Saturday, January 24, 2009

That Thing We Do

Today, I break my own rules.

When I started this blog, my intention is to put nothing but short stories to it. But on this particular occasion there will be none of those things that terrify or make me depressed and insecure or make me question my purpose for being, in short the very thoughts that had lead others to say I had been all along afflicted with a kind of chronic negativity, whatever that means. Part of the reason for the change of heart, to tell you the truth is I am running out of stories to tell, and the other part is the audacity of that one great belief that after only a few months of blogging, I have already earned the right to do my own rants, which I used to abhor when people do it unabashedly, especially for purposes of self-promotion. Well, I am doing the same thing now and I would be willing to earn the devil's wrath because well maybe I deserve to.

I was glossing over the discussion forum the other day and a question struck a chord. It wasn't a particularly intelligent or emotional or controversial topic but on the contrary, the question was rather commonplace and I am sure the asker was nowhere near the first to think of the question, which in fact may have already been asked a million times at various interactions happening in every corner of the worldwide web. What makes you think this life is still worth living? In most cynicial times, I would have cringed. Just another subtle shot at pontification. So I must admit I answered it by a spur of the moment's thought, the idea merely to get some attention from those browsing on the same page. I don't even remember now what my answer was and I doubt if I can still find the said thread in the discussion forum, until it appears again in some other form or permutation but for now I only wish I had been more incisive and level-headed in my answer or if not, to at least make sense and deliver a valid point.

As an afterthought, and to perhaps undo what had already been done, I would say that for as long as people do the things that they do out of love, then life would be worth it. Sometimes, I would surprise myself for the great lengths that I would be willing to go, and for the sheer energy of my resolve to do the things that would actually contribute absolutely nothing to my personal happiness but would bring fulfillment to someone else even to a complete stranger. And those are the moments when I feel most proud just to be me. I am sure a lot of folks also know the feeling. Because when you become the recipient of an act of kindness, that means you must have done something truly special in your past that makes you deserving of a return favor. The law of karma had simply rewarded you the opportunity to reap what you planted, in a way you didn't imagine and because of that you will become more inspired to plant the seed of kindness all over again keeping the cycle of sharing perpetually in motion, touching more people's lives.

That we are somehow equipped with a consciousness of the other person's needs and more importantly, the initiative to try to fill that need is such a wonderful thing. It should rank among the greatest miracles on earth. For so long we have hailed the greatest inventions, the most profound achievements, the extraordinary feats yet the small acts of kindness that happen on a daily basis practically go unnoticed precisely because you see them everywhere anytime. But imagine what kind of a world we will all have if people would stop caring?

Maybe we should all remember that we are as much a product of what good deeds people do and have done for us out of responsibility, as those small favors that they did out of love. I would even dare say that the latter kind of favor has far greater and more lasting effect on the life that we choose to live. There is more to parents giving up so much of their own happiness and enduring unbelievable pains than simply because they are parents. There is more to the lowly-paid worker taking the extra mile, and staying at it beyond his watch than simply because it is the work he does and he just had to do it. There is more to the friends, and even the strangers who care to listen to you and willingly give you sympathy in moments when you needed it, than for sheer reason that it is just the kind of gesture expected of every man.

What does it make of you when you succeed in performing all your responsibility to the letter? Well, you just prove to be a truly responsible person and a credit to humanity. But everytime you perform a service that were never meant to be your responsibility to render and in doing so you do it with a sense of joy and purpose, then be proud that you have just set the highest example about love and caring and compassion, and because of that and because of people like you, it is indeed a much better world.

Thank you Ma'am Ria, if you happen to read this...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Back to School

Today, by force of circumstances I was compelled to do what I have always dreaded doing - going back to my old school. But it was an inevitable task. Desperately needing that second job, I would have to obtain an original copy of my school records, one of the requirements of my future employer. The school per se is nothing to sneer at. After all, it has a long and colorful past, one that continues to give justice and purpose to the present. Some of the men and women who walked its corridors at different times in history have gone on to leave a mark in the country's rich heritage by doing great deeds that defined their generation.

The school has produced presidents, millionaires and I would imagine, on the other side of the fence, a couple of delinquents who are either dead or in jail. And of course, the great majority and that includes me, would lead uneventful and anonymous lives, but lives worth-living nonetheless. Coming back was never an enjoyable occasion for me because of the sheer impact of unwanted memories that would be triggered by the experience. Again, it was more of myself, not the place being the reason why.

I had always been told that my views are too cynical and how they wish, my friends would insist, that I lighten up a little. Honestly, I had been trying but with so little success. Events will conspire one way or the other to put gloom into my day and I would be willingly trapped into that mode, like what I feel now, as I write.

It was approaching 5, the hour of calling it a day for the many workers, students, and nearly every busy soul among the multitudes who congregate in the city. The afternoon mass at Quiapo church had began, and just outside along the whole stretch of Quezon Boulevard, traffic came to a crawl from the obstruction of people, vendors, and homebound commuters impatient for a ride. I had to bear with the same familiar sights and sounds, the sheer stench of urban decay that had become a hallmark of the place, and which I couldn't seem to get used to no matter how many times I had experienced them. It was one of those things I hoped I had, the ability to shut off all perceptions of the unpleasant, which one of my friends had mastered and had so adeptly been using to his advantage, as he goes through his business with the complete numbness and insensitivity of one who absolutely refused to be involved, while I on the other hand would be inclined to absorb and imbibe the malady of it all. Today is no exception.

At the foot of the bridge along Echague sat a woman, slumped on the bare pavement and emanating stink and I knew right away something was terribly wrong. She was talking out loud in foul incoherent language, and having an imaginary discourse with perhaps someone she hated, except that that person wasn't there. It would drive her to tears at some point, then suddenly, into a raging screaming verbal assault, before falling into a deep silent spell, staring at the distance, and then afterwards repeating the same cycle of tears and rage and silence. People would walk past, looking the other way and pretending nothing was happening, and it felt awful that I was the only one who seemed to be paying attention, although I was looking from a distance, afraid she would see me and vent her ire at my meddling with her crazed condition. But it wasn't only the woman that bothered me then.

Two kids, about three and two years old were slumped beside her, and you can tell with one look that both were starving. I knew right away they were her children, but the kids are both too young to comprehend the tragic fate that came upon their mother. Yet they refuse dto leave her side, at times clinging to her, and at times touching her hair, perhaps hoping to coax her, make her come out of that horrific condition and give them affection like she always did, I am quite sure she did, before things had miserably changed.

I wish I could just take the kids away from this place, run off with the two of them in my arms and worry about the consequences later. But I wasn't brave enough. I wonder why people could just walk away pretending they have more important things to do than worry about two toddlers left to practically fend for themselves in a cruel and heartless city and how I secretly wished I have the same ability to simply walk away. But I have none of that and much as I tried not to, I ended up hating myself for having nothing more to give to them than pity.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Revelation

The days after Christmas and New Year celebrations are often loaded with anxiety, as we try to recover from what could be termed the 'post-holiday-fatigue syndrome' and move into the brand new year to face the new tasks waiting to be accomplished. At home, it was almost an annual ritual for my mother to divest the house of all the clutter, removing the things she would consider unnecessary. It was almost a symbolic act, and I have learned to understand that maybe, the deeper implication of this behavior is to prepare for the transition to a new stage in her life, at least that was what I thought it meant for my mother.

So the first few days into the new year saw my mother engaging in the same pattern, and I am amazed by the volume of personal effects, old photographs, paperwork, letters, clothes, and all sorts of paraphernalia, that found their way out of the house and into the garage, with some ultimately bound for the trash bin. As I curiously sifted through the piles of discarded pictures, I was surprised to find a decades-old family portrait, with myself on it as a seven year-old boy. And just like that, a crawling chill suddenly dawned upon me as I recognized the woman in the picture who was coddling me in her arms for that photo shoot. That woman is a deep dark chapter in my life, and though I was barely seven years old then, something about the past would stay with me for life. She would forever remain a mystery, a ghost of the past perhaps, and I hated the memory of her because of the power it seems to possess over me, the power to keep coming back, no matter how desperately I would try to shut off all reminders of that part of my past.

My father had an accident and he needed to be brought to a hospital in Manila to undergo surgery, as no hospital in our province could provide the facilities and specialists that are up to the task. My mother and two older sisters went with my father, leaving me at home under the care of Manang Choleng, a spinster who was my father's provincemate, and who came knocking on our door one stormy night to beg for my father to let her work for us as maid and nanny, a proposition my father took a long time to consider not because he completely opposed the idea, but for a fact that the thought of us having a household help at that time seemed preposterous or you could even say ridiculous. I would say so because we were poor by those days' standards and in all honesty, I knew that with my father's meager earnings as a carpenter, we could barely afford the three square meals. Yet, she never asked for anything, poor old Manang Choleng, who had practically begged to work for us for free without once complaining or tiring from the everyday chores in the old cramped house where life is difficult and almost always uncomfortable. My mother would proclaim that Manang Choleng was heaven-sent the day after my father's accident when she had to leave home to be on his side during the operation, and Manang Choleng was the only one she had to take good care of me. Heaven-sent?

She would eat voraciously, like she had been starved for days, and it felt funny that, sitting across this woman at the dining table, I had wished the food will not run out or she might proceed to devour me. I was so scared, Scared of the way she would look at me while she licked her lips, I was so scared that my entire family was away and here I am with this strange woman, I was scared of the way she could lift objects, the table for instance, and the couch, without an effort, when I had known all along she was very old, and it showed in her graying hair and varicose veins in her legs, and in the perpetual redness in her eyes. That woman in the photograph couldn't be younger than sixty. And I was scared the most that I would sleep with her each night on the same bed, with all the lights out, and only the moonlight from the bedroom window providing the slightest illumination. But nothing came close to the kind of scare that crept into my very soul during the last night we were together.

I was awakened to her panting and moaning in the middle of the night. She seemed to be in pain, her breathing difficult, and she was on fire, with a burning fever. When Manang Choleng noticed I was awake, she hoisted me to the top of the large dresser as if she was holding a feather, warning that never ever under any circumstances should I even think of stepping down.

I haven't told a single soul what I witnessed afterwards that night and how I wish there is something I can do to completely erase the memory for my own sake, because what I came to witness was something I would do anything to totally obliterate from the mind. She fell on the floor vomiting, doubling up in pain, gasping from breath. Then she crawled under the bed. A strange creature would emerge seconds later, a creature I couldn't even bring myself to describe, I guess it's because that sort of thing only exists in the imagination, I really hope it does, if only to convince myself that it was all a terrible dream that I had experienced on that night when I was seven. It looked up to me and began to lick its mouth, then, unable to reach up to the top of the dresser, it leaped out of the window and disappeared into the night.

We never saw or even heard of Manang Choleng ever since.