Saturday, July 9, 2016

Confessions of a Sepulturero

Twenty-six days after arriving in the Philippines, I met the woman who has been my constant companion, my asawa, ever since - a Filipina who was born in the province of Leyte, an island an hour's flight from Manila by plane, but more than a day by bus or by ferry. I was introduced to her family - to her mother, her brothers and sisters, and her four children. Over the years since then I have met uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and neices, and - so far - her one grandchild.

One morning in our second house there was a knock on the door. Marcelina, my asawa's mother, was standing on my terrace, having just finished a walk along the highway. Something was wrong. There was a puddle of urine at her feet and a puzzled look on her face. I called out to my asawa to come quickly. Together we helped her mother down the terrace steps and a short distance to her brother's house, where she laid down. By evening, she couldn't speak coherently and could no longer control her bowels. She was taken to the provincial hospital. They told my asawa that she was probably having a stroke, but that they hadn't the proper equipment to make a diagnosis, and recommended she be carried by ambulance to Tacloban, the nearest big city. The cost of transporting her, of the catscan, and further treatment, however, far exceeded everyone's resources, even if we were to ask everyone, far and wide, to chip in. So a decision was made to simply take Marcelina home to her village, for everyone to provide whatever they could for her upkeep, and to keep her as comfortable as possible. The old woman finally died six months later. My asawa screamed when she got the call. I think of Marcelina whenever I hear of how much Americans spend every year for veterinary care of their pets, including surgical procedures and the very catscan that might have prolonged Marcelina's life, if only for another few years.

Jaime, my asawa's older brother (he was a year older than I), was a feared and respected titan of a man. I had already heard stories about some of his violent exploits when I heard another knock on my door one evening and went onto my terrace to meet him. He had a presence that was almost palpable, standing in a corner against the concrete railing. He smiled at me and shook my hand. His grip was beefy and rough. I could tell that he liked foreigners, and I suppose that I had my asawa to thank for whatever she had told him about me to inspire such friendliness. He had come to our island province to escape from some trouble he had gotten into up north. He was with his wife and he lived for awhile very close to my house, until after Marcelina's stroke, when he moved to an adjacent barangay, into a bamboo house on the ocean shore. He soon began to have problems with his weight, since he had changed from a very active to an almost totally sedentary life. There was nothing to do in the province, and rumors began to circulate about he and another woman in the barangay. Over the following years, I saw him on the rare occasions when I would go with my asawa to his house, a festival here and a festival there, an open-air disco.

Jaime had a daughter who was married to a German man, and an adopted son who lived with them in Germany. This young man came to visit him every so many years, and bought him a motorcycle and sent money every month for his parents' support. Jaime started to exercise with his wife, got himself back in shape and applied for a job as a bodyguard for the provincial governor. He gave up being a "babaero" (playboy) and went to church for what was probably the first time in decades. And only a week later, having eaten his dinner, he confessed to his wife that he wasn't feeling well. He laid down to wait for it to pass, but got up feeling worse. On the way to the hospital he lost consciousness. He was pronounced DOA. He had a massive heart attack.

His nephew delivered the news to us, coming in the door in tears in the late afternoon. My asawa screamed. That was at the end of last February. On Friday morning, July 1st, her youngest son came in the door to tell her that her daughter Jenelyn was dead.

I first met Jenelyn Dalde Adriano, aka Jenelyn Mirabete, when her mother brought her around to my hotel room in a Philippine resort town just before Christmas 2007. She was 17, and delightfully pretty. And I could tell how proud her mother was of her, who told me how many people loved her and would watch out for her through the years as she was growing up.

Here is what I know about her. She was born in Barangay Ul-Ug, in the town of Calubian, Leyte Province, on April 15, 1990. Her father, named Mirabete, was an engineer. When he learned that she was pregnant, he took Jenelyn's mother back to Calubian to be with her family. He made some promises, said goodbye, and was never seen again.

Two years later, Jenelyn's mother was with another man named Mendoza, with whom she had four more children over the following twelve years, one of whom died in early childhood. When she was 8, Jenelyn was already vivacious, always laughing, the darling of everyone who knew her. The fact that she wasn't his child must have been all the excuse that her step-father needed to rape her.

When her uncle Jaime heard about it, he started beating Mendoza to death. The police stopped him, arrested Mendoza and put him behind bars. A few weeks later, Jenelyn's two brothers, ages 6 and 4, who couldn't have known what their father had done to their sister, went to their mother in tears and begged her to get Mendoza out of jail. Without a bread winner, there was no other way she could support her three children, so she dropped the charges against Mendoza.

A year or so ago, Jenelyn started using her father's last name and expressed some interest in finding him. She called me "daddy" every time we spoke or texted each other, which gave me a strange thrill. I was looking forward to her coming to live with us next month, for her mother's and her little sister's sakes, but also for perfectly selfish reasons. Her coffin was carried to the cemetery today. I couldn't be there. I was left behind here in the province to look after her little sister, who is in school.

Above it all - the rumors, the bother about money, the time needed to travel there (which is something around thirty hours) - there she laid in the cooler until the undertaker (sepulturero) was given permission to remove her and prepare her for her coffin. And there was the inescapable thought, no matter how unnaturally perfect the undertaker made her look under the glass lid, of the final moments of her life, that were spent in terror and pain. And the knowing this, that no matter how many people loved her along her twenty-six years of life, and everything she had seen and known, there was that terror and pain, the last things she felt or knew before the light went out of her eyes. How could anyone face the vigil, the hours of the nights staying awake, talking, playing cards, sitting out the long wait to ensure that the dead were really dead and that her soul had a little company before it escaped her body. I remember my older sister at our father's funeral in 1988. She knelt beside our mother with her head in her lap, silently grieving. She would be dead, too, in less than a year.

Since the day we met in December 2007, my asawa has buried her mother Marcelina, her brother Jaime, and now her daughter Jenelyn. It is only natural that a country that has so much life in it should have as much death. In my country death is hidden away from us. I was given just enough time, in 1988 and 1998, to see the bodies of my dead father and mother before they were spirited away. In the Philippines, coffins are carried into people's homes and the dead are displayed for everyone to come and see. For days, everyone gathers in the evenings to eat, drink, and reminisce about the person who died. Then the funeral procession to the cemetery takes place, where an above-ground sepulchre waits to be filled. Forty days after the person's death, a pig is killed and barbequed and the family feasts one last time. Some people fear the end of the world, but worlds are going out of existence all around us, every day.

What now? As Paul wrote to the Hebrews, "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."

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