Picking dry leaves

I still can vividly recall a recurring scene at the backyard of our old house some 18, I’m not sure, maybe 19, years ago.  It’s an image of my four siblings and me (our youngest sister was born several years after) picking up dry leaves that had fallen from an old Jackfruit tree.

This was our father’s “assignment” to us which we did with dedication every five in the afternoon after coming home from our classes in a nearby public elementary school. Our eldest sister, Mae, was 10 then. I was 8. Des, my brother born after me, was 7. Sef was 5; he attended kindergarten in the morning and at five, after sleeping the whole afternoon, already ready for play or to take part in any physical activity with us. And Gemini was 3, already an able ambler.

It was a task we took seriously, too seriously in fact that it became an opportunity for the five of us to compete with each other on who could pick the most number of dry leaves.

We had a method to this madness.

Before coming home, Mae, Des, and I passed by the stand of an old woman selling barbecued plantains (which we called sinugba nga saging because my parents are both Ilonggos, but which our schoolmates called saging ginanggang because they were all Cebuanos. The five of us never bothered speaking their language. As a generic term we called this snack banana-Q, which is not accurate since deep fried plantains in brown sugar were also called with it).

These barely cooked plantains were brushed with margarine and rolled in white sugar then skewered (I doubt if this is the appropriate word for it) using bamboo sticks that were sharpened at the tip.

To this day I cannot understand why our mother did not keep us from buying that snack, as everything about it was clearly a deadly weapon.

The plantains looked dirty after having swum in the ashes of the charcoals the old woman used to barbecue them. The margarine was without a brand name, and it was conspicuously colored in striking yellow similar to those used in emergency road signs. The brush used to envelop the plantains in that margarine-from-hell was a paint brush, and a used one, as evidenced by the chipping green latex paint on the handle. The sugar that stuck onto the bananas seemed to be from the same batch of sugar used in the previous weeks because it looked more like beach sand than sugar; individual sugar crystals could not be distinguished from the ashes that got mixed with it. Our taste in food, apparently, was very sophisticated. And lethal.

Lest I forget, the bamboo stick, which I remember using as arrows to target shoot the banana trees of our neighbor that stood in a community garden beside a small Catholic chapel. Legend has it that a grade four pupil in our elementary school was killed after having stepped on a protruding barbecue stick. That pupil’s ghost remained in the school to haunt students and teachers alike, or something that went like that, depending on the temperament of the storyteller.

After having our fill of that unforgettable delicious afternoon snack, the five of us proceeded with the operation.

We used those bamboo sticks sharpened at the tip to pick those fallen Jackfruit leaves in our backyard. The idea was simple, we punctured each leaf until they accumulate into a bunch of stabbed dry leaves. Each of us had a base camp where we stockpile our Jackfruit leaves “barbecue”.

The one who picked the most leaves won.

I don’t remember what we did with the leaves after, what the winner got as prize after winning, or what happened to the Jackfruit tree when we moved to a new house years after.

What I vividly recall, though, was our old backyard that was free from those fallen dry leaves.

And our father smiling at us.

The run

We were welcomed by a sea of runners wearing yellow and black and some who are in gray jerseys (which I think looked a lot better; had I known I would have chosen to run 10k, but I’d be dead after the race, I think) when we arrived at The Fort five minutes before the race began.

It was our first time to run a race. I do not know with my brother, but as far as I am concerned, I shall join runs like this as often as I can.

I used to find the pretense of running-for-a-cause rather abhorrent, I still do, in fact, but I found myself enjoying the whole thing. This one by the National Geographic channel was a marketing ploy on a massive scale. They’re more than happy to announce that 10,000+ runners joined the race. Still big considering that there was a simultaneous fun run around SM Mall of Asia organized by GMA7’s Kapuso Foundation which I think would have attracted more as Filipinos are dead serious when it comes to their TV and movie stars. This one by Nat Geo which was founded upon a cliched advocacy of saving the environment dubbed  ‘Earth Day Run’ would pale in comparison to the tremendous pull of the roster of up-and-coming starlets of this local TV network.

Surprisingly, the cable channel still was able to attract runners, mostly in their 20s and 30s, to join the race. Organizing a race involving 10,000 plus professionals, enthusiasts, or plain curious, like me, was no easy feat.

However, the race posed a tinge of bitter irony: drinking stations were littered with discarded paper cups. It might have been that the advocacy of the race got lost, or mistranslated, along the way. Sad. But oh, what can one expect from something driven by marketing a cause that is misconstrued, or worse, not taken seriously?

The pretension of it all was sickening, but this will not keeping me from joining the next run in the metro.

National Geographic Earth Day Run 2011

My younger brother, Des Neil, and I are joining the 5k run tomorrow. This is our first run together. I know, I know, it’s just 5k, and it’s like no sweat. But we’re brothers of unhealthy Metro Manilan, so 5k is a great feat in fact.

This race is giving me a good reason to sleep early tonight and save my energy for tomorrow’s run.

Good night for now.

An invitation

I received a text message from my brother this evening asking me if I can attend a company program tomorrow where he will be receiving an award for some exemplary job he must have done for the past several months. Despite an already scheduled date tomorrow, I opted to postpone it and be with my brother because an invitation like this from him is not something that comes very often. In fact, I think that if I let go of this chance, he’ll never have the courage to ask me to do something similar for him ever again. He never invited me to be with him on any special occasion when were younger, or when he was in college when he received the most outstanding student leader of the year award.

I secretly waited for him to do it.

We grew distant from each other because brothers are not supposed to be close. Probably, the environment we both grew up in did not foster a relationship between brothers to go beyond mere handshakes and ‘kamusta ka?’. We love each other, this I am quite sure of, but we falter in expressing it.

When we were younger, we cringe at the idea of saying ‘I love you’ to each other. And we seemed not to have outgrown this even though we both professed we’ve already made more mature by the experience each of us has gone through. Deep inside we are both young kids who would rather keep mum than be revolted by schmaltzy expression of what we truly feel for each other. It sounds odd. It feels abnormal.

Not a few times did I ask him to provide me shelter whenever my current relationship felt like it’s on the rocks. He in as many times assured me that if worse comes to worst, he’s willing to take me in, even for a month or longer, until I find my own place. I’m happy it has not reached that point, but I am even happier to have a brother who I know will not desert me in times I need him most.

I hope he reads this and will not find it odd and abnormal that I am writing about him this way.

My brother

I went to my brother’s place on Filmore Street near Buendia. He’s changed a bit since the last time I saw him in January of this year. Three months is definitely not enough to change a person drastically. He was wearing that blue shirt I gave him when I left Manila last year, and not wanting to overstretch my point, he still looked like the younger brother I imagined in my mind. This time, however, he has a more even set of upper teeth. A result of having both upper and lower teeth braced more than eight months ago. This evenness might have given him enough confidence to comment on my ‘imperfect’ set of lower teeth. I let the remark go.

I missed him. He’s nicer this time. Probably because I was nicer to him and I cut on those nasty comments I throw at him which meant that he had nothing to throw back at me. He told me to plan a dinner with our sister who’s working in Pampanga; I said why not, if my finances stabilize and I have enough disposable income to dispose of.

He laughed.

I know I’ll see him after before the summer ends and my return to Iloilo.

Stabbed in the face, fear of blood, the danger of being alone with a psycho, and the gnawing feeling of being killed in broad daylight

We both received an SMS from our mother that her half-sister was stabbed in the face in her office on Tandang Sori Avenue and was confined in New Era General Hospital. My brother and I hurriedly went north of Manila, not knowing where the hospital is located, to visit an aunt we have never met.

We found the hospital situated beside the mammoth church of Iglesia ni Cristo along Commonwealth. This confused us because according to our mom this sisters of hers is a devout follower of Kingdom of Jesus Christ, a sect organized in Davao City by the animating evangelist Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy, so she can’t be in a hospital run by Iglesia ni Cristo. But recalling that her family lives on Tandang Sora which is adjacent to Commonwealth, then the choice of hospital made sense. As if she had a choice after she was made into an emery bag by some psycho.

Along the way, my brother tried to call our mother who at that time was attending the burial of her grandmother. We forgot to ask her the name of her sister and the family name of her husband. This meant not being able to enter the hospital. But of course we couldn’t afford to go home after traveling from Makati to Quezon City and giving up a portion of our weekend rest without seeing our aunt. So we went ahead and gave a description to the person in the information counter.

“Yong dentist po na nasaksak sa mukha (the dentist who was stabbed in the face). Is she confined here?” I swear I must have said it in a very funny way that caused the man I was talking to smile a bit. Or the situation itself  was funny.

“Room 209 sa second floor.”

Crime Scene by Cati Kaoe

We were surprised at the laxness of the security in the hospital. We showed him our IDs which he barely took notice of then proceeded to writing something in his log and left us to meander in that labyrinthine, dark, and humid hospital. We found the ward and but seen  no one satisfying the description our mother gave us. The four middle-aged women inside were either moderately ill-looking or not bloody-enough to be suffering from repeated knife thrusting blows, and of all places, in the face.

We asked the personnel in the nearest nurses’ station as to where our aunt was; they indifferently pointed to the recovery room. My brother and I argued as to who should go first. At that time I was carrying a tumbler of Gatorade. I told my brother, Des Neil, to finish what was left so that I could go first. I advised him, “You’ll need all the sodium and electrolytes in that drink to prepare you for whatever you’ll see.” I opened the door and went inside the air-conditioned recovery ward. There were three beds. We found our mom’s sister in the middle lying in her bed, her son on her side fanning himself.

There are situations we place ourselves into when we hardly know how to react. My expectation did not even reach a quarter of what happened to her. Her face was grotesque. There were countless stitches of varying length that run in her chubby face. Her right cheek was swollen, bruised, and showed a translucent patch of darkened blood. She has stab wounds in her side. The back of her neck was even more swollen. One of her eyes could not see but both are as red as dynamited fish I used to avoid whenever I was the one tasked to go to the market by our mother. She would still be able to see, the doctor assured them. I was wondering if she could see us. I saw dried blood on her pillows as she was attempting to sit up to greet us.

Of course she never recognized us. We introduced ourselves, that we are the sons of their younger sister in her father side. She gave us a blank stare; I never expected a warmer welcome. Then she blurted “Ah kamo ang mga bata ni Dyutay nga mga alamon” (You’re the bright children of Dyutay [that’s how they endearingly call our mother]) .

I wryly asked her, “Kamusta ka na Ta?”

I was never good at empathizing. But I knew I was so scared.

I was occasionally looking at my brother who at the time seemed distubed. I thought he was just shocked because we’ve never seen something as gruesome as the sight of an aunt we’ve never met before. Des Neil started to go pail and nauseous. And before he could fall, I caught him by his shoulder and led him to a vacant seat. I feel sorry for my aunt because she thought her wounds scared my brother unconscious. My brother passed out after seeing on the other side of the room a woman having blood transfusion. Our family has this unexplained fear of seeing blood. I remember panicking whenever blood climbed up my intrevenous bag during that one and only time I was hospitalized due to amoebiasis in Davao City. 

That time in front of my aunt, my mind went into a trance. I was down to my senses; reason deserted me. I could never imagine the kind psychological make up of the person who did the thing to her. Her face was emaciated, frankensteined. My cousin retold the story for us.

She was alone in her office that day when a well dressed man entered her clinic in Tandang Sora. She recognized the man who was a former collector in a nearby water refilling station. The man wanted to have dentures fitted. My aunt, according to my cousin, being always helpful and never doubted the goodness in other, led him inside her clinic. But the unimaginable happened. The man took the empty pail and whack this on my aunt’s back. Despite this, she remained conscious. The man pulled her hair and hit her head on the wall several times. He then took my aunt’s dull kitchen knife she uses to scrape scab on healed wounds and with this stabbed my aunt in the face.

The neighbors, hearing the noise stormed the clinic. But shock took the better of them. The man managed to escape but some of the people who were around the place saw the commotion and ran after him. Somebody saw him jumped off a creek. The following day, his body was found floating in the murky water of that creek.

My aunt suffered from at least fifty stab wounds. But more than that she’ll forever carry with her the memory of that noontime when from nowhere a psycho felt a sudden itch to murder.

Nobody is safe these days. No one can brag about his security because lurking in the dark or even in broad daylight somebody who will kill you or leave you scarred for life, physically and emotionally, just so they can spite their inner demons.

A photo of the six of us

Our eldest sister made this collage of pictures she took from each of our web accounts. I thought it was so sweet of her. The last time we were complete as a family was almost two years ago celebrating Christmas. We’ve all gone to different places now: two are already working, I am still finding for a job, two are in college, and our youngest who is still in elementary. Our house started to feel like an empty nest for our parents several years ago. Except for our youngest sister, 10, and some of our cousins who occasionally visit or stay for the night, our parents are left alone.

High school friends often ask me when I’ll be home. I cannot give a definite answer. Home is too far away for me and for my other siblings. But I know we’ll all find time to visit our hometown and be with each other and our parents.

I am missing everyone.