The Penal farm was a big place and I didn’t know where to start looking for him. All I had to go by was his full name. I asked no less than 10 people around the farm, including employees and other prisoners. I chanced upon a gated structure where prisoners were actually behind bars. Several prisoners were let out to talk to me but they were more interested in selling me trinkets, charms, and belts made of snake bones. One particularly pushy inmate kept telling me that his belt can cure back pain. With glaring eyes, like he’d just had way too much coffee, he seemed quite upset that I wasn’t interested in his merchandise. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I asked around a bit more but failed to find my friend. Maybe he’d been released already. I took out the prints, 5 in all, and studied them for a while. They were nice shots. I was sure he’d have been quite happy to get these photos. If ever he puts up a Facebook account, I’ve got him covered in the profile pic department.
I rested for a while under a tree wondering where I would ride to next. I studied my map and thought of riding as far as the available daylight permitted. And so I rode.
I also thought a great deal.
Under the steady blast of sunshine and explosion of life around me, my thoughts venture to the dark corners of my mind, as if the glaring contrast between them can offer some kind of protection. With the intoxicating aroma of grass, forest, wild flowers and earth filling my lungs, my mind inexplicably go back to the sterile, dreary smell of hospitals, where my mother spent the last 2 months of her life.
I’m trying to understand why some people have to go through the unspeakable suffering of infirmity. I also try to come to terms with the experience of having been by both parents’ bedside and having seen them off when they left this world. I wonder whether parents, who by such time are usually already unconscious, have any need for such companionship.
Around the last week of my mother’s life, she wondered aloud whether she still had a chance of getting better. She was only half her weight by that time, and was so weak, she could barely lift her hands. She trembled whenever she did. Looking away from me she said to herself, may pag-asa pa kaya ako?. The fear, despair and loneliness in her voice shattered my heart, the same way my heart broke every single day that I saw her health decline.
I remembered how she would merely stare at her favorite food and just manage a spoonful’s worth. I would take away her practically untouched meal and sneak out of sight where I would stagger through waves of pain and sorrow before I return to her bedside and hope the swelling in my eyes have gone down enough to go unnoticed.
During the most recent times that I had seen her healthy, I was fond of asking her out to eat with my aunt and uncle who lived nearby. My brother and his wife would at times be around as well. I did not talk much at such meals, content at basking in her obvious joy and contentment at being surrounded by family over lunch or dinner. She would talk and laugh throughout, and I would feed off her happiness and would drive home with a smug smile on my face that I wore till I slept.
She was exceedingly proud of her children. I would often catch her over-zealously talking about our praises and achievements to customers in our small Sari sari store. One time, I overheard her telling a neighbor to let us know if ever they needed medical advice because her youngest son was a doctor. I reminded her afterwards that I was merely in ‘premed’ and was not a doctor yet. I was taking up Nursing then, and years later would eventually decide against continuing to Medicine. (‘Nay, Nursing pa lang pinag-aaralan ko, ‘wag nyo naman sabihin sa mga kapitbahay na doktor ako). She reacted by laughing with that hearty, infectious laugh that was distinctively hers.
Throughout the two months that she was sick, I wondered when I would hear that peculiar laugh again. It was frightening to allow in too much hope considering what she was up against. And I eventually paid the price for overindulging in optimism.
I had only a couple of hours of light left of riding and had to consider where I was going to spend the night. I check my map for the most likely place I’d find one. I check my watch, squeeze on the gas, and speed off west, where the sun was slowly heading.
At 70 kilometers per hour, tears run sideways.
(To be continued)