It was still dark when Nina was gently nudged awake by her younger sister, Gella.

“Ate, wake up. It’s time to go.”

“Hmmm?” Nina asked sleepily, rubbing her tired eyes. She rolled carefully to her side, facing her sister. “6 a.m. already?”

“No, it’s 3 a.m. Mama said, we should leave a little earlier, so we can avoid the Manila traffic.”

A little earlier?

“Come on, I’ll help you up,” Gella said, taking Nina’s hands and carefully easing her to sit.

Nina didn’t want to get up early. She wanted to sleep the day away; she didn’t want to go anywhere. But she knew she had no choice. She let Gella help her get dressed, her mind a total blank.

***

Nina started having headaches during her senior year in high school. Often she felt dizzy in the middle of an exam or an activity, but she dismissed the onslaughts as simple headaches only. But she would have really severe ones that often, she had to be taken to the school clinic.

Her mother wanted her to see a doctor, but Nina refused. She had always reasoned her schoolwork and her extra-curricular activities. She was an active participant in class plays and productions, being at her best on a director’s chair or on the script. She had a full load of projects and always got tired, but she enjoyed everything she did. She was considered the best in her class.

In college, she found more organizations and activities to indulge in than she ever imagined, and she was thrilled. She excelled in her academics, and doors were opened for her to showcase her talent. Everything, she believed, was on the right track.

Or so it seemed.

Nina’s headaches became more frequent and severe as the year passed by. Busy with directing a major class production—her biggest yet—Nina paid no attention to it and buried herself in grueling rehearsals and countless arrangements. Her mother, who supported Nina but did not approve of working to death, made her go to a doctor to find out what was wrong.

So Nina went. Once, twice, she was absent from school. What her friends knew was that the headaches were the result of her weakening eyesight and lack of sleep. After each visit to the doctor Nina grew noticeably weaker, but she still went through her work with unwavering determination.

On the night of the play, everything went smoothly as planned. During the curtain call, Nina walked to the center of the stage, feeling the intoxicating rush of triumph. She took one look at the applauding audience, then fell to the floor, unconscious.

***

“What time do you suppose will we get there, Mama?” Nina asked her mother, who was in the front seat.

“In about two more hours, honey. Just before sunrise. Why don’t you sleep? Are you comfortable?” Nina’s mother asked, turning to look at Nina behind her.

Nina shifted slightly in the backseat. “Yes, Ma, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll sleep later.”

“Just relax, Nina. This trip is going to be wonderful,” Nina’s father said.

Wonderful. Nina hadn’t heard that word in days. She hadn’t felt that way in days either. She snuggled deeper into her seat, facing the window at her right. She traced the door handle with her fingertips, feeling tired and weary.

Or did somebody say it to her last night? Or the other day? I can’t remember.

Noticing that her sister was fidgeting, Gella put a hand on Nina’s arm. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Nina turned and saw Gella’s young face, worry written all over it. She forced a smile. “I’m okay. It’s just…” Nina paused. She bit her lip.

“What is it?”

Nina looked up at the car ceiling, then back at Gella. “When…when was the play?” she asked haltingly.

Gella tried to cover up the look of surprise on her face. “It was eight days ago, Ate Nina. It was fantastic.” Gella looked guiltily at their mother, who was once again looking in their direction.

READ
Isang tahanang masisilungan

Nina’s mother smiled reassuringly at them both. “You’re still a bit groggy from the operation, Nina. Don’t worry, a few more hours of rest and you’ll be fine.” She reached for Nina’s hand. “You fainted at your play, when you were called to take a bow. We took you to the hospital. After the doctors had examined you, they had to operate right then and there.”

Nina was silent as she listened to her mother. Oh, yes, I remember now, she thought. But some things were still a bit confusing. “You mean, I didn’t take another test, they just operated on me right away,” Nina said slowly.

Her mother looked away. “The doctors said they were already certain when they examined you that night, so it was better to operate at once. They said you were fine. They said…”

She faltered, then hurried to finish her sentence, hoping Nina had not noticed. “They said they got it all. You slipped in and out of consciousness for days. We took you home last night.” She exchanged glances with Nina’s father.

Nina noticed it, but was too absorbed with her own thoughts to think about what it meant. At the back of her mind, Nina remembered all that her mother said, but could not help but be stunned by the news. Feeling that her mother was waiting for her response, she forced a smile. “Okay, I remember now…Thanks,” she said, returning her gaze to the window.

Nina’s mother held her hand a moment longer, trying to look into Nina’s eyes. After a while, she gently let it go. “All right, honey. Try to rest.” She turned back to the road ahead.

Nina looked at the back of her mother’s seat from the corner of her eye. She felt strangely uneasy after the talk, instead of feeling relieved. But she was too weak even to think.

Nina watched the buildings and streets run past her as the car sped through the city. The words would not go out of her head: Eight days ago…no more tests…they were certain…operated right away…

Nina had been telling her friends that she was seeing an eye doctor to have a pair of glasses fitted every time she was absent. “Now I’ll look more like the genius that I am!” she told them. And she laughed. Nina couldn’t believe she was able to laugh at that moment.

Well, it was easier then, she thought. At that time, they had nothing but speculations. But now they’ve already operated on me. Nina shuddered at the thought, drawing the blanket closer around her. She was glad she fell unconscious. But then, I might have thrown up and fallen unconscious if they had the chance to tell me they were slicing through my head and scooping out a spoonful of brain. That would have been uglier.

She vaguely remembered waking up in her hospital room. The walls were green; it was supposed to be a relaxing color. Somehow, for Nina, it didn’t work. She couldn’t imagine it working for anyone who was there to have a brain tumor removed.

She also remembered a gentle voice, probably her mother’s, telling her that she had done great, her play was wonderful, something about getting it all out. Wonderful. That was where she heard that word. Her play was wonderful.

Nina smiled to herself. Well, at least something went right, she thought. The voice gave her a little more energy, and she felt somewhat better.

Nina looked out the window. She did not feel like sleeping through the trip. She never slept on trips anyway. Nina loved looking out the window, watching the different people and places change in size, color, and shape.

On her sickbed, she remembered the familiar yet unrecognizable voice saying, “When you get out of the hospital, we’ll go on a trip. We’ll stay with your cousins in Bataan. You know, in your aunt’s house near the beach? You always loved it there,” the voice said. “Your Christmas vacation is over, but we’ll stay there for however long you like. The fresh air will do you good…” The voice stopped. Did she hear it crack? She couldn’t remember. Her memory was evidently in disarray.

READ
Lead witness in Chua slay retracts testimony

The car slowed to get in line for the tollgate. Nina watched the surrounding vehicles weave through the others to find a shorter line or a faster one. The car’s vibration increased as it stood still on the road. The car stereo was on; soft music from a local radio station came in whispers to Nina’s ears, but she did not notice it. She felt empty, deprived of something she could not identify. She wondered where all the other cars were headed to, or where she was headed to herself.

The car went past the gate, and for the next few hours Nina watched the concrete structures give way to green fields. Nina loved traveling, and she loved going to her aunt’s house in Bataan, which was located at the foot of a mountain and had a beach not far away. One had to go through a series of long curved roads going up the mountain. It was her favorite vacation spot. Despite all, she felt a warm joy spread through her when she realized her family chose to take her to her favorite place during this troubled time.

Before long, the family reached the house. Their relatives all asked about Nina and how she was feeling. They talked for a while, then Gella pointed out that Nina was probably eager to head to the beach. So she suggested that their father drop her and Nina off there, then the rest of the family would follow with food for a picnic.

Their father drove them to the beach, empty except for the three of them. Then he left them after kissing them on their foreheads and promising to be back in a little while with food and more blankets.

Gella helped Nina walk over to a cool spot under a large palm. It had been their spot for as long as they could remember. Gella spread a blanket on the ground for her sister to sit on, but Nina was already walking towards the water.

Wrapped in heavy blankets, Nina took slow steps towards the water’s edge. It was still very early in the morning; the sun had not yet risen and the cold of dawn had not quite given way to the early morning warmth. A thin fog hovered over the shoreline. But Nina was so happy to be in that place again, that she did not feel the cold. She took off her slippers, dragging her feet into the soft sand, and she managed a weak smile. She felt like a child again, drawing shapes on the sand with her toes. After a while she went wading in the water.

The beach was actually a small bay, so there were no big waves crashing to the shore. That was what she loved the most with the place: the water was calm and clear, and you could see the stones, shells and the schools of little fish under the surface. The neighboring islands were faintly outlined in the horizon, beyond the opening of the bay. There was nothing but the blue sky and water, and the majestic mountain behind them. It was, for Nina, a paradise.

Gathering her blankets in her arms, Nina stepped into the water until it swirled around her thighs. From the surrounding hills, the chirping of the first birds greeted the morning. She felt so at peace in this place. It’s almost like I died and came to heaven, Nina thought.

She stood rooted to the spot. She hadn’t meant to think about dying, but the possibility of that actually happening shocked her. She reached up and felt for the scar on the right side of her head, hidden from view under a black bandanna. Thoughts began racing through her mind: Am I cured? Is my hair going to grow back? Did they really get it all? What if it comes back? What if I die after all?

READ
Losers

Nina felt chilled to her very bones. Tears sprang to her eyes before she could stop them, and the world became one big pool of blue and green. All of a sudden her blankets were too heavy to lift; her arms felt fluid. She awkwardly made her way to the shore, her blankets trailing over the surface of the water, her wobbly feet slipping and sliding over the stones. The water seemed to be tugging her down. Her steps became jerky, making splashes on the now disturbed waters. It was so cold. Where is the sun? Why won’t the sun come out?

From the shore Gella saw Nina stumbling towards her, and she ran to her, steadying her as she left the water and headed for the blanket under the palm. Gella yanked the wet blankets from Nina’s body and wrapped her with dry ones. She saw her crying and shivering at the same time, and she held Nina tight in her arms, trying to stop her sobs, not noticing that she too was now sobbing. “Ate Nina, it’s okay, sshhh, stop crying, please stop crying…I’m here, I’m here…”

And they both broke into tears under the palm, as the world was beginning to wake from its slumber, and the waters becoming still again.

***

Nina lay on the blanket, staring up into the sky. Her parents and relatives had arrived long after she and Gella had stopped crying, but she still felt drained. The thought of death had never occurred to her until now, and she felt numb at the idea. When she first knew about the tumor she had blocked all thoughts of death out of her mind. She didn’t want to entertain the idea. But now that she had already had an operation, the stark reality of her sickness hit her.

Then there was the weird feeling during the trip, the sense of foreboding she had tried to brush away. There was something about the way her mother looked at her father when she said the doctors had gotten all of the tumor out, the way her hand lingered on Nina’s, the way Gella kept her face away from Nina’s view then kept brushing at her eyes with her hand. Even her relatives had tried to look especially cheery in front of Nina, then when they turned away she saw how tired they all looked, how grim.

Nina watched the clouds drift slowly across the blue sky. It was so easy to believe that everything was the same, that everything was normal. Too easy, in fact. She struggled to comprehend how she was going to accept what could happen.

Once again, her eyes brimmed over with tears. She felt so alone and isolated. She felt detached from everything; all she saw and heard seemed to be coming from far away. She felt like the world was unfolding and she could only watch from the sidelines. She was not part of it.

Nina felt a pain, a dull ache she had never felt before. She knew that her youth was no guarantee to a long life and success, but she had not expected the truth to slap her on the face like this, and this soon.

Then she remembered her one spectacular play. She remembered how busy she was behind the curtains, making sure everything was in place. She remembered pausing for a moment to brush away a corner of the curtain to see her family in the audience. She saw them clap with delight at a particularly funny scene. And when she was called to the stage when it was over, she remembered seeing the pride in their smiles, joyously realizing that in that instant, the world had stopped turning long enough to give her this perfect moment.

Nina smiled. Looking up at the sky, she saw a pool of blue, green and white. Echoing through her mind was a gentle voice: You did great! You were wonderful!

Finally, the sun came out.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

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