by Cas S. Garcia, M.D.
I’m not certain, the hazards of aging, hazy memory, 1947 or 1949, either date.
On a languid, lethargic afternoon, I was draped on a chair built by my oldest brother from discarded mahogany sticks pilfered from the Golden Ribbon Lumberyard the summer before, (for years after the Great War, all the students of Butuan Central Elementary School had to bring their own chairs or desks for their personal use). I was seated by a window, distracted from my midsummer mid-afternoon reverie by the multiplication table being droned out by rote by a fidgeting classmate in front of the class and our snake-eyed predatory teacher-in-charge.
Following the waves of clouds being chased away by the sun, at the same time counting the dragonflies perched on the electric wires hung between tall, thick wooden poles, part of me was contemplating the absence of traffic on partially coral-paved Juan Luna Street, the air infused by the scent of a potpourri of recently spread sawdust and overflowing, melting black and sticky asphalt in large metal barrels, the combination, to a pre-adolescent, a powerful sedative.
Butuan was engulfed in a typical tropical summer afternoon silence. I was a heartbeat away from somnolence when I heard a soulful two-note tolling of the church bells, an echoing rendition of sadness, resonating across Rizal Park, across the town, announcing the loss and impending internment of someone dear; a Catholic proclamation of death.
Maria Montilla Sanchez, my great-grandmother, mother of my grandfather, she was “Apo” to me. She had died the night before. She had lived with my grandparents for quite a while. Old, really ancient. Senile, she was wrinkled and stooped, grey haired and all. And she exuded that inescapable smell of accumulated years of solitude and loneliness. All of her contemporaries had already gone before her. And all the kids were scared of her and all stayed away from her. I, too, was intimidated by her. I truly believed she could read my mind and that she knew of all the mischief being hatched up in my head, of which, as a child, was prolific.
Proprietary in their admonition and gentle in their parental restraint, my parents did not allow me to view the remains. I guess they did not want for me to have nightmares. They did not want me to attend the funeral services and burial either because I was not to miss school. I had to have a perfect class attendance. I was the golden boy. I was going to be the first doctor in the family. I was to rise above everyone and everything but the sky. I, naturally, was upset. I wanted to attend the funeral services. But displaying a primitive emotion such as anger or defiance was a character flaw, a sign of inferiority and my parents never tolerated it and so I complied. I went to school.
But, as I got older, I realized that they really just wanted to shield me from one of the inevitables of life – death. I don’t know why. Did they not realize that I would have to confront it and be confronted by it at some time, that there was no escaping it? As a doctor or as a man? I guess it was because I was the youngest of four and would always be too young for this or that. The baby.
They took a picture of the Montilla-Calo-Sanchez clan in front of the dilapidated, brownish-red brick church. I saw the picture. I can’t find it anymore.
I walked home from class, quite a distance then, but now, actually, almost just across the street. I was silently conversing with myself as I was wont to do. I thought about this error of a perfect God – death. I tried to reason out the fragility of life. I asked the why and the where. I wondered whether it was best to die when one was young like me or to die as old as Apo was. Apo, who was already clinging to the last vestiges of relevance to her children and the other people around her, her unfulfilled dreams and unredeemed hopes all but forgotten. Where was Apo now? Was she playing the lyre with the angels? Or will she be waiting for me when I get home? Will she be staring at me with a scowl that could desiccate a banana plant, reprimanding me with her eyes for a transgression I haven’t even plotted yet?
But, still, deep inside of me, I knew I would miss her. She had been a fixture in my grandmother’s house and it would be different without her.
I got home and as I reached the transom, I tried to wave away that inexplicable faint smell of dying candles, candles that were not there.
I decided I would be sleeping between Mama and Papa that night.