I can no longer remember the last time I took a bus back to my home town by myself. I mean, I take that trip at least once a year, during Christmas and/or summer. But it’s different when you have your son and/or daughter on your lap, sleeping or looking at vehicles zooming on the highway. It’s different when your wife is resting her head on your shoulders, catching a snooze or two. It’s different when you take the trip as a family.
But yesterday, I took the bus back home by myself. The ride reminded me of my days as a student when I would go home on weekends. Just by myself, thinking and watching the world through a tinted glass pane. I watched the scenery just as intently as I did then. I saw again the white egrets that spend their summers in the floodplains of Candaba, wading in the rice fields and ponds. I saw the solar systems; service stations with their satellite restaurants. Behemoths of revenue that grew from sacrificed farmland, devouring money from the all-too-willing victims who drive around in their so-called piece of mind. For the first time in many years, I saw Mt. Arayat. Not as the permanent fixture in the background, but as the sleeping volcano that Maria Sinukuan calls home.
There was one marked improvement with this last trip worth noting. When I was a student, I would play my chosen soundtrack for my trips in my head. It was quite difficult to think about this and that and maintain the playback of the soundtrack. It became next to impossible when the bus had pop radio playing. Thanks to the leaps and bounds that technology had taken over the years, I was able to actually play music. Not only was I able to think about this and that and more, the music also shut out the noise that passed for pop. I watched the fields as Billy Corgan sang By Starlight. I looked at the city of San Fernando from above its lone flyover, thinking back to when it was just a town and I was just a child, as Thom York sang Fake Plastic Trees.
I’m not sure, but maybe it was the reason for coming home that made me think about all those things. My sister called the night before, telling me to come home. The eldest and only sister of my father, my aunt practically raised my siblings and I just as much as our parents did. She had been ill for many years, but her condition had deteriorated in the recent days. It was just a matter of time. And so we were all called home. To visit her, to talk to her, for what may very well be the last time.
It’s difficult when you don’t share the same belief system as your family. I sat at the foot of the bed as my mother and our long-time neighbor prayed for my aunt. I waited, holding my aunt’s hand. To say that she had seen better days was an understatement of epic proportions. I wanted to talk to her alone, but everybody was there. I did not have the time to wait and be alone with her, and neither did I feel comfortable to ask them to leave. In the end, my fear of not being able to tell her what I meant to say became greater than any fear of saying it in the presence of others. So I did. I bent close to her ear and whispered her name. I said my thanks for the many books and the gambling lessons. I also told her that when Didi comes to take her, that she will like her. That they will get along just fine walking to the sunless lands. My sisters all cried.
But I was not sad. Like I said, I did not share my family’s beliefs. I celebrate life. Death is merely the culmination of life. It is what defines life by way of negation. And as far as I am concerned, my aunt’s life is one to truly celebrate. And on my way back to Quezon City that night, I figured out just how to do that.
Your old books are all but gone
Just like your memories
Faded words on pages torn
By time and the ravaging of termites
But it was not for naught
They served their purpose
They have given their gifts
Their stories live in me
Just as part of your story is in mine
Your plastic playing cards are lost
Just like the light in your eyes
The color faded and worn
No longer vivid in hue
Falling apart at the fringes
But it was not in vain
I can count without numbers
I hardly flinch when stakes are high
I know how to play my hand
Just as I know the color of your eyes
Your house is old and broken
Just like your body
It will not stand for much longer
Life that resides there will soon depart
But it was not wasted
It cared and nurtured
It stood strong in times of need
Home will always be with me
Just as you will live on forever
Words fade from paper
Faces from cards
Strength from beams
But not you from me