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.

Better This Way

by Spencer Pahang (Nonfiction)

I woke up in bed, breaking out in a cold sweat. My muscles ached from being tense throughout the night. For a thankful, short-lived moment, my heart pounded steadily, and my head started to clear things out. A sudden realization shook my body out of its happiness.

That day was what I dreaded most: first day of junior high school.

They’ll probably think I’m odd, I thought.

No, they won’t. I won’t let them, I countered.

These thoughts fought each other like Spartans and Persians, both powerful and parallel. This debate went on and on until I got to the bathroom. It didn’t stop at the dining table. Like a shadow, it followed me until I got dressed. I put on my white polo shirt and paired it with a black loose pants and a blue rubber shoes. Before facing the outside world, I looked in the mirror and stared at my own reflection.

You look so weird, I thought.

No, you look alright, I countered.

As I entered the school’s gate, I felt a little steady. My confidence slowly regained. The campus was quiet and had a relaxing atmosphere. I could feel the peacefulness and calmness of the school premises. The silence made me feel better, so much better.

Suddenly, I heard the yells of the students from the quadrangle. I observed them and saw similarities. Most of the boys were wearing low-riding jeans paired with black shiny sneakers and “I’m cool” quoted caps. The girls didn’t fell short as well. Most of them were wearing skinny jeans showing their curves and cropped t-shirts showing their belly-buttons.

I will not fit here, I thought.

No, you’ll be fine, I countered.

In class, my classmates stared at me and questioned my gender because of the manner of my speech and action. I heard one student whispered to his friends that I must be gay. Others commented on my awkward walk and other things included in the list of my imperfections. I just stayed silent, trying to act normal while I felt dizzy inside. My hands started to sweat from nervousness, and my eyes struggled to keep their tears in. On the first day of my junior high, I already felt rejected, unaccepted, and unacknowledged because I was different.

Luckily, the class was done. I ran out of the class, struggling to keep myself calm. I accepted that connecting with my classmates would be difficult: we had contrary thoughts. What I found funny, they frowned upon. While I was quiet, they were expressive. What I found in myself as normal, they saw as weird. What I loved, they despised. Change gave me a sense of inability to be in control. I therefore made myself capable of preventing my emotions from showing. When I was pressured, I would break down and would show my true self. This intimidated me and made me feel uncomfortable. I distanced myself from others.

This is what happens when you are socially awkward: you eat your lunch at the classroom alone and you sit next to the classroom window.

Months had passed. While I was eating the snacks I bought at the nearest canteen in our school, I came up with some theories: Am I friendless because of my solitary nature? Do less people gravitate towards me because I look gay and sometimes seem monotonous or lifeless? Should I abandon this charade—forget who I really am and replace it with identities my classmates have?

In class, I spoke spontaneously to a girl I had met. In the end, we walked out giggling and smiling. Sometimes opening yourself up can do wonders.

I waved her goodbye as their car left the parking lot. I sat on the chairs behind me and smiled, thinking how happy I was to talk to someone. As I walked outside to get home, the students in my back were all screaming, murmuring, and whispering to each other. But the noises no longer bothered me. I had grown used to them, and now if ever there was silence, it would worry me.

It is better this way.

As the tricycle wobbled down the uneven road, I made an oath to myself: I will not degrade myself for being different from other boys. That shouldn’t determine the way I act or feel. It shouldn’t be the reason why my voice trembles as I speak to a stranger or my hands sweat as I pass by a bully in the corridors. What I think about myself is what ultimately defines me. I should celebrate my difference as this can be my strength. Life is too short for insecurities to hurt.

Of Trees and Paper

by Hazel-Gin Lorenzo Aspera (Nonfiction)

Every time we went to the department store in the South Seas Complex, I asked Mama for a Barbie. And each time, her answer was always the same: “Next time. Wala pa tayong pera.” Part of me would want to whine out loud: “But that’s what you said the last time!”

But by the time I was six, I instinctively held my complaints in. I figure that’s what happens when you’re the eldest. When my little sister Kim snatched the toy I was playing with, Mama would say, “Pagpasensyahan mo na kasi bata pa siya.” Even though I was, in fact, also bata pa. Or when my brother Sha hit me and I hit back, she would be, “Ikaw na lang mag-intindi kasi ikaw man ang mas matanda.” Even when he was less than a year younger than I was.

So I learned, early on, to pasensya and to intindi, to avoid conflict at any cost. And also not to tell anyone exactly how I felt because I would only be told to pasensya and to intindi some more. And that got tiring at some point, especially to a six-year-old.

Most of my childhood angst was therefore directed to a diary. I got it for my birthday, a beautiful notebook with flower-patterned, rainbow-colored, sweet-smelling pages. To the side, clasping the thick, padded covers together, was a tiny little lock made of fake gold, with a matching key and a whisper of a promise that it would keep all my secrets safe. I called her Jo.

Today was amazing! I wrote one day. Aika and I made clay out of flour and oil. We used a clay recipe from a book she had. We had a good time. She made play food and I made animals. When we were done, Tita Detdet said Aika’s lolo took the clay, mixed it with egg and made a pancake.

I carefully copied the recipe for the clay (not the pancake) at the bottom of the page. On another page, I pressed down my pen so firmly that the resulting indents on the next page were readable in the right lighting. The boys stink. I hate it when they tease me about Jan. I don’t have a crush on him. I don’t have a crush on ANYONE. Which was a lie, of course. I actually had a crush on Chris O’Donnell as D’Artagnan from Disney’s take on the Three Musketeers. But that didn’t prove my point, so Jo didn’t need to know that.

 

My longing was finally satisfied when Ate Joy taught me how to make paper dolls. This happened during one summer, when I was about eight years old, back when we were still living in Cotabato City. We had moved from my grandfather’s big, old house in Bagua into a small, two-bedroom residence—a long sikad ride from Sinsuat Avenue, past Peñafrancia Village and San Pablo Village, then through a sandbar of sorts between two vast rice fields, to San Antonio Village near Tarbeng Creek. Of course, back then we didn’t know it was called Tarbeng Creek. We just called it the ilog.

Just at the back of the new house was a sarisa tree that shot up beyond the roof of the house. Ate Joy called it sarisa, at least. Mama called it mansanitas, although she seldom ever talked about the tree so I ended up calling it sarisa instead. Some of the branches were low enough that I could pluck the delicate white flowers.

They were perfect for laying on top of the cakes that my siblings and I formed from stuffing plastic toy pots full of gravel and water. We’d turn the pots over on a plastic plate and ease out the moist gravel until we had a grey “chocolate cake.”  The flowers were the cake decorations, of course. Because in real cakes, my favorite bit was always the brightly colored fondant flowers. I would always lay three flowers on each cake, because in real cakes I only ever got one if both Sha and Kim already had theirs. Astra, back then, was just a baby. She couldn’t have icing flowers just yet.

I didn’t decorate all my cakes with sarisa flowers. Even back then I knew that the more flowers the sarisa tree bore, the more of those tiny, green spheres would appear. These would slowly swell up to the size of Mama’s pearl earrings and turn bright red, which was how you could tell that they were ready to eat.

When I learned to climb the sarisa tree, I’d pick as many of these sweet treats as possible on my way up. I would then perch on our corrugated metal roof and admire the view as I popped the pearl-sized fruit into my mouth, one by one. They were tiny bursts of sweetness, with a faint, fruity aroma in the background. I didn’t quite enjoy the mealy texture caused by the hundreds of miniscule seeds inside, however. The only reason I ate so many of them despite this, I think, was boredom.

Whenever Mama saw me climbing the tree, she’d yell at me from the big screen window of the kitchen: “Mahulog ka, ha?

I was always tempted to yell back, “Oo, Ma, mahulog ako!” In jest, of course. But I knew that Mama had a tendency towards anxiety. She had already lost my older brother to heart disease and then had almost lost Kim to hydrocephalus, so she practically panicked every time I did something remotely risky. And during these bouts of worry, we weren’t allowed to play outside. So I simply shouted, “Hindi lagi.

Looking back, my parents probably saw me as the risk-taker. The impulsive, adventurous child who would do things on a whim. But compared to other kids, I was actually very careful. When I was climbing the tree, for instance, I knew exactly which branches were the most stable. I’d place a foot carefully on the low end of the branch, the thickest part closest to the tree, and apply a bit of pressure on it. If it didn’t wobble, I’d put my weight on it and look for another foothold. If a branch seemed even a little bit unstable, I’d look for another one.

Weeks passed. I never did fall from the tree, and I figured that was good enough. Even if Mama was constantly peering at me, worriedly, from the kitchen window. But one day, Papa came home from one of his long trips to see me sitting on the roof, contentedly chomping on sarisa. When I woke up the next morning, the lowermost branches of the tree had been sawed off.

It felt like betrayal. For once in a long time, I protested.

Bakit niyo pinutol ang puno, Pa?” I wasn’t being rude. We were just never taught to use po, opo, ate or kuya, nor did we ever do mano po, unless we were talking to other people.

Baka kasi mahulog ka.”

Nag-iingat naman ako!”

Eh, paano kung mahulog ka?”

Hindi lagi ako mahulog!”

Eh, you should act your age,” he said.

This made me angry and, at the same time, confused. How, exactly, was an eight-year-old supposed to act, after all? My classmates often told me that they climbed far taller trees than I did. They swam in rivers and rolled around in grass, mud, and who-knows-what during the summers.

Nevertheless, I decided to drop it. I knew that no amount of protest could make the tree’s branches grow back again. When Papa left again, I attempted to climb it, but, not having a foothold, I scraped my knee on the rough bark and decided that it was too risky.

I have not climbed a tree since then.

 

It was because I wasn’t allowed to climb trees anymore that I took to visiting some of our neighbors during my free time. A lot of the time, it was the Bartolomes, who lived just in front of the old Bautista couple’s sari-sari store, where we’d ask to lista Hot and Spicy Tuna or Pancit Canton when we ran out of food. I think that was how we first met them. I don’t quite remember. Anyway, the Bartolomes were a big family, almost all of them girls, some of whom I can only barely tell apart even to this day.

Ate Joy was the youngest, which, I thought, was pretty amazing because she was so old. She already went to the National High School and knew practically everything an eight-year-old wanted to know.

She said sarisa in English was cherry. I told her that cherries in cans and on top of black forest cakes neither looked nor tasted like sarisa. See, they didn’t have the tiny seeds that made them feel mushy in my mouth. She replied that it probably had something to do with the canning process. Maybe boiling the cherries dissolved all the seeds. She also said that if you wanted to eat a fresh cherry, you had to pluck a sarisa off a tree and put it in your mouth without washing it.

She told me about how the kids who went to the Private All-Girls High School were all maarte. And since Mama had mentioned that that was probably where I was going after grade school, she cautioned me not to be like them.

Later, when she found out that I didn’t know about sex, she said that if you did it with a man, his sperm would live in your body forever and you could get pregnant multiple times. I think she genuinely believed that, maybe, her mama and her papa had sex only once. And that explained why there were so many of them, even if her mama and papa fought sometimes.

I would later find that all of these were, in fact, not true. She probably did tell me stuff that were true, but I don’t remember. Things that you can laugh about, after all, are the most memorable.

But the important thing was that she taught me how to make paper dolls.

 

I used to buy paper dolls from the store across the street from school. I wasn’t actually allowed to cross that street, but it was the only way I could get dolls, yoyos and Ghost Fighter cards. Mama used to tell me stories about kids who got run over by cars in that very street.

Mas maliit ang gasto ng driver kung mamatay ka kaysa kung ma-hospital ka,” she said. “Kaya minsan tinutuluyan na lang nila.”

So I was cautious. I looked left, right, and left again, just like the koala with the ranger hat said in that book about safety. I never got hit and I never told Mama, lest she make one of my classmates’ yayas watch over me like a hawk. In the meantime, she was watching over Kim like a hawk. The doctors had put a plastic tube in Kim’s head, which drained fluid from her brain to her stomach. Sometimes, though, it needed a bit of help to move along, so Mama had to press at a small soft spot on her head just above a little pump. With Mama anxiously watching her for even the first sign of seizures, I often managed to slip out and get whatever toys I wanted.

Even though the paper dolls I often bought were pretty, I didn’t play with them a lot. I’d dress them up in my favorite outfit, and then get tired of them because their clothing always came loose, being helped up only with flimsy little paper straps. Those folds of those paper straps would also get worn down and torn out the more my dolls changed clothing.

On the hot afternoon that Ate Joy taught me to make dolls, she also showed me a neat little trick that solved this problem by making backs for the dresses. She’d fold the paper in half, drawing the shoulder part of the dress right at the crease. She would then cut the dress out, making sure to leave enough room at the top so that the dress would just hang on the doll’s shoulders. As you might imagine, the doll’s head wouldn’t quite fit through the small neck hole at the top. So she’d cut a slit at the back so the dolls’ head entered the dress sideways through the slit, and then she could flip the head ninety degrees, easing it into the neck hole.

This made sure that my sisters and I could now make paper dolls for our bahay-bahayan games without worrying that they’d get disrobed in the middle of a party.

My two main dolls were redhead twins Caroline and Carolyn. A couple of years earlier, my best friend Aika had introduced me to the Sweet Valley Kids Super Snoopers book series. I was hooked. Now I got a book for birthdays and holidays, or every time my parents brought us to the local bookshop. Sha and I had realized that they were much more generous in bookshops than in toy stores. Now, I had an entire row on the shelf full of Sweet Valley Kids above Sha’s Goosebumps collection. It was because of these books that I was now obsessed with twins.

I made regular clothes, just like the ones we wore. But I also copied clothes off the New Book of Knowledge on fashion costumes through history. And so our dolls had an entire range of clothes, from medieval Maid Marian costume to rococo ones with puffed skirts to elegant flapper chic.

To me, they unlocked a whole world of play. Had I gotten a Barbie, I would have needed to buy more and more of those separately sold dresses every time I wanted her to play a different role. After all, there was Princess Barbie and Fairy Barbie. Indian Barbie and Filipino Barbie. Doctor Barbie and Flight Stewardess Barbie. With paper, I could make as many dolls and clothes as I wanted.

 

I still visited the doll section of South Seas well until I was in high school. To my parents’ relief, however, I never asked for a Barbie again. I was there for research.

Later, I took to making new doll clothes from the back pages of Papa’s old reports. I had learned from an episode of Captain Planet that people cut down trees, just like the one in my backyard, to make paper. Do your part to save the planet, they said, and write on both sides of the paper.

It pained me to think that, somewhere in the world, forests were being cut by the hundreds so I could have books and writing pads and paper dolls. I remembered the sarisa tree in our backyard, now bare of all the branches within my reach. It would be a shame, I thought, if other children like me would not have trees to climb. Besides, it was the responsible thing to do.

 

I remembered all this a decade later, when an Aunt tagged my parents in a Facebook meme. Kids these days, it said, did not know how to have fun. They were always indoors, practically motionless with new technology. They didn’t know how to transform sticks and strings and empty cans into toys. They didn’t know how to swim in rivers and climb trees.

Oo,” they agreed. “They don’t know what it’s like anymore.”

Of course, this perplexed me.

But that’s how you raised us, I protested, internally. I climbed a tree. And then, it was cut down. Because you feared that I would fall.

The child in me was like that tree, growing wild and unpredictable in the fertile soil of our home. But also wild and unpredictable were the unruly out-of-school children of the squatters living outside the gates of my grandparents’ home. Wild and unpredictable was the boy who went missing near the ilog, the one whose lifeless body was found days later downstream.

Anong klaseng mga magulang ‘yun,” I heard Mama tut-tut when she saw the news on TV. “Pinabayaan lang ang anak nila.

After all, she and Papa were careful to make sure their children didn’t meet such a fate. The world was such a capricious, dangerous place that simply keeping four unruly children alive required effort that strained their time, money, and, possibly, their sanity. That they knew very well because of the brother that I never knew, lost by no fault of their own.

Because of that, we were trimmed and refined, sometimes beyond recognition. We were taught that our negative emotions were to be suppressed, until they were locked within the pages of our childhood diaries. We were taught to avoid risk, no matter how small.

We were made from trees into paper. Because paper was predictable. It was practical. It was useful. It was kept indoors, away from the unforgiving elements. It was also assuring, the product of centuries of discovery, of experimentation, of technology.

So are we the product of the hopes—and of the fears—of all the generations before us. Maybe one day we’ll feel safe enough to teach the next generation how to become trees again.

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

Papa,

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.

A Portrait of a Young Man as a Banak

By Jade Mark Capiñanes (Essay)

 

From time to time, almost to the point of rarity, a school of peculiar banak visited Panacan, the place where I grew up. They were a spectacle: if they had visited more often, the place would have been a tourist spot. Unlike the common one-footers that could be caught using lanit, they were roughly two feet long and swam in a group of around twenty to thirty. Nobody knew when they would visit, and when they did the place would immediately come to life: the children, barely catching a glimpse of them, would run over the wooden bridges that connected, like a web, our little coastal community; the fishermen would hastily equip themselves with harpoons, although nobody, as far as I can remember, would catch a single one of those elusive banak. Nobody was ever prepared for their swift, unannounced appearance.

Our community was a small purok in Panacan, a barangay in Davao City, but to this day I still wonder whether the purok was named Jasa or Jacona. When somebody asked me where I lived, I found it difficult to answer. Perhaps it is one of the usual difficulties you encounter when you live in an informal settlement, in which you develop a rather unusual sense of home. “Sa Trese,” or at Trese, was the most convenient reply, but it was not that specific. So most of the time I would say, “Atbang lang sa Macondray,” or just in front of Macondray.

***

Over the phone Mama told me she would meet me at 7-Eleven, in front of the flyover at Agdao, Davao City. I had just arrived after a three-hour ride from General Santos City. Standing in front of Ecoland terminal, I told her I did not exactly know where our meeting place was.

Naunsa. Taga-Davao ka unya wala katuod?” she said. She meant I should know where our meeting place was because I’d been born and raised in Davao.

“Ma, dili baya ko diri nagkabuot,” I said, clarifying that I had not matured in Davao.

Pangutana dira. Tigulang na baya ka.” She said I should know how to ask people for directions because I was old enough already.

I crossed the street and went to the jeepney stop. When the jeepney came I hurriedly got in and sat in the front seat. Pretending that it was my first time in Davao and stretching the act a bit, I handed the driver a twenty-peso bill and said, “Kuya, saan po ba banda ang Agdao? Doon lang po ako sa may flyover bababa.”

The driver looked at me for a second. Patay, I thought, basig mahalata na Bisaya kog dagway. I was afraid the driver had noticed that I looked and sounded Bisaya. He did not say anything. He just handed me my change.

It took only a few minutes for the jeepney to be full. The time was 6:30 PM, and Davao was filled with urban lights. In a single glance, Davao was a mixture of colors: it was a sky full of fireworks, notwithstanding the irony of the metaphor. Behind the red, blue, orange, and yellow sparks and specks, however, the black mantle remained: the night sky, the dark alleys. But like little moths, we were drawn to the light. So we went on amid and through the traffic that was already building up. While jeepneys move slowly, I thought, Davao changes very fast. I looked outside the window and an unlit building caught my attention. It was not there the last time I had visited Davao, or at least I just had not noticed it.

The jeepney stopped near a flyover. “Dito na,” the driver said.

“Thank you po,” I said. Apparently my plan worked.

I searched for the 7-Eleven Mama talked about and saw it on the opposite side of the road. Across the road and under the flyover, I walked, carrying a bag that contained five sets of clothes, just enough for my five-day stay in Davao. I entered 7-Eleven, found myself a seat, and looked for Mama. She was not there.

“Ma,” I called her. “Naa na ko diri.” I said I was already in our meeting place.

Paspasa ba? Padulong na ko.” Mama wondered why I had gotten there so fast and said she was on her way.

Asa na diay ka, Ma?” I asked her where she was exactly.

Duol na lagi ko.” She said she was almost there.

And Mama arrived after about thirty minutes, which made me think about her sense of time and distance. She looked significantly older and more haggard than the last time I saw her. I was quite sure I was not getting any taller, but Mama seemed like she was getting shorter all the time. Just when I was about to say it to her, she said something first, as if surprised: “Naunsa diay ka? Bunguton na man lagi kaayo ka?” She asked why I had grown a thick beard.

“Ma, tigulang na baya ko,” I said, meaning I was old enough already.

***

Several years ago I went to Sulit, Polomolok, South Cotabato, to spend my summer vacation at my grandparents’. It was supposed to be just a visit, but after some time I decided to stay there for good.

Sulit was totally different from Panacan. While Panacan had the sea, Sulit had the earth. While in Panacan I kept fish in an aquarium, in Sulit I kept fireflies in a jar. While in Panacan we shared the same wall with a neighbor, in Sulit we shared the same empty space within which we could exchange echoes with a neighbor. I may be exaggerating in the last one, but you get the point. Curiously, though, when it came to gossip, an empty space seemed to be more efficient a medium than a shared wall. In a week the people there already knew about me—and some pretty accurate details about my family.

Staying in Polomolok, of course, meant leaving Davao, where I had spent the first thirteen years of my life. It meant that I would possibly have to spend the rest of my life there too. Whether it was overfamiliarity of the known, or the desire for the yet unknown, or just plain teenage hormones triggered by a pretty girl named Angelyn that pushed me to come up with the decision, I am still quite uncertain. I am certain, however, that it was my first major decision in life.

Years later, after finishing the third and fourth year of my high school there, I moved to the nearest city, General Santos, to pursue a college degree. It is where I live now. General Santos, I think, is Davao and Polomolok combined.

***

Mama said we should celebrate because it was the first day of Kadayawan. She suggested that we drink at Matina Town Square, but I told her that I did not feel like drinking. Besides, I was still dizzy from the three-hour travel and was already starving that time. A simple family bonding would suffice, I told her, like a chat over pizza or something. (When was the last time we bonded as a family? I could not remember.) We went to Roxas to meet Justine, my younger brother, who now worked in the call center during the night and went to school during the day. He, too, looked smaller than the last time I saw him, perhaps because of lack of sleep. After that we went straight to Gaisano, or as they elegantly put it, “G-Mall.”

We ate in a burger house. Waiting for our order, which seemed like forever, Mama and Justine took some selfies. Later on they invited me for some group pictures. Looking at the photos we had taken, Mama again pointed out my beard. I needed to shave, she said. I needed to eat, I said. I might have seemed distant in all of those photographs, but I was there, with them, my seizing the moment being not necessarily said by my frowns the camera captured.

When our order was finally served, I ate immediately. Before having their share of the gigantic burger, Mama and Justine—again—took some selfies. While eating, we talked about how we were doing, how our studies were, things like that.

Papa texted, asking me where I was. I replied I was having dinner with Justine and Mama. He said okay. I called the waiter and had a take-out order for Papa. Justine had to go first because he already had to work. Mama and I stayed and talked for a while before finally leaving.

Uli na ko, Ma,” I said as we went out of the mall, meaning I had to go home.

Dili ka muhapit kadali sa akong ginatrabahuan?” She asked me if I wanted to go to where she worked.

***

After three years in the Accountancy program, a failing mark in a major subject, and several bouts with boredom and restlessness, I decided to shift. It was my second major decision in life.

In my Philippine Literature class, which I took up in my first year in my current course, our professor once assigned us to research on the origin of the name of the place where we grew up. That time I had no recollections whatsoever of stories about Panacan. I tried to remember the times the old folks had narrated tales of yore to us children during those long, cozy afternoons, but what I could only retrieve was the story of how Barangay Tibungco got its name (Tibungco, they said, came from the word trabungko, a mutya or a jewel taken from the head of a mythical giant snake that once roamed the place). Unfortunately, I had not grown up in Tibungco, a few kilometers away from Panacan, although I have fond memories there (I had studied in F. Bustamante National High School, a school at Tibungco, for two years: first and second year high school).

But of course the information was just on the tips of my fingers. I found the etymology of Panacan in a site in the Internet. The site says that Panacan can be traced back to the Cebuano word banakan, an affixed form of the word banak (a kind of saltwater fish; “grey mullet” in English). Therefore, Panacan roughly means “a place teeming with grey mullets.” A very long time ago, the site adds, Panacan was famous for its grey mullets; due to their abundance, fishermen from all around the area could easily catch a lot of them. But due to unmitigated fishing, perhaps, their population significantly decreased in number, and through time they became fewer and fewer.

The story almost appears to be a myth, but myths have a certain nugget of truth in them. It can be summarized thus:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there were many banak swimming in the sea and those many banak that were swimming in the sea left the place named Panacan…

Panacan was their home. But after many years they became just visitors.

***

Diri ko nagatrabaho, nak,” Mama said as she pressed the doorbell of a two-storied house. She said it was where she worked.

A boy opened the gate. The son of her boss, Mama said.

“Hello,” the boy said. “You’re tall.”

“He’s my son,” Mama said to the boy.

As we entered their front door, we came across a foreigner, perhaps around forty to fifty years old. Mama introduced me to him. The boss, she said.

“So you’re Annabelle’s son?” the foreigner said. “Are you the one with the allergies?”

That moment I knew whom the foreigner meant. Justine has skin allergies. Ever since he was a child, it has been his problem. Mama, I thought, is still the same. She shares too much information. That moment, too, I was afraid she had divulged to her boss some embarrassing facts about me.

“No, no,” Mama said, “he’s my eldest son.”

The foreigner shook my hand.

After that encounter I sat in their living room, which was bigger than our whole house. I looked at their wooden ceiling, which was very high. From it I could hear footsteps. Going down the stairs, a woman stared at me. She turned out to be the foreigner’s wife, a Filipina. I also met their other kids, who were all chubby. I tried to be nice. I glued a smile on my face.

***

The built-in thesaurus of my computer lists the following words as the synonyms of home: house, residence, abode, habitation, domicile, dwelling, etc. But some nuances of words, and language in general, cannot be fully captured by a thesaurus or a dictionary. Assassinate and butcher, for instance, are synonymous, but while you can butcher and assassinate people (which is not to say you should), you can only butcher, but not assassinate, a goat (unless it’s a prominent goat, which is still highly unlikely). As terribly clichéd as it may be, a house is not necessarily a home.

I once asked Papa if he thought about buying our own house. He did, he said, but his income as a glass installer was just enough for our daily expenses. A house for now was a luxury, he tried to tell me. “Kamo na siguro bahala ni Justine,” he said, meaning it was up to Justine and me.

Unya asa man ka mupuyo, Pa?” I asked him where he would live.

Depende. Mahibaw-an ra na.” It depends, he said. We would just know it soon.

Dili na diay ka gusto mupuyo kauban ni Mama?” I asked him if he still wanted to live with Mama.

***

As of this writing, Mama still works as a housemaid in that two-storied house. Before I left there, however, she told me about quitting her job and finding a new one. “Kapoy kaayo, nak,” she said, meaning she was tired of her work. “Ako ra juy katabang diri, all-around pa jud. Luto, silhig, laba. Kapoy kaayo saka-kanaog ug manglimpyo sa ilahang balay.” She was the only maid, and she did everything from cooking, cleaning, to doing the laundry. She was so tired of cleaning their up-and-down house.

Isa na lang bitaw ka tuig, Ma, mu-graduate na mi ni Justine,” I said, consoling Mama that a year from now Justine and I would graduate from college. “Makapahuway na ka puhon.” She would take the rest she deserved very soon.

It was not totally different from Mama’s former job. For two years she had worked as a domestic helper in Kuwait. When she came back she had nothing to do, nowhere to go. Since she had no stable income, her savings ran out, and her few pieces of jewelry were pawned.

Mama and I once had a misunderstanding when I found out she lost her money and necklace in tongits, a game she had promised not to play again. Papa said that her gambling, which I think was on the verge of being pathological, was the reason why he decided to settle for good with his new partner. He could not even remember the last time Mama cooked for him, he said.

But, as Mama would say, Papa’s infidelity was the reason why she gambled.

Mama had to look for another job, which brought her there.

Kamo na lang jud ni Justine akong pag-asa, nak,” she said, meaning Justine and I were her only hope. “Dili na ko muasa pa sa imong amahan. Lipay na siya didto ni Fe.” She had stopped expecting anything from Papa, because she believed that he was already happy with Fe.

Ingnan bitaw mangita na lang kag kano, Ma,” I told her in jest, teasing her to look for a foreigner. “Tan-awa imong amo. Nakakitag kano, kwartahan na kaayo.” Look at your boss, I said. Married a foreigner, now rich.

Mama just laughed. She accompanied me to find a ride home. Before saying goodbye, we went back to 7-Eleven. Mama bought some chocolates for James, my youngest brother.

***

Papa now lives in a house at Dose, particularly Sto. Rosario, just a kilometer away from our old place. Here are some facts: one, the house is rented; two, I refuse to call it an apartment, for it is far away from the connotations of luxury the word apartment has; three, it is plagued by small ants that bite into clothes, leaving tiny holes on them; and four, it is where Papa’s live-in partner also lives.

It is not the first house they have moved in since the demolition of our house in Panacan. The first one was in PDRHAI Village, which was also rented. But while it had no ants that ate clothes little by little, it had no clean source of water, either. (Maslow said that water, a physiological need, must be answered first before clothes, a source of comfort. He was right.)

Sometimes Justine stays at Papa’s, especially on weekends. On weekdays he stays in a boarding house, near USEP-Obrero. He spends a lot of his time in his studies and his part-time job. Until now I still wonder how he manages to do both at the same time. Perhaps he is more responsible than me. James, on the other hand, likes to stay in my aunt’s at Panacan, because there he can play with our cousins. But whenever I go to Davao, James goes home.

***

On the way to Papa’s, I was engulfed with apprehension. Several years ago when I had gone there, I was surprised to see a woman cooking in the kitchen. The woman, as I had discovered later, was Papa’s live-in partner. Papa had kept it from me—and until now he has never talked about it with me. I could not do anything about it but to accept it. Last time I had visited Davao, the woman, Mama had said, was months pregnant. I had believed it, too, for I could see her enlarged belly. It had been months since then. During the time I was away, I had never really asked anyone about it. I had not confronted Papa about it too, and something in me had waited for him to be the first one to open up. But Papa was Papa. Whether or not the woman had already given birth, I did not know.

Now was the moment of truth. I knocked on the door and Papa opened it for me. He looked at me for a while and said I looked like a hermit because of my beard. I said nothing in response and handed him the burger I had taken out for him. James, who had gone home and waited for me, was already asleep on the foam on the floor. The woman was beside him, her body covered in blanket. I was looking for someone else. I was looking for her child.

But I did not find one.

I went straight to the bedroom and changed my clothes. Taking a deep breath, I flung myself into bed. I could not sleep. Later I went out and watched the late night news. Papa was eating the burger I had bought for him. Except for the news anchor in the television, nobody was talking. Papa broke the silence when he asked me about my studies.

I said all was fine.

Now and again I looked at the woman. Later on the blanket slid off her body and I saw her tummy, still enlarged. If she was pregnant for months the last time I went here, I thought, how could she still be pregnant? Puzzled, I turned off the television and went to the bedroom. “Pa,” I said, “matulog na ko.” I told Papa I was going to sleep.

I fished out my phone from my pocket. Lying in bed, I texted Mama: “Abi nako buntis si Fe, Ma?” I thought Fe was pregnant, I texted Mama. Moments later I fell asleep.

The following morning, upon waking up, I saw James sleeping beside me, holding my phone. Perhaps, I thought, he played games. I kissed his cheek and slowly pulled out my phone from his grip.

I read the text messages, one of which was from Mama: “Naa man diay siyay myoma, nak.” Mama texted that Fe had myoma.

I lay in bed for a while, eyes focused on the nonfunctioning fluorescent light on the ceiling. Afterwards I heard a knock on the door. I knew what it meant. Going out of the room, I saw the woman preparing our breakfast. Papa was already at the table, taking a sip of lawuy, a vegetable dish, his favorite meal.

Kaon na, Gong,” the woman said, inviting me to eat. She called me by my nickname.

I did not say a word. I found myself a seat, trying not to look at her.

***

James Joyce calls it a “voluntary exile,” an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Joyce lived an itinerant life, but all of his literary works, it can be said, hark back to Dublin, Ireland, his birthplace. “If [Dublin] one day suddenly disappeared from the earth,” he says, “it could be reconstructed out of my book.” The book Joyce is referring to is his novel Ulysses, whose characters and events parallel those of the epic Odyssey, and those of the life of Joyce himself. Like Ulysses, Joyce was in his own physical and spiritual odyssey, and he remembered the shores of Dublin, his Ithaca, wherever he was.

The final part of Ulysses is titled “The Nostos,” a reference to the Greek literary theme of nostos, which means “returning home,” or in the case of the Odyssey, “returning home by sea.” The Greek word is also one of the origins of the word nostalgia. Home, perhaps, is just a reconstruction of the past, which encompasses all our staying and going, our arrivals and departures. It is created by piecing together bits of hazy images, faint scents, bland tastes, indistinct voices, and clouded emotions, which altogether constitute what we call memory. It is never fixed or certain: like water, it slips out of our hands the moment we think we have grasped it. Like the sea, it changes its form, has its own tides, and has its own waves. What we visualize when we think about home, perhaps, is just the sea in its quietude.

I am writing this in my room, in a boarding house near the university in General Santos City where I study, two weeks after my visit in Davao. I have been alone here since my two roommates left a couple of months ago: one graduated, and the other one had to find another work someplace else. The room contains two double-decked beds. I sleep in one bed, leaving the other one empty. Living alone, having a bigger space for oneself, is tricky. Most of the time it just means a lot of empty spaces to fill in.

***

The place of my childhood faced a part of Davao Gulf whose blue waters stretched towards the shores of Samal. Our old house, like everybody else’s, stood proudly above the waters, supported by wooden stilts that raised it considerably higher than the sea level during high tides. One time, however, the seawater was so high it reached our tabla floor; fortunately, it did not cause too much damage. Several years ago it was demolished, alongside some of our neighbors’ houses and some of the wooden bridges.

But a little part of the place still remained.

For the last day of my visit in Davao, I decided to see that place. In my visit I would feel that even though the majority of it had been turned into a seaport, it was still the same. There I would see some of my childhood friends and would be reminded of the things we used to do: how Ada, Alicon, and I once went boating and had the boat sink; how we were once chased by police officers when we joined a gang war of luthang and pellet guns; how we went caroling with friends, most of whom were Muslims, in Decembers; how they would invite me, a Christian, to partake in the food they prepared during the feast after Ramadan; and so on. There I would look at the sea and fancy that those peculiar banak were also on their own odyssey, still uncaptured, constantly looking for their home, but found it important to visit the place from time to time.

I got in the jeepney and sat in the front seat. I handed the driver a twenty-peso bill. “Asa ni?” he said, asking where he should drop me off.

Sa Trese,” I said. “Atbang lang sa Macondray.” At Trese, I said, in front of Macondray.

And I knew where it exactly was.

Other Disclosures

By Noel Pingoy (Essay)

 

Cairns at a Temple

I found a quiet spot at a secluded area at the Heungryunsa Temple away from the babble of fellow tourists and discovered four large stacks of stones. I added a stone to each of them and muttered a silent prayer for the deliverance of my patients from the clutches of cancer and other illnesses, and another for the well-being, joy, and serenity of the people in my life who truly matter—my family and friends.

And I considered myself a man several times blessed for having been given the chance to add something that might be inconsequential in the vastness of the space and time around me but big enough to form a cairn by which my stifled voice and modest share are weighed, along with countless others, to create something big that embodies our deepest yearnings and greatest dreams.

I think this is how humanity survives. One stone at a time.

 

Building Walls

Much of Donald Trump’s rhetorics are beyond comprehension maybe because I don’t understand US politics at all. Or simply anything political. But I’m amused at his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border at the expense of Peña Nieto’s government. To keep the illegals out, he says.

Recently I have also seen friends building walls around themselves in order to keep away the unwanted ones. Some changed numbers, while others blocked or unfriended a few. The best friend has difficulty connecting with his better half because of the many pressing matters to attend to at present. Another friend broke up with a partner because they are better off without each other, believing that they have done horrible things to each other over a relationship that spanned six years. In his woundedness, he thought keeping a safe distance would be a great relief. Still another is navigating uncertain waters even when he knows this has brought him troubles before.

I have seen this same scenario among cancer patients especially after the disclosure of the diagnosis. In their anger, disbelief, dread, or even denial, people put up barricades to shield themselves or their loved ones from the spectre of pain and death that are often associated with the illness.

Nanay taught me differently. When I was doing what is probably the most heartbreaking and difficult disclosure, her eyes never left mine and her palms held firmly mine. “I am blessed so much with this life I am willing to take on what is set for me. I can’t ask for more,” she quietly declared. Despite the knowledge that pancreatic cancer is among the most aggressive, she remained composed and comforting. She was never one to build walls all her life. In my dreams, she would often say, “Before you keep people out, before you set your perimeter, remember to take stock of what you are keeping inside and what you will leave outside of your wall.”

Some believe that a fortified wall is a manifestation of strength. But sometimes our imaginary walls serve like smokescreen for our inherent weaknesses. When I think about my weaknesses, I sometimes see them as anything that flows out of my mind or heart that prevents me from appreciating and accepting things as they are, from seeing the complete picture.

Then in the heat of the moment, in blinding rage or perceived injustice or imagined hurt, people succumb to their frailty, break things that could hardly be mended anymore, often forgetting how precious they are. The irreplaceable are gone.

There are many things that could be broken: eggs, memories, commitments, heirlooms. Even hearts. Which is maybe one of the common things people break. Which is maybe hugot lines have become popular these days.

I’m reminded of a parable by Jose Carlos Bermejo in Regalame la Salud de un Cuento. It’s about a young man who bragged that his heart was the most beautiful in the whole region because it was perfect and did not have a single scratch. A girl told him that she had seen a more beautiful heart—a heart belonging to an old man. They went to the old man, and the heart turned out to be full of scars and had missing pieces.

The old man said that the scars and holes represented the persons he had given his love to. He tore pieces of his heart and gave them to the persons he loved. Many did the same thing to him, and some didn’t, but he continued to love the ones who had caused the holes in his heart because they might someday return and fill the emptiness.

In tears, the young man took a piece of his heart and gave it to the old man, who did the same to him. Now the young man’s heart was no longer perfect, but he found it more beautiful than before.

By laws of simple arithmetic, it would seem that when someone gives himself away to love another, he ends up with less of himself than what he has begun with. But I consider it grace that the opposite is true. Like breast milk. The more it is suckled, the more of it is made. To give herself away in commitment to another human being—like a mother to her child or my Nanay to me—is to break down a wall, to become fully alive. And with living not just for oneself, a person becomes, little by little, slowly and tenderly, human in spite of himself, becoming whole, becoming both loving and lovely.

The last time I saw my newsfeed, the best friend has already “liked” an Instagram post of the girlfriend. The couple on the brink of separation seemed to have gotten back together. And the other friend kept himself alone last night, maybe to think things over.

I have come to realize that even the best and brightest among us could make mistakes. People fall prey to countless emo-tions, exaggerations, and excesses. But we must be brave enough to confront them, to accept with honesty that it is not the frailty of being human that maims us but rather our notion that a strong wall between individuals “could make us great again.”

What matters in the end is our humility with which we know ourselves, accept ourselves, and share ourselves—blemishes, warts, and all.

 

To the Kids in the Family

Your late great-grandparents Adoy and Dicang raised their brood of nine in rural Iloilo under the most trying times. Your great-grandfather was a simple farmer who instilled discipline—some say with an iron hand—and integrity among the seven boys and two girls that came one after the other. Among the most lasting stories in the Adoy lore are his unbeaten streak as the dumog (wrestling) champ in all of Panay and his mastery of the baston (cane) that hadn’t spared even your grandfathers while they were growing up.

But the heart of the family had always been your Lola Dicang, a simple, unassuming woman who taught her family the true meaning of love and respect. She was a perfect foil to the stern and sometimes gruff Adoy, was well liked by everyone but feared by those who threatened to disrupt the peace within her family. She always spoke in a soft, almost-hushed voice that soothed and reassured. Shouting was only for hornbills, not for self-respecting people, she would tell her family. Even in moments of unguarded delight, she still maintained composure and respectability. She led a kapilya (chapel) in the neighborhood and ministered to the members of their small community as a Bible woman while keeping herself preoccupied with raising her nine children. No matter how simple her payag (hut) was, its door was always open to those who needed food or shelter for a night or even a simple banter in a lazy afternoon. That she was blessed with many children was a measure of how richly committed her life was. Having been able to send all her offspring to college is a testament to the greatness of the woman.

She never thrived on gossip and never thought ill of other people, even strangers. She had a ready rebuke to women who dishonor their families by meddling in the lives of others, much more concocting stories about them. She showed her siblings by example how to respect people and themselves. Lola Iya, Lola Dicang’s only sister, was a very soft-spoken and kindly woman who loved feeding us the most succulent chico from her backyard in Calinan. Even Lolo Adoy’s sisters were admirable in their simplicity and gentleness. Lola Soling was content selling tobacco in her papag (stall) in the public market, while Lola Kalaw was an unpretentious homemaker who loved to cook. They never even finished high school, but they led honorable lives in the service of their families and in the sight of God. Disdainful of arrogance and conceit of women who believed that the world was at their feet and that material possessions were essential elements to a happy life, they nurtured their families with genuine love, unfailing loyalty, and boundless devotion. They were selfless with their children as they were faithful to their respective husbands. I am sure that given the chance, you could have learned a great deal about a steadfast life with integrity from these remarkable women.

Having finished high school, which was rare for women in those times, Lola Dicang took pride in teaching others how to read and write. She was never prouder than when a son or a daughter finished a degree. But she was also quick to remind us not to be boastful of achievements and accolades; modesty is a virtue that must be pursued, she once said. “Indi maayo ang bugalon.” And I vividly remember her telling us often about not pursuing success as defined by the world but one that is embodied in her beloved passages, Philippians 3: 12–21.

Your Lola Dicang was a voracious reader. She would often take notes of interesting quotes and inspiring passages from magazines and books, and pass them to family and friends. Lolo Gert, having been the old woman’s darling (as the youngest), received the most letters. Fortunately, he had the foresight to keep the letters that his Nanay had been sending him so that photocopies of these letters were shared with the grandchildren for us to learn from them as well.

The existence of these letters resurfaced when my generation decided to formulate a “code of ethics” by which we hope to live by. For several months, the cousins have been meeting at least once a month to set up a family council that shall guide every member’s pursuit of happiness in the context of belonging to a family and of respecting individuality. Tito Bobot first thought of it after realizing how much we love to meet (sometimes daily) to talk and to eat. He asked why not put these meetings to a good use. It resonated eloquently with the rest of the cousins, and some semblance of organized solidarity has since been in place.

And such initiative came at no better time when the tigulang (elders) were worried about what lies ahead for the family when all of them are already gone. Only your Lolo Saul and Lolo Raul have survived to connect you to the past. Would you still remain united as mga apo sa tuhod ni Adoy kag Dicang (great-grandchildren of Adoy and Dicang), or would you go your separate ways? They also fear about some members being left behind.

Several years back, few uncles and aunts met to discuss the “rules.”

The code runs like this:

Code of Ethics

  1. I commit to a life of excellence, where I support the highest good of people, including myself.
  2. I pursue happiness through relationships that are based on goodwill and respect, through responsibilities in which my contribution is essential and for which I am accountable.
  3. I honor the lives of those who went before me by channeling their teachings as touchstones for a moral and happy life. I bless those who come after me with examples that shall be their guide in their pursuit of happiness. And I bridge my past and my future with a Presence that is greater than myself.
  4. I strive to honor my commitments.
  5. I embrace values that attach importance to relationships over resources, commitments over circumstances. And truth above anything else.
  6. I succeed by playing fair.
  7. I measure my worth with compassion, courage, and character.
  8. I am not alone. I am a member of this family.

Here’s hoping that we have not forgotten this. Waay biyaay (always watch out for one another), sa mga apo ni Adoy kag ni Dicang.

 

Going Home

Every time I go home, I am amazed at how the once quiet community where you knew almost everyone has been replaced by a bustling city with busy traffic, constricting public spaces, and peripatetic strangers.

The old-timers must be baffled at the steady growth of the old hometown, and maybe even more baffled why the next generation is more than happy to embrace the new way of life.

Where my siblings and I used to run around, catching grasshoppers and dragonflies, or where we used to play hide and seek with our pets on warm summer days and with neighbor-friends on moonlit weekend evenings, two-story and even three-story buildings now take space.

But changes notwithstanding, Marbel remains the same place in many ways that mattered to me for ages. The landscape of my beloved town might have altered over a short span of time, but I am comforted by the thought that people take some time to change.

I often discover this when I go home on weekends to be with family. Despite the six-lane highway, friends often stop, wave, and smile when they recognize you. They ask you how the parents are. They tell you how this friend has gout and yet won’t stop his daily dose of beer, or this former classmate whose blood pressure is way up the stratosphere but won’t quit smoking. They tell you how they met old teachers who haven’t aged a bit. They offer you turon kag bandi. They welcome you to their homes like a long-lost brother. They share triumphs and heartbreaks, secrets and anecdotes. Of course, the constant question about marriage and spreading of genes [smiley].

This is the sort of kasimanwa (town mates) I grew up with and got to stay connected after many years.

Summers then were quite punishing in Marbel. I remember the times when brownouts were frequent; we had to stay outdoors often, under the trees, beside a brook, or at my uncle’s farm in Barrio 8. But the start of the rainy season was a welcome relief; the heat was more tolerable, and the constant pouring in the afternoon was an invitation to run around in complete abandon. Since most roads then were unpaved, we had individual puddles in the middle of the street that became exclusive wading pools.

But I sometimes had issues with the beginning of the rainy season. The grasshoppers and dragonflies became scarce. Spiders became rare. Times spent with friends became scarcer with the onset of the rain. I often wished for bright mornings when I could see my friends again.

In my adult life, especially in a profession that exposes me constantly to death and dying, I have learned that the changing of the season is a necessary part of life. That’s how old things make way for the new. That’s how the world remains fresh and bright. Someone dear to me just died early today from pancreatic cancer that has resisted even the most advanced targeted therapy. I had a chance to take care of him for a few weeks and wondered how things as dreadful as cancer could happen even to the best and brightest among us. There he was, barely able to speak, completely under the loving care of his family, slowly wasting as cancer ravaged his mind and body. He would struggle forming words to communicate what he felt or wished. But there was no mistaking the smile of recognition (even of gratitude or of goodwill) each time I made rounds.

Minutes ago, I struggled with what is probably the hardest birthday wish I will ever get to write because the poignancy is not lost in the pain and absurdity of the turn of events. But one that needs to be spoken of nonetheless. He passed away on his wife’s birthday. And the latter is someone I knew all my life, having seen sunsets fall quietly through the acacia trees at the old Notre Dame campus from elementary through high school or quietly enjoyed late evening conversation as we were seated at nearby tables while our respective kids were enjoying burger and soda at McDonald’s. That they are both physicians—he was an ENT specialist; she, a dermatologist—was not lost in the irony of things. Some things happen beyond the realm of human understanding.

Og Mandino once wrote, “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” I cannot speak of any greater love in my generation than what both of them shared. They are private, soft-spoken, kind individuals. People who were never known to raise their voices. People who could never hurt a fly. And when I think about someone losing her reason for being brave and strong on her birthday, I can only pray that the quiet, tenacious and boundless love that they shared will be the family’s refuge in the uncertain days ahead.

The seasons have destinies of their own, much like my beloved hometown or my friend’s struggle with his disease. Or the chorus of crickets after the rain and the abundance of grasshoppers and dragonflies in summer. I can no more prevent them from transgressing what small of piece of comfort remains in the darkest hours than I can nurture them to the fullest in the greatest of days.

So I just have to rely on memories—Marbel when the creek was teeming with fish, the fields were a playground for grasshopper hunting, my friend waving a heartfelt goodbye and muttering a barely audible thank-you—to help me see through the cold grasp of pelting rain.

And in most cases, even when I know that it is never enough to assuage the burning pain in my chest, I pray.

Notes of an Expat

By Angeli Savas (Essay)

 

Home Never Leaves You

The waters of the Atlantic are freezing, but the call of the crashing waves is too impossible for a two-year-old to resist. My son, Isaac, runs towards the sea, stopping short at the shore and waiting for the forming bubbles to kiss his tiny legs. Occasionally, when the waves are too towering and look like they would swallow him, he runs back towards me, but once his fear subsides, he always hurries back towards the endless excitement that the sea provides.

There was a time when he needed me beside him as he chased after the waves, but nowadays, he rushes towards it as if reuniting with a dear old friend. If he is in any way like his mother, once he leaves home, there would be no turning back. No news for a few weeks, and the only way to find out what he is up to is by scouring for scant information from social media sites. The infrequent calls would bring tears of relief, his stories with fascination and pride. His visits will be few and far between, but like the prodigal son, would be welcomed with a fattened calf.

But wherever life takes him, he will not be far away from home, that collection of happy memories that will remind him how much he is loved. Of the hands that held him but never held him back. Because home never leaves you. You take it with you wherever you go.

 

Dreams of My Mother

She was twenty-two when my mother heard my awakening call to the world. Before she finished her college degree, she ran away with my dad on an eight-wheeler truck, a final escape from the home she had not chosen to grow up in and a final goodbye to a better life she had once dreamt about.

I was twenty-one when I packed my bags, armed with a degree that would be my passport to a greener pasture. But when I departed, I left a home that was my shelter from life’s injustices and my garden of youthful dreams.

During the first eight years of my existence, we lived in a farm in the outskirts of town. We didn’t have electricity or running water. We cooked our meals in a pot over three rocks and pieces of charcoal that took ages to light. We took our bath in an outhouse made of four poles with a big drum of water we had to fill from a pump.

But we were not poor because we had nutritious food on the table every day. On our birthdays, we had lechon and two-layered cakes with a variety of dishes courtesy of the free-range chickens and the muddy pigs in our backyard. We had everything we needed and more. We had love and security given by the people from whom we needed it most.

Mama introduced me to the magical world of books which defined my outlook in life—fairy tale endings, Jane Austen leading men, and American dreams. She made me memorize and recite poems in front of any audience which eventually became to my college auditorium. She nurtured my early talents in visual arts which led me to magazine lay-outing and photography. She even encouraged my non-existent talent in dance, music, and theater to both our disappointment which taught me early on to choose the battles I should fight.

When she eventually went back to college, Mama finished a degree in elementary education and became a teacher in the most competitive primary school in our city. She coached almost every contest there was from school to national level, and rarely would her students fail to bring home the bacon. Naturally, she brought her competitive streak home, and we were expected to be nothing short of the best.

Mama demanded a lot from us her kids, more than she did from her students. We always aspired for the gold medal, and the more we brought home, the more was expected from us. I rebelled when I started high school, when I finally left the four corners of the school where she teaches, and eagerly pursued my own “averageness.” I succeeded in that I managed to nearly fail all my subjects and lose out on the chances to join any interschool competition.

I thought I would rejoice when I saw her disappointment or snicker when I watched her beg me to sort out myself. I didn’t, but by then I had already sunk too low on my own web of intricate lies and had too little confidence left to believe I could ever resurface to regain my life.

It took a serious illness to mend our broken bond, when I began to question the purpose of my existence and found the answer in a fulfilling relationship with God. Papa became my inspiration, Mama my strength. I completely turned over a new leaf.

Surprisingly, once my parents freed me from expectations, I began to realize the best of my potentials and became my own rival. I accepted and expected nothing but the best, an attitude that brought me to highest pedestals, although occasionally it would be taken against me. My parents couldn’t have been more proud, and I couldn’t have been more fulfilled.

Before I left the security of our home to venture into the macrocosm on my own, Mama told me that when she gave birth to me, she also gave birth to a dream she lived with her every breath: the dream that her children would have the life she never had. A dream I have since vowed to live with her.

So when I left my hometown to pursue a career in Makati, I was living Mama’s dream of finding myself in a world where no one knew me and discovering that I am still the same person. When I flew forty-eight hours across the globe to accept a job opportunity in Gibraltar, I was living Mama’s dream of earning amounts of money I had never thought I could and realizing that it could not replace the comfort and warmth of the people I love. When I boarded planes, trains, and buses to places I had previously been to in my books, I was living Mama’s dream of seeing the world with more than my eyes and yet ascertaining that no, there is no place on earth more beautiful than home.

Across the seas in another continent, on a trip to the Eden Project in Cornwall, I came face-to-face with the memories of my childhood home. I remembered the reliable nipa hut that took different forms and shapes throughout the eight years we lived there. I remembered the bougainvillaea shrubs in the backyard that served as a pretty background in most of our photographs. I remembered the scampering chickens, the crowing roosters, and the restless pigs that became our playmates and friends.

But most of all, I remembered Mama’s dreams, planted in my childhood and constantly watered with care—dreams that I am now living and I am determined to let her experience when I can finally afford it.

 

While Bathing in the Sun

There are a few things I’ve been doing in my adoptive country that I have never done in my homeland, and one of them is to bathe in the glorious sun until my skin colour turns chocolate brown, just the way my British husband likes it. (I know, that sounds so sleazy!) The reason is simple. In most Asian countries, the Philippines included, sporting my now deeply tanned skin would have been akin to inviting stones be thrown at myself.

Colorism, or “prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same racial group,” is an ugly affair that has haunted me for most of my life. As a child I had been bullied and made inferior just because the colour of my skin was a few shades darker than everyone else’s. As a teenager I drowned my fear of taunts by wearing clothes that exposed as little skin as possible, staying indoors most of the time, and making friends with books instead of people. As an adult I was forced to smile when told I am a “black beauty,” even though I found the term deeply insulting. It made me feel that my sort of beauty was so second-class it needed to have its own label. But it was something I just had to live with because in my culture whatever is different can be made into a butt of jokes.

That is why I find it a travesty whenever I see or hear of fellow Filipinos raising arms against perceived racism—over an American with Filipino genes losing out on a song contest, the Daily Mail demanding stricter measures in ensuring only qualified nurses should work for the National Health Service, a BBC comedian highlighting child labour in the Philippines, or comments describing Manila as “the gates of hell” in the latest Dan Brown novel. But when prejudice happens domestically, no one bats an eyelid. In fact, celebrities are being defended over rape and gay jokes on primetime TV. And a television series was made frontlining a dark-as-soot child with flat nose and unruly hair (remember Kirara?) that was sure to make any dark-skinned child’s life hell, as it did mine.

No, I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest against any form of racism abroad, perceived or otherwise, because that is what living in democratic societies is all about. What I am against is the double standard, that we say it’s not all right for other people to be prejudiced while we are in their home turf but we can be as prejudiced about them in our own country and we are perfectly within our rights to racially discriminate our own countrymen.

So yes, you could say I had a lucky escape when I first reluctantly became an overseas Filipino worker who was eventually sucked in by the Western way of life. In Britain, for all its reported (because I have never experienced it firsthand) prejudices, it is illegal and unacceptable to make racist remarks or even an inference of it. Only in the last few years have I learned to undo years of psychological damage to my self-esteem brought about by my unlucky draw at the genetic lottery of life. Only now that I have finally embraced this outermost layer of my being and not let it define my self-worth. I became plain beautiful, not chocolate or vanilla. I was finally “normal.”

But where I came from, it is still a non-issue that holds back those few of us who are categorised this way from being able to see ourselves on the same level as everyone else. As a society, unless we admit there is injustice, we cannot start the way to equality. We cannot change what we cannot see.

 

It’s Not Always Sunny Here

We woke up late this morning with the sky covered with thick fog brought about by the humid easterly levante wind blowing across the Mediterranean.

On most weekends, we head off to explore the quaint little villages perched above the mountains of Andalusia or stroll along the beach towns dotting the Costa del Sol. These kinds of days are well-documented in our Facebook posts, eliciting countless likes but very few asking what our idyllic life is really all about.

For we do not live in paradise. Occasionally, on days like today, we plunge in despair. That feeling of being trapped in between the rock and the deep blue sea (the same views we see from our balcony). “Going nowhere, going nowhere,” like the lyrics of my all-time favourite song, “Mad World.”

Someone in our expat chat group made a controversial statement that “Andalusia is a land of broken dreams.” Not everyone agrees, of course, but it is certainly a sentiment that more than a few would share.

Most of us who were brave enough to leave the security and comfort of our lives in Britain have come here with a few dimes and a bag full of dreams. Those who were lucky enough would never go back, but there are also countless others who do not make it.

Andalusia is one of the poorest regions in Europe, with 35 percent unemployment rate. Most British expats who attempt to relocate relies on the job opportunities that Gibraltar provides. But with the open European border and strict rules on public sector jobs only for the local population, there isn’t a lot to go around. Even when you try, public sector jobs and opportunities are not alike from country to country. Despite your experience and qualifications and most probably because of your British passport, it is an uphill battle.

The lack of job prospects can dampen the spirit of even the most resilient individual to the point of disheartenment. The blue skies and bright sunshine, instead of giving us joy, reminds us that our state of permanent holiday is no longer fun but a burden. That sooner or later we have to decide whether here is still where our dreams lie or if we have actually left it buried underneath the palm tree we planted in the garden of our own little house in Hillsborough, near our beloved football ground overlooking the park where we used to feed the ducks. Where life was cosy, albeit without the cheerful skies that the Spanish coast provides.

This gives us comfort at least to know that if ever we have to go back, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. That we have a home and plenty of friends to welcome us back.

Meanwhile, by midday, the wind has changed its direction and the sky has cleared up, becoming an empty canvass. From our balcony, we can see the brightly coloured umbrellas dotting the shore as our beachfront urbanisation began filling up with holidaymakers frolicking with the glistening sea amidst the strong smell of fresh fish cooked by the heat of the sun. Tonight, once the simmering temperature cools down, we will be heading off to another feria to drink in the cultural spectacles of the Spanish life we have come here to enjoy and will then remind ourselves that we must live for the moment.

Despite the ups and downs of the expat lifestyle, we can still take pride in the knowledge that we have the courage to chase after our dreams and perhaps, when it comes to it, the strength to admit that the grass isn’t really greener on the other side.

Becoming a Hematologist

By Noel Pingoy

(This essay won the third prize in the 2002 Palanca Awards.)

What eloquent echoes in the mind can a tempest foment?  This is the second day typhoon Iliang is passing through Manila, and I am midway my three-year fellowship training in hematology at the country’s largest government hospital. There is a somber gray in the constant pouring of the rain, punctuated by paroxysms of strong wind, casting an eerie gleam on the cream-colored wall of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). Outside, the trees are a wretched sight, most of the leaves are gone; they all shudder with every blast of gale. Most of the patients are still asleep, huddled together with their bantays, while sharing the warmth and comfort of their bodies.  Except for the lonesome Ward 1 nurse on the graveyard shift, bless her lovely soul, who takes a patient’s temperature here and gives another’s medication there, the earth tethers on a tranquil, delicate thread. Gone is the desultory hubbub of strangers who, thrust for the first time into each other’s company without almost nothing in common except for the hope that their respective patients are coming home soon, alive and well, thank God, have congregated into a Babel of pilgrims in search of a miracle, transforming this particular ward into an ashram of sorts.

Forget about the hysteria and the bedlam of daily ward life at the PGH, for at this hour, this very moment, the mood is somnolent and the milieu, doleful. For time to time, a wayward thunder vaults from the shadows of the cold, wind-battered night, and lunges forward with a swift deafening bellow and a blinding flash of silver and ochre, only to be quenched seconds later as if embarrassed by its own impertinence. There is a ghostly glow and an unfamiliar hush all around; even the crickets choose not to stir, they all stoop low to the earth in their refuge from the fury of this thoughtless storm. There is something lugubrious about daybreak in a tempest—it is always a time of dreadful uncertainty, of profound introspection, of a foreboding that unnerves even the bravest and sturdiest of souls.

It is still dark—after all, it is only 3:45 am—and I have just arrived here at the Medical Research Laboratory. I have to be at the hospital before Taft Avenue swells into a knee-deep morass of murky water, of indescribable floating objects, and of who-knows-what’s-in-there, especially that this is leptospirosis season again. The vermin are in their revenge mode once more, a phenomenon that plagues Manila and its suburbs at the beginning of every wet season. In the next two months or so, at least two scores will perish from complications of this foudroyant illness, acute kidney failure primarily.

Crouched in front of the monitor, cupping my palms around a mug of warm brew, while allowing the tepid terra-cotta to pierce my skin in an invigorating sort of way, I delight in the succor it brings at a time like this. From the fragile comfort of the lab’s thick glass walls, I resign to the chilling thought that at this very moment the sun is powerless to lift the darkness’ heavy veil, and except for the adjoining Endocrinology Office that a forlorn flickering bulb can hardly illuminate, there is frighteningly only more darkness. Horripilating by just looking at my reflection on the computer monitor, framed by what seems like a vast, all-embracing lightlessness, it is as if then night finds its meandering way into my medulla oblongata until the darkness without asphyxiates the darkness within, and the mental struggle to keep afloat this illusory fen becomes agonizingly genuine. The cumbrous beating of the rain and the furious rapping of the wind engulf the building, muffling even the grunts of an overworked electric fan that aches for a long-overdue oiling. All I can hear is the thump-thumping of a heart that is midway between panic and chaos, and I am astonished to realize that it is actually my very own.

As my resolve ploddingly wavers I think of the usual mornings that are bathed in the serene radiance of an orange dawn, a subtle portent of a warm and limpid day ahead, and subsequently find myself reminded that even for doctors like me, life is unpredictable as the weather that one has to be well prepared for it—edges, frills, and all. There is something both gravely appalling and lusciously fascinating in the pitipat throbbing of a myocardium that appreciates how pain and suffering can very well provoke a litany of signs and symptoms, both real and imagined, sometimes bordering on the esoteric and ignominious. When mortality is at the crux of the matter, sometimes one forgets to elucidate the substance of pain in terms of endorphins, cytokines and prostaglandins; instead it is a slow, careful untwining of an elaborate tapestry of a singular life, into which its very fabric are woven the sights and sounds of people and places, of pleasures and the pains of the then and now.

I decided to pursue fellowship training in hematology after practicing internal medicine for a year in my hometown in Koronadal, South Cotabato. It is a small but bustling community of just over ninety thousand of the most hardworking and caring people this side of the globe. While it lacks the historical charms of the old Filipino towns or the effervescent hullabaloo of the cosmopolitan cities, its strength lies mainly on a steadily germinating economy that seduces professionals and blue-collar workers alike, from as far as Luzon and the Visayas, to exploit its promise of a better life. It also boasts of a populace that is punctiliously heedful of its social and moral responsibilities, as well as of its duty in securing peace and order as both a collateral and a remuneration for the steady progress that this hometown we affectionately call Marbel is blessed with.

The influx of professionals into town had found me staring at a vast blank wall, both literally and figuratively, as starting a career in a municipality with twelve internists before you was not a languid walk in the part, so to speak. And having been the thirteenth was not heartening, friends and kin would apprise me. For the superstitious, it was not at all encouraging, to say the least. Much to my consternation, even a certificate from one of the country’s best training institutions did not guarantee a steady flow of patients. I realized for the first time in my life how many precious man-hours were spent in putting up an issue of a newspaper; how this exact number of characters was fitted into a given square centimeter while allowing a picture or a cartoon to complement the story. And I even found myself reading the obituary page while reflecting on the gradual and frightening demise of my own practice. I was inclined to believe that this inactivity hebetated my supposedly trained clinical acumen. Duh!  I didn’t survive the torture I went through for more than ten years only to end up like this, a dignified and stethoscoped bum-in-white perhaps, but a bum just the same. I felt like an appendix, to which medical textbooks would ascribe no particular function in the body. Alas, the torment of disuse!  I was destined to become gangrenous in a manner of speaking, and so before I rupture I decided to excise myself from the system. Autohemolysis, they would say.

Given the current landscape of the medical profession in the country, with its cutthroat competition and a seemingly enshrined fixation on titles and accolades, it became clear that getting a subspecialty is a foolproof license to a secure future. After all, even in the remotest of communities, a paradigm has shifted towards patients preferring somebody with several letters after the MD than the old reliable family doctor. Gone are the days when a physician is trusted with removing a boil from an uncle’s back or with delivering the family’s newest angel while prescribing a salve for the patriarch’s arthritis. Nobody even makes house calls anymore. Nowadays we need a doctor for every symptom, and finding comfort in the knowledge that we can easily find one at most centers, at a flip of a page or with a click of a mouse, the concept of a generalist-doctor is not only anachronistic but also deemed foolish.

Yet it was this very same environment that fanned my desire to embrace a subspecialty that is among the least taken in internal medicine. Along with immunologists and rheumatologists, hematologists or “blood doctors” are so few in this country that their annual convention can be held in a function room of a hotel, unlike, say the cardiologists or the pulmonologists who can easily fill up the PICC. Hematology is also one of the least understood of the subspecialties, the last frontier for the adventurous, the ultimate dare for the challenged, or even the singular way out for the pococurante who cannot decide on where to go. While hordes of graduates of residency training programs all over the country claw their way in order to get into a slot in pulmonary medicine or in gastroenterology, few would admit to ever considering hematology as an option. To some it has the least number of patients, and they are not exactly misinformed; most hospital censuses reflect the rarity of blood diseases in this country, at least among adults. The other way to look at it, as my mentors would later point out, is that most cases remain undiagnosed, and subsequently untreated, because there are just a few specialists in the field. To the poor misguided others, it is a boring subspecialty, what with most of one’s hours spent deciphering thin smudges of blood on glass slides under the microscope, and differentiating a lymphoblast from a myeloblast, a basket cell from a true monocyte. Or why this multinucleated cell is simply an osteoclast (a bone cell) rather than a nonhematopoietic element (like a cancer cell from other diseased organs in the body that have lodged in the bone marrow). This is a subspecialty where you wish you were indeed seeing those screaming “faggots” because these immature cells with opalescent, bright orange sticks in their cytoplasm are basically what one needs to clinch a diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia, a highly curable subtype among the acute leukemias in adults.

No fluid has bewitched, bewildered, and beguiled man since the beginning of time more than blood; literature abounds with accounts of its unique power to restore life, to bring manifold suffering and death, and to unleash unbridled passions in men and women, even children, to make life-defining and history-changing acts for the better or even for the worse. Prehistoric man left many drawings in caves depicting wounded tribesmen in battles with either their fellowmen or the beasts of yore, some of them were shown bleeding to death, perhaps the earliest chronicle of man’s acceptance that loss of blood meant loss of life.

This theme is also seen in the Holy Bible as references of “to shed blood” actually meant “to kill.”  One finds in Leviticus 17:11 the admonition that “it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”  In the same chapter, in the fourteenth verse, it concludes, “The life of all flesh is the blood thereof.”  The descendants of Israel were spared of the ninth plague when the Angel of Death passed over their abodes upon recognizing the blood of lamb smeared on the door of every Jewish household. Egyptians took blood baths for their recuperative effects, while the Chinese believed that blood contained the soul (Neiching, 1000 BC). For the Romans the practice of “taurobolium” was aimed at spiritual restoration. Citizens in ancient Rome seeking rebirth descended into a pit called fossa sanguinis where above him, a priest slaughtered a bull and allowed the animal’s blood to cascade down in a shower upon the beneficiary. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Medea was asked by Jason to restore his father Aeson’s life by “taking years off his life and adding them to his father.”  Instead, Medea prepared an alembic of sheep’s blood, wolf’s entrails, magic herbs, and hoarfrost gathered by moonlight, and poured it into the old man’s mouth after she had cut his throat and let out all his blood. Aeson immediately recovered his youth, strength, and vitality.

In the fifth century, a Sicilian philosopher named Empedocles introduced the idea of the four humors corresponding to the four elements that were respected and feared by man since the beginning of time: fire, air, water, and earth. These four humors were blood from the heart and said to embody fire, yellow bile from the liver (air), black bile from the spleen (earth), and phlegm coming from the brain (water). From the principle of the humors, later thinkers were able to derive the basic human characters which everyone is familiar with nowadays. From the Latin word for blood sanguis sprung the word sanguine to describe a lively, ardent, or optimistic personality.

For Christians, the blood behooves a deeper, more spiritual understanding as it symbolizes the passion, death, and eventual triumph of Jesus Christ over evil. The word first appeared in the New Testament in Matthew 26:2 during the Last Supper. Picture this: in a scene straight from Da Vinci’s famous painting, which also happens to be a ubiquitous fixture in many a Filipino dining room, Jesus raising his cup and proclaiming, “This is the blood of my covenant, which is poured for many for the forgiveness of sins,” probably to the discomfiture of Judas Iscariot.  In many of the church rituals, especially of the Roman Catholic faith, the blood bespeaks an inner cleansing that is not unlike the ceremonies observed by the pagan cultures centuries ago. In Hebrew 9, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

Legends of werewolves and of vampires flourished during the medieval period. While these tales may have factual basis, many historians believe that these stories were encouraged by the leaders to sow fear in the hearts of their people, and for the citizenry to completely bequeath its unflagging faith on the state. The thirst for blood of these malevolent creatures of darkness was only surpassed by the insatiable greed for wealth and power of these “emissaries of light,” as Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness,” called them, people cloaked by the Church and the State with authority and with respectability, purportedly to improve the way of life of the savages and of the common man.

The nineteenth century was characterized by the weakening of the conventional Victorian ideals on behavior and conduct. Women started demanding equal rights with men, persons of all persuasions challenged sexual mores, and social freedom and responsibility became fashionable among the elite. It also saw the birth of two literary creations that have frightened readers from the time the books first saw print, and have continued to do so even until the present, spawning countless versions in every known culture on earth, in every medium possible, film, television, radio, books, magazines, stage, etc. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, by Shelley, first published in 1818, and Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 both captured the imagination of millions of readers, and brought the significance of blood, albeit in an egregious mien, on the essence of the living, of the dead, and yes, more so, of the undead.

The ancient Filipinos, especially the datus, sealed their most sacred covenants with elaborate rituals that were highlighted by the drinking of each other’s blood, an act known to students of history as blood compact. Andres Bonifacio and his Katipuneros etched their signatures in blood to solemnize their acceptance into the secret society that was aimed at toppling the Spanish regime in the islands.

The investigations of Whipple, Minot, and Castle in the 1920s signaled the birth of modern hematology. What started as an entirely laboratory endeavor that described the different blood elements in terms of shapes, sizes, colors, and other physical peculiarities and, later, their participation in the various processes in the human body, became a dynamic and all-encompassing science that seeks to shed light on the whys and wherefores of diseases, death, and decomposition. Over the last century, hematology has evolved into a subspecialty that employs all the advancements and the technological advantages of manifold disciplines like nuclear medicine, molecular biology, genetics, immunology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and pathology in its quest for answers. Right now, hematologists are at the forefront in mankind’s war against the most dreadful and formidable diseases known to man: cancer, AIDS, congenital anomalies, etc.

In this country, Filipino hematologists organized themselves in 1960, and their society counts less than a hundred fellows and diplomates in its roster as of latest count. Compare that figure with over two thousand cardiologists all over the country. This means that every hematologist is tasked to take care of the needs of over half a million Filipinos; worse, more than half of this number holds clinics in Metro Manila. Wretchedly, an area as vast as Mindanao is served by less than ten hematologists, practicing in only two cities, Davao and Cagayan de Oro.

I answered the call of hematology even though there are other summonses in several directions where the future seems certain. Maybe I decided to be a fool for adventure’s sake although poets on the other hand call it sweet inspiration, even providential perhaps. To go where only few have ventured before, to confront windmills along the way, and to attain my own redemption in the end. After much thought I knew that I can be of more use to the community by choosing a path less taken, though a bit dangerous in its uncertainty, when others would opt for the tried and the tested, and at the same time, be trusting enough of myself to know which door to open, whose hand to take, possibly what flight of fancy to indulge in, in such a way that it will make me weep that it seems utterly possible, just a heartbeat away from one’s embrace, but at the same time as unreachable as the farthest star.

Why hematology? most people would ask, often times sardonically. And the only plausible answer is:  Why not hematology?

One of my patients who will not sleep through this storm is M, a bright-eyed, intelligent, twenty-eight-year-old agriculture graduate from Nueva Ecija. Barely out of college, she has been in and out of the hospital for over two years. The truth is she has been more in than out of it. She has acute myelogenous leukemia, the type which textbooks call the aggressive form having evolved from myelodysplastic disease which initially presented with abnormal-looking cells in the blood. This secondary form of leukemia is even more difficult to treat because it is less responsive to chemotherapy than those who had de novo leukemias.

The disease was first recognized in 1845 by Craiege and Bennett, but it was a German pathologist named Rudolf Virchow who proposed the name leukemia, a Greek term for white blood. How this disease came about it still unknown, but it is a common observation that leukemia, as most malignancies behave, arises from a proliferation of clones of a single white cell. This means that somewhere along the way a mutation has triggered the white cell to shift its demeanor from a well-behaved entity into a shrewd, rapidly multiplying, and pestiferous ogre in the bloodstream. Several studies have linked radiation, exposure to certain chemicals, or inherited genetic abnormalities as culprits in this transformation, although most Filipino patients would deny exposure to these precipitating factors. This transformed white cell called blast is a prolific, insatiable, and puissant bully that deprives the other blood elements, particularly the red cells and the platelets, of their food and shelter in the bone marrow. Not content with merely invading the marrow, the blasts spill out into the bloodstream and cause serious damage to distant organs like the liver, spleen, and brain. When the red cells are decimated, the patient develops anemia and its consequences: pallor, easy fatigability, shortness of breath even on minimal exertion, generalized malaise, and lethargy. As platelets are the primary cells involved in the prevention and control of bleeding, a reduction in its effective circulating population imperils the hapless individual to hemorrhage from any imaginable site, although most commonly from the mucosal surfaces of the gums, nose, and the gastrointestinal tract.

While modern medicine deserves a pat on the back because it has made leukemia among children a curable illness, sadly the same cannot be said for leukemia of adult-onset. Most patients are doomed to die unless they undergo bone marrow transplantation (BMT), a process that purges the body’s entire blood-forming factory, the bone marrow, of its previous contents with megadoses of radiation and cytotoxic chemicals and then replacing it with healthy, viable seeds called stem cells from a matched donor. While this is a standard method of care in most centers abroad for more than a decade, the procedure is still a rarity in the country. Only five BMTs have been done in the Philippines so far, and only one for acute leukemia with, woefully, unsuccessful outcome. What hematologists in the country can offer is a sort of a temporary fix, a shot in the dark, albeit an expensive attempt to obliterate the leukemic blasts with the hope of allowing the normal bone marrow elements to retain a sense of equilibrium that governed the internal milieu before the blasts overturned everything. This is achieved through chemotherapy, the administration of powerful drugs intravenously. The goal is, as a rule, not complete cure, because sooner or later, the blasts are destined to bounce back into the circulation like a nightmare that could not just be shooed away; doctors can only expect a remission, a technical term for restoration of the normal cell populations while keeping the leukemic blasts under restraint. How long can the drugs keep the blasts at bay is still a matter of conjecture even to the most seasoned of hematologists.

Where cheer previously resided, her eyes, now jaundiced and forlorn, betray an exhausted gladiator who has seen several battles and is on the verge of giving up. Her skin is bronzed from what doctors diagnose as iron overload from multiple blood transfusions; as of last count she has received no less than eighteen bags of packed red cells, not to mention over thrice as many platelet transfusions!  Not that she minds this at all. M is one person who is not impressed by outward appearances, and she could not care less about what others would say about how she looks so long as she is in the thick of her battle for life. She has simple dreams of finding employment in Cabanatuan in order to help her father send the younger siblings to school, and she could have easily done so having been gifted with charm, intelligence, and character. But fate seems to have other plans for her.

When reviewing her medical records one cannot help but wonder how life can harshly turn its back on one person after sealing a covenant of a cloudless future with her. While not necessarily living comfortably, her parents saw to it that M and her siblings receive the best education Nueva Ecija has to offer. I still do not understand why life can be so generous with one person yet take away just as much, even more, in a wink of an eye. Yet for some strangely blithe reason, M has never uttered a word of despondency; for her, every trip to the hospital, however difficult and painful, is merely a step to wellness. Needles are constantly inserted in search of those elusive veins or into her hipbone to draw out her marrow, with nary a word of complaint or resignation. And for several months, she has been confronting her illness with the heart of a true warrior—relentless, confident, and determined.

Every bone marrow aspiration—the process of puncturing the bone on the backside to extract the very substance from which all blood elements originate to evaluate disease progression—is for her an almost solemn ritual of exorcising the demons of this disease that consumes the body of its strength and robs the skin of its color. The procedure is not altogether painless despite a few milliliters of an anesthetic called lidocaine, a puncture remains a puncture, and the anesthesia may not work sometimes. But she regards pain as an indubitable catalyst for holding the fort in this struggle to remain alive. She may be wondering now how long she can hold on; how hope can sustain her protractedly enough to endure every pain, to force herself to stay awake, wide-eyed and fretful, through tedious and fearsome nights lest she forgets to wake up in the morning, and to thank every friend and kin who has gone out of his way to donate blood, to offer a word of encouragement, to shell out a modest amount for her hospital needs, and still come out triumphant in the end over this dreadful illness.

Her father has already given up since the other day when this storm emerged from nowhere and lashed out its fury outright without trepidation; their properties have either been sold or mortgaged, and still without a slightest improvement in sight. Every day, she seems to be getting worse despite the multiple transfusions and extensive antimicrobial coverage. A vial of an antibiotic like a third-generation cephalosporin costs approximately three days of a minimum wage earner’s labor, and M needs at least three vials daily. The land has been left untilled, the weeds have long grown tall, and her siblings have temporarily left school as the family’s finances have been drained by M’s frequent hospitalizations. Her father has arranged for the local ambulance to transport her back to Nueva Ecija, against doctors’ advice, as “it is cheaper to bring home the dying than the dead.”  This will officially be entered in the hospital records as HAMA, “Home Against Medical Advice.”

Unknown to most people outside of the health profession, this term is one of the most abused and bastardized excuses when doctors fail, when they do not know where else to turn to, or simply when science is all but helpless to come up with answers. When I was a resident-in-training, few colleagues would rather choose that their terminally ill and difficult-to-diagnose patients go HAMA than face the wrath of the gods of Science Hall, a.k.a. consultants during the medical audit. Most physicians in this situation hardly know whether to laugh or weep for it scares the daylights out of them to realize how infinitesimal their grasp of the basics is despite years of training, especially in dealing with pain and dying, perhaps in the context of medicine being a calling basically to improve life, to prolong survival, and to alleviate suffering. But aren’t these the very things patients expect from their doctors?

Society has inducted doctors into an exalted position, to almost supernatural status in every known social order, but in return also expects physicians to wield not only control and mastery over disease and death, but sometimes even extraordinary and metaphysical powers over them as well. And this is where the problem lies. All of a sudden the physician is thrust into a predicament, both sublime and grotesque at any given  moment, surreal and very real in the same breath, where he is confronted with the very same fiend that appalls him—to look inside himself and recognize that beneath the veneer of knowledge, of authority, and of respectability, there is something in him that remains ignorant, unsure, and even wicked.

Unconsciously, mortality is one word a doctor would take great pains to avoid in his practice. This fear may be deftly concealed under the strange sounding and difficult-to-pronounce medical terms, all that gobbledygook, or behind the most sophisticated of gadgets and the most modern of diagnostic examinations. It must be remembered that however farfetched, at the end of each day, when the last drop of medicine has been given and the final test has been run, every physician longs for a knowledge far more powerful than what he has in his grasp, just to be able to explicate every symptom, to comprehend in a clinically sound approach a new-onset sign, and to confront not only the slightest pain of the patient and of the patient’s family, but his own personal demons as well. One thing is certain:  While a physician may venture into the most comprehensive of differential diagnoses with the most advanced battery of tests in his armamentarium and with the most powerful drugs in the pharmacopoeia, and even pursue with relentless passion the most exotic and improbable of a working impression, the thought that the patient is going home alive and well and that he is able to return to a normal productive life remains, certainly for physicians, the central joy of every voyage, the Shangri-la of every clinical adventure.

M may be wondering about how slowly death will descend upon her, claim her from the land of the living, and transport her to some unknown planet. Heaven, as the children’s song goes, is a wonderful place, full of glory and grace. But she will surely miss her family, her brother most especially.

She has heard numerous stories of mute resignation, of complete surrender and of utter powerlessness in face of death among her fellow Ward 1 occupants, especially those blessed with a spirit that has continued to be unbowed to the ravages of disease on the body, those who stubbornly remained unyielding to Death’s siren song, but without financial competence to bear the medications and the laboratory tests. She cannot forget Divina, a widowed mother of three who was sent back from the Middle East after her employers found out she had leukemia. She has long exhausted the hard-earned savings she had carefully kept while working as a domestic helper in faraway Bahrain. Now what will happen to her kids’ education?  Then there’s Juliet, a washerwoman who boasted she could finish off a ton of laundry with nary a sweat, but who could now barely wipe the blood off her swollen and foul-smelling gums, her hemoglobin level is so low she sometimes speaks incoherently. Another friend is Veronica whose bone marrow has long ceased to function, making her vulnerable to even the slightest insults of disease, changes in weather, or minimal physical activity. Time is running out even faster for Veronica, but her mother is not giving up, not yet, she says. “I still believe in miracles, so we’re fighting back the illness,” she would tell anybody who dares apprise her of her daughter’s prognosis. Her hurt is palpable, her fear, unnerving, but she refuses to let go, constantly bargaining with anybody who cares to listen, with a resilience that is simply beyond belief.

Oftentimes, the minutes surrounding a patient’s death are characterized by several renderings of bargaining: the patient wishing to stay behind, but also praying that should she go, may it be swift and painless; the family fighting for survival in the face of physical, emotional, and financial exhaustion, waiting for a miracle of restoration and wellness and leaving everything under God’s supreme will and tender mercies, but at the same time questioning His providential wisdom why this grave adversity should befall the best and the most benevolent of individuals; the doctor hoping to revive the patient in one instance, but disbelieving the usefulness of all these efforts in the next.

Then there is the drawn-out, oftentimes ardent, and impassioned tug-of-war for the patient’s cadaver for an autopsy. Medical science has long accepted the need for a postmortem examination (1) to determine the actual cause of the patient’s demise, (2) to establish several theories of disease causation that were never fully explored during the patient’s stay in the hospital, cases that were simply beyond the realm of human knowledge to explain or of the most modern technology to elicit the basic answers to the ultimate question why the deceased had this disease at all, and (3) to simply reassure themselves that doctors did nothing to cause or to hasten the patient’s death. Medical residents would take pains to beg, to bribe, or to bully the surviving members just to obtain that most precious consent.

M is relieved she will never go through all this vivisection and pathologic analyses as she is going home anyway. But for Divina, Juliet, Veronica, and several others, most of whom she knows only by face, the likelihood of an autopsy remains a forthcoming circumstance. Given the chance, she would like to ask, with all the courage she can muster: “Doctors, when you cut my friend with the sharpest of your scalpels, mount them on glass slides with the most vivid and intelligible of stains, and look under your most powerful microscopes, will you be able to tell me what I knew all along: that Veronica or Juliet or Divina died of a broken heart?”

She has seen death one too many, and while accustomed to the impetuous rush of adrenaline that possesses not only the medical staff but onlookers as well during the preterminal minutes, she may be agonizing about how swift will her own be. Will the resident on duty be earnest enough to squeeze her heart during the cardiopulmonary resuscitation and propel ample blood to reach the brains and other vital organs, but also gentle enough not to fracture her ribs while doing so?  Will their resolve be stronger than their physical strength, and their hearts, softer than their minds?

They say that people on the throes of death witness snippets of their lives in two minutes. What will M see in that penultimate moment?  A hand guiding her as she takes the first step?  Maybe palms that rub her back to comfort her during the first heartbreak?  Will she be seeing the knuckles of an intern as he draws out blood for the post-transfusion platelet count?  Or perhaps the touch of a physician in one of his rounds in the morning?

That M should remember the hospital, this ward particularly and its colorful denizens, where she has spent most of the last fourteen months of her brief life, infuriatingly perhaps, painfully to most extent, but fondly above all, challenges all but the remotest explanation, and in a night made more heartfelt by the soaring chorus of rain, wind, and thunder, this is an occurrence worth celebrating. Knowing how fervently she longs for home, I am certain M is praying that the final scent she will derive joy from is that of her own room in the outskirts of Cabanatuan, with the sweet-piquant fragrance of freshly threshed rice stalks wafting through her bedroom window and occasionally perfumed by the faint bouquet of jasmine and ylang-ylang.

But she has also come to love the alternating smell of disinfectant and of body fluids, of bodies rotting away and of bodies recovering, of lives that ebb and of hopes that eddy at PGH. I guess this is the very essence of my being here notwithstanding the shadow of death that pervades this place like a proverbial Damocles’ sword:  PGH even in a storm as malevolent and as forgiving as this is no less essentially meaningful or inherently awe-inspiring than St. Luke’s Medical Center or Massachusetts General Hospital, or any other antiseptic piece of land and sky in the world.

What defines a hospital is the manner it enshrines itself in the heart of those who have been there, not whether it is poorly lit or amply lighted, high-tech or just being able to make do with the available resources, extensive or limited, equipped with a centralized air-conditioning system or simply ventilated with ceiling fans. Every hospital, like any person, caregiver or cared for alike, is characterized by the love and compassion that flow in it, by the hope it kindles even in the most emaciated of bodies, and by the simple joy it nurtures from the lysis of fever or from the mere alleviation of pain, like the burst of warm sunshine on a cloudy day. For the patients, it is basically how their doctors “treated” them, that beyond the relief from physical suffering and the treatment of an affliction, they are not seen as mere case numbers in his list of urgent aggravation for the day; instead, they are also regarded as breathing and feeling human beings capable of getting hurt and of being happy. These acts of loving-kindness, both random and deliberate, will always be remembered first and forgotten last.

This calls to mind a portion of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Fruit-Gathering” that can very well be the prayer for both doctors and patients alike:

Let me not pray to be shielded from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.

Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved, but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

The rain continues to pour with nary a sign of ever abating, but the thunder seems to have slipped away. Despite the lingering cold and darkness, there is something encouraging now about the newfound stillness, a sense of quietude that carefully strips away layers of malaise and of hopelessness limning the scene just moments ago, bequeathing each individual who happens to witness this changing of the milieu a heart of raw courage and a soul of palpitating expectations. Then one realizes how once in a while life can be so eloquent it speaks powerfully that it catches him off-guard, forces him to sit up and listen with open-mouthed wonder, and like the docile schoolboy that he once was, allows each word to sink in deliberately, with such explicitness and authority, with neither quandary nor skepticism.

Another day is drawing near. Time is impetuously knocking at morn’s door, it cannot conceal its impatience, the abrupt shift in temperature from chilly to lukewarm is discernible. Amidst all these musings and perturbations, life goes on, yes, even in the middle of a raging storm. There are other patients to attend to, tasks to carry out, forms to fill out, medical records to review, bureaucracy to wrestle with, peripheral blood smears to scrutinize, and coagulation tests to process; the list is downright endless. One looks forward to these duties with a sense of exasperation, these predicaments simply cropping out of nowhere to becloud an already gloomy day, tagging along problems as dark and as uncertain as the landscape one sees outside the lab’s windows. And when all seems lost and senseless, it is as if an unseen hand sweeps one’s vision with an unexpected pause. Suddenly, the heart skips a beat, the tense muscles slacken, the spirit soars, and the mind clears. The problems ahead may indeed be dark, but at this very moment, they are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, one witnesses with an open mind and a welcoming heart lessons which his patients have been telling him for some time now, things that matter most, values that mirror each individual’s loftiest yearning, not only of the patients, but of physicians as well, his own including. Hope. Duty. Love. These things he discovers in this hospital, right now, inside this small laboratory, in the middle of a powerful storm, though none as powerful as the realization that everything happens for a purpose, which neither chance nor coincidence can claim for itself. These are sublime gifts entrusted to a physician, especially to a hematologist, by M and all other patients: the opportunity to improve their lives, the power to take away their pain and suffering, and that singular shot at a second chance for life. To be reunited with their loved ones. To consummate a significant unfinished business. To see the children grow up and watch the garden bloom. Simply, to live. What powerful men do doctors, particularly hematologists, make!  And it seems ironic that amidst the emaciation of the human flesh and larceny of life itself, there are defining moments when hope overcomes, when duty overpowers, and when love overflows, like the one that keeps him in glorious contemplation. Technical jargon and supposedly scholarly pyrotechnics may leave one cold, but a mother’s extremely pale, outstretched hand in need of transfusing so that she can tie a ribbon on her little girl’s hair, a young lady’s pair of jaundiced eyes, despondent at first glance but Pollyannaish on the next, or an unexpected rush of restoration that accompanies every dribble of the platelet concentrate it is so overwhelming one can actually hear it swirl and ramble inside the intravenous tubing, painting a tableau of unmistakable eloquence that simply takes the breath away.

Can this be true, that my choice of specialization is correct, however painstakingly and determinedly I rationalize this action?  This is a rather strange profession to be in, and an even stranger calling to pursue what others call a tedious and adynamic subspecialty, where financial rewards are few and far between. This might be madness. It might even be foolishness. But one can always afford to be mad, to be a fool, in order to hear the barely perceptible whispers from afar, cries for comfort, and summonses for survival, than pay attention to the reproach and pontifications of others, no matter how well meaning they might be. The final truth remains: one may hear a patient’s plaintive cry, or take a fleeting glance on M’s (and several others’) morbid pallor, or grieve over the utter impotence of the present setup to cure diseases like leukemia, and yet is able to appreciate what hope promises, what duty stands for, and what love represents, because these are precisely the very same things—hope, duty, love—that bring enough warmth and comfort to endure this storm, or any of life’s for that matter.

In a couple of hours, M will say goodbye to her ward mates, to the nurses, and to the interns. The discharge papers will be released, and the ink for the final signature will have long been dried. Then father and daughter will take the painful, bittersweet journey home. M will become another statistic in the hospital records, another case number in the computer file. I will bid M farewell, and before she leaves, we will say a prayer together. We will ask for an improved weather, for a smooth ride home, and for the miracle of healing. For the gift of stillness. For tender mercies and for divine graces. For acceptance of things that will remain the way they are. With heads bowed, we will say a prayer of thanksgiving, how knowing each other has enriched our lives far stronger than any storm that has ever traversed our paths.

I will hold her hands, clasp them tightly between mine, and be awed at how gaunt they have become since that first meeting at the clinic, how may months of affliction have stripped away their fullness and their strength, how somebody this fragile can display so much determination and courage to face this seemingly hopeless battle. Had I been a good and caring physician?  Had I treated her kindly enough despite the poor prognosis, and competently enough despite the limited resources?  I do not know, and I may never will; M is not the kind of patient who bothers physicians with such questions. Looking at those soulful eyes, I can only but wish that someday I might know the answers.

Deciding to become a hematologist in this country exposes a physician to a lot of risks. It simply becomes an adventure, a well-calculated wager, in which the stakes are high, but the rewards are gratifying. The tasks ahead are daunting enough, but a matter of faith it is apt to be because, however ambiguous and frightful, a doorway was opened, an artery was lacerated, blood was shed, and however precarious, one has to hem the crimson torrent in. There will certainly be hardship and woe along the way, but even behind the many walls of doubt and of ignorance the questioning mind has to go on searching for answers. It is concerned specifically with the unfortunate few who are afflicted with leukemia and other life-threatening diseases of the blood. And when one is blessed enough to realize that the power he holds in his hands to make a difference in his patients’ lives is at the very heartbeat of this adventure, there starts pulsing from it a kind of promise and conviction that everything will be just fine.

It may take an entire lifetime for me to fully comprehend the wisdom of my decisions, of my actions, or even of my indiscretions, but I am not in a hurry. The world outside is still dark, and I can well afford to tarry until the path is brighter, until the road is clearer. Time when used wisely remains a faithful friend, and enduring a waiting game is perpetually a virtue of conquerors. I will meet more patients whose stories may be as tragic as M’s, but I no longer need to be afraid. They have taught me well, and I am eternally grateful for that. In the future, science will certainly unlock the disease’s deepest secrets and eventually unearth the answers. All it takes is a simple faith. The storm will come to pass, and it will be morning again.

There will be countless and equally life-affirming stories of man’s audacity, his fortitude in the face of sickness and death, of heartwarming tales of each patient’s struggle to survive. Blessed are the patients who come into a doctor’s clinic, brimming with hope, awash with joyful expectation, to bare their life’s histories and their own mortal bodies down to the minutest blood cell in search of a cure, but more blessed is the physician who earns their confidence and fealty, the patients will lay open their hearts and minds to be probed and to be studied. They will literally entrust their lives to him. They will ask him to remember them always, and I honestly believe that after memorizing every sulcus and gyrus in the human brain, as well as the kinetics and dynamics of each drug listed in the manual, most doctors have the gift of remembering. And what about M? She will be special, for experience has a strangely bittersweet way of telling us that in the conduct of human relationships, the one who is never forgotten is usually the one who never asks.

I look out of the window and recognize a fragile streak of light hovering in the horizon.

Choosing the path “To serve Humanity!” is, by any standard, a way of life. To share the patient’s burden is to remember that warm sunny day when one entered medical school, innocence and dignity intact, armed with the values from home and fueled only by the desire to be of use to others. This is the direction of every doctor’s goal—the future seen from afar from his highest ambitions and his truest dreams. By becoming a blood doctor, one of the few hematologists in the Philippines, I am bound to claim that promise, and seeing my patients water the earth with tears of joy and of pain, through their bruises, nosebleeds, and even mortal hemorrhages, as well as their remission and their healing, I share in their laughter as well as in their grief, and in the process, even without my realizing it, make their prayers my own. My very own.