Playing Around the Coffin

Mentos, Storcks, and White Rabbit candies in wooden bowls were being passed around. As the sweets were unwrapped, the room was filled with the crunch of plastic.

Zooming here and there were my cousins who were following my orders. Grab the Zestos. Grab the cheese pimientos. Grab the Marie biscuits. Everyone had to be fed and fed properly.

Our little feet bumped into chairs as we played waiters and waitresses. The light bulbs blared, and the crickets chirped. Family members and guests sat in front of kuya Paco. There was chatter all around. Only kuya was silent.

When everyone was full, I’d say, Tignan natin si kuya. We went to him and stared in silence. He was wearing a barong. His face was bloated. He didn’t look like kuya. Could it be that we got the wrong person? I thought.

I remembered a telanovela scene where Claudine Barretto would peek behind a tree, watching her family grieve—her mother wailing, her father trying to stay strong but his eyes red. They would be crying near a coffin, thinking that the unrecognizable burnt body was Claudine, but she was just there, behind the tree, if only they stopped to look.

Naiiyak na ako, alis na tayo, I said.  I dashed out and my cousins ran after me. We stopped at the nearby trees. I encircled the trees, but no one was hiding behind them. Kuya wasn’t there, but I had to check, I had to make sure. We stayed there and played. Minutes passed and the sadness would vanish.

            I said, Okay na ako, balik na tayo kay kuya. I led the mad rush back. Stop. Stare. Silence.

            Naiiyak na ako, alis na tayo, I said.

            Okay na ako, balik na tayo kay kuya, I said.

            Naiiyak na ako, alis na tayo.

            Okay na ako, balik na tayo kay kuya.

            Naiiyak na ako, alis na tayo.

 All throughout the night, we kept running to him and running away.

Kuya’s Soul

The priest came to see kuya, but the mass didn’t seem right. The priest held the chalice and host up, offering the body and blood of Christ. Both were suspended in midair and awkward silence. He said, Sorry wala tayong sound effects. It didn’t feel like a real communion without the kring kring sounds. Would the mass work if there were no kring kring sounds? Were we endangering kuya’s soul?

Kuya’s soul was important to us. My cousins thought there was no way that he could go to hell, and I agreed with them.  Whether he would go to purgatory or to heaven was another issue. I settled the discussion by saying, Yes mabait si kuya, so dapat pumunta siya sa heaven, but he’s not a saint, so he can’t go there straight away. His sins need to be cleansed, so he’ll pass by purgatory, but he’ll definitely go to heaven in the end. Kuya’s mother Tita Ethel heard this conversation and said, Mga walang hiyang bata, pinag-uusapan ba naman kung saan pupunta si Paco.

Seeing Kuya

I was in my school’s computer lab. I saw kuya sitting in one of the chairs. I said, kuya, akala ko ba patay ka na? He said, Hindi ah. We hugged and cried. I woke up.

I told kuya Paco’s younger brother kuya Ben about this dream. He said he also had a dream that kuya wasn’t dead. We hugged and cried. We didn’t wake up. Not for a long time.

Kuya Paco’s younger sister Ate Ada and I were riding a car. Ate sat in front, and I was at the back. Another car sped through the streets. I caught a glimpse of the driver, and, for some sort of reason, I thought I saw kuya. I kept praying that we would catch up with the other car, so I could take a better look at the driver. The other car turned to the right, and ours went straight. I looked back, and lingered. I kept looking at the other car until it was completely out of sight. I faced front, and I met Ate Ada’s eyes. She was also looking at the car. I asked her, Nakita mo rin ba un? Kamukha ni kuya Paco. She said, Oo.

Ma and I were riding the bus. Inside the bus a young man started preaching the gospel. Then he gave out envelopes, and you’re supposed to fill them with money. They’re donations for the church, but you can’t be sure if the preacher really is from a church.

There were no physical similarities between that young man and kuya, but he still reminded me of kuya. I was going to tell my mom, but I didn’t. When the guy reached our seat, I was surprised that my mom gave him money. Ma and I never gave money to those preachers, so I asked her, Why did you give money to the guy? Naalala mo ba si kuya Paco? She nodded.

The Car Crash

I remember that night when my mom told me that he died. I was stunned, mechanically saying, But he was so young. Looking back, I don’t understand why I said that. Of all the things that one could say after finding out that someone you loved died, it seemed a bit mature to say that, or a bit robotic, or unfeeling.

I cried and buried my head in my mother’s arms. But crying wasn’t instinctive. I had to force myself to start crying because I knew that was the right response. I forced to shed the first tear, and the other tears came naturally. But I didn’t start to cry because I was overcome with emotion. I really didn’t understand what the hell was going on, and what it all meant when my mom said that kuya was dead.

It was a car crash. He was nineteen. He went to Bulacan with his other pilot friends. The car met a truck at the North Luzon expressway. The car tried to swerve to avoid crashing into the truck, but the car turned turtle. The people in front had seatbelts to save them from the impact, the ones at the back who were on either side of kuya slammed into the front seats, but kuya, who was in the middle, smashed straight into the windshield. We suspect that he was fast asleep that’s why he couldn’t even save himself by holding on to something.

Kuya the Favorite

In the hierarchy of the Cruz cousins, he was the king because he was the favorite of my lola. Like lowly subjects who wanted the royalty’s favor, my cousin Apple and I would compete for kuya’s affection. Apple would often taunt me saying, Ako mas love ni kuya Paco, and I’d get so red in the face and scream, Hindi ah!

When kuya died, I became the favorite.

Kuya Irritates Me

Kuya Paco sometimes irritated me by saying, Nag-aaral ka ba sa mababang paaralan? Ito o sa I.D. mo nakalagay. I snatched my I.D. out of his hands and say, Hindi ah! I was so mad because I thought it was an insult. I did not know that the Filipino translation of elementary was mababang paaralan.

For a certain time, he lived in our house, and when he comes home he calls out my name, asking for a kiss on the cheek. I always ran away because kids just don’t want to be mushy like that. He asks me to take off his shoes and socks, and I hated that because they were smelly. He laughs at me as I pinch my nose with one hand, and take off his shoes and socks with the other hand.

One day I saw kuya on the roof of our house. He forgot his Jollibee uniform and the house keys. I don’t remember why he did not ask me to open the door. I told my mother about this, and she screamed at kuya. Because of this incident, he no longer lived in our house.

No Birthday Party

I always thought I was eleven years old when kuya died, but when I was twenty-two, I visited his grave, and I saw that he died one month before my tenth birthday.

I remember my tenth birthday. It didn’t happen. It was the first birthday that I didn’t have a party. I was really sad. I could not understand why I did not have a party. I vaguely remember that my mother told me that we didn’t have money. Or maybe she didn’t say that, maybe little Ja rationalized that this was the best explanation.

Now I realized that during that time I couldn’t make the connection between my cousin’s death and the inappropriateness of throwing a party. It’s as if after one month, I had forgotten about my cousin’s death.

The Guilt of Innocence

When I finally realized that he died, and what death exactly meant, I remembered these moments, and I was filled with regret. Why did I tell my mother that he climbed the house? Why didn’t I just kiss him? Why didn’t I just take off his shoes and socks like he wanted to? If that meant that I could spend one more day with him, I would stand the stench of those smelly socks. I would.

I feel guilty for taking his place as the favorite apo. I don’t deserve it. It should have been him. I feel guilty for playing at his funeral. I can’t believe that I enjoyed his funeral. I thought it was fun to play waitress. I had fun running around. I knew he was dead, but it was as if there was a cloud hovering over my head, hindering me from truly understanding what death was, what it meant to be gone forever.

I feel guilty for being innocent. I feel guilty for not knowing. I feel guilty for not understanding. I feel guilty for not crying hard enough.


[1] “Let’s look at Kuya.Kuya means older brother. This is a term of address. It can refer to older male relatives, or older males. Kuya Paco was my cousin

[2] I feel like crying. Let’s go.

[3] I’m okay now, Let’s go back to Kuya

[4] Sorry we don’t have sound effects.

[5] Sounds of bells ringing

[6] Yes Kuya is nice so he should go to heaven

[7] Aunt

[8] You naughty children, I can’t believe you’re talking about where Paco’s soul would go

[9] Kuya, I thought you were dead already?

[10] I’m not

[11] Older sister. This is a term of address. This can also refer to older female relatives or older females in general. Ate Ada was my cousin.

[12] Did you see that? He looked like Kuya Paco. She said, yes.

[13] Did he remind you of Kuya Paco?

[14] Grandma

[15] Kuya loves me more

[16] No way!

[17] Are you studying in a lower school? Look here, it’s written on your I.D.

[18] Grandchild

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