Narratives of Illness: An Introduction to December 2019 Issue

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jude Ortega
Isulan, Sultan Kudarat