Sunday, November 06, 2016
7:00 AM |
Remembering the Dead
There is a slightly confusing sight when you come further south of Dalaguete town in the southern tip of Cebu that jars your idea of what is and what is not.
You’re in a bus, or you’re in a car, and when you turn the bend of the highway going west towards Tañon Strait, you see spread right from the very edges of the road towards the low hills a sprinkling of small houses that seem immediately peculiar for anyone with a sharp eye: nothing stirs in and among them, not the shadows of the living, not the mundane machineries of what makes a life. But there they are, these small houses constituting what could be a barangay all its own, an address inviting the idea of lived lives. And yet, there you go: nothing stirs.
Then your eyes come to a sharp focus, and your mind begin to put two and two together, and you come to realize that these houses are not at all for the living: they have been built as pantheons for the dead. It’s a barangay for the departed, a whole vista of a cemetery occupying quite an acreage of landscape.
It never bothers me, this village of the dead in Dalaguete, every time I see it; although it does startle for a few seconds upon its beholding, and simply because it sits right there on the landscape and blends so well with the living world that does pulsate around it. Across the road, the land dives steeply towards the beach and people are milling about the sand preparing for a swim while in the distance the small island of Sumilon winks and beckons. There are fishermen in their bancas casting their nets in the depths, or coming home with the day’s catch. There are the houses—the living ones—that dot the rest of the Dalaguete landscape, a beehive of a small town where people do stir about in the regular business of their lives. The road itself can surge with traffic. In the midst of all these, the hillside housing the dead sits comfortably, quietly, bearing like a feather all intentions of blending.
The last time I saw this landscape, it made me think about that idea of blending, how life itself is really a continuum of death, and how borderless the two can seem.
As binaries, they inform and shape each other—and those who get a full glimpse of the exquisite structure of their beautiful oppositions, which is rare, are perhaps the ones who seem to know how to embrace both fully. (I know people who are not afraid of death simply because they have come to an understanding that their lives have been full and happy, and they can let go because there are no regrets. I know people who have had brushes with dying, and having been given a second chance, rush to an embrace of life because they are suddenly equipped with the realization that life’s not to be wasted.)
As biblical truth, life is the paradoxical and beautiful aftermath of death, and, echoing Matthew 10:39, we are taught that in order to live, we must first learn to die.
As a measure of the philosophical, one might consider those among us who are breathing still, but might as well be dead in their subjugation to awful surrender—to grief, to apathy, to depression. And then there are those who are already dead but still remain alive in the hearts and memories of many. I had a friend named Luis Joaquin Katigbak, one of the best writers of my generation, who passed away early this year, and there are moments in the present—when I read a good book, when I eat a good piece of silvanas, when I encounter a good article about typefaces, when I hear a really good pop song—when I find myself saying, “I should tell Luis about this,” only to realize half-a-second later that my good friend has gone.
Luis’s was one of too many deaths I had to bear this year. I lost my cousin Lulu Moncal-Pineda to cancer, too, early this year—a death in the family that felt the most intimate, because it seemed so bizarre, because one always thinks our loved ones will be with us forever—and then suddenly we are made to realize death touches everyone. Manang Lulu was a kind soul, one I remember most for her easy laughter, and the type whose passing makes you question the Divine playing dice with our fates with such unkind randomness. But she would have been the first to disabuse me of that notion.
I lost my high school best friend, too. When Jacqueline Piñero-Torres died, it as not a surprise for all of us in our high school class: she had been suffering from a lingering illness, and while we always hoped for the best, we were nevertheless resigned to the fact that the only thing that could save her was a miracle. But even that never prepares you for the inevitable: I felt dumbstruck by her passing, and a selfish part of me felt betrayed—but by what? I had no idea. Perhaps betrayed by circumstances—because here was this life cut short in its prime, here was promise still largely unfulfilled, here was a young mother now rendered unable to see her two young children grow up to the potential she dreamed for them. When I finally found the courage to visit her wake, it was her birthday. It had to be her birthday, that strange paradox.
Later, I wrote of that visit: “Today would have been your 40th birthday. When we were younger and full of life—the world still a breathless space aching for discovery—did we ever talk about growing older, about mortality? I’m not sure we did. We were busy reading Sweet Valley High and those new Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries and the books of Enid Blyton and those sci-fi novels, usually the ones about teenagers colonizing Mars that your brother Marlon would hoist on us every time I visited your old house in Lo-oc, which was always; your mom and your dad would feed us as we played board games, from Cluedo to Boggle to Monopoly. You were the smartest one in class—and our whole high school batch absolutely went nuts when Silliman High proclaimed you our valedictorian, because you deserved it. You deserved the accolades, given the fact that we would all wait for you to come to our first class in the afternoon on the grounds of Channon Hall where we could copy your Math homework. And you would only let Wendell and me (and perhaps Chloe and Rachel) copy—so all the Rizal boys had to wait for me to finish copying all those formulas so that they could copy from me, too. Oh, but I was absolutely cruel to you too, the way boys are to girls who were dear to them. I would tie the straps of your bag to your chair and silly things like that, and in all the dramas I wrote for class, I’d make sure you had the top role. Once I wrote a short play for Values Education class about a brothel, and you were the top kitten—but oh how you slayed that role. You were so good, the class loved how surprisingly vampish you could be. So many high school memories, and so many of them involved you. You would have turned forty today. Life’s silly like that. I was angry when I heard the news. I was angry at God because He lets good people go and mediocre people... —let’s not talk about mediocre people. Because you were never mediocre. You were brilliant, honest, and loyal. We love you, Jacq. I still don’t understand why you had to go, but perhaps someday I will. Rest in peace, high school best friend. I promise to keep an eye on my godson.”
Someday I will learn the trick of a happy life and a happy death. A passage from a long poem by Walt Whitman reminds me it can be possible. From “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” we get this lovely invitation to think of death as a delicate thing to welcome: “Come lovely and soothing death, / Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, / In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later, delicate death.”
Labels: death, life
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