Don Isidro sat on his chair at his home office, and in front of him where three bottles of single-malt whiskeys of different brands: a Macallan 1926, a Glenfiddich’s 50-year old, and a Highland Park 50-year old.
All three he had been saving for a special occasion, although in earlier years he had opened other lesser but still special and extravagantly-priced whiskeys, to impress his lawyer and political friends during festive gatherings and to toast departed colleagues during somber wakes.
Now, it was his turn to toast himself, and he wanted to get a first taste or two (or three) of these delicious liquids before others enjoyed it without him.
Actually, he had had already four shots each, and he was feeling a bit tipsy, if not close to blacking out in a drunken stupor. It’s really sad when one drinks whiskey all alone, and whatever emotion one is feeling while drinking is greatly amplified.
In his case, it was a deep loneliness.
But how could he have any drinking companion? All his friends were dead. Don Isidro was approaching his 101’st birthday, a great feat for himself and all his family and relatives. His stubbornness was legendary and even in facing the end of his life, he was still stubbornly holding on. And some people were not happy about it.
He really wasn’t being stubborn, he thought to himself, just competitive. His Father had died when he was 98 years old, and he had promised himself that he would beat that record and live up to 102. Of course, just hitting 99 would have been acceptable already, but he wanted to put a wider gap between his death and his Father’s. Strange that a simple goal would extend one’s life expectancy.
He had already made peace with his two wives more than two years ago, and he had reconciled with his bastard son, who had grown into a respected and respectable priest. He buried his first wife last year, a sad event made lighter by the fact that they finally became friends again, but her departure did not bring him any closer to his second wife, with whom he was still estranged.
Through cloudy eyes and somewhat-drooping eyelids he scanned the walls of his office, at all his plaques and trophies and awards, and all the framed pictures where he had posed with famous men and women, politicians, world leaders, shaking hands with business luminaries. All of them, smiling. All of them, eyes gleaming with pride. All of them, already dead.
On a small round table to his left, were several neatly-arranged pictures of his wives and children. Their faces in their solo shots and group cuddles were smiling, but in those
where he was with them, their faces were blank. And he was the one smiling broadly. It looked like he had sucked the joy out of all of them, and here was proof.
He sighed, and reached for his shot glass for another swig, but it was empty.
Enough, he thought. For now. He took two antacids and popped them into his mouth. Then, he poured himself water from a nearby pitcher and drank down the whole glassful.
Don Isidro took his cane with the four toes, braced himself, and pushed himself up. He was wearing loose pajamas, so he could easily rub on his knees the ginger-chili-garlic balm that he had bought a lot of in Zambales, at the San Rafael Monastery. It really helped dampen the pain of his joints, now afflicted with osteoarthritis, better than the expensive ointments his doctor kept prescribing.
He stepped out the back door and took a slow walk around his garden, in the darkening dusk sky. His garden lights, equipped with timers, had already flicked on slowly with a yellow glow. In a short while, they would be brighter, as the filaments warmed up.
He trudged beside the now-empty cages where he used to keep his fighting cocks. He had given them away last year, as feeding and taking care of them had already become difficult. The local village watchmen were very grateful, because they knew the ferocious lineage his cocks came from assured them of victory at every fight. He missed his Matador, his prize fighter. He was his falsum deus, his unspoken avatar. In the end, Matador was decimated by creatures much, much smaller than he was. Ants. And old age, too.
And here he was, about to kneel before the same enemy.
He looked up at the orange and gray clouds, the blue sky already darkening. He was relishing the cool breeze that blew around his garden, and the soft rustling of leaves brought some comfort to his liquor-drenched awareness.
What was it that Solomon said? “Everything leads to weariness – a weariness too great for words.” Yes, he was feeling weary. But he was no Ozymandias boasting about his accomplishments because in the spotlight of the human accolades he had received, in his ear whispered the sharp recrimination of his failures as a father, as a husband, as a human being. Now he knew why Alexander the Great had that soldier whisper his reminder in his ear.
He had already partitioned his large wealth between his two families two years before and kept a comfortable portion for himself. In the past month, he had carefully determined who would receive the last of his material possessions. It brought him some solace to see the smiles of the people who received his “parting gifts”.
Even the hundred thousand pesos he received as the City’s Gift for reaching a hundred years old, he had bequeathed to a struggling orphanage in Novaliches. It was an amount he just deposited in his bank account and never touched because he had no use for it (then) as he had already calculated his monthly stipend from the funds he had set aside for himself. He didn’t need to disrupt his expenses by starting some self-gratifying want. At his age, he just wanted to satisfy his needs, and the list was slowly diminishing.
As was his habit, he had made around two rounds circling his garden, enjoying the sensations his eyes, ears, and skin still made him enjoy. Once dead, he knew, there would be no more of these sensations. Another blessing he was grateful for.
He wanted to do one more round, but he needed to retire to his bedroom.
He still stood straight, his back still proudly-erect while walking, but he did hobble with his cane. The screen door closed slowly behind him, the door-closer braking its momentum into a graceful quiet thud on the door frame.
He soon found himself in his bedroom, the two lamps beside his headboard glowing a dim yellow. The air-conditioner was already on, switched on earlier by his care-giver who had likewise retired already. He didn’t want any help going to bed.
On the table beside his bed on the left was a baby monitor (of all things!) which the care- giver, a light sleeper, relied on to keep tabs on him. On his right was a leather-bound bible, and a rosary blessed by the Pope, and a plastic bottle of holy water from the Grotto in France, given to him by his first wife. She had always been the religious one, and she said she would be watching over him once she died.
The pillow was soft and relieving, even if it was a thin one. He allowed his body to relax, and he stared up at the ceiling, now in an incandescent glow from his two lamps. He never slept with the lights off, because the lights were a blessing, and he wanted to enjoy his eyesight as much as he can. Once darkness sets upon him, it would be an eternal darkness.
But he had distracted himself long enough. The effect of the three whiskeys (12 shots in all) was making the room spin as he lay there. A pleasant feeling, to be honest. But his loneliness was again slowly engulfing him. His ears focussed on the hum of the AC.
Everything he had achieved was pointless, yet he felt there was still something missing in his soul. Could it be the failure to gain the love of his family? He didn’t think so, he had made peace with them already, a feat he at first thought was impossible.
He had already disposed of his idols – his cars, his properties, his jewelry, his paintings and other art pieces, his money. He had proven that he had detached himself from all of these, and that was also a source of pride for him.He had bequeathed quite substantial amounts to charities and he had started a Trust
Fund to be managed by a Foundation which he did not egotistically name after himself,
despite the protests of some good-intentioned people who really didn’t know the kind of
life he had led. And he had chuckled because he went against the grain here, too.
He had made his General Confession to his priest-son, who was crying more than he was when he admitted all that he had done. In fact, he felt that he received his Holy Orders six months too early, because here he was still alive and…hobbling? That was another item that he had been able to tick off from his To-Do-Before-You-Die list.
So, in the eyes of the people around him, he was ready to go, ready to die, ready to meet the Ants.
What was still missing?
The room was slowly spinning, and in a way, he was grateful for this too, as he was starting to feel drowsy. He suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to brush his teeth, but he thought he would let this oversight slide, just once. He smacked his lips and could still taste the whiskey in his mouth, and for that he was again grateful he hadn’t brushed his teeth. And his eyelids slowly closed, and his breathing started to become rhythmic and deep, and he sighed a great sigh, then everything was dark.
Don Isidro awoke with a start.
He was awake but he could see nothing. Was there a power outage? His two lamps were out?
He could feel a low rumbling, but it wasn’t his AC. When he touched his arms and his face, he couldn’t feel anything. He tried moving his legs, and felt nothing, too. But he wasn’t lying down in the darkness, he was standing up. At least, that’s how it felt.
He looked around, but he really didn’t feel his head was moving around, only his eyes. Oh my goodness, was he dead? Did he die in his sleep? He wasn’t prepared for this.
He tried to call out to his care-giver, Mercedes, but he could not speak. He again tried totouch his mouth but he felt his mouth wasn’t there at all.
And the rumbling! He could feel it, a low vibration. At least that gave him something to focus on. It definitely was NOT his AC. This one was low, ominous.
But focussing on the vibration made him feel that he was in the darkness for a long, long time. He didn’t feel scared nor uncomfortable, but he felt like he was…nothing. Inconsequential. A non-entity. He didn’t feel hot nor cold nor happy nor afraid. Like only his awareness remained but could not be aware of anything else, except the rumbling. This sensation lasted for what seemed like an eternity.
Then he sensed that something was happening behind him, and he felt he was turning his head to look at what it was. In the distance, he saw a small yellow light, flickering, like a single star in a black sky. Then there was another one, red this time, also flickering. Then another yellow light. And another red light. And STILL another.Soon the blackness in front of him was punctuated by hundreds of these flickering lights in yellow and red. He was mystified by their presence, at the same time grateful that he could see something with which to orient himself, get his bearings.
But they were not as many as the stars he remembered seeing in the dark sky, but more like fireflies in the distance. These “fireflies” were suddenly growing bigger, or probably coming closer, and the rumbling had become more discernible, and there was a vibration engulfing his…being?
He felt his disembodied self backing away from the growing fireflies. But he felt nothing. No fear. Just a growing curiosity. In a while he could see that they were not fireflies, but fires blazing. Their light was very slowly lightening up the landscape. Don Isidro felt himself tripping over backwards and slammed against an inclined rocky wall.
He could now feel hands connected to his being and he felt what he was leaning against:
it was a rocky wall, full of loose gravel and moist dirt, but not muddy.
As the fires closed in and grew even larger, some where exploding, lightening up the landscape. Don Isidro realized he was high up on a rocky mountain, surrounded by darkness and the dancing light of the fires. They were actually little cracks on the ground and they were the source of the rumbling, numerous tiny little…volcanoes? “Burping” and splattering red glowing mud and emitting smoke. Some where exploding and he could see molten lava overflowing out of the mouths of the little volcanoes and spreading slowly out, hissing as it touched the earth.
He could not explain to himself the physics of the little volcanoes slowly approaching the mountain where he was, other than that the ground was probably shifting, like land masses being moved around like tectonic plates. And he realized, that the more rumblings, the more fires were being created and these new fires or little volcanoes brought about more light that made the landscape come into better view.
Embers were rising up amid the black smoke. The rumbling was deafening now and the earth was shaking and moving under his feet. He noticed that there was a sky, after all, above him but no clouds. He heard mournful moans, and he looked down to see there were other people below him, desperately struggling to climb up the slope where he was. They looked naked, hairless, like humanoids but not really people. He looked closely and saw they were all faceless…! Yet he felt no fear, only a sense of wonderment at all the things that were happening.
Then there was a different, distant sound. It was a roar – dull and monotonous at first like the early rumblings of the volcanoes, but growing into a crescendo. He saw that the humanoid figures were hearing the sound as well, and frantically clambering over the rocks, but the shifting mountain kept pulling them down. One was nearby, being lifted up by a shifting patch of rocky ground, and he was raising his hand towards him, its faceless head seemingly uttering a soundless cry for help.
And then he saw it: It was a shifting, shimmering light in the horizon, slowly making its way towards where he was, where all the humanoids were. It was undulating and black, but reflecting the fires in its swells. He realized what it was: a rampaging flood, and the humanoids were really scrambling now. The one reaching out to him was carried by the moving earth, and as Don Isidro turned to his right, he saw that some of the other humanoids were already on the surface of the mountain, climbing over the rocks to get to the top. They knew that the flood was fast approaching, and to add to the confusion and panic, the small volcanoes all erupted, shooting up flames and smoke and the acrid smell of sulphur. It mingled with the roar of the water as it smashed closer and closer. And the ground was still convulsing, still shaking, causing rocks of different sizes to tumble down and splash into the churning waters below. Yet he felt he was in no danger.
He could now smell the sulphur as he likewise joined the other faceless ones in climbing up the mountain wall, trying to escape the floodwaters now slowly rising towards him, but his fingers kept slipping because of the loose stones and moist dirt. Stones were hitting his head. The water was hissing as it engulfed the little volcanoes and their fires, but now white smoke was rising out of the churning, foamy water and underneath it, he could see red and yellow lights where the volcanoes were. A wind was starting to blow, but it was not a howling wind, yet it made the rising smoke swirl all around.
Don Isidro still felt nothing, other than the need to climb higher, to find solid ground. Finally, he did. He stood up and looked down the craggy mountain side. In the distance he could make out countless humanoids against the mountain, like glistening wriggling worms, clinging to dear life as the ground shifted. He saw the humanoid that was asking for his help: he was holding on to the top of a rock that was being carried away by the swirling currents of the flood. His faceless head was “looking” at him, and as he gazed at this creature, he sensed its fear. The smoke covered him as he drifted farther away, its “face” transfixed at him.
He stood and towered above all of them now, above all of it. He saw that the sky was still black, without stars, but the water was glowing because of the continuous underwater fires. The sound of water hissing, the rumbling of the mountain and the ground, and roaring of the cascading water filled the air. Water was splashing loudly as it hit the mountain’s side and as rocks continued to roll down unto it.
Don Isidro felt alive now: He had sight, he had hearing, he had feeling, he had smell. He realized that the water was receding, but further realized: it was the mountain that was growing, and he was on top of it, being raised higher and higher until he could see the landscape all around him. The sounds of the water, the hissing volcanoes, the rumbling ground were fading into the background, no longer sharply intruding into his existence, the sharp bite of sulphur no longer in his nostrils.
Here, a certain kind of not-silence ruled and a certain lull in the frenzy of earlier. He looked and saw the same conditions all around, but they no longer affected him. He was above it all. He pondered: Was he witnessing the birth of the world, of Creation? From what he remembered, it was something like this primordial scene, and yet he watched it with disaffection.
Then something caught his eye, something bright and swirling down below.
He realized there was a valley, and somewhere in the middle of the valley, there was a dancing light. It was not a volcano blazing yellow and red: this one had different colors, with greens, blues, purples, and a whole lot of others he couldn’t distinguish. It was…pirouetting! A pillar of light, almost like a spinning lighted Christmas Tree!
He decided to go down and investigate. In amazement, he found himself suddenly almost down the valley, without even exerting effort to go down, as he had when he was climbing the mountain’s face. He climbed up a large boulder to get a closer view, and saw that it was…a woman?!
A glowing woman, but NOT a full woman. She was a woman only up to her waist but below that, her lower body was made up of sparking, twinkling little stars of different colors. He stood still watching this glowing marvel, until she stopped twirling, and as her hair came to a rest, her eyes and his eyes locked. He saw that the upper body had stopped but her lower part still continued to pirouette, but much more slowly than before.
She was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, with a smile so gentle, and he felt her eyes could see into his soul. She raised her hand towards him and beckoned for him to come closer. He skipped a breath.
Don Isidro was around a hundred meters away but his eyes could see every detail on her face. Her skin was radiant, her hair was long, smooth and silky covering her breasts, and she had an aura that pulsated between gold and white and purple.
He looked down, took a tentative step forward, the loose dirt crumbling under his foot, and hesitated. He looked again towards the woman, and she again smiled at him, urging him to come forward with a slow gesture of her hand.
And so he jumped off the boulder and his descent seemed to be in slow motion. He saw that they were at the bottom of the valley where everything was level. The soft dirt crunched under his toes as he took one studied step after another, and still the beautiful woman kept her hand up, as if waiting for him to put his hand in hers.
There was no sound here, except a faint tinkling of little bells. There was a familiar gentle breeze blowing and caressing his cheeks as he came closer, and closer to her. He could also hear the rustling of leaves, but there were no trees in sight around them. A cock crowed in the distance and this made him pause. It sounded like…Matador? Is all this a hallucination? Was it wrong to have mixed three kinds of single-malt whiskeys?
Finally, he was in front of her, her hand in front of him. She was smiling at him. The bright little lights under her were rotating and the ground around her was glowing because of them. She looked familiar, but she definitely did not look like one of his two wives. He looked at her hand, then at her again.
“Who are you?” Don Isidro asked. She only smiled coyly. She moved her hand again, beckoning him.
Don Isidro saw her fine, long and slim fingers. He raised his hand and took hers (it was warm), and her fingers closed over his, and he felt each of her fingers gently sqeezing his hand one after the other in a slow rhythm. A bright blinding light enveloped both of them, and he felt he had disintegrated and become one with the woman. He could hear a strong male voice, but couldn’t make out what he was saying, but it seemed like a mantra, repeating and repeating itself.
Don Isidro could feel himself breathing, and he could feel his body. He could feel his arms and legs like he normally did now, but more, he felt strong and alive and refreshed.
And here he could feel something else: Complete Love. It was a warm kind of love, it was a hug that he could feel all throughout his body, it was a hug that was trying to tell him, You are accepted for what you are, UNCONDITIONALLY. Accept yourself.
And the tears came out of his eyes, and out of the whiteness of everything he began to see color and shapes. He found himself in a garden full of flowers and he felt the grass under his feet. There were birds chirping, too, and the sky was blue, white fluffy clouds floated through it. A breeze was in the air, and he could smell sweet fragrances and the grass crushed under his feet. He heard a disembodied voice: it was the woman.
“Stay. Be still. Know. Accept.”
And Don Isidro knelt down and started sobbing but not because he was sad. It was because he was filled with Joy. And Peace. His hands clutched at the fresh dewy grass.
Don Isidro could hear the care-giver, and she sounded worried in his sleep.
“Don Isidro! Don Isidro! Are you all right?” It was Mercedes, the care-giver, and she was bent over him as he lay in bed, her hands on his shoulders.
It took a while for him to focus, but he mustered an amused smile at her. “Yes, Chedy, I am all right. What’s the matter?” He was still groggy.
Mercedes sighed with relief and pulled up a chair and sat beside him near the bed, and made the sign of the cross before speaking. “Madre Mio! You scared me, Don Isidro! Over the monitor, I could hear you calling your first wife and your second wife and your children and your grandchildren, and I thought, ‘oh my, the moment has come!’, so I called all of them up and told them what was happening. I also called Father Romy, and he said he was coming over immediately!”
Don Isidro chuckled, dismissing her concern. “Hahaha! You should not have bothered them, Chedy, I was probably just dreaming, or maybe having a nightmare. I did have a lot to drink last night.”
Mercedes had a look of fearful awe in her face. “But there’s more, Don Isidro. There is
MORE. And it was what scared me the most!”
Puzzled, Don Isidro squinted at her. “Eh? Really? What was it?”
Mercedes paused, swallowed, then stammered, “Don Isidro, you were praying the
Rosary! All four mysteries!”
His eyes widened. “What?!” He had never prayed the Rosary before; perhaps as a child but not as an adult!
“It’s true! I brought my cell phone to your bedroom and let them hear you pray! They were as astonished as I was!”
A wondrous look came over her face as she looked up to the ceiling, reminiscing that pleasant memory. “And you were praying it so beautifully, Don Isidro, with your voice so clear and crisp and loud! I thought you were awake, but you weren’t.”
“Really? How did you know?” “Because I pinched you!”
“Really?! I don’t believe you!” Don Isidro bellowed and sat upright on his bed against the headboard. But Mercedes shifted her gaze to his right hand. Don Isidro noticed, and followed her gaze. In his right hand, he was holding the rosary that had been blessed by the Pope.
Don Isidro gasped, raising his hand still clutching the rosary. His eyes were wide in disbelief. Then he turned to Mercedes. He asked, “What did YOU do then, after pinching me?”
“Why, it was the most beautiful thing, Don Isidro, so I prayed the rosary with you!” She was puffed up with pride, smiling and her eyes looking up, still recalling the experience. “When Father Romy heard it, he said he’d call me back. And he did!”
“Why? What did he do?” Don Isidro shifted in his bed to absorb what was being told him.
“He called up all the others, made a conference call. Then called me up, connected me, and we ALL prayed the rosary with you! It’s a MIRACLE! They are all on their way here now!” She was beaming with a wide smile.
Don Isidro lived up to the age of 105 years old, to everyone’s amazement. (Everyone knew he was just aiming for 102.) He was buried along with his first wife in the family mausoleum in the Memorial Park along Sucat Avenue, Paranaque.
Before he died, he was surrounded by his second wife, Monique, and his children, and grandchildren and he was able to give his blessings to all of them. He had a peaceful smile at home in their loving presence, and everyone noted how light-spirited the event was.
Strangely, they heard a cock crow at the moment of his death, and the crowing continued for a full five minutes. When they checked with the village guards, nobody among his neighbors owned a chicken, much more a rooster.
In the years leading to his death, Don Isidro suddenly became full of life, his osteoarthritis disappeared overnight, and he travelled a lot, visiting his distant relatives, and methodically distributing the remainder of his wealth.
When he was being interred, a lot of people attended, all family and friends of the family and people Don Isidro had helped. There were priests and nuns, and even the Press was there to cover it. It was a big crowd.
Several children in attendance who were aged four years and younger pointed to a long- haired woman in the distance who was quietly watching the whole event, although their nannies and mothers and nobody else saw her.
The children claimed that the woman was glowing and her hand was raised towards their grandfather until the coffin had been laid.
The adults, amused, had simply hushed the children, calling them imaginative. G