“Please note the date meds are first taken, observe and report effects at next session.
They should do things where focus is not them but somebody else.
Angie read the lines again, then she smoothed out the wrinkles and re-folded the piece of paper that had been in tote’s pocket for more than a week. It was both a prescription and a note, a last sentence—hastily scrawled like an extra two extra cents worth from the therapist. Well… more like two thousand pesos worth.
A current of worry struck Angie’s insides. It was the same wave she faced each morning since that first appointment. She tried to remember what else the therapist said when they were face to face, but it was a struggle. She felt her lips curl. A notion pricked through; perhaps she was the one who needed the therapist, the meds. That’s what her ex Dan would have said, too. Right to her face he would have said it.
And how strange it was to read these hastily scrawled lines about her boy. The words “them” and “they”were like ill-fitting garments that were too large for Mickey. The words that might as well have been in an alien language. It was unthinkable to her that they were written to refer to her son, who had all his life been her sunshine, her joy. The memory of his toddler chubby body climbing into her lap for a cuddle was visceral and as vivid as if it were yesterday. So too, the happy, peaceful murmur, “Mama” that involuntarily dropped from his lips like drool as he settled snug and huggable in her arms.
It was only just the two of them, and while it was never easy, Angie never doubted he would grow up fine. More than fine, he would be happy. For hadn’t he always been? Expressive, social, able to engage in people and in activities, and pretty much, a happy boy for the most part? Or maybe he hadn’t been, not really. Maybe, she’d only seen what she wanted to see.
Well, he wasn’t happy now. And he was not a boy either, not anymore.
Mik was a young man who didn’t believe in the pandemic, who had had to be forced to get a vaccination and who sometimes refused to wear a mask, who had to be wheedled, whined and cajoled into everything, and who seemed most satisfied—not happy, mind you—in his room, facing his screens, exercising his fingers, and likely, other appendages as well.
He’d also stated his terms, strict as Jesus, that under no circumstances was he to be called Mickey. He would respond only to Mik with no “c.” So surly and silent was this stranger, and at times, so angry and mean as to be hurtful, Angie often found herself in tears as she silently shut his door behind her, longing with every pore to hear that toddler voice once more, saying Mama, to feel his toddler touch.
The treatment—weekly therapy and the medication—would cost, of course, but that was not Angie’s issue as much as it was a concern, serious but a familiar given she was more than accustomed to. Money, the lack of it, always was. It was the situation she couldn’t get her mind around. What happened? Where had she been? How could Mickey need brain medication all of a sudden out of nowhere?
What’s more, how could it not be her fault—she who had ended the relationship with his father so quickly, so impulsively, her own mother kept harping ad nauseum with scathing foreboding that only thickened and ripened over the years so much so Angie could just about choke on the pungent rot.
Of course, she was to blame. There was only herself to blame. Who else could be blamed? She was the only one here.
That night after the appointment last week, Angie let her fears be somewhat allayed by her best friend Jessie. Once they were both frivolous college freshmen, incidentally and coincidentally, ending up in the exact same, almost cliched, life-changing scrape. Except Bessie’s son Vic was older that Mickey. At a certain point, he had been similarly afflicted, but apparently made it through with a little help.
“It’s just getting the right meds.” Jessie said with confidence. Just. Her word. Like it was all so easy and normal and no big deal. Except that Angie’s Mik didn’t want to take any meds at all.
And today, Jessie just called, no longer confident, no longer breezy. Instead, her friend’s every word was coated in a thick patina of terror and sadness discernible to Angie even beneath her friend’s efforts to seem light and normal.
“Ange, we just found out that Jana has leukemia, not anemia. We’re needing to line up donors for the blood transfusions she’ll need every other day. Yes, she’s been confined, and she’s very weak… anyway… she’ll need daily transfusions, the doctor said, to get through the treatment and then again till she stabilizes enough to get a bone marrow transplant. I’m going to get tested as donor, though because I’ve had Vince, the doctor isn’t very optimistic. First thing is the blood. Even the private hospitals don’t have it together. The blood bank is fucking empty, has been since the pandemic… “
Angie sensed the tiny measure of satisfaction her friend drew from her explosive profanity, its brittle crunch like toasted rice. She recognized Jessie’s mute helpless panic—a heavier, deeper shade from her own—but it was panic, unmistakable, as clear as a glass about to splinter in shards.
“Jess, I’m AB. Let me know. Whatever Jana needs—” Angie said, but was interrupted.
“Oh, honey, I know, but you’re too old… sorry. And the wrong sex. We’re not likely to get platelets from a peri-menopausal woman, even a relatively young one, they said, it’d just be a waste of time… Fuckers should have told me that before I had two friends come in today. I don’t suppose Mik—he’s exactly the right age…or one of your nephews…are they AB?” Jessie trailed off, as though distracted by another wave of sudden desperation.
Angie thumbed an end to the call. Well now here it was. Just what the doctor ordered, wasn’t it? Angie asked the universe, which happened to be the entire accounts management team floor of her office. Of course, she had no idea what giving blood products involved… did it hurt… was it dangerous…could just anyone give blood for this particular kind of condition? She had no clue.
She swivelled her chair in a full Exorcist circle, moving her feet bare of the heels she’d kicked off, wondering about the blood type of every person in her entire office. Certainly, it would take the edge of whatever demon was ailing him, somehow distract him. It would be thinking of something else. Someone else. And that someone else was not going to be his mother. It was not his father who’d been doing his version of throwing money at the problem that Mik was for almost a year now. Mik didn’t need new video games, nor did he need the new trainers he hadn’t even worn since getting them.
Dan’s text: “How’s he not happy? I got him the latest Nikes!”
Giving blood to another person. To his Tita Jessie’s sister who had cancer. Mik would see that. Angie knew her son’s heart, even if Mik had seemingly metamorphosed in reverse from butterfly back to cocoon the minute he hit 14. Whatever his beastliness on the outside these days, deep, deep inside, she knew his heart. It was large with goodness. It was the way it had been in the beginning. Her son would realize not only that he could help, he’d also know he should help. Because it was the right thing to do.
Jessie didn’t say Jana would die if she didn’t have enough blood donors. But Angie knew her friend. She could hear it in her voice.
Angie promptly got on her phone, sent a few texts to clear her day at the office, one to the secretary and one to her son. She grabbed a couple of sandwiches at the café in the lobby, and then got in her car to head across town to Mik’s school in the sweltering mid-day city traffic. She would broach the idea face to face, quelling the qualms and trepidation. He might be in one of his moods, and just say no outright. Or worse, just grunt and refuse to reply, give her the silent treatment all the way home. Or he might argue, say yes, and then change his mind, just as they were arriving at the hospital. These things had happened before.
As Angie tightened her sweaty grip on the wheel, though she was moving only a meter at a time with stop-and-start jerks, she suddenly felt the very symptoms the therapist described: the dismal heaviness, the swirling will circling the drain to oblivion, the helpless rage that alternated with paralysing melancholy. She was immobilised by it. The way the city traffic was. Her car inched its way on her lane that was delineated by lunatic steel barriers on either side so drivers were hemmed in, unable to change paths. The hours felt as endless as the road.
Finally, she crawled on to campus in her old Honda, along with the rest of the afternoon throng, pick-up vehicles, small vans, big vans, SUVs, and sedans of every conceivable size, make, colour and age—most of its windows tinted in various darks, but instead of getting into the queue to the driveway, she headed to the lot behind the school chapel. It was their usual meeting place, one they’d agreed on years ago, even when he was in elementary school. Angie was always fine waiting the 15 or 20 minutes it took him to walk from wherever he was on campus. She liked to get out of the car and stretch her legs and enjoy the shade of the trees and the green of the campus that had once been her own, Jessie’s and Dan’s even, once upon a time. Angie remembered that beyond the high school complex, there was a large oval track that was easy on the knees, and back when she ran, making the bend on the left, there was a rewarding view of the valley below. To be sure, this valley is only green in patches these days with hardly any forests left as they’d been replaced with homes and commercial developments, but the blue of the lake would still be there in the horizon beyond. She had no time to head there for a walk, but even just knowing it was there was a comfort to Angie.
She got out of the car, stretched her legs, and then thumbed a text to Mik. “Here.” Then sat in the car with the door open. “Tita Jessie has a younger sister, you see…” Angie practiced. She knew well he would have no patience for a long story. She had to be as brief and yet as comprehensive as possible. In and out. She also knew she needed his reply right away. It would take another hour and a half to get to the hospital, and she would need to call Jessie and let her know..
She knew Jana Ramos, but not well—when she and Jessie were in college, she’d only been a kid, not even in high school yet. Now a graphic artist and illustrator, she’d made a bit of a name for herself for her talent. A lovely person, quiet and quick-witted. In some ways, Jana was more mature than her sister. Her exquisite drawings were much sought after on bags, shirts, and other gift items. She’d even done commercial work for a couple of Angie’s clients in the past. Janna had not been well for more than a year, and apparently now, was even worse.
In a while, Mik appeared, his familiar shape, his cap, the mask beneath his chin. He’d made good time. Angie noted the pace in his shuffle, and energy in his step that could almost be described as jaunty. Even the incline of his neck was upright. It was a good day. Or even if it wasn’t, it seemed the tools for coping were within Mik’s reach today. Maybe the meds were doing their job already. Except he hadn’t taken the meds, so what on earth was she even thinking about? Angie caught sight of herself in the mirror and wiped the desperate, hopeful expression off her face. Mik would be irritated by it.
“Hey, baby,” she said immediately regretting her thoughtlessness. “How was your day, Mik?” she recovered. He grunted, pulled off his mask, but did deign to lean in and kiss her when she pulled off her mask and tilted her head to the left. She extended an arm behind his seat and took out the Italian beef sandwich she’d picked up as well as the bottle of water and the container of coconut water she stashed in the car cooler. “Sanitize, please,” she remembered to say before he started in on the food. Angie sighed and then decided to just go right into it, as she quickly maneuvered the car right into the middle of the line of cars leaving campus. Mik drained the water and began to munch on his sandwich.
“So, what do you think…” Angie glanced over at her son, and then quickly set her eyes back on the road.
Mik was silent.
“Isn’t she the one who did the wall-hanging in the study, the one with the map and all the different people doing different things around the country?”
“The what?” She had to think. “Oh, yes, you’re right… that’s right… that is her work, I’d forgotten…” Angie paused, surprised. “So…?”
By this time, they had reached the gate of the university. On the main road ahead in either direction was thick traffic, but at least it was moving. She looked quickly over at him again and found he was nodding.
“If I’m the same blood type, yes. I’ll do it.”
She had Mik do the texting on her phone, so she could focus on the driving. And as it happened, apparently, someone on their donor schedule suddenly dropped out, leaving Jana high and dry with no transfusion at all today, and she needed one urgently.
Jessie was so beside herself with gratitude and relief at receiving the text, that she had to call right then and there. Of course, it was Mik who answered, as Angie tried her best to hear both sides of the conversation.
Yes, Tita. Yes, Tita. Of course. No, Tita, I’m not. Yes, Tita. Yes, I just ate…Yes, Tita… we’re on our way now… but… … … yes, Tita… I hope so, too. Good, Tita… Yes, Tita… I’ll tell her. Yes, of course… No, no…Yes, of course. No, I’m happy to do it, really…”
Angie’s heart turned over with pride. When she heard her son take a deep breath, she was half-afraid Mik might change his mind right there if Jessie kept him on the line much longer.
“No, Tita, no need. Please. Tita, I love her work… so … yes… … yes… I understand…”
Mik held her phone to her ear so she could hear.
“God, Angie, he’s so your son. He’s all right… thank you… wait, where are you now—”
“We’ll be there in an hour, give or take… you know how it is in… “ Angie said into the phone…
“…this fucking city—” Jessie exploded, and Angie had to dodge the volume of it. Mik snorted with laughter. Suddenly Angie could not recall the last time she’d heard him laugh like that.
“I’m driving, Jess, Bye,” She called. She handed Mik the phone.
“I’m proud of you, son,” Angie said to Mik.
Except now, Mik wasn’t smiling. He sighed deeply in a way that made prickles of worry scurry across the nape of Angie’s neck.
“Not a sure thing, Mom, I have to get tested, and apparently, people flunk—quite a few—one flunked and one didn’t show. That’s why she hasn’t gotten a transfusion today…”
“It doesn’t matter, Mik. You’re doing the right thing!” she continued, gushing helplessly.
“Don’t be stupid, Ma. Of course, it matters. It matters a whole lot to Jana!” Mik snapped with a dash of real rage.
Angie shut up. She gripped the wheel more tightly than ever, all the way to the hospital, because she knew she was wrong, and Mik was right.
It had been a good number of years since she or Mik had been in a city hospital, something for which Angie said an impulsive split-second prayer of gratitude. It dawned on her at once what her best friend was going through under the glare of white light. Angie was also glad she had a box of masks in the car, glad that they could just walk straight in from the paid parking lot, and not go through the long line that trailed out and beyond the hospital doors. Her mobile phone vibrated.
“Blood lab is 2nd floor. Make left from main stairs. Mik should say he wants to donate platelets for Jana Ramos. Oh, can you take a pic of Mik for Jana. Text me.”
They let themselves into the hospital blood bank lab, an underwhelming affair that did not induce any measure of confidence. Its bare drabness gave off forlorn loneliness, its ripped two-seater couch was shit brown PVC, the counter made with cheap vinyl, cracked and peeling. There was an old-fashioned school library bell and instructions on the white board were in block letters: “Please ring bell once only, and wait, please. Only one staffer present!”
After almost ten minutes, a fatigued young man in uniform with a surgical mask around his neck, and a slouch that matched Mik’s finally came in from the back, Mik recited his spiel.
“Okhay, come…” he mumbled, turning to go, not even looking back to make sure Mik was following. Angie stood as well.
“No, Ma…” Mik said.
“Wait, just let me take a pic…”
“Ma!” Mik rolled his eyes and sighed, then stood, shifting his weight from one foot to another with impatience, his hand on the counter, fingers drumming.
“Hold still one second and smile, for goodness sake! It’s for Jana…”
Mik pulled down his mask and shot his mother a small smile, a small dart of sunshine in the dim, stuffy room. In a second, his face reverted to grim deadpan. He turned and left her with nothing to do but sit back and look at her phone even though she knew it would drain her battery. Tall and lanky, Mik only slightly reminded her of her little boy, and it was because of that smile alone. The realisation made Angie’s knees go weak, and she was glad she was seated there, feeling the rough rip on the fake leather through her skirt. She clicked send and then sat back and closed her eyes.
Angie woke with a start, feeling someone touch her shoulder, and she opened her eyes to find herself staring into Jessie’s masked face. Her eyes were bloodshot, swollen and rimmed with red. Her hair was greasy, and she was sweating profusely, maybe from the exertion, but more likely, from a hot flash. Helplessly, Angie hugged her friend who hugged her back, and then plopped herself beside her on the sofa.
“Is he in there? Did he pass?”
“I… I don’t know…” Angie stammered. “I wasn’t allowed in.”
“Bullshit.” Jessie said under her breath.
“How is Jana?” Angie asked, instantly regretting her words. She was stupid. Mik was right
In response, Jessie burst into gasping, choking sobs that were painful to hear. She couldn’t say a word, just kept shaking her head, and her tears kept flowing till her mask was drenched. Finally, it just fell from her face into her lap.
Angie fumbled in her handbag for an extra mask and stroked Jessie’s back, feeling helpless. Out of nowhere, the memory of the day after Dan left shot up to the surface, rather the day after she’d asked him to leave. There she was, heavily pregnant, weeping, maybe she’d made a mistake. Maybe he’d still take her back. Jessie was right there beside her, not saying a word, because there was nothing she could say. Angie did the same now. She let Jessie cry, and just kept running her hand smoothly down her friend’s back.
Later, once Jessie had calmed down, she wiped her eyes, and sighed heavily. She put on the new mask Angie handed her. Then she stood, took Angie’s hand, and pulled her up. “Come on. Let’s go.”
They walked into the backroom and there was Mik, sitting in a recliner, his arm cuffed and attached to a huge machine on wheels beside him that looked frighteningly intimidating, with its screen, its various tubes, and bags. Mik was sipping what looked like a carton of chocolate milk and he seemed cool and calm. He waved at them. The grumpy, tired nurse sat on stool in a corner, leaning against the wall. He looked as though he might fall asleep at any moment.
Jessie put on bright eyes and a smile that would be evident even though she was wearing a mask.
“Mik! You passed!” Jessie finding the bright and breezy.
“I passed, Tita! I was scared I wouldn’t, but I did…” Mik looked thoroughly happy.
“Nah… I knew you would. Just look at you!” Jessie threw a question out at the nurse, “What do you think, Boyet? Will we get two units?”
Boyet sat up, cleared his throat. “He’s good…lots of platelets. Maybe even three and a half…”
Jessie blinked away what Angie realized were tears of relief. “If the two tomorrow pass screening, she’ll have enough, right, and Jana will still covered for the next day, right?”
Boyet nodded but was reluctant to give more reassurance. “The more who donate, the better…” he murmured. “Also, we have limited time on the apheresis machine, as time has to be shared with other patients.”’
“Yes, I know, I know.” Jessie paused for a beat. “So, Mik, I’ve got you covered for dinner. You and your Mom. What’ll you have? Steak? Burgers? You name it!”
“But, Tita Jessie, I can come tomorrow, too…or the next day, whenever she needs, put me on the list, right Ma?”
“Oh, Mik,” Angie heard herself say.
Even though her cheeks were tearstained and her eyes redder than they had been, Jessie let out a small, infectious laugh. “Mik, you’re the best. You’re our hero! Unfortunately, your body won’t be able to do it tomorrow. Not even the day after. You need a week at the very least. You need to recover. But I thank you. Jana thanks you, and if you’re serious, we’ll call you again!”
Angie felt niggling worry from within, starting to spread. “Mik, you have to think of your health, too.” And then she checked her tone. “But yes, if a week from now is safe, then we’ll be here, Jes.”
“I’ll ask my classmates at school if there are any with this blood type… maybe the basketball players…”
Angie said she would send out an email in the office to find more donors.
“Oh, this truly means so much…” Jess said, and then looked at her watch. “I have to get back …” her voice breaking a little. “Boyet, the labels, okay… Jana Ramos. Everything in there!” She gestured toward the big fridge. “Also make sure my volunteers are slotted for screening and the machine tomorrow, and for the next day.” Jessie turned back to mother and son with an apologetic air.
“Jes, go, go… don’t worry about us. Go back to Jana… ” Angie said softly, squeezing Jessie’s arm and then gently pushing her away. Off she went, shoulders slouched.
Angie was exhausted that night, and knew that Mik was, too. Since they’d had their dinner at one of the hospital food outlets, they were ready for showers and bed once they reached home. And yet Angie caught Mik in her study, standing in front of the poster in its frame, the signature, Jana scrawled in the corner. a graphic of the map of the Philippines in complementary hues of green, pink, and purple, peppered with distinctive heart-warming illustrations of ordinary people—a farmer, a teacher, a doctor, a policeman, a priest, a child…it went on. He looked up when he saw her.
“While I was on the machine today, Ma, I was thinking. Maybe I’ll take a course in college that will help me maybe manage a hospital in the country, like set up systems, maybe? Because it’s shit that cancer patients need to worry about getting their own volunteer donors… like one by one like that? It’s shit they have no blood in storage. They have only one apheresis machine? That’s fucked. How can there be no blood when the country is overpopulated!?”
Angie nodded, feeling her heart swing wide open. “It is… fucked,” she agreed.
Mik turned to her. “I know you wanted me to take the meds already, but ,Ma, I’m glad I didn’t. They wouldn’t have let me donate today if I had. That guy told me. No blood donors on medication of any kind, not for patients with leukemia.”
Angie said nothing, because again, he was right.
“I know I need it, Ma… I do. But I’m taking it yet, but not for bit, okay…” He turned and brushed past her. She was always acutely aware of when she and Mik had physical contact.
“Hey… “ she said, and reached out for him, but he was already opening the door of his little room. “Love you, Mama. Goodnight…” his voice cracking.
Angie, too, walked slowly to her own room and prepared for bed. There were twenty work messages on her phone, but she would have to deal with all of it tomorrow. Everyone had things to deal with. Some had very much more to deal with than others.
Days passed, and much to Angie’s dismay and anxiety, Mik’s sullen irascibility streaked itself through the next week. There was a day he missed school altogether, just because he didn’t get out of bed. He couldn’t, he said, he just couldn’t.
There was another day, he’d been chatty on the way home, but then was pre-empted by a sudden sulky silence which left him unresponsive to her the entire night. He did not sit at the dinner table, instead yelled from his room behind his closed door that he was not hungry. Later, after midnight, she found a dirty dish on the kitchen counter.
Angie thought about mentioning the meds, but held her tongue when the next day, she found him on the floor of his room doing push-ups. He also asked if they could have leafy greens and red meat that day… “to build up his blood…”
Except Angie had not heard from Jessie since they were at the hospital. She did send her an email, a list of names and numbers: five men from her office and three boys from Mik’s class. “Let us know what else we can do to help Jana and support you, Jes,” she wrote. But her friend did not reply.
It was a long week of work and school, wakeups and bedtimes, traffic, and texts, but in the end, it felt like all of it was for nothing.
Early in the morning of the day Mik was scheduled to donate blood at the hospital, Angie awoke from a sleep so deep and a dream almost too real. In it, Mik was a chubby toddler, and she apparently had a husband, though she did not know who that was, and they were a family. There was Mik and somebody else, a teenage girl of about 14 who the face of Jana Ramos. They were on the beach, and she was watching the kids play. And then they came running toward her, and Mik the child and Janna, her daughter, threw their arms around Angie, laughing loudly as they did.
She sat up with a start, her heart beating hard, afraid to open her eyes, and then she did. Her room was flooded with hazy, dawn light streaming in from the window.
She rolled over, reached for her phone, and then squinted at it. She made out two new texts. The first was a photo. It was a drawing of Mik from the photo she had taken at the hospital blood bank. Handwritten at the bottom of the drawing were the words: Thank you. Jana.
The second text was from Jessie but that one was also very short. There were only three words. Words that cut open Angie’s insides and destroyed her. She could not respond.
After almost an hour, Angie finally got up from the bed and padded to Mik’s room, knocked on his door and then just pushed it open. His lamp was on in broad daylight, but he remained asleep. She turned it off and then sat on his bed.
“Mik…” she murmured.
“No…” he said in response, still asleep. It was barely a whisper.
Angie sat there, not moving, full of dread and she wondered what on earth she was going to say. She tried to recall situations over the years, searching for anything that might help her in this moment.
She waited for him to open his eyes. She did not have the words. Still half asleep, he said softly, “I’m up… I’m up,” but he lay there not completely still, eyes still shut, not moving at all. And then, all at, the boy threw an arm around his mother and with so much love, pulled Angie in close so they were face to face. But Mik’s eyes remained closed and he seemed protected in a happy haze. Angie sat there, crouched down in the cuddle of her son’s embrace, wishing with all her heart they could just stay this way, forever and always.