He did not know how long he was standing in front of the airport’s large, expansive glass wall, which offered a misty, drippy view of the departing plane. Not long, he supposed, because his 82-year-old knees would have buckled from standing very long, even with his reliable walking stick.
As he looked around for a seat, he saw a little girl standing at two arm’s lengths away from him, waving from behind the glass wall, bellowing goodbyes to a plane that just took off the runway. Her perkiness and stance reminded him of his granddaughter, Chloe.
He shook his head, smiling at the thought and shaking the memory as he walked over to the rigid line of cold steel chairs and took the next available seat. His saggy jeans and favorite plaid flannel shirt with rolled up sleeves gave him a casual, effortless vibe, and was enough to ward off the coldness even during the 18-hour flight from DCA. His wife used to tease him about how he was still in an awfully good shape despite his age. The discipline he somehow acquired during his military days had served him well, though some parts were now creaky and have shown some signs of wear and tear.
The automatic PA system echoed to announce that flights to Cotabato will be delayed for a couple more hours. To the young, this could be an agonizing wait, but to seniors like him who have weathered many storms in the past, this was not such a pain anymore. He had been awake for almost twenty hours, unable to sleep the whole time. It had not helped that his connecting flight to BKK had been delayed.
He skimmed for his reading glasses from his chest pocket and took out the book he stashed in his carry-on for the duration of the flight. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, he read the cover mutely. Quite old and yellowed on the edges, but it was his wife’s favorite book. He gingerly opened it to read. He had not gone past the second page when he had to bring it down to look at the little girl who stood in front of him. The same one who waved from the glass windows, now eyeing his bald head like an artist on a would-be subject. His smooth, slightly shiny head was a trademark look that got stuck even after he left the army. He liked keeping his head looking fresh.
The girl went on standing where she was, less than a foot away, wholly absorbed with his head while twisting the braids of her hair with her fingers. He remembered how Chloe used to wear pink, from the ribbons of her hair down to her little sneakers. Such a striking resemblance.
She gave him a polite hello.
He gave her a look that meant to convey that she should go but she did not seem to understand any of his intent.
Oh dear, he thought in horror. This one had clearly not been taught basic safety on how to deal with strangers or bothering someone who was going about his own business.
He was not particularly good around little ones. Chloe had accused him of being antisocial, which was synonymous to his inability to show empathy or patience. He was not unsociable; he was just a little less warm and friendly to begin with. It was an innate spirit.
He would have carried on reading, but the little girl’s curiosity amused him.
He sighed inwardly. “You know, even though I’ve gone bald I still keep my comb,” he promptly interjected that dry humor very few people find amusing. He had to laugh at his own joke because no one else ever did, so he was a little stunned that the little girl’s mouth moved into a broad, missing-a-tooth grin.
“Really? Why’d you shave your hair?”
“Well,” he closed the book on his lap and set it aside. “When you get to my age, you would want to shave it off and just forget about having to retain little crops of hair.”
“So, you save time in the bathroom?”
“Uh-huh, less shampoo, too,” he nodded, removing his eyeglasses. In one quick fold, he dropped it back into his chest pocket.
He did not feel like speaking to anyone but charmed by the little girl’s pertness, he could only let out another sigh as she clambered into the seat next to him. Her hands were firmly planted on each side of her seat as she threw wistful glances at him while idly swinging her feet that did not reach the ground. “My name’s Maxine but you can call me Max. What’s yours?”
His lips twitched with a smile. “Buck.”
Her feet stopped swinging and she whipped her head sideways in his direction, her brows drawing close together in a deep frown. “Is that your real name?”
She sighed, swinging her feet again. “I really don’t know how Buck is short for Lawrence.”
She deduced like a seasoned lawyer would when laying down a case. He seriously thought she would make an excellent one like he always thought Chloe would be someday.
“Well, Max is pretty bizarre for a girl.” He countered.
“No, it’s not,” she pouted. “I think it’s cool. Buck is weird.”
“I’m afraid being called Law or Rence might even be stranger.” His attempt at another joke fell flat.
“It’s still weird,” she lifted a shoulder for a disinterested shrug.
“I suppose you’re right,” he nodded his head agreeably. “But in the 18th century, the name was used to describe a dashing young man.”
She snorted. “Nah, you looked like a he-goat now,” she said matter-of-factly, gesturing for his silver weeks-old goatee.
He snuffled a laugh. He went on for weeks without shaving and grew a beard. Not only did he not bother with regular shaving anymore, he lost all the motivation to do so when his wife died.
He always thought he would go first.
“Why would you assume you would go before I did?” she had once asked him. She scoffed when he told her, “because statistics say so.” He knew losing her would be emotionally devastating that it would plunge him deeper into depression.
He was right. He had never felt so alone in his entire life on the night after the funeral.
The consequence of living longer was that he was bound to lose more—friends, relatives or even pets. Although he did not have valuable relations except a wife and a granddaughter.
He met Kaya, a Filipino nurse, when they were stationed together at a U.S. military facility in Cotabato. She was what was called a disgrasyada, scorned and persecuted as a failure and disappointment by her family for bearing a child out of wedlock, which was unheard of in the 1960s. He understood the shame and stigma of being labelled as malandi because he faced significant levels of discrimination himself when he was pronounced baog by the medical corps because of the many surgeries he had had during his military career.
He and Kaya were an unlikely pair, but they found solace in each other. They were married and he adopted her teenage daughter, Jane, as his own when they moved to Arlington. Getting himself an instant family delighted him, but what he was not prepared to be was his eventual role as a grandfather.
Kaya wept bitterly when Jane announced, “Ma, I’m pregnant.”
She had imagined that this same fate would befall her own daughter and blamed herself for not doing enough to prevent it. The best he could do was reassure her, “Let it go, we will figure something out together as a family.”
The magic that took over was Chloe. Being with her taught him to have endless amounts of patience. Something he was never able to do as a soldier. He would find himself watching her face fill with excitement, hang on her every word, and giggle along with her.
“Are you travelling with someone?” Max suddenly asked. He blinked and found, to his surprise, that she had morphed into his granddaughter. He must have missed the little tyke so much that this doppelgänger haunted him.
“Listen,” he looked around, trying to spot the girl’s companion. “You are not lost, are you?”
He could not help but wonder if her parents knew where she was. The last thing he needed was to face charges of child abduction.
“No, my Dad knows where to find me,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’s around here somewhere.”
Good for her. A dad was someone Chloe never had.
He turned his head about 45 degrees to his left and another 30 to the right. His myopic vision made everyone look virtually the same and he had practically no idea which one Dad is.
Why has he not come to collect her?
Babysitting was something he shunned after he nearly lost Chloe in a large milling crowd at a mall. She was barely five and he had just retired from military service and was adjusting to civilian life.
He was drawn to something behind him for a moment that when he looked back, she was gone. An ice-cold worm of fear wriggled up his spine and overtook his body. It was like he was trapped in a nightmare, watching himself in slow motion, frantically running around and shouting out her name. He could not recall when he started breathing again. At that moment, he thought he had gone into a relapse and was looking at replays of his own bad dreams—the mental and emotional demons he fought for years after he retired from the army—where he would wake up in blind panic, soaked in sweat.
He joined the army at 22 out of boredom and instability. He completed more than a dozen operational deployments, most of which were in war-torn areas. He had been in horrible and life-threatening missions, memories of which triggered his nightmares. Losing Chloe would be another nightmare he has to contend with.
The minute he saw a familiar pink shirt fall past from the corner of his eyes, he instinctively moved in that direction. Chloe ran to him, shrieking gleefully, “Poppy, you found me!”
He dropped to his knees in relief, utterly exhausted. He scooped her up and she giggled, “Wait, I thought we were playing hide and seek, why aren’t you hiding?”
It saddened him to realize that if he had lost his focus, he could have lost Chloe forever.
The now deserted terminal, which showed fewer passengers than it should have been on normal days, should mollify his fears as the chance of Max getting lost was slim.
A squall had made it eerily empty. Several flights were cancelled, and he was one of the fortunate ones to be on board the last flight out of BKK. Storms had never been a setback, though, not for him, especially if it was a promise he should keep.
“Buck, please, you have to find Jane,” Kaya had whispered in between gasps during her final moments as she laid in the hospital bed propped up against a pillow, holding his hand. He had never been able to deny her anything in the last 30 years that they had been married, especially not something that was near and dear to her heart.
His stepdaughter took off long ago with Chloe who was only about five. Jane vanished without a trace, deliberately not wanting to be found. He hired detectives to scour Arlington and beyond to find her. The search failed several times and the effort to track down all leads continued only following Kaya’s death.
Experience taught him that learning to hide so well will not get you found until you decide to come out. Ultimately, he knew Jane wanted to be found when she was ready.
A few weeks after Kaya’s funeral, he received a call.
“Mr. Mitchell, we found your daughter,” the investigator on the other end of the line gave him a piece of news he waited for 15 years to receive. Jane was in Cotabato the whole time.
The news stayed with him even as he sat by Kaya’s grave. He was there every day. He had foolishly imagined that he might be able to communicate with her supernaturally.
Just whisper my name in your heart and I will be there was embedded on the flat granite headstone as she wished.
“Mr. Buck?” Max said, jolting him out of his thoughts. “I want to pee. I am scared to go alone. Can you come with me, please?”
“Of course, lead the way,” he forced a smile, grabbing his four-pronged cane to aid him up.
Max half-ran a good meter and waited for him to follow. “Not too fast, young lady. I have a cranky hip,” he said when he reached her. He fell once using a single point stick and had a hip surgery following the accident.
“Sorry,” she grinned. “Just couldn’t hold it anymore.”
She walked a few more, turning to check if he was following her, then turned towards the restroom. He stood a full minute, leaning on his cane until she emerged and triumphantly announced. “I’m done.’
He nodded mutely, watching her approach before turning to walk back the way they had come.
“It’s mighty chilly, isn’t it?” she hopped along as he hobbled along the corridor.
“Yes,” he could not help but agree. He was suddenly exhausted and stepped on the moving walkway, gripping the handrail with his right hand while supporting himself with the cane in the other. His metal plates were beginning to give him a not-so-pleasant painful twinge and some aching around his scar, but not as strong as the contractions in his stomach.
He was famished and suddenly realized he had not eaten since he left for the airport. He eyed the shops that were lined together on both sides of the lengthy corridor, some of which were closed.
Oddly enough, the steel and glass terminal now felt like a deserted city unto itself. To him, it looked like it was straight out of a science fiction movie as they travel along the moving sidewalk and go endlessly down the long hallway. Had he been watching too many Star Trek episodes?
He poised to stop at the closest coffee shop. “How about a burger and some fries, Max?”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Buck,” she flashed a timid grin. “that would
Where is Dad? Hadn’t he missed her yet?
“How are we today, sir?” the attendant asked as soon as they drew near the counter of the shop. She shared a great likeness with the nurse at the hospital who attended to him during his surgery. His eyes were, of course unreliable. He had recently been diagnosed with a visual disorder, which had been recurring and debilitating. At times, his vision would just shut down, like looking at a static picture on an old television set.
He rubbed his eyes and with a heavy sigh, tried to concentrate on ordering their burgers and fries.
“Max?” A man called from behind them. He jerked his head in the direction of the voice, which was about 5 meters away, straining to hear more of it. He knew he heard it before.
“Max?” the voice called again, this time a little louder.
“Dad!” Max broke into a ran.
A figure emerged from the fog, carrying Max in his arms. Thick, wide-shouldered and—good God, what was his doctor doing here?
He knew that these visions were not real, but he started to think he might be losing his mind. He had never hallucinated before.
“Buck? Poppy? Mr. Mitchell?” The voices sounded like they all came from a cave. In his lethargic state, it seemed that there were about a dozen people in the room, but it could well be his imagination.
He tried to open his eyes but could not. He sensed a bright light shining on the outside of his eyelids. His body felt laden. He must have been heavily sedated. The tube that was pressed against his nose and the strapping used to secure it started to hurt.
Why was he breathing through this device? How long had he been out?
He closed his eyes tightly and forced them to open again. He blinked, slightly blinded by light, and took one sweeping look at the stark white walls around him. There was nothing hanging on them except for the medical equipment that were now attached to him.
“Mr. Mitchell?” a nurse suddenly hovered over him, taking him off the ventilator. “Do you know where you are?”
He was disoriented but relatively lucid. “What happened? Was I involved in an accident?”
“Mr. Mitchell,” she strained to make him understand. “You were in a coma for over three weeks.”
Three weeks? He struggled to get his bearings.
“How can it be three weeks? I was just at the airport, talking to you—” his voice trailed off, croaky from having been on a ventilator.
“Your cleaning lady saw you sprawled on the bathroom floor, Mr. Mitchell. You apparently had fallen as a result of a seizure.”
He drew in a deep breath and said nothing.
The nurse excused herself and the doctor from his dream strode over to him. He scanned the man’s face, looking for signs that would let him remember anything about him, but it gave him nothing. He quickly shifted his gaze to his chest and reread the name tag that said, Dr. John Santos, over and over as the doctor studied his chart. Strange, but that did not ring any bells either.
“How do you feel, Mr. Mitchell?” Dr. Santos asked with a soft smile on his face. “We would need more tests to make sure your vitals are up.”
“No idea if I am still sleeping or awake,” he said after a long silence, trying to get a grip on the sudden turn of events. He felt worn out, like he just waded through water for hours.
Changing the subject, he asked quickly, “Do we know each other?”
Dr. Santos narrowed his eyes, trying to decipher what he meant and waiting for him to elaborate.
“Uh,” he struggled to find the words. “I felt that I knew you from somewhere—”
Dr. Santos’ eyes lit up. “Of course, Mr. Mitchell, my parents were a good friend of your wife. They were as devastated as you were when she passed on two years ago.”
Has it really been two years?
“You should not worry about that right now,” Dr. Santos said in a somber voice, lightly touching his arm. “Will get some tests going and we will resume with your treatment.”
“You have been on a medication for over a year now. Your neurological evaluation showed that you have been exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s.”
“Me? Alzheimer?” he asked. He was becoming a little more delirious by this point.
“I’m afraid it is not reversible, Mr. Mitchell. You make up stories about things, you ramble on and on about some things you thought you saw. You tend to remember events from long ago like it was just yesterday, but you are not able to recall what you had for dinner.”
He was stunned and was at a loss.
“Lately, we saw the onset of symptoms of cognitive decline.” Dr. Santos carried on, giving him an apologetic look. “A few months ago, you got up from bed in the middle of the night and tumbled down the stairs. Your brow required several stitches and you fractured a number of ribs, but you could not remember how it happened. The recent fall you had in the bathroom almost claimed your life.”
He touched his brow and felt a lump, which he could only assume was where the stitches were.
“Is there anyone you wish to call?” the doctor asked. “We could not identify any next of kin to notify when you were rushed here.”
“No one,” he said after a long silence.
It summed up the life he led with Kaya gone. He would find himself falling asleep with the TV on or making dinner at his leisure before heading out in search of something better to eat. He would occasionally crave for conversation, but his human contact had not gone beyond ordering meals.
Or was this just a story he made up?
All he wanted now was to drift back to delicious sleep, never to wake up again. Too numb to feel a thing, he felt his eyes sliding shut.
“Zooey came to see you. Do you know anyone by that name?”
His eyes flew wide open and when they did, it homed back on his doctor.
“Chloe?” he asked in surprise.
“I believe that was her name. She was with you almost the entire time.”
“Is she here?”
Before he could hear an answer, a tall young woman, sauntered into the room just as Dr. Santos ambled out. She must have come from a morning run. She was in her tracksuit pants and sneakers, and her lush mane of black hair was untidily thrown up into a high ponytail.
He stared at her face for what seemed like the longest time, searching her expression for clues of her identity as she drew closer to stand at the foot of his hospital bed.
“You don’t recognize me, do you, Poppy?”
He seemed a bit embarrassed to admit this. “Well…” he hesitated. “You look a tad different.”
He saw his own pain and desperation mirrored in her eyes—those beautiful eyes of the young girl who haunted him.
She looked at him guardedly. “Still seeing me as a four-year old, aren’t you?”
He nodded his head slowly. She managed to hold eye contact with him for a few seconds before looking away as if not wanting to reveal any of the thoughts that had suddenly taken over her mind.
“I guess you never really forgave yourself for nearly losing me at that mall.” She sighed heavily, crossing her arms, and shuffling her feet, looking unsure about what to say next. “I suppose you are stuck with the memory of a four-year-old brat.”
A small smile played on his lips.
“You and Jane never went away, did you?”
“I was never on a plane or had gone to Cotabato?”
She nodded again and there was acknowledgement in her eyes. “Mom and I honored Nana’s wishes to be cremated, but instead of scattering her ashes like she wanted, we buried her in Cotabato near the camp where you two met.”
He nodded his head appreciatively, finding relief in finally hearing the truth.
“We promised Nana that we would take care of you. We offered to take you home, but you said you wanted your own space.”
She looked askance, then shrugged her shoulders. “When the doctors diagnosed you with early-onset Alzheimer’s, I never knew what to make of it. None of it ever sank in. Early onset did not sound like a disease at all.” she stifled a laugh.
She walked over to his side and sat on one side of the bed, half twisted at the waist, facing him and holding his hand, squeezing it lightly.
“My heart breaks each day you could not recognize me, Poppy.” she said in a quiet voice, blinking back the tears in her eyes. “I do not want to have to say goodbye every day. This disease has reduced you to a mere stranger.”
He squeezed her hand back and cried convulsively. “I want to remember, brat. Help me.”
She clasped him tightly by the arm and hugged him.
Will he remember her tomorrow? Will he be repeating the same questions? Perhaps he would not have the luxury of finding the right words to express his thoughts in the days to come? Would he be more confused or maybe forget details about his own life? He would probably even lose the ability to communicate or his speech would be limited to a few words or phrases in due course.
This is the longest goodbye he ever had to endure.