River of Shame

By Wilfredo Pascual Jr.
Essay

“We don’t have to leave,” she said. “If your father stopped leaving at night, the monsters wouldn’t come anymore.” —Angelo Serrano, “It Comes At Night”

When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see Dr. Custodio, our family doctor in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, who took care of the Pascuals for three generations. He sat behind his desk at his home clinic. He knew our medical history, our public and private lives well enough. I heard him say something to my mother, something that I would hold on to for the rest of my life. It saved me: “Nasaktan siya. Kailangan ni’yo siyang dalhin sa espesyalista. Dalhin ni’yo na siya sa psychiatrist.”

I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Finally I was going to get help. Somebody was going to listen to me. I was going to get better. I hardly said anything during that consultation. I was so ashamed of myself, which was how I felt most of the time—even with all the medals and awards in grade school.

At home, my parents pinned all my medals to a pair of black vertical banners that hung on the wall, all first place medals and ribbons. I won my first essay writing contest at age eight. I was recognized in art and academic performance. I was best in roller skates, an outstanding pupil every year, the most active, most polite, most talented student. It’s easy to assume that I was goal-driven, even competitive. But I have no memory of it. I only remember having so much to give and how liberating that felt. I remember the storm inside me, this intense energy, a flooding. I had no name for it. It was marvelous, ferocious, joyous, and terrifying. I felt it every time I wrote, made art, performed, and read books. I didn’t care so much about winning. All I wanted was the freedom to live and express that energy.

I was six when I started drawing pictures of girl’s clothes, women’s faces and shoes. I would draw in the living room. One time I looked up and saw my father looking at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me. Slowly my smile disappeared, and I crumpled my drawing.

I have no memory of what my mother said to Dr. Custodio. We went home that evening not saying a word to each other. We went upstairs straight to our rooms. My door was next to theirs. I couldn’t sleep. Finally somebody was going to help me try to understand what was wrong with me. I was still awake when my mother knocked, and I opened the door. She spoke to me in a low voice. It was a scene straight from Kisapmata.

“Sabi ng Daddy mo, mula ngayon gigisingin kita ’pag hatinggabi. Pupunta ka sa banyo.”

“Pero sabi ni Dr. Custodio, dalhin ni’yo daw ako sa doktor.”

“Makinig ka sa Daddy mo.”

That was all she said, and she went back to her room.

I was crushed. I remember closing the door and hitting myself repeatedly. “Why don’t I just die?” I screamed. Nobody heard me. I had to make sure no sound came out.

For as long as I could remember, waking up to the world had always been preceded by the smell of ammonia. Bedwetting was almost a daily occurrence. It got to a point that I no longer got up. I just pulled down my wet underwear, shorts, and pajamas and moved to a drier spot. Sometimes more than once in one night.

My earliest memory of terror is the sound of my father arriving. In the seventies, he drove a Jeep Renegade—blood red with a white leather top, its hood and sides trimmed in gleaming chrome and black decal stripes. I have vague recollections of his off-road adventures—fleeting images of a cliff, a grassy hillside, wild rivers. Mostly I remember the sense of danger that builds by nightfall, brought about by the curfew enforced during Martial Law. In the middle of the night that silence would be shattered by my young father speeding through empty roads and streets on his way home. I knew he was drunk because he would stay inside the Jeep in the garage and step on the gas pedal and rev up the Jeep relentlessly, a monstrous loudness intent on waking up the entire neighborhood.

I would cover my ears with a pillow and pray to God to please make it stop. Sometimes he would come up to my room—bloodshot eyes and reeking of alcohol—and he would hold me and weep. “But I do love you,” he would say over and over. “I do.” Sometimes he would watch over me while I pretended to be asleep, and then leave quietly. The following morning it would be as if nothing happened. I still feared him, loathed him. He very rarely looked at me, and when he did, I could sense how repulsed he was.

Dinner was an ordeal. One time I started to say grace quietly. He stopped me as I was making the sign of the cross. “Don’t pray,” he said firmly. Another time he glared at me because something made me laugh. When he was around I always blamed myself for making my presence felt. Before leaving my room, I learned to make sure that the hallway was clear. On my way home from school, I would stop at the corner of our street to make sure that my father was not at the gate. If he was, I would turn and walk around the block to the corner on the other side of our street named after my great-grandfather.

My mother had it worse. He would hit her. One time my father pulled out his gun at my mother who was holding me. I was maybe five or six. Another time he took us to the traveling circus in town. My mother and I were riding the caterpillar when I heard the other passengers screaming. The ride wouldn’t stop. I saw my father on the undulating ramp beating up the operator. We would go round and round, and each turn I would see my father pummeling the operator’s face until somebody stopped the ride. One time he took us to the movies to see a comedy. He was drunk. We were seated at the balcony. He stood up in the dark, pulled out his gun, and pointed it at the moviegoers. “Walang tatawa!” he yelled at them. People left the theater quietly. The silencing was just as damaging as the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered.

My father was the mayor’s son. The family had been in power for more than half a century. It was only after he died, actually only a few years ago, that my mother openly acknowledged to me that my father was sick, that he was an alcoholic. “We should have taken him to the doctor,” she said. I didn’t say anything.

She was a cold mother. I never felt any affection from her growing up. I have no memory of my mother asking me how I was doing, or telling me that I did a good job. I have no memory of seeking comfort from her. She was just as oppressed and tired as I was. One time when my father was out my mother and I had a fight. I yelled at my mother across the dining table, “Hindi ako masaya sa bahay na ito!”

“Ako rin!” she yelled back.

“Bakit hindi ka tumakas?”

“Dahil sa inyo.”

She was helpless. She was just as scared as I was, a captive. Always have been. When she was in high school my father invited her to a party. He lied. With the help of his friends, my father took my mother to a hut fifty miles away from our hometown. The first time my mother told me this story was the night after we buried my father.

Shortly after my appointment with the doctor, my father hosted a river picnic and invited dozens of my relatives on both sides of the family. By then the river of my childhood had changed directions. Ferdinand Marcos had built Pantabangan Dam, so the river was much shallower than I remember. I crossed it easily and stood on the other side, the river and my family behind me. I was looking at the old riverbed under the blinding light, the rocks bright as bones when I heard shouting behind me.

“’Yong malaking bato ang kunin ni’yo!”

“Maliit ’yan!”

“Hawakan ni’yo! Aanurin ’yan!”

I heard laughter. Cheering. I didn’t turn around. I knew what was going on. My parents brought my bed mattress to the river. It smelled so bad they had to submerge it in the river to wash it. They held it down with rocks, and when that wasn’t enough, the men held on to it.

I couldn’t look. I was trembling in shame. I squatted and started to pick up rocks and stones. Later, I heard a voice behind me, a relative. I can’t remember who it was. I didn’t even look up when he asked what I was doing.

“Looking for frog’s eggs,” I said.

After a while I turned around, and whoever it was who spoke to me had left. It had gotten quiet on the other side of the river. They had placed enough rocks on the mattress to hold it and keep it from floating away. I watched my family across the river. They looked so happy. It was so beautiful it hurt. I gazed at the river, the second largest in the island, fourth in the entire country. From its headwaters in the mountains it traverses the central plains of Luzon for about 160 miles until it drains into the Manila Bay to where water meets water, the world.

I have survived abuse, bullying, homelessness, addiction, betrayal, physical assault, three nervous breakdowns (ages fourteen, nineteen, and thirty-two); and two suicide attempts (1985, 1987). I am seeing a doctor now, and I have been on medication for the past four years. I am also an essayist and married to a wonderful man. The thing that I am most proud of is being alive.

It took a long time, but when I heard Dr. Custodio tell my mother that I needed help, to me that meant help was out there. If my family couldn’t give it to me, I had to find it on my own. It was 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis. The acronym LGBT didn’t exist yet. And people were about to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship.

The Long Wait to Cure

By Lance Isidore Catedral
Essay

At 4 PM, when most government offices were about to close, when cars were trapped in Metro Manila traffic, when students and employees fought for space in the MRT, the queue of new patients outside the Medical Oncology Clinic was as long as when the day had begun. On my table was the pile of new charts still unopened—each cream-colored folder bearing the name of a human being waiting to be called in.

The waiting area smelled of clothes drenched in sweat, what with the tropical afternoon heat and humidity. These people came from all over the Philippines—a country of seven thousand islands, blessed with year-long sunshine and white sand beaches and broad smiles but plagued with poverty and corruption. They brought with them tumors of different sizes and shapes, of varying degrees of aggression, in various parts of their anatomy. Perhaps many of them wondered, during this long wait, if they would live long enough to their son’s graduation or if they could still blow next year’s birthday candle.

For the rich and powerful, who could afford air-conditioned lounges in the most exclusive of hospitals, this long waiting time would be a waste, but for many of them who could barely even afford a complete blood count, this was a step closer to cure—if it existed at all.

Somewhere in the thick crowd was a woman named Faith whose folder sat at the top of the pile. She was twenty-three years old. She came from a nearby province, an hour away from Manila. As I called her name through the microphone, my voice reverberated throughout the Cancer Institute. But there was no commotion, no indication that someone was approaching the consultation room. Just as I was about to call the next name on the pile, a man—the patient’s father—told me that she was too heavy to carry, that she was in the opposite end of the hall, and begged if I could go to her instead.

Faith lay on a narrow metallic stretcher, listening to music with her earphones, a distraction from reality. Her left forearm was amputated when a tumor appeared in her wrist two years ago. The tumor was cancer—mesenchymal chondrosarcoma, the biopsy had read. She said yes, without hesitation, to amputation. She had just graduated with a computer science degree and landed a stable IT job. No cancer was going to hold her back.

Months after surgery, she felt a lump in her lower spine. It grew larger by the day, a threatening mass that would usher another chapter of her life. This time, she needed chemotherapy. She went to a private hospital where she finished four cycles of chemotherapy. It only made her a little better; the mass had not disappeared completely but was at least as big as a basketball. Her treatment—which included expensive chemotherapy medications, admission to a private room every three weeks, and expensive laboratory and imaging tests—caused a financial strain on her family. Her father was a traffic enforcer, her mother a housewife. In the Philippines, people pay for their treatment out of their pockets. PhilHealth, the government-run health insurance provider, only paid for her treatment partially. With no other options left, her family opted to bring her to a public hospital like ours.

I met her with the assurance that I would do everything I could to help her. As a practicing medical oncologist in the country’s largest public hospital, this meant me giving the best concoction of chemotherapy medications available, but this also meant I would take on the role of a social worker. What difference would an ambitious, evidence-based treatment strategy mean to her if she wouldn’t be able to get the medications she actually needed?

Cancer takes a toll, even in middle-class families. Some sell their small pieces of land, or have their kids stop schooling to save on tuition, or work additional jobs, to pay for treatment. Even curable cancers become death sentences for those who do not have the financial means.

For the next weeks, her parents and brothers would fall in line in offices of government officials who gave checks worth a few thousand pesos—not much compared to the overall cost of her treatment but, when put together, amounted to a substantial amount, sufficient to tide her for at least three cycles of chemotherapy.

“Do you want to go through with this?” I asked Faith when she got confined. Her mass had grown in size during the waiting period, and it looked like she had a massive backpack in her sacrum.

“Yes, of course,” she said. She asked if she would ever get better—the perpetual question, the answer to which was never a simple yes or no. If only life were simpler.

“Let’s hope so,” I said. “This is your best fighting chance.”

Faith’s first cycle did not go without any complications; she suffered severe neutropenia and did not feel well for many days. I discharged her after a few more days, only to have her readmitted for the next cycle.

When I go home after tiring days in the hospital, I often dream of the time when cancer will become as easily treatable as a simple skin infection and we don’t have to worry about the cost of treatment. It is a dream that pushes me, and the strong and optimistic army of physicians in the country, to do what we can, given our limited resources.

But my patients’ hope springs eternal—not just Faith’s but of most of the names in the chart pile. At the end of the day, no charts remain on my table, only unopened gifts—warm meals, fresh fruits picked from the backyard, pieces of candies, and slices of pies, whatever these patients could muster, their gratitude overflowing despite their poverty. If only to offer them, the underprivileged, a chance at a cure, all my exhaustion will have been worth it.

An Ama Reverie

By An-Nurhaiyden Mangelen
Essay

After staying for twenty-one days at Davao Doctor’s Hospital, it was time for Ama’s life support to be unplugged. It was a family decision, which was decided upon after Ama’s doctor told the whole family that, at that point, he had no chance of recovery. After all, in those twenty-one days, he never even opened his eyes. That time, the stroke proved fatal. Most members of the family also thought that if they were in his shoes, they would have preferred dying in his home back at Dalican in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, than in a hospital far away from his birthplace. By removing and unplugging every machine hooked up to his body, they spared him of further suffering. They thought it better to let him rest in his home.

In those twenty-one days at the ICU, my grandfather died three times. During those three times, the life support had been able to revive him, giving us enough time to bring him home. He was brain-dead, but his heart kept on pumping, his lungs begging for air from the dull, rusted green oxygen tank beside his bed. “Sundalo talaga siya,” some relatives concluded. “Lumalaban pa rin.”

I only saw him once in those twenty-one days. I also never cried, or even felt the urge to cry. I was still ten then. And it has been nine years since his death.

That lone time I saw him, I thought he looked cool, like the cyborg from Teen Titans, with plenty of wires connected to his fingers, elbows, nose, and mouth. He also had a translucent plastic tube inserted down his throat through what I assume was a long and wide cut covered only by plasters. My mother said that it was helping get air into his lungs, but back then, I did not know how a person could ever need such a painfully large tube inserted down his throat. As a kid who drowned himself in cartoons and toys, I never really felt the gravity of the situation. Looking back at it now, as a kid I would’ve never been able to fathom the pain he had to endure when the doctors intubated and took care of him. All the injections, the bedsore he had gotten from not being able to move around, or even the sensation of not being able to function and be the master of his body the way he wanted to—everything that he suffered through seemed too alien a thought for me back then.

If only I could somehow talk to him now, I would ask him how the experience was, like at what point did he lose consciousness of his surroundings, or was he able to have visions of heaven and hell, like how some people claim to have a glimpse as their light dies out? I think it would be such a killer bonding moment. After all, I never bonded with my grandfather that much. If only that were to happen, I would’ve been able to ask him, before he drew his final breath, how it felt to have a grandchild like me.

Looking back, I wanted to slap my younger self across the face for not realizing that after his first death, after the life support revived him, my grandfather might not even remember anyone, anything, or even his self anymore. He might not remember the face of his children, his wife, how he lived his life. He was brain-dead after all.

At that moment, when my mother sat there crying outside the ICU, I remember feeling sad. Sad, but not devastated. I even had fun during our stay at the hospital. All I looked forward to during those days were going to the cafeteria at three in the afternoon to eat spaghetti and binignit, as well as buying compact disks and watching anime on my portable DVD player. I used to buy those counterfeit CDs at a bazaar fronting Davao Doctors Hospital. Never did the gravity of my remaining living grandfather’s death affected me or the fun I had in our stay there. At those moments, I cared more about my food and the lives of illustrated characters than the life of my grandfather. Call it a child’s ignorance, but how I wish I had realized earlier that I ought to be standing there outside the ICU waiting for the grand cosmic miracle of him waking up, winning the battle that he was fighting.

I was very close, yet so emotionally far.

On our way home to Dalican, I remember nine cars in the convoy: the ambulance, our car, the other cars owned by our relatives. We arrived there at around five in the afternoon. Along the way, we had to constantly keep an eye on Ama’s oxygen tank because three hours into the travel, it came awfully close to being empty. Dalican was still two and a half hours away; everyone was on guard. This forced us to drive so fast that the cars seemed to fly. The ambulance ran at 140 to160 kilometers per hour. The convoy of cars followed behind. Mama never stopped crying for the rest of the trip. In desperation, we played verses in the Quran on repeat in our car, as if that would give my Ama some air he so desperately needed to breathe.

I also clearly remember enjoying the ride, which was the fastest one I had ever been in my whole life. Before that afternoon, I just finished watching an anime about drifting and driving in the uphill roads of Tokyo, Japan. This is just like Initial D, I thought. I felt the thrill, the speed, the exhilaration of experiencing what it was like to be in the anime I had watched. It felt like we were in a race. As I try to remember, I want to scream at my ten-year-old me for failing to realize that we were in a real race, not against other cars but against time, that we were skating on thin ice. I even remember loving the moments the car zoomed past strangers on motorcycles, vehicles, and pedestrians.

While inside the car, I never thought of what might happen in Dalican. I never even thought about what would come next if ever Ama gave up while we were still on the road, or if the tank ran out of oxygen. I never thought of losing someone important, or maybe at that moment, he wasn’t important to me. Looking back, maybe I just lacked the compassion for my grandfather, or maybe at some point, I never even cared; after all, like I mentioned earlier, Ama and I had never spent quality time together.

As a kid, I loathed his prickly mustache that stabbed me every time he kissed my forehead. I despised the times when he would ask for kisses. I hated the way he smelled; he smelled like a glass of warm milk, and I hated the smell of milk. Every time I asked him for five pesos to buy a sachet of Milo, he would intentionally give me four pesos and demanded a kiss on my forehead before he handed the last peso. “Kagyabu nengka bulingit’n,” he would usually tease, telling me to stop eating Milo with my fingers because I looked gross every time I did so. I also hated Ama’s big round eyes, which he used to scare children as a way of having fun. I cannot count the times I stopped playing and cried because of those eyes. Those eyes, they gave the scariest glares. But despite hating his mustache and his eyes, I liked his round belly. Every time he asked for a hug, I imagined that that was the sensation of hugging Barney the purple dinosaur.

That round belly of his got severely small in those twenty-one days.

Reflecting on it now, I wish he had gotten better. That way, his belly could’ve grown bigger again and I would’ve been able to hug him for much longer. That way we could’ve spent more time together. I could’ve spent afternoons with him just sitting, sipping coffee, listening to stories only he could tell. I could’ve spent more time with the only grandfather I had.

In the small amount of time that the people were preparing his corpse for the burial, I felt like I did not belong in the room, that I shouldn’t be there, that that space was exclusive for those who loved Ama truly. Back then, the past me loved him because he was the only one whom I could ask Milo money from, but further than that, I was not sure. If only I had known how to handle things more professionally at that early an age, my last moments with him would not have been as useless. Looking back, I didn’t deserve to be present in his burial. No dead man deserves somebody who takes him for granted in his own burial.

The day of his death in Dalican, the house bustled with stories about Ama and his bravery as a soldier, the way he treated relatives from the uplands of Maguindanao whenever they visited, along with other tales of his generosity. I remember an aunt telling stories of how he helped her and her family find lodging when they went to Mecca for pilgrimage. Another relative told stories of how Ama always had a jar of native coffee from Cotabato City at the ready whenever a relative came to borrow money, then offer him a cup alongside the money he lent, as well as stories of how he used to never ask for the money back, because of his faith in the innate good nature of his relatives. This only amplified my thoughts of not deserving to be in his burial. After all, all the stories I could tell of my moments with Ama were all filled of me being annoyed at his milk-like scent and his mustache.

Many of the most notable stories about Ama were the ones told by my mother of her times with him when she was still a little girl, as well as that one about my parents’ wedding. According to her, Ama had always been her companion since she was a little kid. Ama’s wife never really treated my mother with compassion. As a child, my mother was a hardheaded, strong boy in the body of a girl. She often disobeyed my grandmother and played with other boys her age. She would play swords, jolen, and hulog-piso with them and other games boys typically played. For my grandmother, this was unacceptable and unbecoming of a little girl, so she tried her hardest to keep my mother inside the house. She taught her how to knit and sew to take her time off playing. She taught her how to cook to keep my mother in the kitchen. My mother never enjoyed these, and neither did Ama. He resisted for and with my mother. He would take her to Cotabato City (which was a two-hour travel from Dalican back then) just to let her escape the housework. My mother bonded with Ama the most out of six other siblings because of that. That’s the reason why it broke my mother gravely when he died. Then I learned how Ama played a gargantuan role in my parents’ wedding in 1998.

My grandmother was headstrong in disagreeing with the wedding. She was not in favor of my father because of his low financial capability. What Ama did was that he faked being sick, demanded to be checked at Davao Doctors Hospital, and forced his wife to come with him, just to give my parents ample time to marry. The wedding was kept secret from my grandmother. Of course, after she later discovered what went down, she fumed and disowned my mother.

During my parents’ wedding, my mother walked down the aisle alone, without her parents to walk her toward the man she wanted to marry. She was accompanied by her eldest sibling, and he took the place of Ama in the wali, a tradition among Muslims where the father entrusts her daughter to the groom and goes into an agreement between two noble men. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, accompanying my mother down the aisle as well as entrusting his only daughter to the man she loved, but he understood his role and made a once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice to make my mother’s dream a reality. Until now, my parents’ wedding invitation, which Ama hid from my grandmother, is still in his most treasured attaché case, untouched and collecting dust. That was the only tangible thing he held or saw that had a direct relation to the wedding.

When my mother told me this story, I realized the immense impact Ama had in my parents’ lives. I also realized that what he did was one of the reasons why I came to be. If my father and mother had not married, I wouldn’t have been born.

In the future, it would have been nice if he would be able to come to my wedding. Sadly, my own ignorance took that opportunity away from me.

After hearing that story, the ten-year-old me slightly longed for a much deeper interaction with my deceased grandfather. It had left a hole in me, small at first, but gaping at present: a type of jealousy that could never be filled. The end of that story took a part of me that I know I could never regain. A part forever lost with his passing, irretrievable, unobtainable.

His first stroke happened back in 2007. We brought him to Notre Dame Hospital in Cotabato City, and we stayed there for fifteen days. Luckily, he wasn’t incapacitated by the sickness, but his memory was impaired. Since then, he became extremely forgetful: we needed to introduce ourselves to him repeatedly whenever we met. The only ones he could remember were his children and his wife. Around that time, he also lost track of his bowel movement. He could not feel the urge to go to the bathroom anymore. When he stood up or walked around, pee dripped from his shorts, and he constantly pooped in his pants. Sometimes his poop would be dragged on the floor by his own feet, which infuriated my grandmother. From then on, she started hitting Ama on the legs or buttocks with broomsticks and other long hard objects. He never retaliated. At times, Ama just grabbed the broomstick and held it right there in midair. He would look my grandmother in the eyes till she let go. Most of the time, tears just fell from his eyes.

I can never imagine how my grandmother felt like, seeing those eyes and those tears that just fell from them. I wonder if she ever felt pity after all those moments she inflicted pain upon Ama. I wondered if he ever felt like speaking up, retaliating, or was it that he was already numb of the searing pain of being hit in the legs and buttocks and the only thing that made him cry every time was seeing the woman he married, the first woman he could remember, hit him over and over?

Reflecting upon it, that type of treatment was unbecoming of a woman who had stayed in a marriage for over half of her life. But at the end of the day, it was she who took care of him through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, despite the tedious job of cleaning after his mess, and she continued doing so until his last days. She was there with us at the hospital, at the burial, at the grieving period. I am sure that inside of her, there was also a gaping hole that came with his passing. I now wonder about the way she showed her love for Ama. How did their wedding go? Was it consensual or arranged? How about the courting? Was there even any courting? I never heard of the story, nor could I find someone willing to tell me. I couldn’t ask my grandmother, for she didn’t want to talk about it. Every time a conversation had closely veered towards that subject, she would skillfully divert it into another topic without fail, like how a relative was doing in school or anything other than their marriage. In rare moments where the conversation had nowhere to go, she would tell us that she was not comfortable talking about it and that she would slap our mouths shut if we continued pressing. We would then laugh, and then she would laugh. It would be clear to us that they were jokes, but still, nobody dared to try because everyone was scared, especially if she were to become mad.

I know that only Ama could tell that story.

The devastating part is that at this point, I could only speculate.

In 2011, hypertension and stroke got the better of him yet again, which led us to Davao Doctor’s Hospital. He finally took his rest on April 23 at Dalican.

I vaguely remember that during his burial, a small part of the younger me tried to assess the impact of his life on mine, his relevance, and the emotional connection I’ve had with him, and I remember failing.

I remember faking tears.

It was hard to try and develop fake sympathy. I really tried, but at the end of the day, I could only muster as much.

In the seven-day grieving period, hundreds of people came to his house at Dalican to pay their respects; the stories I heard about him that day, like the one on my parents’ wedding, as well as tales of his unselfishness, made me see him in a better light. I also realized that it wasn’t that we lacked the bonding moments necessary for me to feel attached to him; it was just that I tried my hardest to reject those opportunities instead of grabbing them. I rejected the moments when I should’ve just given him the kisses he repeatedly asked for. I frowned at his prickly mustache and glaring eyes; I failed to see that those were the only prickly mustache and glaring eyes I would experience from a grandfather ever. I took the only grandfather I had for granted. Now I’ve forever lost the chance to feel an extraordinary kind of love from a grandfather in the form of giving four pesos, of asking for hugs and kisses, of being stabbed by ridiculously pointy mustache.

It’s funny how you can learn to love somebody just by the memories that you both could’ve shared, not with the underwhelming memories that existed between the both of you.

Could he ever forgive me for not valuing his presence? Could he still love me despite my reluctance towards spending time with him? Could he still remember me? Could he dare say that after everything, he still sees me as a grandson?

All of these questions inside my head will forever remain questions, for the one who could answer them is gone. But sometimes, there are moments when the questions you are dying to ask do not need answers. There are moments when not knowing the answer is beneficial, because it reminds you of your mistakes so that you could never make the same mistake twice.

Sometimes, on starless nights, I would raise my cigarette toward the sky out of loneliness to show him that I smoke. Even just in my imagination, I would like to be reprimanded by him just to try to remember how he spoke, how he got angry, how he used to tell other people stories about his high school and college years, his friends, his family, his role as the eldest among them siblings, during which I would sit somewhere and eavesdrop. If I had only known better, I could’ve been the one asking him those questions.

Nine years has passed, but I still couldn’t make myself go to Davao Doctors Hospital alone. I am afraid of seeing the all-too-familiar staircase just a few meters from the entrance to the ICU, the watchers’ area that I guess still weirdly smelled like a nail salon. I could still vividly remember the corridors that led to the cafeteria, or the elevators I couldn’t dare ride alone back then, even in broad daylight. The place where I used to buy DVDs is now replaced by a KFC stall. I cannot dare go up and pass by the room we occupied in those twenty-one days—Room 512. I am scared of that place, not because of rumored ghosts that walk by the corridors at night or the souls that ride the elevators with you when you are alone. I am scared of the memory that that place makes me remember every time, with no fail.

I am afraid of seeing my past self in the form of another kid, running around the halls, the elevators, walking around the reception area toward the exit, toward the DVD stalls while a grandparent of his fights for his life in the ICU. I am scared of passing by the ICU area and seeing the staircase where my mother and her siblings used to sit while waiting for updates. I am scared to see the space where I took off my shoes and wore a green lab gown that one time I entered the ICU. I am scared to see myself riding one of their elevators as I remember how I had fun in those twenty-one days. I am scared of the apathetic, ignorant ghost of a ten-year-old kid, and it kills me that until now, I cannot make myself go to that hospital to make peace with my regrets.

Passing by the cafeteria and ordering my usual 3 PM binignit and spaghetti still scares me. I am scared of the emergency room, the reception area, the entrance, the exit. I am afraid of remembering the routes I took as I walked around the vicinity. I know that eventually I need to face these fears, my ignorance, my apathetic view at that time. I know that someday, I need to muster the courage to be able to look at that child, running, walking, having fun, while his grandfather relied on machines to keep himself alive. It will be the first part to my catharsis. To remember is to kill myself and suffer the pain that I should’ve felt. To remember is to suffer under the “what-ifs.” To feel the pain is to think “I should’ve known better.”

Now my family visits his grave once a month. Since I started going to school at UP Mindanao, I can only visit him during my school breaks. I usually bring nothing with me, except a bottle of water if ever I get thirsty, and a sachet of Off lotion to keep mosquitos away. Now that he is gone, I cannot bring him any gifts.

For now, this will have to do.

Noon Akto-o Hén Fa Gali Em (May Katotohanan Pa Pala)

Ni Adrian Pete Medina Pregonir

(Ang sanaysay na ito ay nanalo ng ikatlong gantimpala sa kategoryang Kabataan Sanaysay sa 69th Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, ngayong 2019.)

Paghahalinghing ito na tinutuldukan ng hinaing ang labis na pagkamuhi sa bawat galaw ng oras na ang manusya ay umaalingasaw sa hangin.

Takna ito na ang pagkakataon ay kumakatok upang maibuwag ang nakapinid na hilagyo ng maraming proseso buhat nitong aking pakikipag-usap sa sariling isip.

Anong oras pa lang. Hindi pa naaninawan ang umuunat na liwanag sa butas ng aming sawaling dingding habang bumabalot ang hamog sa balat ng kapunuan na wala pang tigyaok ang tandang. Wala pang bakya ang lumulundong sa kawayang sahig.  Sa ilang sandaling pagpanaw ay kumakalabit pa ang masiglang basag na nota na parang Betamax na nagsasalita ng pangako mula kahapon. Dalisay pa ang nagtatangging magpakuhang muta sa abandonadong holen at sa bulwagan ng nag-uumpugang kilay. Ngunit nakaiirita nang pakinggan ang mga awiting dumadagundong sa kadalanan na inuuyog pati mga bato at kapunuan sa buong magdamag na pagroronda. Jusko! Nagawa pang magplahiyo ng awiting Momoland at baga’y sinakop na tayo ng mga Koreyano. Nakakaulaw dahil mapapaspageti-pababa ang yaring katawan kung sasabay sa jingle habang nagdi-“Dear Charo” ang kandidato. Ito ang tanging namumukaw sa akin mula sa higaan, kaya parang sinuway ko na ang pagsuway ng bakya ni Yê.

Sa paulit-ulit na propaganda at mga proposisyon ay lumulutang ang huwad na pagkatao tuwing kapihan sa Purok Plaza. Tila mga dagang inumpok ang lahat na mga táong nagsisiksika’t nag-aagawan ng pan de sal at kape sabay na nakikinig sa nang-aakit at nangungusap na mga labi ng kakandarapang konsehal, mayor, at gobernador. Walang lisyang maaga pang gumuho ang bakuran nina Aleng Inday nang hindi malulutsan ng sinulid ang nagsasawata’t naggigitgitang tao. Naghahalong mga salita. Naghahalong hininga. Hiningang may halong kasinungalingan. At dahil sa pagsisiksikang ito nakatagpo ko ang katatagpuin sa lumalaong panahon.

Sa aking pagbukas ng tarangkahan doon sa tapat, mariing nagtaka ako. Marahil hindi na pala Disyembre ang aming piyesta. Abril na. Marami nang mga sinampay na karatula at tarpaulin sa kuryente, sa mga kudal, sa dingding ng bahay, sa kahit saan mang sulok nitong aming lunan. Makikitang aliwalas ang dagway ng pare-parehong mukha, may iba’t ibang itinatagong ipupunla sa panghunahuna.

Isa-isa sa amin ang inaalayan ng tarpaulin na may tatak TOTOO SA SERBISYO. Itinuring nila kaming mga dahak-dahak, ganid sa pera. Kung hindi nila kami makayanang akitin, walang lisya’y pagkaumaga makakikita ka na lang ng sobreng puting nakasabit sa kudal na may nakasulat, “Botoha ako pagka-gobernador, kinyentos para sa imo.” Limandaang piso ang balor ng boto.

Nakagawian ko itong pangyayari tuwing sasapit ang umaga ng Marso at Abril kada tatlong taon. Nakagawian ko ang pagkusot ng kana’t kaliwang mata kung may bumabagabag na alalahaning nagpapatuliro ng aking diwa. Ng aking katauhan. Bilang kabataan. Bilang anak nitong Lupang Sinilangan. Bilang taong may karapatang hanapin ang katotohanan sa minsang pagkaligaw sa maraming panalgan ng pambibilog at pagyurak. Nakalulugod at lubos na ikalulunod ang tuwa kung ito ang pangyayari, ngunit iyan ang danas na itinuring kong kasuklam-suklam. Kapangit tingnan. Pagbebenta ng boto. Pagsisinungaling. Platapormang dati pang kasinungalingan. At minsang isinisikretong pagpaslang ng mga mangangamkam ng sakahan sa kapwa ko Blaan na hindi sumang-ayon sa kanilang panlilinlang na tila mga propeta na tagapagpalaganap ng maling impormasyon sa kanilang edukasyon—nakamit, nagawa, at gagawin pa sa sariling bayan.

Napapatanong na lang ako kung bakit dito kami itinadhana sa panahong talamak ang pagmamaskara. Kung bakit sa lambong ng ulap na umuunat tuwing sasapit ang umaga, sa tanghaling tapat na tutok ang sarili sa sariling pagbilad sa araw, o sa gabing naglalabasan ang kuwentong lamang-lupa ay hindi pa rin nawawala ang pakpak ng balitang hunyango.

Isang pangyayari noon, itong lubos kong pinaniwalaan bilang Mindanawon. Akala ko nga ito ang tama kong akala. At, dito nanibago ako sa salitang fake news. Nanibago ako na may bago palang reyna para rito—Mocha Uson ang katawagan. Nanibago ako dahil minsan din lang akong makakalap ng balita. Ngunit itong paksa kong sasabihin ay tunay na pagsisinungaling mula sa kaniya.

Kabilang ako sa nakipagsiksikan, nagpadala sa kaniyang dila. Akala ko nga ito ang pag-aakalang bigyan kami ng pansin at kalinga sa mga biyayang bigay ni D’wata. Minsan hinahayaan kong dumalaw ang kaluluwa ng aking mga kamag-anak na nadawit sa extrajudicial killings. Ang mga tala ng aking pagpapalapad ng imahinasyon sa tala ay parang pagsasakripisyo dahil binusog kami sa walang kahihiyang panlilinlang. Sa kaniyang plataporma’t propaganda, babaguhin niya raw ang lupaing ito, ang lahat ng pulo, ngunit iba itong aking nadatnan nang nakuha niya ang posisyon. Isang pagpapatiwakal para sa amin. Isang walang proseso ng kahandaan. Isang walang kapararakang paghahanap ng kinagisnang lahi. Isang walang kulay na pagpaslang sa aking kadugo, pag-agaw ng aming lupain na siyang susi sana na ipagbantayog ang aming kalayaan, sa pagpahayag, sa pagsisid sa tunay na katotohanan na ang batayan ay hindi plataporma.

Hindi naman nagkamali noon ang mensahero ni Emilio sa pagpakalap ng katotohanan. Hindi naman nagkamali ng paniniwala si Kudalat sa kaniyang prinsipyo. Ngunit bakit ito ang samu’t saring ganito? Ginawang mapusyaw ang kulay ng paglingon sa aming nasusong tradisyon. Batid ko ang tumoy nito sapagkat dahil din ito sa aking pinili. Gagapang ako upang iangat ang mga sigaw ng nasa bitag ng pagkaparool at nasa laylayang binibigkis ng katiwalian.

Masasabing sa pasan kong isang malapad na kahon na napupulutan ng unti-unting lumuluwag na maninipis na balat ng mais at sakbat, ay kasabay nito ang aking pagkamuhi at muling pagkatuto na hustong aangatin nito ang kanan kong paa patungo sa loob na dapat at marapat paniwalaan. Ito pala ang aming pagdusa dahil sa kawalang kaalaman namin.

Nagkakandalipit sa napuruhang bahagi ng punyal na nakapagpalugmok sa aking pagkawalang timbang ng damdamin ang makailang ulit kong pagkusot sa mata na gayon pa rin ang mga pahina ng plastik na kinababalutan sa hingahang huwad.

Walang makukuha sa akalang tama ang pag-aakala. Walang balor ang limandaang piso upang ibenta ang boto sa isang taong nagkalap ng maling impormasyon, propaganda, at plataporma. Mga butang na nagpilit gumulong sa isip na maging isang katotohanan. Nungkang maniwala sa nambubugaw na dila. Tama ngang may tradisyon akong ganito para mabawasan ang pangambang sumasanib sa aking katawan, isang hindi batayan na tunay niyang isinisiwalat sa lahat ang dapat isiwalat.

Iyan lang. Ngunit, mayroon pa, ito ang huli kong tulong na dapat mong mabatid. Na dapat mabatid ng lahat. Nakalilito man, ngunit ikaw bilang tao ay kailangang maghukay sa maraming paliko-liko, kagaya sa paliko-likong pagpapanggap ng mga politiko mong pinili:

Pabalik-balik ang patutunguhan ng mga bata’t matanda. Lumalangitngit, lumalawiswis ang kawayan. Alam mo iyan. Lumalagaslas ang tubig na minsang yumayakap sa iyong pandinig. May pakpak ang balita. Alam kong alam ng lahat iyan.

Subalit ang dapat na alamin ay hukayin ang mga tagdan kahit yari ito sa semento o sa establisiyemento ng maraming ganid sa yaman na kinagawian ang ritwal ng pagpapakalap ng hunyangong impormasyon upang maibaligtad ang dapat. Mismo, tayo ang magrorolyo ng panibagong paglalakbay gamit ang dugo ng panitik. Gamit ang isip sa pagpili na dapat may kredibilidad at pananalig.

Kaya, ito ako, isang Blaan sa Banga, Timog Cotabato. Isang netibong walang pinag-agam-agam sa maraming baklad ng pagtanaw na may pag-asang makapagtatanong  na may katotohanan pa pala.

Nag-agi ang Agi

Ni Jerico L. Marcelino
Panaysayun

Matapos ang flag ceremony, ginpakilala ang bag-o nga principal sang amun high school. Nagbagting talinga ko katong namangkot siya kung sin-o kuno ang president kang Supreme Student Government kag gintudlo ko ka iban nga istudyanti. Koon na, “Ay, gwapo man gali inyung president.” Baw, manami man pamatian. Pero pagtan-aw ko sa akun mga schoolmate, indi kadlaw nga nalipay ang nakita ko kananda—kadlaw nga may dara nga kung ano nga indi ko maistorya.

Wara gid takun nalipay kamayad sa iskwilahan. Tood, namian ko mag-iskwila. Namian ko makatoon, kag namian ko matawag akon pangaran kada recognition program. Sa indi pagpanghinambog, wara gid ko nadagdag sa top 5 halin elementary paadto hayskul. Pero amo lang da makapalipay kanakun.

Kada pauli, ginapanaw ko ang dalan imaw akun amigo nga si Elmer kay maagyan lang man amun kung paadto sa anda. Yang amigo ko paryas kami sa tanan nga butang. Kung honor student siya, amo man ko. Kung para-garden siya, amo man ko. Kung grabi tana kang limpyado, ah, amo man ko, pero gamay lang. Daw nahimo run gani tamun nga kapid.

Kung pauli, raku ko maagyan, apil ang dalan nga tunga semento, tunga awot nga lupa. “Oh, ja ruman yang mga laki nga wara mahimo sa kinabuhi nanda,” koon ko sa utok ko tong paagi dun kami sa terminal diin nagaturumpok ang mga tambay. Amo gid nang ginaindian ko bala nga may masublangan ko tapos manunlog kag magkinaradlawanay, magkoon, “Hi, chicks!” “Ay, bayot ko!” “Hi, Miss Beautiful!” Sakit sa pamatyagan nga mas kilala pa gali ko nanda kumpara sa akun ginikanan, sa akun pamilya, kag mismo sa akun kaugalingon. Nabatyagan ko man gyapon nga nag-init dugo kang imaw ko kay tana mismo naapektuhan kay darwa kami ginatan-aw nanda.

Tong rapit dun kami sa amun balay, naagyan namun ang pustaanan kang lotto diin may ingud nga sarisa. “Agay!” sakit-sakit gid tana akun ulo nga daw ano may natabug. Gali yang mga bata nga nagsirnaka sa sarisa ang nagtarablog sa amun. OK lang gid to daad sa amun, pero tong kinan-anan pa gid nanda ang andang gintamblog, dara kantsaw nga, “Bayot! Bayot! Bayot!” Akun ugat sa lawas daw mauslo sa kaugot, pero ginpunggan ko kaugalingon ko. Ang imaw ko wara gid nakapugung. Namurot tana kang mga bato, kag wara bala ginpanglibag tong mga bata sa babaw kang sarisa. Imbis nga maugot ko, nakakadlaw lamang takun dun sa anang gihimo.

Pag-uli ko sa balay, nami anay daad magpuhay pero kinanglan gid mag-ubra kang mga urubrahun sa balay. Ang balay koon nanda mabatyagan mo ang tood nga tender loving care, pero ngaa wara to nakun nabatyagan. Kay imo tana mismo nga kaburugtuan makabati ka kang indi amo. Ang ginadahum mo nga magbulig sa imo, mag-una-una pa kang panunlog sa imo. Mapaisip na lang ko kung gab-i kis-a nga nagbahul man ko ba nga indi man lain sa iban nga mga bata—naghampang kang takyan, nagsyatong, naghimo kang pinggan-pinggan nga halin sa lupa kag ginhaloan kang laway, nagsugba kang dahon kag baklun gamit ang panit kang kindi. Nakita ko nga mayad ang tanan. Ang indi ko lang gid maintindihan, ang abnormal nga utok kang iban.

Mapaiskwilahan, dalan, tindahan, kompyuteran o bulantihan, indi madura ang mata gaturok sa imo, mata nga dara panghimantay sa imo nga pagkatawo. Nag-abot sa akun panghunahuna kag natiman-an ko man nga biskan ano ka pa gali ka brayt, biskan gali raku-raku ang imong naadtunan nga lugar kay tungod lang sa mga kuntes nga nadaugan, kag biskan ano pa nga pakitang tao ang himoon mo, ang mga tawo bala isa lang ang makoon sa imo—kag amo ra kung ano lang ang makita nanda sa imo.

Hangtud kadja sa balay, agi ang tawag nanda sa akun. Biskan si Katay magsunlog nga dalagingging ang tawag sa akon. Ginapaintindi ni Kanay nga ang agi indi bayot sa amun kundi hinay maglihok nga daw bahi. Naintindihan ko run sanda, ang akun pamilya, kag amo to ang nagtatak sa akun. Indi ko bayot. Agi ko.

Hangtud kadja nagkinabuhi ko sa kalibutan nga puno kang mata nga turukon kaw mapabuhok paadto kuko. Nagkinabuhi ko nga dara-dara ang nalung-ong sa akun kaagi. Kung pabay-an mo ang mga tawo magdikta sa imo nga pagkatawo, pildi ka. Wara ka mahimo kada kundi magkinabuhi kung ano lamang ang andang ikoon kay gusto mo gid dawaton ka nanda.

Ginparas ko ang panghunahuna nga amo kato. Ginsulat ko gid sa akun ulo nga indi mo kinanglan magpaayun sa andang ikoon, magpadawat para madawat. Dawata lang gid kaugalingon mo kung ano timo. Nalung-ong ko nga indi mo kinanglan magpakitang tao—nga ang tood nga lalaki brusko, macho, may bungot, kag dalum ang limog—kay ang tood nga laki may jan bahul nga respeto—respeto sa bahi, sa ginikanan, sa iban tawo, kag mismo sa sarili. Ang pinakanami gid nga buhaton, man-anun mo ang tagipusoon mo. Man-an mo ang ginahunghong niya kag kilala mo kaugalingon mo. Kag man-an mo kung ano ang tood nga ginatudlo kang Ginoo. Amo ra ang pinaka-importante sa tanan.

Mismo ang sitwasyon kag panahon nagtudlo sa akun nga indi na magpaapekto. May madura haw sa imo kung ano man ang ikoon nanda? May madawat ka haw kung batuan mo sanda? Wara biskan sentimo.

Buayahon

Ni Hannah Adtoon Leceña
Gumalaysay

“Nanie buayahon!”

Mao ni ang permanente nako madungog sa akoang mga kadula sukad pa sa una. Buayahon daw kuno ko. Kana bang tuo-tuo nga aduna koy buaya sa akoang kamot maong wala koy mga igsuon. Kay tungod lagi gitukob daw nako sila.

Tinuod. Upat unta mi karon nga mag-igsuon. Ingon sa mga tawo, do-re-mi unta mi. Apan ambot unsay nahitabo nga ako ra man ang nabuhi sa amoa. Ug kung dili ako ang una nahimugso, mabuhi kaha sila?

Akoang una nga igsuon, baynte anyos na unta siya karon—lalaki, gwapo, liwat kuno sa akoang amahan, taliwtig og ilong. Ang misunod kaniya, babae. Igo ra kini nakahilak ug namatay dayon. Nilabay ang pila ka tuig, nasundan na sab kini, ang akong igsuon nga si Princess, nga nabuhi pa og usa ka buwan. Ingon sa mga tawo, gwapa daw kaayo kini. Maong Princess iyahang ngalan kay mora kuno siyag usa ka prinsesa. Nagmaya ang tibuok banay sa pag-abot niya sa amoang kinabuhi. Apan nilabay ang usa ka buwan, nagsakit na sab kini. Nagpulihanay ra mig sakit ni Princess. Halos maglurat na kuno iyahang mata tungod sa kainit, ug paghuman niya mahuwasi, ako na man sab ang maglimbaglimbag tungod sa taas nga hilanat.

Paghuman sa usa ka buwan, namatay siya.

Dili nako mahinumdoman ang kinatibuokan tungod kay hanap kini sa akoang panumdoman. Mag-upat ka tuig pa ko niadtong panahona. Apan dili nako makalimtan ang sakit. Dili mahimong makalimot ko sa kapait nga akoang gibati sa una (ug tingalig hangtod karon).

Gamay nga lungon nga kolor pink ang gipanday ni Angkol Balong alang kang Daping, angga ni Princess. Mihilak si Lolo sa hilom. Nilagupok ang bungbong sa balay, ug nasamad ang kinumo ni Papang. Ningaab akoang Lola Pilang ug mga iyaan. Ilahang mga mata nitan-aw kanako, samtang ako nisiplat kang Daping, tua sa higdaanan giilisan ni Mamang og sanina. Gisuot ni Princess akoang paborito nga sinina.

Pila na ka manambalan ang giadtoan sa akoang ginikanan aron lang pakudlitan akoang kamot. Sukad katong elementarya pa ko. Moadto mi usahay og bukid sa Kansan ug sa Pansulan aron magpakitabang sa mga manambalan aron lagi mamanghoran na ko. Sumala pa sa akoang inahan, katong bata pa ko, gipakudlitan kuno ko sa usa ka manambalan—si Sigon, nga gikan pa kuno sa Lake Sebu. Gigisian niini akoang palad ug gitunol sa kagabhion nga hayag kaayo ang buwan anha gihimo ang ritwal. Paghuman, abi sa mga tawo naayo na gyod ko, apan wala diay gihapon.

“Ikaw, tungod sa imo maong namatay ang imong mga igsuon!” Mao kini ang nadungog nako sa akoang inahan sa gabii nga nagbilar sila sa haya ni Princess.

“Tungod nako namatay sila,” ingon pod nako sa akong kaugalingon.

Hangtod sa nitungha ako sa eskuylahan, mao lang gihapon ang sunlog sa akoa sa akoang mga kadula. “Nanie buayahon!”

Hangtod sa nitungha ko og kolehiyo, ikapila makuhaan si Mamang. Ikapila na sab ko magpatambal sa bisag kinsa bisan pa og sukwahi kini sa akoang ginatuohan. Nakahinumdom ko, adunay usa ka manambalan nga miadto sa amoang balay. Tag-as kaayo kinig kuko, ug gisuksok niini iyahang mga kuko sa akoang mga kuko samtang nagsulti og mga pulong nga wala namo masabti. Nagdugo intawon akoang kamot. Nakahilak ko dili sa kasakit sa akoang kamot apan tungod sa gibati sa akoang dughan. Nilabay ang pila ka buwan, nagmabdos akoang inahan, tulo ka buwan.

“Ayaw sa og uli diri kay nagmabdos imohang mama,” segun ni Papang.

Tama. Dili sa ko angay magpaduol sa akoang inahan. Apan naunsang pagkaunsa man nga bisag layo na kaayo ko sa ilaha, nahulogan ra man gihapon siya. “Bisag nakudlitan na ka, kung dili ka motuo, dili gihapon na moepekto!” segun sa akoa sa mga tawo.

Sala gihapon diay nako. Sala sa akoang mga kamot. Itambong ko na ba kaha kini sa impyerno?

“Buayahon ka?” pangutana sa akoang classmate nga si April sa akoa usa ka adlaw nga nahisgotan namo sa eskuylahan ang tuo-tuo sa amoa nganong wala koy igsuon. “Ako wala sab koy igsuon,” ingon niya. “Tulo pod unta mi, pero namatay pod sila. Gipangsulod namo sila sa gamay nga botelya.”

Nahikurat ko sa nadungog gikan niya. “Buayahon sab ka?” pangutana nako.

“Dili. Ingon sa manambalan, naay lungon sa akoang kamot.”

“Lungon?”

“Oo, lungon. Ug kabalo ba ka, Han, kung dili ta magpakudlit, dili sab ta magkaanak?”

“Ha?”

“Sumpa kini.”

Mitan-aw ko sa mga kuriskuris sa akoang palad. Ani diay kagamhanan ang kamot nako.

Karong kalagkalag, duawon na pod nako si Princess sa iyahang lubnganan. Wala ko pa gihapon napasaylo akoang kaugalingon sa nahitabo. Lisod patuohon ang akoang kaugalingon nga dili ako ang sad-an nganong nawala siya namo.

Liko’t Lubak

Ni Allan Ace Dignadice
Sanaysay

 

“How do you see yourself ten years from now?”

Biglang gumulo ang klase. May mga bulong-bulungan at tawanan. Bigla akong kinabahan. Bumilis ang tibok ng aking puso. Napaisip. Napahinto.

Ano na nga ba ako ten years from now? Ano nga ba talaga ang gusto ko?

* * *

Hindi ko na matandaan kung ano ang pinakauna kong “gusto kong maging.” Siguro ang maging guro dahil guro si Lola Eling, si Angkol Val, at ang iba ko pang mga pinsan. Natatandaan ko ring minsan ginusto kong maging isang scientist o astronaut dala na rin siguro ng pagkahumaling ko sa mga pambatang palabas sa telebisyon. Aaminin kong naisip ko ring maging pulis o sundalo, kaso nga lang di ako pinagpala sa tangkad, kaya hindi talaga ako siguro para doon. Oo, pinangarap ko ring makapaglaro sa Wowowee o di kaya’y makapasok sa Pinoy Big Brother—maging artista at maging mayaman.

Minsan, sa exchange gifts noong ako’y nasa ikalawa o ikatlong baitang, niregaluhan ako ng aking monita ng isang pares ng boxing gloves. Nang malaman ni Papang, ginawan niya ako ng punching bag gamit ang sako na pinuno ng mga lumang damit para pag-ensayuhan. Malaki kasi ang pera kung magiging boksingero gaya ni Pacquiao. Masyado nga lang suntok sa buwan.

Pagtuntong ko ng high school, natuon sa agham at sipnayan ang mga hilig ko at ang pinapangarap kong maging balang araw. Nang minsang makasali ako sa isang advocacy campaign para sa pangagalaga ng karagatan, nahabag ako nang sobra at naisipang maging isang marine biologist. Dumagdag pa ang pagkamangha ko sa pag-aaral sa katubigan nang mabasa ko ang Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ni Jules Verne. Isang kudkuran sa aking haraya ang nobela na para bang inaakit akong halungkatin kung ano pa ang mga itinatago sa kailaliman ng karagatan. Subalit hindi ako marunong lumangoy. Sayang.

Naging career model student naman ako nang grade 10 sa hindi ko malamang dahilan. Ang masaya pa, sa araw ng career guidance, nakalimutan kong kailangan pala naming gumayak gaya ng gusto naming propesyon balang-araw. Kaya naman nang tinawag na ako upang magpakilala, suot ko’y puting T-shirt at khaki pants. Kumuha ako ng rolyo ng kartolina at hiniram ang hard hat ng isa kong kasama.

“Ako nga pala si Allan Ace Dignadice,” pakilala ko. “Gusto kong maging surveyor . . .”

Hindi ko na matandaan kung ano pa ang pinagsasabi ko nang araw na iyon. Ayaw ko na rin namang alalahanin. At isa pa, ayoko naman talagang maging isang surveyor.

Pagsapit ng grade 12, halos lahat ay sabik sa kaliwa’t kanang exams para sa mga kolehiyong nais nilang pasukan. Habang ako ay hindi pa rin alam kung ano nga ba ang tatahakin. Sinubukan kong kumuha ng University of the Philippines College Admission Test dahil libre naman at wala rin akong balak na doon mag-aral, ngunit nang lumabas ang resulta at nakapasa ako sa pinili kong kampus at kurso, magkahalong saya at ligalig ang naramdaman ko.

Kaya ko bang maging isang chemical engineer? tanong ko sa sarili. Masyadong malayo ang Maynila. Hindi ako marunong magluto, maglaba. Paano kung magkasakit ako? Hindi ko kaya. Pero sayang.

Sa mga panahong ito ako napaisip kung ano nga ba ang gusto ko maging. Hindi na puwede ang magkamali. Kinabukasan na ang nakataya.

* * *

Tumayo ako, nanginginig at natatakot. Naramdaman ko ang paglapat ng mga mata ng aking mga kaklase sa akin. Biglang tumahimik ang silid.

“I am Allan Ace Dignadice, and I see myself ten years from now . . . here.” Naramdaman ko ang panunuyo ng aking lalamunan. Nilunok ko ang aking laway. “I’ll be teaching here as a professor at Mindanao State University.”

Noong panahong iyon, hindi ko masukat ang kaba at pananabik kong makita ang hinaharap at magkatotoo ang mga salitang binitiwan ko. Hindi na ako bata upang mangarap ng suntok sa buwan, ngunit hindi ako bata upang hindi manindigan.

Nasa dugo ko na siguro talaga ang maging guro, hindi dahil angkan kami ng mga guro kundi dahil nakita ko ang pangangailangan ng komunidad. Masyado nang marami ang gustong umalis upang maghanap ng karangyaan sa ibang lugar. Masyado nang marami ang nagbabalak na iwan ang lugar na kanilang kinalakihan. Ayaw ko nang dumagdag.

Alam kong masyadong idealistic, masyadong madrama, ’yong tipong papunta na sa ulirang mamamayan. Ngunit sa lahat ng ginusto kong maging, ngayon ako mas sigurado. At ang bawat paliko-liko at mga lubak-lubak na dinaanan ko bago ako pumirmi sa desisyon kong ito ang patunay na anuman ang mangyari, makakarating ako sa kung saan ako dapat sa mundong ito. Alam ko na ang gusto ko—gusto kong makatulong sa aking pamayanan.

Memories of Compound

By Estrella Taño Golingay
Essay

Compound was a popular name given to Surallah by its residents in its early days. The place was probably called such because it was the location of the motor pool for a government agency that functioned as authority in land appropriation and mapping in these areas. I grew up with that name, until such time that it became Libertad, the official name for the Poblacion. In those times, Compound was just a part of Banga, by then already a thriving town where people gathered during fiesta and school activities or watched a movie and purchased family stuff in its market.

My memories of Compound consisted of a clutter of huge farm machinery and equipment scattered all over the vacant area where the gym, municipal hall, and barangay buildings for health center and other social services now stand. It was covered with tall tigbao weed, cogon, and plants that creeped up the canopies of the giant graders, backhoes, harvesters, glides for children, and other steel structures. In the afternoons, after school dismissal, some of us living along the highway in the Allah Valley area would drop our cellophane or buri bags and climb the tall slides and other structures left to the elements. Somehow, our frolic helped preserve the equipment, with our nimble hands and legs getting rid of the unwanted weeds and polishing off the dust. A large warehouse contained the more gigantic equipment at the back of the property of the Habaluyas family, a block away from the highway. Later, scrap business surfaced as businessmen grabbed the opportunity, and soon those scrawny structures were gone.

At the middle of that wide junkyard were footways made by elementary pupils from the adjacent Libertad Central School in their effort to make shortcuts so as not to be late or caught while cutting classes. I was one of them, having started my elementary education in the same school. It was a massive two-story wooden building in U shape, housing the six classrooms and offices. The most remembered part of my elementary was the feeding program—the convenience food or Nutribun, the porridge, and sometimes the non-fat dried milk that we loved to pour into a cone-shaped piece of paper from which we could sip the milk as we walked home.

A community clinic and hospital was said to have existed on our lot along the highway at the Allah Valley area in the ’50s. When we came, some debris of the old structure were still visible, and remnants of medical essentials like tubes and small bottles with white tablets were scattered all over the place, stretching several lots behind. The abandoned place gave out an uncanny ambiance, and as pioneers claimed, that spot had become a haven of creepy sounds and sights, and true, I became an unwilling witness to a few eerie experiences.

Our old house was located a block away from the Alah Valley school, the first high school put up in the early ’60s, which my elder siblings attended and where an elder sister later taught. The school activities became the town entertainment since there were nothing else aside from the annual town fiestas. Hordes of people would flock at the low fence even for the simplest Philippine Military Training drills in the afternoons. It later expanded to college department since the faculty were from the University of the Philippines and proven to be experts in the field. I remember them when walking by the main cobbled road. We would literally drop whatever we were doing to watch them walking closely by, trying to name them and what they taught. For us kids and adults, they looked like gods and goddesses from the sky, with their tall height, fair skin, pretty faces, smart getup, and beautiful shoes. They were everyone’s idea of celebrities, and they inspired the parents to send their children to school. Add to that their Tagalog tongue that we could only hear on radio drama. Later, with winds of progress, a sectarian school, Notre Dame, was founded by the Passionist congregation in 1967 led by Fr. Paschal Smith, CP, who was also the first parish priest. It has been managed by St. Paul Sisters of Chartres. Rooting for sectarian system and exposure, the clientele, including myself, flocked to its door.

The first municipal office was a building at the right side of the Catholic church just before the hardware store. It was a bungalow-type structure raised some four feet high up so that the ground floor served as store room of boxes and pieces of wood and logs. All the main offices were there, including the post office, where we went for the mails. Along that street, opposite the massive house of the Habaluyas family, where Holy Child school now stands, was the largest store in town owned by the Tan family before they transferred to their present location. It was a huge wooden building with four steps up and around, the source of all that the community seemed to need, including rice, dried fish, over-the-counter medicine, nails, needles, large bread, and even dresses. Our Store—managed by the late Mr. Tan himself, or Intsik, as we fondly called him—was our little market because it seemed to have everything that we needed.

The original parish church was a smaller one on the same lot provided by the government but was later extended when the adjacent lot was bought through the effort of Fr. Hilarion Walters. I remember Fr. Smith, the first parish priest, a saintly, chubby, and jolly old man. He was so close to us children that he’d lift us and sometimes hoist the boys on his shoulders while trying to speak to us in Hiligaynon. Wherever he went, he was followed by kids. But before the building of the Catholic church, we would troop to the first Baptist church located in front of the health center when we were kids to watch biblical films on weekends and savor some candies given out.

Before it became Maharlika Highway, the main road was actually just a rough road, and my older siblings and other students who went to high school in Notre Dame of Banga either hiked or rode a cart pulled by a carabao passing it. I remember that our area was a hilly terrain. That was all leveled to the ground when construction equipment came to build better roads as the place was getting developed. By then, the first mode of transportation was the remnant of the U.S. open weapon carrier types: the open gray-colored four-wheeled vehicles and the covered one that rumbled along the rough road. When riding them, you had to be tough too, for it could toss you around when it swayed sideways and forward for every bump on the gravel road. Later, big buses of the Cotabato Bus company plied the highway from Dadiangas (now General Santos City) to Cotabato City and on to Davao City, which took a day and a half to travel.

Since there was no electricity, there were no television sets and other gadgets, and the only form of entertainment available was soap operas on the radio. The most popular drama series was Duelo sa Sapang Bato aired by DZXL every 6:30 PM. Since only my uncle Teoy had a radio set in the family, their yard would be full of friends and relatives every night without fail. Occasionally, a free movie would be shown in the plaza, sponsored by the soft drinks and soap companies as a form of advertisement. The type of films shown in the plaza was usually the Western cowboy movies of old. On this much-awaited nocturnal gatherings, the whole population of Compound would be at the plaza, leaving their houses with no one behind, to gather for the English movie, after which the walk back home would be abuzz with retelling of highlights that sometimes led to arguments on some misinterpretations. The following day, the movie would still be the topic among groups of people and children in the school until another event came to replace it. Another entertainment was the annual circus that offered a variety of shows, including drama, apart from the gymnastics, Ferris wheel, and the main attraction, which was the flying trapeze. It didn’t take long for the players to be the celebrity idols of the residents. In addition, people read novels and short stories found in Liwayway and Hiligaynon magazines and in the comics, such as Aliwan, Hiwaga, Tagalog Klasiks, and Pilipino Komiks, featuring the best artists and authors like Mars Ravelo.

Marketing in the early ’60s was something to relish especially if you had a little left to spend from the annual harvest of rice. A kilogram of palay was pegged by traders at 10 centavos, but the exchange rate was 3 Philippine pesos per 1 U.S. dollar, which made our currency very strong then. Early on, my mother had a small store on the ground floor of our house, so I was able to remember prices of commodities, such as soft drinks for only 15 centavos per bottle, rice for 20 to 30 centavos per ganta, and candies for 1 centavo each. In the market, fish could be bought from 50 to 80 centavos per kilogram and a meter of cloth from 50 centavos to 1.50 pesos depending on the kind. The first market area was composed of makeshift stalls on the same current spot. Later, when the market was modernized, it was transferred to the area where Libertad National High School now stands. It was an old rice field tilled by residents but was acquired by the government. My mother owned a stall in that market selling grocery items, and it was there where I was exposed to business.

In the early ’60s, with the progressive leadership of the first mayor, Jose T. Sison, Surallah was opened to the outside world with the opening of the first and only airport in the province and nearby places. The airstrip is a stone’s throw away from the market and still operates for smaller aircrafts nowadays, and its operation and location have spawned controversies. Having that airport in its early operations was a different experience for us kids, as it enabled us to have glimpses of very important personalities and events that the airplanes brought. We became accidental part of the welcoming party to big people like Pres. Diosdado Macapagal or the movie stars Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa, Liberty Ilagan, and others as we breached security and scrambled to reach for their hands for a touch or a handshake, which they gladly obliged. We relished telling others how beautiful and fragrant they were as we sniffed the air for a whiff of perfume they were wearing. It was easier for our leaders to regale us, the residents, with visitors during the inaugural fiestas with faces we only saw on Liwayway and Hiligaynon. For us, they were all “artistas” and they were an excellent complement to our local beauty queens coming from the Camachos of early ’60s, the Sisons, the Galangs, and other early queens we saw only during the parade and the coronation night during the anniversary fiestas.

The culture of beauty pageant was through popularity contest, requiring the highest monetary values for the queen and lesser for members of the royal court. The fiesta would usually end with a bang with the parade of winners, followed by the coronation night wherein celebrity guests were invited and important political figures crowned the queen and her court. They would then deliver their long speeches, making us yawn to our hearts’ content. But before that, the VIP couples, composed of the mayor and the councilors and their spouses and guests, were given the chance to dance the night away, giving the townspeople the thrill of the evening. Those evening revelries opened for us the Pandora’s box of fun and excitement while watching the public ballroom dance as the couples whirled their evening gowns to the beat of tango, cha-cha, and waltz for the adult and twist, limbo rock, and more for the younger ones. Those were the nights the people never missed so they could assert who the best dancer was or who wore the best gown as they reminisced the experience in their dining tables or with neighbors and friends at the corner store and marketplace. For days, the townspeople had the coronation night as their staple food. Who would have thought that in this southern part of Mindanao lay a young town where people of different regional background co-existed peacefully and so cosmopolitan in their outlook in life, warding off the so-called internal threats of extremists that had plagued other parts of the island.

The early days of Compound resonated with the more popular family names in the recesses of my mind, such as Sison, Habaluyas, Eleazar, Molina, Haguisan, Bendita, Camacho, Galang; the teachers Eslaban, Sagra, Sustento, Sta. Maria, Dogoldogol, Aguil, Dolar, Bayoguing, Pangilinan, and Dr. Velasquez; and the foreign religious Fr. Paschal, Fr. Raymond Pulvino, and Fr. Hilarion, among many others.

Living in Compound then was like living in a paradise, deserving a tribute all its own.

Addressing Racism: Steadfast Wherever My Feet Lead Me

By Midpantao Midrah G. Adil II

(This essay is the winner of the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

In search of great treasure, one must first learn to defy the limits. This is the particular teaching that my parents left me before they went to the afterlife.

Having been left as an orphan at an early age, I never really had the wits to decipher what was their truest intent. The only thing they left me was a piece of vague philosophy that even a fifteen-year-old boy would never understand. So, it was then when I decided that it was about time to start my very own crusade—to look for life’s greatest treasure.

As a natural-born Maguindanaoan, I was raised to love my tribe’s culture. My father instilled many great things in my young naive mind, including the exquisite wonders of our family tradition. He was indeed a great fine man, and just like any father, he was my biggest support system.

I could still recall my ten-year-old self indulging in the euphony of authentic kulintang music while engaging my eyes in a colorful show of Muslim ritual dances and feasting over lavish food during certain occasions such as kalilang, or traditional wedding ceremony, within the family. Truly, everything was a remarkable experience. On the other hand, the abundance of elaborate tapestry draped all across the house was a sign that our kin had an affinity for big celebrations. It was part of our culture.

As a child, I was also a big dreamer. Taking myself to greater heights was something that ignited the fighter in me. My burning passion for self-expression taught me to become vocal about the things that concerned me one way or another.

I dreamed of becoming a writer. However, some of my aspirations were too much for me to handle; also, most turned out to be impractical in the eyes of my family. All I had was a heavy amount of disapproval from my kin. They wanted me to embrace the family tradition—to become a lawyer, not “a lousy journalist,” as they called it. But deep within my heart, I knew I needed not follow them. It was clear to me that my heart longed for something extraordinary.

At a very young age, I have always been committed to the urge of looking for life’s truest meaning. My feet have dragged me from various places throughout the island to find meaning in my existence.

Mindanao has been my home for the past twenty years. I was born and raised in the province of Sultan Kudarat. Although most of my ancestors were from Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, my father decided to settle in Tacurong to give me a good urban life. As a lawyer, a city was the best place for him to earn a living. In the city, I was enlightened about many things in life. And almost nothing was sugarcoated.

The struggle began when my parents sent me to a private Catholic school. Living in an island where Muslims are commonly stereotyped as terrorists, suicide bombers, and enemies of the state, it was very hard for a kid like me to fit in. There’s a stigma with being a Muslim. Many non-Muslims fear that my families might be affiliated with terrorist groups. In effect, I often became the target of bullies.

My heartbreaking experiences from my critics made me resilient. In fact, I never hated my bullies. If anything, I became quite grateful because, for what they did, I grew up as a strong man. It’s not that I tolerate these kinds of acts, and I know I must not. It’s just that, without them dragging me down, I would have never risen and become the person that I am now. For me, they made me who I am.

Way back in my childhood days, I was labeled with far too many harsh words: terorista, moros, damak na Muslim, and many more. I was considered inferior because I was a Muslim. The proud race that I had grown up in became my greatest downfall. Without noticing it, I became ashamed of my ethnicity and felt that I had to blend in. Many of my relatives may be outraged why I did this, but it’s human nature. I needed to be liked.

It is quite unfathomable how some people could develop a bad sense of racism against the culture I have. Suffice it to say that I cannot point my fingers directly at these people. This exact feeling makes me remember something that occurred two years ago.

In 2017, parts of Marawi City were bombed into rubble by the local ISIS terrorists, the Maute group. This marked the dawn of Mindanao’s desolate fate. I never personally witnessed the tragedy; however, as a student journalist, I remember my eyes being tightly glued to the late evening news. That was an imperative trait—a social responsibility, at the least—for a scribe.

The bullet-drilled infrastructure along with the ghosted streets of Marawi was a clear implication that everything was out of control. It felt real. The fear crippled me knowing that it might also happen in my town if not controlled by the authority.

The televised view of the cold frigid bodies of the casualties being pulled away from the bombarded buildings broke my heart. The tragedy made it to the headlines of all media networks that day. With peace becoming a scarce commodity in the market, hope was held hostage by fear.

I asked God that time that if he was watching, why was he letting those things happen? If life mattered to him, why was he allowing those poor innocent lives to be taken away? If it was wrong to kill, why was he letting the evils of mankind slaughter the entire city? I myself could not find the right words to answer my questions. I had too much doubt in my mind.

As an eighteen-year-old during that time, I already had some maturity to weigh the rationality of things. The Maute group was fighting for the empowerment of their clan. They might have sparked a wrong kind of fight, but it shook me to a realization. If there had been peace, harmony, and equality within the island, no one would have ever craved for destruction. No one would have plotted for supremacy. However, they did. That’s the saddest conclusion that I could arrive upon. Is this a war of races, and whoever is non-Muslim gets beheaded? This was the thought in my mind.

The Maute group was fighting for dominance of Islam in Marawi. It was a crusade—the evil form, to think of it. Race and religion were dividing the island into non-substantial factions. It was the embodiment of the bullying I had received when I was still in elementary school. But now, it was us who had become the bullies. I know people will counter-argue that the Maute group was not true Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace, but I am talking about the times when all they ever wanted was to eradicate the non-members of their faction. This is the brutal truth.

It was later this year when the Bangsamoro Organic Law was finally pitched in Congress. Because it was offering to be a substantial answer to the conflicts arising within the island, I became quite ecstatic to hear the news that the government was finally taking a stand on the empowerment of my people—not only the Moro but the tri-people in general. It painted a warm smile in my face after seeing how people of different races came together in the fight to address the problems of Mindanao.

For the past decades, Mindanao has been a place of bloodbath. With the uprisings and revolts that have taken place, one might begin to ask, Is God still here? I don’t know. Lives have been lost, and souls have been wasted. This isn’t the Mindanao I had in mind as a child. No one ever understood the severity of the situation. However, I’ve never lost hope.

I have been to various provinces within the island. I have been to Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato, South Cotabato, the Davao provinces, Bukidnon, Sarangani, Maguindanao, and more to learn the substantial differences between the peoples of Mindanao. Not every expedition was entirely fruitful, but I consider everything as a stepping-stone, to say the least.

Is Mindanao really at war? Everywhere I go, I hear stories of conflicts and despair. Deprivation of rights to land ownership as well as struggles to find adequate support from the government has awakened me to fight alongside with the victims. As a student journalist, these have been my inspiration for my craft.

With my fellow campus journalists in Cotabato, I ventured to Barangay Kisante in Makilala to conduct an extension activity in a young Lumad boarding school in 2018.  There, one thing caught my attention—a group of young people walking in the vicinity with schoolbags on. It was definitely a heartwarming sight.

It was pleasing to see that despite the poverty and lack of resources, the children were still sent by their parents to school for them to have access to education. This might be the kind of improvement that their ancestors might have dreamed from the beginning.

With boarding schools like the one we visited, the young Lumads of Cotabato are given education about their socio-economic, political, and cultural rights. They are able to gain empowerment and protect their ancestral domains and exercise their rights to self-determination.

The stories that I heard from the children broke my heart a thousand fold. Most of them lacked decent clothes to wear and notebooks to write on. The stories made me realize that my responsibilities crossed beyond the boundaries of conventional writing. I must help change the world one story at a time.

My family, being inhabitants of Maguindanao, took me around to witness the growing poverty in various Moro communities. I was exposed to the kind of life that many of our people have. Pagalungan, a small municipality at the heart of Maguindanao, is one of them. I am not from the place, but my father was. Despite the small amount of time I’ve been there, I was able to tell that most houses in the area lacked potable water sources and access to modern facilities. As how I witnessed politics in Muslim areas, there might also be bloodbaths. Unfortunately, that is how life is there.

In search of more stories to tell, I never stopped exploring. My curiosity brought me to a trip in Arakan, Cotabato. About 88 kilometers away from Kabacan, where I was staying at the time, is the hidden gem that is Bani Falls, also called Matigol Falls by local trekkers. Sitio Inamong, Barangay Datu Ladayon, where the waterfall is located, is a small village that is home to the indigenous peoples Manobo and Tahurog.

I was quite astonished how these people had managed to live atop the mountain and display vibrant smiles on their faces. Life there was decent and, well, peaceful. Because they were way too far to be reached by amenities and government services, they found ways to improvise things. They made me realize that happiness doesn’t always have to come with a price.

The people there are one of the most welcoming peoples I have met in my entire existence. They accompanied me and my friends throughout our trip. They shared with me the gifts of Mother Nature. Indeed, the memories we had in that journey have been truly worth remembering.

From the young Lumads in Makilala, Cotabato, to the Moro in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, and even the indigenous tribes in the rocky mountains of Arakan, Cotabato, my pen has painted stories that are truly close to my heart. Mindanao is my home, and the people here are my soul.

For the past five years, I have dedicated my life to the journey of finding the said treasure. I have been to various islands within the country looking for meaning and trying to defy whatever limits life has imposed on me.

From Pampanga to the highlands of Baguio City and the busy streets of Metro Manila, I have explored places in search of stories. Every time I travel, I meet new people, blending with their culture and eventually becoming one of them. Learning about people’s traditions and embracing their culture is my biggest contribution in addressing racism and breaking the stigma. If I have learned anything, it is that no race or ethnicity is above any other.

Despite the various places I have been, Mindanao is the only place for me that feels like home. There is truly a fine line that separates this great island from the entire Philippine archipelago. Mindanao is filled with gems and treasures. It offers a rarity that is beyond the imperial. The part of the culture that I left home still echoes back to my heart. Mindanao is the haven of the brightest treasures in the country. What are its treasures? Its diverse people.

In my search for the greatest treasure, I have learned to defy the limits. I learned to set aside my selfish desires and individuality. These stories made me into someone who is well aware of his identity. As I embraced far-flung cultures even though they aren’t close to mine, I became complete.

My parents have taught me that the beauty of life only reveals itself the very moment you allow yourself to discover its greatest secrets. The instant you break free from the stigma is when you learn to find meaning in your life. You see that the world is truly full of hidden treasures.

Being different is not a liability. It’s a gift. We should celebrate our uniqueness. Our diversity. Our roots. Our race. The sun will shine one day with the peace I’m fervently praying for already in our hands. If there is one thing that I have learned throughout my journey, it is that the Philippines has a lot to offer. And I can’t wait to board another plane to my next destination.

Fear Takes a Back Seat

By Ma. Isabelle Alessandra M. Mirabueno

(This essay is a finalist in the 2nd Lagulad Prize.)

How far do the lives of Mindanaoan civilians lie outside of over-exaggerated social stereotypes? Growing up in General Santos City, I would travel beyond the city perimeters and witness how, in reality, this really depends on where people lie on the broad spectrum of economic status and security. In my case, there’s a fortunate scarcity of bullet shells and bomb explosions. Of course, the life of a resident in Mindanao isn’t complete without getting used to the rumors of bomb threats going around every few months and the red alerts here and there. How we are able to live with these so-called norms—a sad observation—speaks that we all have our own stories to tell, some more tragic or peculiar than others.

I still remember it, clear as day. It was a normal school day in the year 2015, the year when the move to formally approve and implement the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was under heavy political debate. I recall the confusion and curiosity when all of the ongoing classes were put on hold and the entire junior high school population was abruptly called for an assembly in the covered court. My schoolmates and I figured that it would be some kind of drill or important school announcement, but then the introductions commenced and we found out that we were all called out for an orientation and seminar of sorts to be conducted by several representatives of a pro-BBL organization.

I was an eighth grader, but I was already aware of how controversial and sensitive the issue was at the time. Due to this, I was impressed by the school administrators’ open-mindedness when they agreed to hold the event, especially since we were in a typical “conservative Catholic institution.” The speakers were really competent in what they were doing since they managed to sway and gain the approval of the majority of the students inside the court. They managed to explain and explore in simple terms the details of the then-proposal in a way that did not, by some miracle, drive us restless teenagers to boredom. It was a rare sight; the high school students were intently listening, and many were actually participating by asking questions, driven by their curiosity.

Wala naman akong nakikita na masamang madadala o resulta ng batas na ito. Bakit hindi pa ito ipinapatupad?” (I don’t see any disadvantages that may result from this law, so why is the government hesitating to approve and implement it?) was the innocent query of a tenth grader to the speaker. The speakers obviously failed to touch the area of possible disadvantages that the law would bring. I hid a smile because I knew it just wasn’t that simple. It would never be that simple. The entire beginning process would be far from the utopia that the speakers painted inside our heads. The speaker responded in a lengthy and passionate lecture that supported the student’s inquiry. It was all noteworthy, and the teachers were nodding in approval; however, I was taken aback by one line that stuck with me, one that until now would still occasionally reverberate inside my mind.

Kung hindi maipapatupad ang batas na ito, gusto ni’yo ba na magkagulo na rin dito sa Gensan? Lalo na ang BIFF, hindi yan sila papayag. Barilan, mga patayan. Isipin ni’yo na itong malaking covered court ninyo, maaaring mapuno ito ng mga biktima na nawalan ng bahay at pamilya galing sa pag-atake ng BIFF” (If the law is not approved, do you want Gensan to become a war zone? Especially the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, they will not respond well to rejection. Gunfights, bloodshed. Imagine this spacious covered court of yours being turned into a makeshift evacuation center for victims who lost their homes and families from BIFF attacks) was what the speaker said with finality. I remember the shift of my relaxed attention toward the spokesman into one of surprise and disbelief. Was that an indirect threat? I remember asking myself. Honestly, I might have been overreacting, but it definitely felt like one.

We walked back to our classrooms after the seminar, and I kept wondering how the speakers were able to get away with literally using fear and imageries of inevitable doom in their speech to further convince the students—students who were all minors and easily influenced no less. Not that it was anything new; we were all used to the possibilities of terrorist attacks that could happen any minute upon the slightest fluctuation on the quality of security. I took a look around my classmates, and I could see that I was not the only one who felt uneasy because of that statement. Even if you try looking at it in different angles, it just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t right.

The infamous generations-long conflict in Mindanao all affected us one way or another, and I consider myself one of the lucky ones. As I sat down back in my seat, I was left reflecting how, as a child several years before, every news story was like some sort of morbid fairy tale that happened outside of the safe, sheltered bubble that I lived in. Reality hit me at some point of course, and it was when a member of my family faced a risk due to his commitment to his occupation.

My father is a specialized surgeon, one of the few in his field in Mindanao. This is why while growing up, I was used to my father going out for emergency operations at even the most ungodly hours. However, one case stood out. It happened on an otherwise normal evening. My father drove us home earlier in the night than usual after a family gathering and, after a series of phone calls, proceeded to prepare to leave. I didn’t bother to ask at first because I thought it was just one of his late-night scheduled operations. It was almost midnight when my phone buzzed with a notification that lit up the screen. It was from a new text message. I got up groggily and wondered who in the world would send me a text that late in the night. I opened the text and found out that it was sent by an aunt. A few moments later my sleepy disposition slowly faded when the words slowly sank in: Please pray for the safety of your father. He was sent for an emergency operation in Cotabato City. He is accompanied by several armored vehicles with armed military escorts to ensure his safe journey.

It turned out that my father left in a hurry because a teenage child of a co-doctor who was residing in Cotabato took a bullet to the head. The situation was a matter of life and death; every minute and second wasted could possibly tip the scale, and the only doctor who specialized in that field was more than a hundred kilometers away. It did not help that during those years, it certainly wasn’t the most ideal time to travel by land all the way to Cotabato. The local news was abuzz with another wave of discord that was washing over Mindanao. It all seemed as though it belonged to a tragically intense scene in the movies or one of those dramatic medical documentaries. Only this time, it was not as exciting or thrilling as it would have been on the big screen.

What can I say? I was eleven, and my hyperactive imagination mixed in with my fear was already making up a thousand different scenarios a mile a minute, each one wilder and more outrageous than the previous. All of the years’ worth of news flashes and stories of bloody massacres that frequently occurred north of my city, unfortunate victims who were robbed and brutally dismembered, the terrorist groups who mercilessly unleashed gunfire that rained on and pierced the air—they were all running through my memory. What if his convoy gets ambushed? It’s the dead of night, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to erase all their traces and take cover. What if his escorts fail to protect him and he gets kidnapped? What if he gets caught in a crossfire in the middle of the procedure? What if terrorists suddenly attack the city? What if fate chooses this as the perfect moment for a bomb to go off the minute he sets foot in Cotabato?

Looking back, it all sounds like the ramblings of a person going through a severe case of paranoia, but it was at that brief period that reality finally sank in. Each story and news article was real; they all happened, and thousands of casualties, regardless of race or religion, had to suffer in all those decades, and it was very possible that my father could have been one of them if the circumstances aligned. I tried to push all those thoughts away along with my unease just so I could get all the few hours of sleep I had left before dawn, hoping that I’d wake up and welcome my father tired from his journey but otherwise safe and sound.

Until now I’m still grateful that he did. He was obviously exhausted and sleep-deprived, but he arrived safely back home around just a little after dawn. I remember laughing, partly due to relief. My father is never one to let fear take over situations; he actually enjoyed the whole affair, as could be seen in how he was radiating with the gleeful energy of a schoolboy who had defied his curfew and gone gallivanting around the city with his friends. As if he wasn’t a middle-aged man late in his forties who had just conducted an intricate operation across the island that took long enough to rob him of the slightest wink of sleep, he recounted the whole experience with enough excitement that he was able to muster. He described it as an “adventure.” He told me that he felt like he was in some action movie. I guess being surrounded by military escorts in the middle of an armed convoy en route to dangerous territory as if you’re in the middle of some top secret mission may have been as thrilling as it sounds.

Needless to say, the teenager survived. My father’s exposure to risk to his life and safety proved to be worth it in the end. This experience was one of the first few nicks that formed the major cracks on my naive perspective of a peaceful reality. That experience paved way for other small actions fueled by my defiance to terrorism-induced fears, a mind-set that I picked up from other residents of Gensan. Yes, from the outsider’s perspective, it might sound like the perfect reckless—not to mention stupid—way to get yourself killed in an “untimely” explosion or assault, but it’s either we let fear control us or we take risks to do what needs to be done.

Recently, after the events of the Marawi siege, Gensan received information that members of the same group who led the assault had managed to infiltrate the city, and news of an impending attack being planned behind the scenes was spread around in the form of text messages and formal announcements. The red alert meant that security would be rigid and would stay rigid for weeks on end, the military would roam around the city in their armed jeeps, and the city would be under a lockdown of sorts. Our classes were once again put to a stop in the middle of the afternoon, and we were all urged by the head of discipline to call our fetchers and head home immediately—no detours. We should all stay in our houses until the threat subsided.

We were told during the emergency announcement that we students were especially at risk if we continued to stay inside the school grounds since we were part of the large population under the well-known Catholic institution. This was also the same week when my research group stubbornly ventured to conduct our experiment in the laboratories at the main campus of the university, a location with higher chances of getting attacked. I can still recall the words of the college student who assisted us when I told her how I noticed that a lot of the students were risking their safety because they chose to stay to do their work in the university. She simply scoffed and told me, “Bahala sila diyan eh kung mag-atake sila. Wa mi labot. Tingnan natin” (We don’t care if they attack us. Let’s see how they’ll fare). It was a perfect example of dauntlessness that was simultaneously admirable and absurd and could have only been formed in an environment similar to that of Mindanao.

I did not encounter any tragic or heart-wrenching experience brought by the unceasing conflicts that would leave any reader emotional, but like I said, we were all affected in matters big or small, and through it all, I saw that more generations will continue to be affected if ever things fail to change. Maybe the stereotypes of an island plagued with violence and bloodshed aren’t completely exaggerated, or maybe they are for those who are privileged enough. I’m young, and I still lack adequate experience; I may talk brazenly in the face of danger, but eventually, I’ll realize that there are some things that are not worth risking my life for. This is my story, merely a novelette out of the countless who already have full-length volumes in their memories. However, after recounting my experiences, I realize that despite all the diversity, there is one thing you’d find common in most of us—fear does not and will not run our lives.