“Didn’t I promise to always take care of you?”
Neva was used to the unforgiving smell of bodily fluids and bleach of hospitals. After all, her first formative years were spent there. As a child, her first playmates were other children visiting the same ward, or kind nurses killing down time.
Her parents had wanted a boy, but they didn’t really mind when Neva was born. They can always try again, they said, but they never really had the opportunity. When she was five, Neva’s father was diagnosed with colon cancer, and after a hard fought battle, passed away when she was seven years old. Because of all the time devoted to her father’s care, Neva’s mother didn’t really pay much attention to her; instead, she was passed on to one random aunt or grandparent to another.
After his father went, her mother started drinking so heavily that she would fall asleep on the dining table. She thought this was normal, until her grandparents threatened to take her away for good. Her mother did stop drinking, but didn’t really pay attention to her either. You have to be patient with your Mama, one aunt said, a look of concern on her face. She just lost her husband. But she lost her father too, didn’t she? Didn’t anyone understand that? It was like she was invisible, like her existence in this world was transient and provisional.
One day, Neva started feeling tired all the time. She became pale and fainted once during PE class. Her mother took her to the pediatrician, who referred them to a specialist. She was diagnosed with lymphoma, and was given a couple of years to live. She recognized the pained look on her mother’s face, the same one she saw all throughout when her own father was sick. “Can you ever forgive me? I know I have neglected you all these years. I am so much in grief over losing your father. I cannot lose you too!”
She made up for all of those years she did not pay attention to Neva. Not only that: everyone seemed to have taken a liking to her, too. When she was admitted, her teachers and classmates visited; relatives from far flung regions, some she doesn’t even know or remember, also went to the hospital. Her mother also set up some sort of foundation to help fund her treatment, and it was like she gained some kind of celebrity. It was all new to Neva, but it was a welcome feeling. For the first time, it felt like people saw her. It was like she was validated as a person. She had never felt so alive.
The battle with her own cancer was tough, but with chemotherapy, she was declared in remission after three years. Everyone was overjoyed; at ten, her life can finally begin, they said. Neva felt happy to be healthy again, and for a while, the attention and care she received when she was sick continued. Her mother doted on her, making sure she was okay; relatives will send gifts and tell her what a wonderful and brave warrior she is. Life returned to what one would perceive as normal, but Neva wasn’t used to normal. She was either ignored or revered, no in between.
Soon, her mother had to go back to work, and she back to school. The humdrum of daily life was alien to Neva, and she was anxious due the lack of eyes on her. Sure, her mother would be happy and pay attention to her when she gets good scores on exams and such, but later on, even those weren’t enough. She graduated salutatorian in high school, and her mother requisitioned a tarp to congratulate her. Aside from her birthdays, it seemed it was only through these achievements that she could extract the attention she desired from people.
“I’m going to nursing school,” Neva told her mother one day. “I want to be able to take care of you when you are old, Mama.” Neva’s mother stroked her cheek and smiled, appreciating the gesture. “Thank you, anak. But, I also think it’s time for Mama to find someone to take care of us, don’t you agree?”
The relationship had been going on for a year, apparently, but Neva’s mother only introduced her boyfriend to her during her first semester back from college. “This is Carlos. He is a good man, Neva. He will take care of us.” She wasn’t wrong; at first, Neva relished the attention her upstart would-be stepfather showered on her. But soon enough, it, too, ran dry. He did marry her mother, after all. As far as he was concerned, she was just a by-product of the relationship, she thought. Neva became invisible once again.
On her last semester in nursing school, Neva was awoken with a plaintive wail that came from the master’s bedroom. She found her mother crying over her husband’s body. “Do something, Neva!” she begged. Neva felt his mute pulse, but from the cyanosis on his lips and the stiffness in his limbs, she knew she could do nothing. It was most likely a heart attack, the coroner said, but they didn’t order an autopsy. Her mother thought it was unnecessary. He was already gone and that was the end of it.
It was just back to just Neva and her mother again; she was with her the entire time she was grieving her second husband, all the while studying for the nursing licensure exam. “I never made life easy for you, did I?” her mother told her one day over dinner. Her face looked tired, a wan smile curved on her lips. Neva did just pass the board exam after all. “Thank you for always being there for me.”
“Of course, Mama. Didn’t I promise that I will take care of you?”
Perhaps it was old age, or the series of tragedies that wore her down, but soon Neva’s mother took ill. She was constantly having fainting spells, and falls could be dangerous. Neither Neva nor the doctors could figure out why. Eventually, both of them decided that she would just stay home, where it was safer and cheaper than staying in the hospital, waiting for a diagnosis that could never come.
“You are so lucky to have your daughter!” her mother’s friends would say. As a senior school administrator, her mother had collected many friends and previous students who would always come by their home to bring food or flowers or even money, whatever they would need. Neva decided to quit working in the hospital and just become her mother’s private nurse, living off of her mother’s and her two fathers’ pensions.
“I am lucky; probably not with my life partners. But at least I know my daughter will always be here,” her mother replied, squeezing her hand. To all of them, she was an angel, a doting child fulfilling her supreme filial duty, and she basked in all the glory. Neva felt that she deserved all the love and attention she was once deprived of, and she learned how to take it if she needed to.
Thankfully, none of them knew that insulin is a naturally occurring substance, and it is easy to induce a fatal shock when you inject too much into the bloodstream. One shot to the arm, and she did it so delicately that Carlos didn’t even feel it. As far as she was concerned, she needed to get rid of him so her mother could solely rely on her again. How else will she be the healer she was destined to be?
Neva smiled as she shooed away the last of the visitors for the day. “My mother needs to rest,” she explained. Her mother smiled and thanked her. Neva procured an unlabeled vial and a fresh syringe from the bedside drawer and injected the content via her mother’s IV line. “Sleep now, Mama. I promise I will be here when you wake.”
“Thank you.” Her mother took a deep sigh and soon closed her eyes, dead to the world.
Neva stroked her mother’s head gracefully, combing the graying streaks through her fingers. “You’re welcome. Didn’t I promise to always take care of you?”
Jay-ar G. Paloma
Jay-ar G. Paloma is an HR executive by day and a frustrated artist by night. Jay-ar likes to read and write fiction and opinion pieces relating to LGBTQ, social media, and culture. When not engrossed in a book, he is probably playing a tune on his guitar or keyboard. Leave your love notes to Jay-ar here: firstname.lastname@example.org.