My parents own a condo in a gated community with an amoeba-shaped pool, but they rent it out now. They moved back to what we tongue-in-cheek call the ancestral home in Fort Bonifacio, a town formerly known as Fort McKinley. My late grandfather, a soldier, built a house on the former American army base back in the late ‘50’s. This area rarely, if ever, floods. The American army chose this location because from this high ground, they could look out on the rest of Makati. Now, it’s a depressed town that is right next door to the appropriately named Forbes Park and ritzy Global City. It’s not the most photogenic of places and, in fact, I have not yet taken J. to it. The last time we were in the Philippines together, it was relatively early in our relationship and, to put it frankly, I wasn’t ready.
I hear my father’s voice. Papa? I look at the clock. It is almost five. My sisters and mother are still asleep. I feel like a little girl again, back when I would wake my father at six in the morning so we could go the Surf House in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, for waffles.
I’m outside, he says. K., there’s a lot here for you to write about. Even though I am a teacher, he takes my writing seriously and asks often whether I make time for it. I sit outside with him on the swing that has been around since my uncles were in college. The swing has a gash in the middle and the back of my leg catches on it.
Two young boys pushing a wagon of glass jars and bottles walk by and ask if we have any botes. They will take them to a recycling plant for money. Then a man, who looks as if he is about my age, cycles past us in a pedicab in which he balances a box of fish. It’s all fresh, he tells my father.
Maybe tomorrow, my father says. I don’t think we’re having fish today. It is not even six in the morning and I have seen more than a dozen street vendors. There is a chill in the air.
For years, a woman named U. would call out to my dad. Kamusta? Ang laki na ng anak mo. How are you? Your children have grown up so much. She would always ask me if I recognized her, but of course I do. Every morning, she would play ABBA and Chicago’s Greatest Hits, which I later learned were the only cassette tapes she owned. When I was a child, I used to buy “plastic balloons” from her. (Banned in the US, it was discovered that this gook children put in their mouths was made of rubber cement.) I know her voice well. It is as much a part of the landscape as the laundry she hangs every other day.
She passed away this summer and I attended her wake. Her grandchildren offered me Boy Bawang and popsicles, while a cat pressed itself against my leg. After 34 years of knowing her, I learned only a few months ago what her real name was. Claudia. For a week, from the second floor of my home, I would watch as friends and family played Bingo and Poker in front of her home, the Philippine version of a wake. Even when it rained, they stayed. I was sad when the noise below stopped.
I used to hate the noise. I used to hate our annual vacations in the Philippines. I’d dot my legs with Calamine lotion and complain about how it was so much better in Saudi Arabia where there were no mosquitoes and everyone understood my English. The only bright lights of those month-long vacations were the friends we made: the siblings whose names all began with an R., L. who is now a transgender queen, and the sweet boy named A. who is the same age as my younger sister L. and who, at eight years old, had a scotch-on-the-rocks voice.
My ate (pronounced “Ah-teh,” it means “older woman/sister”) R., only four years older than me, died this summer from complications giving birth to her twins. I loved her, how she cross-stitched designs into my tee-shirts and played Hopscotch with me, even though it must have bored her. At her funeral, I shook with grief, watching as my childhood playmate was gently lowered into the ground.
Those days of boredom in Fort Bonifacio and the Philippines feel so far away now. There are many days and many more nights when I ache for the Philippines. It’s the ache of an old song on the radio; the mistake of confusing a stranger’s laugh for someone you once knew; the melancholy of packing a suitcase to leave; and the pain of the “Departure” sign at the airport. I feel it most acutely during an embrace, the brief limbo between contact and release. It’s yearning that anticipates absence. Basho writes, Even in Kyoto, when I hear the cuckoo cry, I long for Kyoto. Nostalgia in its most potent form, it’s missing a landscape while you’re still with it. After a while, you get used to always carrying that amorphous ache inside you. But it fades for a little bit when you return.
I understand why my parents chose to return to my father’s childhood home, instead of staying at their cushy condo with the koi fish in an artificial pond. Fort Bonifacio has a pulse. It is his lifeblood. The houses so close together, the streets I find claustrophobic, he is comfortable in this world. Carol Shields writes in “Dressing Up for the Carnival,” To live frictionlessly in this world is to understand the real grief of empty space. In Fort Bonifacio, everything rubs against each other: the buildings, the people standing in the open-air market, the commuters sitting skin to skin in the jeeps, the cars stuck in traffic, families who don’t like each other, but cannot stay away, fathers, mothers and daughters in the same room, pasts, presents and futures colliding and melting into each other. It is a kind of contact and pressure that I think exists only in places where people are constantly aware of loss. I become acutely aware of evanescence when I am here. Buildings. Bodies. People. Time. Here I remember they all disappear but I must love them still. My father understands this well, but he does not know he knows.
I haven’t stopped thinking about the Visayas, the Philippines, this entire weekend. Typhoon Haiyan is the most powerful typhoon to make landfall and, just this morning, I read that there was another earthquake. My family lives in Metro Manila, Luzon, which was unaffected by the typhoon, but I cannot look through photos and scan my Facebook mini-feeds without feeling nauseated. These are my countrymen and I love them. I’ve known since I was a young child that the Philippines is in the Ring of Fire with its volcanoes, earthquakes, typhoons, floods. I think about this every day when I am in the States but the moment I land in the Philippines, whatever anxiety I had is replaced by an intense, stupidly giddy joy.
From the plane, I can see the rice paddies and the shimmer of Manila’s lights. On the ground, there is always music. On-key karaoke. Bawdy jokes. Melodic prayer. Laughter full, so full.
It is so heartbreakingly beautiful that it is easy to forget how much pain trembles just beneath the surface .
** To help Typhoon Haiyan survivors, please click here for more information.