Monday, April 21, 2008

special request

A former student from my very first year of teaching asked about my essay "How to Deal with Dying." It won third prize in the 2007 Free Press Awards, tied with a piece by Chari Lucero. I remember I promised relatives I'd give them a copy. So, friends and relatives, here it is.

How to Deal with Dying

Step 1: Do Some Post-Lunch Wallowing
Where: Your Grandmother’s Kitchen
When: 11 February 2000

You know you’re dying when you find a lump the size of a bean in your left breast, a small hard thing where your heartbeat should be. You found it there a couple of days ago, moving around like a pebble under the pressure of your searching fingertips. At first, you don’t believe it. And so you probe again and again, hoping every time you sink a finger into flesh that you would feel nothing. That you just imagined it. But twenty minutes later, your breast is tender, there are red crescent marks on your skin, and the lump is still there. Rock solid. A fact.

So you’re put under strict observation and a vegetarian diet that may help the growth to subside. But although you have faith in the healing powers of your stepmother and in Zen macrobiotics, you don’t feel any better. You know there’s still a big chance you might need an operation. The Big Chop-Chop. Slice you up like a fillet, pluck out the offending mass and sew you up to look like The Breast of The Bride of Frankenstein. You remind yourself that you will have to pay someone big money for the privilege of having all that inflicted on you.

Wow. Cancer. It’s hard enough being a wannabe writer in a country that doesn’t speak, let alone read, the language you write in. Now you have the Big C to deal with. The great-great-grandmother of all life-threatening diseases. It isn’t enough that you had quit your web design job in Ortigas just a month ago. And that you’re living on meager savings rapidly approaching bankruptcy levels. And that you’re not yet over getting dumped a week after your birthday by an idiot whom you had been planning to dump six months before but couldn’t – out of rocketing hormones and misguided pity. The good doctor has also told you to stay away from stressful activities. This bit of wallowing is giving you a fair amount of that.

So you try to calm down and think happy thoughts. You fail. You remember that it’s been months since you’ve written anything that passed the test of the Cold Harsh Clarity of Morning. Despite all the interesting nervous-breakdown-inducing things that keep happening, you can't seem to translate anything into good writing. So you go into the kitchen and make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, Mexican style. As you take out the tablea, the soymilk, vanilla essence, cinnamon and chili powder, you tell yourself that manual labor gets the creative juices flowing. But you don’t fool yourself.

You had spent the previous week systematically disinfecting your apartment in the hope of inviting a Muse, any Muse, into your writing life. All you got out of it was a spic-and-span house and a headache from staring at a flickering computer screen. You decide to focus on making your drink, whisking vigorously at the chocolate tableas you had dropped into a bit of simmering water. When it turns a smooth glossy dark brown, you whisk in the soymilk, vanilla, cinnamon and chili. You pour some into a cup, purse your lips and blow cool air over the liquid surface. The froth retreats under your breath, then floats back. It is dark, bitter, sweet, with a hint of sourness that stays at the back of your throat. Thick as mud. Just like your life.

You look inside your grandmother’s fridge and shudder. Food products pumped up with growth hormones—cheese and eggs, chicken and pork—all engineered to cause lumps to appear all over your body. You want to shout, to let your voice reverberate through the almost empty house like the voice of an ascetic carried by the wind across a red desert: Repent! The end is at hand! Instead, you close the refrigerator door. You sigh and realize your fingers are again pressing against the side of your left breast. You feel nothing. No lump near the bone where a cleavage ought to be. You press again, this time a little harder. You feel it there, and imagine it taking root beside your heart.

Step 2: Soak Up Some Family History
Where: Your Grandmother’s Dining Table
Date: 18 February 2000

It helps a lot to be visiting Lola Santa these days. Here's someone a lot more miserable than you are. Faced with a sad old lady with a big scary suppurating wound on her left foot, your self-involvement and your problems amount to just a hill of bean-sized breast lumps in this crazy world. She's bitter and sad about a lot of things. You decide to cheer her up by getting her started on how things were when she was a conceited tomboy with half of Laoag City's eligible bachelors chasing after her.

A portrait of a much younger Santa Pascua Batoon hangs on your grandmother’s bedroom wall. You can just barely see it through the half-open door from your place at the dining table. For some reason, it had always frightened you as a child. Looking at it now, you find nothing in it that should remotely evoke fear: an oval-faced young woman smiling impishly at someone behind the painter’s left shoulder. In the painting, she is wearing pink silk and pearls, her hair billowing behind her like a dark cloud, glamorous at eighteen going on thirty.

When you were six, you remember asking her if she got tired posing for the portrait. In reply, she showed you the black and white studio photo on which the painter based his watercolor strokes. You felt a strange disappointment when you first saw that photo because there her dress was cotton and had broad black stripes. In the studio on that sweltering 1930s Laoag afternoon, there were no pearls around her neck and she wasn’t smiling. It is the same small framed photograph Lola has asked you to place on her headboard earlier this morning. Could be a trick of the light but now you think the ornate silver frame looks too small for the woman inside. Her elegantly penciled brows hint at impatience, the flaring nostrils hide the beginnings of suffocation.

Since yesterday, your grandmother has insisted that ripe mango mashed with rice is the only thing she can and will eat. When she looks as angry as she does in the photo, you know better than to contradict her. Between bites of the sticky yellow stuff, her scraggly eyebrows waggling like geriatric caterpillars, Lola tells you that this exact same photo was at one time displayed in all the city shops Up North, in Laoag. The photo studio wanted to show off this newfangled technique called backlighting. It made her dark mane blaze with movie star electricity.

After seeing Lola gumming her mango lunch, her bird-bones quivering to reach a glass of water, you find it hard to imagine that this exact same body could once throw heavy projectiles at young men with ease. She had been an athlete at the Normal School before The War. Track and field, javelin and discus throwing kept her trim and shapely. You aren’t surprised that so many guys went for her. In all her pre-war photographs, hers always is the most beautiful face, and she always wears the most blinding smile.

These days, Lola Santa seems happiest when talking about her exploits as a maldita heartbreaker. She tells you of one particular guy who she says looked just like your idiot ex ("quite tall with curly-curly hair and very long kulotikot eyelashes"). Lola’s pre-war beau used to gather small hard green mangoes every morning, around which he’d wrap fevered love letters written the night before. At lunchtime, knowing she'd be there, he would toss these little bundles through the open window of Lola’s sala. All this effort, even if he knew that the feisty Santa kept a special basket of rocks to throw at him. She would throw back the green mango missiles as she chased him down the street, shouting Ilocano curses and shaking her fist the whole time.

Coming home from school, Lola would ride a calesa and Mr. Eyelashes would run alongside grinning, trying to catch her eye. One time, this loco nga lalaki even has the audacity to jump into the rushing calesa and sit beside her, batting his lashes. Lola, of course, looks the other way, pretends not to see him. Enchanted by her profile, he doesn't see her fist coming, only feels something solid smash into his chin. It is enough to knock him out of the carriage and onto the street. She never looks back. She doesn’t tell you any other stories about that brash young man. Maybe he died in The War.

Step 3: Don’t Let Them See You Cry
Where: Your Grandmother’s Wake
When: 23 February 2000

Your Lola dies at around 7 AM yesterday morning. The night before, she complains that she can’t eat. To avoid another bout of hypoglycemia, she asks you to open a can of sweet chocolate liquid. You are surprised that she gulps down everything in seconds, even slurping in the last drops before going to bed. You are roused early next morning by the maid. Lola cannot breathe, you need to call a doctor. The maid stands beside the bed, wringing her hands. Your aunt and your Ninang take turns thumping her chest, giving her CPR. You are afraid the exertions will collapse her ribcage. It is just a few minutes past 6 AM.

You can still see your grandmother heaving in the middle of her queen-sized bed. The sweat-soaked sheets like a parody of childbirth. Her hands are rough, dry like broken twigs. They are deathly cold. She convulses, tears in her glaucoma-cloudy eyes. She tries praying the 23rd Psalm but cannot get past the first line: “The Lord is my Shepherd... Apo Dios! Narigat ti matayen!” She wonders why it is so difficult to die. Your Ninang starts reading the Psalm from a leather-bound Bible. It feels too much like her last rites. You don't want to believe she is about to go. Someone takes Lola's hand from yours, feels her pulse.

Through the doctor’s gibberish, you manage to understand that her pulse is either very weak or has stopped. You notice that your Ninang has been crying. Your aunt has been quiet the whole time. They manage to revive her once or twice. But what is left of your grandmother is no longer lucid. Just a pair of unseeing eyes and faint moaning. Her death mask beginning to take shape. Finally, the effort of living becomes too much for her. She stops breathing.

It is only then that you realize a person dies little by little, in increments measured by the unmaking of molecules. Hands and feet are the first to go, being farthest from the heart. After this, death creeps slowly and silently, inward and upward, until all that is left is a cold mass of hardening cells. A routine check by the doctor shows that her blood sugar had shot up to 500 during the night. Apparently, too much sugar in the blood produces acids that make it painful and difficult to breathe. The doctor says it was acidosis that killed her. You will always think it is something else.

As you sit huddled on the pew closest to the casket, you can feel people looking at you. They are wondering why they don't see you cry. In this most spartan Presbyterian church, you are not expected to beat your chest, tear your hair out, or jump onto the coffin. But your quiet proves unnerving to a congregation used to seeing a trickle or two dabbed away discreetly with a cotton hanky. With the way your aunts orchestrated the program, you are close to doing just that. But you stop yourself. The entire clan has metamorphosed into a family of penguins decked out in white tops and black pants. You think it too silly for tears. Then you hear your cousin draw his bow across the strings. He begins to play Brahms' lullaby on his violin, a song Lola had hummed through the years as she put each of her grandchildren to sleep. This time you cannot stop yourself. You grab a tissue and run out of church.

Step 4: Look Through Your Inheritance
Where: Your Grandmother's Living Room
When: 11 March 2000

You think you got your inheritance early when you turned eighteen and was diagnosed borderline diabetic. It appears that is just the first installment. You find out yesterday that both great-grandmothers on your father’s side died of some cancer, ovarian or breast. The little growth you are cultivating in your left breast is actual testament to the endurance of family legacy.

You try out a pair of Japanese-style chopsticks at lunch today. You find them more difficult to use than the chunkier Chinese-style wood chopsticks. Yours are slick with lacquer, burgundy with delicate tapered ends. Inlaid with what you think is mother of pearl, they are part of your inheritance from Lola. You do not expect to get any of your grandmother's antique jewelry. Even if you want to, all that has been tossed out with the garbage a few years ago by your balikbayan aunt home for Christmas from Canada.

How it happens: Lola keeps all her pre-war jewelry in little dark medicine bottles. Tita Cherry decides to spend a post-Christmas December afternoon cleaning out Lola's closet and throws away most of the bottles of expired medicine. The ones that she does leave untouched in the closet turn out to contain the real expired medicine. Your aunt spends the rest of her vacation shuffling around the house with swollen eyes, peering hopefully into wastebaskets. Until today, she cannot forgive herself for throwing away what could have been a fabulous inheritance for all female Roldans to come.

There is a heavy necklace in bright yellow gold with a big letter S that is supposed to have been yours. You are six when your grandmother lets you hold it for the first time. It is heavy with gems that form the curves of the S, and bordered by small sparkling diamanté. It was the first time you felt glad to have been named Sandra, and not Michelle or Christine like all your other friends in kindergarten. Now you picture in your mind those precious little bottles being shattered from the weight of hundreds of tons of wet ripe garbage. You imagine the twinkling stones and gleaming metals drowning in unnamable cocktails of household and industrial chemical waste.

So all you get is a lacy sequined blouse circa 1960 that Lola used to wear when performing with her rondalla group. You lay it out on the sofa with the rest of your stash. There is also a beaded sequined evening purse that you try (but fail) to get dry-cleaned this afternoon. You get some pieces of lace tatted by Lola which you plan to stitch onto a nice sleeveless blouse you have yet to buy. You also get a broken Chinese sandalwood fan that Lola never got to use. She always set aside her nice things for when there's a special occasion or for "next time," which is how she calls the future.

Step 5: When You can’t Deal, Space Out
Where: In Front of Your Computer
When: 18 March 2000

You reach a new level of desperation. If there’s a face product called Hope in a Jar, why isn’t Health by Homepage downloadable from a friendly neighborhood website? You want to fix yourself but can't figure out where to start. You are tired of being this depressive hermit type who watches cooking shows all day on cable television. So you lurk through the Internet looking for answers. You go to a search engine but can’t think of a word to guide you. You type LUMP. Your dialup connection blinks into action and begins the slow search for LUMPs throughout the electronic realm.

Waiting for the results to appear, you imagine an appalling scene. You picture yourself five months from now looking the way your grandmother did right before she died. Loose scaly skin, wobbly teeth, desiccated hair, sharp bones poking out from everywhere. The only healthy, pulsing, living thing recognizable in you would be your lovely little tumor, by then a distended balloon of flesh protruding from the left side of your chest. It is true the human body can survive even under the most extreme conditions. It may really be true that left alone, some very unhealthy anatomies will find it most difficult to die.

Your grandmother knew what she wanted and what to do about it. She fed on sweet mangoes and drank chocolate flavored drinks until her blood sugar shot up to five hundred. She died sweet as all the spun sugar desserts you are no longer allowed to eat. You imagine the rest of your life. No ice cream, no cheesecake, no more dense dark bittersweet chocolate. Sometimes you get nightmares of gnawing painfully on your own bloodied arm to stave off the sugar pangs wavering over your tongue. You are too tired to read. You think this is all just about having nothing to look forward to. Then you realize it is the same thing that killed your grandmother. You feel hopeless. You log off.

Step 6: Invent Good Memories If You Don’t Have Any
Where: Your Grandmother's Closet
When: 22 March 2000

She always keeps the closet locked. You know she trusts you if she asks for help looking for something or another in her closet. Being the chosen one feels both like an honor and a nuisance because she would always forget where she had hidden the key. Is it behind the door or under the mattress? Sometimes you find it lurking in her coffee cup. Now you find it masquerading as a bookmark in the leather-bound Bible given to you after she died.

There were times when Lola felt she needed to read a Citadel Church worship service program circa 1991 because she liked that particular Scripture reading. By this time, she could no longer make the trip from the house on Bugallon Street in Project 4 to Citadel on Katipunan Road in front of Blue Ridge village. The church program would turn up only after digging through several mildewed leather handbags that invariably held loose change, broken fans, used toothpicks and crumpled tissue paper. You are surprised to find there photos of unknown people taken in the 1940s, all smudged with broken coral-red Revlon lipsticks that smell strongly of chemicals.

Usually, the thing she needed would just be a blanket in an overhead compartment that was too high for her to reach. You remember her telling you, as you dragged a chair before the closet’s open doors, that she used to be the tallest in school at five feet, four inches. Even taller when she wore heels with those stiff bell-like skirts with the petticoats. You remember groping through the bunched masses of bed linen while she talked about how it was an effort to keep her stocking seams straight when she was all dolled up like that, with silk cabbage roses on her party dresses. You still a shiver of fear that you, standing now at five feet, four inches, might also end up feeling as shrunken and unloved as the old woman looking up at you from the bed.

The blanket she wanted was always one of those big warm cotton things woven in La Union. She would send these by pao-it to Laoag to be laundered in the cold waters of the karayan. The blankets always come back stiff as cardboard and rough with starch. You always wondered how she could sleep at night without getting hurt. One time, she told you that as a child, she once threw a very heavy solid gold bracelet into that same river. It was ugly because it looked like a man’s bracelet, something a barbarian would wear. You asked why she could afford to throw away such a valuable thing. She laughed, saying that her father once owned huge tracts of land in Ilocos and Isabela, as far as the eye could see. She never talked about your great-grandfather after that, or how they managed to lose everything.

Your grandmother never threw things away. Her aqua-blue polyester public school teacher’s uniform hung in her closet twenty years after she retired. Your earliest memory of Lola was when she started teaching you how to read. She would sit beside you afternoons at the dining table wearing that blue polyester dress. Together, you would go over those mimeographed leaflets that read ‘Ba Be Bi Bo Bu.’ Slowly, laboriously, you went through each sheet, wondering if there was a secret message behind the squiggly figures and repeated vowel sounds. Eventually, you figured out they meant nothing and got bored with the routine. But you were too scared to tell Lola you wanted the lessons to stop. It just wasn’t done.

The aqua blue dress hangs in the closet beside a pair of bell bottoms the color of ripe eggplants on acid, a shade straight out of Sesame Street’s 1970s psychedelic cartoons—a bright purple that hurt your eyes if you look at it for too long. The only time you saw Lola Santa wearing those pants was in a photo. She is sitting in the garden surrounded by her pink bromeliad orchids and her beloved bonsai. Her curly hair is cropped short. There is a tiny baby in her arms, it could be your older brother. She looks down softly at her first grandchild. She smiles.

You see that picture again recently, searching through photo albums, looking for a certain plant with dark glossy leaves and pink flowers that no longer grows in the garden outside. As a child, when you still visited your grandparents every weekend, you used to pick a single trumpet-shaped flower the moment you arrived. You would look at the furry yellow insides before tucking it behind your ear, inhaling its scent of ripe bananas. Today, in this bright room, you look at the photo of Lola Santa and the baby in her arms. She is humming Brahms’ lullaby. You want to believe that the baby smiling in her sleep is you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sands, accidentally found your blog while I was googling over some UP related stuff. Just wanted to say hi.