“And Then They Were Gone”, by Rofel G Brion
Rofel G. Brion, Ph.D. is professor of interdisciplinary studies, literature and creative writing at the Ateneo de Manila University. Baka Sakali. Maybe by Chance, his first book of poems, won the Philippine National Book Award in 1981; he has published two more poetry collections since then. He has been fellow at various literature and writing festivals, among them the Berlin International Literature Festival (2005) and the Mildura Writers Festival (2009).
When I was in grade school, I would wake up in the middle of the night and ask either my mother or my father to sleep beside me. I knew what frightened me. I was afraid one of them would die. I was afraid I would die.
Even in college, I would take the bus home and be scared that I would perish in an accident, or I would come home and see either my father or my mother in a coffin in our living room. Sometimes I even imagined a friend’s funeral. Or mine. Who would be there? Who would cry? Would anyone be happy? Would anyone wish they had died with me?
I’m afraid death fascinates me.
Maybe it’s because death has come too often to greet me.
But part of me dies with every death I see.
And that part I now try to recover with these stories.
LOLA GUELANG, 1964
I imagine her supervising my birth, Lola Guelang, my mother’s mother. I was, after all, born on her bed. It was the only bed in the house my parents had built a year before I came. My coming was quite an event, I am told, and I see Lola Guelang telling the midwife what to do when she couldn’t get the placenta out. They had to call in Mamay Dudoy, my father’s uncle, our family doctor, who ran from his house two blocks away. He had stood as principal sponsor at my parents’ wedding. A few months before that, Lola Guelang had fainted when she found out that there would be a wedding. She didn’t like my father then because she had heard that he gambled. After the wedding, however, she saw how hard he worked when she allowed him to take over her rice dealership, a business she had began by trading rice from Bulacan, her home province, to San Pablo, my father’s home town, and had single-handedly turned into the largest rice store in the San Pablo public market. And when my father asked her to move in with them in the new house, Lola Guelang declared to everyone that she had found a new son.
She always liked drama, my twiceâ€‘widowed Lola Guelang, even when it wasn’t her own. Every morning we listened to soap operas in the only radio in the house; this, of course, my father put in her room. So I stayed in Lola Guelang’s room all the time, watching her comb her long, grey hair, mend her kimonas, or cry over the fate of her soap opera heroines. When I was old enough to read, she listened to my stories about my comic book heroes as I pretended that I was swimming on her bed.
It was a large bed with a very firm mattress, perfect for diving from the windowsill. I did that over and over again the night they took Lola Guelang to the hospital. I see myself now, ten years old, too short for my age, jumping on her bed, worried sick, not knowing exactly what was wrong. I found that out for myself later on, when they took me to see her in the San Pablo City Hospital, then later at the San Juan de Dios along Dewey Boulevard. I knew she had cancer by the time they took her back home; they cleared our living room and put in a hospital bed. I watched relatives, friends, and strangers stream in and out of our house. Some of them slept on Lola Guelang’s bed. I didn’t care; I had grown tired of swimming on it.
One morning, I woke up to the sound of muffled sobs from the living room. Lola Guelang was saying goodbye. My mother took my hand and led me to her bedside. I stood beside Ate Minda, my cousin whom Lola Guelang had sent through medical school. When Lola Guelang saw me, she made Ate Minda promise to take me with her to the States so she could send me through school. Ate Minda did, and my mother cried. I don’t know if it was because she was grateful to Ate Minda, or because she was sad that her mother would go at any moment, or because she was afraid she would lose her only son.
Lola Guelang didn’t leave us that day. She lived for a few months more. Long, very long, months. I went to school every day, afraid that she’d be gone when I came home. Sometimes I’d catch her laughing with her visitors and I would begin to believe that she could be well again. But one afternoon, she finally left us. I watched as her children, my sister, and our cousins surrounded her bed. I couldn’t join them. Nobody held my hand to lead me to her. I was scared to come on my own. I didn’t say goodbye.
Twenty years later, I wrote this poem on my own bed, in my own room, in a much bigger city, away from home:
GRANDMA ISN’T HOME
Grandma wasn’t home
So I dove and I swam
All over her huge bed.
They had taken her out
Very early that day In a big white van.
But she was very soon back
So I sulked as I sat
At the foot of her bed.
She lay and she smiled
As I sulked and I sat
And wished for my waves.
Then one sunny day
They came in a black van
And took her away.
I smiled through my tears
As I dove and I swam
All over her big bed.
TIYO LAURO, 1966
When I was five, Tiyo Lauro came home with a gift for my sister. A doll’s eye. It scared me terribly, but everyone else laughed, including my sister who for months had begged him for a walking doll. It took me some years to understand that it was a joke.
You see, Tiyo Lauro, my mother’s younger halfâ€‘brother, a bachelor who lived with us on weekâ€‘ends, worked at the Bureau of Customs in Manila. My family knew another man who worked in the same place and this man was rich. He brought home imported chocolates, batteryâ€‘operated toys, sweaters and shoes and bicycles, everything a child could ever wish for; we knew all this because he was the father of the wife of one of my first cousins. Tiyo Lauro brought nothing home but his dirty clothes for our maids to wash. Well, sometimes he would give me White Rabbit or Haw Flakes, or even a couple of apples in December, but nothing more than that. And yes, that doll’s eye for my sister that everyone else found funny. My mother asked him once why the other customs man had so much while he had nothing but he said nothing. He was like that. He usually said nothing. And when he said something, it was to tell me not to do this or that without even telling me why. I didn’t really like him.
I didn’t really know much about him. When I was seven, I discovered some of his secrets. He left his closet unlocked one Sundayâ€‘â€‘he woke up late and rushed off to Massâ€‘â€‘and I found some girlie magazines inside it, along with some bullets and a periscope and a huge camera with a big flash. He loved taking pictures of all sorts of things. Once I saw his pictures of the World Boy Scout Jamboree in Los Banos and of a bullfight held somewhere in Manila. He also had pictures of our relatives who lived in Mindanao; he visited them often and came home with all sorts of strange thingsâ€‘â€‘a deer’s skull, horns and all; a monkey’s breast, cutâ€‘up and salted; a plaque full of miniature swords.
I can’t forget what Tiyo Lauro did one election period. I was eleven and precocious, as my father always put it, and while everyone else in the family campaigned for Macapagal, Tiyo Lauro insisted Marcos would win. The more I begged him to vote Macapagal, the more he praised Marcos. He said Macapagal had done nothing for the country and Marcos was smart and young and was the hope of the land. We ended up with me shouting at him and him laughing at me. I decided then that I hated Tiyo Lauro. On election morning, however, he called me into his room and showed me his sample ballot. It had Macapagal’s name on it.
Marcos won anyway but Tiyo Lauro and I never fought again. I don’t even remember being mad at him after that, although I don’t really recall having a good time with him either. I just know that I stopped hating him.
One midnight, two years after Lola Guelang’s death, I woke up and found my mother crying beside my father who was talking to someone on the phone. Tiyo Lauro had been shot. Dead. It was a holdâ€‘up in a jeepney, my father was told. But when Tiyo Lauro’s flagâ€‘draped coffin came to our house for the wake, we discovered the real story.
Tiyo Lauro had been a customs secret agent all along. That was why he never brought anything home. He was about to bust a smuggling syndicate when they did him in. The night he was murdered, he took a jeepney home, as he had done every single night. He sat beside the driver, and a man came up behind him and shot him through his left shoulder. The bullet, just one bullet, went straight to his heart.
We found out something else, or at least we still think of it as something, the following afternoon, when some people who introduced themselves as his officeâ€‘mates came to the wake. One of them, a woman in a grey dress, spent a long time looking at Tiyo Lauro. We, my cousins and I, spent as much time watching her. When she lifted her dark glasses and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, we knew we were on to something. No one, of course, dared to ask her who she was. Not even my mother. She was too busy grieving.
I had not seen my mother cry as much as she did then. Not even during Lola Guelang’s funeral. I found out why when we laid Tiyo Lauro to rest. When we got to the family plot, my mother sobbed over Lola Guelang’s grave. She asked for her mother’s forgiveness; she should have watched over her younger brother more, she cried over and over and over again. Even as a soldier gave Tiyo Lauro a gun salute; even when a bugler played taps. After a few weeks, I saw a picture of my mother, puffyâ€‘eyed, standing with their siblings in front of Gate One of Port Area, under a huge sign that read, "Agent Lauro de la Cruz Gate".
Many years later, and thousands of miles away from home, I paid my own homageâ€‘ofâ€‘sorts to Tiyo Lauro, in a poem about, of all things, my father’s gun. I’m sure Tiyo Lauro, silent and absent as he often was, will see some humor in appearing unnamed in anâ€‘almostâ€‘parenthetical remark in a rather long poem written by a nephew he knew very little about and who knew very little about him.
HALINA THE LURE
Kinagisnan ko na I grew up
Ang baril ni Itay. Knowing my father’s gun.
Nakatago ito He kept it
Sa makapal na supot In a thick cotton bag
Kasama ang mga kahon With boxes
Ng maliliit na punglo Of small bullets
Sa kanyang aparador. In his closet.
Kung minsan Sometimes,
Kapag may nabalitaan Hearing of a robbery
Siyang nakawan kung saan Somewhere in the city,
Itinatabi ni Itay My father slept
Sa pagtulog ang baril; With his gun;
Ilang araw iniiwan For days he’d leave it
Sa ilalim ng unang Beneath the pillow
Madalas kong dantayan That I loved to hug
Kapag naglalambing ako Everytime I snuggled up
Sa kanila ni Inay. To him and my mother.
Madalas kong panoorin I often watched him
Ang paglilinis ng barilâ€‘â€‘ Clean his gunâ€‘â€‘
Isaâ€‘isang tinatanggal He’d remove the bullets
Ang mga lamang punglo One by one
Saka pinupunasan Then wipe it clean
Ng nilangisang tela; With an oily cloth;
Pagkatapos sandaling Then for a few moments,
Ipadadama sa akin He’d let me feel
Ang kinis, lamig The smoothness and hardness
At tigas nitong baril. Of this cold gun.
Tuwing magpapalit ang taon On the last night of each year,
Itinututok ito My father aimed the gun
Ni Itay sa langit At the sky
At mabilis na pinapuputok And quickly fired it
Nang anim na uli; Six times;
Isang Bagong Taon One New Year’s eve
Pinahawakan ni Itay He let me hold the gun,
Sa akin ang baril, He made me aim at the sky
Pinaasinta ang langit And told me to pull the trigger;
At pinakalabit ang gatilyo; Just once, he said,
Minsan lang, sabi niya, But I did it
Ngunit inulitâ€‘ulit ko. Again and again.
Nang magbinata ako When I became older
Inalok ako ni Itay My father offered me
Ng sarili kong baril; My own gun;
Mabuti raw na pananggalang It would be a good shield
O kaya’y babala Or a fair warning, he said,
Sa may masamang tangka. To anyone who meant bad.
Hindi ko tinanggap I refused it
Dahil hindi ko malimutan For I could not forget
Ang umagang dumating The morning when I saw
Sa aming tahanan In our own home
Ang mga damit na duguan The blood drenched clothes
Ng kapatid ni Inay Of my mother’s brother
Na kinitil ng punglong Killed by a bullet
Tumagos sa kanyang puso; That penetrated his heart;
Samantalang humihikbi As my mother sobbed
Binuklat ni Inay She unfolded the shirt
Ang kamisadentrong With a hole on one sleeve.
Sa manggas lang ang butas. It was a clever assailant,
Mahusay ang salarin, I said to myself;
Sa loobâ€‘loob ko, He knew by heart
Kabisadongâ€‘kabisado niya A bullet’s chosen path.
Ang hilig ng punglo. But up to this day,
Subalit hanggang ngayon Everytime I open the closet
Tuwing bubuksan ang aparador Or lie on my parents’ bed
O hihiga ako sa kama nina Itay I am tempted to pick up
Natutukso akong damputin My father’s gun,
Ang kanyang baril, Feel the cold,
Damhin ang lamig, kinis And the smoothness and the hardness,
At tigas nito, Fit my finger around its trigger
Isukat ang hintuturo And once more
Ko sa gatilyo Pull it very hard.
At muli itong kalabitin
"Doris of Paris". That was what one Jesuit called her, not just because she lived and studied in Paris for several years and spoke what native French speakers said was impeccable French, but also because she seemed to have brought Paris home with her. At least that’s what our friends who had lived in Paris, too, used to say. I had only been to Paris once, for a few days, so I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what they meant.
I was sure, however, that Doris was no Parisian when I first noticed her. I remember the moment well. My girlfriend and I were in the Ateneo faculty lounge sometime in 1980 when she made me aware that there was a Doris Capistrano teaching Math in the college. "There," she whispered, referring to a thin, young woman with long, black hair, and a very long, frilly dress, lining up for lunch in the college cafeteria. "Isn’t Doris attractive?" No, I whispered back to her, and meant it. She looked much too conservative to be attractive, I added.
Things changed, however, after Doris had received her masteral degree in math in Paris and I had broken up with my girlfriend. Doris came back to teach in Ateneo and we ended up in the same circle of friends. She was definitely attractive and not just because she wore her hair and her skirts shortâ€‘â€‘her eyes lit up as she talked about Paris and math and food and poetry. She was enthusiastic about almost everything, and she showed it not only as she talked but also as she walked and jogged and did almost everything else.
I eventually saw her doing almost all sorts of things when she moved into the campus and became a prefect in the dorm next to where I lived. I helped fix up her room and she spent a lot of time in mine. We watched television and listened to tapes; she cooked while I ate and washed the dishes until she decided I should cook, too, so we suffered through some dishes together; I introduced her to my younger friends and she told me about the boyfriend she left in Parisâ€‘â€‘a young flautist who played around a lot. Yes, I listened to her heartaches. And she listened to mine.
We never cried to each other, though. We almost always laughed together. We went out with friends who loved the same things we didâ€‘â€‘movies, parties, food, concerts, travel, clothes. Yes, clothes. Dressing up, for Doris, was an art, along with sketching, painting, designing, sewing, making patchwork wall hangings, all of which she also did, and did quite well. Everything had to be right, and to be right, it had to be different. And she made sure people appreciated her art. Once, during a faculty party, she made me guess how many ribbons she had on her. I guessed and missed two; they were embroidered above the heel of her black stockings. Yes, her art was also a game.
For Doris, even work was a game. She enjoyed math immensely and she even managed to make me understand how high math was much like literatureâ€‘â€‘you create imaginary worlds with their own laws and, well, world views. She did her work diligentlyâ€‘â€‘she taught and studied math, tutored some high school kids, gave private lessons in French. But every time she had to work she’d say, "Well, I’ll have to go and pretend to work again".
She couldn’t pretend that she was fine, though, when she finally realized that the flautist had found another woman. She kept to herself and wouldn’t tell me how she felt. I worried about her, but there was nothing anyone could do for Doris if she didn’t want them to do anything for her. Doris was stubborn. That part of her I didn’t like. But I waited.
It took some time, but she finally got over that man. It was partly because she met anotherâ€‘â€‘a young Belgian consul. At once, she knew, and we, her closest friends, knew, that they were perfect for each other. He even knew how to court her friends. He drove from Makati to jog with us around Ateneo; he took us out of town in his car; he gave parties for us in his house. Most of all, like Doris, he showed interest in what we did, how we felt, who we hated, who we loved.
One Thursday evening, after judging a contest in the dorm, Doris and I shared some beer in my room; the consul had some diplomatic chores. She and I had not talked for some time before that evening, and she began by asking me about my young friends, naming each one as she did. After I told her what they were up to, she asked me how I was. I told her I had a cyst on my back and that I would undergo a minor operation that coming Saturday; I confessed that I was scaredâ€‘â€‘after all, the cyst could be malignant. She laughed that off and said, "So, what will you leave me if you die?"
I asked her how she was, how she and the consul were, and if her parents knew about him. She said she felt he loved her and she loved him too, and that they had talked about a future together, but nothing was definite, so she had told her parents nothing about the relationship. Her mother had seen her through her last heartbreak, and Doris didn’t want her to be anxious again. Not that early, anyway.
That weekend, while I nursed a punctured back and worried about the biopsy result, Doris drove with the consul to Taal, to meet some friends and motor to the volcano. I came back to Ateneo on Monday and found a note on my door. The head prefect wanted to talk to me about something. But before I could see him, a friend called. She told me Doris had been murdered.
She tried to explain how it had happened but I couldn’t even listen. I rushed to the bathroom, I don’t know why, but I did, and I remembered how I used to wash the dishes in the sink after dining with Doris, how she wouldn’t allow her boyfriend to shower in her bathroom after jogging so he had to use mine, how she made fun of my "nervous bladder". And I cried.
I rushed to the morgue and found Doris on a stretcher, her face bloated for having been under the sun for hours after she died. Our other friends were there, too, discussing what Doris would have wanted to wear for the very last time. We knew, as we grieved, how important that was to Doris. It would have to be the brown suit her boyfriend had given her. But it couldn’t be. Her mother wanted her to wear an embroidered gown, something we all knew Doris wouldn’t be caught dead in. But we also knew that Doris would have laughed that one off; after all, a funeral could just very well be another game for herâ€‘â€‘she could say she was just pretending to be dead. Just as she could say that she was, all along, just pretending to live. It was as if she knew how her life would be so short; everything just had to be a game, everything just had to mean joy.
We never found out why Doris was murdered. She had been shot from behind, just one bullet piercing her chest. Later, I saw a picture taken a few hours after she had died, why it was taken I never really knew for sure. She lay on a cart; she wore a light blue chambray shirt, deep blue denim pants, light blue sneakers, and shocking pink socksâ€‘â€‘so very Doris. Her face showed no sign of pain. Thank God, I thought, she must have heard that shot and thought that someone was just birdâ€‘hunting. She might have even wished she could join their game.
That did not console me, however. I remember crying many, many times for Dorisâ€‘â€‘during the wake in the college chapel; during her funeral; during the afternoons I was alone in my room, imagining Doris calling out my name from outside. No friend had died on me before, I told everyone, and I never imagined it could bring such pain. I cried as I read the many poems written about her, for her, by the people she loved, by the people who loved her. I couldn’t write one myself, even if, after only a few weeks, I found myself returning to the usual run of thingsâ€‘â€‘waking up, eating, teaching, having fun, playing all sorts of games, and doing all sorts of things as if Doris had not died.
After a year, when I found myself very much alone, during a very cold spring many miles away from home, not too distant from the city that Doris loved, this came:
NGAYON LAMANG MASASABI I CAN ONLY SAY THIS NOW
Kay Doris For Doris
Nang yumao ka When you died
Nang biglangâ€‘bigla Rather suddenly
Naghinagpis ako I grieved
At lubhang nangulila And longed for you deeply
Ngunit pagkaraan But after
Ng iilang araw Only a few days
Mabilis na nakabalik I quickly returned
Sa nakagawian nang To the usual
Takbo ng buhay. Run of things.
Sandali ko This alarmed me
Itong ikinabahala, For a moment,
Tulad ng saglit Like the brief anxiety
Na pagkabagabag About my thinning hair
Sa pagdalang ng buhok When I look into the mirror
Sa aking tuktok After I wake up each morning.
Pagtingin ko sa salamin
Tuwing ako’y gigising.
AND, YES, THERE WERE OTHERS
Yes, there were others after Doris. They passed away in very quick succession, not even leaving me enough time to grieve in between. I know it may be too early for me to write about their deaths, but I can not stop now. I will not.
I want to write about Kuya Nelson, his mother’s favorite son. The beautiful one, she bragged. He grew up to be a pretty boy, so pretty girls couldn’t resist him. He had girlfriends anytime, and everywhere. At nineteen, he was forced to marry his teacher, after her brothers caught them making love in their classroom. She eventually left him, and he took up with a younger woman, fathered her children, lived in different homes with other women, and ended up with so many children no one even tried to keep track of how many they were and where they stayed. At forty, he lost the woman he lived with to a couple of farm workers who hacked her to death because Kuya Nelson had treated them badly. He, too, suffered deep wounds in his chest and legs, but lived to take in another woman. Once, when she gave birth, one of his other lovers came to care for her and her baby. Later, Kuya Nelson began an affair with a soldier’s wife; he also "exported" female entertainers and dabbled in local politics. Three years ago, Kuya Nelson and his eldest son were riddled with bullets as they approached the gate of their farm.
I want to write about Tiya, my father’s eldest sister. She who quit school to support her brothers and sisters. She who opened a store, traded all sorts of things from all sorts of places, and sent her nephews and nieces to school for she never had her own child; she who watched over my sister when she left San Pablo to study in Manila; she who was too old to travel when it was my turn to live away from home. Tiya’s wards all left her, some she proudly sent off to America and Canada, some she drove away from her house in rage. She ended up alone in her house, waiting for visits and dollars and whatever little love came her way. I sometimes made her smile, with a wave, or a gift, or a kiss; often I just ignored her for she had become bitter and nasty and cruel. But she lived on, until she could hardly hear, until she could hardly walk, until she could hardly care whether or not anyone else cared about her. A few months ago, a stroke took her life. During the wake, relatives and friends filled her house. The ones she loved most, the nephews and nieces she had proudly sent off to America and Canada, couldn’t come. They sent dollars instead, and instructions on what should be done to whatever Tiya had left behind.
I want to write about Berms, my friend, the one who treated me like a brother for he never had a real one. We went to college together, lived in the same dormitory, had the same set of friends, shared each other’s clothes and food and home and secrets and dreams. He wanted to be a politician. Through college, law school, government service and private practice, he made and lost all sorts of friends. But he was faithful, very faithful, to someâ€‘â€‘we he played mahjong with, we the victims of his practical jokes, we the godparents of his children, we he opened his home and his heart to, we who stayed with him until the very end. We discovered he had cancer a month before he died. He knew immediately how sick he was; there was nothing you could hide from Berms. We saw him hope he would survive his illness and travel with us again. We saw him eventually accept the inevitability of death, trusting his God to keep him and his wife and his children in His care. Later, we saw him question that same God and reject whatever consolation we tried to offer him. And then one evening we saw him make peace with the same God, and make sure that weâ€‘â€‘his wife, his children, his mother, his cousins, his friendsâ€‘â€‘were one with him in meeting that God and one with each other in living through his passing. But this could not diminish the pain his leaving left us. Left me.
I am still in pain.
I have not recovered the part of me that died with him.
I have not recovered the part of me that died, too, with Lola Guelang, Tiyo Lauro, Mr. Ongpin, Doris, Kuya Nelson and Tiya.
I don’t know if I ever will.
22 September 1994