by Ma. Jocedel Zulita (Essay)
“It’s the way families are, sometimes.
A thing goes wrong and no one knows how to fix it
and years pass and—no one knows how to fix it.”
– Joyce Carol Oates, ―We Were the Mulvaneys
Whenever I saw Mama wearing the Seiko watch you used to own, I was always left to wonder how many hours and minutes had gone by since you left. You always wore it even at home. More than a decade had passed but I still long for you terribly. On some days, the longing was too strong that I could feel an almost physical pain in my chest.
Not long after you died, Mama began cleaning our house. She dusted every surface and swept every corner. She even moved some of the furniture around and burned the mattress that you slept in while you were sick. Perhaps, she wanted to get rid of any traces of you. I saw her sitting on the floor in your room one cold morning. She was taking out all of your things from the wardrobe you both shared. She may have tried to hide it but I saw her eyes glisten with unshed tears. All of your things, she kept them hidden inside the dresser in my sister‘s old bedroom. It remained there until now.
Maybe Mama thought that she could also put away all your memories along with the things you owned. She kept everything, save for your gold Seiko wristwatch. Mama always wore it to work even after the watch glass got broken. It looked strikingly golden under the sun. It felt strange to see her wear something you used to own. The golden watch band seemed to fit better on your wrist than on Mama’s. Another thing that she didn’t lock away was the red suitcase that sat on top of the cabinet inside your room. It was where she kept a few of her things from her maiden years— old coins, a knitted purse, and letters that have turned yellow with age. The suitcase seemed like a reminder of those forgotten memories from her youth. The letters fascinated me the most. They smelled ancient. And when I took them out, it felt as if they were going to crumble on my hands. Most of them came from her siblings in Capiz and a few came from you. It was the glory days of love letters.
I want to bring back those glory days by writing this for you. This is me letting go of you.
Poppy—that it was what I called you. The drawl of each syllable that my little voice made sounded endearing to your own ears. But Mama told me to quit calling you that because you were not a dog. She thought I meant puppy. I eventually outgrew the endearment and settled on calling you Papa. Just like how Mama used to call you.
To your kumpadres, you were Celso—the chief forester in their office and the one they played tong-its with inside the small shack behind their office. But to me, you will always be Poppy, the one who used to sit on the couch every night in our living room with a bottle of cold beer near him. You will always be that silent man, but whose laugh ricocheted around the room, filling it with so much happiness.
Life was simple then. I could even say it was perfect, if such thing existed. But it took an unexpected turn when renal failure slowly took your life away. When you left, you made me wonder what it was like after death. Did you see a light at the end of a tunnel, as what some people who came back from the dead often remembered? I will never know.
I was in first grade when an ambulance carried you home the last time you got back from the hospital. I thought you were not sick anymore and I could finally have you back. But you only remained sleeping for days. Auntie told me that you were in a coma. It was when one could not move at all but could still hear it when a person talks to them. I guess that was the reason why I often saw tears falling from the sides of your eyes whenever I talked to you. I did not understand why in the beginning. I was left to make sense of what was happening on my own.
I was beside you the moment you died. Tears stained my face as I was holding your hand. I even asked you to come back on my 7th birthday. I thought that maybe you would still hear me if I called loud enough. But you have faded away into the unknown.
Chrysanthemums filled our living room during your wake. It even matched the pale color of your casket. Since then, those flowers always reminded me of the dead. No matter how my mother extensively cleaned the house after the funeral, the smell of chrysanthemums remained.
Your absence haunted us for months. Sometimes it felt like your ghost was still living with us. Mama’s longing showed in the things she did right after you left. You appeared in her dreams and once, she told how she dreamt of you waiting outside the gates of our house. You were wearing your favorite lilac-colored polo shirt and you were mounted on your motorcycle while asking Mama to let you in. She said that she woke up the moment she was about to open the gates for you. Maybe it was a sign that we could not let you into our lives anymore.
After the funeral, Mama remained setting a table for five even though there were only the four of us left.
“What was the extra plate for?” I asked her once.
“It’s for your father,” she answered. But he’s gone, I thought to myself.
Mama did that for some weeks until she finally stopped and began to take your place at the dining table.
Perhaps, you already knew that you were bound to go that was why you and Mama adopted my brother. You wanted someone to fill the hole that you left. I could still recall that morning when you asked me if I wanted a sibling. You and Mama knew a woman from the other village looking for a couple willing enough to adopt her unborn child. You knew how I badly wanted a baby sister but when you found out that the baby was a boy, you refused the woman. Maybe it was desperation that drove her to come back to our house. We were surprised to see her waiting in our living room with my sister and her newborn baby. You and Mama could not refuse her further. When you asked me and my sister what we wanted to name our brother, we immediately came up with one and called him Vincent. It was after one of our favorite characters in the anime, Ghost Fighter.
Vincent‘s biological mother had dinner with us that same night. I remember how excited I was to play with my new brother that I was not able to finish my meal. I went back to our living room and peered through the rails of his crib. I could not keep myself from reaching for his little hand. I will never forget how it was like when he wrapped his little fingers around mine. It felt as if Vincent found a home in me. I swore to protect him from anything that could hurt him. It no longer mattered if the baby was a boy.
Months after Vincent turned two, Mama underwent an operation because a gallstone had to be removed from her gallbladder. Ate, Vincent, and I were left in the care of Auntie Bing who stayed in our house. The debts began piling up and Mama didn’t have anyone but her two young daughters and two-year old son to take care of.
I never visited Mama while she was in the hospital. I had enough memories of waiting outside since children weren’t allowed to go in. It took me back to those mornings when I would wake up only to find that you were in the hospital again. I was afraid that I would lose Mama the same way I lost you.
Mama’s younger brother came to live with us after her operation. I just got back from school when I saw an unfamiliar face beaming at me when I entered the living room. Auntie Bing told me that he was my uncle from Capiz and asked if I could still remember him. He did not look familiar even though Auntie said that I already met him. Maybe his face was not at all worth remembering.
Uncle had brought with him so many pasalubong—piaya, otap, biscocho, barquillos. All of those were my favorites but they were not enough to buy my trust. He had this vibe about him that resonated he was not worthy of any trust. True enough, he was only good to us during the first few months of his stay. Soon after, he did things that even you would never do to us.
Maybe Mama thought that uncle could stand as a father figure. But the way he acted around the house proved otherwise. I didn‘t want anyone to take your place and I made him feel just that. But Uncle won over Vincent. Before he came, my brother and I went along just fine. Vincent was a sweet little boy and he always followed me around wherever I went. It was a usual thing for us to fight and we always made up afterwards. I saw nothing wrong about it. But Uncle deemed us savages trying to kill each other whenever we were fighting.
There was a time when he couldn’t bear seeing us fighting any longer so he grabbed the broom that was lying around our front yard and began beating us over and over. He didn‘t care if it hit us on our back, thigh, or leg. Mama used to do the same thing to our dogs but only when she caught them trying to scare the chickens away. She would only hit them once and then she would stop. But that moment, I have lost count on how many times uncle beat us with it. We felt like dogs begging for mercy that he will never give to us. No one ever hurt us that way before, not even you.
That night, my skin stung from the beating we got. I slept with contempt in my chest. I was uncertain if it was for my brother for picking up a fight with me or if it was for uncle, for making me feel that we deserved what he did to us. But I was certain that the contempt I felt that night have made a home in me.
Mama knew how uncle treated us but she never showed a single sign of reproach against him. One night, I tried to talk to her about uncle but she dismissed whatever it was that I wanted to say. She told me that even if I was wrong or right, I should never talk back to him. I should stay silent because he was older than me.
I spent years keeping everything bottled inside me. Mama thought that my silence came with respect. But it took me all the strength I could muster just to remain quiet. She had no idea that a sea of hatred was already raging inside my chest.
Five years later, my sister broke Mama’s heart by getting pregnant a year before her college graduation. After finding out about the pregnancy, Mama’s colleagues kept on warning me about early pregnancies. It was as if they were all expecting me to end up like my sister. That same year, I stopped going with Mama to her workplace. Perhaps it was because of the shame I felt for our family. I swore never to make the same mistake that my sister did.
Home became a place where I lie awake at 2 in the morning wishing I was someplace else. Somehow we have become more like strangers than a family. We didn’t eat together anymore and we have stopped going to Church. The kind of family my friends had was different from mine. They could crack a joke around their mothers and could tell how they love them without being shy. Sometimes I wished that Mama and I had that kind of relationship. But I was stiff around her. If truth be told, it seemed like I have lost her too during the day I lost you.
Even though we were under the same roof, I never felt that Mama was there for me. She never asked me about school that sometimes it seemed like she no longer cared. In high school, I had to go to Family Days on my own. Most of my classmates had their parents with them while I only had myself.
“Just go. Some students still go even without their parents,” Mama urged me when I told her I didn’t want to go to our Family day anymore since she was not coming. I didn’t want to feel like I was the odd one out. I knew I would be left sitting alone on the bleachers to watch how seemingly perfect my classmates’ families were. Sometimes, I would sit together with my friends who didn‘t have their parents with them too. I never liked Family days. I used to have the idea that it seemed to be an insult to those who had unconventional families. It reminded me of the picture perfect family that I used to have but was taken away.
Before I left for college, Mama wrote my name on the hem of my shirts using a black permanent marker. She said it was to keep my shirts from getting lost in the dormitory. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, carefully folding my clothes. I was on the floor, trying to fit my things in a red luggage. I didn‘t like the noticeable ink marks on my shirts. It seemed that Mama just didn‘t want me to lose my identity so she had my name written on my clothes. Maybe it was to remind me of who I was before I left my hometown. She will never know but right then, I was ready to leave that girl behind.
I was bound to leave at 5AM the next day. Mama went with me to the bus station so she could help me carry my luggage.
“Don’t forget to pray,” she told me before I got inside the bus. I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and bid goodbye. Had you been alive, you would have gone with me the first time I went to Davao. Mama rarely had the time. When you left, she focused more on her work. Perhaps it was also her way of dealing with your absence. She wanted to be busy so she could forget even just for a while.
I took the seat by the window and saw Mama wave at me as the bus started to head off. I closed the curtain and rested my head against the window pane. It was what I always wanted all those years. I wanted to leave the home that no longer felt like one. I tried to think of something else other than leaving GenSan.
The ride to Davao was long. I stared through the window pane and tried to focus on the view outside. The sun had almost begun to rise and the color of the sky reminded me of the oranges that Mama bought for me at the bus station. I recalled the words she said before I got inside the bus. I made the sign of the cross and a silent prayer dangled on my lips. It was a habit I would later forget after a couple of years.
Maybe my life in Davao taught me to forget about how life in GenSan was like. There were still days when I suddenly missed being in our house and not having to think of where and what I should eat next. I wanted to have Mama around whenever I was sick. Each time I thought about the birthdays I missed and the celebrations they spent without me, I felt a bit lonely and left out.
It was strange how the three hour distance between Davao and GenSan became the reason for me to realize that it was not too late to fix the family you left us with. There were times I felt like I was giving more life to the dead compared to those who are still living. I have always seen Mama as the ever-absent mother. But she was more than that. She was no longer a shadow of you, Papa.
Sometimes I fear that the memories I have of you were just made up and my idea of what you used to be was not real. There were days when I felt like you only came from a dream. I tried to mask my anger towards you with longing. We tried to reinvent the family without you and in the beginning, it seemed hopeless. It was unfair of you to leave Mama alone with us.
Our lives would have been different with you around, perhaps even easier. But you were gone and all I have are your things to remind me that you were once with us. I was your little girl. But that girl died the same day you did. And maybe Mama saw it coming that was why she wanted to remind me of who I used to be. But I didn’t know how to be that person anymore.
On my final year in college, I wore my sorority shirt on my return home. I stopped wearing the t-shirts with my name written on the hem years ago. They didn’t fit me anymore. About an hour before I arrived, I received a text from Mama.
“Diin ka na?” she was asking me where I was.
Had I been that college freshman that I was three years before, I would have ignored her text. But instead, I took the time to reply.
“Ma, I’m almost home.”
Dusk was about to fall as I stared at the sky through the bus’s window pane. Its color reminded me of the sky that morning I first left for college. It was still the same sky I used to look at before. But only a different person was looking at it that moment.
When I arrived in our house, the scent of chrysanthemums that used to cloak the whole living room where you died was gone. Or maybe the scent was never there in the first place and was only in my head. Maybe it was the memory that I mistook for the smell of death. Mama was in the living room, seated on the couch. I took her hand and pressed it against my forehead. It was warm against my skin, I could feel the life pulsing in her veins.
“Bless ko, ‘ma,” I said. I noticed that she was no longer wearing your golden wristwatch. I tried to imagine how it would look like on her. Perhaps time left it to fade. I asked where it was. Mama said that the clock had stopped ticking and she had to have it fixed. She also wanted to replace the watch glass that got broken several years ago. I glanced back at her wrist and thought of how bare it looked.
Perhaps, it is never too late to accept that something was broken and needed to be fixed.
So long and farewell from your daughter.