Saturday, November 15, 2008

A watch in the night

Commentary : A watch in the night

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 14, 2008

I FOUND MYSELF the "bantay" at my mother-in-law's bedside very early in the morning the day before she died. Everyone else was sleeping or busy somewhere. The only sound in the hospital room was the breathy "choo" "choo" "choo" of the ventilator every few seconds. Medicines dripped from six bottles suspended over the bed. It was icy cold in the room, but she was in deep coma and no longer cared. At times I went close to look at her face: her head hung at an awkward angle on the pillow; her tongue half protruded from her mouth, pushed aside by the oxygen tube. It wasn't the woman I had lived alongside for 32 years. Outside Chinese General Hospital crowds already made their way into the North Cemetery for the All Souls' Day vigil.

My mother-in-law, Carmen Laroco Gentolia, reached 89 the day before. Her husband was also 89 when he died four years earlier. He had been in a coma that lasted for years, and she wanted none of that: "Don't do that to me," she often said. "No machines. No tubes stuck in me. I'll pull them out, if I can. Let me go. I have asked God to forgive my sins, I'm ready. Let me go." Her children had promised they would.

My wife and I went to live with her family 32 years ago soon after we married. She had never talked to an American and suddenly there I was in the middle of her life. I often caught her studying me, wondering perhaps about God's funny ways. I'd be eating, look up suddenly and she'd be watching me closely, much like an anthropologist watching a tribal ritual.

Over the years, through good times and bad, my mother-in-law and I grew to be at ease with one another. In the end she was the only member of the family to come with me to the barangay court when I brought a case against our neighbor's very noisy dog. My wife and the others in the house were too embarrassed to come, even if the dog was the marathon barker of all time and bothered everyone. "Imagine, taking a dog to court," I heard them whisper. Lola not only came with me, she spoke eloquently on my behalf. We won and the dog was remanded from behind our house to another place where we wouldn't hear him.

She had a full life. Nine children were born and six survived. She was a great, great-grandmother, whose life extended over five generations. She served her parents, her children and husband for 80 years. But it wasn't all toil. She "escaped" from her parents' home in Pangasinan to marry the man she loved. When she found it hard to live in Sorsogon, she went in 1943 by small sailboat along the coast, in danger of storms, robbers and Japanese soldiers on a trip to Manila that took months to finish. She took her eldest daughter who was still a baby with her. She had the good times of every mother--the weddings, graduations and successes of her children.

Nothing happened during my watch, and soon dawn was up in Manila. I had once written a novel titled "A Watch in the Night." The phrase is from Psalm 90 where the Psalmist compares our short life to that of the Immortal God: "A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday. / But humans you return to dust, saying, 'Return, you mortals. / Before a watch passes in the night you have brought them to their end.'"

She died the next day in the early morning. When we got to her bedside, her face was at peace as if she were sleeping, but she looked very content. She seemed to be saying, "I have won." Her chin was out just a little in her triumph. We were left with the cold room, rain in the streets outside, but she was home with her loved ones. We see rain. She now sees, I thought, the Living God.

They wrapped her in the sheet like a mummy and we followed the gurney through the hospital to bring her to the hearse that would carry her to the funeraria. At one point we watched the gurney go over a little pedestrian bridge that joins two buildings at the Chinese General Hospital. It was a symbol of her passage from this world to one where the martyrs and the saints would meet her and bring her to the Lord she served so well.

The Psalmist also writes: "You take hold of my right hand. / With your counsel you guide me / and at the end you receive me in honor." (Ps 73).

Her children made her very comfortable in the last years of her life. Someone was always with her to talk. If she wanted crabs, they hurried to Hi-Top; if it was palabok, they went to Cubao. Her most faithful companion, however, was our dog, Titanic, who has also grown old. They sat side by side all day, watching the TV, she on her chair, Titanic on the couch. Any program would do--horror movies, old Tagalog films, quiz shows, it didn't matter. There were more important things to think about.

We often worry about the growing immorality of the world, and yet 50 percent of all people are mothers just like Lola, who live lives full of love and service, who have always tried "to do the right and to love goodness and to walk humbly with God." (Micah 6:8)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner