All I could think was, “Then my mother is a Buddhist meditation master.”
Maria Palanca can envision death scenarios so fantastic, she should be working for the CSI tv franchise. Collapsing floors. Accidental stabbing by pen. Fatal diseases caught from cats. Deadly breezes. Insidious coffee table corners… When I moved into my house, she called specifically to air her concern that I might someday fall through the crawl space trap door, break a leg and have to wait days for rescue.
I used to think that it was old world magical thinking. That for my mother, identifying possible dangers was a way of preventing terrible things from actually happening. But from my cosy nook on this side of the Atlantic, how could I have understood the truth immediately?
For my mother, father and most other people who grew up in a farming village stuck to the side of a rock, they really did have to be vigilant because they knew firsthand just how close death could be. Mothers losing babies. Families losing mothers. Men killed in the war. Children accidentally killed on the way to school. Goats and rabbits slain for the Easter meal. They don’t have an existential angsty relationship with death. For them, death is an accepted given, like lunch being served at noon and the light of the moon.
Until kindergarten, I spent every day (all day) with my mother, so I naturally absorbed many of her anxieties about death and loss. One of my earliest memories is me walking around the house, pointing at buttons, too-ripe fruit and Legos – anything that could fit in my mouth – and asking out loud, “If I eat this, will I die?”
A few years later, I couldn’t go to sleepovers because my mother was too afraid. She once asked, “what if there’s a fire and mommy isn’t there to help you?” Even then, I knew that this kind of emotional manipulation was unfair, but there was no arguing with her logic. I simply sighed, took my simmering resentment to my room and scribbled out stories about angry little girls instead.
There was no soccer or skiing either, because I was clumsy and might break my glasses… or worse. In six years of elementary school, without even stepping onto a sports field, I managed to get three scars (two on my face), a black eye and a sprained ankle. I rode in the vice principal’s car so often, I began to mistake her for a family member.
Looking back, it seems a miracle that I can even leave the house.
But despite my awkwardness and an overprotective mother, I have emerged as a independent, happy adult. How did that happen? Because when you flip the coin of their vigilance, you clearly see that this fear of death also compels them to live more fully.
Yes, the world may be full of dangers, but my mother is one of the most *alive* women you will ever meet. Wilting plants stand up straighter when she passes. Taciturn, frowny babies inevitably stretch their chubby arms towards my mother, eager to be snuggled in her arms.
Maria Palanca knows she’s going to die some day, but is determined to do as much as she can before that time comes. While the rest of the world procrastinates, she’s putting her talents, mad skills and unlimited creativity to work. She can MacGyver a broken toilet with garbage bag tie, prop up a tomato plant as deftly as you tie a shoe, butcher a ham shank as if it were butter, and plaster a wall like she was born on a ladder.
All the while, a pot of tomato sauce is bubbling on the stove.
Although she’s extra careful around ladders and knives, and has accumulated her own fair share of burns, scars and bruises, Maria Palanca firmly lives in the now. Always has. What I initially mistook for a crazy obsession with death and dying is actually a deep appreciation for the preciousness of life.
So it turns out, she’s been teaching me how to live in the present moment since I was born, but I only just noticed.