Makahiya can cure cancer. So emails an aunt. “I suggest boil an entire makahiya plant and have her drink it like tea.”
He weighs in his heart this suggestion and decides how he can go about procuring it. There’s a slight drizzle outside he’s thankful for—in other parts of the country, he learned there’s a raging typhoon—yet he pulls out the big umbrella from behind the door, a give-away from some hardware store, and gazes out the window.
Sansa, his mother’s aged aspin, whimpers from underneath a chair.
“I’ll just go out for a second, Nay,” he says as he rumples the dog’s hair.
“Don’t take too long,” she mutters, her eyes not even open. She’s lying on the couch, her thickly stockinged feet jutting out of her earth-colored blanket.
He grunts in assent.
“Would you come with me, girl?” he whispers to Sansa. The dog tries to get up, but her trembling legs give way. She gazes at him in resignation, her eyes clouded with some unnameable illness.
“Maybe some other day, old girl.”
It’s easy to spot makahiya shrubs. Any vacant lot has them. But Jaime takes great care to choose a full, intact shrub down to the roots—he disregards the frayed ones, or those that are too small, or seem too old—and stuffs it carefully in a plastic bag, like an explorer gathering New World specimens. Three shrubs, and he considers his mission accomplished. He troops home, re-enters the gloom of the house, and tries to be as quiet as possible as he prepares the plants for boiling.
His mother is asleep, thankfully. He looks at the clock. It’s almost dinner time for her. It takes him a moment to decide whether to boil the shrub now, or prepare her dinner first, even if said dinner would most likely end up regurgitated. But at least he can try, considering he could do nothing else.
He used to do a big production whenever he cooked for Nanay, especially after she came out of the hospital. He tried to keep everything as nutrient-rich as possible: the freshest meats and vegetables, with fresh fruits meticulously sliced on the side. “All those veins, muscles, sinew,” her doctor told him in one of those urgent huddles outside her hospital room,“need building blocks. Need nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, enzymes. It’s like building a house. If you’re short of these building blocks, it’s so easy for the body to get broken, sometimes irreparably. At your mother’s age, nutrition is critical.”
Although the current lockdown has made procurement of ingredients quite challenging, there’s a “purveyor” of ingredients in the neighborhood that has proven to be reliable. But weeks into his mother’s home recovery, she has continued to deteriorate. Fading. Her worsening weakness like a dark blanket that envelops her. These days, the only thing that she could still eat are fresh eggs boiled so carefully that the yolk stays creamy but not exactly runny, that the whites are firm, but not too firm. The perfect meal for Nanay is a soft-boiled egg that almost magically straddles the fine line between cooked and raw. As well as a cup of steamed rice that’s just as perfect as the egg: not too dry, not too moist, not too chewy, not too hot. But often, even with all that perfection, Nanay’s diminishing appetite and ebbing strength mean all the effort could go to waste.
Jaime doesn’t mind the effort, though. He happily engages in this Sisyphean task every single day, if only there’s a promise of light at the end of this long tunnel. And yet there seems to be nothing but darkness. Every day, he witnesses how parts of his mother shut down one after another: her easy smile, her ability to go to the toilet on her own, the strength to sit on a chair. Jaime, the sole witness to this gradual, inevitable destruction, can only choke back his tears in secret—performance is everything, especially if you’re the only one left to hold things together.
These days, his most important task has everything to do with how the egg is cooked. He checks his watch—has it been seven minutes already? Does the yolk now resemble the consistency of jam, the whites firm but not too firm? Perfection is everything.
Sansa is faintly howling from under the table, giving him an ache in his heart he could not name. A decade ago, his mother was parent to half a dozen dogs. But over the years, each one died a dog’s death, each heartbreak piling up, the weight of pleasant memories punctuated by some incurable dog disease that had always been invisible, sneaky, merciless. After each of those endings, his mother would spend the subsequent few days tearfully reminiscing how Boomer was such a sweet dog who always waited for her to arrive from the market, or how Max, her only Labrador from the brood of aspins, would jump out and run around the neighborhood whenever he found the gate open. “But he would always come home, no matter what,” his mother would say, sighing, watching in her mind’s eye shenanigans long past, mischiefs tearfully remembered. They would find Max suddenly dead one morning, his body stiff from rigor mortis, and his mother would bawl like a small child, weeping uncontrollably in the kitchen, stammering, “What happened to him? What happened to my Max, Jaime?” He wrapped up Max’s body in one of his mother’s blankets, and spent an afternoon burying him in the backyard.
Dear Sansa, the very last of them, is now nine years old and peeing blood. They would have brought her to the vet, but all the nearby clinics remain shut. His mother seems to care only about her own pain.
He stands in the kitchen listening to Sansa’s wailing, listening to his mother’s ragged breathing, and Jaime wonders about his own breaking point. He’s in an old house inhabited by the dying, while the world outside is no different. And yet he’s assiduously boiling eggs as though only by focusing on the mundane could he keep his sanity intact. As though by trying to perfect this single thing—soft-boiled, so that his mother could still digest it—he could still feel a semblance of control over a life that seems to slip precariously from his grasp.
Everyone seems dying. On TV, the latest numbers are savage. On social media, there’s always someone you know whose kin has died from the virus. There are days when the newsfeed is littered with messages of sincerest condolences. And it’s not healthy for Jaime or his mother to keep seeing the deaths and condolences. So, those times she’s not shivering from some nameless pain and claiming God has forsaken her, Jaime stays in his mother’s old room upstairs, rummaging through her old things, trying to make sense of it all.
Dank and gloomy, his parents’ room bears the patina of permanent defeat, punctured with traces of long-held disappointment: old photos with broken frames, school diplomas hanging lopsidedly on the wall, the funny smell. Since his father died a couple of years ago, his mother no longer slept in the room. Over time, it became this half forbidden place, gathering dust, visited only when his mother needed a change of clothes and, until recently, a cursory pass of his mother’s old, trusted vacuum cleaner.
Everything in the room is at least thirty years old. Even the plastic cabinet, which long held the knick-knacks of his teens and childhood, is yellowed with age, the plastic crumbling when you hold it hard enough. You can only pull a drawer so gingerly, lest the whole thing falls apart. And opening one is an inevitable tumble down the long tunnel of memory: scraps of scented paper, old yellowed photos, notebooks that bear the “masterpiece poems” he used to write for some high school sweetheart he barely remembers now. He sees an old photograph of him as a baby, barely a month old, his face bearing the expression of big surprise. On the back is his mother’s handwriting: “Dear cousins, Jaime is just turning a month old. He could not wait to get to know you all.” His mother was hopeful, excited, happy. When was the last time he’d seen her like that? She was many years from becoming the lady lying on the sofa downstairs, the same one whose fate the doctor could only describe in “palliative” terms.
Jaime’s eyes suddenly feel warm. What a mystifying thing time is. How decades would seem to last forever, until one sunny day something breaks inside of you and robs you of everything, even life’s slightly good parts. He wipes the wetness off the photo and gently places it back in the drawer, like a holy relic. He stares at it for a long time. Until he hears his mother groan downstairs, calling out his name, her voice echoing across the caverns of this old, largely empty house.
The hardest thing is the lying. When the initial test results had come back, and the doctor frankly told him that he had two choices—to aggressively seek treatment despite her age, which may be essentially futile or to accept that there’s nothing he can do but give her as much comfort and love as possible—he swallowed hard and lied to her face. “Everything’s fine, Nay.”
“I only wanted to know if I’d still get better,” was what she said. She sniffled then. She was a bit better then. They were being ferried around by the barangay ambulance upon the good graces of the Kapitana, her mother’s close friend, looking for a government hospital that could still accept her.
“Of course, you’d get better,” he lied again. He looked away, afraid she might see it in his face. How flimsy the veneer of his reassurance. That the white lie isn’t really white, but a million shades of muddy gray. Stay-positive never-say-die on the outside, an emotional wreck on the inside.
He spent a few days assessing his finances, which is a fancy way of saying he smashed piggy banks and emptied savings accounts. He’s still working on a few projects, and some clients have yet to pay him. But the pandemic makes it so much harder to get paid. In the end, he asked close relatives and friends to chip in. It’s all deeply embarrassing to be asking them for dole-outs—he had been a high-flyer before all the world came crashing down, and he used to ignore them. Now he’s begging them to help out, not for him, but for her mother’s sake. He half-expected the responses: “Tough times, Jaime.” “We’re not even sure when this would end.” “Maybe try a bank loan?”
After everything was done and accounted for, he found himself staring at a respectable amount—maybe this could tide them over, even reach the most basic treatment? He swallowed hard and bit the bitter pill. Because most, if not all, government hospitals had been mandated to accept only Covid patients, he had to bring her to a private hospital—one that charged four times the usual fees, what with all the personal protective equipment the staff must wear (charged to the patient) and the additional testing. His mother quietly, obediently went through the procedures—she didn’t complain when the nurse had gone too aggressive with the nose swab, or when they’d stabbed her veins blue.
She accepted her hospital confinement with all the dignity an old, lonely widow could muster. To keep her spirits up, Jaime tried to talk about what she might do when she got better, when the pandemic was over. He promised to take her to one of those buffet restaurants she loved, or get her a new, modern sewing machine. She smiled and said that she couldn’t wait. But one time, coming back to her hospital room from buying some lunch, he’d chanced upon her weeping as she clutched her old mobile phone to her ear, speaking to one of her old friends, letting it all out. She knew. She’d always known.
They never got far with the treatments. Ten days, and the private hospital’s bills ballooned beyond what he could pay.
Worse, her doctor was the exact opposite of hopeful, telling him, “Maybe there’s nothing left to do but take her home.”
When he’d returned to her bedside, he again lied. “The doctor says we should try to recover at home, Nay. Maybe we can try some of those herbal treatments we keep hearing about.”
His mother said nothing. She quietly went through the motions of packing up. She said goodbye to the nurse. She stared at the hospital bed where she’d spent the previous ten days in the company of a niece. When they wheeled her out into the lobby, she eached out to hold his arm. It was the first time Jaime realized how old and frail his mother had become; how bony and cold her grasp was, and how desperate she’d clung onto his arm as they ambled towards the waiting taxi.
If dogs could sing or say their farewell, this must be it, Jaime thinks as he cradles Sansa’s head. He’d just given her a pill that used to work and stop her from peeing blood. Now, it no longer seems to have any effect. Sansa, like Jaime’s mother, has become so weak and can no longer stand up. And like when she was a pup, she needed to be bottle-fed. Jaime knows there isn’t much time left.
The situation isn’t lost on him: everywhere, death seems inexorable. Things seem to be coming to a point where you can’t be sure which really are the lucky ones: those who died quickly, or those who lingered, suffering through every moment, blind with pain.
Sansa whimpers and he gently strokes her face, softly singing “Row, row, row your boat,” a lullaby that she always seems to like. She looks up at him; there’s still much intelligence behind those eyes. She’s still his baby girl. His mother’s unica hija. “We’ll go to the vet clinic very soon,” he whispers to her, “just hang on.” Yet, even as he utters them, the words ring hollow and taste like ashes in the mouth.
Nearby, on her own couch, Jaime’s mother has not woken up yet, her food untouched. Perhaps, it’s for the best, he thinks. Sleep and oblivion—thank God for small mercies.
Am I a despicable son?” he asks her.
It takes the girlfriend from far away a few moments to answer. Her voice on the phone is cold as metal and awash with static, like some digital recording from outer space. “You’re just being practical.”
“Maybe I can sell off the house. Try to raise more funds. Chemotherapy might still work.”
“It won’t even matter if you had three houses to sell,” she says. “A tumor like that. Come on, Jaime, be realistic. And what would you do after you lose the house? What then?”
He groans inwardly; he knows she’s talking about losing her own future. Their future. But at this point, the future seems at the mercy of whatever happens tomorrow, or the next day, all in the dark shadow of this great pandemic.
“It’s easy for you to say because it’s not your mother who’s—”
“What? Are you shifting the blame on me?” Her voice slightly quivers. “Is this all my fault now?”
“It’s not like that. It’s just…”
These conversations would then go to places he’d never intended. More and more, he feels a rift grow between him and the girlfriend, whom he suspects might have found someone new. Someone nearer. Someone actually present.
After she hangs up, Jaime realizes it doesn’t sting as it used to anymore. They had spent a few days in a beach resort in Batangas early that summer, planning for the next few months, settling down, building their nest. When he dropped her off at her parents’ place on the outskirts of the city, they both had no idea that that would be the last time they’d be seeing each other. When the government locked down the entire country in a desperate attempt to stave off the surge of infections, he thought of pulling a few strings just to travel all the way to her place despite the heavy restrictions. Yet, those were also the critical first few weeks when the first symptoms of his mother’s illness manifested. Ignored for years, Nanay’s strange bouts of diarrhea turned out to be something much worse. Naturally, he’d chosen to stay—Nanay had no one else but the dog.
To say that the girlfriend didn’t matter would be a lie. He did love his girlfriend, despite the spats and the raging jealousy and emotional breakdowns. But these days, the universe seems to conspire to keep him where he is. He keeps telling himself there are duties a son can never turn his back on. Deep down, the answers are never simple, especially if you’re shaping up to be the last person standing.
One morning, he discovers Sansa’s stiff body under the couch. Her death was like those of the others: messy, grotesque, unbearably sad. When he let his mother know, she merely sighs. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but the moment passes and she lets it go. Yet, she looks volumes at him. At this point, she could not even get up the couch on her own.
Jaime buries Sansa in the backyard, like all the others. He feels numb, his heart grasping for meaning in all this. He tells himself perhaps Sansa, along with Boomer, Max, Samantha, and the rest of Nanay’s old brood, had to die first in order to give Nanay a proper welcome party in heaven. But he chastises himself as soon as he thinks that—What in hell are you saying, Jaime? Nanay is not dead. Not yet. She’s still here. And who knows? There might still be hope. All those herbal concoctions might still work. One morning, he might wake up and find Nanay busying herself around the house, fussing over the smallest smudge of dirt on the furniture, just like old times, as though nothing has happened. The cancer gone, just like that. And while he’s at it, why not also wish to wake up one day and find this whole pandemic gone, without warning, in much the same way it appeared in November to bite mankind in the ass.
The thing with wishing is when you catch yourself doing it, your heart drowns in weltschmerz. And sometimes when you drown, you drown all the way down.
I read online that there’s a new government hospital near you,” the girlfriend says breathlessly on the phone.
His heart skips a beat. Could this possibly be a chance for treatment? “Where?”
She says the address, and he writes it down. He realizes he could use the bike to check out the hospital first before they bother the Kapitana for the barangay ambulance. It would take only thirty minutes.
“This was already a built hospital,” she says, “but I think they refurbished it quickly to accommodate more patients. Nanay can get treatment there.”
He warms to her use of the word “Nanay,” reminding him of who she is in relation to him, regardless of distance.
“Thank you,” he says. “This means the world to me.”
“I’m sorry for what I said last time,” she says after a while. “I just miss you so much. I’m just frightened, Jaime. I’m scared of everything….” She pauses. “I’m scared for us.”
His eyes get suddenly warm and there’s a catch in his throat. There are a million things he wants to say to her. How he misses her, too. How he feels trapped, defeated, buried under an avalanche of these daily burdens. How he keeps soldiering on for the sake of whatever little light that remains in his life. But he’s no fool: he knows just outside their door, hundreds die of more miserable deaths. That he’s just one man. Nanay is just one person. They’re not special in the grand scheme of things, and these things matter only to him because he’d grown up under the wings of Nanay’s unconditional love. They’re not special, so why should they get special treatment from this largely indifferent universe? Yet, he’s also dying to tell his girlfriend how much he loves her and how terribly he misses her and how much he wishes to be with her at this moment, right now, if only by way of a miracle. Yet, in that final moment before he hangs up, Jaime only manages to say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything… I miss everything.”
He stares out the window a long time after that, his entire being reeling from a deep sense of disquiet. The peace is deceptive; beyond that veneer of “order” is the silent suffering of the countless multitude. Outside the house, what he sees resembles the penultimate scene in a spaghetti Western: dust, bright sun, a tumbleweed tumbling down the road (or did he just imagine that?), the pitched silence right before gunslingers amble out of some saloon to shoot each other dead. But none of that is real: today is a typical lockdown day, and like in the past month or so, the streets are empty, save for the occasional stray animal.
He’d just given Nanay a late lunch, and now, thankfully, she’s not groaning from pain. It might take him less than an hour to get to the hospital on his bike, make the necessary arrangement.
“Jaime.” He almost jumps at his mother’s voice as he opens the door. “You’re leaving?”
No choice but to tell the truth. “I’m going to the hospital, Nay. There’s one nearby. It’s the new district hospital. Maybe we can continue your treatments there.”
“But…” Pain has hardened his mother’s face, making words slurred only with difficulty. “But do we have money?”
“Well, uhh.They shouldn’t charge as much as the last one. It’s a government hospital, Nay. At least the fees should be subsidized.” Her confusion prompts him to add, “It’s a hospital we can afford.”
His mother says nothing. She just stares at the ceiling, which is all that she can do in the past few weeks. The corners of her eyes glimmer with tears. He has to look away; he can’t break down now, not in front of her. She still needs to see him being strong. He squeezes her hand, as if to reassure her he’s there, like always. “Don’t worry, Nay,” Jaime says, “Everything’s going to be all right.”
The hospital guard waves at him by the makeshift entrance into what seems like an abandoned warehouse.
“Is this the new district hospital?” Jaime hesitates, feeling foolish even as he utters the question.
“You have a Covid patient, sir?” the guard says, approaching with what looks like a small logbook.
“No, I’d just like to inquire about the hospital’s facilities. Do you accommodate other—”
“We take only Covid patients, sir,” the guard says. He sighs. “And there is a waiting list.”
“Are you sure?” Jaime refuses to be dissuaded at this point. “Maybe you can accommodate one more—”
“Sorry, sir, just Covid patients.” The guard taps the scrolled-up notebook on his leg.
Jaime looks around. There are overgrown weeds everywhere. A single ambulance is parked at the end of a long gravel driveway. The truth hits him in the face: the write up online was a press release, a fluff piece, by a local government that wants to manufacture a semblance of relevance for itself.
“Where’s your patient, sir?” the guard says. “Are they with you?”
Jaime stares at him. He’s astride his old BMX bike, which feels silly with each passing second; behind him is a stretch of largely unused concrete road lined with cogon grass on both sides. You would never mistake this driveway as something that leads to a hospital. And yet. He shakes his head. “Thank you,” he mutters. Suddenly he feels so small. Like the smallest, most useless creature in the world, pedalling his little bike back to the hole where he comes from.
The house’s shadows seem to have grown longer. He hesitates for a moment before he flips the light switch on. His mother lies motionless on the sofa. Underneath her blanket is skin and bones and a diaper that badly needs changing. There’s an odor that Jaime has gotten used to ignore. He looks at the wall clock: how many hours, days, weeks do they still have? How many moments? She doesn’t stir even as he kneels down by her side, gazing at her face. He kisses her gently on the forehead. He could hear her ragged breathing, like the wind straining through a bamboo forest.
It’s dinner time, he realizes. He pulls himself up, drags himself to the kitchen, where he picks the most beautiful egg from the clutch. He knows exactly what to do. He has done this countless times before, like a solemn ritual, an offering—but for what? For salvation? Redemption? Jaime isn’t sure, anymore. And for some reason, as he carefully places the soft-boiled egg on the white plate, just beside the steaming rice he’d carefully ladled in the center, he remembers Sansa. He remembers the lullaby Sansa loved. “Row, row, row your boat,” he hummed then when Sansa was still alive, as he hums now. “Gently down the stream…” He chokes on the words, fighting the urge to weep, singing it even as his voice cracks. “Merrily, merrily…” He arranges and rearranges the egg, which wobbles slightly as he does so. “Merrily, merrily…” You only have to stab the middle gently to spill out the hot, creamy, soft yolk. Life is but a dream, Jaime mutters finally, gazing at his plating, deeming it impeccable. Presentation is everything. He wipes the tears from his eyes. All the shit in the world can wait, but now it’s Nanay’s dinner time. He adds a sprinkle of sea salt on the side. Just a little, like the way Nanay likes it. Then he carefully lifts up the plate, like the chefs he’d seen on TV, and marches towards the darkened living room with all the cheerfulness he can muster.