Eighteen years. That was all it took for Ipe to realize that life ultimately led to nowhere. Once death comes, you’re a goner. You could be certain only of things in this life, but beyond it, you wouldn’t know anything. Is there a life beyond this one? As far as he knew, no one had really been proven to have come back to tell.

(Ipe!)

Life was as crazy as the tricycle drivers here on Quezon Avenue, waving and trying to convince you to take a ride instead of getting blisters on those precious soccer feet. Good point, but five pesos to get to two crossings ahead? Ipe would rather risk the blisters.

Working hours were almost over but everybody seemed not to have gotten over the blues. Typical Monday. A Mercury Drug employee came out of the store just ahead of him. Across the street to his left, the Metrobank guard leaned drowsily against the wall beside the entrance while five people lined up for the ATM. One knocked furiously on the dark green glass and was probably telling whoever it was to hurry the hell up. The drug store lady stopped to fix her knee-length skirt, then hailed a tricycle. As Ipe passed by he could hear her arguing with the driver that the fare to Ayusan was only twenty pesos yesterday.

(Felipe!)

Ipe stopped. Someone was calling him. As he looked back he saw a person running toward him from the other side, expertly dodging tricycles and other vehicles buzzing along. At a distance where most people would easily recognize faces, Ipe squinted under the Vigan sun. Did he need glasses? Nah, maybe his peepers were just tired from being awake the entire night; he was the nightshift in his dad’s wake.

As Pando approached (Uy, papanam?) and his countenance became clearer, Ipe tried to smile.

“O, Pando, it’s you.” he said. “I was going to those gravestone makers up the street to place an order.” His voice shook a little, but he kept it under control.

“Who died?”

“Papa,” Ipe answered, looking up the street and then at his watch. Not many knew what happened. And he just arrived from Manila the other day so he hadn’t really told anyone just yet.

“What? When? I remember seeing him just a week ago.”

“The other day. Car accident.”

“O? Grabe naman. I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t be, pare. Ganyan ang buhay,” Ipe said. It ends, he wanted to add. It ends, you’re gone and that’s it. Nothing more to do but accept facts.

But dammit, it was hard. No matter how many times you said I’ve gotten over it, there came moments when you just missed the person. There were, for example, abandoned agreements, an agreement to meet somewhere, say. You go and sit on a bench in that somewhere, feel the void left behind, and still you wait for someone who has gone to the one place where you can’t follow.

Pando looked down at the pavement, like all of a sudden there was something so interesting in the way the cement held. At this, Ipe thought of his friend as suddenly feeling his foot was stuck in his mouth. Pando’s eyes revealed that he did not like the idea of his toes wiggling next to his tonsils. Ditto the taste. The thought made Ipe grin and relax a little.

“Let me go with you,” Pando found his composure again. “I know the owner of one of those joints. I can get you a better deal.”

Ipe thanked him. They walked—Pando asking questions and Ipe trying his best to answer them. How did his dad die? Where? Anyone with him? But he thought Pando missed the most crucial question: where did his father go? The answers to this were as aimless as that drunk across the street, swaying to a peculiar kind of music. Nonexistent music. Believers of a life beyond this one danced to that kind of music—they can not hear, much less prove, the existence of the sound.

At the gravestone maker’s place, one among many lined up along the street, Ipe observed the finished marble slabs behind the window. He read the names on them. Goners. They went in.

Conching was in the kitchen when it happened. She was instructing the house help on what merienda should be prepared for whichever group was doing bible service that afternoon. Somebody came running to tell her that she should come quick, Issa was not acting normally. Her first thought was God, not again.

READ
UST receives Nokia wireless networks

When she reached the living room, the old ladies who came to offer their condolences and who usually chatted the time away had their jaws dropped. Their eyes fell on Issa, cross-legged on the floor facing her dad’s white coffin. She rocked back and forth, eyes unblinking.

“Pp-papa… pa-pp-pa,” she ranted without cease.

Seeing this, a hand went to her mouth to delay the coming of the first sob. Conching’s eyes welled up but she fought the urge to pick her adopted daughter up and embrace her tight. This was not the first time this occurred, and the last time she picked Issa up on a similar occasion, the little girl kicked and pushed violently like she didn’t know her mama at all. She kicked and almost fell from Conching’s arms, forcing Conching to let her go. And when she did, Issa sat down again, rocked back and forth, eyes unblinking.

Back then, it had been only a year after Issa was officially adopted, so everyone concluded that she was still trying to adjust to her new family. But Issa continued to act oddly. Conching consulted people, Ipe in Manila, her husband in his office. But they said the same thing, so she followed their advice: give the little girl time. It scared her—the way Issa’s eyes never blinked, the way she rocked back and forth, the way she did not seem to notice Conching lean close and tell her everything was fine. The child would just rock back and forth in the corner. One time, she thought she saw the little girl smile mysteriously at nothing at all. Oh yes, Conching was scared.

Conching went back to the nursing home and asked whether Issa had been acting this way when she was still under the sisters’ care, but the sister in charge of adoptions assured her that Issa was as normal as the other girls. She had difficulty speaking, but that was it. Her speech would improve as she grows. Issa was okay, they told her.

So why was this happening again? Conching started to cry, not knowing what to do. She knelt down and whispered to the toddler in a shaking voice: “Baby?”

Pp-pa…pa…pa-ppa…

“Baby? It’s mama. Are you okay?”

Pa…ppa…ppa…

Conching’s tears fell. “Baby? Issa? It’s mama. Everything’s fine, anak.” Her trembling hands slowly went under Issa’s arms. “Everything’s all right.”

As soon as Conching’s hands were an inch away from her, Issa snapped from her trance. Her eyes displayed an unmistakable look of terror as they met with her mother’s. Issa’s arms flailed at her mother’s face repeatedly, causing Conching to fall back in shock. Then the child covered her face and wailed so loud and so suddenly that the onlookers jumped in their seats. Conching’s tears and sobs came freely now, her face in her hands as she remained on the floor.

“She misses her papa dreadfully,” one of the old ladies whispered loudly to the women next to her. The women nodded in reverent agreement as if they heard a dogma. Then they looked back as they sensed movement from the little girl. What they saw astonished them even more.

Issa stood up, walked to the coffin, and started banging her head on its side. “Don’t do that!” Conching panicked and pulled the girl away from it, but Issa turned vicious again. Free from her mama’s hold, she returned to the coffin and resumed banging her head.

Conching helplessly reached forward as she continued to weep. “Somebody stop her,” she cried. Please, somebody…

The old women, themselves shaking, stood up to help, but Issa wailed and threw a violent tantrum whenever one of them approached. Then she would go back to the coffin and bang her head, a faint smile on her lips. She was still at it when Ipe and Pando arrived.

“’Nong, crossing lang,” Ipe shouted over the racket of the bus engine. The fare collector who was standing at the front clinked a coin against an iron post as soon as the crossing came into view. The brakes hissed.

READ
40 taon ng Bayanihan

Ipe elbowed Pando, rushing him. People were staring and he was uneasy about it. What they carried was a giveaway that someone had died—two plastic bags filled with three-in-one coffee mixes and two others with loaves of bread bought from Arceli’s. When they got down, the can of biscuits that had been put in the cargo hold greeted them.

“First things first,” Ipe said. “How do we manage to carry these all the way home?”

“Three blocks west from here, right?”

“Three small blocks,” Ipe said reassuringly. They crossed the highway.

Hay, San Juan, Ipe sighed with a feeling almost of alienation as well as homesickness, as they walked westward down the long-ago paved road that now was worn out enough to let the bigger stones underneath poke their smooth, black heads through the cement. Since high school, he was away for how many, almost seven years? Things change as time passes. That’s undeniable.

“Nagkita tayo, ganito pa,” Ipe said, transferring the plastic bags to his other hand as they switched positions carrying the can. Pando smiled but didn’t know how to respond. As they continued to walk, Ipe’s attention turned back to the surroundings.

It was getting dark. A few kids who were playing on the basketball court beside the church were picking up their shirts and going home. Up ahead, the shade from the big acacia was transforming into shadows. Mothers shouted for their sons to come home and pray the orasyon.

One block later, they heard something from Ipe’s home (…bog!…bog!…) that made them look at each other (…bog!…bog!…) and enter the house with curiosity. The two wedged through bewildered visitors who looked at them, eyes pleading that maybe it was they who could stop whatever caused the banging noise.

As they got to where the coffin was, they saw Issa, her hands on the side of the iron casket in what looked like an attempt to embrace it. She was banging her head on the coffin. And she was smiling.

“Christ, why doesn’t anybody stop her?” Ipe shouted, his eyes sweeping the room. He looked at Conching, whose head was guiltily turned down, then ran to Issa and in a fluid motion swept her off the floor and away from the coffin.

Immediately Issa started crying and kicking as hard as she could, but at six feet, Ipe did not even feel the struggle. He turned to look at the people who were, by this time, standing. His shadow, created by the bright yellow glow of the electric candles behind him, was a black pillar that extended to the opposite wall. Some of the old women’s hands were on their chests, and while all of their eyes were wide, their lips remained shut.

“You don’t just watch a little girl break her head!” Ipe said, his voice a little angrier than he intended. He was dumbfounded at their apathy, and was willing to try any answer. His gaze tried even Pando at the doorway, but Pando turned away and started carrying their groceries across the sala and into the kitchen.

Ipe helped Conching up with his other hand. “Ma?” he asked in a more mellow volume, his face full of questions hungry for answers. Issa had stopped struggling in Ipe’s arm, her face blank once more. She was smiling. God.

Conching said nothing, turned around, and walked into the guest room across the komedor. Ipe followed, Issa now a limp body in her brother’s hold.

As soon as the door clicked behind them, Ipe laid his little sister on the bed, and asked Conching again. “Well…?”

His mother sat on the bed beside her adopted child and started lightly caressing Issa’s forehead, bright red and slightly bruised.

“It was only today that she did this… that she banged her head,” she started, then paused to let out another sigh, which was really a struggle against another bout of sobbing. Issa’s blank eyes looked straight up. “But I talked to Dr. Boy some two months ago about her behavior.”

“And…?”

“She could be autistic.”

Ipe said nothing, but kept his gaze on his mother whose gaze stayed on the child. She was still caressing her head when Ipe left the room.

READ
Mga Asyanong obispo bumisita sa UST

2 a.m. Ipe gladly accepted Pando’s offer to stay for the nightshift. He needed company, someone to talk to while the clock ticked slowly until morning. They were in the komedor, seated opposite each other at the round table, sipping their second cup of coffee for the night.

“Issa is autistic,” Ipe said, sipping noisily from his cup. “Do you know what that means, p’re?”

“Brain disorder, lack of awareness of things around her, like she has her own world?”

“Indifference, yes, among other things. That means her sense of focus is stronger than the normal child’s. Than ours, even. You know what that means?”

Pando stopped to think. “Well… according to an article I have read, people who are autistic see tiny details we normally dismiss.”

“Not only that. P’re, with that power, or disability, or whatever, who knows what they can see?” Ipe said, turning towards the adjoining sala, where the yellow glow from the electric candles was as bright as ever. The mechanical angel stood at the foot of the coffin. Her plastic hands clasped in prayer, then separated again. Her lifelike eyes didn’t blink as her head (rocked back and forth…) swayed from side to side. Ipe felt a chill.

“P’re, that’s silly.”

“Pando, she struggled. She didn’t want to be taken away from her own world. And no one can say why.”

Pando shook his head and chuckled. “Just drink your coffee.”

Ipe played with his cup. He’s right. It was silly. Existence after death was silly. Who knows what they can see? That question was silly. It became even sillier when one discussed it with Pando. Oh, Pando was much worse. If those harboring these views were to be guillotined, Pando would be much further up the line. And he would still be laughing about how silly it all was.

But does one just forget about one who passed away? Is the belief in life after death just an escape, because we want to cling to the idea that a loved one is still with us? What if his father was still around but unseen?

Ipe looked down on his coffee. Pando had stopped chuckling, and was also avoiding his friend’s glance. They finished their coffee, silent except for the sipping noises they made.

Issa’s condition. Ipe’s conclusion. Were these thoughts just a fight put up by his feelings because he wasn’t ready to let his father go, and that deep inside, he wanted that there be life after death? His reason and experience said it wasn’t possible, but his mind continued to be plagued by questions as well as guilt.

A sound came from the guest room. Issa was crying. She woke up, and probably couldn’t go back to sleep. Ipe went in. When he came back to the dining room, carrying Issa, Pando wasn’t there. He probably went out back to wash the cups, Ipe thought as he rubbed his sister’s back.

Ipe entered the sala, where the bright yellow light enveloped him. He took a chair, careful not to rock Issa out of her sleep, and sat down in front of his father’s coffin. After a moment of silence, he whispered to Issa as she slept, “Did you see him, Issa?”

Issa mumbled in her sleep. She turned her head on her brother’s shoulder and moved one arm around his neck. Ipe kept quiet again.

He looked back into the dining room, where the light was white. This white glow clashed with the yellow light in the sala, making Ipe feel like he was looking at it from a different reality. If the dead lived on, was this how they saw the world of the living?

Hey Pa, is this how you see us?

Ipe was getting drowsy.

Pa, are you there?

His eyes were getting heavy, giving in. The electric candles glowed too bright now. He wanted to close his eyes and keep them from the glow, and from the sight of the coffin.

Papa…?

As Ipe’s eyelids came down for the last time, a tear rolled down his cheek.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.