He came from a very humble background, a farming family from as far back as he can remember. He tended the fields during the day with the help of a cow his grandfather gave him for that specific purpose. He grew up practically without a mother; she had died earlier on, of what he did not seem to be clear about any more than his sisters: she was dead, and that was all there was to it. They were left to be reared by their father, if you can call it that, for by all accounts the old man was a gambler and a drunk who was never at home long enough other than to sleep and rest up for the next round of betting.
The young man worked hard and helped take care of his sisters as best as he could. But he also had ambitions and dreamed about a life better than what they had at that time. He knew that being a farmer was not what he wanted for himself all his life, so he went to school to learn to read and write. He would get up long before dawn broke, milked the cow, boiled some rice to eat for breakfast and headed out for the two-hour walk to make it to school on time. Some days he barely had enough time to let the boiled rice set: he would scoop it out, wrap it in a banana leaf, and eat on his way to class located on the first floor of the teacher’s house in the town closest to his little farming hamlet.
He would make the trek back home in the middle of the day, in the heat and dust of the tropics in the summer, and in the rainy season, in gusty winds and pouring rain under the shelter of a wide banana leaf. If he was lucky and his sisters did not finish all the rice he had boiled earlier in the morning, he would have that for lunch, with perhaps some blanched and salted talbos ng kamote (young sweet potato leaves). Most times he did without, or else went to the closest neighbour who would scrape the bottom of the clay pot for the browned bits of rice stuck there, clump it into a ball, sweeten it with a little sugar and give it to him for lunch.
Thus filled, he would tend his small patch of field all afternoon, put the cow to pasture and head home after sunset exhausted but content that he had put in an honest day’s work. That he was only nine years old did not matter, he was the son and the brother, and was expected to help feed and care for his sisters, especially in the absence of a mother. He must have longed for the normal things a boy his age yearned for, the freedom to play in the field instead of tending it, to fish and swim in the ponds and streams and hunt for birds with a tirador or slingshot. But his sense of duty and responsibility must have been overwhelming, and so he did what needed to be done without much complaint or bitterness, and considered himself luckier than some, who did not even own a cow or a kalabaw (water buffalo) to help them with the backbreaking labour.
Of his own father he harboured no ill-feelings or deep resentments, but by his own admission only once: the day he came home from school to find no father at home and no cow to pasture. For several days he worried and fretted, but went about the daily chores regardless. A few days later he came home from school to find his father passed out in bed as usual, and a sloppily wrapped and a smelly portion of beef on the table, all that was left of his farm animal. His father had sold it for money, and gambled away the proceeds. He had cried, he said, not so much from what his father had done, but because he knew that work would be that much harder for him from then on without the help of his cow.
He never talked much about his family. Much of them remained unknown save for the fact that he had at least two older sisters and a younger one. He would later lament that his biggest regret was that he was never able to get ahead much further in school than learning how to read, write and do arithmetic, and would sometimes daydream out loud how much different his life would have been had he stayed in school longer and became a teacher. He never dwelt on the memories of his childhood for there were not many things worthy to recall, but he kept his good humour and never lost his drive and his ambition.
Eventually he married, a pretty, if sad-eyed young woman from a little hamlet not far from their own. Together they had a child, a handsome curly haired little boy who did not get to know his mother very well, as she died much too early. But the gambler’s son was not his father, and he cared for his motherless son as best as he could. Still young, good-looking and after the first wife’s death very much eligible, he set his eyes on the slim and petite cousin of his first wife, wooed and married her in due time.
She gave birth to their first child, a fair-skinned daughter, in the tail end of the second world war. At a time of great upheaval and confusion, the farmer’s son did all he could to protect his wife and young child. Afraid of dying much too young in the days following the enemy invasion of their little hamlet, he took part in an initiation rite and was invested with the protection of a mysterious amulet, or anting-anting, a common practice during that period of darkness and uncertainty. The amulet was swallowed, and the person inscribed with a tattooed mark on the arm; this was supposed to defend the recipient from death, but not necessarily a protection from physical harm. Many who had young families to look after took up the protection the amulet represented, survived the ravages of war and soon after forgot all about it.
Much later when his children would show fascination and inquire about the inscribed marks, a triangle with undecipherable inscription under the base, he would evade the question and shrug it off, and drop the topic until the next time. Young as they all were, it was not a question nor curiosity worth pursuing at the time, but knowing that their mother also had a tattooed inscription on her arm, not as defined or ornate as the one their father had, only deepened the puzzle.
Life returned to a semblance of normalcy after the war, and the young family started growing. Another daughter was born soon after, followed by three others, who unfortunately did not survive, a couple of them being stillborn. The pregnancies were difficult and put the young mother’s life in peril, and she was advised not to have any more. But a longed-for son had not come, and so against all advise the babies kept coming, one daughter after another. The young father, his hands full with the responsibility of raising and feeding the family, decided to give up farming and seek his luck in the big city. He left his family in the care of his father-in-law, and headed elsewhere for any honest job available. He apprenticed as a baker, sold handmade ice cream from carts, saved and scrimped until one day, he had enough money to open a business of his own. He was away for extended periods of time, and when he came back his young daughters, excited at the thought of having their father home once again, would race each other clear across the field to meet him as soon as they saw the top of his hat (for he always wore a hat, even when it was no longer fashionable for men to do so) bobbing above the wild grass swaying in the summer breeze.
Realizing only too well that his young wife was in fragile health, he had no second thoughts about bringing the family to a larger town where better medical care was available to deal with the blackouts and fainting spells that seemed to overcome his wife now on a regular basis. It did not help that because of living in a backwards rural place steeped in superstition, she was regularly tied and beaten up by a well-intentioned but horribly misinformed older brother, a Baptist minister, who attributed the episodes to demonic possession that needed to be driven out of his sister’s body.
It must have taken a great leap of faith for the young husband to pull up stakes and set up a new and untried life someplace else with his family, but this is exactly what he did. He found and rented a commercial space across the public market in a town many miles and hours away; the place was ideal as it also had an apartment above where they could live. Right smack at the end of one of the major streets, he was told by many that such a location was bad luck and inauspicious for business. During construction of what would become a dry goods store, a man came in and noticing the wall-to-wall shelving being set up, he inquired rather innocently whether the place was going to be a funeral home, as he thought the shelves were wide enough to carry caskets. Others might have been daunted by such remarks, but the husband simply carried on, and eventually the shop opened and thrived, slowly but surely.
He was by all accounts, a loyal husband and a loving father. He cared for his wife when she was sick or expecting a child, even doing the family laundry when she was unable to. However, he drew the line at actually taking the washed clothing outside to bleach under the sun; his manly pride got too much in the way for that, and he would ask his older daughters to do it for him. Otherwise he kept the daily business running, did the cooking when necessary, saw his young children off to school and did not complain one bit. When his wife was healthy again and able to go out, he would take her to church for her regular devotions: to Baclaran, on Fridays to Quiapo to visit the Hesus Nazareno, the revered image of the black Nazarene, and once a year to the mountains of Antipolo for the annual family pilgrimage to the church of the Immaculate Conception where resides La Nuestra Senora de la Paz, Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage.
Strange as it may sound, he would take his wife and family to these sacred sites, but he himself never ventured inside the churches, a holdover from his days with the mysterious cult of the amulet that forbade members’ entry into such hallowed grounds. Once he was certain his family was safely inside, he would hang around the courtyard, and wait for them to come out. His wife was religious and devoted, in constant prayers for her own intentions and the safety of her family. Perhaps she prayed for better health and a long life, and perhaps other times she prayed for the son that was a long time coming after a string of daughters. Her prayers were fervent and sincere, and late in her childbearing years she finally gave birth to the son they had long hoped for. It was a major cause for celebration, and the child’s first birthday was duly celebrated in the old hometown with practically the whole village in attendance. For four years before another boy was born, and eventually the youngest daughter, everyone doted on the first-born young son. His mother would sing him lullabies, all the while fanning him and stroking his forehead to sleep. He was his mother’s constant companion and together they developed a bond that survived emotional and physical separation. So attuned were they to each other that he would later refer to her as his twin soul. After her death, and when he missed her so badly it almost broke his heart, he would only need to ask her to come and she would appear in his dreams, a source of comfort in his own times of grief and physical pain.
The father was fair and he was good to his children, but could sometimes be maddeningly old-world when it comes to his personal choices. He did not have any qualms about sending his oldest son to first year of law school, despite the cost of such an endeavour, and bought the entire set of books of the laws of the republic to set his son off to a good start. It turned out to be not entirely the best investment, as the son soon thereafter lost interest, and the books stayed high on top of the shelf, collecting dust and becoming archaic as the years passed. The oldest daughter wanted to go to fine arts college, but he immediately vetoed the idea, because he did not want her to be exposed to the corrupting influence of the liberal arts with its study of classical and live nude models.
One child who was exempt from this was the second daughter, the first of the family to leave home and seek her fortune someplace much further away than the father himself years ago dared to venture. Perhaps seeing his own past in this very independent and courageous young woman, he, despite major reservation, allowed her to cross seas and borders in search of a new and hopefully better life in a foreign country. She landed in the heart of a prairie country, whose terrain and landscape, save for the freezing cold and blanket of white snow, was not so dissimilar to the wide-open country where her father tilled his own piece of land. For a while to her own horror she realized she had come full circle, no further ahead which was not what she had all along intended. But as surely as she had inherited her own father’s iron will and perseverance, she worked hard and bided her time, and after having moved to the big city and married, brought most of her family to come live with them in the northern country halfway across the world they now considered home.
He taught his children the value of money and the hard work needed to earn an honest living. Soon as they were able to count money and give the right change, he set them up with their own enterprise: penny businesses peddling ice cold limonada at the market or renting a small stall at the dry market selling retaso, ends of fabric bolts cheaply bought wholesale and sold for small profit.
His business was popular mainly because he sold merchandise on installments, one of the few locals in the area to do so, for many of those who did business that way were either Chinese or Hindus from Bombay. For most of the week his customers would come to the store and make the purchase with a small down payment, and the rest to be paid in installments until the goods are fully paid for. Saturdays afternoons, traditional payday for many of the labourers who work in the shoe factories, he would be seen on his bicycle around the neighbourhood with his little book that listed who owed how much, and patiently track them down for the weekly installment. Most customers were good and never missed their weekly dues, but sometimes, especially when he was unable to get around because of a serious attack of asthma, he would send one or two of his children around instead; it was a job they absolutely hated, for many never took them seriously and would try to dodge them and skip payment, at least until the next week when the father was able to come around again.
It was only after this collection round, usually past sunset, that he would be seen to relax, if just for the few hours that evening. It was a time to which the younger children especially looked forward, as it would often mean that he would be in the mood to give them each a ride on the handlebars of his bicycle around the block. If the collection went well and he finished early, and if there was a boxing match scheduled at the Araneta Coliseum in the nearest city of Cubao, he would sometimes treat himself and catch the main event, and even that he only did on occasion; he never drank nor smoked, and the only thing closest to any form of a vice was his weekly jueteng, a locally-run numbers betting, to which he and his wife placed down the princely amount of fifty centavos each week. Luck seemed to be on their side, for once with the winnings they were able to buy a china cabinet made of narra, a native hardwood, an heirloom piece which still exists to this day.
It probably would not have mattered what path he chose in his life, because this man from the most humble of beginnings was surely blessed. His business became successful that many of his wife’s family deserted the old hometown in an almost mass exodus to try their own luck and imitate his adventures. Some succeeded and for a while maybe even eclipsed his success, but many others eventually went back home to settle back in the old dusty farm, their lives no better than when they left decades ago. But this most favoured of men, this father who breathed and lived for his family, never looked back. He kept close ties to the land he still called home, and would take his family for a visit every now and again, but as surely as an itinerant farmer had found richer land to till and plow, he established new roots and nurtured his labour someplace else. His hard work was rewarded many times over, and when finally he built his own house in the piece of property he had saved for and bought with money from his own hard work, he knew he was there to stay for good. Even when his own children got married or moved away, he and his wife stayed in that place they built and called home. The place got emptier and lonelier as the years went by, but occasionally enlivened by the visits of their now faraway children.
He finally slowed down and retired, and soon after ended up in the hospital diagnosed with lung cancer. One by one his children who lived far came home to visit and see him for what they believed to be the last time. He suffered much during that period and lost a lot of weight, but in return gained much more spiritually, when through his own prayers he pulled through despite the odds. It was during one of those bleak and desperate days that only the truly sick and dying seem to be able to fully comprehend, that he started choking and coughing. In his delirium, burning with fever and gasping for air, he was witnessed to have coughed up a lump of something hard, shiny and dark: dried up blood? An undigested piece of something? The anting-anting? Whatever it was, was sent for a biopsy, but the result was either never reported back or was inconclusive as no one ever heard about it afterwards. Regardless, he started to get better after the episode and in a few days was finally able to go back home.
The stay at the hospital, the first serious one, changed both husband and wife. For the first time in many decades they were again separated while he was confined in the hospital, and the worry speckled much of her hair which was for the longest time all black, with grey. He, who for most of their lives together was the caregiver, became the one she constantly looked after for months during his recovery. He discovered religion, and having pulled through with the help of his own prayers, pledged himself to a life of prayer and contemplation as a sign of thanks. He learned to pray the Rosary at that late stage in his life, reciting it daily with his wife at night, reading inspirational books on the lives of saints and he went to Mass every day without fail. She in turn, prayed more fervently than before if that was even possible: to thank the Almighty for having him back home, and to pray for many more years together.
For years the husband and wife became mostly each other’s only company, and for years they went through the motions of the long-married couple. They fought and they bickered with each other, they worried and stayed up sleepless when the other was sick, they laughed with the birth of a new grandchild and cried at the passing of another friend or relative, but mostly they sat around and reminisced and talked about the life they had made together. Their children were much too far away from them, but they knew all too well how much they were loved and cared for despite the physical absence: the phone calls and greeting cards for the special occasions, the regular visits from the children abroad and those who still lived close by.
And the fiftieth wedding anniversary present the children gave them: the grand wedding they never had in church in those long-ago war years, with a reception to match when practically all of the families and friends from the old farming hometown came and celebrated the couple’s good fortune with them. She was in a beautiful traditional butterfly-sleeve bridal gown and he in his formal gentleman’s embroidered native shirt, with miniature orchids strewn all over for decoration and a multi-tiered cake in white and gold.
He lived a long and eventful life, and was aware and proud of his achievements, having come a very long way from that dusty little hamlet he grew up in. He watched his children grow up and do fairly well for themselves, and his mind rested easy knowing he gave his family all that he could and that they never wanted for anything, even if sometimes it was a bit of a struggle to make ends meet.
On the day of their fiftieth wedding celebration, he would look back at his life and would know, deep in his heart, that he was an extraordinarily beloved man. If he had any regrets he kept them to himself; that day he was only too grateful basking in the glow of all that love and caring bestowed him and his wife to even think about any misgivings past or present. He was not the kind of man to ruin anyone’s celebration, least of all his wife’s. And she was ecstatic, and in one of the few times during their lives together took centre stage, as fittingly she should, this usually self-effacing woman whose whole life had been seemingly spent in the shadows, the handmaiden to her spouse and mother to their many children.
* * * * * * * * *
The end for him did not come swift nor painless, but a rather slow process that took five years after that joyful celebration. It was as if after that day everything just pointed the way to the end. His wife, for years in fragile health and who had trouble walking finally lost her ability to even stand up on her own. His outings became increasingly less frequent, and the trips to the hospital for both became almost a regular occurrence. Sometimes he would turn to his wife and seemingly puzzled, ask her where all the children have gone, so very late in life did the empty nest feel even lonelier.
The last few weeks were fraught with anxiety: right after he came out of the most recent trip to the hospital he caught pneumonia. Some of his children, sensing that this might be the beginning of the end, came home to see him for a visit. To his son, who arrived a couple of days before two daughters did, he showed the golf-sized ball of stone the doctors extracted from his kidney, the cause of the severe agony he underwent for many months before the operation. For a couple of days, housebound because of the monsoon season, father and son reconnected and talked and even played sungka, a native table game together. The atmosphere was leaden and as dark as the weather outside, as if a light within him was being slowly dimmed.
The inclement weather continued for the entire week, but suited him just fine as it meant endless hours of sitting around with his newly arrived children and catching up with news and stories. Out of deference for his still fragile health, the conversations were decidedly hushed and low-key. Other than looking tired he did not particularly looked troubled or anxious, except for one story he related to his children a couple of days before the final trip to the hospital:
He was attending a wake for a nephew whom he had not seen for quite some time. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and after viewing the casket he joined the mourners to offer his condolences. Something made him turn around and look towards the casket, and to his shock and surprise, he saw the body of his nephew seated upright instead of lying down. He said he knew that was impossible, so he closed his eyes, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and when he opened his eyes again, the phantasm, quickly as it initially appeared to him, was gone.
For the last remaining few days his breathing was laboured and he would sometimes complain of chest pains, but no one was particularly worried since he was still recovering from pneumonia, and everyone attributed it to that. At the end of Sunday night dinner, his last meal with his wife and children, he started coughing and threw up all over the kitchen floor. He took to his bed right after, but kept everyone up all night with his violent coughing and wheezing. With his children there taking turns rubbing his back to help soothe his pains, his wife slept through much of the night, grateful to have so many people around them caring for the old man. “I had gone through so much of that”, she would later recall, “and was just too happy to know that this time there were more of his children around to comfort him. If only I had known…” her voice trailing off to a hushed whisper of regret.
Come daybreak, the weathered cleared and his coughing subsided. He seemed to feel much better, but was famished from the ordeal and wolfed down a bowl of hot oatmeal. Everyone instantly felt better for the danger having passed, and he lied down to get some sleep. No one had even left his room when he suddenly jumped out of bed, this terrible rattle emanating from deep inside his chest, and cried out loudly: “My God! My God! Forgive me all my sins!”. His children, frantic and now fully aware of the impending end, quickly put him in the car and took him to the nearest hospital.
The local hospital was too small and ill-equipped to deal with his crisis, and for a full day, while looking for an alternative arrangement, he hovered between life and death, frantically gasping for breath as his lungs have collapsed. He knew he was dying, and asked to be taken home to die there, but his children begged him to hang on, if only for this one last time, to try and make him better again. Finally at the end of that horrible day, he was transferred to a big hospital in another city and was placed in the intensive care unit on life support. His son came to his bedside to see him, and knowing fully well this was the last time, said his goodbye. But the younger man also implored him to hang on until the morning, when he promised to take his mother to the hospital to see the dying man and say her goodbye.
It was not meant to be. His whole body system shut down and went into sepsis, poisoning his blood. He was administered his last rites, and died right after.
His wake was held in a funeral home, as the house was deemed too small to accommodate the anticipated number of relatives and visitors coming to pay their last respects. All his children from abroad came to share their grief with his wife of fifty-five years, who for the most part seemed confused and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people offering their condolences. Although fully aware of what had happened, she kept up her regular routine throughout the wake, and only later and by herself, would the intense grief hit her, as strong and as hard as any she had ever experienced.
The wake lasted several days longer than customary, and towards the end of it, the old man finally got his last wish to be taken home. They transferred his body to rest for three days at the home that he built for his family, where most evenings and after all the visitors have come and gone, his children and grandchildren would sit around and keep him company. Whether true or not, everyone thought that as soon as he was there, he looked much more peaceful; they said his face looked less tense and seemed more content, for he was at last after that long suffering, finally and truly home.
* * * * * * * *
The day of his funeral was a rare, beautiful sunny day in early November. In the middle of the consecrated Mass, sudden storm clouds passed and briefly poured down in torrents, as if even the angels themselves wept at the passing of this well-loved and deeply respected man. By the time the funeral procession began, the skies had again cleared up, and the brilliant sunshine had dried up the rain which had washed everything clean. Before his casket was lowered into the ground, workers had to bail water out of the grave by the bucketsful. It was only after then that on the wet, muddy earth, so fittingly reminiscent of the soil he used to till as a farmer’s son in that faraway place he used to call home, did they finally lay him to rest: in that deep eternal slumber of the faithful and the just.
© September 2007