Do you remember when we were about 12 or 13 and you asked me about my earliest memory of death? We were on a bleacher at our grade school soccer field. It was way past recess, but our teacher was absent that day. We were supposed to review for our finals but we were there, watching our classmates play sikyo. Earlier that morning, we heard about Flor Contemplacion’s execution. She used to be our neighbor, you told me and added that she would often buy Pepsi from you when you were very young and manning your lola’s sari-sari store. I haven’t known anyone who’s now dead, not until today, you said, not to me specifically, I thought. You were not looking at me. And then you asked me, how about you? What about me? I asked. Did you know anyone who’s now dead? Yes, I said. Oh, you said, as if my yes was something unexpected and even surprising. Who was this, how old were you then, what did you do, how was it? I don’t know but your questions seemed to me so sad now, when I think about them, but during that time, it was just small talk. Of course they were just small talk. One of probably thousands of small talks we had before you left. My lolo, I said. I didn’t elaborate that he was not my real lolo but my mother’s uncle who lived with us until he died of tuberculosis when I was nine. And that he died a bachelor. I don’t know if he ever had a relationship, if he ever loved someone, but he never got married. He was the eldest of 12 siblings and the only male of two who survived the war. I remember he would always have an itak hung at the left side of his waist even if I only ever saw him used it to kill a frog once. He wouldn’t even cut the grass in front of our house, my lola would always complain. Did you look at him inside the coffin? you asked, and I said yes, even if I couldn’t remember I did.
There were two more things I didn’t tell you back then, you know. One, that I actually wanted to leave you at the bleacher and join the sikyo, even before you began thinking and asking questions about death, but I felt guilty of leaving you by yourself. And two, I didn’t tell you about Putô’s death. Putô was one of my childhood playmates, about a year younger than me, and he died when I was six. Two years before your family moved in our village, before we knew each other. I don’t recall exactly how he died, nobody talked about it after, and I was afraid to ask anyone about his death even until now. I am not even sure if any of my tito’s or tita’s who raised me knew that I retained memories of Putô. Do they still remember him? Does he even come across their minds once in a while, the way he does to mine every so often, even until today, more than thirty years after his death? I don’t know. But like I said, I still often think of Putô. Especially during Christmas season, like today, when I finally decided to write you another letter. My earliest memory of Christmas was of Putô, he was probably two or three then, trying to reach a silver ball hanging on our christmas tree. The tree tumbled and fell on top of him and instead of crying, he laughed so hard I thought something must be wrong with him. He was the youngest and only son of Tita Rosy––who was not really my tita, but she used to be our neighbor and Mama’s best friend. They grew up together, attended the same school, probably talked about their crushes and dreams a lot when they were younger. I don’t know if they remained friends when Tita Rosy’s family moved to Quezon after Putô’s death but I remember seeing her again only once after that. Tita Rosy got married earlier that Mama did, and so her eldest, Ate Necil, was two years older than me. Next to her was Dina. And then Putô. I don’t remember Putô’s real name. But I remember that him being younger than I was saved me from a lot of childhood humiliation. Like I wouldn’t be the last to get picked when we had to choose teammates for sipa bola or paltok bola. Even Dina who was only a few months older than I was and a girl would get picked ahead of me. (Yes, those childhood games taught us how to be sexist, don’t you think?) Or that I wouldn’t be the dumbest and easiest to catch during patintero or habulan. But I don’t think Putô was ever humiliated for always being picked last. Not even for always making his team lose. When I think of Putô, I always remember him being so happy, like when our christmas tree fell on top of him, laughing, just playing, just having the time of his life. To have the time of one’s life, what does that really mean? I know I said no to a lot of your invites before you left. I didn’t know you were leaving, you never told me, and I wish we had the time to meet and talk then. Maybe I could have changed your mind about leaving. I want you to know that I was really busy during those times, though, even if it obviously no longer matters now. It was my first two years of teaching and I was often overloaded with five preps to more than 150 students every semester; I even had Saturday classes to FNFS (Filipino for Non-Filipino Speakers) students in their freshman year. During those years, I was also trying to finish my Masters in Literature (and I did) or my full-time teaching status would be revoked. And I was also working on my first novel. I remember you asking for its first draft, and sorry if I also didn’t have the time to send you a copy back then. I don’t know what else to say now but that I was busy. I was really busy. とても忙しかった, the Japanese would say. See, I’ve been trying to learn Japanese for several months now, by myself, mostly, with the help of some apps. Don’t tell me I always did things by myself, anyway, so what’s new, because you knew we did some things together in the past. You introduced me to Japanese pop culture, remember, via Takeshi’s Castle and Shaider and Bioman and we would always fight to be Red One until one day you just settled for Green Two and I became more mad at you for just handing me the role I was ready to kill for. You learned how to stop fighting for something you wanted much much earlier than I did. I always envied you for that, but I kept quiet about it. I wouldn’t tell you I envied you of anything. But yes, we did things together when we were younger. But we grew up. Nobody told us that growing up means losing the time of your life. And I’d say we lost a lot of time from our lives while we were trying to grow into the adults we eventually became.
My first novel began with the death of its main character. Were you able to read it? You know, I was thinking of Putô when I was working on the first draft of that first chapter. And I was thinking of you. And I was thinking of the only two things that we’d probably be certain about in this life: that we will all die, and that we will all die without knowing about death. Death is an experience we will never really have a chance to experience. Sorry if I am sounding too morbid but it was these morbid thoughts that pushed me to finish that novel. And the fact that you left. Either I would be really sad and broken and lost, or I would write that novel. I chose to write that novel. I was never lesser sad nor broken nor lost because of writing, not even after I finished the first draft of that novel, not even when I had it published. But I finished that novel. I remained sad and broken and lost most of the time but I had that novel. I thought I could die happier knowing that I had something that would always be mine. (Sorry for being like this. You were the one who began asking about death, remember, and I was just sitting on that bleacher wanting to leave you, wanting to play sikyo.) Many people died in my novel. Some just disappeared and never came back. Because, well, people die, and people may just disappear from our lives. But we don’t really lose them, do we, because no other person was ours to begin with. And, most of the time, that thought makes me feel less sad, less broken, less lost. It is not possible for us to lose someone because no one’s ever really ours anyway. Thank you for teaching me that. It remains to be the best christmas gift I’ve ever received.
24 December 2017 / Minoh, Osaka, Japan
(Ito ang unang liham ng aking seryeng Letters to Elias na bahagi ng aking Artsibong Atisan. Kung gusto mong magkaroon ng PDF copy nito at ng iba pang nilalaman ng Artsibong Atisan, pumunta sa ARCHIVES. Pumunta naman sa SERIES para makita mo ang iba pang serye na maaari mong subaybayan. Hindi ito maaaring ilathala o ipamahagi sa anumang paraan nang walang pahintulot. Likha ni Sean Sonsona ang ilustrasyon sa itaas.)