Kanser by Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir
Kanser by Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir
While writing down orders beside the vibrant glow of a Christmas tree, I received a query from Jude Ortega, an editor of Cotabato Literary Journal, about our friend Gilbert Tan. In a flash, the message crushed the placating anticipation of a rather difficult working day that was about to end. I had just discussed the likelihood of end-of-life care with the husband of a patient with stage 4 colon cancer when Jude forwarded a screenshot of a post about Sir Gilbert’s unexpected passing. I scarcely had ample breathing spell to recover from the thought that two kids might be orphaned within the next few hours, then this sudden jolt to the gut. It left me nauseous and dazed.
Realizing that I was at Sir Gilbert’s favorite hospital, I immediately proceeded to the Emergency Room. I had traversed the expanse from the third floor to the ground a thousand times during the customary rounds, but inexplicably my pace was unsteady and the steps were heavy. The resident-on-duty, a keen young “moonlighter” with a thoughtful demeanor, confirmed with heartbreaking certainty that our dear old friend had just been declared DOA—dead on arrival—despite over thirty minutes of steadfast cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
For many of us who have been following the literary scene in this part of the country, the late Gilbert Tan was not only a mentor, guide, and taskmaster but a torchbearer for the advancement of the written word in General Santos City and neighboring towns. He was the first in the region to have been accepted to the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete way back in 1989, and he was among the earliest to be recognized in a national writing competition when his short story “Crimson Crescents”—an unforgettable and tragic tale of love, faith, and acceptance involving a Christian nurse and a Moro insurgent during the tumultuous Black Shirt–Ilaga conflict in Mindanao in the early seventies—won the grand prize in the 1988 Mr. & Ms. magazine contest.
For many years, even after his retirement from teaching at Mindanao State University, he had been a lecturer and a judge in many a division, regional, and national schools press conference. Many student journalists in SOCCSKSARGEN had learned about the craft from him in extents that count writing—and by extension, reading—as a commitment, a passion, and an abundant cradle of joy. He paved the path for many younger writers to seriously pursue a kindhearted, almost altruistic, love affair with the written word, one that is bereft of personal gains or regional cliques.
When the editors of Cotabato Literary Journal first thought about coming up with a special “Illness” issue, they decided to have it in the last quarter of the year in solidarity with promotion of health awareness among its readers. Aside from the usual time constraints, the last month of the year was deemed appropriate as December 12 is celebrated as Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Day. The date marks the anniversary of the first unanimous United Nations resolution calling for all countries to provide their citizens affordable quality health care. The commemoration aims to raise awareness of the need for strong and resilient health systems and universal health coverage with multistakeholder partners and for UHC advocates to raise their voices to share their stories of the millions of people still waiting for health. In the Philippines, the Universal Health Care Bill has been signed into law (Republic Act No. 11223), thus giving every Filipino access to the full continuum of health services he needs while protecting him from enduring financial distress in the process.
Based on the talk I gave last year at Notre Dame of Marbel University (NDMU) in Koronadal City, South Cotabato, on behalf of the writers’ organizations in the region, this special issue would be called “Naming Our Wounds: The Illness Narratives,” a reflection on the power of medicine to mitigate human suffering, the inevitability of compassionate methodology to diagnose and treat the ill, the inequity of the medical institution in the upkeep of the physician, and, in a larger and more collective scope, the responsibility of society in cultivating the physical, spiritual, and intellectual welfare of doctors and patients alike. But the editors did not imagine the subject would hit home the hardest.
Way back in 2014, both Sir Gilbert and I had an intimate brush with death when we had cerebrovascular accidents (more commonly known as the stroke). I had mine in March, while he had his admission to the Intensive Care Unit in June. That we both survived this ordeal was a testament to the body’s tenacity to endure and to rewire the brain in what experts would call neuroplasticity, as well as the astute and well-timed interference by a multidisciplinary team of specialists that scrutinized, decrypted, and remedied the myriad pathologies that constituted this life-threatening illness. Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify its connections to enable the brain to recover from brain injury like a stroke. The brain is unique in its capacity to recruit its many neural connections in correcting a transient deficit of function by rerouting signals along an entirely different pathway.
Over the next years, Sir Gilbert would regularly write about his struggle with post-stroke recovery and the occasional anxieties with abnormal laboratory results or unanticipated symptoms. He was known to share many things on social media about the world around him—and even within himself—especially the books he had recently read or acquired. He would often write about his stroke as if it were a metaphorical wound that needed incessant tending. Two years ago, he quoted the first lines from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tide: “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” That would define, to my mind, his daily battles and little victories in the years preceding his untimely death.
In another post, he also mentioned Nelson Mandela’s “wounds that can’t be seen are more painful than those that can be seen and cured by a doctor.”
The Chiron myth, as discussed in the NDMU lecture, is a reminder of the multidimensional exile that wounded people inhabit during and after a serious illness. According to Greek mythology, Chiron was unlike the other centaurs that were known to have wild and barbarous tendencies and insatiable sexual appetites. He was the product of an unwilling union between the nymph Philira and the god Chronos. Disgusted and appalled by his appearance, Philira rejected and abandoned her child. Fortunately, the sun god Apollo adopted Chiron and taught all that he knew: prophecy, poetry, and healing.
Chiron formed a strong friendship with Heracles, among the mightiest in the Greek pantheon of heroes. They fought in battles together, side by side, on many an occasion. But Heracles accidentally wounded Chiron when he shot an arrow that struck the centaur’s knee. The wound was incurable because the arrow had been dipped at the gall of Hydra and was extremely lethal.
But Chiron, being immortal, could not die. The animal part of him had to suffer, while the divine part maintained his connection to life. For this reason, he became a renowned healer. He studied herb lore and therapeutic methods and became a medicine man in search of cure. He would never find one, but he found something better, something more consequential—a door to transcend his misery and become truly whole.
Without Chiron, many contend, there would not be the art of healing. Asclepius, the son of Apollo, learned medicine from the benevolent centaur. The descendants of Asclepius continued the practice of medicine and healing. Undoubtedly its most famous member was Hippocrates, immortalized as the father of modern medicine, who was credited by historians with moving the discipline of medicine away from supernatural and religious conviction toward a modern approach of observation, classification, causes, and effects.
Carl Jung, inspired by the myth of Chiron, defined the archetypal wounded healer as thus: “The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. But when the doctor wears his personality like a coat of armor, he has not effect.” Chiron may have been physically wounded, but by surmounting the pain of his own wounds, he became a compassionate teacher of healing. Many contemporary psychotherapists see themselves as “wounded healers” in their respective societies, whereby they use the pain of their own life experiences to advance the health and healing of others.
In The Wounded Storyteller, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary Arthur W. Frank describes sick people as wounded storytellers. These are people who turn illness into stories that transform fate into experience. The disease that sets the body apart from others becomes, in the story, the common bond of suffering that joins individuals in their shared vulnerability.
A serious illness like cancer, stroke, AIDS, dementia, systemic lupus erythematosus, even chronic kidney disease, is a loss of the axiomatic “destination and map” that previously guided the ill person’s life. People with illness have to learn to think differently. By listening to themselves tell their respective stories, they learn by absorbing the reactions of others and by experiencing their stories being shared.
It has been said that all of literature can be divided into two themes. First, a person goes on a journey. Second, a stranger comes to town. While this might be terribly naive, there is gist of truth in it. And it is also true that narratives of medicine merge both these themes. A person goes on a journey: the person is the patient, and accompanying him on the voyage is the doctor. A stranger comes to town: the stranger is the illness, the uninvited guest who disrupts the equilibrium of quotidian life, where the journey leads, how the two voyagers change over the course of the story, and whether the stranger is ultimately expelled or in some way subdued give each narrative its unique drama.
In this issue, we follow in An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen’s heartbreaking “An Ama Reverie” a grandson’s struggle with his family’s journey from a village in Maguindanao to Cotabato City and finally to Davao City, where a beloved patriarch, brain-dead from a stroke, had to be unplugged from life support. It is too shattering to read about “all the injections, the bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to.” Despite the author’s world-weariness, the restorative power of stories cannot be ignored when he noted: “In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house in Dalican to pay their respects; the stories I heard about him that day, like the one on my parents’ wedding as well as tales of his unselfishness, made me see him in a better light.”
General Santos City’s adopted son Wilfredo Pascual (formerly of Nueva Ecija and now based in San Francisco) writes about nocturnal enuresis, commonly known as bedwetting, as both a natural manifestation and a metaphysical depiction of his struggle with mental illness. Unarguably the most accomplished writer to contribute to this issue, his “River of Shame” is a master class of astute craftsmanship and frightening candor that every student of literature should read and learn from. When he describes his “family across the river. They looked so happy. It was so beautiful it hurt,” one commiserates with a young man’s tender yearning for his rightful place in a world that excludes, discriminates, even punishes the ones that need help.
In “The Long Wait to Cure,” Koronadal’s Dr. Lance Catedral’s account of Faith, who has mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, is for me a familiar occurrence, having trained at the Philippine General Hospital many years back. “These people came from all over the Philippines,” he notices. “They brought with them tumors of different sizes and shapes, of varying degrees of aggression, in various parts of their anatomy.” This is a typical, often depressing, refrain in a country where more than half of the patients are seen in the advanced stages and “people pay for their treatment out of their pockets.”
It is heartening to know that Dr. Catedral belongs to an emergent population of Filipino physicians who appreciate the role of narrative in medicine in improving clinical practice and in understanding the subjective experience of illness as a platform through which a sick person can express his shifting awareness of self and identity in measures that are not merely expressive but transformative and therapeutic as well. Among the Filipino doctor-writers (or writer-doctors) I admire for a profundity that obscures the once-inalienable line between technical writing and scholarly/creative prose and for refined bravura on the printed page are the obstetrician-gynecologist Alice Sun-Cua, medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco, neurosurgeon Ronnie Baticulon (whose first book Some Days You Can’t Save Them All is now on its second printing), Palanca Hall of Famer and pediatrician Luis P. Gatmaitan, internist Joey Tabula (the second edition of his anthology Through The Eyes of a Healer is much anticipated), surgeon Jose Tiongco, infectious disease specialist Louie Mar Gangcuangco, geriatric medicine specialist Eva Socorro Aranas Angel, and the brothers Yu, theater reviewer and multihyphenated Vincen Gregory and endocrinologist Mark Gregory.
The art of telling stories and of listening to stories used to be central to the doctor–patient relationship. Patients have stories that need to be heard, not just symptoms that require knee-jerk stipulation for CT scan or prescription of medications. When patients complain of pain, it could be something that is psychosocial as much as somatic. When the concept of well-being is threatened, something that challenges an individual’s concept of being around for family and for meaningful relationship with peers, emotions, thoughts, and stories impact how an individual understands pain, disability, and death.
The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” The word arises from the Latin poena or the Greek poene, meaning “price paid,” “penalty,” “punishment.” This association, malignant as it may seem, has roots hidden within the illness-experience. It is a common belief among Filipinos that a serious illness like cancer or AIDS is a punishment for something a person has done. When a person is gravely ill or is in severe pain, he is evicted from the quotidian sequence of characters upon which so much of his traditional individuality is based. A man ceases to be a husband, father, breadwinner, and best friend all at once when serious illness rears its ugly head.
Out of the appreciation that restoring meaning to the subjective experience of illness and suffering that was mislaid in the predominantly objective perspective in which clinicians are trained, narrative medicine emerged in the late nineties. Internist Rita Charon coined the term narrative medicine and started a movement that was aimed at improving the communication and collaboration of health care professionals and their patients and at bridging the gap between humanities and the sciences. Arthur Kleinmann, Robert Coles, Arthur Frank, Brian Hurwitz, Trisha Greenhalgh, and many others became leading advocates for greater recognition to patient narratives.
Over two thousand years ago, Hippocrates stated that “it is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist and psychiatrist, clearly distinguishes “disease” from “illness” in which the former refers to the biological problem that science addresses and the latter characterizes the human experience of the disease. Complete medical care tends to both disease and illness. He wrote, “Each patient brings to the practitioner a story. That story enmeshes the disease in a web of meanings that make sense only in the context of a particular life.”
In the past, there was meager attention on language, both the spoken messages and the nonverbal communication doctors provide their patients and impart among themselves. The words of a doctor have immeasurable clout, received by the sick and their loved ones with enduring resonance. Despondently sometimes doctors hurriedly discard ordinary speech and take on formulaic phrases of the wards:
“Excision of adenocarcinoma is optimally done according to standard protocols.”
“Cardiac arrhythmia led to disordered circulation that disrupted cerebral perfusion.”
“Remission rates can be as high as fifty percent with neoadjuvant chemotherapy.”
Espousing abstracted language was part of enlisting into the medical guild and served its goal of shorthand transmission of knowledge among professionals. Such communication was once regarded as absolute and all-encompassing and was conveyed with noble intentions. But all too often it was ambiguous to a layperson and carried out to abbreviate or even cease more discussion. It also worked to curtail a doctor’s scrutiny of the values and beliefs of people before him—the patient and family members—individuals seeking an explanation that made sense to them as people, not merely cases. Doctors needed to explain what this technical information meant not only for their hearts and lungs or kidneys and liver but also for their soul. The diagnosis and treatment were just doorways to a discourse about the emotional and social impact of a particular condition and what the doctor was purporting to do about it.
When doctors write about their experiences and those of their patients, it compels them to revisit a more ordinary language, one that, while still clinically precise, is truer to feelings, perceptions, and sensibilities. Such writing enables doctors step down from the podium of the professional and plumb their internal and external persona from more human perspectives.
In her seminal work on personal account of illness, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins added at the end:
Another voice we need to hear is that of the physician. This may seem a paradoxical statement at the end of a book that so insists on returning to the patient to the medical enterprise and so often contrasts the patient’s voice to that of medicine. But the “physician’s voice” I am referring to . . . (is) the voice of the individual who is inevitably lost in that impersonal professional voice. We need to hear from them . . .
We need more writing that conveys the inner reality of what it is to be a physician in today’s technological medical system. Only when we hear both the doctor’s and the patient’s voice will we have a medicine that is truly human.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a teacher of wizardry asks Hermione Granger whether she wishes to study the Magical Laws to pursue a career in magic. “No,” she says. She wishes to learn the laws so that she can do some good in the world. For Granger, magical laws do not exist to propagate magic. They are tools to illuminate the world.
Similarly, a physician studies literature and, if given the opportunity, writes about these stories to give meaning to the pain and suffering, the struggles and redemptions, of living in the world of disease and decay, death and dying, dread and deliverance.
This 40th issue also included three outstanding works of fiction that explore the multifaceted dimensions of healing. Literature abounds with fictive ills, works that have disease or wound as its nucleus. Sophocles’ Philoctetes is a valuable source for imagining the phenomenology of illness, one that, like its protagonist, is exiled to the uninhabited island of Lemnos, away from the customary world, because of a foul-smelling wound on his foot. He happens to stray into Chryse’s coppice and is bitten by an asp whose venom creates a putrescent wound that never kills and never heals. The wound that is the cause of his exile for nine long years becomes his identity, echoing Sir Gilbert’s favorite opening line from the Pat Conroy novel. Other literary works that illustrate these fictive ills are Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Anton Chekhov’s Ward Number Six, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, and my favorite, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. The short story by Chekhov, himself a medical doctor, depicts a philosophical conflict between Andrey Ragin, the director of a provincial mental asylum, Ivan Gromov, one of the institution’s patients. Tolstoy’s novella follows the main character’s journey from a “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” bureaucrat with an incurable illness to a perceptive human being who ultimately and serenely comes to terms with the constancy of death in life.
In this issue, the fiction pieces are similarly arresting and enlightening. Koronadal’s Dianne May Torres (“Jellyfish”) portrays a girl’s menarche as portent of something graver when she gets older; John Efrael Igot from Magpet (“Epidemya ng Lipunan”) depicts a parallel theme between an insidious skin disorder and the scourge of dubious government policy; and Lebak resident Jean Martinez Fullo (“Wag Tularan”) submitted a cautionary tale which co-editor Jude imagines as having an “ultimate intention” of “[asking] us how we, as a society yearning for order, have lost empathy and regard for the rights of others.”
In these stories, and even in the lone poem in this issue by Banga’s Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir (“Kanser”), we are confronted with the face of suffering. The writer-persona laments the loss of the very source of nourishment as a child to breast cancer (Hindi na bango ng daisy, santan, yellow bell/ang pragransyang nanunuot sa aking mga baga/kundi ang bulok na suha at saging/anastrozole at dekstros sa ICU.) Recognizing these wounds reminds us of the multifaceted banishment of the ill from the land of the living: the perception of sickness as corporal, cognitive, and cosmic punishment; the loss of faith in the providence of the divine and in the benevolence of society; the foreignness of one’s body and the estrangement of the person to the meaning of self; the obliteration of human roles especially at home and work; the disarticulation of language; the uncertainty of time and relationships; and the loss of geography as an anchorage or port-of-call to which all voyages begin and end.
I had the good fortune of sitting beside Sir Gilbert at a local coffee shop three nights before his fatal heart attack. He greeted me with his customary warmth in between giving sagacious advice to, I assumed, his former students. I remarked that he particularly looked serene and content. He just smiled back. I will always carry that memory with me like a wound that cannot be healed. It has become, in my appreciation of—and gratitude for—his life and death, a personal geography.
Noel P. Pingoy
Koronadal, South Cotabato
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Gilbert Tan and Noel Pingoy, two of my fellow writers in the region, both had a stroke this decade, and they talked about the ordeal that they had gone through while we were having lunch one time. With prompt medical attention, their lives and bodies didn’t change much after the stroke—they just no longer had dreams anymore, which many people would find positive instead of negative—but the conversation was wedged in my subconscious.
Two years or so later, while on a work assignment in Zamboanga City, I felt that I was having a stroke myself. I googled my symptoms, and they all matched the symptoms of the disease that I was so dreadful of. I called Noel, a hematologist and oncologist, and told him what was happening to me. He instructed me to go to the hospital. So I wound up in a bed at an emergency room that night, hooked to an oxygen tank, convinced that I was going to die, trying to grasp why my life was ending in such a manner—without reaching the climax, without any resolution, unlike the stories that I had toiled on.
I was able to go back to my hotel that same night, with all my vital signs at normal range, as though nothing had happened, only to be rushed back to the hospital in the morning. This time, the treatment involved an hour of conversation with a doctor about recent and past events in my life. I left Zamboanga City heavily sedated, not remembering anything about the flight to Davao City and barely remembering falling into my mother’s arms in my cousin’s car on our way home. I had been diagnosed with panic disorder, which meant that I had frequent panic attacks. When I thought I was having a stroke, I was actually having a panic attack. The two illnesses have the same symptoms, but one is physical and the other is mental.
* * *
In the essay “River of Shame,” Wilfredo Pascual recalls how nocturnal enuresis, or bed-wetting, was a constant source of embarrassment for him in his childhood. He had the condition even until he was thirteen, which prompted his family’s doctor to advise his mother to take him to a psychiatrist, but his father refused. As Pascual further talks about his father, the reader learns that the man was not only a hindrance to his son’s recovery—he was obviously a main cause of the child’s afflictions. At once heartbreaking and luminous, the short piece makes the reader yearn for more from the writer, both on this personal tale of suffering and survival and on other subjects.
In “The Long Wait to Cure,” practicing medical oncologist Lance Isidore Catedral shares an encounter with a patient at the Philippine General Hospital, making us see in the process the bigger malaise of corruption and poverty that plagues our country. Her body being ravaged by cancer, her family scrambling to pay for her medical bills, the patient remains determined to get better. The story is both harrowing and heartwarming. In a prose that has the precision of a modern medical instrument, Catedral shows us that in the worst state of our health, hope and kindness can give us the strength that we need to hold on to life.
As indicated in the title, “An Ama Reverie” is An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen’s recollection of his grandfather, who had to be unplugged from the life-support system after showing no signs of regaining consciousness from a massive stroke. The writer also recalls how the old man suffered from memory loss after an earlier stroke, becoming an entirely different person from the doting grandfather, supportive father, and strong husband that he had been. Entwined with Maguindanao culture, the essay is a touching tale of grief and guilt, and more importantly, of love for family.
* * *
The Filipino poem “Kanser” is about a child longing for his mother. The writer, Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir, uses flowers and gardening as metaphors for the events in the life of the two characters. The mother suckles the child in infancy (habang nakapatong/ ang iyong paa sa nangingiliting bermuda/ grass ay hinehele mo ako). He leaves her in adulthood (pati/ ang platong kinakainan na may guhit ng/ mga bulaklak ay naging mapusyaw). He comes back to her as she is treated for breast cancer (Hindi na bango ng daisy, santan, yellow bell/ ang pragransiyang nanunuot sa aking mga baga/ kundi ang bulok na suha at saging,/ anastrozole at dekstros ng ICU). With a tragic conclusion, the poem reminds the reader of the cruelty of diseases, the evanescence of life, and the endurance of love in spite of it all.
* * *
In the short story “Jellyfish” by Diane May Torres, a girl experiences something unusual on her first period and has to face something so much more serious in her late twenties, still involving her reproductive organs. Clear-eyed in both form and content, the story is an engaging read. Without being didactic, it makes the reader see the significance of having a choice, especially for women.
In “Epidemya ng Lipunan,” a Filipino flash fiction by John Efrael Igot, a father infected with an incurable skin disease has to set aside his own well-being to support his family. When he applies for a job at a construction site, things take a turn for the worse. The writer uses the disease as a springboard to warn us about a sociopolitical epidemic—the influx of possibly illegal workers from China and the gradual loss of our sovereignty, sadly, due to the questionable foreign policy of our own government.
“’Wag Tularan” by Jean Martinez Fullo is a story about a young woman who, being the eldest child, has to take care of her siblings when they are orphaned. As she struggles to make ends meet, her brother adds to the burden by turning to vices. The family drama shows us how emotional pain can lead to self-destruction, but its ultimate intention is to ask us how we, as a society yearning for order, have lost empathy and regard for the rights of others.
* * *
When I was diagnosed with panic disorder in January 2017, I decided to leave my post as an editor of Cotabato Literary Journal. I came back in September 2017, on the first anniversary issue. Although I was still on antidepressants, I had stopped taking sedatives, so I was no longer lethargic and was highly functional. Overall, of the first forty issues of the journal, I’ve been part of thirty-four—a proof, I believe, that a diagnosis of a mental illness is not tantamount to a life sentence, as many people in our communities assume.
My health is in a much better state now. I haven’t had panic attacks for months. The dosage of my antidepressant is lower. I have adjusted to the almost daily stress in my full-time online job, which I’ve had for more than a year. I am kinder, if not to people, at least to my dog. I am happier. Ironically, this progress has made me decide to take a hiatus from the journal again. I am doing the same thing for the opposite reason.
I have nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to help develop local literature. My experiences with the contributors and my co-editors have made me grow as an editor, writer, and person. Like the theme and the making of this issue, the operation of the journal has been rife with challenges, but it survived, thrived even, month after month because it is a community. An arrival heightens the passion and expands the pool of skills, and a departure opens up space for others.
Isulan, Sultan Kudarat
By Wilfredo Pascual Jr.
“We don’t have to leave,” she said. “If your father stopped leaving at night, the monsters wouldn’t come anymore.” —Angelo Serrano, “It Comes At Night”
When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see Dr. Custodio, our family doctor in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, who took care of the Pascuals for three generations. He sat behind his desk at his home clinic. He knew our medical history, our public and private lives well enough. I heard him say something to my mother, something that I would hold on to for the rest of my life. It saved me: “Nasaktan siya. Kailangan ni’yo siyang dalhin sa espesyalista. Dalhin ni’yo na siya sa psychiatrist.”
I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Finally I was going to get help. Somebody was going to listen to me. I was going to get better. I hardly said anything during that consultation. I was so ashamed of myself, which was how I felt most of the time—even with all the medals and awards in grade school.
At home, my parents pinned all my medals to a pair of black vertical banners that hung on the wall, all first place medals and ribbons. I won my first essay writing contest at age eight. I was recognized in art and academic performance. I was best in roller skates, an outstanding pupil every year, the most active, most polite, most talented student. It’s easy to assume that I was goal-driven, even competitive. But I have no memory of it. I only remember having so much to give and how liberating that felt. I remember the storm inside me, this intense energy, a flooding. I had no name for it. It was marvelous, ferocious, joyous, and terrifying. I felt it every time I wrote, made art, performed, and read books. I didn’t care so much about winning. All I wanted was the freedom to live and express that energy.
I was six when I started drawing pictures of girl’s clothes, women’s faces and shoes. I would draw in the living room. One time I looked up and saw my father looking at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me. Slowly my smile disappeared, and I crumpled my drawing.
I have no memory of what my mother said to Dr. Custodio. We went home that evening not saying a word to each other. We went upstairs straight to our rooms. My door was next to theirs. I couldn’t sleep. Finally somebody was going to help me try to understand what was wrong with me. I was still awake when my mother knocked, and I opened the door. She spoke to me in a low voice. It was a scene straight from Kisapmata.
“Sabi ng Daddy mo, mula ngayon gigisingin kita ’pag hatinggabi. Pupunta ka sa banyo.”
“Pero sabi ni Dr. Custodio, dalhin ni’yo daw ako sa doktor.”
“Makinig ka sa Daddy mo.”
That was all she said, and she went back to her room.
I was crushed. I remember closing the door and hitting myself repeatedly. “Why don’t I just die?” I screamed. Nobody heard me. I had to make sure no sound came out.
For as long as I could remember, waking up to the world had always been preceded by the smell of ammonia. Bedwetting was almost a daily occurrence. It got to a point that I no longer got up. I just pulled down my wet underwear, shorts, and pajamas and moved to a drier spot. Sometimes more than once in one night.
My earliest memory of terror is the sound of my father arriving. In the seventies, he drove a Jeep Renegade—blood red with a white leather top, its hood and sides trimmed in gleaming chrome and black decal stripes. I have vague recollections of his off-road adventures—fleeting images of a cliff, a grassy hillside, wild rivers. Mostly I remember the sense of danger that builds by nightfall, brought about by the curfew enforced during Martial Law. In the middle of the night that silence would be shattered by my young father speeding through empty roads and streets on his way home. I knew he was drunk because he would stay inside the Jeep in the garage and step on the gas pedal and rev up the Jeep relentlessly, a monstrous loudness intent on waking up the entire neighborhood.
I would cover my ears with a pillow and pray to God to please make it stop. Sometimes he would come up to my room—bloodshot eyes and reeking of alcohol—and he would hold me and weep. “But I do love you,” he would say over and over. “I do.” Sometimes he would watch over me while I pretended to be asleep, and then leave quietly. The following morning it would be as if nothing happened. I still feared him, loathed him. He very rarely looked at me, and when he did, I could sense how repulsed he was.
Dinner was an ordeal. One time I started to say grace quietly. He stopped me as I was making the sign of the cross. “Don’t pray,” he said firmly. Another time he glared at me because something made me laugh. When he was around I always blamed myself for making my presence felt. Before leaving my room, I learned to make sure that the hallway was clear. On my way home from school, I would stop at the corner of our street to make sure that my father was not at the gate. If he was, I would turn and walk around the block to the corner on the other side of our street named after my great-grandfather.
My mother had it worse. He would hit her. One time my father pulled out his gun at my mother who was holding me. I was maybe five or six. Another time he took us to the traveling circus in town. My mother and I were riding the caterpillar when I heard the other passengers screaming. The ride wouldn’t stop. I saw my father on the undulating ramp beating up the operator. We would go round and round, and each turn I would see my father pummeling the operator’s face until somebody stopped the ride. One time he took us to the movies to see a comedy. He was drunk. We were seated at the balcony. He stood up in the dark, pulled out his gun, and pointed it at the moviegoers. “Walang tatawa!” he yelled at them. People left the theater quietly. The silencing was just as damaging as the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered.
My father was the mayor’s son. The family had been in power for more than half a century. It was only after he died, actually only a few years ago, that my mother openly acknowledged to me that my father was sick, that he was an alcoholic. “We should have taken him to the doctor,” she said. I didn’t say anything.
She was a cold mother. I never felt any affection from her growing up. I have no memory of my mother asking me how I was doing, or telling me that I did a good job. I have no memory of seeking comfort from her. She was just as oppressed and tired as I was. One time when my father was out my mother and I had a fight. I yelled at my mother across the dining table, “Hindi ako masaya sa bahay na ito!”
“Ako rin!” she yelled back.
“Bakit hindi ka tumakas?”
“Dahil sa inyo.”
She was helpless. She was just as scared as I was, a captive. Always have been. When she was in high school my father invited her to a party. He lied. With the help of his friends, my father took my mother to a hut fifty miles away from our hometown. The first time my mother told me this story was the night after we buried my father.
Shortly after my appointment with the doctor, my father hosted a river picnic and invited dozens of my relatives on both sides of the family. By then the river of my childhood had changed directions. Ferdinand Marcos had built Pantabangan Dam, so the river was much shallower than I remember. I crossed it easily and stood on the other side, the river and my family behind me. I was looking at the old riverbed under the blinding light, the rocks bright as bones when I heard shouting behind me.
“’Yong malaking bato ang kunin ni’yo!”
“Hawakan ni’yo! Aanurin ’yan!”
I heard laughter. Cheering. I didn’t turn around. I knew what was going on. My parents brought my bed mattress to the river. It smelled so bad they had to submerge it in the river to wash it. They held it down with rocks, and when that wasn’t enough, the men held on to it.
I couldn’t look. I was trembling in shame. I squatted and started to pick up rocks and stones. Later, I heard a voice behind me, a relative. I can’t remember who it was. I didn’t even look up when he asked what I was doing.
“Looking for frog’s eggs,” I said.
After a while I turned around, and whoever it was who spoke to me had left. It had gotten quiet on the other side of the river. They had placed enough rocks on the mattress to hold it and keep it from floating away. I watched my family across the river. They looked so happy. It was so beautiful it hurt. I gazed at the river, the second largest in the island, fourth in the entire country. From its headwaters in the mountains it traverses the central plains of Luzon for about 160 miles until it drains into the Manila Bay to where water meets water, the world.
I have survived abuse, bullying, homelessness, addiction, betrayal, physical assault, three nervous breakdowns (ages fourteen, nineteen, and thirty-two); and two suicide attempts (1985, 1987). I am seeing a doctor now, and I have been on medication for the past four years. I am also an essayist and married to a wonderful man. The thing that I am most proud of is being alive.
It took a long time, but when I heard Dr. Custodio tell my mother that I needed help, to me that meant help was out there. If my family couldn’t give it to me, I had to find it on my own. It was 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis. The acronym LGBT didn’t exist yet. And people were about to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship.
By Lance Isidore Catedral
At 4 PM, when most government offices were about to close, when cars were trapped in Metro Manila traffic, when students and employees fought for space in the MRT, the queue of new patients outside the Medical Oncology Clinic was as long as when the day had begun. On my table was the pile of new charts still unopened—each cream-colored folder bearing the name of a human being waiting to be called in.
The waiting area smelled of clothes drenched in sweat, what with the tropical afternoon heat and humidity. These people came from all over the Philippines—a country of seven thousand islands, blessed with year-long sunshine and white sand beaches and broad smiles but plagued with poverty and corruption. They brought with them tumors of different sizes and shapes, of varying degrees of aggression, in various parts of their anatomy. Perhaps many of them wondered, during this long wait, if they would live long enough to their son’s graduation or if they could still blow next year’s birthday candle.
For the rich and powerful, who could afford air-conditioned lounges in the most exclusive of hospitals, this long waiting time would be a waste, but for many of them who could barely even afford a complete blood count, this was a step closer to cure—if it existed at all.
Somewhere in the thick crowd was a woman named Faith whose folder sat at the top of the pile. She was twenty-three years old. She came from a nearby province, an hour away from Manila. As I called her name through the microphone, my voice reverberated throughout the Cancer Institute. But there was no commotion, no indication that someone was approaching the consultation room. Just as I was about to call the next name on the pile, a man—the patient’s father—told me that she was too heavy to carry, that she was in the opposite end of the hall, and begged if I could go to her instead.
Faith lay on a narrow metallic stretcher, listening to music with her earphones, a distraction from reality. Her left forearm was amputated when a tumor appeared in her wrist two years ago. The tumor was cancer—mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, the biopsy had read. She said yes, without hesitation, to amputation. She had just graduated with a computer science degree and landed a stable IT job. No cancer was going to hold her back.
Months after surgery, she felt a lump in her lower spine. It grew larger by the day, a threatening mass that would usher another chapter of her life. This time, she needed chemotherapy. She went to a private hospital where she finished four cycles of chemotherapy. It only made her a little better; the mass had not disappeared completely but was at least as big as a basketball. Her treatment—which included expensive chemotherapy medications, admission to a private room every three weeks, and expensive laboratory and imaging tests—caused a financial strain on her family. Her father was a traffic enforcer, her mother a housewife. In the Philippines, people pay for their treatment out of their pockets. PhilHealth, the government-run health insurance provider, only paid for her treatment partially. With no other options left, her family opted to bring her to a public hospital like ours.
I met her with the assurance that I would do everything I could to help her. As a practicing medical oncologist in the country’s largest public hospital, this meant me giving the best concoction of chemotherapy medications available, but this also meant I would take on the role of a social worker. What difference would an ambitious, evidence-based treatment strategy mean to her if she wouldn’t be able to get the medications she actually needed?
Cancer takes a toll, even in middle-class families. Some sell their small pieces of land, or have their kids stop schooling to save on tuition, or work additional jobs, to pay for treatment. Even curable cancers become death sentences for those who do not have the financial means.
For the next weeks, her parents and brothers would fall in line in offices of government officials who gave checks worth a few thousand pesos—not much compared to the overall cost of her treatment but, when put together, amounted to a substantial amount, sufficient to tide her for at least three cycles of chemotherapy.
“Do you want to go through with this?” I asked Faith when she got confined. Her mass had grown in size during the waiting period, and it looked like she had a massive backpack in her sacrum.
“Yes, of course,” she said. She asked if she would ever get better—the perpetual question, the answer to which was never a simple yes or no. If only life were simpler.
“Let’s hope so,” I said. “This is your best fighting chance.”
Faith’s first cycle did not go without any complications; she suffered severe neutropenia and did not feel well for many days. I discharged her after a few more days, only to have her readmitted for the next cycle.
When I go home after tiring days in the hospital, I often dream of the time when cancer will become as easily treatable as a simple skin infection and we don’t have to worry about the cost of treatment. It is a dream that pushes me, and the strong and optimistic army of physicians in the country, to do what we can, given our limited resources.
But my patients’ hope springs eternal—not just Faith’s but of most of the names in the chart pile. At the end of the day, no charts remain on my table, only unopened gifts—warm meals, fresh fruits picked from the backyard, pieces of candies, and slices of pies, whatever these patients could muster, their gratitude overflowing despite their poverty. If only to offer them, the underprivileged, a chance at a cure, all my exhaustion will have been worth it.
By An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen
After staying for twenty-one days at Davao Doctor’s Hospital, it was time for Ama’s life support to be unplugged. It was a family decision, which was decided upon after Ama’s doctor told the whole family that, at that point, he had no chance of recovery. After all, in those twenty-one days, he never even opened his eyes. That time, the stroke proved fatal. Most members of the family also thought that if they were in his shoes, they would have preferred dying in his home back at Dalican in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, than in a hospital far away from his birthplace. By removing and unplugging every machine hooked up to his body, they spared him of further suffering. They thought it better to let him rest in his home.
In those twenty-one days at the ICU, my grandfather died three times. During those three times, the life support had been able to revive him, giving us enough time to bring him home. He was brain-dead, but his heart kept on pumping, his lungs begging for air from the dull, rusted green oxygen tank beside his bed. “Sundalo talaga siya,” some relatives concluded. “Lumalaban pa rin.”
I only saw him once in those twenty-one days. I also never cried, or even felt the urge to cry. I was still ten then. And it has been nine years since his death.
That lone time I saw him, I thought he looked cool, like the cyborg from Teen Titans, with plenty of wires connected to his fingers, elbows, nose, and mouth. He also had a translucent plastic tube inserted down his throat through what I assume was a long and wide cut covered only by plasters. My mother said that it was helping get air into his lungs, but back then, I did not know how a person could ever need such a painfully large tube inserted down his throat. As a kid who drowned himself in cartoons and toys, I never really felt the gravity of the situation. Looking back at it now, as a kid I would’ve never been able to fathom the pain he had to endure when the doctors intubated and took care of him. All the injections, the bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to—everything that he suffered through seemed too alien a thought for me back then.
If only I could somehow talk to him now, I would ask him how the experience was, like at what point did he lose consciousness of his surroundings, or was he able to have visions of heaven and hell, like how some people claim to have a glimpse as their light dies out? I think it would be such a killer bonding moment. After all, I never bonded with my grandfather that much. If only that were to happen, I would’ve been able to ask him, before he drew his final breath, how it felt to have a grandchild like me.
Looking back, I wanted to slap my younger self across the face for not realizing that after his first death, after the life support revived him, my grandfather might not even remember anyone, anything, or even his self anymore. He might not remember the face of his children, his wife, how he lived his life. He was brain-dead after all.
At that moment, when my mother sat there crying outside the ICU, I remember feeling sad. Sad, but not devastated. I even had fun during our stay at the hospital. All I looked forward to during those days were going to the cafeteria at three in the afternoon to eat spaghetti and binignit, as well as buying compact disks and watching anime on my portable DVD player. I used to buy those counterfeit CDs at a bazaar fronting Davao Doctors Hospital. Never did the gravity of my remaining living grandfather’s death affected me or the fun I had in our stay there. At those moments, I cared more about my food and the lives of illustrated characters than the life of my grandfather. Call it a child’s ignorance, but how I wish I had realized earlier that I ought to be standing there outside the ICU waiting for the grand cosmic miracle of him waking up, winning the battle that he was fighting.
I was very close, yet so emotionally far.
On our way home to Dalican, I remember nine cars in the convoy: the ambulance, our car, the other cars owned by our relatives. We arrived there at around five in the afternoon. Along the way, we had to constantly keep an eye on Ama’s oxygen tank because three hours into the travel, it came awfully close to being empty. Dalican was still two and a half hours away; everyone was on guard. This forced us to drive so fast that the cars seemed to fly. The ambulance ran at 140 to160 kilometers per hour. The convoy of cars followed behind. Mama never stopped crying for the rest of the trip. In desperation, we played verses in the Quran on repeat in our car, as if that would give my Ama some air he so desperately needed to breathe.
I also clearly remember enjoying the ride, which was the fastest one I had ever been in my whole life. Before that afternoon, I just finished watching an anime about drifting and driving in the uphill roads of Tokyo, Japan. This is just like Initial D, I thought. I felt the thrill, the speed, the exhilaration of experiencing what it was like to be in the anime I had watched. It felt like we were in a race. As I try to remember, I want to scream at my ten-year-old me for failing to realize that we were in a real race, not against other cars but against time, that we were skating on thin ice. I even remember loving the moments the car zoomed past strangers on motorcycles, vehicles, and pedestrians.
While inside the car, I never thought of what might happen in Dalican. I never even thought about what would come next if ever Ama gave up while we were still on the road, or if the tank ran out of oxygen. I never thought of losing someone important, or maybe at that moment, he wasn’t important to me. Looking back, maybe I just lacked the compassion for my grandfather, or maybe at some point, I never even cared; after all, like I mentioned earlier, Ama and I had never spent quality time together.
As a kid, I loathed his prickly mustache that stabbed me every time he kissed my forehead. I despised the times when he would ask for kisses. I hated the way he smelled; he smelled like a glass of warm milk, and I hated the smell of milk. Every time I asked him for five pesos to buy a sachet of Milo, he would intentionally give me four pesos and demanded a kiss on my forehead before he handed the last peso. “Kagyabu nengka bulingit’n,” he would usually tease, telling me to stop eating Milo with my fingers because I looked gross every time I did so. I also hated Ama’s big round eyes, which he used to scare children as a way of having fun. I cannot count the times I stopped playing and cried because of those eyes. Those eyes, they gave the scariest glares. But despite hating his mustache and his eyes, I liked his round belly. Every time he asked for a hug, I imagined that that was the sensation of hugging Barney the purple dinosaur.
That round belly of his got severely small in those twenty-one days.
Reflecting on it now, I wish he had gotten better. That way, his belly could’ve grown bigger again and I would’ve been able to hug him for much longer. That way we could’ve spent more time together. I could’ve spent afternoons with him just sitting, sipping coffee, listening to stories only he could tell. I could’ve spent more time with the only grandfather I had.
In the small amount of time that the people were preparing his corpse for the burial, I felt like I did not belong in the room, that I shouldn’t be there, that that space was exclusive for those who loved Ama truly. Back then, the past me loved him because he was the only one whom I could ask Milo money from, but further than that, I was not sure. If only I had known how to handle things more professionally at that early an age, my last moments with him would not have been as useless. Looking back, I didn’t deserve to be present in his burial. No dead man deserves somebody who takes him for granted in his own burial.
The day of his death in Dalican, the house bustled with stories about Ama and his bravery as a soldier, the way he treated relatives from the uplands of Maguindanao whenever they visited, along with other tales of his generosity. I remember an aunt telling stories of how he helped her and her family find lodging when they went to Mecca for pilgrimage. Another relative told stories of how Ama always had a jar of native coffee from Cotabato City at the ready whenever a relative came to borrow money, then offer him a cup alongside the money he lent, as well as stories of how he used to never ask for the money back, because of his faith in the innate good nature of his relatives. This only amplified my thoughts of not deserving to be in his burial. After all, all the stories I could tell of my moments with Ama were all filled of me being annoyed at his milk-like scent and his mustache.
Many of the most notable stories about Ama were the ones told by my mother of her times with him when she was still a little girl, as well as that one about my parents’ wedding. According to her, Ama had always been her companion since she was a little kid. Ama’s wife never really treated my mother with compassion. As a child, my mother was a hardheaded, strong boy in the body of a girl. She often disobeyed my grandmother and played with other boys her age. She would play swords, jolen, and hulog-piso with them and other games boys typically played. For my grandmother, this was unacceptable and unbecoming of a little girl, so she tried her hardest to keep my mother inside the house. She taught her how to knit and sew to take her time off playing. She taught her how to cook to keep my mother in the kitchen. My mother never enjoyed these, and neither did Ama. He resisted for and with my mother. He would take her to Cotabato City (which was a two-hour travel from Dalican back then) just to let her escape the housework. My mother bonded with Ama the most out of six other siblings because of that. That’s the reason why it broke my mother gravely when he died. Then I learned how Ama played a gargantuan role in my parents’ wedding in 1998.
My grandmother was headstrong in disagreeing with the wedding. She was not in favor of my father because of his low financial capability. What Ama did was that he faked being sick, demanded to be checked at Davao Doctors Hospital, and forced his wife to come with him, just to give my parents ample time to marry. The wedding was kept secret from my grandmother. Of course, after she later discovered what went down, she fumed and disowned my mother.
During my parents’ wedding, my mother walked down the aisle alone, without her parents to walk her toward the man she wanted to marry. She was accompanied by her eldest sibling, and he took the place of Ama in the wali, a tradition among Muslims where the father entrusts her daughter to the groom and goes into an agreement between two noble men. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, accompanying my mother down the aisle as well as entrusting his only daughter to the man she loved, but he understood his role and made a once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice to make my mother’s dream a reality. Until now, my parents’ wedding invitation, which Ama hid from my grandmother, is still in his most treasured attaché case, untouched and collecting dust. That was the only tangible thing he held or saw that had a direct relation to the wedding.
When my mother told me this story, I realized the immense impact Ama had in my parents’ lives. I also realized that what he did was one of the reasons why I came to be. If my father and mother had not married, I wouldn’t have been born.
In the future, it would have been nice if he would be able to come to my wedding. Sadly, my own ignorance took that opportunity away from me.
After hearing that story, the ten-year-old me slightly longed for a much deeper interaction with my deceased grandfather. It had left a hole in me, small at first, but gaping at present: a type of jealousy that could never be filled. The end of that story took a part of me that I know I could never regain. A part forever lost with his passing, irretrievable, unobtainable.
His first stroke happened back in 2007. We brought him to Notre Dame Hospital in Cotabato City, and we stayed there for fifteen days. Luckily, he wasn’t incapacitated by the sickness, but his memory was impaired. Since then, he became extremely forgetful: we needed to introduce ourselves to him repeatedly whenever we met. The only ones he could remember were his children and his wife. Around that time, he also lost track of his bowel movement. He could not feel the urge to go to the bathroom anymore. When he stood up or walked around, pee dripped from his shorts, and he constantly pooped in his pants. Sometimes his poop would be dragged on the floor by his own feet, which infuriated my grandmother. From then on, she started hitting Ama on the legs or buttocks with broomsticks and other long hard objects. He never retaliated. At times, Ama just grabbed the broomstick and held it right there in midair. He would look my grandmother in the eyes till she let go. Most of the time, tears just fell from his eyes.
I can never imagine how my grandmother felt like, seeing those eyes and those tears that just fell from them. I wonder if she ever felt pity after all those moments she inflicted pain upon Ama. I wondered if he ever felt like speaking up, retaliating, or was it that he was already numb of the searing pain of being hit in the legs and buttocks and the only thing that made him cry every time was seeing the woman he married, the first woman he could remember, hit him over and over?
Reflecting upon it, that type of treatment was unbecoming of a woman who had stayed in a marriage for over half of her life. But at the end of the day, it was she who took care of him through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, despite the tedious job of cleaning after his mess, and she continued doing so until his last days. She was there with us at the hospital, at the burial, at the grieving period. I am sure that inside of her, there was also a gaping hole that came with his passing. I now wonder about the way she showed her love for Ama. How did their wedding go? Was it consensual or arranged? How about the courting? Was there even any courting? I never heard of the story, nor could I find someone willing to tell me. I couldn’t ask my grandmother, for she didn’t want to talk about it. Every time a conversation had closely veered towards that subject, she would skillfully divert it into another topic without fail, like how a relative was doing in school or anything other than their marriage. In rare moments where the conversation had nowhere to go, she would tell us that she was not comfortable talking about it and that she would slap our mouths shut if we continued pressing. We would then laugh, and then she would laugh. It would be clear to us that they were jokes, but still, nobody dared to try because everyone was scared, especially if she were to become mad.
I know that only Ama could tell that story.
The devastating part is that at this point, I could only speculate.
In 2011, hypertension and stroke got the better of him yet again, which led us to Davao Doctor’s Hospital. He finally took his rest on April 23 at Dalican.
I vaguely remember that during his burial, a small part of the younger me tried to assess the impact of his life on mine, his relevance, and the emotional connection I’ve had with him, and I remember failing.
I remember faking tears.
It was hard to try and develop fake sympathy. I really tried, but at the end of the day, I could only muster as much.
In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house at Dalican to pay their respects; the stories I heard about him that day, like the one on my parents’ wedding, as well as tales of his unselfishness, made me see him in a better light. I also realized that it wasn’t that we lacked the bonding moments necessary for me to feel attached to him; it was just that I tried my hardest to reject those opportunities instead of grabbing them. I rejected the moments when I should’ve just given him the kisses he repeatedly asked for. I frowned at his prickly mustache and glaring eyes; I failed to see that those were the only prickly mustache and glaring eyes I would experience from a grandfather ever. I took the only grandfather I had for granted. Now I’ve forever lost the chance to feel an extraordinary kind of love from a grandfather in the form of giving four pesos, of asking for hugs and kisses, of being stabbed by ridiculously pointy mustache.
It’s funny how you can learn to love somebody just by the memories that you both could’ve shared, not with the underwhelming memories that existed between the both of you.
Could he ever forgive me for not valuing his presence? Could he still love me despite my reluctance towards spending time with him? Could he still remember me? Could he dare say that after everything, he still sees me as a grandson?
All of these questions inside my head will forever remain questions, for the one who could answer them is gone. But sometimes, there are moments when the questions you are dying to ask do not need answers. There are moments when not knowing the answer is beneficial, because it reminds you of your mistakes so that you could never make the same mistake twice.
Sometimes, on starless nights, I would raise my cigarette toward the sky out of loneliness to show him that I smoke. Even just in my imagination, I would like to be reprimanded by him just to try to remember how he spoke, how he got angry, how he used to tell other people stories about his high school and college years, his friends, his family, his role as the eldest among them siblings, during which I would sit somewhere and eavesdrop. If I had only known better, I could’ve been the one asking him those questions.
Nine years has passed, but I still couldn’t make myself go to Davao Doctors Hospital alone. I am afraid of seeing the all-too-familiar staircase just a few meters from the entrance to the ICU, the watchers’ area that I guess still weirdly smelled like a nail salon. I could still vividly remember the corridors that led to the cafeteria, or the elevators I couldn’t dare ride alone back then, even in broad daylight. The place where I used to buy DVDs is now replaced by a KFC stall. I cannot dare go up and pass by the room we occupied in those twenty-one days—Room 512. I am scared of that place, not because of rumored ghosts that walk by the corridors at night or the souls that ride the elevators with you when you are alone. I am scared of the memory that that place makes me remember every time, with no fail.
I am afraid of seeing my past self in the form of another kid, running around the halls, the elevators, walking around the reception area toward the exit, toward the DVD stalls while a grandparent of his fights for his life in the ICU. I am scared of passing by the ICU area and seeing the staircase where my mother and her siblings used to sit while waiting for updates. I am scared to see the space where I took off my shoes and wore a green lab gown that one time I entered the ICU. I am scared to see myself riding one of their elevators as I remember how I had fun in those twenty-one days. I am scared of the apathetic, ignorant ghost of a ten-year-old kid, and it kills me that until now, I cannot make myself go to that hospital to make peace with my regrets.
Passing by the cafeteria and ordering my usual 3 PM binignit and spaghetti still scares me. I am scared of the emergency room, the reception area, the entrance, the exit. I am afraid of remembering the routes I took as I walked around the vicinity. I know that eventually I need to face these fears, my ignorance, my apathetic view at that time. I know that someday, I need to muster the courage to be able to look at that child, running, walking, having fun, while his grandfather relied on machines to keep himself alive. It will be the first part to my catharsis. To remember is to kill myself and suffer the pain that I should’ve felt. To remember is to suffer under the “what-ifs.” To feel the pain is to think “I should’ve known better.”
Now my family visits his grave once a month. Since I started going to school at UP Mindanao, I can only visit him during my school breaks. I usually bring nothing with me, except a bottle of water if ever I get thirsty, and a sachet of Off lotion to keep mosquitos away. Now that he is gone, I cannot bring him any gifts.
For now, this will have to do.
Ni Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir
Matagal na iyon—at totoong may hardin ka.
Una akong pinahawak mo noong holen
sa iyong dibdib kung saan nakapuwesto
ang malawak na hardin. Doon
ay nagsasalimbayan ang pag-aaruga mo
sa akin na tila kampanilyang puti na
nagsisilbing banderitas sa iyong
pananalita. Ang pumpon ng mga
daisy ay sambulat ng munting talang
dinidëagan ng maraming kulay
ng pagpapalawak ng haraya.
Sa iyong dibdib, habang nakapatong
ang iyong paa sa nangingiliting bermuda
grass ay hinehele mo ako habang
hinahaplos ng iyong kamay ang
buhok ng ginintuang mais sa aking noo,
Ngunit nagbago ang lahat, ang siklo, lumaki ako.
Ang bulaklak na noon ay palagi mong
dinidiligan, inaawitan, tuwing umaga
ay unti-unting nanlupaypay, pati
ang platong kinakainan na may guhit ng
mga bulaklak ay naging mapusyaw.
Ang basong may talahib na guhit
sa transparen na balat nito’y napupusyaw
Nagbago pati ang mga bulaklak na nakikita ko.
Hindi na harding may awit ang nauulinigan
kundi ang bulong ng aircon sa loob ng kuwartong
puti ang pintura kung saan nakasabit ang
krusipiho. Hindi na bango ng daisy, santan, yellow bell
ang pragransiyang nanunuot sa aking mga baga
kundi ang bulok na suha at saging,
anastrozole at dekstros ng ICU.
Nakahiga ka lang habang konektado
ang dekstros sa nanlalambing mong kamay.
Nag-uunahan at nagtatakbuhan ang kurba-kurbang
berdeng guhit sa ventilator at nakapatong
ang breath bag sa iyong nag-iisang suso.
Sa pagpasok ay tinungo ko ang iyong katawan,
inilapat ang halubigat ng aking kanang kamay
sa iyong noo at pinanuot ang init na tila
tarragon sa mainit na tsaa sa nanlalapsi’t
kumukunot mong mukha—umiyak ka.
Ngunit sa hindi ko inaasahang mangyari,
ang isang hardinerang umaawit sa pinapalaking orkidya,
kasama ng santan, daisy, yellow bell, ay nilagutan
ng hininga. Hindi mo na ako kailanman
madidiligan ng sanlibong timbang luha ng saya, at
wala nang maglilinis ng ligalig sa aking mata.
Sabi ko, dekadang pasakit ang lalambigit
sa dibdib kung mawalan. Isang dekadang
pag-alala sa hindi malulunasang sakit,
ng sakit sa pagkahidlaw,
ng sakit sa proseso ng inilambigit na tanikala
sa nakadaop na palad,
ng sakit na walang ina.