(I wrote this in memory of my college buddy, Melito Glor, who was an only son. But this is NOT his story. )
But on the day her world collapsed, the bright sunshine also brought an ache in her chest that she never felt before. It was not the wild-horses-stomping kind of pain that she would have recognized as a heart attack. Neither was it the neither-here-nor-there kind of pain that usually accompanied indigestion. Rather, it was a just-there ache that did not stop her from doing the things she did throughout the day, yet insinuated itself enough for her to be conscious of its ebbing and flowing as the hours ticked by.
Just as she would every morning upon waking, she prayed the rosary on her knees and prostrated herself in front of the foot-high crucifix that she had adorned the afternoon before with fresh sampaguita, kalachuchi and ilang-ilang blooms stringed together with abaca thread. She had always loved the combined fragrance of these flowers, the pungent scent of ilang-ilang tempered by the gentle sweetness of the other two. That morning she noticed that the smell of the kalachuchi seemed dominant, making her think for a few seconds of death and funerals.
Just as she did each time she prayed, she pleaded for the safety of her son, her only child, the only family she had left since her husband died shortly after their beloved unico hijo left to pursue the passion of his soul. News of the father’s death did not reach the son until much later, months in fact. She was quite angry about his very obvious absence, stumbling over the empty excuses that she managed to conjure to explain his inexplicable transgression of filial piety.
One night when a typhoon was lashing the province and the rain that was pouring in torrents muffled the sound of barking dogs and masked the silence of night, her son came home. He was wearing the same denim jeans and checkered shirt he wore when he said goodbye to her, but this time his clothes hung loosely on his clearly thinned body. He was soaked and hungry, disconsolate over his father’s demise and apologetic for the stress that his mother had to endure alone. They prayed together and talked through the night, the son explaining the harsh realities of the world to the mother who had lived through those realities every single day of her life. At dawn, he was gone.
She would receive letters from him. They would always be on onionskin sheet, small and folded so tightly, his handwriting changed so drastically by the need to put so many words and thoughts in so little space. He wrote of how happy and fulfilled he felt doing what he chose to do, how harsh were the problems of the common folk, how he had come to know the terrain of the land and the language of the clouds. There was no rhyme nor rhythm to the appearance of his letters. Sometimes she would receive two in a week, other times she would not hear from him for months. She never really knew how his letters would reach her; it was almost like they appeared from nowhere and they would define the fullness or emptiness of her days as she read and reread them, savoring his virtual presence, never wanting to let go until the next one came.
One day, he wrote that he had fallen in love and had been wed in a ceremony witnessed by a very few. The wife, he said, was somebody she would love instantly as the daughter she never had. He promised that they would visit the first chance they get, perhaps shortly before they would be presenting her with the grandchild she had been hoping for. She had looked forward to that day and had busied herself with sewing blankets and clothes for the little one. She had even checked on her next-door neighbor, the midwife, to make sure she would be available at a moment’s notice, just in case the birthing would take place at her house.
On the day her world collapsed, she felt the tug in her stomach that always signaled, to her mind, the unexpected, and she was almost sure it was the day her new family would be complete. She waited impatiently for dusk, when the entire town would light up their gaseras (oil lamps) and shut their windows, the perfect time for her son and his wife to slip surreptitiously into her house. So confident was she that it was the night of their coming that she kept the tinolang manok (ginger chicken soup), his favorite dish, warming in the palayok (clay pot) so they could sit right down as soon as they arrived.
She waited that night, like any parent would, for a child coming home from war. Not wanting to waste a moment to open the door, she sat on her rocking chair, her senses alert to the ticking of the minutes and the sounds of the night. She would nod off to sleep occasionally but would always catch herself and wake up. She never, for a second, allowed herself to think that they wouldn’t come because as a mother, she knew that her son would once again fill her world with his presence.
When dawn came, a neighbor knocked on her door. Come quickly, he told her, there was someone at his house who wanted to talk to her. The roosters were crowing and the sky was already displaying the orange of sunrise when she was told the news: Her son and his wife, along with the much longed for grandchild in the womb, were felled by gunshots as they tried to elude their hunters. It happened just two barrios away, shortly after dusk, at the time she was warming the tinolang manok for their supper.
The couple, she later learned, had turned their back on the war they were fighting and were going home to her.
From Heart In Two Places: An Immigrant’s Journey (Anvil Publishing, 2007).