When I was nine years old, just a year after my dad died, I choked on a sharp fish bone.
The bone became lodged in the back of my throat, stuck behind one of my huge tonsils. Each time I tried to swallow, it poked the curve of my skin. My two tiny hands clutched around my neck, tears streaming down my face, I cried and cried. I felt like I could touch it from the outside.
We hadn’t lost our house yet. My mom was panicking. She tried to get me to eat something that would push it down. Bananas. More rice. Water. But it remained there, raw. Clawing into the tender skin of my throat.
My mom had made her favorite dish. Adobong bangus — or milkfish. She would sit at the table and rub pieces of fish between her fingers. “Himay” she called it in Tagalog. “Kumain ka na. Hinimay ko na.” Meant she had already picked out the sharp fish bones. When I was even younger, she would feed me rice and fish with her hands. Spooning it off her plate and into my mouth, greasy rice or broth tipping down my chin. An act of love in itself.
My mom always said I was “too American.” I was an only child hunting for Lunchables and cool shoes. This boy I had a crush on, Jaime, sat next to me and bullied me relentlessly for my Payless knockoffs. I went home to beg my single mom for some Nikes.
My mom, a short woman whose voice was taller than her height, would tell people, “Oh, Jennifer? She doesn’t like Filipino food.” But when people asked me where the best place to find Filipino food in San Diego was, I always said: our house.
At school, my favorite lunch was fried tilapia with rice and a simple tomato and cilantro salsa my mom would pack for me. Sometimes she would include Ruffles potato chips and I would mix the rice, fish and salsa together and scoop the chips in like it was a dip.
Other times, my mom would unknowingly pack me chicken adobo and rice, not knowing that I had no access to a microwave. I would be so hungry at lunchtime, and then I would open my lunch bag and find a large piece of gelatinous brown goo and peppercorns. Cold chicken. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I couldn’t eat it. Years later, she would apologize and tell me that I should have spoken up. I should have said something. Anything.
She made sure to pack me snacks for after school. I was a YMCA kid, dropped off at 5 am before my Mom left for work, and then picked up at 5 pm so we could go home. I loved when I opened my lunch back and was welcomed by my friends in shiny, plastic wrappers: Little Debbie Snacks, Hello Panda, Yan Yan sticks with chocolate, Chocolate pudding. I loved the little chocolate parfait pudding cups they used to sell at KFC, where my mom would stop when she was too tired to cook. I loved Jello.My mother was the axis around which my world spun. She was the sun around which I revolved.
When my dad was still alive, I was a picky eater. My parents would conspire together, trying to get me to try other foods. As I’ve gotten older, my palate has changed. But I’ll always remember those first loves, the ones my parents introduced me to. My dad’s burgers. His milk tea and coffee in the mornings, the smell of cinnamon sugar wafting in the air. My mom’s adobong spare ribs. Her pancit palabok. My love for seafood. The way chocolate is a weakness. I got it all from them. I always felt like they were conjuring up magic in the kitchen, and I could only stand back in awe, like I was watching a fireworks show — something bigger than me.
That night, I struggled to sleep. I went to bed with my face tucked into a pillow, my mom’s gentle hand sweeping the bangs off my head, tears drying on my face. And when I woke up, the fish bone was magically gone. Maybe I had drooled enough in my sleep to push it down? All I knew was that it was a miracle. I was grateful my mom did not have to drive me to the emergency room.
I think about how she gave up eating milkfish because of me. Her favorite food had hurt her baby girl so much that she swore off of it for the rest of her life.
When I think of my mom dying in the hospital, it comes in glimpses. So much of Filipino culture is centered around food, so even this is told through meals. My mom’s feeding tube. The hospital’s Caprese salad is packed in tiny overpriced, plastic boxes. Hamburgers and so many chicken tenders. Potato chips and expensive ice cream bars. Coffee out of a machine, held in my shaking hands. The boxes of cranberry juice the nurse told me to drink to keep my blood sugar up, as my mom lay intubated, after I had ordered a do not resuscitate order.
I think of my mom the night before she passed. The Tums tablet crushed between her teeth. The way she begged me to turn the light off. The way she had stopped eating. The way I said, “I love you, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I had told my mom I didn’t know if I was coming back tomorrow. I had spent every day at the hospital for three weeks since we had received the news that she had stage four lymphoma, on top of her interstitial lung disease and kidney transplant. I needed to catch up on the laundry and clean the house. My mom would never ask me to stay with her. She expected things, but it always felt outside her character to ask for things right out. She always told me to go home early, to stay home. The Uber ride from Chula Vista to La Jolla cost me $60. Save money, she told me. But I needed to be by her side. Her chemotherapy had started and she was so lethargic. I made broccoli and cheddar soup at home, macaroni and cheese, and a fruit smoothie. I packed them all with me. I’m grateful that her last meal in the hospital was something I made.
Nothing can prepare you for the phone call that your mom is dying. That she is in the ICU, being intubated. When I got to the hospital at 2 am, there was blood on her right wrist. The staff told me they were sorry. They looked so sad, but I could focus only on my mom. On the blood on her wrist. Did they tear out the IV to get her to the ICU fast?
“Oh mom,” I told her, stroking her hair. “I’m here. I’m here.”
Aspiration happens when a person chokes on something and the vomit ends up in their lungs. Do you know that panic you feel when you choke on food? Like your life flashes before your eyes? Like you feel stressed and stupid, but most of all panic? What can you do?
I imagine my mom lying in the dark. Or I imagine the nurse leaving her alone with one of the bright cups of Jello. Or was she feeding her? I never found out. I hope she wasn’t in the dark. Because in my worst thoughts, she is in the dark and alone. Choking on food and panicking. Covered in vomit that falls down to her chin and neck.
I tried changing her that night. But her pee-soaked night gown was too hard to take off. She had not showered for weeks before she entered the hospital. And the next time her body would be washed was when she was lying on the table of the funeral home. I remember her telling me that the night nurse — a kind Filipino woman maybe 10 years older than me — would change her. She would make sure she was safe. It was during her shift that my mom would die: “There was an aspiration incident that happened. She choked on Jello. It ended up in her lungs.” She didn’t have energy that night to let me brush her teeth.
In my worst dreams, she chokes and is covered in vomit. She can’t breathe. She panics, trying to see if I am still in the room. She tries to call for me, but there is too much liquid coming up. The nurse’s station is outside her room, but it’s empty. She’s drowning, it’s dark, and she is alone. Her monitors sound like sirens in the middle of the night.
When I was by her side, it felt like she tried to look up at me. Tried to reach for her tubes. There was vomit on her gown, so I know part of my nightmare is true. Her eyes were unfocused. Once, or three times, they opened and I want to believe they found me. They knew I was there. They knew I came back. I would never leave her.
I wore a black Star Wars shirt and pants, I think. Jeans. What do you wear to the hospital, at 2 am, when you are being told your mom is going to die? “We’re running out of things we can do for her. Her blood pressure is low. Her heart beat is low. She won’t stabilize.”
Whenever my mom was in the hospital, I chased after her with lines from Twilight. “Keep your heart beating,” I would tell her. I once wrote a haiku saying the same thing.
I am thankful for
The sound of my mom’s heartbeat
It means all is well
I knew it was the end when the machines were the only things keeping her alive. When the only things keeping her heart beating were some tubes and wires. I had left UCSD at 9 pm the night before. She choked on her food before midnight and was taken from me in a few hours.
I wonder if I’ll ever watch Star Wars again. Eat Jello again. Will I swear off it, the way my mom swore off her favorite food when it hurt me? How can I love the things that remind me of when my mother was taken from me?
Grief feels like it is the only thing that will outlive my mother. I wander through each day as if a sob is always just lodged in the back of my throat, like a fish bone. Except now, my mother is not here to hold my face between her hands. And there is no sleep that will magically fix this better. I will not just wake up okay.
My mother was the axis around which my world spun. She was the sun around which I revolved. And now my parents are both gone. I am nobody’s daughter now. I miss being someone’s family.
My mom never said “I’m sorry.” “I love you” was just as rare. But she said “Kain na” — “Let’s eat.” We said “Kumain ka na ba?” — “Did you eat?”
There is no one to say “Kain na” to now.
So much of what being Filipino is about is centered around sharing food, and now there is no one for me to eat meals with.
I find myself whispering “Kain na” to an empty dining table for now. And I imagine my mom saying it back. Struggling to get off her bed to share a meal with me.
“Thank God,” she would say. “Thank God.” And eat.