By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – I was told to get a grief coach. But I did not. I felt that with this coronavirus, the world sympathized with me.
My only daughter, Leani Alnica passed away on November 17, 2019, just weeks before Taiwan and New Zealand closed their borders in anticipation of a contagion. My wounds are fresh. They’re invisible and haven’t healed. My grief interphases with the pandemic—a sharp pain attacks me off-guarded, and there is this chronic ache as well. It is almost one year, and my grieving continues.
Despite a well-accomplished day, I close my eyes still seeing Nikki in pain, in tears, with a frail body ravaged by disease, before I can finally sleep.
She had colon cancer, stage 4 when we learned about it in 2018. Her fleeting life of 27 loving and struggling years saw a digital artist, writer, activist, voracious reader, a compassionate but sharp person in her. She was 16 when she moved to New York with me.
I died first when the oncologist told us her prognosis, like a boulder hit my head. I saw my child’s face turn red with a gloomy countenance and trying not to cry on her seat. Oh no, God, why is this, I screamed deep inside. I have had severe headaches and nightmares since then. But I had to suck up the disbelief, anger, and fear and be strong for the challenges ahead.
We sought a second opinion. The new oncologist gave a narrow passage of hope.
I never showed Nikki the times when I cried to not add to her anger and self-pity. But while washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom, I couldn’t suppress my tears. Am I to lose my daughter, my work buddy (actually, boss since she was the tech guru), my friend?
I have learned to shield myself from the thought of losing Nikki. I built a web of steel that shut me from horrible thoughts. I told myself she will win this battle, there was no doubt.
I focused on her food and medical management, incessant prayers, and yes, the firm belief that she will kick out cancer from her system. I remained steadfast, albeit helpless seeing her lose so much weight and always crying in pain.
I dismissed unsolicited advice to accept the worst. I only thought of what Jesus Christ had told a woman—your faith has healed you. Even on her last day, I had thought God would miraculously extend her life.
But no, it didn’t happen. Nikki, reduced to a mere 75 lbs. by that disease, took her last breath in my arms at Mt. Sinai hospital where she was confined for 42 days.
I died first when the oncologist told us her prognosis,
like a boulder hit my head.
When her oxygen level would no longer go up to the 90s, it was forthcoming. I whispered to her while she was struggling to breathe: Go back to God, nak, where you belong; Don’t worry about me, I will be fine; But be with me; Let me dream of you; Guide me through and protect me like my angel; I love you so much, anak; Thank you for everything you made me become; Let me dream of you; Go back to God.I repeated these words as I hugged and kissed her until she heaved her last breath. The heart monitor has flattened. My daughter has journeyed on. I cried and asked why did you have to leave so soon.
My mom, aunties and close friends were with us at the hospital, singing praise songs and crying with me. Nikki knew how so loved she was. There were tears in her eyes, too. Nothing compares to the pain I felt that day. Nothing.
Without the love of family and friends, I’d be dead, too. Even the doctors and nurses (many of them were Filipinos) who took care of her were most kind and understanding. It takes a village to raise a child—it also takes a village to let her go.
But the wonderful truth is, you don’t really lose someone you love. Nikki is in my heart and mind everyday. She started her life in my womb, and it is in my heart where she will forever stay.
Her physical absence is my perpetual grief. I miss the days when we just burst laughing over silly jokes, or have an intelligent argument, or either of us admonishing the other for a chore undone. Her memory nourishes me and our mother-daughter relationship that blossomed into a protective friendship makes me proud.
Now I understand the meaning of a painting of Mother Mary’s heart struck with a sword. A mother’s heart will always bleed for the loss of her child—like Mary who saw the injustice of her son Jesus’ death.
To this day, I still am angry at Nikki’s evil disease and why science hasn’t won against it yet. I offered her lame answers when she asked sobbing —why this affliction, when she hasn’t done anything bad against someone.
All I can say was life is brutal—and we need to be strong, and fight. I wished I could carry her pain, as a mother would go crazy when her child was sick. My strong massages, despite my bruised hands, were not enough to ease her pain.
One time, Nikki sobbed and told me she didn’t want to die and leave me. Anak, my heart had never been so battered. I cupped her face and said, you won’t die. You will be healed. We will win this. We were both crying.
Healing. How did that look? Healing for Nikki meant that she flew back to God. It was more than just physical. It’s a transition to a much more shining life. Somewhere beyond this Earth.
In one of our philosophical tussles, I told her that we’re not just political animals, but spiritual beings, too. Religion may be patriarchal but faith is not. Tielhard de Chardin got me there: we are spiritual beings undergoing a human experience.
So in Nirvana, Nikki must be. My first dream of her was when she told me that she wanted no more pain; and soon after, there was a bright white light that engulfed her that I could not see her anymore. That dream made me happy. God got you, I said.
In this time of COVID-19, I live my day in fear as we all do, but also in gratitude and mindfulness, having been given so much love.
In the fast life in New York, individualism is imminent, even among Filipinos. But I was wrong. The Filipino community here had a heart to support our health struggle and my grieving.
An art exhibit that was to be Nikki’s first and last was organized by her women’s group in March 2019. There was a fundraiser concert which benefited her in October. Various organizations, individuals, and friends sent in money, food, and what-nots. The thoughtfulness just made me cry.
It takes a village to raise a child—it also takes a village to let her go.
My mentors and classmates in graduate school were all concerned, too. Dr. Noda gave me a semester-long of introspection on the philosophy of the “Meaning of Life” by Dr. Viktor Frankl, considerate that I would mostly be doing online classes being Nikki’s only caregiver. Yes, the Franklian philosophy made me survive my own pain.
Dr. Rousse was a listening ear at the time of deep sorrow. He allowed me to embrace my own pain and I realized I need not see a grief coach.
A few days before NYC shut itself down from the pandemic, I sat in his class and became a ‘subject’ on their topic on grief management. That lifted me from anger and gave me a new perspective of grief.
When NYC was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., I followed all the health rules: wore a mask and gloves, frequently hand washed, washed all grocery items and food, kept meticulously clean, and I carried Nikki in my heart.
With digital technology, I got busier. It’s much faster to interview people through the internet, of course. I learned to do digital editing and mount my own multimedia programs. My stories were 98% about how people coped with COVID-19, including my two aunties and one uncle who kicked the virus out courageously in isolation.
Friends said that God had such perfect timing—to call Nikki before the plague hit us— otherwise, she would have suffered much longer and I may not be allowed to be with her at the hospital. It could have been worse.
I graduated with my Master’s degree in my bedroom, was conferred with honors, and awarded (to my surprise) the highest Student Excellence in Public Service recognition wearing a cream blazer on top of a hidden pajama. I thought that if we all marched down the hall in our togas, I would be sad because Nikki would not be around anymore. So however strange, the bedroom graduation rite was welcome.
I am in pain but at peace. I look back and appreciate how motherhood brought out the best in me, despite my inadequacies and faults. I learned to work hard, navigate the kitchen, and keep my integrity so that I can look at my child in the eye that I did what I had to do as a parent and a friend. Despite death, love always wins.
I carry on because of the love from my family, friends and community. And while the coronavirus may be frightening, there is such a thing as the triumph of the human spirit.
Religion may be patriarchal but faith is not. Tielhard de Chardin got me there: we are spiritual beings undergoing a human experience.
I donated to the coffee run for nurses (particularly to the Mt. Sinai hospital nurses who took care of Nikki), an entrepreneurial innovation of a Filipino running a quaint coffee bar in downtown Manhattan in trying to survive the pandemic.
Filipinos here stepped up. They ordered in coffee, pastries and food in bulk to be delivered to hospitals around the city. The nurses and doctors appreciated that food was delivered to them amidst the hectic schedules. The coffee bar thrived and was cited as having one of the innovative ways for businesses to avoid closure. That was one triumph of the human spirit. The best in us often comes out shining in the time of tragedy. Nikki must be smiling from Nirvana. WWW
(The image of RBG on the banner graphic was made by Nikki in February 2019 on her hospital bed for her one and only art exhibit on women’s month.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Marivir Montebon is a New York-based journalist who runs her online magazine OSM! www.justcliqit.com which she co-founded with her daughter, Leani Alnica in 2012. She was president of the FilAm Press Club of NY in 2018 and 2019. She set up a non-profit in 2019 called Women’s Immigration and Communications Cafe.