The last seven weeks

Author’s mother, Jessie Subijano Cruz, departs for the U.S. in 1977.

By Rowena Cruz

I love this picture of my mother. This was taken in February 1977 as she boarded a Korean Air Lines flight from Manila to San Francisco. She left behind her husband and three young children in the Philippines to build a life for us in this country. She worked hard, saved, and purchased a four-bedroom townhouse in Fremont. We joined her two years later as immigrants.

We lost my mom a week ago.

When I left the Bay Area 20 years ago, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. I remembered what I had told my mother one day as an 8-year-old. I came home from school, holding a map of the United States, after correctly naming each state capital of all 50 states. I was giddy. “Mama, Mama,” I told her. “I’m going to visit all 50 states one day!” She put her hand on my head and smiled.

As a 16-year-old, I had visited the East Coast for the first time with my mother and we stayed with relatives in New York City. When we walked the streets of Manhattan, the bright neon lights and the blaring horns of taxi cabs captured my imagination. This city vibrated with an energy unlike I had ever experienced. At home, I took on the role of “the responsible one” who cooked and cleaned for the entire family while taking care of my younger autistic sister. Mama and I had a great time while on vacation. When we returned home to the Bay Area, I told her that I wanted to live in New York one day.

Mother’s 76th birthday.

I’m not sure what she ever thought of my bold declarations as a young girl and a teenager. She never discouraged them. I was 30 years old by the time I figured out what I wanted to do for work. I wanted to travel the country and meet other Americans from every corner of the United States. My career as a customer training instructor in high tech became the engine to the vehicle that drove that dream.

In the summer of 2005, my mom treated me to a 10-day cruise to Alaska before I moved to New York for graduate school. It was the very last state that I had not yet visited. Done. And done.

When I graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing in June 2010, I was not yet ready to be a writer. My personal essays and memoir pieces inspired by my family and my Filipino American upbringing in the Bay Area, remained in a folder in the hard drive of my Mac and later stored in the Cloud. I went back to work to do what I did best. I traveled. Every now and then, I worked on revisions, but at the end of the day, I found it too emotionally difficult to dig deeper into my own material and develop characters, whose relationships still played out in real life.

During the last three weeks of my mother’s life, she became bedridden and received hospice care at home. Every night, my partner, Kalpana, and I watched her favorite game shows and Filipino soap operas while she penned what she called “The Story of My Life” on notebook paper. She had finished a dozen handwritten pages summarizing the various events in her life with some details that I had not previously heard.

This past summer, she was diagnosed with severe aortic stenosis, a condition of the heart, where the valve had become too narrow. As a result, her heart worked too hard to pump blood to the other organs. She also suffered from Stage 4 chronic kidney disease. Mama struggled with fatigue and fainting spells when she exerted too much energy. At her age, she did not want to risk surgery to replace the valve, so we knew that her time was limited. We just did not know when.

The author as a baby in the Philippines, 1972
A cruise to Alaska, 2005

I am so grateful for having spent the last seven weeks of her life with her. We also spent good quality time together for three months this summer when I worked remotely from her home. At times, it felt like I was still “the responsible one” cooking and cleaning for everyone while taking care of a family member, except this time, it was not my younger sister with special needs, it was my elderly mother nearing the final stretch of her journey. I knew that there was nothing else I would rather do. Work would always be there. My mother might not.

I had finished typing her written pages and given her a printed copy. She returned it to me with her corrections. We repeated this exchange three times in her last days. Her health took a turn for the worse when she gasped for breath in the middle of the night two days before she passed. After she read that final copy, she felt nauseous, struggled to breathe, and shot a glazed look that led to her final demise.

Her scribbled writings on lined paper were her parting gift to me, her daughter, a writer. I can now give myself permission to write her story, our story.

My life today would not even be possible had she never boarded that plane bound for San Francisco 45 years ago.

Rowena Cruz was born in the Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and lives in New York City. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a BA in American Studies, and Columbia University with an MFA in Nonfiction Writing. Her career as a customer training instructor in the high-tech industry has allowed her to travel all over the United States and Canada. She is working on a collection of personal essays about her immigrant family and her Filipina American identity.

Jessie Subijano Cruz, CPA, passed away on January 11, 2022 in Hayward, Calif. She was 78 years old.

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