By Noel Pingoy (Essay)
Cairns at a Temple
I found a quiet spot at a secluded area at the Heungryunsa Temple away from the babble of fellow tourists and discovered four large stacks of stones. I added a stone to each of them and muttered a silent prayer for the deliverance of my patients from the clutches of cancer and other illnesses, and another for the well-being, joy, and serenity of the people in my life who truly matter—my family and friends.
And I considered myself a man several times blessed for having been given the chance to add something that might be inconsequential in the vastness of the space and time around me but big enough to form a cairn by which my stifled voice and modest share are weighed, along with countless others, to create something big that embodies our deepest yearnings and greatest dreams.
I think this is how humanity survives. One stone at a time.
Much of Donald Trump’s rhetorics are beyond comprehension maybe because I don’t understand US politics at all. Or simply anything political. But I’m amused at his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border at the expense of Peña Nieto’s government. To keep the illegals out, he says.
Recently I have also seen friends building walls around themselves in order to keep away the unwanted ones. Some changed numbers, while others blocked or unfriended a few. The best friend has difficulty connecting with his better half because of the many pressing matters to attend to at present. Another friend broke up with a partner because they are better off without each other, believing that they have done horrible things to each other over a relationship that spanned six years. In his woundedness, he thought keeping a safe distance would be a great relief. Still another is navigating uncertain waters even when he knows this has brought him troubles before.
I have seen this same scenario among cancer patients especially after the disclosure of the diagnosis. In their anger, disbelief, dread, or even denial, people put up barricades to shield themselves or their loved ones from the spectre of pain and death that are often associated with the illness.
Nanay taught me differently. When I was doing what is probably the most heartbreaking and difficult disclosure, her eyes never left mine and her palms held firmly mine. “I am blessed so much with this life I am willing to take on what is set for me. I can’t ask for more,” she quietly declared. Despite the knowledge that pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive, she remained composed and comforting. She was never one to build walls all her life. In my dreams, she would often say, “Before you keep people out, before you set your perimeter, remember to take stock of what you are keeping inside and what you will leave outside of your wall.”
Some believe that a fortified wall is a manifestation of strength. But sometimes our imaginary walls serve like smokescreen for our inherent weaknesses. When I think about my weaknesses, I sometimes see them as anything that flows out of my mind or heart that prevents me from appreciating and accepting things as they are, from seeing the complete picture.
Then in the heat of the moment, in blinding rage or perceived injustice or imagined hurt, people succumb to their frailty, break things that could hardly be mended anymore, often forgetting how precious they are. The irreplaceable are gone.
There are many things that could be broken: eggs, memories, commitments, heirlooms. Even hearts. Which is maybe one of the common things people break. Which is maybe hugot lines have become popular these days.
I’m reminded of a parable by Jose Carlos Bermejo in Regalame la Salud de un Cuento. It’s about a young man who bragged that his heart was the most beautiful in the whole region because it was perfect and did not have a single scratch. A girl told him that she had seen a more beautiful heart—a heart belonging to an old man. They went to the old man, and the heart turned out to be full of scars and had missing pieces.
The old man said that the scars and holes represented the persons he had given his love to. He tore pieces of his heart and gave them to the persons he loved. Many did the same thing to him, and some didn’t, but he continued to love the ones who had caused the holes in his heart because they might someday return and fill the emptiness.
In tears, the young man took a piece of his heart and gave it to the old man, who did the same to him. Now the young man’s heart was no longer perfect, but he found it more beautiful than before.
By laws of simple arithmetic, it would seem that when someone gives himself away to love another, he ends up with less of himself than what he has begun with. But I consider it grace that the opposite is true. Like breast milk. The more it is suckled, the more of it is made. To give herself away in commitment to another human being—like a mother to her child or my Nanay to me—is to break down a wall, to become fully alive. And with living not just for oneself, a person becomes, little by little, slowly and tenderly, human in spite of himself, becoming whole, becoming both loving and lovely.
The last time I saw my newsfeed, the best friend has already “liked” an Instagram post of the girlfriend. The couple on the brink of separation seemed to have gotten back together. And the other friend kept himself alone last night, maybe to think things over.
I have come to realize that even the best and brightest among us could make mistakes. People fall prey to countless emo-tions, exaggerations, and excesses. But we must be brave enough to confront them, to accept with honesty that it is not the frailty of being human that maims us but rather our notion that a strong wall between individuals “could make us great again.”
What matters in the end is our humility with which we know ourselves, accept ourselves, and share ourselves—blemishes, warts, and all.
To the Kids in the Family
Your late great-grandparents Adoy and Dicang raised their brood of nine in rural Iloilo under the most trying times. Your great-grandfather was a simple farmer who instilled discipline—some say with an iron hand—and integrity among the seven boys and two girls that came one after the other. Among the most lasting stories in the Adoy lore are his unbeaten streak as the dumog (wrestling) champ in all of Panay and his mastery of the baston (cane) that hadn’t spared even your grandfathers while they were growing up.
But the heart of the family had always been your Lola Dicang, a simple, unassuming woman who taught her family the true meaning of love and respect. She was a perfect foil to the stern and sometimes gruff Adoy, was well liked by everyone but feared by those who threatened to disrupt the peace within her family. She always spoke in a soft, almost-hushed voice that soothed and reassured. Shouting was only for hornbills, not for self-respecting people, she would tell her family. Even in moments of unguarded delight, she still maintained composure and respectability. She led a kapilya (chapel) in the neighborhood and ministered to the members of their small community as a Bible woman while keeping herself preoccupied with raising her nine children. No matter how simple her payag (hut) was, its door was always open to those who needed food or shelter for a night or even a simple banter in a lazy afternoon. That she was blessed with many children was a measure of how richly committed her life was. Having been able to send all her offspring to college is a testament to the greatness of the woman.
She never thrived on gossip and never thought ill of other people, even strangers. She had a ready rebuke to women who dishonor their families by meddling in the lives of others, much more concocting stories about them. She showed her siblings by example how to respect people and themselves. Lola Iya, Lola Dicang’s only sister, was a very soft-spoken and kindly woman who loved feeding us the most succulent chico from her backyard in Calinan. Even Lolo Adoy’s sisters were admirable in their simplicity and gentleness. Lola Soling was content selling tobacco in her papag (stall) in the public market, while Lola Kalaw was an unpretentious homemaker who loved to cook. They never even finished high school, but they led honorable lives in the service of their families and in the sight of God. Disdainful of arrogance and conceit of women who believed that the world was at their feet and that material possessions were essential elements to a happy life, they nurtured their families with genuine love, unfailing loyalty, and boundless devotion. They were selfless with their children as they were faithful to their respective husbands. I am sure that given the chance, you could have learned a great deal about a steadfast life with integrity from these remarkable women.
Having finished high school, which was rare for women in those times, Lola Dicang took pride in teaching others how to read and write. She was never prouder than when a son or a daughter finished a degree. But she was also quick to remind us not to be boastful of achievements and accolades; modesty is a virtue that must be pursued, she once said. “Indi maayo ang bugalon.” And I vividly remember her telling us often about not pursuing success as defined by the world but one that is embodied in her beloved passages, Philippians 3: 12–21.
Your Lola Dicang was a voracious reader. She would often take notes of interesting quotes and inspiring passages from magazines and books, and pass them to family and friends. Lolo Gert, having been the old woman’s darling (as the youngest), received the most letters. Fortunately, he had the foresight to keep the letters that his Nanay had been sending him so that photocopies of these letters were shared with the grandchildren for us to learn from them as well.
The existence of these letters resurfaced when my generation decided to formulate a “code of ethics” by which we hope to live by. For several months, the cousins have been meeting at least once a month to set up a family council that shall guide every member’s pursuit of happiness in the context of belonging to a family and of respecting individuality. Tito Bobot first thought of it after realizing how much we love to meet (sometimes daily) to talk and to eat. He asked why not put these meetings to a good use. It resonated eloquently with the rest of the cousins, and some semblance of organized solidarity has since been in place.
And such initiative came at no better time when the tigulang (elders) were worried about what lies ahead for the family when all of them are already gone. Only your Lolo Saul and Lolo Raul have survived to connect you to the past. Would you still remain united as mga apo sa tuhod ni Adoy kag Dicang (great-grandchildren of Adoy and Dicang), or would you go your separate ways? They also fear about some members being left behind.
Several years back, few uncles and aunts met to discuss the “rules.”
The code runs like this:
Code of Ethics
- I commit to a life of excellence, where I support the highest good of people, including myself.
- I pursue happiness through relationships that are based on goodwill and respect, through responsibilities in which my contribution is essential and for which I am accountable.
- I honor the lives of those who went before me by channeling their teachings as touchstones for a moral and happy life. I bless those who come after me with examples that shall be their guide in their pursuit of happiness. And I bridge my past and my future with a Presence that is greater than myself.
- I strive to honor my commitments.
- I embrace values that attach importance to relationships over resources, commitments over circumstances. And truth above anything else.
- I succeed by playing fair.
- I measure my worth with compassion, courage, and character.
- I am not alone. I am a member of this family.
Here’s hoping that we have not forgotten this. Waay biyaay (always watch out for one another), sa mga apo ni Adoy kag ni Dicang.
Every time I go home, I am amazed at how the once quiet community where you knew almost everyone has been replaced by a bustling city with busy traffic, constricting public spaces, and peripatetic strangers.
The old-timers must be baffled at the steady growth of the old hometown, and maybe even more baffled why the next generation is more than happy to embrace the new way of life.
Where my siblings and I used to run around, catching grasshoppers and dragonflies, or where we used to play hide and seek with our pets on warm summer days and with neighbor-friends on moonlit weekend evenings, two-story and even three-story buildings now take space.
But changes notwithstanding, Marbel remains the same place in many ways that mattered to me for ages. The landscape of my beloved town might have altered over a short span of time, but I am comforted by the thought that people take some time to change.
I often discover this when I go home on weekends to be with family. Despite the six-lane highway, friends often stop, wave, and smile when they recognize you. They ask you how the parents are. They tell you how this friend has gout and yet won’t stop his daily dose of beer, or this former classmate whose blood pressure is way up the stratosphere but won’t quit smoking. They tell you how they met old teachers who haven’t aged a bit. They offer you turon kag bandi. They welcome you to their homes like a long-lost brother. They share triumphs and heartbreaks, secrets and anecdotes. Of course, the constant question about marriage and spreading of genes [smiley].
This is the sort of kasimanwa (town mates) I grew up with and got to stay connected after many years.
Summers then were quite punishing in Marbel. I remember the times when brownouts were frequent; we had to stay outdoors often, under the trees, beside a brook, or at my uncle’s farm in Barrio 8. But the start of the rainy season was a welcome relief; the heat was more tolerable, and the constant pouring in the afternoon was an invitation to run around in complete abandon. Since most roads then were unpaved, we had individual puddles in the middle of the street that became exclusive wading pools.
But I sometimes had issues with the beginning of the rainy season. The grasshoppers and dragonflies became scarce. Spiders became rare. Times spent with friends became scarcer with the onset of the rain. I often wished for bright mornings when I could see my friends again.
In my adult life, especially in a profession that exposes me constantly to death and dying, I have learned that the changing of the season is a necessary part of life. That’s how old things make way for the new. That’s how the world remains fresh and bright. Someone dear to me just died early today from pancreatic cancer that has resisted even the most advanced targeted therapy. I had a chance to take care of him for a few weeks and wondered how things as dreadful as cancer could happen even to the best and brightest among us. There he was, barely able to speak, completely under the loving care of his family, slowly wasting as cancer ravaged his mind and body. He would struggle forming words to communicate what he felt or wished. But there was no mistaking the smile of recognition (even of gratitude or of goodwill) each time I made rounds.
Minutes ago, I struggled with what is probably the hardest birthday wish I will ever get to write because the poignancy is not lost in the pain and absurdity of the turn of events. But one that needs to be spoken of nonetheless. He passed away on his wife’s birthday. And the latter is someone I knew all my life, having seen sunsets fall quietly through the acacia trees at the old Notre Dame campus from elementary through high school or quietly enjoyed late evening conversation as we were seated at nearby tables while our respective kids were enjoying burger and soda at McDonald’s. That they are both physicians—he was an ENT specialist; she, a dermatologist—was not lost in the irony of things. Some things happen beyond the realm of human understanding.
Og Mandino once wrote, “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” I cannot speak of any greater love in my generation than what both of them shared. They are private, soft-spoken, kind individuals. People who were never known to raise their voices. People who could never hurt a fly. And when I think about someone losing her reason for being brave and strong on her birthday, I can only pray that the quiet, tenacious and boundless love that they shared will be the family’s refuge in the uncertain days ahead.
The seasons have destinies of their own, much like my beloved hometown or my friend’s struggle with his disease. Or the chorus of crickets after the rain and the abundance of grasshoppers and dragonflies in summer. I can no more prevent them from transgressing what small of piece of comfort remains in the darkest hours than I can nurture them to the fullest in the greatest of days.
So I just have to rely on memories—Marbel when the creek was teeming with fish, the fields were a playground for grasshopper hunting, my friend waving a heartfelt goodbye and muttering a barely audible thank-you—to help me see through the cold grasp of pelting rain.
And in most cases, even when I know that it is never enough to assuage the burning pain in my chest, I pray.