“Sigue, maghirilingan kita otro,” we bid each other goodbye, after our annual Peñafrancia reunion in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Every year Nicol, Jun and I come here, along with the members of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia Devotees Association (Tri-State), to participate in the Grand Fiesta Fluvial Procession of the replica of Ina by the Hudson River waters of the Stephen R. Gregg Bayonne Park.
It was a beautiful sight this day to behold Our Lady uniting all Bicolanos around the world with our long-familiar hoarse cries of Viva la Virgen!
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. For now.
“Luto na si paksiw?” In the Naga of my childhood, this meant that the fiesta was over. Time to convert the lechon leftovers into paksiw (lechon stewed in vinegar, brown sugar, salt, ginger, liver sauce sarsa, and other spices). Time to fold our banig back into the cabinet for next year’s fiesta. Time to say goodbye to relatives and pilgrims.
“Salamat sa Dios,” our elders would sigh in relief, “tapos na an kasibutan.”
“Hay, salamat,” we kids would sigh among ourselves, “makaka turog na naman ako sa kama ko.”
For Naga, it is back to school and work.
And so, too, for Bicol exiles like us. Nicol, Jun and I have been observing this for many years without fail. Back during our school days, we would have garnered extra merits for “perfect attendance.”
Some friends, however, whom we used to meet here every year are no longer present. This has always been the case as the years go by.
“Mayo na si Danny,” “dae na nakaka drive pasiring digdi si Choy,” “garu maluya na si Reggie.”
Old age, health issues, final departures, the list of absences gets longer every year. When will they mark me absent? How much time does each one of us actually have left before the final curtain?
Suddenly, it is evening. The traffic was heavy but I’m not complaining. At least I can still afford to drive despite advancing age.
I flip open my FB page and read this message from another bosom classmate from Naga, Ed Hife: “Madalion lang an one year na kaibanan nindo ako diyan. Kumusta?”
Ed was with us last year in New Jersey when we attended the Peñafrancia fluvial procession.
“Ika pa lang pig iristoryahan mi kan papule na kami,” I message back. “Garo hale ka pa lang digdi kasugma.”
“Sana iribanan na naman kita.” A message from Nicol.
“God willing,” I respond.
As I lie in bed, I notice my beloved cat Kitkat leap onto her favorite sofa beside me, and I wonder how she manages to fall asleep in seconds while I clamber to the heights of sleep.
I think of all the Peñafrancia devotees I’ve known and loved who are no longer on earth and realize how our lives race swiftly like a waterfall over a mountain. Today, they are absent; tomorrow I, too, will be absent.
Absent here, but present with the Lord in heaven, I hope and I pray. All of us present in heaven, in spite of ourselves. Perhaps all these fiesta celebrations with friends and family in honor of our Ina are but a tiny glimpse of what heaven will be like. Up there, no one will be absent. It will always be Fiesta.
Just like Naga, in and out of September, which to me has often been like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in this immortal memoir, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
With apologies to Hemingway, let me therefore close by using his exact words to describe my beloved hometown, replacing the word Paris with Naga:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Naga as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Naga is a moveable feast.
Not my words, but the sentiment is utterly, absolutely mine.