Monday, July 06, 2009

Pale Journey

Her body finally decided to follow her migrating soul. She stopped eating. Organ by organ, her internal system shut down, until the last ember of life winked out. It was a week of deaths, big and small – Julius Fortuna, whom I’d known in college, passed away, Farah Fawcett succumbed to cancer, Michael Jackson’s heart stopped and the rosemary plant on my kitchen window sill turned gray.

So it was that I found myself tossing clothes into a suitcase, harrying friends and the Internet for a plane ticket, handing the ewok Guapo II to Chevy, the apartment keys to Mona and making futile attempts to impose order upon my residence before I took the bus to La Guardia Airport, on the start of a 22-hour flight back to the archipelago where, last time, I had found myself on a black-cum-hold-order list, fighting for constitutional rights, even as all of GabNet was being betrayed.

The airport’s international gateway was festooned with signs about swine flu (A-H1N1) and over the public address system, a voice repeatedly admonished the listener to wash hands and cover one’s mouth when sneezing. Staff and some passengers wore gauze masks.

Most of the 22 hours I spent sitting next to a very pink, very large Caucasian male. He came in drunk, fell asleep, woke up to eat the served meal and to order wine. Asleep, his head lolled toward mine, his pink and hairy arm dangled from the seat rest to occupy half of my space. Hey, I paid as much for my seat as he did for his, probably more because Mirk had to book me two days before the flight. I slid a pillow between his elbow and my ribs and pushed back. Didn’t work. In desperation, I sneezed three times in his direction; that made him sit straight up. Cover your mouth, he said; stay in your space, I responded. Good thing cold air tickles my nose.

A wake is akin to a Book of Numbers session, all about who begat who upon whom. When a young man approached, took my hand and touched it to his forehead, in the feudal sign of respect, I blurted out, “who’s this?” Oh, the eldest son of so-and-so. Ah. Later, he sat beside me and asked how old I was. In the clarity of death’s presence, I saw his script unfolding. He would say oh, you look so much younger than my father! And what could, will, I say to that? That’s because your father is an alcoholic and a fool to boot. So I looked him straight in the eye, grabbed a number out of thin air and replied: 45 – which, of course, was impossible. That rendered him non-plus. Kiddo, you don’t eff around with the family black sheep.

No one spoke about the dead, only the line of antecedents stretching from her to time’s beginning. My maternal grandfather’s name, I finally found out, was Enrique Villarica; my grandmother, Josefa Pilapil – a curious thing, since only a certain stratum of “natives” had been allowed by Spanish colonizers to keep their indigenous names, all others having to Hispanize theirs. Pilapil in Tagalog means the small soil embankments that define a rice field, dikes to hold water in and allow farmers to walk from one rice paddy to the next. We knew nothing about this grandmother; we knew a lot about Enrique, begat by a Spanish priest upon a 15-year-old bought with two bags of gold from her husband, the church cook. This happened in Majayjay, province of Bulacan, where years later, the Philippine Republic would be founded, the first Constitution approved by anti-colonial revolutionaries.

Enrique was a drunk (a family male tradition which made all the women shy away from alcohol) and drove his daughter, my mother, into extreme angst each time he passed out over the tram rails. Mother, seven years old, hiccupping with sobs, trying to drag her father off the rails while screaming for the trolley to stop, madre de dios, anak ng pating... Maman was third to the last of seven siblings – five females, two males; in a pattern that would repeat itself, the youngest, a male named Celin, would be the first to go; he killed himself. Then, the other male. Maman was the last, having survived her sisters, all of whom lived to their ninth decade. She was 100.5 years old.

Then, my scalp jumps with surprise when I am told that our great-grandmother’s name was Ana – a name that had not, until now, appeared in our book of numbers. This was my lelang… I had used the name Anna for the final character of the novel State of War. What kind of coincidence was that?

I wondered what Ana and the priest would think of their descendants, this motley assortment of tribes gathered, still warring, in this funeral parlor. Few now carry the priest’s name; that has been left to the descendants of a small town who, because the priest excused them from one yearly tribute to the King of Spain when the crops failed, took his name in gratitude. Likely, of Ana’s and the priest’s progeny’s progeny, I am the strangest – the earliest to run away and to run farthest from the family but who remains, paradoxically, the most driven by family history.

The casket lay on its stand, in its own ambience of entropy and time. Her caregiver of five years wanted my mother barefoot inside the casket – that was tradition, she said, so should the dead come visiting, the living won’t hear the footsteps. I looked a wordless reply at her: Oh my dear, we were born with the footsteps of the dead already echoing in our ears. -- ##


Albert B. Casuga said...

N., Please accept my condolences. But death will have no dominion.

Anonymous said...

Truly very well said. Again, our condolence.

Anonymous said...

You are brilliant in more ways then one Ms. Rosca. I had a very similiar incident. Maybe he was even with the same large, drunk, pink, man. Sitting next to the embodiment of what I hate and wanted to escape was the last thing I wanted after a bittersweet visit to the Philippines. SARS was still at large back then. Why didn't I think to sneeze? Sigh...I guess I was never blessed with a woman's finess.