Love comes in many permutations. ❤️ This is part two of a six part series of essays on love written by some good friends of mine.
Grief and love are so closely entwined. Today we read about a son’s love for his mother. My good friend, Jun lost his mom during the pandemic. His is a powerful story of how he channeled his grief by building a beautiful garden in her memory.
By Jun del Rosario
On May 27, 2020, Philippine time, my Light left this world and returned to heaven.
Mama is my light. The light that formed me as a child and guided me as an adult. She celebrated my successes and quietly grieved at my failures. She encouraged the good that I do and silently prayed that I realize my mistakes. She had dreams for me but always allowed me to follow my heart.
Our mothers pass on their light to us the moment we begin forming in their wombs. It is not the light that we perceive with our eyes: like sunlight during daytime or moonlight at night. It is light that exists within us. And when that light goes out, our lives are forever dimmed.
When Mama passed, I was wracked with a deep sense of guilt. Guilt that I wasn’t there at her side, that I couldn’t do more for her, that I haven’t taken care of her the way that she took care of me, guilt that I haven’t said “I love you” often enough. Losing a mother will never be easy. But when you are continents apart in a time of the pandemic, how do you close a chapter of your life forever? How do you say goodbye via video chat? How do you compress a lifetime into a messenger conversation?
Grief then turned into anger a few months later, when our company had to lay off employees after the Philippine Congress voted against renewing ABS-CBN’s congressional franchise.
My light went out. I was in a dark place.
I never thought of darkness the way I experienced it. I thought darkness meant anger and despair. My darkness was simply emptiness.
Eventually I found my way back. Tet and the kids gave me the support and space that I needed. Hiking and gardening helped me regain a sense of acceptance and purpose. As I took care of my garden, the thought of setting aside space to honor her memory started forming. But I couldn’t find any inspiration and didn’t know where to start and the project stalled. It was when Tet and I visited the Carmelite Monastery in Carmel that I finally found my inspiration.
The garden of the Monastery wasn’t designed to be manicured beauty. Rather it was made for contemplation, with spaces where you can sit in quiet. But one thing that caught my attention was the presence of Mary in these spaces. As an Atenean, the love for Mary has been ingrained in me. And I experienced firsthand Mama’s devotion to her. I found what I was looking for. A Marian garden is the best way to keep Mama’s memory alive. And when I dreamt of Mama the following night, I knew it was something that she would like.
Now the hard part was visualizing how it would look. Then identifying the components. I have a small garden and we live in an urban area so I really couldn’t replicate the solitude of the Monastery. Then there was the issue of what type of statue should I get. It took me a long time to search for a Marian statue that I liked. Driving as far as Gilroy and Los Gatos to visit places with statuaries. That adage of finding gems in the most unlikely places turned out to be true. I found a Mary statue hidden amongst garden statues in a place that sells pottery. I ended up getting two Mary statues. I also had a hard time deciding what plants to use. I tried to utilize the various potted plants that I already have. And so began a series of trial and error which continues until today. Since my imagination keeps shifting, I simply couldn’t come up with the final design and I am now on my third version. But as I keep working on this, I realized that gardens, like relationships, are constantly evolving. And I think the reason why I keep finding excuses to make changes is that every time I work on the design, every time I change the location, every time I water the plants, is a time that I spend with Mama. In caring for the garden, I continue caring for her. By looking at the garden, I see her face and keep her memory alive.
Gardens are a good way to honor someone for two things: it is a space for quiet contemplation, and it requires constant care. Most people think that gardening is a hobby. I, for one, used to be in that camp. I thought of gardening as an exercise. Of course, there is always that sense of accomplishment when you see things grow. But now I think of gardening as an act of love. The Little Prince is right:
“People where you live,” the little prince said, “grow five thousand roses in one garden… yet they don’t find what they’re looking for…
They don’t find it,” I answered.
And yet what they’re looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water…”
Of course,” I answered.
And the little prince added, “But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”
I am no longer able see Mama with my eyes now. But by loving her garden, I see her in my heart.
Mama’s heart never left Batan. No matter where she is, she always longed to be home. One and a half years after her passing, we are finally able to make the trip to take Mama to her final resting place: beside her parents. She returned to Batan on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which is also the town’s fiesta. What a perfect time to be home.
Today is Mama’s funeral mass. In the middle of the ceremony, a butterfly suddenly appeared and started fluttering among the flowers surrounding her urn before settling on an orchid for a bit. It then flew over the people and then across the altar before disappearing through a skylight. Batangnons believe that a butterfly that appears during a wake or a funeral is the soul of the deceased. I could just sense that the eyes of everyone inside the church was looking at that butterfly. Then it started to rain. First just a drizzle. Then it really poured while her urn was being blessed. It was raining so hard that the sound of water hitting the tin roof drowned out the singing of the organist. I worried that the cemetery would be muddy and slippery if the rain doesn’t stop. Then, when the ceremony ended, it just stopped. It was then that I experienced a very simple peace: Mama just said her final goodbye and heaven just gave its blessing.
The cemetery in Batan is typical of small towns: not architecturally pleasing, no manicured lawns, no paid caretakers. In fact, it is situated on a hillside overlooking rice paddies. But it exudes a sense of quiet. And I think it is an appropriate place for Mama. For she never cared much about outward looks but valued relationships more. And what better way to rest than among the people whose relationships you valued here on earth.
The pandemic kept people apart, but it never broke people’s resolve to support each other. A lot of the preparation for Mama’s coming home were done by our relatives in Manila and Aklan.
When my Uncle asked me what to write on her epitaph, the first thing that came to mind was 2 Timothy 4:7. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Mama went through a lot of challenges, her road had a lot of rough stretches, but she never doubted God’s love.
They say God writes straight with crooked lines. But I think that most of the time, we are the ones who write crooked lines and somehow God finds a way to straighten them.
Mama’s garden will never be a finished product. Because my love for her never ends.