“Okay ka lang ba, ate?”
Napalingon ako bigla. “H-ha?” I stuttered.
Naabutan kong nakatingin sa akin si Jessa. I didn’t notice that she was sitting beside me.
“Kanina ka pa nakatulala,” she said.
“Oh. I’m just . . . tired. Yeah, that’s it.”
She gave me a hesitant look but decided not to ask anymore. Buti naman. Wala rin ako sa mood para makipag-usap lalo na’t parang lumilipad pa rin ang isip ko.
Ilang oras na ang nakakalipas nang bumalik kami ni Jazer mula sa batis. I still felt jittery after what happened. The butterflies were still in my stomach. My gaze landed on my hand and remembered his soft touch. The way he held my hand . . . how he put it on his chest . . . his words . . . all of those lingered in my head and I knew it was already too late.
I was clinging onto a small branch, hoping that I could still climb back, but his pull was stronger. The fall was fast, yet it felt like everything had slowed down. Time had been distorted. I knew the impact was going to hurt but there was a tiny hope inside me that maybe he would be there. Waiting for me. Ready to catch me.
Maybe. Just maybe.
Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako habang pinipilit na kalimutan muna ang mga nangyari. Sakto namang lumabas si Jem sa bahay. She was carrying a basin of ingredients and placed it near me.
“Patulong,” sabi niya habang nakaupo na rin sa papag.
“Marunong ka bang gumawa ng graham cake?”
Napakunot naman ang noo ko at doon ko lang na-realize ang date. December 24 na pala.
“Uhm, I think so? Pwede ko naman i-search,” sagot ko pero saka ko lang naalala na mahina nga pala ang signal dito.
She sighed. “Kuya!” bigla niyang tawag kaya nag-panic ako.
“W-wait! Ikaw na lang magturo.”
“Tutulungan ko pa si Nanay magluto ng ibang handa.”
Before I could retaliate, she hastily stood up and ran into the house. At kung hindi ba naman ako pinaglalaruan ng tadhana ay narinig ko ang pag-utos niya kay Jazer na tulungan akong maghanda.
He stepped out of the house and our eyes met each other. My heart pounded heavily against my chest as I reminisced that moment. Iniwas ko agad ang paningin ko at yumuko dahil ramdam ko ang init ng mukha ko. Damn it!
He nonchalantly approached my direction and I almost flinched when he sat across from me.
"Tulungan mo siya!" sigaw ni Jem habang nakasilip sa bintana. "Wala kang pagkain mamaya kapag 'di n'yo 'yan nagawa!"
Hindi na sumagot si Jazer at sinimulan niya na lang buksan ang lahat ng gagamitin. We still couldn't look at each other and the tension between us skyrocketed when the back of his hand accidentally brushed against mine.
Para naman akong bumalik sa oras na 'yon.
That moment just happened spontaneously. Without any warning. Without any words. Without thinking about the consequences. That was why when I became conscious of our actions, the embarrassment swallowed me up and made me want to drown myself in the stream. I immediately stood up and told him that we need to go home. Tumayo na rin siya at tahimik na sumunod sa akin. Hindi ko nga alam kung paano ako nakauwi nang maayos dahil parang nag-overheat na ang utak ko no'n. Pagdating namin sa bahay ay agad siyang pumasok sa loob habang ako ay nag-stay sa papag.
Being close to him that time was suffocating. I needed to breathe.
"Paghaluin mo 'tong condensed milk saka all-purpose cream," he said and my musings were pushed at the back of my mind.
Sinunod ko na lang siya kahit na ang awkward pa rin namin sa isa't isa. I was stealing glances at him and I realized I never really looked at him closely. I studied him as he worked. His eyes were framed by long and black lashes. What caught my attention was the way he bit his lower lip when he focused too much on something and how his dimple appeared right after.
I got out of trance when he suddenly sighed. Seryoso siyang tumingin sa akin kaya kinabahan ako.
"'Yung kanina . . ." His voice trailed off.
Damn it, why was he bringing that back?
"Wala. Wala," sabay iling niya at nagpakawala ulit ng buntong-hininga.
What the heck? What was that? Mas lalo tuloy akong naguguluhan sa mga kilos niya. May meaning ba ang ‘wala’ na sinabi niya? Why did he sigh? This guy is mentally torturing me!
Nagpatuloy lang siya sa pagtuturo sa akin at sumunod naman ako. Wala rin naman kaming magagawa kundi i-divert sa ibang bagay ang usapan at kilos namin dahil nakakahiyang balikan ang pangyayaring ‘yon.
Napalingon naman ako sa mga bubwit. Jaden was playing with Jylliene, Czanelle and Clark and it looked like they love to be with him. Their attention shifted to us and the four of them ran toward our direction.
“Graham! Yehey! Graham!” sigaw ni Jaden.
“Hindi pa pwede,” Jazer said, much to Jaden’s dismay.
“Isang hiwa lang naman ng mangga,” he pouted.
“Tapos hihingi ka na naman. Mamaya na kapag malamig na.”
“What is that, ate?” tanong naman ni Czanelle at nakatingin na rin siya sa graham.
“Is it yummy?”
“Yes, but you can’t eat it yet.”
“Why?” she pouted and the four of them looked really disappointed.
“Your tummy will hurt if you eat it right now.”
“I’ll get sick?” she asked, her sorrow turned into worry.
“Yes. So wait until the sun’s down. Okay?”
“Okay,” sabay tango niya.
Pagkatapos no’n ay napunta na sa aso sa labas ang atensyon nila kaya agad silang tumakbo para lapitan ‘yon. Napabuntong-hininga naman ako. I didn’t know that convincing a kid would be this hard.
I glanced at Jazer and he was staring at me. Napakunot naman ang noo ko pero nangibabaw ang kaba ko.
“Alam ko na kung bakit,” he muttered.
“Wala. Wala,” sabay ngiti niya at lumabas na naman ang pesteng dimple niya.
“Kanina ka pa wala nang wala,” mahina ko namang reklamo habang inaayos ang graham sa harapan ko.
“Bakit, gusto mo ba meron?” he teased and suddenly, it felt like the awkwardness dissipated.
“Malay ko ba kung anong meron?”
“Ano nga bang meron?”
Hindi na ako sumagot dahil wala nang sense ang usapan namin. Pagkatapos naming magawa ang ilang container ng graham cake ay pinasok na namin ‘yon sa ref at pinalamig. Lumabas naman ulit siya habang ako ay naghugas ng kamay dahil ang lagkit sa pakiramdam. Sumunod naman ako pero paglabas ko ay hindi ko na siya makita.
“Pumunta siya sa bayan.”
Halos mapatalon ako sa gulat nang biglang nagsalita si Jessa sa gilid ko. Karga niya si Clark at mukhang napagod na siya kakatakbo mula pa kanina.
“Hindi ko naman siya hinahanap,” I retorted.
“Gano’n ba, ate? Sino bang hinahanap mo?”
She stared at me as if she was studying a specimen. After a few seconds, she flashed a smile.
“Hindi ka magaling magsinungaling, ate,” sabi niya sabay lakad palayo sa akin. “Pareho kayo ni Kuya,” dagdag niya at saka siya tuluyang pumasok sa loob ng bahay.
What was that?
Napailing na lang ako at dumiretso kung nasaan ang mga bata. Jaden and Jylliene were still playing and running but Czanelle was just sitting on the ground with a gloomy expression. Nilapitan ko siya at umupo sa tabi niya.
“Why aren’t you playing with them?” tanong ko pero sa malayo siya nakatingin. I followed her line of sight and noticed a family of three chatting with another family. Para namang lumubog ang puso ko nang makita ko ‘yon.
“Can Mommy and Daddy come here?” she asked.
Hindi ko naman alam kung ano ang sasabihin. It would be difficult to tell her that they wouldn’t be able to spend the Christmas with us. This would be their first Christmas without them.
“They can’t,” I said.
“Why?” My heart shattered when I saw how she was trying to hold back her tears.
“I told you that Mom is sick, right?” She was still pouting but she nodded. “They have to be away so that she can come back healthy,” I said and I had to choke back my tears as well. It was hard to lie to her.
Dementia is a degenerative disease and treatment has yet to be developed. According to the articles I read, available medicines and tests can only alleviate the symptoms but not the progress of the disease. Sooner or later, speech problems would be observed and her motor movements would become less coordinated. How could I say that to a toddler?
“Then I’ll wait for Mommy to become healthy. They will return when she’s already okay, right?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “They will.”
She suddenly reached for my hand and my heart felt heavier than ever. I squeezed her tiny hand to comfort her and to let her feel that I am here. And maybe, to assure myself that I, too, am not alone.
Mabilis namang lumipas ang oras at unti-unti nang dumilim. Mas dumadami naman ang tao sa labas habang papalapit ang Pasko. Neighbors greeted us as they shared their dishes with us. Kids made noise with their version of tamborines—flattened caps of soft drink bottles around a circular wire—paper trumpets and can drums. I could also hear Christmas songs blasting through speakers, knowing that nobody would sleep even though it was already late.
So this is Christmas, huh? I was eleven when I last celebrated Christmas. That was also the last time I spent this holiday with my parents. Pagkatapos no’n, nanonood na lang ako ng kung anu-ano o kaya natutulog kapag Pasko. Kakainin ko ang hinanda nina Nanay Fe at Nanay Meling bago sila umuwi sa kani-kanilang pamilya at hihintayin silang bumalik pagkatapos ng New Year. Those holidays weren’t special for me but for some reason, this kind of atmosphere felt nostalgic and warm.
“Countdown na!” sigaw ng isa sa mga kapitbahay nila at sabay-sabay namang nagbilang ang mga tao. “Sangapulo! Siam! Walo! Pito!”
Nakisabay naman sina Nanay Fe at ang mga anak niya sa pagbibilang. Their voices filled the whole street as they counted the seconds until Christmas.
“Innem! Lima! Uppat! Tallo! Duwa! Maysa! Naimbag a Pascua!” they shouted at the top of their lungs.
As they welcomed Christmas, several fireworks lit up the sky and people kept on greeting each other with genuine smiles pasted on their faces. The night was cold yet I could feel the warm feeling spreading through my body. I never thought Christmas would be this fun and touching.
“Merry Christmas, hija.” Nagulat naman ako nang bigla akong yakapin ni Nanay Fe. “Mabuti naman at hindi ka mag-isa ngayong Pasko.”
“Merry Christmas din, Nanay Fe,” I smiled and hugged her back. I survived my Christmas vacations because of them. They were always worried about me being alone so they would prepare a lot of food for me that could last for a week.
“Kumain ka na’t baka maubusan ka ng mga bata.”
“Sige po, maya-maya.”
Lumayo muna ako sandali sa kanila at pumunta kung saan may signal. I looked at my phone, expecting their messages but I got none. Did I expect too much?
Babalik na sana ako nang biglang umilaw ang phone ko at may dalawang messages na dumating.
Merry Christmas, witch.
From: Shang Zuan
Hey, young lady! Merry Christmas! Hope to see you soon :)
As I was reading their greetings, I realized I had not received anything like these before. It felt weird yet pleasant. I was about to reply when the name I was expecting was displayed on my screen. Sinagot ko naman agad ang tawag niya.
“Merry Christmas, Chloe,” Dad greeted and I felt relieved.
“Merry Christmas,” I muttered. The last time I said those words to him was when I was eleven and saying it now was a bit embarrassing. “Wait a minute.”
I turned around and gestured at Czanelle and Clark who were both looking at me to come here. Sabay naman silang tumakbo at pagdating nila ay sinet ko sa loud speaker ang phone ko.
“Why, ate?” tanong ni Czanelle.
“Is that Czanelle?” Upon hearing his voice, Czanelle excitedly took my phone while grinning from ear to ear.
“Daddy! Daddy!” she called and Clark joined, too, mumbling da-da repeatedly.
“You’re with Clark, Czanelle?”
“Yes, Daddy! And with Ate Chloe!”
“I see. Merry Christmas.”
“Are you coming back, Daddy? Where’s Mommy?”
Oh my god. That question again.
“Mommy is sleeping. But don’t worry, Mommy is fine. We will be home soon.”
“Yes. Can you give it to your Ate Chloe?”
Binigay naman sa akin ni Czanelle ang phone at tumakbo sila ni Clark pabalik sa bahay habang sumisigaw ng ‘Daddy called!’ pero hindi ko alam kung gumaan o bumigat ang pakiramdam ko.
“Is that true?” tanong ko kaagad. “Are you really coming back?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Maybe around February.”
“She’s . . . fine.”
“Don’t lie,” sabi ko naman dahil halata sa boses niya.
I heard him sigh. “The doctors said your mother’s dementia is uncommon so they want to monitor her. They can only relieve the symptoms for a short while but . . .” his voice faltered and I could hear how he was trying to control his emotions. “ . . . she can’t live normally anymore.”
I already knew that but it still came as a shock when I heard it straight from him. I never really prayed or wished for something so desperately but ever since I learned about her condition, I did that every night, hoping that someone up there would hear my plea.
“I . . . I . . . see.”
“Sorry for ruining your Christmas,” he said, his voice filled with guilt and sorrow.
“It’s okay. I already expected this.”
“Sorry, I need to go. The doctors are already here.”
“Take care of your siblings,” pahabol niya. “And take care of yourself, too.”
Pagkatapos no’n ay in-end na niya ang call at naiwan akong nakatulala ro’n. I could hear the laughter of the people around me but they were gradually fading away. It felt like I was back in this dark and empty place again. Feeling this familiar hollowness again. Surrounded by thick and tall walls again.
I spent most of my life hating her because they left me here but upon learning her condition, that hatred was replaced with fear and remorse. We were only together for three years when I was a kind and several weeks when she returned. Maybe if I was upfront with my feelings . . . if I gave her a chance earlier . . . if I swallowed my pride . . . we could still make some last-minute memories before her disease progressed.
But it was already too late. She couldn’t remember me anymore.
Napalingon naman ako nang marinig ko ang boses ni Jazer sa gilid ko. I blinked back my tears and greeted him back with a smile.
“Merry Christmas din,” bati ko sa kanya.
“Hindi ka pa ba kakain?”
Another batch of fireworks painted the sky with colors. Tumingala ako at pinanood ang mga ‘yon. I stole a glance at his direction and saw that he was also watching the aerial display.
“Thank you,” I muttered while returning my gaze at the sky.
“Hmm? For what?”
Tiningnan ko ang kamay ko at ngumiti. “For holding my hand earlier,” I said.
I remembered telling Mom that I couldn’t admit my feelings for him because I was afraid to get hurt. She said I should love fearlessly and when I got hurt in the process, I could run to her. Maybe she was right.
I was afraid to accept her before because she had already hurt me yet the pain was much worse when I kept my doors closed and when it was already too late. Maybe this time, letting myself get hurt along the way would be better than avoiding it at all.
“That moment, I realized I was holding my own hand for too long, afraid to reach out because because nobody wanted to hold me anyway.” I gathered my courage and looked at him. “But you did,” I continued and gave him a sincere smile while his expression was a mixture of confusion and curiosity.
The kids and adults started playing games and along with the noise everywhere, maybe he wouldn’t hear the words I wanted to tell him the most.
“. . . and that made you special. To me, you are someone special.”