LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2015 - 10:00am

When I was seven years old, my maternal grandmother died. I never really knew her, but when I visited Oas, Albay, my parents’ hometown, she would  ask me the usual questions. “Did you like the food? How is your schooling? Does your mother teach you to play the piano?” She used to be fat, her soprano vibrating round and round the church during Sunday Masses. When she became older she looked diminished: thinner, her hair like a white veil.

And one day, a telegram informed us that she had died of tuberculosis. My mother went to her room and wept quietly. Later, she packed her clothes, along with the clothes of my father and my sisters. I didn’t go with them because my final examinations were near.

I was left in the care of the housemaids and of my paternal grandfather. Lola Juana was footloose, and she used to bring me everywhere. I read her Aliwan Komiks and Liwayway every week, and listened to “Dear Tiya Dely” with her. When I had a cold, she would rub my back and chest with Vicks Vapor Rub, then finish it off by massaging my forehead and neck. I slept beside her in her room, which she always locked, the night my parents and sisters went home to Albay.

But the next morning, I was found asleep on the floor of the sala. The maids were frightened. They told me that my dead grandmother must have pulled my hand and led me to sleep outside, because I had not gone home to attend her funeral. My Lola Juana remained quiet, praying quietly for the soul of my other grandmother. Both old women were neighbors, good friends and kumares. And then my lola told me everything would be all right. When my parents and my sisters returned, it was a long time before I could look at the photographs of my dead grandmother: balls of cotton plugged her nose, her eyes seemingly weighted down by stones.

A year later, we were having breakfast on a cool morning. The previous night had been stormy. Rain lashed the trees outside, and the wind keened in the dark. The radio was turned to the news (a grisly murder, a corrupt politician; some things never change). Suddenly, somebody knocked on the door. My father answered it. He came back, crestfallen.

“A C-47 plane has just crashed in Lubao.” I knew that some of the passengers in the plane were my parents’ friends. He changed into his fatigue uniform and then rushed outside. I ran to him. He asked, “Do you want to join me?” I said “Yes,” and off we went.

In the early morning, the wind was like a knife against my skin. When we reached the hospital, the first ambulance was just arriving. The siren wailed. The hospital attendants in green cotton uniforms ran down the stairs. The ambulance doors flew open. On the stretcher lay a man, his fatigue uniform torn around the elbows and knees. His leather boots were gone. Another stretcher bore a woman. Her blue dress was dripping with blood. I felt something rising in my throat. Sudden warmth spread through my nose. And then another ambulance came, its wail shattering the morning air into so many fragments.

During the wake, I refused to enter the chapel. One day, with one of our housemaids, I just sat at the back. Forty-one coffins crowded the chapel. My friend’s father, a military captain who used to arrange my friend’s Cub Scout kerchief, died. His 16-year-old daughter also died. Beside her coffin stood her boyfriend, in quiet grief. Children milled around, asking where their father was, and how about their mother? Questions hung like cobwebs in the air.

The wreckage of the C-47 was retrieved and left in the middle of the cogon fields in front of the apartment where we lived. On stormy nights, we thought we could hear them, the mostly female voices carried by the wind: “Saklolooo, tulungan ninyo kami!” (Help, please help us!). Then: “Babagsak na, babagsak na kami!” (We are falling, we are falling!) I would grip my grandmother’s arm; her other hand was wound around her rosary, and she was muttering her prayers. I was sure the other people in the household, or in the entire row of apartments, heard the voices in the night. But nobody dared talk about it in the harsh light of day.

When my grandfather died, it was my sisters’ turn to stay home. My mother and I returned to Albay. My two sisters stayed in our house in Antipolo. It was a hot afternoon when my grandfather was buried. I thought the entire town had turned up for his funeral, so long was the cortege that snaked around town. I was holding on to my mother, who was weeping. I had to restrain her when she lunged toward my lolo’s coffin as it was being pushed into the niche.

At that same instant, my sisters would tell me later, something happened in our house. My sisters were staying in the bedroom. Suddenly the white curtains lifted on that windless day, and a chill spread through the room. My sisters held each other’s hands, saying, Lolo, Lolo, and they began to sob. When we returned home, silent in our grief, our house looked empty and suddenly old.

Years – many years – later, I was trying to survive my first winter in Scotland when one night, I dreamed about my ninong, my godfather. He lived a few houses away from us in Basa Air Base, Pampanga. In my dream I seemed to be in a room shaped like a box. The room had an open roof, and my ninong was peering from the roof . His eyes were sad. The next morning, I got a letter from my father. He also attached an obituary about my ninong’s death. I was stunned. I wrote to my ninang (godmother) and told her about my dream. She answered that my ninong had died peacefully. 

A year later, I saw Pita, my ninong’s daughter. She said that during the height of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, she went to Villamor Air Base gym to see what she could do for the residents of Basa Air Base. Our air base was only 10 kilometers from Mount Pinatubo. The volcano’s ashes had destroyed the roof of the hangar, as well as many other houses in the air base. The residents of the air base had been evacuated to Villamor by plane.

Then Pita met a woman who knew her family. She said to Pita, “It’s good to see you. You know, your Papa was also here a while ago. He was so kind. He was asking us what he could do for us.” Astonished, Pita said that her father had died a year ago. The woman dissolved into tears.

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