I felt that I had arrived so I pulled over to the side of the road. I had played this moment over and over in my head for such a long time and I couldn’t believe I was now actually here. The old gate looked the same. It was still black, but the paint had started to peel off. Beyond the metal bars, I could see the hospicio. It still looked grand but it seemed to have aged in what seemed like a century.
I honked a few times. A young boy emerged from the garden beside the building and ran towards the gate. He peered through the metal bars and looked at my car with great curiosity. He opened the gate and approached me.
I lowered my window and called out, “Hi, my name is Daniel. I’m looking for Donna. Does she still work here?”
“Who, sir?” the boy said.
“Donna Sarmiento. She was one of the staff nurses here. I used to do volunteer work here as a student.”
“There’s nobody named Donna Sarmiento here, sir,” the boy said.
“Oh.” I stared out into the yard. I saw the giant acacia trees lining the walkway. They cast long, wide shadows on the ground.
“But the hospicio is still here, right?” I said. “They didn’t close it?”
“And it still employs in-house nurses?”
“Yes, sir. Do you want to come in, sir? I can ask the people in the office if they know anyone by that name. I can open the gate for you.”
“Sure, thank you.”
He ran back towards the gate and opened it.
I pulled into the yard and parked the car beside one of the trees. The facade of the hospicio was still green but had greatly faded. An old lady was sitting on a rattan rocking chair in the hallway. The boy closed the gate.
“Please wait here, sir,” he said.
I got out of the car and stretched my legs. It was a few minutes past noon, yet the sunlight was mild and gentle.
My stomach rumbled. The sari-sari stores and carenderia were still there across the street. That is where we used to go during our lunch breaks. I walked towards the hospicio and saw a group of elderly men and women walking slowly down the garden. A male nurse accompanied them.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The air seemed too pure for my lungs. I scanned my surroundings and tried to recall the past. There used to be an old man who lived in that room near the entrance. He loved to read, especially spy novels. On my last day here, I gave him my copy of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography as a parting gift. He could barely walk because half of his body was paralyzed. I wondered if he was still there. That was more than 5 years ago, and he was already 88 when I met him. He was a naval captain and after suffering from a stroke, he lost everything: his wealth, his wife, his family.
I saw the boy again and he approached me.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no Donna Sarmiento here.”
I smiled and thanked him. I was about to go when he said, “There is a Donna Cimafranca, but we just call her Sister Teresa.”
“Sister Teresa?” I said, confused.
“Yes, she’s one of the nuns who run the hospicio. They informed me that her real name was Donna Cimafranca. After her husband died years ago, she became a nun. Now she’s just known as Sister Teresa. She may have been a Sarmiento before she got married. Shall I bring you to her?”
It was raining that day in August when we arrived in Barili. We rented a van and travelled for hours from our university to this town. We were all excited because it was our first internship assignment outside the city. We were told that provincial hospitals were usually less busy than city hospitals, so we could expect not to have a lot of work to do, and we would have more time to go sightseeing.
I jumped out of the van first and opened an umbrella for the girls in our group. Then we brought our bags into the house and gathered in the hallway. Our clinical instructor briefed us on our itinerary for the day. She then showed us where we were going to stay. The boys were assigned a room on the second floor, while the girls were given a room on the first floor. From the balcony, I could see a pool near the edge of the yard.
We woke up early the following morning for our first official duty. The hospicio was a walking distance away from the old house, but rather than walk, we chose to ride a tricycle just for fun. We arrived at the hospicio in no time. An elderly man greeted us at the gate and showed us in. I was struck immediately by the beauty of the building when I saw it. The architecture was American in style, and I later learned that it was built in the 1920s. It sat on a vast estate and had dozens of rooms. The entire complex was painted green. There was a dining area near the hallway and a garden at the far end of the building. On the other end was a chapel.
We were then assigned our patients that morning. Mine was a lolo in his 80s. He walked in a shuffling way with half of his body apparently paralyzed. He later told me, when we got to chat, that he used to be the captain of a ship. He travelled overseas and visited many countries. He had everything—money, women, possessions—but then he had a stroke. So he lost his job and went home to his family. He spent his days drinking, resenting his fate and the things he lost. He then told me that he wasn’t really a good man—he was cruel, bitter, and difficult to deal with—so he eventually lost his family, too. And that was the reason why he ended up in the hospicio, because no one was left to take care of him. Later that day, he invited me to his room and showed me his collection of books. He told me I was free to borrow them any time.
It was while I was wheeling my patient into the dining area that I first saw Donna. I didn’t know her name yet at that time. It just travelled as a whisper between my male classmates who were curious to know who she was. I overheard it from my friend Ronan, who told my other friend Chris, that there was this girl in the hospicio who was very pretty. I instantly knew who they meant.
Donna was one of the staff nurses in the hospicio and she was in charge of preparing the medications for the patients. Even now I still feel a bit breathless each time I say her name, so I don’t say it often. I’ve kept it to myself all these years like a secret. She was always with someone each time I saw her. I came up with all sorts of excuses just so I could get close to her. I kept coming back to the dining area even if it wasn’t necessary. I kept going to the garden hoping she would be there, so I could at least say “Hi.” And I kept on going back up and down the hallway in the hope of bumping into her, so I could smile and make small talk. But she was never alone. She was always either with a patient or chatting with the other nurses. The boys in our group were especially eager to talk to her and they were much more skilled than me in thinking of schemes so they could sit near her. So I just hung around in the periphery, making sure I could at least hear her voice when she was speaking. From what I’ve overheard, I learned that she wasn’t actually just a nurse. She was an actress, too. They asked her which films she had been in and she told them the name of a local movie that was about to be released. She then invited them to the screening of that film.
On my last day at the hospicio, I finally bumped into her. I was on my way to say goodbye to my patient and give him my book when I saw her standing outside his room. I froze. I wanted to speak to her but I was also frightened, so rather than stop and chat, I just glanced in her direction and went inside the room. When I got out, she was no longer there.
Weeks later, my friends and I went to the screening of the movie in a mall in the city. I wasn’t particularly invited but I went with them, anyway. And there, inside the darkness of the theater, I saw her again, her face on the large screen. Whereas in the hospicio I only heard her voice faintly from afar, here inside the cinema I could hear her voice full and clear, as if she was standing right in front of me.
After the film showing, my friends and I lingered in the lobby outside the theater in the hope of meeting her. But she was nowhere in sight, and I never saw her again.
“Sir?” the boy repeated. I forgot he was there. “Shall I bring you to Sister Teresa?”
I nodded and he led me down the hallway. I had forgotten about the chapel. I never got a chance to see it up close when I was here the first time. The door was wide open and I was struck by how dark it was at first when I stepped inside, but slowly my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I saw the beams of light shining through the capiz windows. The pews were almost empty. A couple of patients were sitting near the aisle. One of them was in a wheelchair. I saw the altar. It was lit partially by the candles near the tabernacle and partially by the sunlight that filtered through the stained glass windows above.
The boy went and greeted a nun who was kneeling in the first row of the chapel. She stood up and went with him. From out of the depths of my memory, my fear returned to me. I thought it had been buried by time, but here it was again, as fresh and as raw as when I felt it the last time I was here.
To my astonishment, she hasn’t really changed that much, but seeing her in a habit threw me off.
“Sister, this is Daniel,” the boy said to her. “He wanted to meet you.”
“Sir,” the boy said to me, “This is Sister Teresa.” Then he excused himself.
“Pleased to meet you, Daniel,” she said, smiling. “How can I help you?”
My heart raced within me and I felt like I was a student again.
“Hi, sister,” I said awkwardly, not sure whether I should shake her hand or not.
I extended my hand finally and felt the softness of her palm.
“My name is Daniel,” I continued, not knowing what to say exactly. At that moment, I had forgotten why I was there. “I used to work here when I was still in nursing school.”
“Oh, did you?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I was an intern here in college, and we stayed here for a week. I mean, we stayed in that ancestral house down the road, and I got to work with some of the patients here.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. I used to work here, too, when I was still a nurse,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“Yes, I actually met you here many years ago. I mean, I saw you, but I didn’t really get to meet you. Not formally, anyway.” I felt more and more embarrassed the more I opened my mouth.
“Oh, did you?” Her face became more animated.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure you don’t remember me. That was too long ago. You must have worked with hundreds of students in those days.”
“It seemed a lifetime ago. Things were different back then. I was many things. Being a nurse was just one of them.”
“Yes,” I said. “I remember seeing one of your films.”
She laughed. “How did you know I was in a film?”
“When I was here, you mentioned that you were an actress, and you invited my friends to the screening of this movie. I went with them and saw it.”
“That’s very interesting,” she said wistfully.
We walked toward the dining area and continued our conversation over lunch. The patients and nurses greeted her by her nun’s name. She smiled at them and made small talk. Then she brought me all over the hospicio to show me how the place has changed over the years, which parts have been closed due to irreparable damages, and which parts have been renovated to accommodate more patients. She told me that after she got tired of acting, she settled down. She got married to one of the greatgreatgrandsons of the family who owned the hospicio, so she ended up becoming one of its owners. When her husband died, she chose to enter the convent. After some years, the task of looking after the hospicio was passed on to her by her in-laws. She never got to continue her nursing. There was a time when she thought of working abroad, but she changed her mind after she got married.
It was already late in the afternoon when we ran out of things to talk about. The sun filtered through the trees and the hospicio was bathed in golden light.
“Pardon me, Mr. Cuevas,” she said after a long pause. “I forgot to ask, why did you want to meet me?”
I was caught off guard by her question. I had forgotten to devise a plausible excuse for why I was there. The silence between us grew longer as she waited for my answer and as I tried to conjure up all kinds of explanations in my head.
We found our way back to the chapel. I looked up and saw the beam of light shining on the altar at the end of the aisle. The place seemed brighter now even though the day was ending.
I took a deep breath and made my confession. “I wanted to see you, Donna.”
By the time I drove out of the hospicio and bid her goodbye, my fear had already dissipated. I smiled at the boy who was waiting for me at the gate and thanked him for his help.
On the way back to the city that evening, I was filled with a profound sense of peace.