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Twink Macaraig (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2016 - 12:00am

Like most Filipinos, I was born with a pre-chosen nickname. I was Twink, not because it’s a diminutive but because my older brother’s nickname is Nubbin (not short for anything, either). We were named after characters in a ’50s comic strip that didn’t quite achieve the classic timeliness of Peanuts or Dennis the Menace.  But since one of the local newspapers ran that strip, I didn’t have much trouble with anyone getting my name.  When they would say Twinky, or Twinkle, I’d say, sullenly, it’s just Twink, from the comics in the Chronicle.   Most would nod like it was obvious, and say, “Ahh, oo nga pala.”

By the time I was 10, nobody knew what I was mumbling about because the comic — and the broadsheet that carried it — ceased to exist in these parts.  (Count Twink and Nubbin among the desaparecidos of martial law).

When I went to school, I didn’t tell anyone that my family called me Twink. Twink was a cute, pony-tailed creature who lorded it over farm animals with her dainty, upscale ways. I had a bunot haircut, my nose was always sweaty, and my uniform was forever askew. I let my grade school classmates call me by my given name, the one all the teachers used.

 Which happens to be Muriel.

Pronounced by everybody then as MoorYELL, but, by a bi-racial friend and her American mom, in three syllables: MYURR–ee-yuhl. 

Her mom sang this strange ditty whenever I came over to play. “Smoke Muriel…Muriel…the fine cigar…” I don’t think my mother, who chose that unfortunate moniker, was even aware of its provenance — a 1955 black-and-white commercial for a dime cigar, featuring risqué lyrics so un-PC that today, even Mocha Uson would have taken umbrage.

Years ago, the legendary Gilda Cordero-Fernando — whom the nation has duly enshrined as an exemplar of artistic taste — confided in me that she’d asked my mother back then why in the world she would name her child Muriel. Tita Gilda recounted Mama was genuinely bewildered, “Bakit? Hindi ba maganda?!”

By late high school, the divide between school life and one’s personal life blurred, and my classmates took to calling me Twink. I wasn’t much neater than I was in grade school, but I did wear my hair in a ponytail so I allowed the sobriquet to take hold.

Little did I know that in my chosen profession, a Twink (more specifically, a Twinkie) was the term US broadcast news used for anchors who weren’t real journalists (as in, all sugar, no substance, like the chiffon cake snack). Though I knew the reference, the contrarian in me refused to change my name. Doing so seemed so… showbiz.  After all, I was secure in my journalistic chops; I didn’t get on cam because I looked like a confection; my beloved UP prof’s name was Cheche; why should I change my name? Then, my career took me Pan-Pacific and my bosses, unilaterally, dubbed me Tam.

I was called Tam Macaraig for the two years I was at ABN/CNBC (unbeknownst to the grand majority of the Pan-Pacific TV audience that didn’t watch ABN/CNBC).  My co-anchors struggled over how to pronounce my surname. The best Koruna Shinsho could do, after much coaching, was McrEEEYGH, the sound you make when a bikini wax strip is torn off. Others resorted to a Scottish brogue (grit your teeth and make like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.  Say, “We need men from the chlahn MachRraigg.” You get the drift).

After I returned from Singapore and got married, my husband told me he resented that I didn’t take his name professionally. Not that his surname was Wiener, or anything like that.  I just didn’t want to give up my father’s name, and the hyphenation was just too much of a mouthful (Hontiveros-Pagkalinawan, anyone?). While I tried to have my married name reflected in official docs, the marriage ended before all the paperwork could be completed. Thank God. Otherwise, today, I would have more than this lone cable bill, addressed to someone even the village security guards have never heard of, to contend with.

That bump aside, my continuing dilemma was Sophie-esque. Between Muriel and Twink, which indeed is the less mabaho choice? 

About a decade ago, my nephew Jodie, my roommate in his early life when he first was diagnosed to be within the autism spectrum disorder, took to following me around, asking if I was Muriel,  the little old lady owner of Courage the Cowardly Dog.  I barked, “No!” but that didn’t stop him from hounding me just the same.

Around the same time, when I tried to sign up for Facebook, I was rejected. Twink had apparently become a term for a hairless homosexual boy looking for action, and FB wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to be a porn site.  Administrators demanded more credentials and a two-week waiting period. I gave FB up, as yet another sign that technology was afraid of me. (On Twitter, which had no such compunctions, I’m constantly blocking followers whose profile pics feature extreme close-ups of male genitalia).

Last, year, applying for a visa to Japan, I found out that my NSO-delivered birth certificate didn’t have a name on it. We’re familiar with a lot of cases where birth certificates were filled in with Baby Girl or Baby Boy. But those happened during the war, when, presumably, record-keeping personnel was diverted to doing more important tasks, like stuffing shells with gunpowder, or performing emergency amputations.

But I was born some 20 years after WW2 could still provide a convenient excuse for the blank where my name should have been typed. My parents had passed away; I couldn’t ask them what to do. I couldn’t ask: How did you manage to get me baptized, into school, to procure my first passport, to prove that we’re related? I couldn’t ask, so you had a window of opportunity to change your mind, and you couldn’t go with something cool like Rhys or Saoirse, you still went with MURIEL?!  

I was issued a Japan visa because, upon the advice of my counsel, my Judge BFF, I submitted so-called “one-and-the-same” affidavits attesting that the no-name birth certificate could belong to no one else but me.  One, from my hubby, which he executed only after a lengthy rumination about how I was no longer quite the same girl that he married 14 years ago. The other, from my brother, whose nickname hadn’t fared much better in the etymological process. A nubbin was now popularly recognized as what Chandler Bing called his secret third nipple.  Nubbin was only too happy to contribute to whatever would rub in that my name was Muriel.

(I’ve actually met another brother-sister tandem named Nubbin and Twink. They’re about my age, fine, talented people who look none the worse for wearing these strange names throughout their lives.)   

My BFF assigned my blank birth certificate case for her Ateneo Law Class to untangle, but the earnest young lads and lasses gave up. “Yeroner” they told my bestie. “Your friend wasn’t helpful po; she only agreed to meet with us so because The Jungle Book was showing at Rockwell po.”

My point: For various reasons, including self-created ones, I’ve never fully embraced my name (s). Over five decades being called one or the other (besides numerous epithets) there’s still always a quarter-second discomfort, whenever I see it in print, even as a byline, or on a diploma.

Not so with my PWD ID, though. Mainly, because it was so hard-won.

I was at the nadir of despair after receiving my cancer diagnosis, when a well-meaning fellow warrior brought up that I, at least, had the PWD benefits to look forward to. At that particular moment, it struck me as the dumbest consuelo do bobo that anyone could offer.  But I came around easily enough. I only had to imagine the socialites who think nothing of whipping out their Senior Citizen cards to claim their discounts on hotel lobby halo-halo when they’d just dropped a fortune on bad art on exhibit in the ballroom. I only had to think of my husband, who, after a frustrating day of dealing with people who claim to be interested in preserving historical buildings from previous generations but turn out really to be about preserving their loot for their future generations, had that one break — the 30% markdown (before taxes) he got at a fastfood outlet — to crow about at the dinner table.  I only had to glance at my latest meds bill, which is always a digit longer than I’d like.

There is no stigma, no shame. We deserved these privileges. We were all entitled.

But, turns out, the info I’d received about the PWD ID was wrong. Contrary to what I’d been told, eligibility of chronic disease sufferers had still to be filtered down to the LGUs. Discretion as to whether or not to grant PWD status was still left to a lowly bureaucrat with no medical background. These paper-shufflers still relied on an outdated, ill-conceived questionnaire that asked you to classify your disability as Psycho-social, Mental, Hearing, Visual, Learning, Speech, or Orthopedic. When you don’t check any of the above, you’re in trouble.

My application was denied. The social worker who’d evaluated it had taken the first phrase of my medical abstract “diagnosed with Breast CA stage 1 in 2006” and didn’t bother with the rest of it. The polite rejection letter stated that Stage 1 Breast Cancer was NOT a chronic condition. “It could be treated with numerous therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. God Bless.”

My oncologist, Dr. Marina (who didn’t write my abstract), was uncharacteristically agitated when I told her. “Twink, why didn’t you check Orthopedic? Your cancer is in your bones!”

“I’m sorry, doc. I didn’t think my case was Orthopedic Disability. I’m not bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound. I may be ungainly, but I still walk faster than my hubby. Maybe the assessor thought my back brace was an Azzedine Alaia knock-off. Maybe I smiled too widely in my photo. Maybe I seemed too cheerful to be dying.”

“You have to know how to work the system,” Dr. Marina said. “I had a patient with advanced rectal cancer. He went to the munisipyo carrying his colostomy bag.  He was turned down. Beside him, a teenager with acne had a certification from a dermatologist saying his pimples made him depressed. He claimed Psycho-social Disability. Pasok siya!”             

I’m happy to report that I eventually got my PWD ID after I appealed it, without having to resort to chicanery or special effects depicting me in a cadaverous state. I just asked Dr. Erwin to revise his abstract to spell out that my “metastatic carcinoma” discovered several months ago was the equivalent of Stage 4 Cancer,  as dire, dread, and chronic as they come. When City Hall finally told me my ID was ready, I nearly wept with relief.  So elated was I that I’d seen the system work, I couldn’t contain myself.

I unleashed my new enthusiasm upon Jodie, my nephew, who’d been hired as “Executive Liaison” under RA 10524, at my friend’s real estate firm. Jodie’s company ID is his most prized possession. I figured a PWD ID would give him an even bigger kick.

“Jodie,” I said. “You qualify for a PWD ID with no problem.  I’ll show you how to apply. Just think — free movies in Makati. No more waiting in queues. Discounts for all the junk food you like. Yey!”

As much as an autistic person can look you in the eye, Jodie looked me in the eye, and said, “But I’m not disabled, Muriel.”

I could only mentally drop mic on his behalf and say, “Ah, oo nga pala.”

* * *

For feedback, email t.mac2303@gmail.com.

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