I hear Madam snoring. Madam’s snore is soft and high, like a child’s whimper. Thank God she finally fell asleep. She has been restless all day, waking at dawn and insisting to go to the market. She wanted to buy freshly baked bread, a pound of brisket and vegetables and fruits I barely know. She plans to cook a delicious dish for her son, Eric, and his family when they come to visit. I keep on reminding her that Sir Eric would not be visiting until the weekend and that is still 4 days away. “Four more sleeps before he comes” I reminded Madam. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the way Madam would insist! You would think the Queen herself would be visiting, fussing about the food to serve, asking every few minutes if I’ve dusted the furniture — as if there’s any dust here at all — and if I have vacuumed the carpet. Not that I need to, for Mrs. Bartlett comes to clean the house every week.
But, I do understand Madam’s excitement and fussiness over her son. Mama is the same way with Nena and I. When Nena was in the big city studying, Mama was always excited over her mid-term breaks. Mama would clean the house from top to bottom — and oh, how the house needed cleaning with the dust from the dirt road coating every surface with white powder! Mama would clean days before Nena arrives. She even had a two-week menu listed down with Nena’s favorite dishes and sweets. The first year Nena was in school, Nena did not mind Mama fussing over her. She was even grateful for the bundles of food and fresh fruit that Mama insisted she haul back to the dormitory. But after a while, Nena protested over Mama worrying and fussing over her. Nena figured that she gains half-a-kilo every time she spent her term breaks at home. “Enough, Mama!” Nena pleaded. Mama tried very hard then.
Then it was my turn to go to the big city to study. The first thing Mama did when I arrived home for breaks — after the rib-breaking hug and thousand kisses — was to pinch my arm and say that I was not eating enough. I understood then why Nena protested over Mama fussing over her. And just like with Nena, Mama would pack and bundle food for me to bring back to my dormitory. My haul was enough to feed 10 starving full-grown men for several weeks. I remember my roommates’ excitement whenever I returned from home. They shared in my blessings, as well as the other girls in the floor.
What was that? It must be Madam talking in her sleep again. I wonder what she is dreaming of tonight. At times she speaks clearly, but most times, she murmurs. The first few weeks after I arrived, I was so scared for Madam. She would talk in her sleep and even cry. I slept in her room those first few weeks, gently caressing her forehead and speaking softly to her when she cried or talked in her sleep. It comforted her even though I used words alien and foreign to her; and she liked being touched. Mama used to tell Nena and I that a caress carries a thousand words of affection.
Madam still cries in her sleep, and when she does, I shed a few tears myself. I do not know who she cries for, but it must be a longing for her husband who passed away years ago, or her brother, or perhaps her parents and even friends, for those are the people I shed tears for: I shed tears for Mama whose hugs and kisses I miss; I shed tears for Nena who I share all my secrets with; and I shed tears for my best friend whose laughter blows the sadness away. I shed tears for my family who are continents away.
Brrr, oh, but it is getting cold! I must check on Madam, that she has not brushed off her blanket or she will complain of aching bones again. Why in heaven’s name is it so cold here? There is no snow; I thought that only snow is cold. Our neighbor’s friend warned me about the cold and the wind. Mama’s second cousin reminded me to bring the warmest clothes. I read about the cold through the internet in our small town cybershop. Even my instructor gave me her winter coat and this is what I brought with me along with my thickest clothes. But it does no good. I have read in books that the cold ‘bites’, but I have only recently understood its meaning. The cold seeps through your clothes and sinks its teeth into your bones and does not let go. Back home, cold was curling up in bed in our warm blankets and wearing a colorful, fashionable, threadbare sweater to venture out of the house. Cold was excitedly seeing fog coming out of your mouth when you speak. The cold back home was not like this, never like this.
There are times that I think the cold bites the hearts of people. And once bitten, it leaves your heart cold and hard as icicles. I think that is what happened to the old woman down the street. Perhaps she has been feeling cold for some time but kept ignoring it until the cold bit into her heart and took all the warmth from her. Perhaps that is why she has forgotten how to smile and wears a frown instead. I would like to think that is what happened to her. It is easier to imagine that, than to remember the weeks and months of her all alone in her house, without anyone visiting, not even her own children. Madam tells me that the old woman has four successful children and half a dozen grandchildren, and yet, no one visits her. Her heart must be cold and hard for a long time now.
Mama would never understand that. She would never understand how children could ignore their parents and not visit them. It would be unforgivable. We always visited Nana and Abwelo and had our weekly Sunday supper with them; but more often than not, Nana and Abwelo would visit us anytime of the week. Of course it helped that Nana and Abwelo lived a few blocks away from us and it only took them one, short ride to get to our house. If it was not blistering hot, one could even walk all the way. But even if Nana and Abwelo lived in the next town or the city, I could not imagine Mama not visiting them. In the same way, I could not imagine not talking to Mama or Nena for more than a week! If that happened, I am afraid my heart would grow cold too.
But thank God that Madam’s heart is full of warmth. She has happy memories that keep her smiling and there is Sir Eric and his family that keeps her heart full. She has drawers overflowing with old photographs and in her good days, Madam could recall the names, faces and occasion. She would describe the lovely dresses she and her friends wore and the music they danced to. On good days, Madam would be full of stories and I would be full of questions. But Madam knows that her memory is slipping and there have been instances when she stopped midway in her story, unable to unlock the drawer in her mind where the story was kept. She would get so embarrassed and so keep to herself then. In those moments, I would take her hand and sit with her: Madam silently struggling with herself, and I silently wishing that it was Mama’s hand that I was holding.
I remember I was holding Mama’s hand when I told her that I had to go far away to a foreign land to work. She was very quiet, the very thing that I was not expecting. I was so sure she would raise her voice and give a litany of dreadful things that happen to women who go to foreign lands to work. But no, this time Mama was silent and though she did not speak a word, her eyes spoke words of sadness and grief. I could not look at her for I did not want to unleash a downpour of tears. It was Nena who cried for Mama and I. She knew that Mama and I were being brave, that we had to be brave. Mama and I didn’t talk about my departure; there were so many unspoken words. When neighbors heard, they spoke the words for us. They gave words of strength to Mama and words of encouragement and caution to me. When I left, I left not with bundles of food but with bundles of love and wisdom.
Ahh, it is almost time. On particular days, just like this, I get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning. I do not mind waking in the cold, dark, early hours. In fact, I look forward to these days as I get to see and speak to Mama and Nena. It took some time but Nena was able to get a reasonably priced second-hand computer; the internet connection took longer. We set dates for our calls and for several minutes we could pretend that I am just a few miles away from home, instead of the several hundred miles that keep us apart. It sounds silly, but I get giddy and excited as the time draws near. I fix my hair, put on my face and settle my nerves. There is much to talk about today; but then, there is always much to talk about with Mama and Nena.
Today, I will tell Mama and Nena about Madam, of how excited she is of the upcoming visit of Sir Eric and his family. I will tell them of Sir Eric’s children, of how fond they are of Madam. I will tell them of the dish Madam plans to prepare for the visit. And Mama and Nena will tell me of how they are, of how hot the weather has been and how a recent typhoon devastated parts of the country. Mama and Nena will relay local news to me: of which cousin graduated and which cousin is marrying and who, among our neighbors, is expecting a baby. I will tell them of the sad, old woman who lives across the street and of how she still has not had a visitor. I will them of the photographs and the stories Madam shares with me. But I will not tell Mama of the cold, of how my face and eyes sting when I step out the door, of how my stomach churns and crunches when the wind blows. I will not tell them of how my hand shakes and stiffens when I walk to the grocery store. Instead, I will tell them of how clean the surroundings are and the miracle of not having dust at all. I will tell them of the different dishes I have tasted, of the variety of restaurants and people in the neighborhood. But I will not tell them of the tears I shed when Madam cries in the night, of how we both long for our loved ones. You see, some things Mama and Nena do not have to know. For now, all they have to know is that they are the ones that give me strength; it is memories that we share that give me hope, and it is their unfailing love that keep me warm through this bitter and biting cold.
—written November 2014 for submission