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Newsmakers

Fifty-two

NEW BEGINNINGS - Büm D. Tenorio Jr. - The Philippine Star
Fifty-two

On my 52nd birthday recently, my youngest brother Rod herded the whole family for a dinner celebration under the himbaba-o tree at home. He cooked a mismatched fare of batchoy Tagalog and hamonado. It was a simple celebration. It was made more modest by the absence of Candida. She’s been gone for six months now.

Earlier, at sundown, we walked to the cemetery near the house with a Costa Brava caramel cake, Nanay’s favorite dessert, the once-a-year sweet incantation she relished with gusto because she was diabetic. Night had already dropped its cloak when I lighted the candle on the cake, with my family singing me a Happy Birthday song. The solar-powered Tivoli lights on her tomb, which she shared with her husband, provided the illumination. The lilac and burgundy-colored flowers on the makeshift trellises danced to the breeze.

When I was egged on for a wish, I closed my eyes. The wind beat me to blowing the candlelight. There was a thud in my heart; it was both full and empty.

“I wish you were here, Mang” I said. It was more of a plea, a prayer, more than a wish. It was wishful thinking.

For 51 years, I was accustomed to having my mother beside me. When odds started to favor me, I also shared my blessings with my family, foremost with my mother. After the passing of my father in 2010, I worked harder because of her — because I wanted to be able to provide for her needs, because I wanted to be able to spoil her, because I wanted to love her for the rest of her life.

My 52nd birthday was the first time she was not around to cheer me on, to regale me with the story surrounding my birth. Every year, she would retell me in the vernacular, “You were born at 12 noon. A hilot (barrio midwife) named Tandang Elena delivered you at nine pounds. You were a big baby.”

I grew up with big dreams, too. And all my life, Candida provided me with a big vision board where I could map and draw my dreams. One dream at a time. The stumbling blocks were no match to my desire to succeed. Because she and Papang were farmers, I imbibed the trait of their craft: the ability to wait for the fruition of my dreams.

When I was born, my mother told me, I had taol or convulsion. My eyes would literally roll up and down, left and right until only the white part was seen.

Tandang Elena, according to the yearly tale of my mother, would visit at home for 40 days to treat me with a slender stick whose pointed end was aflame. The ember would be applied in between my little fingers, in my fingertips, in my elbows, in my toes. “Parang popcorn na naglalagitikan ang mga daliri mo kapag nadadampian ng apoy (Your fingers were like popcorn bursting with the ember),” she would describe the scene of my daily treatment.

She always had a way with words. My mother left no inheritance to her children but if there’s something I inherited from her, it’s her gift for words, for describing feelings and thoughts, the joy in her honesty, the dreamer in her. Early on in life, she taught me never to feign sickness because it became real sickness later on. Malingering was never part of the game, of growing up.

My mother told me I never cried in each taol treatment. To this day I am very seldom a crybaby. I credit it to my mother who taught me to hold on to my dreams and to my father, gone for 13 years now, who taught me never to sweat the small stuff. He taught me, too, never to be diprensyoso or difficult; that I should not cause division but at the most become a peacemaker.

A lady from the health center — when I was well enough, a few months shy of turning one year old — came to the house to inform and convince my mother that I would be the barrio’s candidate for the municipal search for a Johnson’s Baby Powder baby contest. I was plump with beady eyes, with soft black hair crowning my big head. My mother told me I won in the contest. P50 was the prize. A big sum. She never got hold of a Kodak photo of that momentous event but the memories were preserved in her heart.

When she was “infanticipating,” Nanay told me she liked to look at the Buddha statue in their house. It was a little round statue made of chalk with small kids sprouting from its sides. She was afraid she would give birth to a baby with little babies also on its sides. She stopped looking at the statue and instead directed her thoughts to God.

She was hoping to give birth to a baby girl when she carried me for nine months. She must have inculcated her wish to my two elder brothers’ minds that when neighbors asked them on the day I was born, my Kuya Ronnie and Kuya Gaddie told them they had a baby sister instead of a baby brother.

Nanay said she was reed thin every time she was pregnant; she gave birth to five boys. I am the third in the brood; before me, there were two stillborn babies. From her first trimester to the last, she would always throw up. She did not like the scent of perfume. She got dizzy at the smell of onion and garlic being sautéed. She also did not like Camay or Dahlia soap but would take a bath every day sans soap but with pails and pails of water from the well in front of her parents-in-law’s house.

One story she only told me once was the fact that I was conceived during Valentine’s Day so somehow she knew I would grow up with a loving heart.

At 52, I would like to believe I have two distinguishable characteristics. One, I have a loving heart, so loving that I have too much love to give. Two, my heart can handle rejections well. I had them coming when I was younger. Life trained me well to cope when it denied me even the most basic thing any human being should have. I never complained. What I didn’t have made me stronger, richer in more ways than one. What I didn’t have made me more resolute in my will to persevere in life. God heard my pleas. And what I have now is more than what I prayed for.

Even the mismatched batchoy Tagalog and hamonado for my birthday were more than what we prayed for. My brothers and I celebrated with silent joy in our hearts. Since it was also the birth-giving day of our mother, we observed the day with a tinge of sadness. We missed her extra on that day. We miss her extra every day.

Did I make my mother proud and happy? I asked myself in silence when it was only me left under the himbaba-o tree. The wispy breeze of Christmas made it all the more obvious that the 52-year-old orphan in me needs to show up, stand up for anything life gives me.

I went to bed reading all the birthday greetings and prayers sent my way by friends and relatives. The birthday greetings and prayers for me are blessings that make my soul and spirit take flight. I will endeavor to be the best I can be. I will love with all that I have, with all that I am. I will welcome whatever life offers me.

I will dream anew. That’s how my parents want me to live my life — especially Candida. *

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ROD

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