She was the one who revealed to me that I’m going to be a big sister once again. After more than thirteen years. It was somewhere in November and I remembered being satisfied by a hearty meal of footlong and coke, making myself comfortable outside the novelty shop my mom and cousin set up for the bazaar market during the Christmas season.
My cousin baited me with a question. “What would you feel if we tell you your mom’s pregnant?”
I was in my second year of high school and for the longest time, it has always been me and Mico, my brother who’s two years younger than me. The thought of having another sibling didn’t appeal to me that much and it didn’t help that my parents never discussed to us any possibility of having a new member in the family.
“I don’t believe you,” I said with a smile, unable to wrap my head around the idea that my mom is pregnant once again. She and my father seemed to reach a decision to limit the family into four. A reasonable decision considering our financial situation that time.
My cousin just smiled knowingly. Her black almond eyes lit up with mischief, her round chin quivering with poorly-hidden mirth. Growing up, I grew familiar with that look when she used to sneak Mico and I some snacks before dinner time or when she describe some gory details of my childhood to our other cousins.
“You’ll warm up to the idea.” She said, patting my knees affectionately.
And she was right. A few months later, my mom gave birth to an adorable baby boy whose features are a mix of Mico and I. I immediately fell in love with Miggy, just as what my cousin foretold. Having spent the majority of my childhood with her, I should know better by now to doubt her instincts.
My cousin, Ate Me-ann, was diagnosed with Lupus when she was around 35 years old. I remembered my mom greeting me with a question of what Lupus is after I got home from school and I remembered thinking that it must be a disease you get from dogs or other rabid animals.
“The doctor said it targets your immune system,” my mom said worriedly. “President Marcos died because of Lupus, didn’t he? It must be a rich man’s disease.”
I told her not to worry that much. After some brief research on the internet, some people with Lupus were able to live their life to the fullest.
Later I found out that the difference between these people and my cousin is that, they have the money. My cousin is a college dropout with no family left except her sister, my mom and our other cousins. And as you may have guessed, none of us were millionaires.
Ate Me-ann earned her living with the annual tiangge or bazaar market by setting up a gift item shop from September to late February of the next year. My mom practically raised Ate Me-ann here in Manila after her mother left her and two sisters in Romblon and her father skirted off to raise another family. The three of them lived as orphans in every sense of the word, but my mother seemed to have sensed Ate Me-ann’s potential to earn money on whatever venture she set her eyes upon. She is friendly and confident and it’s not difficult to trust her. It never took long before she gained financial independence from my mom and started her own small-time business in retailing. She was the star of our local tiangge; a trend-setter of toys and items. Her ability lies on knowing what the consumers want before they realized they want it for themselves.
Before Lupus got the best of her, she was the best in the game. Her energy is infectious and she made sure to accommodate each customer herself. Once a customer expresses an interest in the item she’s selling, it’s rare to see that customer get out of the bazaar without taking anything.
Her medicine, her medical procedure, her dialysis sessions twice a week. All of it, she can afford because of her earnings from the last season. She was a veteran businesswoman; hard to bargain with but she would always soften up when Miggy asks for a free toy. She spoiled Mico and me under her care; Miggy is no exception, even if he’s thirteen years late.
————————————————————————–Ate Me-Ann died without a husband or children to grieve by her bedside. She lived with a female partner for years, loved her and sent her to an accountancy school. That partner was forced to marry by her own mother to an acquaintance living in Canada for a more ‘secure’ future. We haven’t heard from her until now, even after Ate Me-ann died.
Being the person I am, I used to think things would have been different for them if the Philippines has a law for a civil union for the same sex. Her partner wouldn’t have to marry someone else to alleviate her family’s fear of allowing their daughter to enter into a union not protected by the State. But I’m just being political. All Ate Me-ann would have wanted was to see her partner’s face before she drew her last breath.
When it’s not the tiangge season, I spent most of my weekends during my college years in her home. She lived in the same city as we did. Our afternoons are filled playing role-playing games in a thin, secondhand PlayStation she bought. She said it made her feel nostalgic. Back when we were kids, we used to play an endless string of games with our father’s console in my parents’ room without him knowing it.
“Things were simpler back then,” my cousin said a few weeks before she died. I finally got the chance to visit in-between my out-of-town work. I rarely got the time to see her when I got a job and if it wasn’t for my mother’s insistence, I would have never seen her alive. She was laying on her bed, her skin hanging loose. She had already missed five dialysis lessons and her lupus had returned with a vengeance. She was vomiting and excreting blood and she was too weak to stand by herself.
The past Tiangge season had been hard on her. She didn’t earn that much and her most recent girlfriend left her without a word. To top it all that, her workers from the Tiangge stole from her earnings each day but she was too weak to look for any replacement.
That night, she made a simple request for me to massage her legs with her favorite baby oil. I complied and she smiled gratefully, but I turned my head away so she wouldn’t see my forced smile.
“My greatest wish right now is to have a time machine.” She continued lightly. “Just so we can return to happier times. Back when you used to suck Iced tea or coca-cola on your baby formula even though you’re already seven years old that time.”
“I wasn’t seven. I was younger than that.” I replied, stung.
“…And the time you used to wet your bed all the time and you blame it to Mico who’s not even on the same bed as you.”
“At least I don’t sit in one corner of the room and poop in his pants like Mico does.”
She chuckled at that. That was the last time I saw her laugh.
She stayed at the National Kidney Institute for two weeks. One week to treat her internal bleeding and another week because she doesn’t have the money to pay for her hospital bills. She was literally imprisoned inside the hospital and she kept on crying to go home. Her dialysis treatment had gone too late; the infection reached her brain.
I went to her ward that she shared with three more people. I found her at the farthest end of the room – tossing on her bed. Her sister who had been taking care of her for more than a week now gave a small smile of relief, her bloodshot eyes showing signs of relief after seeing me. My mother was not healthy enough to take care of Ate Me-Ann in the hospital following her chemo sessions the year before.
“How’s ate Me-ann?” I asked my cousin.
She shook her head and I turned my attention to Ate Me-ann, at first, refusing to look at her face, fearing for the face that will look back at me. She was conscious and she lost half of her weight. Her eyes are bulging out of their sockets but what clenched my chest is the lack of emotions, any spark of recognition, in her black eyes. It was like staring into the mouth of a cave. There was no easy smile she would give me, no change in her expression. She sat up and started counting from 1 to 12, her voice rising at each number.
I knew for a certain that the person who had taken care of me since childhood was no longer there. The one sitting across from me is nothing but a shadow of what my cousin used to be.
Her sister told me to ask Ate Me-ann is she still knows me. She barely knew anyone by now and I expected it will be the same case with me.
She answered my name, her gaze unwavering. I smiled weakly. She still knows me, but ever since childhood, she would call me by a different name. I asked her what her name is and she gave me an invented name in a sing-song voice.
I kept on denying it but the truth was clear on her unflinching eyes. We already lost her.
The day my cousin died, the whole country voted for the 16th President of the Philippines. A few days before, my mom finally found a way to pay her hospital bills and they took her home, granting her wish to die at peace in her own house.
Before we go to our precinct to vote, my mom answered a call and took it outside the house. A few minutes later, she went back, tears flowing against her scrunched-up face. One look and we all knew: Ate Me-ann breathed her last.
When we went to their house a few minutes later, the silence of the neighborhood was interrupted by a shriek and a cry. My mother rammed her away through Ate Me-ann’s door, crying uncontrollably, uselessly. My cousin who is in medical school is already there, sitting beside the body like a statue of an angel in mausoleums. The whole house shook with their cries, their wails that I remembered feeling nauseous. Being the only able-bodied man in the house, Mico went inside his ate Me-ann’s room to help my cousin lay the body against the mattress. But he stopped short, his body rigid despite my cousin’s instructions. I think that’s when the waterworks begin in my face.
“Nica, come here!” My cousin called me instead. I took big gulps of air, my shoulders shaking controllably like the last time I had a severe asthma attack many years ago. The tears came and went away just as fast, but that was the first time in many years I cried that hard in front of my mother, in front of everyone.
I didn’t know how long we stayed inside the house until an ambulance came and the guys from the funeral parlor took the body. I remembered going outside to see the sky brightly lit-up, the sun throwing golden sunbeams filtered by the lush leaves of a nearby Mango tree. The air smelled fresh and new. A helicopter passed by, its distant engine sounding like a drum roll as they carried Ate Me-ann’s body to the car, her body inside a bag.
It was the day my cousin died and I expected the intense pain that comes with it. Like anticipating a syringe piercing your skin. What comes is a dull, empty feeling, and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not.
After they led the body away, we are expected to follow them on another vehicle. Now that things have calmed down a little, I saw that almost all my cousins were there, the same people who joked with Ate Me-ann, the same people who shared stories with her, the same people who visited her at the hospital and accompanied her during her dialysis sessions. If there’s any consolation to all of this, I felt comforted that Ate Me-ann died around people she loved, and people who love her as well.
My mom is surrounded by her nephews and nieces, being consoled as we all knew she was the one hurting the most. She never even got the chance to say goodbye.
We returned home from the funeral parlor and was welcomed by Miggy who had just woken up. I explained to him, as delicately as I can to a child, that Ate Me-ann had passed away earlier this morning. This was the first time I explained death to a child and to simply put, I loathe the idea of doing this again.
As soon as he heard it, Miggy immediately went beside our mother and hugged her as she broke out in fresh tears once again. He subtly wiped a tear from his eye. Just like me, he hates crying in front of anyone, even if it’s in front of my mother, even because of this reason.
“Where do you think she is now?” Miggy asked me later that day while we’re on our way home from the voting stations. “Is she in heaven? Is she with the angels now?”
“Maybe, but I pray she’s happier now.” My mother, being a Catholic, was disheartened to know that the priest hasn’t arrived on time to give Ate Me-ann the last Sacrament. She began to arrange for the prayer meetings on Ate Me-ann’s 9th day and 40th day. At least the arrangements for her funeral and other things distract her from the pain. Another good argument why funerals are created for the living, not for the dead.
“What do you think heaven looks like?” he asked again.
“Like a giant mall. Spacious. Cold. Has a nice smell inside.” I replied, smiling at my own made-up theology. “It will be sad once you get there because you won’t be with your family anymore but it has lots of things that can make you happy. Like a time machine.”
“I don’t believe you,” Miggy replied with a smile.
I tussled his hair, committing all of this to memory. One thing I learned from Ate Me-ann is to create new memories with our loved ones and relish the moment with them. This would be one of the moments I’ll file in my mind as I gripped his neck in a faux-wrestling neck lock and he laughed merrily, trying to get away; memories that will guide me in the afterlife. And perhaps, if I ask, God may just allow me to travel back the memory lane.