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Igan D‘Bayan
When You Are Old
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - October 27, 2019 - 12:00am

One day I woke up and I was old. Age had come upon me like a stealth drone. The first warning was the documents: whenever I had to fill out a form that asked for my age, I would do the math and be shocked that the number was so high. It was a mistake! Some time displacement had sent me into the future! Then I would put it out of my mind.

I was unnaturally attached to being young. I had dropped out of nursery school and skipped kindergarten and seventh grade. I honestly thought I would die at age eight, like Marcelino Pan Y Vino. If you are too young or too old for that reference, Marcelino was a little Italian orphan who was raised by priests. He was always getting scolded for stealing bread and wine from the church kitchen. Finally a priest followed him to find out who he was giving the stolen food to. And it turns out he was giving the pan y vino to the life-size crucified Christ, who would come to life and come down from the cross to talk to Marcelino. Marcelino missed his dead mother, and wished he could be with her again. So Jesus granted his wish: little Marcelino died and was reunited with his late mother. When I was a child this struck me as a good outcome. Because children are weirdos. 

I wasn’t an orphan — my mother, who was still very much alive, had taken me to see Marcelino Pan Y Vino at the movies. At the time, Italian and other foreign movies dubbed in English were regularly screened in Manila theaters. I remember the ’70s, which tells you I am old. 

Why I thought Jesus would reward me with an early death, I had no idea. I was not particularly religious, and I exercised my imagination early on by inventing excuses not to attend Sunday mass with the parents. Wait, I did have one religious phase in grade school. It was after I’d seen a TV documentary called The Events At Garabandal. Apparently the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to some children in Garabandal, Spain and told them that if people did not change their ways, the world would end. One of the instructions handed out by the BVM was for people to go to church regularly. So when I was nine years old, I would go to the chapel at St. Theresa’s College every day at lunchtime and pray the apocalypse would be cancelled. I enjoyed these daily visits because the chapel would be empty and I’ve never been a sociable person.

After a week it occurred to me that if I was the only person who was obeying divine instructions, then the planet was irrevocably doomed. I remembered how in Exodus, Lot had bargained with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. Lot had a lot of chutzpah, that’s for sure, but the bargaining didn’t work because those cities were obliterated. So I went back to spending lunchtime reading a book.

(Yes, I read the Old Testament over one long weekend when I was stuck at home with nothing to read. The story of Lot bothered the hell out of me. First some angels go to Lot’s house to warn him. The neighbors hear about the guests, then they surround Lot’s house and demand that he give them his guests so they could rape them. I am not making this up, look in the Old Testament. So Lot tells them to leave his guests alone and take his daughters instead. What!!! So Lot’s family flees Sodom and Gomorrah, and God warns them not to look back. And Lot’s wife looks back at her house — because don’t we all look back to check if we locked the door properly? — and whoosh, she’s turned into a pillar of salt. This struck me as unfair. And then later they have to repopulate the area and there are no other women, so incest, gross, and centuries before Game of Thrones. The Old Testament is a wonderful collection of stories, even better than “The Odyssey,” T.H. White, or J.R.R. Tolkien. I haven’t read much of the New Testament, not enough smiting.)

That was a long sidebar, now back to the story. The second warning of impending decrepitude was the graying. New growths of white hair were sticking out of my head. I was afraid of hair color, I thought the chemicals would seep into my brain and I am very fond of my brain, which won’t shut up. So every quarter or so I had my hair colored with black henna, which I figured was natural and organic, ergo safe. But denial and henna could not ward off the inevitable, and neither could softening the blow by describing myself as “middle-aged.”

I was born when the world was analog. I used a typewriter to produce my first book. I can recognize when new songs are remakes or sample older songs. I remember black and white TV, cassettes, and videotape. I still use iPods and headphones with wires. I prefer stuff that I can hold and throw across the room to virtual things. I send emails and make telephone calls! I am old! 

There is no point in hiding my age, because my first book was published in 1992 and people can do basic subtraction. I stopped having my hair colored black: the advantage of white hair is that you can have it colored purple without bleaching it. Somehow I had reached an advanced age without having written a novel or more short stories, so I dropped everything and returned to writing fiction.

Now that the world has woken up to the reality of climate change and soon there may not be a world, I’m actually relieved to be my age. Which is old. Any day now, maturity should kick in.

 * * *

The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra, published by Ateneo University Press, is now available at Fully Booked, Solidaridad, other bookstores and Shopee.

MARCELINO OLD
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