Tito Genova Valiente
I had to cut my leave to rush back to Naga. The wife of the dear friend of my brother has passed on. Rowena that was her name. I knew her more from her husband, one of those friends that reminded me of the happy and insane days when my brother, Pempe, was still alive. They were good friends: Pidong from elementary and Rowena from college days.
A wake is one of those strangest rituals we do for the dead because it is really for those who are alive. Absurd as it is, the deceased, bluntly cannot really acknowledge my presence. Those who are left behind are the ones that will keep in their heart one’s arrival and expression of sympathy. They are the ones thankful that you “have travelled all the way from the big city.” Then, it is really the statement of wonder, which assures the one who went out of his great way that completes this kinship, this bonding built, forgivably, on sorrow.
We are all awkward when it comes to condoling. I think that is the rule on words meant to assuage grief: the one saying those words should not be confident enough that his words are coming across as phrases appropriate to the occasion. No one should be confident about one’s thoughts before death. The bumbling, the stammering, and the avoidance of gaze are all that it would take to inscribe the drama of life countering playing in the theatre of death.
And so there I was in the funeral parlor. Before I reached the part of the building where Rowena was, I had to pass by other parlors. I looked up and read the names, those inscriptions that are no more announcements than they are reminders about two grand oppositions: the eternal vis-à-vis the ephemeral.
The eyes scanned the names and the titles: Retired Teacher, Retired Employee, Barangay Captain, etc. Titles are meant to clarify and alert. Take note also of the middle names. For some reason, the new tarpaulin technology has solved that. Photos are now ubiquitous from the outside. But then again, the option to place youthful images can subvert the shock of recognition.
It is three in the afternoon. The Catholic Savior died at this time, as the sacred documents attest. But these hours are not ideal for visiting a wake. It should be evenings, when wine and alcohol are allowed to alleviate the sadness, as the intention is meant to be. The drinks, however, are not meant to address the shadows in people’s heart but to encourage people to stay on, and be with those who are truly grieving. The drinks can cause mourners and merely drinkers to stay on.
When I got to the parlor, I was surprised to see many people. Another old friend of my brother’s was there, Ing. He is a retiree as well, as all are, it seems, in my vicinity. He was in this amiable crowd in animated talks. They were former employees of a local bank. Rowena used to work there, I muttered to myself, unsure. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. I was trying to place their faces in that space that we allocate in front of our forehead when we are trying to recall, and then remember. That lean man, hmm, remove the white mustache and lift his shoulders a bit, and he could be the young man eager about his first work in that fancy office fronting what used to be biggest public market in Asia. The talkative among them, the lady with a scarf…she was the attractive teller, lovely as tellers were meant to be in the politically incorrect period. Women in the bank then were expected to be lovely, a factor that was seen as luring more investors or depositors.
Rowena had a beautiful face. The photo on top of the coffin was a proof of that.
I stood in front of the white coffin and actually just looked at the wall. But I was praying as well. They were not prayers of devotion and supplications. They were questions and conversations with anyone who was supposed to hear our thoughts in moment of bereavement.
You are not that old… That was quick… Still beautiful… We heard about your hospitalization… What was the cause of … And now…
In the name of…Amen…
I turned around. Behind me were women and one man who had the same soft features as Rowena’s. A lovely old woman was being hugged by a young girl. I looked at the young woman in brown and pointed quietly my palm to the old lady. Mama, she whispered.
I did not know how to introduce myself. Greetings should not be lengthy and overwrought. My brother is a friend of Pidon and Rowena. My sister also knows her because Pidon’s sister, Andit… She was looking up at me. I inserted how I found out about this sad news. Pempe is my brother. Shouldn’t I should have said: Pempe was my brother because he passed on some years ago. Before I could construct another paragraph in the air, she responded: I know Pempe. Sa Balogo.
Balogo was a beach near Pasacao. My brother and his older friends spent lots of times there. I sometimes joined them, too.
The sea appeared before me. The distant rock. The legend. The fun and the drinking. Youth. Magical youth came into that wake. Young dreams came into the door with no lonely lines. Fantasies of growing old started to fly briskly from the wreaths of white flowers.
Death vanished at three, and at four in the afternoon.
Death has no place in wakes. Death is unnecessary in a place that keeps mortal remains.
In funeral parlors, there are memories about the years when we were young, when we talked about our goals, when the world was moving so fast and yet we did not hold on to anything. Those were years when we could soar up to the stars and come back again and not even notice the levitation, the flight.
The world was young, young, young. And, contrary to what we always say, youth is never wasted on the young when one is in a wake.