I had the honor of presenting at the conference with my beautiful bff, visual artist exrraordinaire and community activist Melanya Liwanag Aguila, and we enjoined participants to write to find home/to be home/to make home. Most of them took the challenge of writing hay na kus, a form invented by the fabulous and among the most prolific Pinoy poets I know, Eileen Tabios. Here they are:
This beautiful young woman walked into my classroom, one day and 30 minutes late. She had pursed lips, dreamy eyes, glistening curly hair tied tightly in a long ponytail, and a pair of starkly white earbuds. She had a name that sounded like the desert in the wintertime, and she wore a short, black, tight overalls/onesie? Not sure quite what to call it. She stayed for a day, barely there, talked about a twin sister that does not want anything to do with her and keeps her from seeing her niece/nephew, when I asked students to write about a problem they have concerning their neighborhood.
The next day, she asked to talk to me outside, motioning me with her beautiful ear-budded head. I was distracted at first, trying to do the stupid grammar diagnostic with my students, which I think intimidated her. We spoke by the window at the end of the hallway, and I closed the book after a few words. She said she’s not made for the classroom or that education is not her “thing”. That she belongs to the streets. Only 20, she works in security, and I could not imagine that brave bold body in a boring security uniform. I told her I am not going to convince her otherwise, if she believes she’s not ready for college.
“You don’t understand; I’ve taken this class three times. I know myself. I’m not gonna pass,” she reiterated.
In my head, I wondered why she was telling me this. Did she want me to convince her otherwise? Did she want me to reassure her that, yes, it’s gonna be fine. You’ll make it this time, eventhough I wasn’t certain.
At the beginning of the semester I always tell my students not to be deceived by my calm and patient demeanor, because many have failed my class because they simply were not ready. Not emotionally. Not mentally. Mostly emotionally, really. They are still in high school, cutting classes or coming to school glassy-eyed, submitting crammed homework peppered with run-ons and misspelled words. Why should I give reassurances now?
At the end, I felt that we talked but did not really have a conversation, because I was not really hearing what she was saying. I just wanted to get back to a classroom full of students who actually wanted to be there.
When we got back in, she took her stuff and left. I wished now that I had listened better, because I think that’s all she wanted. Someone to talk to, someone to reiterate her beliefs to. But I can’t deny that I was not annoyed by her nonchalance, the way she thought she could just waltz in to my classroom as if she was going to a party, dressed to impress, fashionably late.
I was not expecting
to see lake Michigan so blue
between tall scrapers casting
hooded shadows at 5:04
on St. Patrick’s day
You, crumpled in despair
between wrinkly pallid sheets,
fatigued, turning on your side,
a chore; talking, all the more
I wondered if I’m imposing
my presence on you
my being here
but you wanted me to stay
and we talked about folks at
work, my kids, the day I got
married and there was no
music so everyone sang —
Dan dan dadan, dan dan
dadan, dan dan dadan dadan
My fake wedding that has
lasted 15 years. I told you I
couldn’t think of any other
way to get married, and you
agreed, smiling, because
laughing would have hurt.
My mother was in a coma
same time last year, but I do
not dare remind you
two weeks I stayed with her,
almost every night, without
the privilege of “not wanting
to see her like this”
Not like my siblings who saw
her most days, some not her
best, often made her smile
when she wasn’t feeling up to it
We had honeymoon days, she
and I, the week-long
sweetness between us
lathered over past battles,
having discovered our
humanity across the ocean
That’s what distance does,
But you do not think you’ll
have that with your little one
No decided discoveries
between you two
Only nine and mutinous, and
you sulked over her
overextended iPad use, but I
promised you that things will
be alright, as if I’ve suddenly
become an expert on
childhood development, and
you simpered because that’s all
the energy you have for, and
we stayed silent together, as I
tidied up, arranged cold packs
and heat packs in a pile; threw
out used hand wipes and half-
eaten fruits as the sun sets on
the other side of Chicago,
leaving but a bar of faded
orange above the still lake.
Home again in the same year. I’m not sure why, really. I tell everyone it’s to be with family. First time spending Christmas without Mom. Truth is I just want to be close to where she used to be. This time the trip is not for her or for family. It’s for me.
I just need to feel her presence somehow. Not that she doesn’t pervade my thoughts everyday. I miss her so much. I wish I had recorded her as my mother. Not her as Miss Tapia, the television character. Although she had embraced that role, when she let the bun down, she was just my mother. Mythic in her own way, but also quite vulnerable and given to fits of fierce frustrations.
Maybe I came home to feel her absence, too. I came home to not be with her. To not sleep beside her, listening to her every breathe. To not watch her put on make up before going to work. To not hear her distinctive voice calling my name (after two or so incorrect references, usually my other siblings’ names), a voice that had grown sweeter over the years. To not feel her hug, her kiss, her caress that had turned more generous, an effluence of affection, which she withheld before like coveted holiday confection. To not watch her give orders about how she wanted things done, especially the Christmas tree and the lights and the watering of the garden in the late afternoon to keep the moisture in the ground through the night.
To not be with her, period.
It was easy to pretend she’s only waiting for me to come back home like she always did and always sweetly urged me to do, arms open, smiling… but she won’t be.
Not this time.
The night before I was to go back to Chicago, my brother Dodgie, my niece Zyra and I were stuck in traffic at 12 midnight. I had gone to my friend Ling’s art exhibit opening and hung out with her until 10, despite people telling me, “Don’t hang out too late, you’re going to get stuck in traffic on the way home.” I guess it just didn’t register. My mind refused to believe that there would be traffic at midnight on a weekday. My siblings kept explaining, “Don’t you get it, there’s a lot of construction. They could only do it at night because during the day it would be impossible as there is traffic all day.” In my head, I was protesting, how could that be? Why would people be driving around midnight on a weekday. It didn’t make any sense.
It must be the same crazy thing happening in my head, refusing to believe that you are gone, no longer with us, passed away, dead. It isn’t right. No effing way. I was just FaceTiming with you, just a week before you were rushed to the hospital. No falling down the steps at the mall or the crippled chair at work, no breaking of bones, or a botched surgery. It was just you, feeling well, texting your dubbers for a rescheduling of auditions one moment, and the next, throwing up, and then, in a coma, and then… How could that be? And now I’m going back home to Chicago, a motherless child. No longer anyone’s child. Just an adult with all the negative connotations.
I’m wearing your toe socks and black sweater – the one I wore at the cold airconditioned room at the hospital. I kept looking for pictures of you on my phone. I guess I don’t always take a picture of our chats. I thought about the times I came home. Every year since dad died in 2009. The longest times I had spent with you since I left for abroad were a week or two. Before I had my own family, I’d visit for six weeks sometimes, half of which was spent somewhere else – writing about a new beach that opened, having an immersion among canning workers, climbing a mountain, marching to protest another corrupt president, hanging out with friends. And you would be working, too. Always. You loved being busy with work. Even when I was a child. You’d always say, “Nagkakasakit ako pag walang trabaho.” I’d get sick without work.
Two years ago, when I took my son with me for the first time, you got sick and were confined at the hospital. I stayed with you all of the time, refusing to leave your side. I remember how my friends came to see me there because I didn’t want to go anywhere else. Then, you got better. I knew you were feeling better when you started asking for a mirror and putting on your lipstick for possible visitors. We went home three days later, and then I had to take my son on a five-day adventure with my friends. Did you resent it that I went? I remember you saying, “Ang bilis naman!” Your visit is too short. And now I can’t help but agree and wished I had stayed longer each time.
I think the best times we had together were not those spent at expensive beach resorts or having spa days at the mall. The best ones were when we were home together, in your room, chilling, watching TV and old movies until we fell asleep. You’d always say you couldn’t sleep, but I knew you were sleeping. Few hours here and there. I knew because I would lean close to your back to listen to the sound of you breathing and your heart beating. (That was actually when I insisted you go to the hospital that one time. Because I could hear you wheezing.) Those times I’d notice how fragile you had become. How easily you could be taken from us. And so you were. And I still can’t believe it. It is like a bangungot, a bad dream, I want to wake from already. I keep wishing that there’s an alternate universe in which you are alive and we are talking and eating, joking around, watching TV, getting a pedicure, or you are laying hands over me, and I don’t mind, really I don’t, because I love you mommy and I miss you so much, and I don’t know how to face a another day in this real world where I have become a motherless child.
This is not your hand;
This bloated fish in my latex-gloved hand,
hematomaed like the drowned corpse I saw
when I wrote about night hawks who
forage after 12 for decaying remains,
blood-debt killings, a small ice pick stuck
to the temple of a gambler who owed 10 pesos
in pusoy, a security guard ended by
swift slash of a cheated husband’s bolo,
the top of his head dangling, sad lid
of a tin can, fodder for the sic o’clock news.
This body heaving under faded print sheets,
hooked to a machine, furrowed forehead of a familiar face
This tentacled body, flanked by beeping
sentries that sometimes malfunction
This is not yours.
But are your gestures yours?
Shrug of shoulders, crease of brow,
shudder of tears, when I sing, when
your siblings are here, when we pray,
when my sister and I forgot you were
in the room and talked about that
time I was molested by someone you know.
Found in your dresser drawer, in cursive,
“My life support is only God Almighty
and His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Never artificial respirator,” written
posthaste in front of envelope with
“Open in Case of Death” scribbled
across seal, your familiar script,
many times forged for excuse slips,
fieldtrip forms; now here we are,
me, your reluctant signatory; and here
you are, unwitting accomplice to our
betrayal; breathing, but not on your own.
At 3:16, a message sent in frantic electronic
squawking, orange light flashing, a minute to
let settle, the sound of pandesal
peddler horn forever defamed.
Another day, another 3:16, above
a text message from one daughter to another
the one not easily swayed, your faith excursion
companion; believer of lost mothers looking
for redemption, receiver of unwanted
faith healing, dubious witness of transfigurations.
Do you remember? The Santo Nino’s hands
embossed upon the sanctified swindler’s?
You whispered, “Look, look. Upon her palms,
images of little Jesus’s tiny hands?” And I
thought maybe I wasn’t blessed to see, but
I pretended, exclaimed “Oo nga.” Yes, I see!
I was nine years old.
These pedicured toes, still golden but
tumid, ripe with unwanted fluids; these
are not yours. This swollen knee, bearing
surgical scar; that time Tita Et warned you
through her clairvoyant cards to be careful,
watch your step, but you slipped upon rain-slicked
driveway, broke your patella, typed your scripts
at the hospital for weeks, while your knee
healed, all the time exalting your friend’s
psychic powers, saying you should have heeded.
Should we heed now? Is this you sending 3:16
messages? Are you now telepathic? Psychic?
Do you wish perhaps you that you did not cut off
supernatural friends, sinning skeptics from your
born-again life? Do you wish I were less sinful?
Do you wish you were?
And now your fate lies not in God, not in Et
not in your hand or your children’s
but in a committee of suited men in white robes
that pray to a God not too different from yours.
Why is it that to play god is fine, but to honor
your wish is an affront to the Divine?
I fill up spaces with
plans for things I want
to fill up my spaces with.
I write it down,
make it real, make it
take up real space and then
break the plans with
things I did not plan
on filling my spaces with.
My 15-year old son talks to
himself in his room, imagines
himself a friend with
whom he is having a tiff,
swears at himself, says
“Fuck you, I’m not a fucking
bug!” Then plays back the
recording. I think he’s trying
to fill up his space, too.