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Disclaimer: This is based on a true story. However, I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations in order to maintain their anonymity. In some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

A Story Once Told

Her father died of myocardial infarction. When asked by people what it is. She would just shrug and say “a heart condition…perhaps.” Not much was clear in her memory of the moments she shared with her father.”Do you miss your dad? Do you feel sad?” Those were the questions she could not understand why she was asked. “I don’t know. Yes, I had a father… well I have. I am not sure what verb tense to use. Uhmm… Is it necessary to miss him just because he’s my dad? I mean, will I go against the natural course of things? Will it feel like I’m a rebel creation sheltered in the vastness of nature?” That’s how she answered that only in her mind lest she would be misunderstood and judged as an insensitive daughter.

Tala was just four years old when she lost her father to a cause which she did not understand when she was a young girl. It was like a lady humming a song- she knows the melody, but she doesn’t know the lyrics in between. She knew she has a father, all people have. But, she had him a long time ago. She could not explain the feeling. She knew for four years, a father existed, but she could not bring herself to scan her memory and find a picture of her with her dad, or with her dad alone, even just one, even if it’s sadness or despair. She just wanted to feel like a daughter longing for a father’s embrace. She wanted to but she just could not. She did not know why until she gave up finding the hows and whys.

Her father left his mom with barren land, unfinished house, five children and shattered dreams. Tala was the fourth child and she had the responsibility over her sister who was two years younger than her. “A responsible daughter and a loving sister” (all caps and in bold), that was how people tagged her when she was younger.

Her mom was a single working mother and her brothers and elder sister were most of the time not at home because they were in college. So, Tala was left with no choice- she had to take care of their house and her younger sister.

Their house was set in a countryside, far from the noise of the city. They had a land area which could hold three four-bedroom houses. This piece of land was passed on by his grandfather and which laid untouched, idle, and barren. Their house, old-painted and unvarnished, stood proud in an elevated area of their land. Around the house was all green when it’s wet season and brownish when it’s dry season. Outside their territorial gate and walls were like greenfield because of the weedy growth of plants. This is where children love to play especially in the afternoons.Their house was intimidating. It was not beautiful but the way it was built was. In the morning, it was like a castle set in a kingdom where people fear the royals. At night, it was like a house haunted by ghosts.

They had a gate made of light wood which always made reeking sound when swung by wind. Just about less than a kilometer from their house was a vast sea where Tala loved to watch sunsets because such moments prove that two different worlds, somehow, will meet. It was like two people kissing each other after being separated for a long time. Sunsets were her favorite. It was like she’s inside her mom’s womb, slouched but comfortable.  It reveals God’s perfect creation.

Her mom planted onions, squash, and other vegetables on the side part of their vast but idle land. However, these were destroyed by stray cows, goats, and yes, even stray dogs. Cows loved to graze on the grass just outside their gate, especially when the moon was full. They had a shaky gate and they did not even bother locking it or even closing it, even at night. Many times it happened that in the middle of the night, while all were in deep slumber, these cows would go to her mom’s plants and graze on them, completely destroying the garden that her mom planted, watered, taken care of. She replanted these vegetables for how many times, but in the end, she decided to give it up and just let their land go completely idle.

Her mom played the role of both parents when her father died. Tala’s mom had to work full time as a grade school teacher, had to have tons of part time job such as sewing, buy and selling kitchenware, cooking for other people’s parties, and crocheting place-mats. Whenever her mom was out of town for some work to do like cooking for their school district head’s party, Tala would be in charge of the budget that her mom gave for like a week because her elder siblings were in college and were always away from home. Tala was in grade school then. Her mom would give her a list and the allotted budget for each, such as for school allowance, breakfast, lunch, and dinner among others. Perhaps, this was the reason why she was so stingy growing up.

A list and money, one sister and a house, school and friends, they must be handy for some but not for a child like Tala then, wishing to play rather than monitor the money spent. She remembers it clearly, on her way from school, her friends invited her to play with them. Tala  told them to wait for her because she had something to do. It was easy for her to just drop off the responsibility and joined her friends. She was a child and she should be playing and not worrying about the cloak she wore. She should be laughing, jumping, and clapping, instead of taking care of a home which had long been left by the man. She was a child. It was easy. But, she never bothered to untangle the ropes between her and her promise to her mom- to be responsible.

She hurriedly went home, took out the purse that her mom gave with the list and money inside it as their budget for a week without their mom. Tala was counting the money, but it lacked 10 pesos (0.581 in US dollars). She kept on counting the money and taking a look at the budget that her mom gave, but she couldn’t find the missing 10 pesos. She counted the money for like hundred times but still could not balance them. You could not imagine the scare that she felt, the hunger and thirst. You could not imagine the powerlessness that she felt. It was like, she was plunged into a boiling water and a freezing sea simultaneously. She felt stiff and confused. She was a child. She was just a child. She did not know accounting, so she counted them as elementary as possible. She gave up. She cried silently- as silent as possible. Because if she cried her heart out, her sister would hear her and would ask, “Why? Is there something wrong?” She did not want the wrong ones. She wanted the correct and right ones. She’s a sister, she had the cloak of responsibility and she could not fail her mother, even her younger sister.

She threw the paper where the budget is listed and smashed it on the floor. Yes, she did not throw the money because she was thinking that she might lose money again, and this time it would be more than 10 pesos. It was amazing how she could think of that at such a young age. She did not throw tantrums over spilled milk. She was a thinker and a doer, of course! This has actually developed overtime on how she handles things under pressure. She does not rant, shout or scream. She just simply calms herself and solves the problem in a step by step manner. She acted with utmost diplomacy and she found her way to make up the lost 10 pesos, and that was to give up her baon (school allowance) for the next two days.

When her mom went home after a week, she asked her about the house, her sister, and school. She reported her enthusiastically and proudly how she managed the chores and her younger sister of course, and all that happened when she was away, except for the lost 10 pesos. She didn’t know if it was lying, what she knew was that she needed to pretend that she managed the house and the budget well and that she did as what was expected from her. She needed to mask her desire to play with my friends and that she hated being accountable of all the things in their house. She needed to pretend because that was the only avenue that her mom would notice her rather than her younger sister who was a fountain of talent for many people, perhaps. That was her only way to receive warmer hugs and kisses from her mom. She was overwhelmingly given all the compliments in the world from her friends, her mom’s friends, her teachers, even her enemies.

She took pride receiving such compliments but sometimes she felt suffocated to maintain such. There were times that she just wanted to drop off the mask that she had been showing to people, most especially to her mom. But she didn’t have enough courage to do it. She could not bring herself to unmask and show her true feelings. She felt like a bird shot by a hunter, powerless and struggling to fly. This shadow that enveloped her grew inside her and became part of her system. But, one thing is for sure- she knew that it’s difficult to begin a journey, but it’s so much difficult to finish it while keeping her heart and soul alive.

Will she ever survive the journey in a world full of imperfections masked and dressed like a masterpiece drawn in a perfectly laid canvas? Will she ever find herself to love a man when Tala herself has not longed for a hug from the man she owe her life? Will she ever find hope and courage to take a step forward without getting held by the hand of doubt? Hear her story!

to be continued….

(The featured image is an artwork of my friend Argelieu Sotteau given to me on my 22nd birthday.)