A Piece of My Heart

I haven’t been Catholic for a long time. Like most Filipino Americans, I was raised in the Catholic belief but never made it to Confirmation. At that point the Church’s beliefs didn’t align with mine and while I hold firmly in Christian-based beliefs, I don’t hold steady to a particular denomination. My mother, however, was a devout Catholic her entire life. She prayed the rosary daily, had statues of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in every place she lived, and I think secretly worried for my soul because I wasn’t a practicing Catholic.

A few years ago (so long, I can’t even remember) on a visit home with her, she handed me a fabric band with two rectangular pieces of fabric. One rectangle had the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus embroidered on it. Embroidered on the other: “Take this Scapular. Whosoever dies wearing it shall not suffer eternal fire. It shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and pledge of peace”. It had been blessed by a priest, she told me. If I wore it, no matter what, I’d be saved to go to Heaven. Now in my head, I knew it would take more than an embroidered inscription to get into Heaven. Obviously I’d have to live a life of compassion and grace as laid out by Christ. But I took it and promised I’d wear it all the time. My mother gave it to me with her whole heart and so I accepted it with my whole heart. I always wore it.

I’ve never really been one for accessories, so having this scapular was odd at first. I always felt it rubbing against my neck. But then as with anything that you have with you at all times, I became accustomed to it. I’d even scent it with lavender oil so in times of anxiety, I could simply smell it to sort of destress. In its way, it became a comfort – a constant reminder of my connection with Mom. Again, she gave it with her whole heart and I accepted it similarly.

When the pandemic hit and my weekly visits to Mom were restricted, my scapular became a huge source of comfort and stability for me. It became my only physical connection with her as I was not allowed to visit her senior home due to protocol. I was able to still see her to take her to her weekly doctor’s appointment, but the visits were brief. And we couldn’t touch or hug as we were taking proper precautions to minimize potential exposure. So the scapular she gave me was all I had. I’d kiss it goodnight and good morning and imagine that I was kissing her head. It became such a part of me, that I felt incomplete without it. On one of the days I was to take her to an appointment, I left the house in such a rush I’d forgotten to put it back on after my shower. I had never felt so out of sorts in my life. It legitimately felt like a part of me was missing. I told her this on the way back to her home.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve got extra scapulars if you want.”

“I didn’t lose it, I know where it is,” I reassured her. “But if you have extra, can I have one for Padfoot?”

“He doesn’t need one!” she exclaimed. “Dogs are pure souls. All he knows is to love you. He will go straight to heaven. Don’t worry about him.”

That’s the kind of woman my mother was.

Mom went home to heaven two weeks ago. October 14, 2020 7:43pm PST. She was surrounded by all her children and several grandchildren. She went in peace and with love. A priest came to give her a blessing, take a confession in case it might be her last. While she lay resting, all her children took communion in honor of her. She went in grace and peace.

We, however, were left bereft. We’d spent the day laughing through tears, sharing memories and stories of Mom so she could hear us as she slept – the morphine easing the pain of the removal from treatments that were no longer working. Now we were all exhausted of emotion. The staff told us to take as long as we needed, but how can one quantify that? We all just took turns, stroking her hair, getting our last kisses on her head, holding her hand. “This is just her body,” I kept telling myself and my family through tears. “Mom’s still with us, she’s just in Heaven now.” This is just her body. And around her neck, there was the scapular that she wore for as long I could remember. A devotion to Our Lady of Mount Caramel. And I immediately panicked – would the coroner simply cut it off?

It was decided that we should remove it and without even a moment’s thought, everyone agreed that I should be the one to keep it safe until it was time to bury her with it. I put it around my neck and it lay perfectly right next to the one she gave to me. As the hours and days went on, a blur of grief and sadness and anger – I turned to her scapular more for comfort. It still smelled like her and even now, weeks later, the fragrance of mom still lingers on. Both scapulars rested so perfectly over my heart, giving me comfort. I kissed her scapular now, as if I was kissing her head.

The thought of losing Mom’s scapular begin to fill me with great sadness and dread. I asked my eldest sister Aurora (who was with her when she got the scapulars) if we could perhaps bury her with one of the extra ones or did it have to be the one she wore. I even started conceptualizing taking fabric from mine that had the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus embroidered on it and simply merging it with Mom’s.

“Mom has to be buried with one that was worn close to the heart,” Ate Au said. “But if you want to give her yours, you can.”

And my heart sank. My scapular had been a part of me for so long, I didn’t even really think about it. And when this year went to shit, when I needed the most comfort and connection with Mom, it was my only constant. How could I possibly give it up? I simply nodded and told her and my sister Linda that I’ll sort it out. Mom would be buried with one of the scapulars I wore around my neck. But which one?

A week goes by. My first week without Mom. But her scapular still lay around my neck, the devotion to Our Lady of Mount Caramel still resting over my heart, just next to my scapular’s Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. In moments when the grief overwhelmed, when the tears wouldn’t stop flowing, when I couldn’t get out of bed, I held onto her scapular tight, kissed it several times like I was kissing her head. My scapular remained over my heart.

The second week without Mom. This past week. Wednesday, October 28, 2020. I’m to bring the clothing and accessories Mom is meant to be buried in. I had to choose which scapular to give to her. At 2:30pm, the funeral director’s assistant met with me to take the items. I gave her the dress. I reached for my neck. I put the scapular that my mother gave me so many years ago in a plain white envelope and wrote: “Amparo Bernardo – please place around her neck” on the front, sealed it, and gave it to her. It happened just like that, just as quickly as Mom left us. I knew in an instant that that was the right choice.

My mother gave me that scapular with her whole heart. And I accepted it with my whole heart. I’m sending her to Heaven, to peace, to God, to Grace, with that scapular she gave me – a piece of my heart given with all of my heart. It’s a small token, a small symbol for a lifetime of love she gave me. A life full of my mother’s heart.

And so now I carry on or at least try to. As best as I can. The tears still come, the grief overcomes in waves, and it will for a while and I accept that. But now I have a piece of my mother’s heart with me always. And she will forever have a piece of mine.

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