I forgot to post this last September 20, 2013.
It’s Tatay’s birthday today. Who knows how to celebrate the birthday of a departed? Of course, there are the usual—candles, prayers, mass intentions, and a visit perhaps. But being so far away from home I can only do so much. It’s almost night time but the children and the dogs in the neighbourhood let loose of a midday energy. A little girl, probably five years old, could not stop screaming that anybody who hears her would feel her hurting throat. She was laughing and crying at the same time while giggles of some elder voices and whistling wind coincide. Then their voices faded. It was only the wind, the old air conditioner, my laptop, and some insects that made the continuous noise. The wind seemed reluctant though. Earlier this week I heard of a plotting storm somewhere near Laguna. Perhaps it’s the storm’s wrath that echoes outside, wheezing through treetops and musty roofs, keeping us aware. I was too awake not to remember. While the sky poured melted needles to the earth, I decided there was only one thing I could do: unpack some sealed memory.
I don’t know if I should tell about deaths in my memory. But for now I don’t think I can tolerate such grief and terror those memories of old houses and dead people residing inside me. This is fixation to terror, sadness and nostalgia. Although I don’t mind, the details of Las Navas in my head were those which hurt and scare me the most. The image of floating cadavers and coffin in the river haunts me when I am alone, in broad daylight, because only in the morning those coffins on boats were allowed to float on the river. An old lady who lived in a house nearer to our first home by about 15 meters moans about pain. And while she lived she never failed to lament over a disease I have never known. When I was a little girl, doing errands were as normal as going to school, and I would rather do errands near the cemetery than the house of that old lady. I can imagine what she was wearing: worn-out white night gown that is almost transparent, curly hair she never touches and that seemed not to grow anymore, and the lines on her face and her hands, her visible veins like tiny roots of trees in her body, and she never smiles, her eyes always teary, and laughter impossible. They’re still in my dreams. But, no matter how terrifying, I can’t let them die. I keep them the way I keep my memory about the man who never gets old.
The memory of my childhood is a remembrance of my father. What can I do, I was only 12 when he died. I hate it that Tatay had to die so early, that he never gets to see our yellow house, sleep in the bedroom behind a closed door, wake up in the morning and have a walk, just have a walk, along the most familiar streets in town, without being troubled by the thought of ten hungry, sleeping children. But I know he didn’t mind being worried. He familiarized himself with the usual riot of little hands stretching out at our dining table, a line of groomed adolescents and kids ready for school, and a little girl in a mottled white sando and shorts, checking out every pocket of his pants, eager to hear coins clatter.
Until now I am not really sure what made me cry so hard when I found out he’s gone ten years ago. It was almost noon on the seventeenth of January in 2003. I was a sixth grader in a royal blue pleated skirt and tucked white shirt. The school’s logo on my shirt was fading and the garment was almost transparent of dampness. I walked in to our house; my face was damp as I perspired on my way to coming home from school, which were about fifty meters apart. Like a bottle of frozen drink left on top of the table to thaw, I stood still in front of my brother, who was sitting on our decade-old mahogany sofa just across the door. His brows met just as his slender topless body curved so that his head was closer to a white paper he was holding. It was as if he was trying to decipher a code written in almost unreadable symbols. I thought he’d finished his typing job too soon. Usually I would find him in front of the computer finishing piles of handwritten letters, periodical tests, and theses. Nangaon na kam, I asked him. Napalit na sura. Palit iya saging. He replied without losing his crooked brows—first was an answer to my question and then a request. Although feeling tired, I reached for the bill he produced from his maong shorts’ pocket and immediately gestured to leave. Just as I reached the door, which was always kept open in the morning, my brother’s wife, Ate Glenda, walked in, carrying their two-year old son John-john in her right arm. Both were soaked in sweat and smelled as if they’ve been walking under the sun for hours. I can hear her breathing like a woman who had just recovered from palpitations. In between her gasps the words came out as if too soon: Norwin, nabatian ko kan Momo patay na kuno si Tatay. The unsolicited news broke into our home, but in that very moment, I had to leave to buy 10-peso worth of bananas. My two elder sisters, Diyen and Diya just arrived from school when the news came in. They too were speechless, but I can sense the exact feeling that all of us shared in that moment, until one of us (I don’t remember who, but I’m sure it wasn’t me) started crying. Trying to calm the moment, my brother let out of words against such wretchedness that me and my sisters displayed when in fact we weren’t sure if the news was true. Then, he gave one of my sisters money to go to BAYANTel to confirm whether or not the news was true. While she made the call, I took off to buy bananas (Why did it seem so important?). When I came home, everybody was crying. From outside, it’s the house that grieved.
We were alone at home for a few weeks after Christmas in 2002 because Tatay had to stay in Manila for his operation. And Nanay had to be there with him. This is how I understood it back then: Tatay smokes and drinks so frequently it infected his liver and lungs. A few days before the news of his death came in, I dreamt of him. He was standing alone on a boat a few meters from the ship that I boarded. He was not too far. I could see his face wrinkle as he threw me a grin—an awkward grin every time he cracks a corny joke—oddly sweet. The sun had painted dazzling stars on the sea. The sunlight reflected in them and hit my eyes; I woke up, the sun peeking in through the holes of our bedroom wall.
It’s been ten years and how strangely I tend to not remember him for a while. Will he be upset? How would I know? The earth was designed so that humans will have something to return to when they die. Will he be part of the earth if he’s been boxed in a concrete for so many years? How would he get back if the box is sealed? Whenever I visit his tomb in the town cemetery I would always ask the same questions. They were not buried; they were sealed, boxed, as if they’ll get out someday. I remember the day after his funeral. It was the first week of February and the weather seemed to mourn with us. The sky was cloudy. The first street in town wasn’t as busy as it usually was. Few stores were open, accustomed buyers from the barrios flock under waiting sheds, on the riverbank, outside of all-item stores, but nothing seemed typical. My elder sisters and brothers from Manila finished their packing the night after the funeral. We all got up early next morning. They had to leave early to catch the bus to Manila from a Catubig. Before, it had to be a thirty-minute pump boat ride to a nearby town, so they really had to leave while the atmosphere was thick of murkiness. We were somehow taken aback when the pump boat’s engine was started. The sound of the engine was so powerful; it interrupted the calmness of the river in the morning. They set off. We were there standing by the quay—me, Nanay, Ate Diya, and Ate Diyen—watching as the pump boat sallied the river. We walked back home. Breakfast was waiting for us on the table. This time, somebody else had to buy pandesal, somebody else had to boil water and somebody else had to finish the dishes in the morning. The house still smells of fresh and dried flowers, kornik, peanuts, coffee and candles. The air inside the house was thick of fog. We couldn’t smell the habitual feast that is waiting on the table every morning and glasses and plates were damp and cold. We sat. We gazed nowhere. The atmosphere was still dusky. The spoon and fork I picked were so cold as if they were kept in the freezer for a while. Then I tried to be the same. I ladled a little fried rice and cut a quarter of the scrambled eggs, sipped my milk. I tasted the smog that surrounded the house and because it was too early, it was very cold that I can’t taste anything. The only sound I could hear was from my mouth, when I gulped. I looked at Nanay, who was sitting on the cabisera, staring at the table but actually beholding nothing. Silence unhurriedly shared our breakfast. I knew in that misty morning, he shared our breakfast.
But once sadness turn into ineffable murmuring, stillness was shattered. Finally, reality was uttered by the most agonizing cry I’ve ever heard in my life—it sounded like a suppressed mumblings of ten women kneeling in the church. In that morning, in front of the dining table, agony came out of my mother’s lips. She sounded like the old woman I always hear at dawn.