By John Dexter Canda
I. Small Hours
Ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling, ting-a-ling.
My alarm clock hollered at me to wake up. My phone flickered. “Another day, rise up slug” flashed on its screen. I heaved a sigh as I staggered out of bed to prepare for the day.
I remembered my mother telling me back in high school that the early bird always caught the worm. I was still fixated on that setup: rising from bed hours before the crack of dawn, studying and reading amid pre-daybreak silence, doing chores while the streets were still asleep. Surprisingly, though I was not a morning person during my preteen years, this worked for me. The early hours of the morning were a good time to cram for an upcoming exam. With the dogs still dozing on cold cement and the neighbors’ karaoke machines chained to silence, I did not have to worry about loud distractions.
Eight years later, I still wake up at two or three in the morning.
Sipping on a cup of instant coffee, I fought my stupor in front of my laptop. Medical notes were scattered on the display: flashing images of tables, charts, and diseased body parts. My mind was blank and fatigued, but I kept reading, despite the words being a jumble. Unlike high school and college, medical school stuffed me with readings until my eyes went bloodshot. I winded up taking an expensive nap wherever possible. Time went by with the midnight sky turning amber, yet to me, it felt that time stood perfectly still—time that was static, time that was wasted.
I went to the kitchen to break my gaze off the laptop.
The mound of dirty dishes in the sink was, by now, a familiar sight, with ants crawling about the kitchen plates, still caked in solidifying grease from last night’s canned meal. The sight was disgusting. Anytime now a cockroach might appear and happily gorge on this grossness. The frying pan I used to cook adobo three days before was still on top of the stove.
If my mother were here to see this, she’d give me a good two-hour nag. I recalled the times back home when I got too lazy to wash the dishes. I would ask my younger sister to do this job for me. Obviously, she wouldn’t do it either because she was just as lazy as I was, which left the plates and pots to sit overnight in the sink. I would then wake up in the morning to find my mother washing the dishes herself with her usual angry stare, full of disappointment and frustration. “Quando ba gayot bo aprende, Dexter?” When would I ever learn, she would ask me. I would ignore her and went on in silence.
The bathroom in my late grandma’s house (where I had been living since college) was no good either: its doormat hardened with grime, several dead, shrunken insects lying on the floor, and chipped pieces of wood everywhere from the door infested with termites. If this room could talk, I was sure she would be gasping for help, asking me to clean her up.
But for the time being, I didn’t care to do that. I couldn’t do much and had no other option but to wait for the water. The sink, and the bathroom, and the rags, could wait. I could wait. I would wait.
I went back to my usual spot in the bed and continued reading. On the right side was my laptop and several books piled on top of each other, and I usually lay on prone position while I read, with my feet on the edge of the opposite side of the bed. My eyes scrolled through the words, and I found myself in a trance yet again. I loved these trances, especially long ones, where I winded up talking to myself and staring at the cobwebs on the ceiling. It was a thing I was good at, finding escape routes from reality: reflecting, daydreaming, fantasizing, and of course, complaining.
Mao ba jud ni para sa akoa? Kapoy na kaayo ba.
Graduating na unta ko uy. Maayo pa tong mga intern kay hapit na sila mo-graduate.
Dakoa lagi ang sweldo sa doktor uy. Sige lang sila og laag ba. Padayon lang ta ani.
Kalami diri sa Japan! Limpyo dayon dili init. Nice kaayo ang cherry blossoms.
Of course, the last one was only a recurring delusion.
* * *
As the sun came to view on the eastern horizon, its beams caressed the dusty old windows of my bedroom, a sign for me to prepare myself for school. My usual routine would be to munch on something, iron my uniform, shower, brush my teeth, put my uniform on, check the sockets, go out, and lock the main door.
These were the humdrum tasks that started my day and were normally easy to perform.
I stepped over the mucky door rug to enter the bathroom. As soon as I was fully naked, I felt the cold morning breeze blow against my face from an open window. It was fresh and crisp. I sighed.
“I think this is a sign that it’s going to be a good day,” I uttered with optimism.
Grabbing the plastic tabo, I opened the faucet.
I squealed. There was no water running from it.
“Hastang paita! Wala na puy tubig?”
It was back in 2004 when I first set foot in Zamboanga City to spend the holidays with my mother’s side of the family. I might have visited earlier. If I had, my memory fails me. It is a nice city, but for some reason—a good reason—I preferred General Santos, where I was born and raised. I had never imagined establishing myself in Zamboanga. The city was practically foreign to me, except for the fact that I knew how to communicate in Chavacano, thanks to my Zamboangueño parents.
But there I was ten years later: in the city again, this time alone and unprepared, with nothing but a big suitcase and my thick, heavy laptop. The word college still sounded too adult for my ingenuous mind, but there was no turning back.
* * *
I was heading for school. My eyes felt as though they were going to fall out, and they looked slightly bloodshot from lack of sleep or, perhaps, from my constant, intense rubbing. The scorching heat didn’t help either. Even though I was mostly under the shade of the tricycle’s roof, it wasn’t enough to cool me down. Under my white blazer, I felt awfully sticky and warm. At the side of the tricycle was a huge ten-wheeler truck, its tailpipe almost pointed straight at me and two other passengers. As soon as the traffic light turned green, the black smoke that pelted out was horrendously noxious.
I face this same situation every single day. Even now I am baffled as to how I have survived these conditions for almost five years. My four undergraduate years felt as though they all happened yesterday, and each day felt like a month, compressed. I was regularly disconcerted by the tropical traffic, expensive transportation fare, substandard infrastructure, and dwindling utilities. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just too much of a whiner. But one thing is for sure—it made me miss General Santos. Things were much simpler there.
By the time I arrived at the university’s front gate, I felt exhausted. I was drenched in sweat.
“Sudao man si Doc. Ya corre estaba ospital?” The guard asked, jokingly, if I had run from the hospital, since I was covered with sweat.
“Hindi, guard. Ta sinti lang yo caliente,” I replied as he checked my backpack, telling him I was just feeling really hot.
I rushed to our classroom, remembering that we were starting in a few minutes.
We sat down around a round table. There were ten of us: nine students and one doctor who was to facilitate our small-group discussion. I couldn’t help but daydream again, even though I was sitting right beside the doctor, who was listening to my classmate talk about the anatomy of the lungs and its clinical significance in near-drowning patients. I kept dreaming about things that were unlikely to happen in my life: winning the lottery, a Nobel Prize, a trip to Los Angeles, whatever. There were times I would become a little more practical with my fancies. I would imagine delectable food ready for me when I arrived home from school, fresh and clean clothes inside my storage box, water flowing freely from the tap, and the like. Sometimes I would cover a small grin with my face towel, and people wouldn’t notice. No one will.
My fantasies were my salvation in times of boredom and apathy. But for every deliverance, there was destitution. In my case it was loneliness, physical exhaustion, frigid disinterest, and the scarcity of the many different things that I longed for.
My classmate droned on about the human lung, and I went on pretending to listen. I was able to read my notes and pick up some information here and there despite my distracting daydreams.
After class, I was the last person in the room, waiting for my laptop to shut down. As I exited the room, I noticed the doctor who facilitated our discussion looking at me.
“Are you OK? OK lang tu?” the doctor asked.
As I walked to the nearby public hospital for our bedside rounds, memories of my dad resurfaced. The sweltering heat of the sun reminded me of that one September afternoon, when he and my mom were waiting outside of the school gate to fetch me. After settling down at the back of our orange pickup multicab, I found soon that, to my surprise, we had gone to a fitness gym. I wasn’t expecting this, and I wasn’t very much happy with my parents’ decision either. I was soaked with sweat and felt hot and damp from playing patintero. I sat down with my juvenile disgust plastered all over on my face.
One of the gym instructors gave me a banana cue, which I irritably accepted. As I ate, I saw my mom doing some aerobics and my dad riding the stationary bike.
Moments later, my dad collapsed.
My mom yelled, and everyone scrambled to help. I stood there in sheer terror. It was almost as if I was in a movie reaching its climax.
“Gawas ta, gang. Ayaw og kabalaka. OK ra na imong papa,” a lady told me as she escorted me outside. Everything was going to be OK, she said. My father was going to be OK.
The guys at the gym carried my unconscious dad inside the car. Although he was out cold, my dad was snoring out loud. It was disturbing.
A few minutes later, he woke up.
“Donde ya yo?” He asked where he was.
“Ya desma tu, Dad. Paandada ya kita na ospita,” my mom replied, informing him that he had fainted and that we were on our way to the hospital.
My dad laughed. I saw amazement on his face, his eyes glistening in hues of brownish burnt umber, the sunlight illuminating part of his forehead. He then sat with us as if nothing happened, occasionally touching the bleeding knee that had hit the bike’s pedal.
At the hospital, things happened quickly. He was fully conscious and alert. My mom was beside him. He smiled at me, and I smiled back.
“Bolbe ya tu, John, ha. Come mucho. Bisya con el dituyo mga hermana.” He told me to go home, eat, and look after my sisters.
And I did.
He died three days later.
I never heard his voice again.
* * *
I was in the surgical ward with my classmates waiting for our doctor-teacher. During our bedside rounds, we would interview one or two patients, sometimes more. We freshmen had to establish rapport, take a patient history, and do a quick yet thorough physical examination.
Our module for that week was on drowning and burns. We were assigned to a patient in the Burn Unit recovering from an electrical injury. My classmates and I divided the tasks: some were to obtain the history, others were to observe, and I was to perform the physical exam.
I felt anxious. It was my first time to perform an exam on a real patient, and I was thus mostly clueless. But as they say in medical school: it’s better to fail while you’re still a student than to fall flat as a doctor on duty.
The surgical ward, or Ward Four, as they called it, was just as humid as the other wards in the hospital. The heat was oppressive, and the hallways were filled with patients who I knew were mostly consumed by debt and poverty. Some were lucky enough to have hospital beds, and yet others lay on top of tattered mats. The conditions were agonizing to look at, but these people had no choice but to bear the unbearable. It was a matter of life and death.
The cancers of society always wreak pain upon the deprived and marginalized the most.
In the Burn Unit, the patient lay flat on a hospital bed. He was attentive to a classmate asking him questions about the events that led him to his current condition.
“Ta precura kami cuhi pescao na rio, despues ya puede iyo agara konel alambre,” he narrated.
He paused for a moment.
He continued: “Tiene pala akel kuryente, ya desma iyo y ya cay na rio. Nuay mas ya yo sinti cosa ya pasa despues ya susede kel.” He told us that he and his friends were catching fish when he accidentally grabbed a live wire, knocking him out to the flowing river.
It dawned on me that the patient was doing something illegal—electrofishing.
“Nuay yo trabaho, sir,” he said to my classmate, meaning he had no work.
“Maskin cosa lang yo ta ase. Carpintero y pescador, maskin cosa para tiene lang kami comida na mesa,” the patient merrily added, saying he did freelance work such as carpentry and fishing to put food on the table. His live-in partner nodded in agreement.
But I saw the sadness in his sunken eyes—full of hurt and deprivation, trampled harshly by life and extreme poverty.
The exchange fueled something within me. The feeling was inexpressible, however.
Half of his left palm was full of blisters. We could clearly see the agony on his face when he tried to clench his hand. After my classmate was done, I was to start the physical examination.
I was sweating profusely, so I put my face towel on my right shoulder for convenience. A stethoscope was also coiled around my neck.
We were taught to examine a patient from head to toe. I started checking his vital signs, and everything came out normal. When I palpated his neck, I felt swollen lymph nodes, tender and smooth to touch. This usually indicates an infection. I proceeded to check his lungs.
At the back of my mind, I was panicking. I had never auscultated anyone before, let alone a real patient in a hospital. My classmates, some of whom were nurses, looked at me. I felt the weight of their judgment on me as I pressed the diaphragm of the stethoscope against the patient’s skin.
“Nabasa man nako ni sa internet or didto sa Bates ba, kanang paunsa mogamit og steth sa pasyente. Lagota, limtanon kaayo ko!” I whispered to myself, mad at my own forgetfulness.
But I did it anyway, because I couldn’t escape. Like this injured man, there were things that you must do because you needed to.
The beauty in medicine is that you get to test your senses. Healthcare providers witness all sorts of bizarre, biological spectacles ranging from bloody wounds to tumors. The body is a complex structure, sophisticated in its detail but abounds in simple processes. In detail we try to grasp at its splendor but also the horrors that come along with it once it reaches its mortal threshold.
I heard wheezes and crackles on both lung fields. I gave a classmate a half-hearted smile.
Out of the blue, the patient turned and spoke to me.
“Ya gumita yo agua y sangre despues yo yan lumos na rio. Ara bien duele gayot dumiyo pecho si ta tose, tiene sangre si ta escupi yo.” He had vomited bloody water after nearly drowning in the river. He had also been painfully coughing up blood.
I glanced at him. He might have breathed in water and developed aspiration pneumonia or, perhaps, it had aggravated an already existing pneumonia. Later, our facilitating doctor would confirm this diagnosis.
I wrapped up my examination and waved goodbye to the patient and his partner, thanking them for their time.
The experience made me feel invigorated for a moment or two. But I also felt a tinge of sadness in that bottle of content. Somehow, I could not forget the patient’s eyes. I had always been a believer of the cliché that the eyes were the windows to the soul. You could tell a lot about a person from their eyes alone. Clean and bright eyes indicated a healthy body which, in turn, housed a vigorous spirit. The hollowed ones were usually of the tired and sick.
The patient’s eyes were nothing but bleakness, with a little glimmer—sporadic sparkles of hope and content. Like those of my father’s when we were in that car on the way to the hospital.
Deep breaths. I liked sighing.
This profession was both a blessing and a curse, but I thought that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The sky had started to get dark. Against the midnight blue canvas that was the sky, stars were scattered around like glitter, with the moon glowing not far afield.
The past days, I had often walked home, mainly because I was impatient and could not stand waiting in line for a jeepney and partly because I liked walking while listening to music. Tricycles were too costly for my taste: the trip was forty pesos, sometimes fifty or sixty depending on the driver, even up to a hundred when it was raining. It’s as if in this city, the road lengthened when it rained, and even more distance was added when it rained at night. For commuters like me, this was a nightmare come true.
With all the pollution looming, walking home was draining. Even my shoes of five years were starting to show signs of wear.
I continued to walk anyway.
At home, I sat on the edge of the bed in front of the fan. I always tried to rest for several minutes before continuing with the night. I didn’t always have the luxury of slacking off after a long, tiring day, a hard day’s night.
I called my mother, as I did every evening.
“Quetal?” she asked how I was doing.
“Amo lang syempre. Kansaw,” I replied, saying that everything was still the usual and I was tired.
“Porque man?” she asked me why.
“Nuevo lang yo ya liga casa. Ya kamina lang yo. Ya checkya yo si tiene ya agua, nuay pa man. Hindi pa yo puede kusina,” I told her, tiredly. I had walked home and when I checked the faucets, there was still no water, making me unable to cook dinner.
“Aguanta lang anay, anak. Nuay kita cosa puede ase kay ansina ya man gayot el sistema alyis,” she responded, telling me that I must endure because we couldn’t do much to relieve the circumstances.
It was not the response I was hoping to hear. My fatigue was starting to reach its limits.
“Ansina ya lang gayot kita pirmi. Aguanta ki aguanta, pirmi ya lang. Singko año ya tamen para aguanta. Bien kansaw ya yo,” I retorted. I was tired of being tired, of tolerating this kind of setup, of enduring for five years. It was exhausting.
I had been living in my late maternal grandmother’s house since I started college in 2014. The house was divided into two: my aunt and her husband lived downstairs, and I, on the second floor. Technically, it didn’t make me all alone. But we were mostly living on separate terms, like two very close houses in a small neighborhood. Hence, I still felt alone, most of the time. In 2015, my grandmother moved in with my uncle, whose home was quite far from the center of the city. She couldn’t tend to herself anymore after slipping in the bathroom and fracturing her hip.
Living alone was fun for the first couple of months, but it started to wear out when everything became routine.
“Si ansina lang man, para ya lang ka entra escuela. Total, ya acaba ya man ka estudya, bira ya lang ka aki na Gensan. Busca ya lang ka trabaho,” she replied. If that was the case, she said, I should just stop going to medical school. Besides, I finished college already, so I could go back to Gensan and find work there. I sensed her irritation.
“Sunod si alyi yo trabaha, de pobresa ya lang tamen kita. Hindi. Aqui ya lang yo na Zamboanga, necessita yo keda doktor para puede tamen kita resulya buenamente. Hindi tamen yo puede para lang entra escuela kasi ya dale ya komigo scholarship,” I answered. I told her that if I worked Gensan, nothing good would happen. I must stay in Zamboanga and become a doctor. It was the only way the family could breathe again. I added that I already had a scholarship that could sustain my studies.
“Hindi yo kun ikaw ta intende, kung cosa ba gayot ka quiere,” she said. She didn’t understand what I really wanted.
“Nosabe tamen yo. Hindi tamen yo ta intende, basta kansaw ya iyo,” I countered. I didn’t understand either, and I was tired.
“Sige ya. Kome ya ka alyi.” She ended the call, telling me to eat.
Sometimes I wondered why my parents kept telling me I should eat. My father’s last words echoed in my head. At times, it’s as if his words played on loop in my mind.
It was odd. I didn’t think I was that emaciated.
It was thirty minutes past eight, and it was starting to get too late for dinner. My stomach grumbled. If it could talk, it would have badmouthed me already.
I decided to use my drinking water to cook rice. I had only about two liters left in the container, so I carefully measured the amount to cook rice. I’d rather starve than be thirsty.
“Kinahanglan na jud nako mag-grocery,” I told myself, upon seeing the refrigerator nearly empty. It only contained bottles of pineapple jam that my paternal grandmother had given me on a visit to Gensan about a year ago.
“Dal-a ni o. Para di ka magutman didto sa Zamboanga. Pangpalaman lang sa tinapay,” she told me as she handed me the jam jars.
I missed home. I missed Gensan. I missed my paternal grandparents. My grandpa and I used to talk for hours when I’d visit him. I’d frequently tell him how awful Zamboanga City had become, and how I managed to survive day by day in solitude.
“Sabe bo, John, bien bale gayot el Zamboanga antes. Bien limpyo,” he’d say over and over. Zamboanga City was really nice and clean back then.
“Sige lang, John. Aguanta lang. Poco año lang ese. Mira bo, sabe ka kusi, laba, limpya, man budget el de ikaw sen. Maga bata ara, ni uno nosabe ese ase,” he added with delight. I should keep on doing what I was doing. Endure. Time flew fast anyway. He was proud that I knew how to do chores and budget money, better than most young people nowadays.
I always felt good talking to him. It’s as if I was talking to an eighty-year-old version of my father, with his sailor’s mouth, which most of the time I found humorous.
“Antos lang ginagmay, John. Ayuda kun el de tuyu nana, tiene pa tu hermana ta entra escuela. Sige lang. Corre lang,” my grandmother would repeat in a mix of Cebuano and Chavacano what grandfather had said. I should persevere because my mother needed all the help that she could get, and my younger sister was still studying. Corre means “to run.”
It was nine in the evening when I ate my dinner. I had canned sardines with the hot, steamy rice. I usually added in tomatoes, especially green ones, because the crunch and tartness balanced the saltiness of the fish. I frequently ate canned fish because it was convenient and cheap.
* * *
I often think about the special situation I am in at the end of each day. There are days when I stare at myself in the mirror, and the tears would just flow. I sometimes think I’m losing it—my sanity, the precious sanity that keeps me together. And yet again, I’m here, still taking in the mundane circumstances that make up most of my life. Sometimes I wonder if I’m ill or if maybe I’m just lonely and need of a talk. But loneliness is an illness too, no?
I don’t know.
When I checked the faucets after episodes of waiting, water finally came out. I quickly washed the reeking dishes as I filled up the drum in the bathroom. I thought that it wasn’t news that I felt spent. I would never leave the dishes unwashed again. Cleaning them took more work when they’d been out this long.
As I was lying in bed, finished with a day and a night’s work, I let out a huge sigh. I stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. I had put up those stars three years ago, excited for the ceiling to glow like a galaxy. Until they started falling one by one. A quote from The Little Prince crossed my mind: “No one is ever satisfied where he is . . . Only the children know what they are looking for.”
I grabbed my phone and set my alarm to 3 AM. I changed the tone to “ding-dong” and swiped off the notifications.
I turned off the lights and closed my eyes. Tomorrow was another day.
After some time, I woke up from the sound of overflowing water, coming from the bathroom.
“God, I am old,” I muttered.