by Gilbert Yap Tan (Essay)
(This piece was published in Inquirer.net in 2009 and in the Manila Times in 2016.)
I’m often described as a cerebral person, in short, a nerd. Wearing eyeglasses doesn’t improve the impression I give to others. I’m always carrying a book everywhere I go. Being a wide reader has its advantages: critical thinking, open-mindedness, a broadened view of the world. On the negative side, there’s my being cynical of things emotional and illogical.
So when eerie things started happening in 1990 after Mama died, I chalked them up to coincidences, at first. I was giving a lecture on feature writing to a big group of high school writers when I gave a descriptive example of how I felt on the day Mama died. While I was recalling the last wishes she told me before she was wheeled toward the operating room for her triple heart bypass surgery, the microphone I was using suddenly turned off by itself. Then the karaoke system emitted sounds from radio stations as if someone was turning the tuning dial. A clerk was called to check on the wires and the mike, but found nothing wrong with them. And that was when I remembered that it was the fortieth day after Mama died! I prayed silently for a few seconds before I resumed my lecture. The sound system and the mike worked perfectly after that. And that was the first incident.
A week later, I facilitated a training session for school paper advisers in an air-conditioned lecture hall. I described to the group how Mama, workaholic that she was, would disrupt our sleep whenever she stayed up all night to clean the kitchen, do some hammering (putting up framed family pictures on the wall at 1 AM!), or do the laundry (sloshing and drum roll sounds from the washer and dryer). All of sudden, my lecture was disturbed by what sounded like tree branches being blown by a strong wind and scraping against the windows hidden by heavy drapes. When I drew aside the drapes, it was evident to all of us that it was a sunny day and no tree was outside the windows! Among those in the audience who knew about the recent death of Mama were a bit frightened and many crossed themselves at the thought that Mama was making paramdam to me. I dismissed the thought by joking to the group that maybe Mama was protesting my use of the word workaholic. After all, it was way past the macabre All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
On the last weekend of November, I faced the dreaded task of cleaning my room in preparation for Christmas. As was my custom, I took the requisite colds and sinusitis meds before arming myself with a broom, duster, dustpan and disposable mask. Usually, a few minutes of dusting and sweeping would be enough to trigger a sneezing marathon and teary eyes from me. But to my surprise, the dust that swirled around me like a mist smelled like sampaguita flowers. The scent was so strong I could smell it through the mask I was wearing! For the first and last time in my life, I loved dusting and sweeping. I remembered giving Mama a bottle of Avon sampaguita perfume as a Christmas gift the year before she died. She loved it so much she would spray it on herself anytime she felt like it. I thought to myself then that these events were just coincidental. But these did not prepare me for what happened next.
For the next three weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, I finally came to believe I was haunted by Mama. After a long day in class, I (alone or with co-teachers) would relax over merienda in a local mall before going home. On the first occasion, as soon as I sat with my snack, I heard strains from my favorite classical piece, Meditation from Thais composed by Jules Massenet, over the mall’s public address system. I thought nothing of that at first.
However, over the next three occasions at the same mall, I would hear snippets of the familiar music over and over. On the fifth occasion, my curiosity got the better of me, so I asked a fellow teacher who was snacking with me if she could also hear it. I even hummed it for her. She shook her head and resumed eating her pansit palabok. That set me to thinking that this was more than coincidental. I planned to investigate the phenomenon the next time it happened.
December 24, as I was doing some last-minute shopping at the mall, I heard it again. I immediately put down the grocery basket and went to the music bar in the mezzanine: it had to come from there as I was in the grocery section directly below it. Once there, I asked the saleslady operating the CD player component if she just played Meditation from Thais. She ejected the CD she just played and showed it to me. It was a compilation of “discofied” Christmas songs. With exasperation written all over my face, I went down to the customer relations desk where the PA system was. Again, the same question. And again, I was shown the CD—Maligayang Pasko sa Inyong Lahat by local singers! At that moment, it dawned on me that I was the only one who could hear it! All reason seemed to have left my body as I went home, forgetting to check out at the cashier the things I shopped for earlier.
In my room, I sat on the bed and had a good cry. Those were tears of joy at the belief that Mama loved me, that on that particular Christmas Eve, from the afterlife Mama reached out for me and embraced me.
(Two years later, on a weekly TV show discussing hauntings, guest Lauro Visconde—whose wife and two daughters were murdered—related how he would often find his youngest daughter’s favorite stuffed toy on the floor of her room when he said goodnight to her before he slept. Another guest remarked that it was a familiar haunting because it was done by a departed loved one. A familiar haunting is not scary because it makes use of things familiar to the person being haunted.)