Monday, February 16, 2009

A Funeral

I shed tears before the coffin was lowered into the ground, but not because I could feel any sense of loss, or remorse. My cousin was trembling as he leaned on the coffin, a crisp thousand-peso bill trapped in his fingers. He works as a seaman; he had been away when my uncle lost his battle with emphysema just a few days ago in a public hospital. The second in a brood of five brothers, my cousin was the only one among them who had a job, and for years he had been working to make sure his father had money to spend. He kept repeating how sorry he was for not saying goodbye each time he left home to go back to his ship. His pregnant wife wept quietly beside him as he laid the bill onto the coffin. All around him, behind oversized, darkened lenses, tear ducts were triggered; hands reached into pockets for folded handkerchiefs. His sorrow had become ours, fleetingly, as his voice shook with the weight of his words.

* * *

The wake before and the lunch after the funeral were mini-reunions of sorts. Before I visited my uncle at the hospital two weeks ago, I hadn't seen his sons for a year or so, and I was surprised to see how much (and how little) they had changed. There was a lot of laughter and small talk as relatives from the provinces arrived one after the other. Other cousins I hadn't seen in years were there too, some with children, some heavy with child. Everyone was busy catching up with everyone else. My uncle's sons wove among the guests every so often to hand out cupcakes and crackers on plastic trays. In the small room next to the viewing room was a table laden with several kinds of ulam and pots of rice. It could have been a party, if we weren't in Funeraria Paz.

Funeral cosmetics had transformed my uncle's face. His round, full jowls had somehow become flat, and his mouth was a thin, dark line barely an inch above his chin. I hurried away from the coffin, as quickly as I had sneaked up to it as soon as we arrived. In my mind I couldn't connect the man behind the glass window of the coffin to the shrunken man on the hospital bed who communicated by writing messages on a pad of paper. The latter had smiled at me kindly when I fumbled for words during my visit to the hospital; it was the same smile he wore in the framed photograph that faced everyone in the room.

* * *

Throughout my life I seldom saw my uncle and his sons. During the rare times that we would be in the same room he would clasp my hand in his meaty palm and ask after my schooling. He always smelled of cigarettes and beer; the essence of both seemed to mix naturally with his sweat. Once, when I was in elementary, he gave me a folded hundred-peso bill to spend as I wished. I had never held a bill that was worth so much before then.

At the funeral I said goodbye to a man I barely knew beyond a name, a face and a set of mannerisms. I wished his family well, kissed cheeks, clasped hands. I watched my cousins' faces go pink as they cried. I listened to my mother chatting with a relative (or family friend) whose name and face I didn't remember, to my father laughing at some comment I failed to catch. I turned around and observed the raised grave markers several meters away; a number of them resembled old wooden desks. I paid attention to the ebb and flow of emotion that radiated from the tent sheltering the coffin from the late morning sun. I felt it, released it, felt it again. I sipped my mother's leftover juice from a foil tetrapak. Once the coffin had been covered in dirt, I walked away, following my relatives back to the viewing room. It was the last of a tiny handful of memories about a man who shared my genes, my heritage, and very little else.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Field Trip

Although I didn't see any white bats in the caves of Mt. Banahaw, I might not have been surprised if I had - I've been told that the mountain is a hotspot for mysteries and psychics. I didn't get any strange vibrations while I was there, though, so maybe the spirits were content to just watch us from the jagged rocks and dense foliage of the mountain; they must have gotten used to seeing long lines of students and tourists slipping and sliding amid the smooth stones of the stream beds, since the mountain is also a popular tourist spot and field-trip destination. At any rate, I did get to see some interesting things, such as a rock that allegedly contains the imprint of Jesus' left foot; apparently he had a large sole shaped like the bottom of a fat rubber slipper. Not to mention the miraculous streams, said to cure any and all diseases. The guide told one of my classmates, who wore thick eyeglasses, to rub some of the water on his eyes; she said it would improve his eyesight. I'm guessing that the residents of the little villages at the foot of the mountain must not get sick that much, since some of them seem to take their baths at those same miraculous streams regularly (I even saw one woman brushing her teeth in the middle of the stream ^^ must be good for tooth and gum problems, too).

Our teacher had told us we'd be wading in streams quite a lot, but I hadn't really understood how much until he changed his denim pants for loose house shorts; he looked like he was getting ready for a trip to the beach. ^^ He took the liberty of inviting us into the clear flowing water of the streams, and splashing us as soon as we turned our backs on him. I have him to thank for the water-shaped splotches within the screen of my cellphone. (Well, technically he did tell us to wrap our valuables in plastic, and I did forget to, but still. XP) Anyway, it was fun. All that splashing and wading and slipping and sliding and stretching my hamstrings to reach high footholds. I'm just glad I didn't fall flat on my face (if I had I might've smashed it on the sharp rocks), and I only got one bruise. Just below my kneecap, which hit a smooth stone hidden in knee-high water at the bottom of a cave.

I was planning on buying an agimat as a souvenir, but when we passed by the little shops on the way back my eyes latched onto a T-shirt bearing the words "I was there" and a cartoon of two red footprints. At the time my legs were quite sore from over three hours' trekking through steep, muddy trails, and I was thinking about how apt the message on the T-shirt was. I had been there, to the streams and caves of Mt. Banahaw - the persistent ache in my calf muscles was proof enough of that. So I went and got myself that T-shirt. ^^; I still feel bad about not getting an agimat though...not that I believe in the power of talismans, but it's not the kind of thing you would buy at other tourist spots, I guess. After all, Mt. Banahaw is also the home of religious sects like the Rizal worshippers, who believe that Dr. Jose Rizal is an incarnation of God. If anything, it seems like an apt place for getting mysterious (or purportedly mysterious) artifacts. Anyway, Agimat the white virtual bat will have to do. ^^ (Click on him to wake him up; he'll follow your cursor around when it's in his lair. ^^ If you mouseover the little tab labeled "more" at the lower right corner and click on the fly that will appear, he'll use his echo-location to find it and eat it. :D Cute, ain't he?)