Life is a puzzle; we are the clues, and God is the answer.
Let me share with you one of my first literary attempts. I hope you like it.
I LOOKED UP FROM the manuscript I was reading to rest my eyes for a while. My gaze landed on the round silver wall clock hanging beside the framed picture of myself, my daughter Yanni, and my husband Anthony on the wall dividing the study room and the master’s bedroom. At other times my heart would have warmed at the sight of the family picture; I always thought we looked cute in that one. But the time the clock displayed had already registered to my consciousness before the feeling of filial love was evoked in me.
5:30 pm. Oh my God! Anthony would already be here in an hour or so and Yanni, my four-year-old daughter, would awake soon; but still, I was stuck with the book I was editing. I should be preparing dinner by now! But before that, I should have already gone to the market. There was nothing in the refrigerator; that I was very sure of. Anthony cooked the last stock of food for dinner last night.
Abruptly, I stood and tried to reach for the yellow paper clip lying beside the aluminum pen holder resting on one edge of the table, about to fall off, but nausea had me groping for support; I knocked the ceramic flower vase sitting on the desk instead. I closed my eyes. I let the nausea subside before opening them, only to be greeted by the mess I made: a broken flower base and artificial purple orchids lay scattered on the floor. “Damn, just what you need when you’re in a hurry!” I swore to myself.
I hurriedly swept the mess then started for the grocery, making mental note of the things we’d run out of. By 6:30 I was already working busily in the kitchen, when I remembered Yanni. She was still asleep when I went to the grocery around the corner, so I thought I’d go, do a quick purchase, and head back home before she wakes up. I wished Mrs. Castillo, our kindly neighbor, were around. I could have asked her to listen for Yanni’s cries when she awoke. But Mrs. Castillo was away; I heard she went to Davao for a conference. Or maybe Cebu; I wasn’t sure. I didn’t have much time tracking the whereabouts of my neighbors.
Then a thought hit me. How could I have let my daughter sleep that late? She should have woken up by four o’clock! But to do that, she should have slept at about 2 o’clock. I played the events of the afternoon in my mind. I’d let Yanni play in the study room while I worked on the manuscript. The first time I looked up from the pile of paper in front of me to check on her, she was sitting on the mahogany sofa across my desk, making believe she was Princess Sara and enacting a scene where Sara was bidding good-bye with her father. I went back to my reading. The next time I checked on her, she was already asleep on the sofa with her books and stuff toys lying next to her. I carried my daughter to her room. It was 4:15. Tsk.
I shook my head. I was not being a good housewife. Anthony and I had decided that I would work at home and do my editing and writing here so I could look after Sara. But the office had been sending me a lot of work, and very soon, the schedule I’d established was no longer being followed. I had been spending more time working, and less time playing with and teaching Yanni.
I lowered the fire then dashed to Yanni’s room. I was expecting her to be asleep still; I didn’t hear her cry when I arrived. But my heartbeat doubled when I didn’t see her familiar figure on her bed or anywhere else in the room. Panic enveloped me. Where was she?
“Yanni!” I cried. No answer. My weariness increased. Where could my daughter be? Could she have woken while I was away, ran out of the house and… I didn’t like the path of my thought. “Yanni!” I cried louder. Still no answer. I dashed to the bathroom. She wasn’t there either.
Tears started to well up. Where was she? “Yanni!” I already sounded desperate. And afraid. What if somebody broke into the house while I was away? What if my daughter really went out of the house and met an accident? What if…. “Yanni! Where are you?”
I opened the door to the study room, my last hope of seeing my daughter in the house. And there she was, playing with my things.
Relief flooded me. I thanked God. I started to dash toward my daughter, meaning to hug her, but then I saw the manuscript I was working on which I didn’t bother to put away before leaving for the grocery, all scattered on the floor; some pages torn, others crumpled.
Then it hit me. My God, the manuscript! The manuscript I worked on for most of last night and the whole of today, scattered and torn! I walked toward my daughter, meaning to snatch from her the paper she was holding. But as I advanced toward her, she looked up; a tentative smile flashed across her face, but was instantly replaced by foreboding and … fear? Was it fear I saw on my daughter’s eyes?
I stopped dead halfway across the room, not able to take my eyes off my daughter’s face. I couldn’t help staring at her. I looked at her for so long that I started seeing myself in her face. I remembered that look; I’d seen one like that before. I shook my head to snap to my memory. Then I remembered. I didn’t really see that look on anyone; I actually had that look on my face, years ago. I was about year older than my daughter was. No, make that two years. I was six then, now I remembered.
IT WAS DAD’S 32nd birthday. It was his first birthday since Mom died. I had handed him a gift I personally bought from my savings. Looking back, I can still clearly see the parcel I handed him. It was wrapped with an ordinary red Christmas wrapper I kept from the gifts I received last December, a piece of tape sticking out. It was March and, of course, it wasn’t Christmas, but I didn’t have any money left to buy new wrapper. Luckily, I had several in my room. Mom thought me how to skillfully open gifts; never, or at least, minimally damaging the wrapper. I never threw the wrappers away; I loved the look of them—the patterns, the shapes, the colors and the spirit and emotion they collectively convey. The box wasn’t skillfully wrapped, but that was the best I could do. In fact, I remembered now with amusement, it took me a good thirty minutes to wrap that gift (Mom always wrapped my gifts when she was alive). Anyway, the parcel I handed Dad looked like a gift. To me, at least.
I thought Dad was mad at me. I thought he blamed me for Mom’s death. He had been very sad when Mom died. Mom got hit by a car as she was crossing the street near where we lived. She was on her way to a nearby sari-sari store to buy me ice cream because I had been crying, and only stopped when she promised she’d buy me Rocky Road, my favorite flavor. I wanted to go with her, but she said I’d better stay and finish my coloring, which I abandoned when I started crying for something I could no longer remember.
But the promised ice cream never came. So didn’t Mom. What happened next was a blurry of images that consisted of voices shouting my mom’s name over and over and some other words I couldn’t understand. I went to the door to see what the commotion was about but someone touched me by the shoulder and unceremoniously hoisted me to her arms. It was Nana Caridad, our neighbor. She said we’d stay in the living room and wait for Lolo and Dad to arrive.
“But where’s Mom?” I asked in a tiny voice, sensing she was agitated. “Where’s my ice cream?”
She didn’t answer. She just held me tighter as tears started rolling down her cheeks. I didn’t know why, but soon I was crying again, louder than before, calling for Mom and asking for my ice cream. Neither came.
Dad became a loner when Mom died. He hardly spoke to anyone. And he never hugged me again. So I thought I’d buy him a gift to cheer him up. In a month’s time, he’d be 32. I started saving. I’d saved 50 cents a day from my allowance. But when I checked out the item I wanted to buy dad, I realized my savings weren’t enough; Dad didn’t give me much money for school; just enough.
When I got back home from school one day, I headed straight to Dad’s room, making sure Lolo wouldn’t see me. Dad’s room changed since Mom died. Mom’s things were no longer there, so the room looked bare and lonely. There was just the queen-sized bed, a walk-in closet, and a desk on top of which was a lamp. The room’s only window was unadorned and closed. Clothes were carelessly strewn on the chair and on the bed.
I walked to the walk-in closet and brought out the coin purse where Dad and Mom put their one-peso coins. I took out 15 pieces, put the purse with the remaining coins back into the closet, walked back to the door, then closed it behind me, careful not to make any sound. Then I walked to the market; the clinging of the coins in my pocket matching the sound of my cadence.
I waited patiently for Dad to arrive from work on the eve of his birthday. I can still remember how tired he looked when he pushed open the door; his shirt dirty and crumpled, his hair dull and untidy.
He was surprised to see me on the sofa, still awake. I went looking for my father’s slippers; I used to put them on his feet whenever he got home when Mom was still alive. But after she died, Dad had started to come home late, and always, I was already asleep when he’d arrive. Except that night. I didn’t wait for him to ask me to do anything for him or why I was still awake. Without a word, I went looking for his slippers. When I came back to the sala, his eyes were closed, his head resting on the headrest. Still, I put his slippers on his feet.
Dad opened his eyes, the look on his face blank. Meekly I handed him the parcel which I kept hidden behind me with my left hand. I couldn’t quite describe the look on his face when he saw it. He eyed it much too long before finally, slowly, almost reluctantly, he reached out his hand to get it.
I had thought Dad would be very happy. I had thought he would laugh a heartfelt laugh—the kind that I hadn’t seen him laugh in a thousand years. I had thought he would dance with joy and carry me, and proclaim me his precious princess.
But at the back of my mind, I was also afraid he’d be very mad at me. Maybe he would whip me to death. Maybe he had already discovered the other night that several pieces of his one-peso savings were gone.
But he neither hugged nor whipped me. He took time in opening the parcel I handed him, the look on his face unfathomable. I stood by in anticipation. Time was suspended. I almost forgot to breathe. My hands were clammy, and my knees trembled a little. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I needed to know how he’d react.
Then the cover came off, revealing a pair of bright orange short pants. Thinking about it now, I know I should have chosen a darker color—black, brown, or navy blue. Those are the colors favored by older people, but of course I didn’t know that when I was that age. Anyway, I’d given him bright orange short pants. I knew Dad needed more of that. His short pants were all torn and very old. I thought he would look better in it; maybe he’d even find a new Mom for me. I’d always yearned for a mother. Like Thea, my classmate. She always went to school wearing nice clothes, and her hair was always neatly combed, her ribbon the color of her dress. Mom used to dress me like that when she was alive. But of course I never said that to Dad; he might be cross with me.
Seeing what was inside the box, my father’s hands stopped moving, as though they were suspended in air. He hadn’t proceeded to take the cloth out of the box. He just held it as though he didn’t know what to do with it.
I stared at the box. Then I knew something was wrong. Dad’s hands visibly trembled. And when I returned my gaze to his face, I noticed he was looking at the gift unseeingly. Then I noticed something roll down his cheeks. I felt my eyes widen. Dad was crying! My tall, strong father was crying! I thought big guys didn’t cry?
My heart started to beat erratically. Had he discovered half of his one-peso savings gone? Had he known I took them to buy him his gift?
Then I felt tears fall down my cheeks. I had displeased Dad. I knew it. I knew Dad was angry with me. He had to be. Why was he crying? Why hadn’t he thanked me?
I agonizingly watched my father cry, wishing I had not done it. I wished I had not taken those one-peso coins. I wished I had not given him a gift. Dad was angry at my gift. He didn’t like it.
I hate you, Daddy! I wanted to shout, but I didn’t.
I wanted to run to Lolo, tell him Dad was angry with me. Tell him Dad didn’t like my gift. Tell him…
I heard Dad say my name softly. His voice was strangled. Was he sick?
I looked up. My father met my gaze. Now I could see Dad’s deepest emotions welling up his heart, flowing freely through his eyes. I saw anguish in my father’s soul, a wide void in his being.
I kept staring at Dad, though I knew I’d had more than I could take.
I heard a sound — that of a board falling on the floor. Then I realized it was the box Dad was holding, my gift still inside it. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I won’t do it again. I won’t take any of your coins again.” I said, seeing how sad my father was. I knew it was because of me. Because I was a bad girl. So I kept talking, confessing my sin.
Then I lowered my eyes. I could no longer look directly at Dad. I kept crying.
“Jing,” I heard him call my name again. “Come here, anak..”
“Anak,” the endearment Dad and Mom used to call me when they wanted to hug me. Anak. It would have been enough to have me running into Dad’s arms. But not that time. I knew what I did was bad. I knew I displeased him. I was sure he would no longer want me. So I did not run to him. But I made a tentative step forward, still not meeting his gaze.
Seconds ticked by. Why was the time so slow? Why does time have a habit of slowing down when you need it to run fast?
I put my hand over my mouth; I always did that when I was afraid of something. I made another step. I noticed that my thin legs were trembling harder now. I was still not meeting Dad’s eyes, but in the periphery of my vision, I thought I saw him spread out his arms. But still, I didn’t dare look up. I closed my eyes as a new feeling of dread swamped over me. Then I felt strong arms enveloping me. I knew then that I was in my father’s arms. I felt him carry me, holding me tightly.
“I’m sorry, Anak.” I heard him say. “I’m so sorry…”
The sound of my father’s cries stabbed me in the chest. I didn’t know what to say, so I just let my father unleash his long pent-up emotions. “I’m so sorry, Anak. Please let me make up.”
I didn’t know then what he was sorry for.
I FELT MY EYES warm, snapping me back from my reverie to where I was standing, halfway across the room, a good two meters away from my daughter who was looking right up to me with dread in her eyes. I felt a cold wind chill me. God, how terribly afraid my daughter must be feeling! I calmed myself down. Then I smiled at her.
“Come to Mommy, Sweetheart.”
My daughter’s face instantly brightened up, so bright that it lighted up the whole room. Her smile was so big it sent a glow to my heart.
I closed my eyes as I hugged my daughter tightly. God! How could I have let this happen? How could I have neglected my husband and my daughter for work? How could I have forgotten how it felt to be alone and neglected, like I felt when Mother died? How could I have let my daughter get a taste of it?
I opened my eyes. My gaze landed on the picture of Dad hanging beside the wall clock, opposite our family portrait. He was smiling warmly and his eyes seemed to have winked at me. I knew it was foolish, but I smiled back at my father’s picture, making a mental note to myself to pay him a visit soon.
I examined the manuscripts. I decided they could still be repaired. I asked Yanni to help me pick up the pieces of torn paper. Then companionably, we walked down to the kitchen where the aroma of nicely cooking stew filled the air. [seb/2003]
Published at Philippine Graphic; October 2004
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