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  • Gene Alcantara

Dying abroad is never easy

Dying is a messy business, wherever and however one decides to undertake it. It shatters dreams. It scuppers the best laid of plans. It creates chaos, confusion and despair. It catches the unaware off-balance. It is merciless on the unprepared. It leaves broken hearts in its wake, the only tell-tale sign a trail of tears, and perhaps vacant stares into nothing. That is what happened when my mother lost to the grim-reaper's army one Sunday early last year. My mother, Nelia Bartolome, was born in 1932, of sturdy Philippine stock, and the first of twelve siblings. Her father died early and, being the eldest, she had to help her own mother to rear the rest of the family. She came to the United Kingdom in 1973, one of the very first Overseas Contract Workers, under a work permit to enable her to support five children. She told us that she was a Nanny to a wealthy family first in Essex, and then latterly in Central London. When I came to the UK first to visit her in 1980, she had already moved to a Catering Assistant job I believe at the private Wellington Hospital. She would later care for a wealthy Greek elderly lady who would take her on first class flights to Switzerland. She was active in the community then, even joining the Mrs Philippines UK contest one year. She also had a partner, Gerry Eastlake, from Newcastle, whose English accent was not the easiest to comprehend but he was a gentleman. She had lived mostly in London once she obtained Indefinite Leave to Remain, first in a one bedroom Council flat in a rather shabby four storey building in Stepney Green, East London. She then eventually was able to transfer to the affluent Bayswater area, in a Housing association-owned one-bedroom flat on Alexander Street, London W2 just behind Paddington library and swimming pool. By this time, I was living with my spouse and young daughter about 5 minutes walk away on Bishops Bridge Road. It was therefore very convenient for us to visit her and vice versa. And life was good to all of us. During the fateful weekend before she died, my mother had a bout of vomiting, unable to hold any food or drink in her stomach. She lost weight very quickly. On Tuesday morning we tried to get her seen by a doctor in the local clinic, but she was simply given advice over the 'phone to take Dioralyte to replace fluids. Later we called an ambulance but when the ambulance men came, they suggested she stay at home, rather than wait in the hospital for a preciously rare bed. By Wednesday, my younger sister Cynthia, who lived in the outskirts of north London, and I decided to bring her straight to the Emergency & Casualty Department of the famous St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, hospital to Royal Family births. They put her on a trolley bed in a bathroom/toilet from 11 am until 1 am. I sat on the edge of the bathtub as we waited, with a leak from the ceiling creating puddles on the tiled floor. It was painfully difficult to get National Health Service treatment in those days, and the answer was simple. The NHS was suffering from lack of funds, squeezed by the then Tory government seemingly intent on forcing private health care on the British populace. Some hospitals had been closed down which meant that hospital beds had become scarcer. I remember one hospital, the Princess Margaret in Swindon desperately announcing "We'll only take people in if they're dying!" At St Mary’s, where Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicillin, one got the same feeling that they accepted only the critically ill as one waited hours and hours for treatment. Anyway on the Friday, St Mary's doctors decided my mother needed an operation and set it for 1.30 pm. Due to a previous operation about 10 years previously my mother was apparently suffering from peritoneal adhesion (guts sticking together as cells regenerate) which blocked her bowels. My mother, although reluctant to have yet another operation, gave her written consent. My sister Cynthia and I called up other siblings and relatives around the world to tell them about the operation, and to wish our mother the best. We kissed her on the cheeks,and said we would see her in a few hours. She was supposed to come out at 5pm, but at 6pm my sister and I were still waiting in the hospital corridor, staring out the windows at Paddington Basin. At 6.30pm the chief surgeon came out to see us privately in his office, explained what they had been doing, and admitted they were having a problem. Apparently, after sorting out my mother's adhesions, her heart stopped. They tried to revive her for the next 30 minutes, but it was stop-start, and they feared she would be severely damaged as a result. At 8 pm we were called to the Intensive Care Unit so we could wait to see Inay, as we called her. At 8.30pm another doctor and a nurse from ICU saw us, to say they had done all they could, but to no avail. They gave Inay about two hours to live. They let us in then to see her. It was not a pretty sight, with Inay on a ventilator, tubes stuck in her neck, through her nose, and half a dozen drips all going at the same time, with all sorts of monitors beeping away, sounding alarms and generally tracing lines across the screen to show her pulse, blood pressure, and how much oxygen she was getting. After a Catholic priest had given her the last rites and we have prayed the rosary at 9.30 pm, Inay suddenly started moving. At 2.30 am on Saturday she opened her eyes and she looked really well, as if she just had some sleep. She would nod or shake her head,or squeeze our hands when we asked her questions. The doctors were impressed. We thought it was a miracle. We thought she would get better. Then the doctors promptly put her back to sleep. In the meantime my youngest sister Joy, a nurse in New York,arrived to help us deal with the crisis. A few hour later, at 6.30 am, Inay became critical again. This time it was a total war, with Inay trying to fight battles on many fronts (fluids in the lungs, kidney failure, liver ooze and internal bleeding) all at the same time. Inay fought bravely on, while we her children could only stand by with prayers, exhortations and cheers for her to carry on. At one time it appeared as if somehow she would scatter her enemies. It turned out to be merely a respite, for her enemies returned with a vengeance and more reinforcements to engage this courageous woman, this heroine to her family, in pitch battles all over her body. A fighter to the end, Inay was mortally wounded. I said my goodbyes to her as I watched her pulse rate on the monitor hurtle from a high of around 90 to a crushingly flat zero by 9.30 am. As her lips froze in a smile, I reassured her that she may be gone physically, but she will live on in the hearts of those who loved her, especially mine. Our mother had spent 24 years of her life in Britain, away from most of her loved ones, until Cynthia and I were able to migrate to London essentially to join her. She died away from home. It was time for her to go back for good. When I first attempted to write down these painful words, her body was soaring above the clouds aboard a Philippine Airlines flight towards the land of the morning skies, the land where she was born. It cost around £3,000 in freight and parlour costs to get her body, coffin and box prepared for the flight, plus accompanying fares and the costs of transporting her from the airport in Manila to San Pablo City, but every pence was worth it to lay my mother to rest in her native land. As for us she left behind, well, we mourned for sure over the past year and maybe would some more from time to time. We tried to think back on the premonitions that we had missed, and perhaps many times we have been visited by her ghost. Certainly we thought of all the good times we shared with Inay together, whenever she would go home as balikbayan and when two of us were able to join her in the UK. I think now we have all gotten over the trauma of suddenly losing someone we loved, and accepted the fact that in the end everybody goes where my mother had gone--she just went ahead of schedule. We have come to realize too that Inay is finally at peace and hopefully much happier where she is now. Gene Alcantara London [First published in The Evening Paper, 1998; updated 2020]

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