Recently, my family visited my Imang Nena who lives in Angeles City, Pampanga. Her full name is Elena Punzalan Tayag Candelaria, the last living sibling of my late father, Fidel P. Tayag. The youngest of their brood of six, she is now 98 years old.
She is our collective Ima, for as long as she breathes, she represents our parents who have all passed on, filling the parental void in the lives of our respective families. Ima is an emotionally loaded Capampangan term of endearment for mother.
I told my wife and children that we should go and pay our respects to her because you never know. It could be her last Christmas.
Two years ago, in December B.C. (Before Covid) we also dropped by to see her. That time, although she was already physically weak, her mind was still very much alert.
I took that chance to ask her about the past, especially that of her family’s branch of the Tayags of Pampanga who all trace their roots in the said province and I wanted to know who’s who and how they are all connected. Our side of Tayags was a pretty big clan then. But as the years went by, the wide circle kept getting smaller and smaller.
Now Imang Nena is the only thread that connects us to the vanished elders of the clan. That’s why on that visit, I was peppering her with questions. I knew it was a race against time.
As she searched her memory, Imang Nena seemed at first invigorated. The French writer Marcel Proust in his novel “In Search of Lost Time,” shows that our former selves can live again in dreams and even in our waking state. Time may be the destroyer but memory is the great preserver. And as someone else said, the past is never past because it is now within us. It is merely waiting to be re-called into existence.
But alas she could do only so much remembering and talking about the past, so after a while, she got exhausted and our session winded down to a halt. I made a promise to myself that I would return to extract more golden nuggets from the treasure of her memory.
But then the pandemic unexpectedly came. For two years, it wasn’t possible to go back to see her.
Lo, what a difference two years can make! Now she can no longer recognize faces. She also doesn’t speak anymore. But from time to time, a flicker of recognition comes to her face and she manages to make a half smile. But most of the time she just stares blankly, a ghost in a shell, to borrow the title of a popular anime series.
I then realized that I had lost her. The umbilical cord to her memory has been cut. The pandemic has robbed 98 years’ worth of family history straight from a first-hand source.
I could only turn to Zon and Anne, and told them to continue taking good care of her, a painstaking thankless task that can tax even the best caregiver in the world. These two lovely dutiful daughters of Imang Nena are the designated “martyrs” in the family, as our tradition dictates. But I sensed they are happy to be doing it. It’s all out of genuine filial devotion; the last measure of their love for their dearest mother.
From what they told us, indeed, Imang Nena is indeed lost to the past. For she keeps seeing and calling out to her Coya (old brother) and Aunt Maring, who are all deceased as if they are there.
When I took a closer look at my Imang Nena’s face, her wrinkle-free skin amazed me. Her eyes are bright and limpid as before. It’s as if for nine decades she just breezed and skimmed through the surface of time and did not let herself be ravaged by life’s hurts, disappointments, and frustrations.
In childhood, during town fiestas, Christmas day, and summer vacations, we used to visit their house in Mabalacat and play with our cousins, Cong Jess, Zon and Ernie. Relly, Lisa and Ann came later. They had a large backyard with fruit trees where we frolicked all day long.
As an aunt she was very affectionate to my siblings and me. She was also a devoted wife to her late husband, Bapang Dong, who was a soft-spoken, even-tempered uncle. In my mind, I see him donning dark glasses, always smiling, always interested in how we were doing even when we were already mature adults.
As we took pictures before bidding adieu, everyone squealed in delight, as we were able to coax a half-smile from her. I couldn’t help thinking that very soon the images will all be what are left of her existence at some point in time. We will of course keep them in an album for a future grandkid to look at, hopefully someone with genuine keen interest in knowing and establishing a connection to our family’s past.
We waved goodbye to Imang Nena still with that blank stare. Would she still be sitting in that chair when we come back? Deep in my heart I felt a pricking sensation, knowing that her passing would presage our own passage from this world to the next.