told in order of importance.
My grandmother tells me and my cousins not to look back on my grandfather’s funeral. Best not to take the dead with us, she says.
I had never been an obedient child.
I look back and see a line of cars, and a sea of faces wet with tears, so unlike my own. Grieving, I think, is a lesson I will never learn.
Sitting on a hard, plastic chair in the wake of someone you know but do not love is disconcerting. I knew him enough to be here, I just didn’t know him enough to care that he isn’t. There are many people at the wake, a steady stream of faces, some I can name and some I can’t, rotate in and out of the room, bringing with them the gentle murmur of footsteps.
Outside, the streets are filled with people. Most of them relatives, a lot of them people from the church, some are strangers who found their way into a place that welcomes everybody. On one table, there are a group of people playing tong-its, on another, they are playing BINGO. Another one holds people getting drunk. They all came in the name of a good man. I wonder if he knew all their names.
There are several bouquets of flowers guarding the white box that stands at the center of the room. One of them says they’re from the mayor. I wonder if they actually know each other or it’s just one of those things that people have to do in the face of a big death.
And it is a big death, or so everyone says. Everyone will come to his funeral, they say.
He is a good man, they say, hushed, heads bent over a white casket.
The man in the white box is well-known, a church leader from a family that’s been here since the before the Philippine Revolution. His family tree is large and sprawling, its branches spread wide and thick against every crevice of the city we live in, and a little way past. He is my mother’s uncle and also her godfather in marriage. He is something that has always been a constant in my life; passing by our house everyday, wearing a shirt that said ‘IglesiaFilipiniana Independiente’ at the back in white, cursive letters, umbrella in one hand and record book in another. He never smiled but he always gave me a gift on Christmas. He lived next door. He always called me my mother’s daughter. I’m not sure he actually knew my name.
He never married and that was the kind of thing that spread rumors when he was alive. Now, no one talks about it. He was a good man, was what everyone said now. Kind and generous. Good in all the ways that mattered. No one spoke of how much he loved. That doesn’t matter. Love is not the kind of thing that matters with family.
There are ribbons stapled to satin, marker ink staining it, showing the names of people I know, but who’s names I do not recognize.
I search the walls of his house, eyes wide and desperate, trying to latch onto something that would remind me of the man that used to live there. There’s nothing. The walls are covered with elegant curtains and the floors littered with flower petals and candle wax.
If he is here, he is hidden.
If he is here, he has no reason to show himself to someone like me.
I stand from the monoblock chair and the movement is slow, steps quiet. Anything more seems too much like a proclamation. I have nothing to proclaim here. A part of me still wonders if I actually belong.
I peer into the box past the glass and yes, it’s still disconcerting. The way the funeral parlor paints the faces of the dead is something I will never get used to. The lips are too pink, the face too pale from face powder. They used eyeliner on his eyes, making his lashes seem thick and dark. The cheeks are flushed. They did a good job of making him look alive, I think, so much so that he could just be sleeping, eyes closed in a slumber that no one can pull him out of.
The problem is, they didn’t bother to try and make him look real.
His niece is sitting near the place where they put the coffee and crackers, dozing lightly in the space between sleep and lucidity. Wakes have ways of sapping your strength but refusing you rest.
We are the dead, the air seems to murmur. We are here and we shall stay.
No one speaks inside. Inside, the candle never burns out. Inside, if you go to the corner, you will find a supply of crackers and sandwiches to nibble on. Inside, people peer into a box of a man they may have known but I’m not sure they loved.
Outside, the sun is shining and there is a sound that’s almost akin to laughter.
It is the third Sunday of the eleventh month and ghosts have overtaken my childhood sanctuary. This much I know as I step over the threshold. Death hangs in the air, sucking all life out of it, making it hard to breathe. I bite my lip, placing a hand over my chest, perhaps trying to rip out the thing trying to beat out of it. I should have expected it, after everything’s that happened.
It’s almost as if nothing’s changed.
I step inside, the sound of my footfalls echoing against the silent chamber. It’s strange. The house is never silent, standing on the side of a highway and beside screaming neighbors. Five feet by seven, it’s too small for something as vast as silence, and you get used to it. Used to sleeping against the gentle lullabies of racing jeepneys and motorcycles, crying children, and fighting sisters. I don’t delude myself into thinking that I’ll be getting any sleep tonight.
Death hangs too closely, too thickly. The ghosts would not release me to gentle comfort anytime soon.
I don’t jump in surprise, though I might have at any other time. My heart is too heavy for that now. I turn and see my mother walking towards me like a lost specter. There’s a cigarette between her fingers and the scent of alcohol hangs in the air. It reminds me of the last time I saw her, two weeks ago when it all fell apart. The sight of it makes my throat tighten and it only takes a few seconds before I have look away.
“No thank you,” I say. “I’m not hungry.”
“I think I’m just going to sleep for now.” I make a move towards our family’s shared bedroom and she doesn’t stop me. I didn’t expect her to. We never did that kind of thing. Not even before.
The living room is bare, the furniture moved elsewhere. To the neighbor’s house, probably; we never had space for anything more or less than what we have. Curtains have been put up to cover our entertainment system because it was too heavy to move, pictures and family memorabilia had been taken down. He isn’t here yet, but I feel his weight hanging in the air in the silence that never existed in our house before today.
At the center is an empty space, a void that can never be filled.
We are waiting for the dead, waiting for it to live in our house for an entire week. All signs of life had to disappear.
My footsteps are too loud and too much. It echoes strangely, making the house feel emptier than it actually is. I’ve never really thought about how things are supposed to sound like in this house; it had always been too lively for that. Sound used to bleed out from the thin, plywood walls, laughter and tears and everything in-between a part of the very air we breathe. We were so full of life once.
And then, death came into our lives rip it all away. Death won, if what happened could have been considered a fight at all. If there is a way to actually fight the inevitable.
There was no fight in him in his last moments, all bare bones and papery skin. He had lost his voice, lost the glimmer in his eyes that made him a good man and a good father. There was only a skeleton on a small hospital breath, gasping for breath, calling out to people who were not there.
He died long before he took his last breath; that’s something I will never forget.
Two weeks ago, death came into our lives and stayed.
My mother is behind me, although I don’t hear her. I can almost see her if I close my eyes, head bent over, staring blankly, silently breathing in the endless stream of cigarette smoke. She doesn’t like thinking about problems she can’t solve and this is the biggest problem of all. This is the problem that has no solution.
In an hour, perhaps, or maybe a few minutes, the dead will arrive. They will bring with it flowers and a ribbon that says ‘Condolences’. And with it, would be a white box. There will be a metal stand with his name and two dates written on it. In an hour, there will need to be a constant stream of crackers and coffee and candies. In an hour, there will be candles that never burn out.
In an hour, the living will arrive to care for the dead. Or perhaps, it was the other way around.
I try to search for the words to say because I’m not used to the silence and the ghosts are gathering around this house. Life shouldn’t lose this easily.
Life shouldn’t lose at all.
For a moment, I almost open my mouth to say something, to offer words I don’t actually have. I take a breath, and then another, and then another.
Then, the moment passes and I continue walking. The house is quiet and it is empty and for once, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Change is difficult. We never did that kind of thing. There’s no point to start now.
Death had come, but indifference was here first. There’s no fixing that, not now. Not ever.
I walk away. It doesn’t hurt the way I know it should. I never learned the pain of walking away. It’s something that’s as part of me as my still beating heart.
Is it still beating? I wonder. The house feels too still for something as lively as a human heart.
On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, I was three and I played tag with my two-year-old cousin. The sun shone bright and I could hear the distant murmur of a song I will never learn. G