Mother and Son

by Lance Isidore Catedral

(This piece first appeared in the anthology Through the Eyes of a Healer.)

He cried like a baby, and maybe that was what he was in his mother’s eyes.

With her eyes closed, she looked like she was sleeping. On her arms and limbs were multiple bruises; they started appearing just six months ago, like random pencil blots on a skin canvas. Then came the pallor, unexplained weakness, and a feeling that something wrong was going on. She couldn’t put a name into it until months after her descent into being bedridden, just around the time when her doctor, after seeing her lab tests, to her she had leukemia.

The boy was fourteen, but he had the eyes of an old man who has been through a lot. He cared for her mother, brought her to the hospital for intermittent sessions of blood transfusions, put up with the long queues at the Blood Bank, and even pleaded with the Social Services staff to give her free antibiotics.

On Mother’s Day, he was still a boy — soft wisps of hair just starting to grow on his armpits, his voice barely beginning to crack — but already mother-less. Her mother’s blood infection was so profound that even the strongest antibiotics were rendered powerless. Her platelet count was too low as to graciously permit spontaneous bleeding to happen anywhere in her body: her eyes, her lungs, her brain. That was what killed her: a ruptured vessel, perhaps, that decided to snap in her cerebrum. She was gone in minutes.

As he grieved and sobbed and wished that this was all but a dream, IV lines were still attached to her mother’s veins made fragile by many pressure to the bare acceptable minimum were dripping in futility.

It was just another day at the hospital. They boy had to bring his mother’s body home. He had been through a lot, surely he could handle her mother’s funeral too.

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Remembering Ama

by Gutierrez Mangansakan II

(This piece is from Archipelago of Stars, the author’s book of essays published by Ateneo de Naga University Press this year.)

Dear Kirby,

I read the Facebook status which you posted during the New Year on how surprised you were to find out that your great-grandfather, Datu Udtog Matalam Sr., was born on January 1st 1901. I saw the photo above in your account (with your great grandfather seated at the left) which I took the liberty to post here. I hope you don’t mind. I could not ignore a comment from your cousin saying that it was her first time to see your great grandfather, at least even in a photograph.

I am sorry that you didn’t have the opportunity to be with him. You were only a baby when your great grandfather—my grandfather—died almost three decades ago. I was six years old then. I didn’t have any clue who he was, or what he was that time. I didn’t know he was a war hero. I had no idea that he was the governor of the undivided Cotabato Empire from 1946 to 1949, and from 1955 to 1968. Nor was I aware that he founded the Muslim Independence Movement which propelled the Bangsamoro people to fight for their right to determine their destiny. I guess by now you have read books that have cited his life and career by scholars like Thomas McKenna, Patricio Abinales, Alfred McCoy, Patricio Diaz, and others. Do not believe everything they have said. Keep your mind open because whatever truths that lie beneath their books barely reveal the real person.

For most people, your great grandfather was the Datu. For me, he was plain old ‘Ama.’

What I remember most was on Fridays I would always join him during prayer in the mosque. Clutching his hand, I would walk closely behind him to the front row. Sometimes your uncle Bimby and Pipo would be there too. Your uncle Pipo and I would look each other in the eye and giggle when the congregation chorused, “Ameen.” I don’t know why. After prayer there would be kanduli but it didn’t fascinate me as much as your uncle Bimby. That is why Ama fondly called him ‘pandita.’ The idle afternoons would be spent taking turns sitting on his lap.

Ama was loving as he was strict. He spoiled his children; my mother was his favorite. Among his last wishes was that she be buried beside him. How morbid! He had the tendency to be feudal, but never cruel. He ordered that your aunt Baicoco keep her hair long, which she does to this day. The women in the family cannot marry non-Muslims, an order only the stubborn few dared to violate. Back then he would not allow us to play with the servants’ children so it was always me and my siblings and my cousins. There were times though that we were able to play with the servants’ children, when he was not around, on condition that we would always win the game no matter what.

Then he suffered a stroke that paralyzed him. He was in the hospital in Davao for some time before the family decided to transfer him to his house in Matina, then months later, to the red house in Pagalungan. I was already studying in Philippine Women’s College – JASMS that time. We would regularly come home to Pagalungan to visit him.

During his last days, whenever he saw us, a tear would fall from his eyes. Perhaps it broke his heart to accept the fact that he would never see us grow and become what we are now. If he were alive today, I know he would be proud of what you have become. A lawyer. The first in the family.

In the end we owe something to him. More than the illustrious name that we inherited, we should be constantly reminded to love our people. To love one another. To be a good Muslim in the ways that we know. I know it is hard. Day by day our lives drift apart because of ambition and the selfish desire for power. But we should keep trying.


Best Regards,

Your Uncle Teng

A Familiar Haunting on Christmas

by Gilbert Yap Tan (Essay)

(This piece was published in 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 40th 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 a.m.!), 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.

Dec. 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 can 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 departed loved one. A familiar haunting is not scary because it makes use of things familiar to the person being haunted.)


by Jade Mark Capiñanes (Nonfiction)


Nobody hears the sound of driftwood being washed ashore. We hear only the waning waves, the shards of the sea, slowly shattering on the sand, the splinters of stones.

I am standing under a coconut tree, a few meters away from the shoreline, where my classmates are preparing the set for the final scene of a short film we have to finish shooting today in order to beat the deadline. Standing next to me is a boy, around five feet in height, holding a long piece of driftwood. We have been talking for some time now.

He has stopped schooling, he tells me, to help his father in providing for their family. His mother died a few years ago. He is only ten years old, he says, but his friends tells me later that he doesn’t really know his exact age.

Like a sailor, he places his right hand just above his eyebrows and just below his semi-golden hair. He gazes at the sea, eyes fixed perhaps at some distant island. He talks of fishing like he has done it so many times, like he knows all the secrets of the deep. He prides himself on being a fisherman at such a tender age, as if it is his fate, his destiny.

He is a Sama Dilaut.

He asks me what the scene is all about. This is the scene my classmates and I have to take:

Jenny is walking along the seashore, where the sand and foam meet,
and gazes at the sea. She meets a boy.

Are you lost?

(faces the sea for a while)
I’m home.

We see a wide shot of the sea, Jenny and the boy in the foreground.

The boy starts scribbling things on the sand, using the piece of driftwood.

“Can you please write your name?” I ask him.

He does not answer. He continues to scrawl things, now circles.

There are a lot of pieces of wood—short, long, bent, straight, small, big ones—on the shore. The waves might have brought them to the shore last night or the other. A twig is lying just a few steps away from us. I pick it up.

“What is your name again?” I ask him.

He tells me his name.

I clear the sand in front of us. On it, using the twig, I write his name. He looks at his name for a while. I notice his hand, the one holding the stick, is moving, little by little, as if tracing all the letters.

Our director calls me. As the assistant director I am needed in the set. Next to the name I wrote on the sand, I leave the twig. I run towards where the set is, where the sand and foam meet.



Riding a van we have rented, we arrive two hours late. We were supposed to be here at exactly 7 AM. Along the way we had a disagreement with the driver, because he had not been informed that we needed to shoot some scenes inside the vehicle. Fortunately, after some negotiation, he agreed.

The road toward the community is steep. From where the van dropped us, we can see the majestic blue of Sarangani Bay. We walk downhill, bringing a DSLR camera, an underwater camera, a tripod, a clapper, three walkie-talkies, several bottles of water, and all other things we need for the day. We encounter a man walking uphill, carrying a large bucket on his shoulders. He seems to be so focused on his load that he just passes by without even looking at us. My eyes follow him until he reaches the entrance, the peak, where he puts the bucket into a tricycle.

Finally we reach the house of the purok chairman our production team contacted some days ago. I approach him. We shake hands, patting our chests afterwards. We are all welcome, he says, but he cannot accompany us further because he is suffering from joint pains. Instead a woman offers to assist us in finding the places to shoot in and looking for the boats to rent. We agree.

The kind woman then leads our way along the almost labyrinthine community. But just as there are narrow alleys we need to pass through, so are there wide smiles on the faces of the villagers we come across. We arrive at their mini market, so small that there are just a couple of fruit and vegetable stands. She briefly goes to a vendor, perhaps her kumare, and I overhear her speak in Tausug. I start to wonder. Isn’t she a Sama Dilaut?



A professor in our university hires me as a research assistant for a project she’s working on. We analyze qualitative data gathered from interviews and group discussions conducted throughout Mindanao. I am tasked to collate the data gathered from Tawi-Tawi, which highlight the plight of the Sama Dilaut.

From the data I have analyzed, I learn that, historically, the Sama Dilaut, popularly known as the Badjao, are native sea dwellers in the southern part of the Philippines, as well as in some parts of nearby Southeast Asian countries. In the past they freely crisscrossed the waters, back and forth between their mooring islands in the Sulu Archipelago and in the adjacent island of Borneo, particularly in its northeastern tip, Sabah. Since the establishment of national boundaries, however, Sabah has become a separate territory and their maritime laws have been strict. The Sama Dilaut were forbidden to set their feet there, unless they have proper documents, which most of them do not have.

Since then the Sama Dilaut have been displaced, their traditional ways of living have been disrupted, and their plight have begun. Some of them have tried their luck in major cities in Mindanao, and even as far as Luzon. Here in General Santos City, a mostly Cebuano-speaking community, I often see them roaming around the city plaza, especially during the Christmas season, asking for some pinaskuhan, sometimes with a laminated document in hand. Until now I honestly do not know what that piece of paper is. At night, while walking along Pioneer Avenue, where the right hand of the monument of General Paulino Santos in the city plaza points, I see them sleeping next to closed roll-up doors of barbershops, drugstores, and banks, their backs cushioned by only a piece of malong or cardboard.

Our sense of space is tied to our sense of culture, identity, and, for French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, social production. The Sama Dilaut, traditionally, are less familiar with being on land than they are with being in the sea. In the city they feel a kind of “landsickness.” To live in urbanized areas, whose structure is shaped and designed by urban-dwellers in order to suit their own urban needs, therefore, poses a challenge for the Sama Dilaut, who in turn are further marginalized. That is why they are often forced to become mendicants in the city—which, unfortunately, is the stereotypical depiction of the Sama Dilaut, mainly because of our ignorance of and indifference to their history as a people.

When some of the displaced Sama Dilaut settled in Tawi-Tawi, where they lived in coastal communities called pondohan, characterized by houses and bridges built on stilts over the waters, and started agal­agal (“seaweed”) farming, some Tausug from Sulu encroached on their dwelling and livelihood. Being naturally mild-mannered people, they refused to fight back and were forced to leave. Hence, again, their displacement.

– The waves rush to the shore.
– The sand and foam fill the screen.
– The sea is seen, majestic in its blueness, its currents
flowing in unpredictable and agitated motion.


Maingat kaw mag-Tausug? (“Do you speak Tausug?”)” I ask our guide, using the few Tausug words I still know.

Maingat kaw tuwi? (“So you speak it, too?”)” she answers.

I say yes and proceed to share a little about how I learned the language. Growing up, I learned two languages: Cebuano and Tausug. Before moving to General Santos City several years ago, I spent my childhood years in a coastal community in Davao, where I had Tausug neighbors and friends. Some of my aunts, in fact, married Tausug men and since then have embraced Islam. My mom’s aunt, whom I call Mommy, also married Al-Hassan Adel, a Tausug, whom I call Tatay. Tatay grew up in Patikul, Sulu. As a child I would stay in Mommy and Tatay’s house, where I used Tatay’s binoculars to zoom in on Samal Island. Tatay inherited a big bolo from his father, which he claimed was one of the weapons the group of Lapu-Lapu used in defeating Magellan.

While I can understand Tausug now, I can only speak a few words and phrases. Malingkat. (“Beautiful.”) Pakain kaw? (“Where are you going?”) Mayta kaw byaan? (“Why are you like that?”) Kalasahan ta kaw. (“I love you.”) Katiyu lang in katumtuman ko byaun. (“I can only recall a few right now.”) Mataud na in kyalupahan ko. (“I have forgotten many.”) So from time to time I code-switch, between Cebuano and Tausug, while talking to her. But to use the language of the people who once took away a significant part of you, I think, must be difficult. If only I could speak in her language, Sinama. If only I knew a lot more Sinama words than abal, which, based on a Sinama dictionary I found online while researching for our short film, means “the rough water at the meeting of two currents.”

Abal, as my classmates and I agreed upon, will be the title of our short film.

But still our guide becomes warmer. I cannot help but wonder why, although little by little I start to feel more comfortable.

We meet some of her neighbors, and she tells them that I speak Tausug. Maybe because I am donning a keffiyeh around my neck, they think that I am a Tausug myself. They ask me where I am from, and I tell them where I grew up. They recognize the place, claiming that they have relatives there.

Our guide tells me that not everyone in the village is a Sama Dilaut: they share the place and live harmoniously with the Tausug. Much to my surprise, she says her husband is a Tausug. They have been married for years.

We walk on, and a familiar scent, as I take a deep breath, fills my nose. Petrichor, they say, is the earthly scent of soil moistened by the rain. I wonder what they call the watery scent of the shore dampened by the waves. Memories overwhelm me, and I remember, among other things I associate with my childhood by the sea, those little grains of sand stuck between the gaps of my toes. In every step I take, I know the sea is just nearby.

Finally we reach the shore. Our guide introduces us to a fisherman whose boat we can rent. I make an arrangement with him and, unlike the driver of the van, he agrees with the deal without qualms. Everything goes smoothly.

Around 10:30 AM the sun is blindingly shining and hot. Still we have to go to the shore and start to prepare all the things we need for the first scene we will take for the day. One by one, our director, our cinematographer, the fisherman, and I get into the boat.

Slowly we sail away from the shore. With our camera I take some wide photographs of the community as it is seen from the boat. This might be what a pondohan looks like, I say to myself as I look at the pictures I took. It also looks similar to the place where I grew up: the wooden houses on stilts, the boats, the children running along the shore, the sea.

After handing the camera to our cinematographer, I gaze at the village. I imagine the village gazing back at me: a Cebuano, in a community named Badjao Village, where the residents, Sama Dilaut and Tausug alike, share the same shore, let alone the same roof.



My classmate who plays the role of Jenny walks along the shore, where the sand and foam meet, and gazes at the sea. She meets a young Sama Dilaut, the one we cast to play the role of the boy.

“Are you lost?” the young Sama Dilaut asks.

“I’m home,” my classmate says.

They both look at the sea.

“Cut!” shouts our director.

And with that our filming is finished. The whole production has been tiring, and our film still have to undergo post-production, but my classmates and I still rejoice.



We are having our preparatory filmmaking seminar. I submit the screenplay of our short film to our resource speaker, a director from Manila. After the evaluation of manuscripts, he points out that I need to name the characters. “You don’t know the characters you have created?” he asks. “Not even the protagonist?” He adds that names will talk a lot about them, as well as how I feel about them.

I have some reservations about it. I think naming implies that I know exactly who my characters are. But the point of the story is that I still do not know them, in the same way the protagonist finds it difficult to know and accept her true identity. At that time I have yet to grasp what our resource speaker said, so for compliance, I admit, I give the protagonist a name. Perhaps only when I see it all, only when I meet them in person, only when I see the reality behind—and especially beyond—the screenplay, will I be able to understand it all. Only then, beyond this rough water, will I finally see that currents, despite their seeming separateness, are all part of a greater thing, are all just the single swaying of the same sea.


It is getting late in the afternoon. The wind blows harder, and it starts to drizzle. We start fixing the set, but we feel we do not have to hurry. It is, after all, the last day of shooting. We take group photographs every now and then. For the technical staff and the cast, it is a day to be remembered.

I go back to the coconut tree, under which I left my things. The boy is still there, still holding the long piece of driftwood. On the sand his name, which I wrote earlier, is still written. Beside it, however, I see a couple of letters. Although they are somehow crooked, the small a’s looking like o’s with unnecessarily long tails, nonetheless they are legible.

The letters spell out his name: Aman Tapsan.

Sharing Soul Stories in Sabtang

by Noel Pingoy (Essay)

Far over the right shoulder as the faluwa leaves Ivana Port in the main island of Batan to thread the treacherous waves of the Pacific Ocean that lead to Sabtang, one can easily spot the ghostly crest of Mt. Iraya looming in a cerulean distance, robed in an incessant pallor that mirrors the breathtaking beauty of this northernmost of the Philippines’ provinces. In a balmy May daylight, the waves glisten even as they briefly petrify the visitors with both their height and their unpredictability, surging onwards from out of nowhere when they are least expected, then remain like petulant juveniles to momentarily shake the boat and its stunned passengers, only to vanish with nary a whimper minutes later. And a peaceful ride is casually resumed.

The faluwa is a seaworthy motorized dinghy that traverses the vast expanse of the waters of Bashi Channel and Balintang Channel, where the Pacific Ocean merges with the China Sea. The boat connects residents from the main islands of Batan, Itbayat, and Sabtang to each other, providing reliable means of transportation for culture and commerce in the islands, the burgeoning tourism industry included. Midway through the trip, our group chances upon enormous waves that whitened the knuckles of some passengers as they held tightly to the railings while ardently mumbling entreaties to the deities. But the steady hands of the skipper and his crew effortlessly steer the boat to slither through the waves like a surgeon precisely and adeptly cutting through the tissue, smooth as a blade, that the faluwa barely trembled in its ascent. A solitary flying fish darts from a distance like some sinewy sliver of silver that skims over the surface as if to taunt the travelers about passing up the exhilaration of the moment just because of a tenuous unease.

The trip to Sabtang takes a little less than an hour, our guide Roger tells us, so enjoy the ride. The group met him the day before, a proud Ivatan in his mid-fifties who knows the infinitesimal details of his proud heritage like the back of his hefty palms. A virtual repository of historical facts and folk trivia, including what sounds like indigenous yarn, he is at ease talking to both the visitors and the locals. The spirit of fun is there all right, but his animated annotations of facts, half-truths and downright trivia are nowhere near mendacity and pretense. Having reached college, his English is almost unsullied despite the obvious trace of the guttural nature of the northern tongues. Sometimes he appears to be chiding the boatmen about not skimming competently enough though this crest of a wave to obviate the vessel’s fretful shudder.

The boatmen are hardy chaps, bronzed from relentless exposure to the elements, the almost mystical mélange of the sun, the wind and the saltwater enfolding the islands and their environs; they are a proud offspring of a race that has been molded by centuries of geographical solitude from the rest of the incessantly shifting world. The Ivatans are typically Malayan but whose features are softer, perhaps gentler is a better word to describe them, than the rest in the northern part of the country. The Ilocanos come across as edgier given the harsh landscape of undulating plains that are amplified by blistering winds, while the tribesmen of the Cordillera ranges are as morose and dour as the cold weather that they are attuned to.

Roger likes to talk a lot, probably comes with the job description I tell myself, but there is nary a trace of contrived earnestness or even perfunctory candor that I would expect from someone who has done this same routine several times in years. His enthusiasm is incredible, but his love for the islands he calls home is even more amazing. Near the end of the trip, when the novelty of the enormous waves is starting to wear out and most of the passengers are lulled to private introspection by the gentle lurching of the faluwa over the waves, Roger stops speaking with a far-off cadence in his voice, and for a long time we sit in silence listening to the waves that beat against the sides of the boat and the winds that thrash the jib. The eloquence of the moment simply distills every person from the frailty of words and everyone allows silence to take sovereignty when it really matters most.

With the near-noontime sunlight the sky is incredibly translucent and the ragged coastlines of Sabtang are now etched sharply against the azure west, assuming an overwhelming loveliness. An imposing lighthouse that stands pompously near the dock provides a picture-perfect preface to the many charms and surprises of the island, the off-white lookout hub sharply demarcating its russet top from the taupe base.

Over the next precious hours, the group will ride through the four towns of Sabtang and be amazed at the simplicity of the Ivatan way of life that has not significantly changed over the centuries, courtesy of its remote location, its tempestuous climate and the tenacity of its people to safeguard the indigenous lifestyle without necessarily preventing outsiders from taking an attentive peek into the heart of their culture. Traces of the old way of life, particularly the fortified mountain refuge called idjang where people hide sometimes for months during the bloody clan wars, are still preserved. Palek, a local wine made from sugar cane, is still consumed by the males to fend off cold and probably tedium especially during the stormy season when they could not head off the coast to catch fish.

Quantum Leap

by Rossel M. Audencial (Essay)

People go far in life because someone believed that they can. I say, I go far in life because someone took a quantum leap. My Mother did.

My Mother belongs to a family of twelve, the second eldest child of ten siblings. She grew up in the barrio amidst corn and rice fields her family did not own. Her parents both depended on the yield of these fields for them to have something to eat. They had eloped from Iloilo and never finished high school. They found refuge in South Cotabato and built a family of their own.

She finished her elementary years by walking everyday, back and forth, at dawn and dusk, to and from the nearest school, three kilometers away. She had no money for baon. To buy her needed pencils and notebooks, she would sell guavas or pick kangkong or takway along the road to sell to her classmates or teachers while her mother sold suman.

She can well relate to news features of children who carry their school things in cellophanes or net bags. She did the same just to go to school. There were no roads yet at that time. She had to traverse through the muddy embankments of rice fields, wet and slippery when it rained. Her cellophane bag, conveniently tied to her shoulders, kept her school things dry. She cannot forget that she wore slippers a lot bigger than her feet. She would pick them up, sling them in her arms, and walk barefoot instead, crisscrossing narrow paths just to reach school. She would wash her feet in a nearby stream when she was near the school building and put on her slippers again.

When she was in high school, her father contracted an illness that made him unable to work for a year. In order to survive, my Mother and her siblings had to find work to feed the family and to support their schooling at the same time. During planting season, she would join the group of planters who were commissioned by the owner of a rice paddy to plant seedlings of palay by hand in a hectare-wide field. She experienced bending her back all afternoon under the raging heat of the sun with only a salakot covering her head and wading into mud to finish a row of the planting box. The faster you planted, the more rows you finished, and the faster your group covered the whole plant area, the faster you moved on to the next.

She also tried plowing a field single-handedly. Despite her small and thin stature, she had to lead a carabao across a dry rice field. She grasped the reins of the animal with one hand and followed with the heavy plow with the other, digging into compact soil and leaving furrows behind. It was hard physical labor. All you needed was a body that could stay up long and the energy to move your hands and back all throughout the day and even weeks. As a teenager, her body had to learn to adjust to farming work.

When harvest season came, she, together with her older sister and younger siblings, would go to different places to find rice crops ready for reaping. Sickle in hand, they joined groups of reapers in cutting rice stalks heavy with grain and stacking them into bundles for the hand-fed threshing machine. She had been wounded by a sickle many times, my mother would tell me, showing thin straight scars in her hand and arm. Even though her hand was bleeding, she would just wrap it with a cloth and continue cutting.

This work of clearing a hectare of rice field could take a whole day. After all the bundles of rice stalks were threshed by the machine, leaving only the grains ready for winnowing, my mother would take their part of the harvest. The usual agreement during her time was through counting tin cans; those big cans of cooking oil served as their measuring tool. She explained that her part would be the sixth can, the one after every five cans of threshed rice grains as yield from the bundles she had been able to stack. This means two things. One, she had to cut more and stack large and heavy bundles of rice stalks in order to yield more than the five cans of grains. Second, she might not have anything to bring home if her harvest had not reached more than the five cans. Aside from this, her younger siblings could collect more rice grains from the heaps of straws left in the field or thrown out by the machine. They would bring the fruit of their labor home, tired but satisfied that at least they had something to eat and to sell in order to buy other necessary commodities like sugar and salt to last until the next work opportunity.

Among these experiences, she cannot also forget how it was to eat with one roasted catfish and a kilo of rice for dinner. Her father would hang the skewered fish in their thatched ceiling, out of anyone’s reach. When supper came, he would get it for all of the ten siblings to see. And what happened next? He would pass the fish to everyone around the table for them to smell it. Just to sniff at it, until everyone finished his or her cup of rice. And nothing more. No additional rice even if they wanted more. If they were still hungry, they would go out and climb fruit trees in the neighbourhood or find bananas to eat. She cannot imagine now how her family lived through the worst times of their lives—but she is thankful that they did.

My mother finished high school. Fortunately, she said. College was a far-fetched thing. Her next option was to stop schooling. Thinking of quitting school, however, made her see in her mind’s eye the hardships and hunger around her. She came to that point in her life when she had to decide how her life would become. Her parents could never send her to college, but her life would remain as it was if she stopped schooling. By then, she promised to herself that she would not work in the fields again. The only way out of it was finishing a college degree to get a job other than wallowing in mud or in the heat of the sun or breaking her back in hard labor. She had nothing against life in the farm, but she also wanted a comfortable life.

Thus, one day, a month after high school graduation, she declared to herself that she would go to college. Without bringing extra clothes and money but herself, she went to the nearest college institution in Marbel (now Koronadal City) and talked to a woman in the canteen there. She expressed her intention to be a working student. She was fortunate enough that day. One of the teachers hired her as a house help. She would do household chores in exchange for tuition.

For four years, she washed the clothes of others, bigger than what her hands could carry, and ironed them before she could sleep at almost midnight. For four years, she tended to babies and kids unrelated to her by blood, that they grew up with her by their side more than the time she spent with her own siblings. For four years, she had to work hard in the house where she stayed and worked hard to finish her studies. All the while, she performed a balancing act of working and studying at the same time. What sustained her was her goal to graduate and those endless, silent prayers she muttered to herself every day. If there was one thing poverty had taught her, it was to cling to God. Her faith had walked her through the hardest path of her life that, after four years, she graduated in her education course. She is the only one who did among her ten siblings.

She is now a teacher in a public high school in General Santos City. She says that it is not at all easy to teach. Being a teacher requires another level of hard work and patience, especially in dealing with teenagers, but she has attained a sort of progress compared to her previous experiences. We did not have much but had enough to eat three times a day, to dress in uniforms and wear shoes, and to have baon in our pockets. She was able to send us to schools near our house that we did not have to walk far. We haven’t tried planting or harvesting palay, not even touching a plow. And when we finished high school, college was the next option. She had reached her goal in life and she wanted us to reach our own with her support. She paid our tuition fees and gave us allowance for school requirements. We did not have to be a working student like her.

She has been through hardships—physical labor, not to mention mental and emotional struggles. These hardships has made her not just a strong woman, but more aptly, a woman of strength. Her quantum leap has brought me to where I am now. It is a leap that opened a wide array of opportunities for me to soar higher than what she has reached. I thank her for walking away that day, away from that endless toil and cruel poverty. She knew that she could make her life better and that all she had was that courage sustained by her faith in God. She has taught me that life is a choice. And that choice depends on me, solely.

Farewell to Grief

by Ma. Jocedel Zulita (Essay)


“It’s the way families are, sometimes.

A thing goes wrong and no one knows how to fix it

and years pass and—no one knows how to fix it.”

– Joyce Carol Oates, ―We Were the Mulvaneys


Whenever I saw Mama wearing the Seiko watch you used to own, I was always left to wonder how many hours and minutes had gone by since you left. You always wore it even at home. More than a decade had passed but I still long for you terribly. On some days, the longing was too strong that I could feel an almost physical pain in my chest.

Not long after you died, Mama began cleaning our house. She dusted every surface and swept every corner. She even moved some of the furniture around and burned the mattress that you slept in while you were sick. Perhaps, she wanted to get rid of any traces of you. I saw her sitting on the floor in your room one cold morning. She was taking out all of your things from the wardrobe you both shared. She may have tried to hide it but I saw her eyes glisten with unshed tears. All of your things, she kept them hidden inside the dresser in my sister‘s old bedroom. It remained there until now.

Maybe Mama thought that she could also put away all your memories along with the things you owned. She kept everything, save for your gold Seiko wristwatch. Mama always wore it to work even after the watch glass got broken. It looked strikingly golden under the sun. It felt strange to see her wear something you used to own. The golden watch band seemed to fit better on your wrist than on Mama’s. Another thing that she didn’t lock away was the red suitcase that sat on top of the cabinet inside your room. It was where she kept a few of her things from her maiden years— old coins, a knitted purse, and letters that have turned yellow with age. The suitcase seemed like a reminder of those forgotten memories from her youth. The letters fascinated me the most. They smelled ancient. And when I took them out, it felt as if they were going to crumble on my hands. Most of them came from her siblings in Capiz and a few came from you. It was the glory days of love letters.

I want to bring back those glory days by writing this for you. This is me letting go of you.

Poppy—that it was what I called you. The drawl of each syllable that my little voice made sounded endearing to your own ears. But Mama told me to quit calling you that because you were not a dog. She thought I meant puppy. I eventually outgrew the endearment and settled on calling you Papa. Just like how Mama used to call you.

To your kumpadres, you were Celso—the chief forester in their office and the one they played tong-its with inside the small shack behind their office. But to me, you will always be Poppy, the one who used to sit on the couch every night in our living room with a bottle of cold beer near him. You will always be that silent man, but whose laugh ricocheted around the room, filling it with so much happiness.

Life was simple then. I could even say it was perfect, if such thing existed. But it took an unexpected turn when renal failure slowly took your life away. When you left, you made me wonder what it was like after death. Did you see a light at the end of a tunnel, as what some people who came back from the dead often remembered? I will never know.

I was in first grade when an ambulance carried you home the last time you got back from the hospital. I thought you were not sick anymore and I could finally have you back. But you only remained sleeping for days. Auntie told me that you were in a coma. It was when one could not move at all but could still hear it when a person talks to them. I guess that was the reason why I often saw tears falling from the sides of your eyes whenever I talked to you. I did not understand why in the beginning. I was left to make sense of what was happening on my own.

I was beside you the moment you died. Tears stained my face as I was holding your hand. I even asked you to come back on my 7th birthday. I thought that maybe you would still hear me if I called loud enough. But you have faded away into the unknown.

Chrysanthemums filled our living room during your wake. It even matched the pale color of your casket. Since then, those flowers always reminded me of the dead. No matter how my mother extensively cleaned the house after the funeral, the smell of chrysanthemums remained.

Your absence haunted us for months. Sometimes it felt like your ghost was still living with us. Mama’s longing showed in the things she did right after you left. You appeared in her dreams and once, she told how she dreamt of you waiting outside the gates of our house. You were wearing your favorite lilac-colored polo shirt and you were mounted on your motorcycle while asking Mama to let you in. She said that she woke up the moment she was about to open the gates for you. Maybe it was a sign that we could not let you into our lives anymore.

After the funeral, Mama remained setting a table for five even though there were only the four of us left.

“What was the extra plate for?” I asked her once.

“It’s for your father,” she answered. But he’s gone, I thought to myself.

Mama did that for some weeks until she finally stopped and began to take your place at the dining table.

Perhaps, you already knew that you were bound to go that was why you and Mama adopted my brother. You wanted someone to fill the hole that you left. I could still recall that morning when you asked me if I wanted a sibling. You and Mama knew a woman from the other village looking for a couple willing enough to adopt her unborn child. You knew how I badly wanted a baby sister but when you found out that the baby was a boy, you refused the woman. Maybe it was desperation that drove her to come back to our house. We were surprised to see her waiting in our living room with my sister and her newborn baby. You and Mama could not refuse her further. When you asked me and my sister what we wanted to name our brother, we immediately came up with one and called him Vincent. It was after one of our favorite characters in the anime, Ghost Fighter.

Vincent‘s biological mother had dinner with us that same night. I remember how excited I was to play with my new brother that I was not able to finish my meal. I went back to our living room and peered through the rails of his crib. I could not keep myself from reaching for his little hand. I will never forget how it was like when he wrapped his little fingers around mine. It felt as if Vincent found a home in me. I swore to protect him from anything that could hurt him. It no longer mattered if the baby was a boy.

Months after Vincent turned two, Mama underwent an operation because a gallstone had to be removed from her gallbladder. Ate, Vincent, and I were left in the care of Auntie Bing who stayed in our house. The debts began piling up and Mama didn’t have anyone but her two young daughters and two-year old son to take care of.

I never visited Mama while she was in the hospital. I had enough memories of waiting outside since children weren’t allowed to go in. It took me back to those mornings when I would wake up only to find that you were in the hospital again. I was afraid that I would lose Mama the same way I lost you.

Mama’s younger brother came to live with us after her operation. I just got back from school when I saw an unfamiliar face beaming at me when I entered the living room. Auntie Bing told me that he was my uncle from Capiz and asked if I could still remember him. He did not look familiar even though Auntie said that I already met him. Maybe his face was not at all worth remembering.

Uncle had brought with him so many pasalubong—piaya, otap, biscocho, barquillos. All of those were my favorites but they were not enough to buy my trust. He had this vibe about him that resonated he was not worthy of any trust. True enough, he was only good to us during the first few months of his stay. Soon after, he did things that even you would never do to us.

Maybe Mama thought that uncle could stand as a father figure. But the way he acted around the house proved otherwise. I didn‘t want anyone to take your place and I made him feel just that. But Uncle won over Vincent. Before he came, my brother and I went along just fine. Vincent was a sweet little boy and he always followed me around wherever I went. It was a usual thing for us to fight and we always made up afterwards. I saw nothing wrong about it. But Uncle deemed us savages trying to kill each other whenever we were fighting.

There was a time when he couldn’t bear seeing us fighting any longer so he grabbed the broom that was lying around our front yard and began beating us over and over. He didn‘t care if it hit us on our back, thigh, or leg. Mama used to do the same thing to our dogs but only when she caught them trying to scare the chickens away. She would only hit them once and then she would stop. But that moment, I have lost count on how many times uncle beat us with it. We felt like dogs begging for mercy that he will never give to us. No one ever hurt us that way before, not even you.

That night, my skin stung from the beating we got. I slept with contempt in my chest. I was uncertain if it was for my brother for picking up a fight with me or if it was for uncle, for making me feel that we deserved what he did to us. But I was certain that the contempt I felt that night have made a home in me.

Mama knew how uncle treated us but she never showed a single sign of reproach against him. One night, I tried to talk to her about uncle but she dismissed whatever it was that I wanted to say. She told me that even if I was wrong or right, I should never talk back to him. I should stay silent because he was older than me.

I spent years keeping everything bottled inside me. Mama thought that my silence came with respect. But it took me all the strength I could muster just to remain quiet. She had no idea that a sea of hatred was already raging inside my chest.

Five years later, my sister broke Mama’s heart by getting pregnant a year before her college graduation. After finding out about the pregnancy, Mama’s colleagues kept on warning me about early pregnancies. It was as if they were all expecting me to end up like my sister. That same year, I stopped going with Mama to her workplace. Perhaps it was because of the shame I felt for our family. I swore never to make the same mistake that my sister did.

Home became a place where I lie awake at 2 in the morning wishing I was someplace else. Somehow we have become more like strangers than a family. We didn’t eat together anymore and we have stopped going to Church. The kind of family my friends had was different from mine. They could crack a joke around their mothers and could tell how they love them without being shy. Sometimes I wished that Mama and I had that kind of relationship. But I was stiff around her. If truth be told, it seemed like I have lost her too during the day I lost you.

Even though we were under the same roof, I never felt that Mama was there for me. She never asked me about school that sometimes it seemed like she no longer cared. In high school, I had to go to Family Days on my own. Most of my classmates had their parents with them while I only had myself.

“Just go. Some students still go even without their parents,” Mama urged me when I told her I didn’t want to go to our Family day anymore since she was not coming. I didn’t want to feel like I was the odd one out. I knew I would be left sitting alone on the bleachers to watch how seemingly perfect my classmates’ families were. Sometimes, I would sit together with my friends who didn‘t have their parents with them too. I never liked Family days. I used to have the idea that it seemed to be an insult to those who had unconventional families. It reminded me of the picture perfect family that I used to have but was taken away.

Before I left for college, Mama wrote my name on the hem of my shirts using a black permanent marker. She said it was to keep my shirts from getting lost in the dormitory. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, carefully folding my clothes. I was on the floor, trying to fit my things in a red luggage. I didn‘t like the noticeable ink marks on my shirts. It seemed that Mama just didn‘t want me to lose my identity so she had my name written on my clothes. Maybe it was to remind me of who I was before I left my hometown. She will never know but right then, I was ready to leave that girl behind.

I was bound to leave at 5AM the next day. Mama went with me to the bus station so she could help me carry my luggage.

“Don’t forget to pray,” she told me before I got inside the bus. I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and bid goodbye. Had you been alive, you would have gone with me the first time I went to Davao. Mama rarely had the time. When you left, she focused more on her work. Perhaps it was also her way of dealing with your absence. She wanted to be busy so she could forget even just for a while.

I took the seat by the window and saw Mama wave at me as the bus started to head off. I closed the curtain and rested my head against the window pane. It was what I always wanted all those years. I wanted to leave the home that no longer felt like one. I tried to think of something else other than leaving GenSan.

The ride to Davao was long. I stared through the window pane and tried to focus on the view outside. The sun had almost begun to rise and the color of the sky reminded me of the oranges that Mama bought for me at the bus station. I recalled the words she said before I got inside the bus. I made the sign of the cross and a silent prayer dangled on my lips. It was a habit I would later forget after a couple of years.

Maybe my life in Davao taught me to forget about how life in GenSan was like. There were still days when I suddenly missed being in our house and not having to think of where and what I should eat next. I wanted to have Mama around whenever I was sick. Each time I thought about the birthdays I missed and the celebrations they spent without me, I felt a bit lonely and left out.

It was strange how the three hour distance between Davao and GenSan became the reason for me to realize that it was not too late to fix the family you left us with. There were times I felt like I was giving more life to the dead compared to those who are still living. I have always seen Mama as the ever-absent mother. But she was more than that. She was no longer a shadow of you, Papa.

Sometimes I fear that the memories I have of you were just made up and my idea of what you used to be was not real. There were days when I felt like you only came from a dream. I tried to mask my anger towards you with longing. We tried to reinvent the family without you and in the beginning, it seemed hopeless. It was unfair of you to leave Mama alone with us.

Our lives would have been different with you around, perhaps even easier. But you were gone and all I have are your things to remind me that you were once with us. I was your little girl. But that girl died the same day you did. And maybe Mama saw it coming that was why she wanted to remind me of who I used to be. But I didn’t know how to be that person anymore.

On my final year in college, I wore my sorority shirt on my return home. I stopped wearing the t-shirts with my name written on the hem years ago. They didn’t fit me anymore. About an hour before I arrived, I received a text from Mama.

“Diin ka na?” she was asking me where I was.

Had I been that college freshman that I was three years before, I would have ignored her text. But instead, I took the time to reply.

“Ma, I’m almost home.”

Dusk was about to fall as I stared at the sky through the bus’s window pane. Its color reminded me of the sky that morning I first left for college. It was still the same sky I used to look at before. But only a different person was looking at it that moment.

When I arrived in our house, the scent of chrysanthemums that used to cloak the whole living room where you died was gone. Or maybe the scent was never there in the first place and was only in my head. Maybe it was the memory that I mistook for the smell of death. Mama was in the living room, seated on the couch. I took her hand and pressed it against my forehead. It was warm against my skin, I could feel the life pulsing in her veins.

“Bless ko, ‘ma,” I said. I noticed that she was no longer wearing your golden wristwatch. I tried to imagine how it would look like on her. Perhaps time left it to fade. I asked where it was. Mama said that the clock had stopped ticking and she had to have it fixed. She also wanted to replace the watch glass that got broken several years ago. I glanced back at her wrist and thought of how bare it looked.

Perhaps, it is never too late to accept that something was broken and needed to be fixed.

So long and farewell from your daughter.