MANILA, Philippines - I was always either getting mad at Helena for something, or she was playing a prank on me. Normally, it was both happening at the same time. Because Helena always saw the fun part of life, and I was the serious one. It didn’t matter that I was older or her mom’s friend as well as her boss; Helena always got the better of me.
When she was little, we were walking with her mom in the mall, when I remarked that I looked like a yaya in my white dress beside two mestizas. Helena laughed and then waited patiently until she saw a large crowd pass beside us. Then in her loudest voice, she wailed at me, “Yaya, yaya! Come here!” I promptly ran after her, which I realized made me indeed look like her yaya. Fast forward a few years and she is in high school, flexing her entrepreneurial muscles on me, her favorite adult victim. “Tita Sari, do you want to buy my old clothes?” “You do realize that I am the editor of Mega magazine?” I countered. Unfazed, she started bringing out stuff and saying, “But they’ll look so good on you!” She insisted that I try them on, even if I looked like a sausage inside her tube skirt, which she made me wear as a top. Seeing me look ridiculous, she giggled and ran up the stairs to wake her mother. “Mom, wake up!” I heard her screaming in glee, “You have to see this! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Helena was a great negotiator and strategist, and always got me to buy her something. She started going to college in Germany, and met up with us in Greece for a vacation. The weather was so cold and the fur was so cheap in Athens that a friend and I bought coats. Helena said she needed one as well for the bitter German winters, and said she would spend her allowance for the next three months to buy one. “How will you eat?” I asked. “I won’t,” she answered. Of course she got her coat. And got to eat for the next three months as well. It is a joy to give Helena something, because she is truly grateful and when she would say, “Tita Sari, you are the best!” I know she meant it, even if I imagined she said it to others.
When she turned 21, she asked me for what was then the latest gadget: an iPod. “It’s too expensive!” I categorically stated. “But I am now turning into an adult and promise never to ask you for anything else,” she argued. No one could counter that argument, and as I handed her the gift, I shook my head and thought: That will be the day she fulfills that promise! But Helena did fulfill that promise. Years after, when she invited me to lunch one day after coming home from the States, she stopped me when I took out my purse to pay. “Remember when I told you I would never ask you for anything else? It’s my turn now!” she said with a smile.
I manage to take the news of the passing of a girl I came to think of as a daughter stoically, the way I face most things in life. Because her mother now lives in the US, I do the funeral arrangements. I go through the motions dry-eyed, until I unpack the dress that has been picked for her to wear. I suddenly remember the clothes she sold me in high school, and I burst into tears. “It is now my turn again, Helena,” I tell her silently. “Let me help give you a nice sendoff, even if you never asked me to do it.” — Sari Yap