I'm Still Here

Hay naku... ang bagal naman ang konekshun dito.

On the one hand, I'm so lucky to have a family like mine at all -- 16 of us first cousins and 1,093,84,012,931,209,348 extended cousins, titas, titos, lolas, lolos, cats, dogs, chickens, & baboy.

Also on that hand, I'm so lucky to be blessed with so much in the States, to have such hardworking parents, and a loving non-biological family (aka best friends).

On the other hand, if I had to give up all of my Stateside blessings my blessings here in the Philippines, I wouldn't mind so much.

I've written similar posts to this time after time because I'm overtaken with the same feeling of awe every time that my family comes home here.

As soon as the plane lands from Japan, China, Hawaii, or wherever the stopover is that time, and we step into the terminal the heat hits us. My sisters and I always groan, even though we all know that we don't mind it that much. Our bodies are built for the heat, anyway. Only a couple of days before departure, we cannot contain our excitement for our return to the Philippines. My sisters and I daydream out loud with each other about turon, banana-Q, taho, Boracay, haunted hotels in Baguio. I pack without too much thought because clothes, makeup, and accessories don't matter when I'm in the Philippines. Basta, all I need is a pair of tsinelas, a toothbrush, and enough shorts and t-shirts to last a few days. We'll do laundry there.

For now, as we step off of the plane, none of these daydreams meet the forefronts of our minds because we know instead the obstacles the await us in our nearest future: a long line off of the plane from Economy seating, turning in our health forms, Customs, baggage claim, and finally the sea of people that crowd the front of the airport, all waiting for their own loved ones.

This time, it is night when we arrive. It's raining. This is my first time in the Philippines during the rainy season. My Tita Ollie was supposed to "fetch" us from the airport, but instead it is my Tita Cynthia (pronounced 'Seen-cha') who picks us up because there is a flood. Also, my Ninong Itoy and cousin, Monic (known as everyone's sidecar for his tendency to follow everyone everywhere) come to pick us up in a private jeepney in order to carry our luggage.

There is traffic, of course. On the radio, there is an announcement that former Philippine president Cory Aquino has just died. My sisters and I catch up with my dad, who has met us here from Germany, and whom we haven't seen in several months. We pull over on the way to Lola's house to buy hot pan de sal.

When we finally arrive at Lola's house, my parents go straight to her room. I can see her from my seat in the living room, despite the fact that I'm not allowed to go near her. I barely recognize her. She's so thin. What little hair she has is uncombed and standing straight up. Her head looks too large for her body. My dad helps her sit up, and I wonder at how she can move at all -- it's impossible that a body so frail and skeleton-like can have any muscles at all. I search for the bukol on her head that my parents described to me last week when she was found unconscious on the floor, but to no avail.

We kids are not permitted to visit Lola because her medication contains radiation that is unsafe to anyone under 40. At 21, I’m still considered a kid in my family. Instead, my sisters and I wait in the living room where we've sat since before each of us can recall. This is the same living room where we played with our cousins who lived down the street, the same living room where I watched educational childrens' shows in Tagalog, the same living room where Nikki's 3rd birthday party was held, and the same living room where the viewing was held for my Lolo when he died from complications of the heart.

My cousins are awake, despite how late in the evening it is. We greet each other awkwardly in each others' languages, but mostly hug and kiss and smile and tickle each other. This was fitting when we were all younger, but I wonder to myself if this is how we will always greet each other in order to avoid embarrassing accents and grammatical errors even in our old age.

The cousins are getting older. My sisters and I are now all the same height. Ten-ten no longer giggles as much as she used to, but she is still always smiling. Monic doesn't climb onto my lap the moment that I sit down, cling to my arm when we walk, or fall asleep on my shoulder in the middle of the day anymore, but he still follows me from room to room and is my escort all about the neighborhood. Joma is a man now, even if he is only 16. He's an old 16. Despite our separation by thousands of miles and his closer age to Tin-tin, we are kindred souls.

After a couple of servings of pancit canton, it's time to say good night and make our way to the hotel. We used to spend nights at Lola's house during our visits to Sta. Mesa, but the five of us no longer fit on one bed the way we used to.

In the car, I look out the window at the familiar sight. The neighborhood hasn't changed much, if at all, since my first memories of V. Mapa street. There are still skinny middle-aged men with potbellies standing in the middle of the street, either shirtless or with their white t-shirts drawn to reveal their protruding stomachs. They stand around each other and stare at our car as we drive by -- I wonder what they do for hours of the day, just standing with each other. There are still kids outside playing in the dirty rain puddles. There are still flea-bitten cats and dogs sniffing at the ground, perhaps in search of food, judging by the looks of their skin so tightly stretched across their rib cages. Everyone greets my dad, as usual. This is the neighborhood where he grew up, surrounded by not only friends and neighbors, but cousins, titas, and titos. My eyes are two years older than the last time I was here. My older eyes takes more notice of the shabbiness of the homes; what I once took for houses side by side (dikit-dikit) are actually scraps of sheet metal, cement blocks, and planks of wood. Funny how as a kid, none of this matters. Things just are; they exist without a reason or a past. And now… well, I supposed I haven’t had enough time yet to process how it all makes me feel, but suffice to say, my cousins and sisters aren’t the only ones who are older and has changed.

Anyway, that’s all for now, papanik na ko. Hopefully I’ll have the chance to update again soon.

For now, and for always, God bless you the way He’s blessed me.

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