Mother May I
Illustration by Ramon Kristoffer “RK” Tiu
Powdered, sanitized, moisturized, deodorized, Serena del Rosa catches herself smiling down at a toddler in the mall. “It’s reflex,” she tells herself; she hadn’t meant to do it. It’s her motherly instinct kicking in, if her biology professor is to be believed. She keeps the smile plastered on. The small family and child pass her by. Her shoulders droop. At 19, she can’t seem to take care of herself, much less another body, another soul. She doesn’t care enough to understand.
Her cell phone weighs heavy in her hands. A number is already half displayed on the screen, her parents’ shared phone number. Fifty percent chance she’d get one or the other if she calls. Mentally, Serena rehearses what she will say.
“Mom, I’m not giving up on my dream; I’m giving up on yours.” Her biggest issue in life is this cliché. Kicking against a brick wall of her mother’s guidelines for years, all she has to show for it is a broken foot. No one cheers her on for being a rebel. But that was never the point. Was it?
She hits the dial button. It connects. Dad picks up. She’s relieved.
“Hey Serena! Your mother’s not here. You just missed her.”
“What makes you think I’m calling home to talk to her?” She was, actually. She bites her lip.
There’s a second or two of confused silence. “Oh. I just thought . . . it being the second Sunday of May and everything, we were expecting you to call today.”
“The second Sunday of May?”
She waits for it to make sense. It doesn’t.
She prompts, “You say that like it should mean something to me.”
“So you’re still mad at her.” Barely a profound insight, but not inaccurate.
“I’m giving you two seconds to make sense. Then I’m hanging up.” She’s only partly joking. The back of her shoe cuts into her heel. She stops at the banister overlooking the floors of the mall below, bends over to hike up her sock.
“It’s Mother’s Day.”
Serena’s foot falls to the floor. Hard. Today of all days.
“Give me a good reason why I should care,” is what she wants to say. What she does say is, “Oh.”
“Didn’t think you’d forget. So where’s my Mother’s Day present?”
“Your Mother’s Day pres—? You’re kidding me.”
“Hey, it’s the father who makes a mother out of the wife, if you get my drift.”
She smacks her own forehead, hopes the sound carries over the phone. “You are kidding.”
He’s laughing on the other side. “Seriously, though, she loves you.”
“I swear, if she’s standing there making you say this—”
“She’s not. It’s just us. I’m trying to tell you something straight here, Serena.”
“Then say it, dad.”
“Take it easy on her. She was never intended to be a mother.”
Something in her freezes.
Serena’s annoyed with herself, with her reaction. She’s heard this story countless times before. She’s blamed her own tendencies on this very idea. But today of all days, it burns even more brightly in her mind.
An hour ago, she passes by a popular coffee outlet and notices Dani, a once-upon-a-time friend-turned-stranger. Dani sits alone at an outside table, stirring an iced latté and pretending to read a book. She looks up, a flash of recognition on her face. Too late to hide. Say something.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” Serena says, distracted. It’s the first thing that comes to mind. She wants to strangle herself. Too late, Dani hears her.
Dani flips the page without finishing the last sentence. “I didn’t keep it,” she mutters.
“It?” Serena finds herself asking. She already knows the answer.
Dani gives her an unfocused look bordering on pity and incredulity, anger. Her own mother had walked out on the family years ago. Dani says, “I wasn’t ready to be a mother.”
“You want the truth?”
“I don’t care.” She means yes. She’s being such a drama queen and she knows it.
Thankfully, her father hears through her pretenses. “And do you want a sugarcoating to go with that?”
“Like I said. Your mother wasn’t ready to be a mother. Almost two decades on and she still feels she isn’t. Part of the reason why we never had another child.” A pause, barely perceptible. “I wasn’t ready to be a father, either. Let’s just say you didn’t fit neatly into our plans.”
“Not exactly making me feel better, dad.”
“Can I finish, please?” A hint of laughter in his voice.
“I know it’s unethical to call you an accident, but that’s what you were—don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady.”
“I wasn’t!” Busted, she flushes.
“Listen. You were serendipity. A fortunate accident, though an accident nonetheless. I just want you to keep in mind that however you decide to feel about today, your mother is just as unsure as you are.”
“Unsure . . .”
“Whether to celebrate or not. She doesn’t want to make things worse with you. So take it easy with her. Okay?”
Serena doesn’t know what to say.
It echoes back to her in two different voices, Dani’s, her father’s: she wasn’t ready to be a mother.
“Well.” She swallows. Mouth’s too dry, throat too choked up. “I wasn’t ready to be her daughter, either.”
“Hang on a second,” her father interjects hurriedly, sensing Serena’s impulse to end the call. “I said she wasn’t ready to be a mother, not that she wasn’t ready to be yours.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The difference is love, sweetheart.”
“Very sentimental,” Serena says. Her foot itches again. She doesn’t know what annoys her more — the newly-blossoming skin rash or the fact that her father is beginning to make sense. She doesn’t like where the conversation is taking them: to this inevitable place of forgiveness and reassurance.
“The first time she laid eyes on you, she decided she was ready to be your mother after all.”
“You always said you weren’t prepared for a child.” She still recalls all the stories of last-minute arrangements with the annoyed adoption agency, all the makeshift modifications the young couple had to make before they brought Serena back to their child-unfriendly home.
“Being prepared isn’t the same as being ready, honey.”
She rides out the silence for a few moments.
“So have her celebrate with you, just count me out.” Serena hopes the bitter conviction is plain in her voice, but she doesn’t mean it anymore. Half-hearted, it cracks, wavers.
“Serena, if she can’t celebrate it with you, it’s not going to mean anything. Might not bother celebrating at all.”
“For her, celebrating her motherhood is celebrating you, too. You are our only child.”
It’s the mother who makes the father a father, the child a child. The mother is the heart of the family. Really. She’s heard it before. “Don’t begin to psycho-babble with me. I’m getting a headache.”
“Do you want to come home? I can pick you up before your mother gets back. Spare you the public transportation.” There’s a smile in her father’s voice. A cheeky kind of smile, like he knows just what she’s thinking. Like everything else today, it annoys and relieves her at the same time.
“If mom asks, you’re taking full credit for this idea.” She’s already halfway to the exit, running through a mental checklist of what to pack, where to go first, what it will cost to get through the late weekend traffic. Should she pick up a gift on the way? The options flood in on her from the peripheries of her mind, where they’d been waiting, ready, for hours. Outrageous.
“I know, honey. By the way, I’m parked outside your boarding house.”
“You can’t be! It’s a three-hour drive from home.” Even as she says it, the answer dawns on her. He’d driven over while they were talking? No, she heard no traffic noise carry over the phone. He had been there already, waiting.
She finds herself running. Curious glances thrown her way, she leaves and question marks in her wake like footprints.
“Don’t take your time, sweetheart.”
She passes Dani again on the way out.
Serena nods. “I’ll see you around.”
“You too.” It slips out again against her will: “Happy Mother’s Day.” She almost walks into full-on traffic with the momentum of her stupidity.
“Yeah. You too.” Dani walks