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In my memory, there are two photos of you fussing over my hair. One is in front of a red Fiera, your face focused on my half-ponytail while I beamed at the camera with my imperfect teeth. The other is at a cousin's wedding, wherein nobody seemed to bother about the other flower girl's (me) hair and makeup. I was nonchalant and half-aware of what was going on. You were late that day, and you were indignant that no one took care of your little girl. It would be years before I'd fully understand that that was love.
It wasn't until my late teens when I would get to know you as a person. Up until then, I looked at you as my mother, someone I was so scared of disappointing, someone who was kind but firm, someone who was gentle yet unpredictable. Finally being able to see you as a friend, being away from you for months, missing you, getting to pour all my feelings in handwritten letters, these helped me through college. Knowing I got someone like you back home made the uncertainties a tad clearer, a lot more bearable, I remember being happy and relieved.
Because, you know, growing up, I thought Tuesday was the only day we were "allowed" to spend time with you. I would look forward to our Tuesday eat-outs and malling. Along with Sunday phone calls with Pa and the ocassional voice tapes...Tuesdays were in my mind's treasure box, a happy place, if you will. I guess I'm making it sound like a sad childhood, but it wasn't. What I'm driving at is, I look back on those years now, and I can't help but admire you more and more, how did you do those things all at once?
With Pa overseas and you almost-constantly working, life at home was pretty much spent on waiting for you so we can eat dinner together, and in the morning hoping we can catch each other awake somehow. It became our normal. Still normal now. Your regular "just checking-in" phone calls being the semi-highlights of our summer days. We'd be very glad when you came home early with our favorite snacks. You'd have an easy smile during those times, and we'd know work was kind. Dinner would be a bit early, and you'd have time for some TV after.
Your hair has always been short for as long as I can remember. There are photos of it being shoulder-length but I have no clear, concrete memory of it. You look pretty with long hair, Ma, different-pretty when with short hair. You express dislike when your hair begins to reach past your ear and off you go to the haircutter's soon as you can. You used to have parties for your friends, and the house would be filled with laughter and your voice. Did you see me watching you from the staircase? I like looking at you laugh.
Twelve years ago, we were at MRT Shaw on our way to Veterans. Dada was in critical condition. We were reeling from how fast we were losing her. Stepping off the escalator, I broke down. You faced me, held my arms, and told me to be strong, nary a sign of tear in your eyes. But I saw deep sadness, and I understood and felt your pain. She would die a few days later. I miss her as I'm sure you do. That day by the trains, I learned about a brutal kind of strength. And I knew you better.
Do you remember Mang Delfin? He used to take me to school using that trusty yellow and black trike of his. That was 22 years ago, can you believe? I saw him again early last month, and he looks the same! He asked me about Kathlene, about you and Pa, about Kuya and Byron, and I sat on his trike (still the same one he drove all those years ago) realizing I didn't know anything about him aside from his first name. You used to give him Christmas presents. He's a comforting reminder of when things were so much simpler.
I guess no one really likes it when they're interrupted or when no one listens to them or when they write a long letter and they get no response. Well, okay, some people have the aptitude to shrug these off. Not me though. I don't recall the exact time when you exerted more effort in listening to me and letting me finish my sentences, I also don't know how you knew it was an issue with me. Just...I want to say thanks for the long phone calls when you would listen and soothe the rough edges of bad days.
Hospitals and airports should always be operational, we expect these places to work 24/7, there are places we trust, and these two are on top. Yet, it's 2 a.m. and a hospital hall has dim lights and no nurse is in sight. It's 4 a.m. and no one is there to help a little girl find her mommy in the large, unfriendly airport. If we trust something or someone to always be there--and they're suddenly not--what do we do? If our "constant" disappears or conks out, where do we go? I wonder about your answers.
Have I ever told you that I suspect there is a family living in our roof space? On days when "they" probably think no one's in the house, they make obvious sounds and I hear them through the ceiling. I don't know how they survive, maybe they've mastered how to steal just enough food that we don't notice if something's missing. I'm comforted by the idea that you can coexist peacefully with people who just let you be, no matter the circumstances. They can hurt us if they want to, but they don't. It's fascinating, what people do and don't.
Ma, when you see me, you might be taken aback by how fat I have become. I'm considering giving you a heads up not to bring it up in that way that mothers (and titas and cousins) usually do, because I feel bad about it as it is. I've turned to food for comfort, these past couple of years. I like to think of it as a positive thing, because surely there are worse ways to deal with stress and sadness. But of course, I also know there are better ways than what I'm doing. Anyway, I'll see you soon.
You like takoyaki balls. Do you remember? You would bring an extra paper plate for Kuya and me. Those instances you forget to bring us our own plate are kind of sad. Haha. Seriously though, I can't think of any other "street food" that took your fancy the way takoyaki balls did. Do you still like them? Do you crave for them sometimes? Are there takoyaki balls near where you live? Takoyaki balls don't taste the same now. Maybe it's the brand? I remember you bought from Samurai, I think. The brown powder topping is magic. I miss you often.
Sometimes I wake up okay, sometimes not so much. Usually I half-expect to see you by the kitchen sink, doing your stretches and waist exercises, coaxing those burps out. That's your regular morning thing, Papa's is doing the crosswords. I used to like mornings when the whole family was still complete. It'll always be strange to me how some people can be disciplined and focused on doing the same things (that are good for them) over and over every day. I do things that are mostly bad for me. Sometimes I wish you're here with us, for some balance.
When I was living in Baguio, I had a chuckle every time I'd open the fridge at the apartment and see old coffee grounds and old cheese and nothing else. I'd chuckle because I had fun imagining what you'd say if you saw the dismal state of that fridge (and the apartment as a whole). You are used to order and cleanliness, and I, well, am used to chucking stuff every which way and confusing myself in the process. We're different that way. I'm glad I'm now in that place where I can take your opinion and not be hurt.
In 2012 before I came to visit you, I went to Iloilo with some friends. We went to this island where there's a pretty sandbar. There was one afternoon when we stayed at that narrow strip for far too long and the tide was rising fast. It was fascinating to watch the water lap at both sides of the sandbar, as if excited to cover it up for the night. We weren't specifically given instructions to leave the sandbar at a certain time. What if we slept on it and had no idea? What would we wake up to? Freedom?
Hi, Ma. It's Monday night. Today is Lolo and Lola's wedding anniversary. I've always wanted to ask you: How do you decide to stay with one person for the rest of your life? Is there a switch that is turned on, never to be turned off again, no matter how many times and how hard you try? If there's doubt, how do you answer your own questions? Is the other person's decisions integral in your mind-set? If they decide to not love you back, what then? You're still allowed to stay, right? It's wise to go on loving, right?
If you come home one day and find that you still don't want to be here, my wish is for you to undestand that you can do anything you want. You can go far away to live the life you've always dreamed of, where no one asks anything from you. I know your heart is always in the right place, always big enough to give love. You think of other people first before you even notice you need some love, too. I wish someday you can understand, and decide to be happy in the way that will give you peace.
A few days from today, I'll get to see you again. Hear you laugh and be able to hug you. You know? I have a favorite photograph of you. In it, your hands are clasped and you're laughing. It was Christmas Eve, I think. I remember you don't like stolen shots of you because you think you don't look pretty..you prefer posed shots with you looking at the camera. I like this one because it makes me smile, and on days I miss you, I imagine you laughing like this and somehow it makes my heart happy and content.
Remember when I was talking back at you from inside my closet? I was crying and bemoaning my imagined "fact" that you don't love me as much as you love my brothers. I was in high school, if I remember right. Growing up, this has been something that bothered me and something I was an expert in ignoring. I guess it helped me not care if people like me or not. You told me I was wrong in believing that, and now I'm mostly just "meh" on the surface. Inside though, it will always be both: deeply concerned, unaffected.
Not sure how these ideas are formed in young people's heads. You've been nurturing, and yet on some days my present mind wanders to a distant memory of sadness and confusion and not having someone to tell it to. I don't know exactly how I turned into that stoic little girl and further developed into an adult who constantly refuses to admit she needs help. I can handle this, I can do this on my own. I've perfected the "try not to need anything from anyone" mind-set. It's crippling, sometimes. Mostly though, I think it's my strongest fake crutch.
I sense sometimes that you need a break from me, from Manila news in general, so you can focus on your life there, which I know is far from being a walk in the park. You know how we can go on for weeks without speaking to each other? Or even having the urge to seek each other out? I think I got this from Pa--the quiet-chill-it's going to be ok side of Pa. I like that it takes as long as months before something sinks in, it's handy and preferable most times. Mayhaps you understand, too.
There are days though when the first person I seek is you, when something good or bad happens. You're that person to me now: my first person. Who's yours? Who do you want to call first when something exciting happens or when you remember something funny and want someone to laugh with? When you're walking and you see something, who is the person you often think about in terms of "I wish s/he was here"? When you're sad and homesick, whose voice do you seek to hear? Who makes you tear up when you suddenly remember how they smell?
People often say we look alike, with a postscript of: But your Mama looks younger than you. Because of course you do. There are many things now that I've gotten used to. Some of them still sting, some of them don't, most of them I can shrug off, many of them are like a distant memory I'm not even sure I remember right. In some places of my memory-scape, you looked at me as if you're genuinely glad that I'm your daughter. There are places I try not to revisit. There are places I keep trying to find again.
Memory is sinister, see. If memory-making was something we had to do by hand, like, if memories are ceramic and they can shatter if you don't handle them carefully, how many memories do you think we can keep in our possession? Because, you know how reckless we can be. We embellish, we subtract, we block, we suppress. If all these forces collide on one particular memory, surely it will break. Aren't you glad memories are intangible? But still, who's to say they aren't breakable, susceptible? At night, what do you think of, Ma? Are you happy where you are?
There is another photograph of you that I like. It's from when you were much younger, 20s, perhaps. Your hair is shoulder-length, and you are looking sideways as if there's something that piqued your interest. Your mouth is slightly open. It's an ID photo in sepia. I edited your lips, put some mild red color on it, so that it's the first thing to notice on the photo. Has anyone ever told you that you have heart-shaped lips? For a time, that photo was my profile image in all my social media accounts. You look permanently interested there.
It's strange how you've had a grandchild for almost three years now and yet you haven't met yet. In the past or in the future, how is something like this explained? Is it only during this time when human beings are able to function even without their loved ones near? How was it in the past? How will it be in the future? Are we trapped in some sort of time duration when genuine human interaction is at the cusp of being eradicated by artificial communication? As in we're nearing the next step? Isolation? Isn't it frightening? Are you hopeful?
Forgive my musings and their apparent lack of connection to what I'm trying to achieve in writing these letters. Thing is, are you reading this now? I wonder about a lot of things, quite important is whether or not someone reads what I write at all. I often write letters, see, and I'd like the intended recipient to read them or at least know about them. At the same time, I'm okay with unsent letters, letters I get no response for, being laughed at. It's both disappointing and liberating. Not everything needs an answer. I learned that the hard way.
You, however, listen to my ramblings and offer thoughtful answers. You speak slowly and with a smile, you don't tell me to stop crying, you often remind me to pray, you listen and you listen and you listen, that sometimes I get tired for you and make it a point not to call again for days unless I have good news or something funny or useful to say. I like the distance, I like that we can talk like friends, I like hearing about your meals, the cheap cherries at 99 cents, your thriftshop finds. Your voice is my balm.
I don't know where I got the trait of...how do I call it? Too much complaining? I often complain, the first thing I notice is what's wrong, I even complain about what other people should complain about in their own life. It's exhausting. There was one time I yelled at someone to stop complaining. We hate in others what we see in ourselves. I can't quite balance the completely nonchalant side and the complain-y side, I just overdo both again and again and again. How do you find the patience for me, Ma? You are gentle, like Pa.
A close friend once called me little-miss-know-it-all. He said it with great annoyance and sarcasm, and would you believe that I did not take offense? He's still one of the few friends I hold close, you know him quite well, too. This is the kind of person, I guess, who we need in our lives. Someone who calls us out on our overbearing ways, someone who tells it as it is. I can be excessive with pretending I know too much when there isn't really much I can offer. My greatest fear is being found out.
I've got so much more to say. But in the interest of preserving what should be said face to face, I'll hold on to them until I see you again. Is it a weakness, Ma? Choosing to believe there is enough time? Or is it a version of being strong, trusting that the distance and sadness will someday be reversed? I wish when I'm 70 and look back, I'd know I loved you enough and that I didn't waste time. I wish you know by now, inspite of all the bad, I think this is good, what we have now.
The Tip Jar