Vanished into the Clouds

January 10, 2022 / Cyril Gabriel Alinsub

How do I lead a life without a mother’s love when hers was the first I ever knew?

The sun sat high, partially obscured by wispy, wayward clouds, and illuminated the face of my mother as we sat along the beach. We listened to the deep sounds of the ocean in front of us. As I turned to look at her, I couldn’t help but notice the pained expression on her face, marked by sunken eyes and the formation of wrinkles along her cheeks. I wondered, How long has she had those? Gone were the days of her vibrant laugh ringing throughout the house. No words were exchanged between us. We shared a silent, wistful gaze. In my mind, I bemoaned the finality of her condition. As I watched the sea foam churning up on shore and dissipating moments later, I noticed that the sand had darkened where the waves had previously been. There was a sense of serenity to be found in seeing how a brief moment left an impact beyond its existence.

My mom was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 53. Everybody knows they’ll die eventually, but cancer has the property of accelerating one’s perception of time by a factor of five. It strips away time, a finite resource we possess, and robs us of our agency. The average life expectancy of a Filipino woman is 71 years; how do you condense 20 years of life into four? There will always be words left unsaid, promises unfulfilled. She passed away at the age of 58, when I was 18.

In the final weeks of my mom’s life, she was bedridden and barely had the energy to eat. Word had gotten around that my parents and I were staying in Nabunturan, a town in a province two hours away from Davao City. One day, a large group of her classmates from college came to visit. Despite some of them having driven for hours to get to our provincial dwelling, Mom refused to see them. At the time, I was confused how she could turn away some of the people closest to her when they had taken the time to see her. I now know that it was an act of preserving what semblance of control over her life she had left. She didn’t want to let them see her in her current state.

Temporality resides in everything around us, down to the very nature of the human condition. It’s found in friendships created during the formative years of youth, which often fade with time, but can be looked back upon fondly. It’s found in the bliss of a child’s love towards a certain toy, which is eventually outgrown, yet left undiscarded out of nostalgia. And it’s found in a mother’s existence in her child’s life. The Japanese have a term for describing the ephemeral nature of life: mono no aware. Often translated as “the pathos of things,” it expresses the poignant feeling elicited by witnessing the wonders of life, knowing that none of it can last.  Life is composed of transitory periods, and finding significance in the impermanence can become a core tenet of a fulfilling life.

Historically, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is the epitome of mono no aware in the Japanese canon. The novel follows the life of Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient emperor, and its poetic writing carries a profound sensitivity to the emotional aspects of humanity. Present in some manuscripts is a chapter in between 41 and 42 called “Kumogakure” (雲隠), which translates to “Vanished into the Clouds.” The chapter consists of only a title, followed by a blank page, evoking Genji’s death. The page becomes a threshold between what was and the next. It is in this liminal space devoid of words where I eventually learned to find solace. At a point when I felt like my own life was just truly beginning, I lost my mother.

For a while, I, too, felt lost. Lost on what to do next, lost in turbulent emotional states. How do I lead a life without a mother’s love when hers was the first I ever knew? She was the one who lovingly cooked warm plates of pancit for our family dinners, encouraging me to embrace my Filipino heritage. She was the one who showed me the joy in service for others through her 30 years of bringing smiles to her patients' faces. And she was the one who made my childhood so joyful and naive to the harsh realities of growing up as an impoverished, immigrant family in America. I desperately clung onto the memories I had of her, those vestiges of an idyllic past. Eventually, I sought out the guidance of a therapist. Through therapy, I began to understand that my current state was an opportunity for growth — this was my blank chapter. Grief is fraught with uncertainty, and sitting with it is a necessary struggle.

It took many months, but I learned to appreciate the significance of my past, while also seeing the beauty of change and allowing the next phase of my life to come.  The degree to which we are comfortable or uncomfortable during times of uncertainty has to do with our own perception of circumstances. I had a choice to either fight against the change and struggle, or to flow with it and learn by listening and responding. Meaning was all around me; my job was to pay attention.

There will come a day when the amount of time I’ve lived after my mother’s death will surpass the duration I spent with her in my life: Dec. 25, 2036. As time edges closer to that date, recalling certain aspects of my mother becomes hazier: her voice, the way she walked, the stories she shared. I sometimes wonder how much I’ll remember at that point in time, or if I’ll ever reach it. Yet my heart doesn’t swell with sorrow. As the clouds vanish into the ether — one moment observed, the next departed — so too does the individual, and it is all the more beautiful. ■

by: Cyril Gabriel Alinsub

layout: Juleanna Culilap
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