make us do homework, clean our rooms, and share the two-cheeseburger meal at McDonald’s to save money. Then there was our pop star mom; she was picked up from airports in limousines, put up at the Ritz-Carlton, and always fawned over. We still recognized her through her heavy stage makeup and costume gowns—but the way she commanded a stage with pure confidence and joy seemed like a hidden part of her we hardly new. 

Many of my fondest childhood memories were made on these trips. We loved flying, ordering room service at fancy hotels, and banging on the drums during rehearsal breaks. We enjoyed trips to Disneyland, Alcatraz, and the top of the Empire State building. We also went to the Philippines with her every summer, our airfare included in the contracts she signed. I loved seeing her live her former life a month at a time, loved sitting beside my sister and grandma in the front row of her concerts. My mom once told me her favourite part of it all was hearing the crowd sing her own lyrics back to her; whenever this happened, I I think I savoured it as much as she did.

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F#@! Cancer

More winters passed. We eventually moved into a townhouse with a creek behind it. One Sunday afternoon, my dad took me and my sister for a walk. We crossed a bridge over red salmon swimming upstream. I had learned all about the salmon life cycle at school, and was shocked that they would sacrifice their lives just to lay a few eggs. We walked until we reached the park at my sister’s elementary school, where Dad sat us down on the swings. Mom had cancer again, this time in her colon. We knew cancer as the sickness that mom had recovered from a decade ago, but little else.

Aside from a couple visits to her recovery bed and noticing the loss of her eyelashes, I have few memories of all that my parents endured at this time. My mom wanted it this way—she wanted to keep our childhood innocence intact as long as possible, even if it meant surgery without us by her side. The only visible change was how much mom prayed, and a prayer for good health was added to our bedtime routine. Mom has always been a devout Catholic, but also subscribed to certain superstitions: she believed that bad things came in threes, and always weighed her purse down with ‘lucky coins’ rescued from the ground.

While mom managed chemotherapy without a single complaint, she was more vocal about empty nesting when that dreaded time came. My sister had moved to the University of British Columbia campus just an hour away, while I was off to Paris for a semester. Raising us had replaced singing as her full-time job and suddenly—we were gone. 

So she found other things to do. When my mom graduated with a degree in Early Child Education at Vancouver Community College, we were proud of her for choosing a new career path, and proud that she was the first in the family to pass an exam hungover. While we completed our degrees, she opened her own daycare, one where bible stories could be read and children could be hugged. She still toured the world on weekends, sometimes as far as Dubai or Qatar. My dad will be the first to lovingly agree that she’s far too busy to be the same soft-spoken stay-at-home wife she once was. And while she may never leave the house without at least three layers, she has warmed to every other aspect of life in Canada.

Bad Things Come in Threes

My mom had let herself into my room and under the sheets. Her warm tears and soft whimpers meant the doctor had finally reached her, and she know knew the secret we had harboured. We hid there together for a while, her muffled voice admitting big fears. I heard myself offering what little I could. You’ve beat cancer twice, you can do it again. We’ll get through this together. But while my lips moved on auto-pilot, I was beside myself screaming. She had been my rock but in the cocoon of my embrace, she suddenly seemed so fragile and small.

She had a concert scheduled in the Philippines on Valentines Day, two weeks later. Despite our reservations, she went ahead with it. She would be back with plenty of time before her scheduled surgery. And I don’t think she’s ever had to heart to disappoint fans by cancelling a show. With so much uncertainty ahead of us, we couldn’t keep her from doing what she so passionately loved.


Earth, Wind, and Fire

Instead of inheriting my mom’s voice, I inherited Lynch Syndrome: a genetic mutation that increases risk of colon and ovarian cancer in women quite drastically (someone of the general public faces a lifetime risk of colon cancer is below 5%, whereas someone with LS is looking at an average of 60%). Harder than accepting this news was seeing her so guilt-ridden. But, my family had tickets to see Earth Wind and Fire that night so we decided we would drink wine, soldier on, and live loudly. Mom decided to dance in the aisle until security escorted her out for being a fire hazard. She put up a good fight, proclaiming that she was “just dancing”. I suppose she’s always been a fighter. Maybe I’ve inherited that too.

The following weekend was Easter. We celebrated the anniversary of mom’s third victory over cancer with a family trip to Haida Gwaii (largely thanks to Air Miles for threatening to expire earned points). My sister and I wanted our parents to experience the remote Pacific North West—a gift they’d unknowingly given us when they chose Canada to be their new home. Mom was so mesmerized by Balance Rock, a large boulder mysteriously suspended on its point, that she almost missed the pid of grey whales breaching offshore.

The same look of wonder appeared as we examined the mortuary poles made famous by Emily Carr’s paintings; totems overgrown with moss and leaning at dangerous angles. When she asked our guide why nothing was being done to preserve these artifacts, we learned the Haida believe in letting nature run its course, and allow all things to return to the earth.

Nothing was said aloud but we shared a knowing look—one brimming with tranquil acceptance of life in all its complexity and brilliance.