I was born from a failed rhythm method,
at a time when the only other alternatives were abstinence and
Much later, my mother confessed: You were a mistake.
I was much older then, my ego, id, and superego, all bonded and secured,
able to bear the trauma and implications of such a revelation.
Still, it was a burden. I came, unwanted, a mistake.
Was it a mathematical error or a calendar mismark?
An egg that ovulated too early?
Or a hyperactive spermatozoa that survived longer than expected
that screwed up the math of rhythm?
Well, I'm pretty cool with it.
The frenetic spermatozoon that won the race to the egg became
Another race, another cycle would have produced someone
with a wholly different genetic blueprint and an entirely different
I was the third of seven children.
All the siblings' first names reflected the somewhat Spanish-rooted
and provincially gentrified lineage on my mother side,
the given names stretched out with bourgeoise embellishments
of saintly trimmings or Virgin Mary-ness,
thankfully balanced by nicknames extracted from American comic book characters.
Jose Arturo, Sluggo, later sensibly dropped, changed to Arthur.
Maria Theres Eloisa, Nancy. She kept the name.
Antonio Raoul, Rollie.
Maria Lourdes Angela, Angie.
Maria Concepcion, Baby, later changed to Babes.
Luis Eduardo, Boy, later dropped, changed to Louie.
Moi? After my father, Godofredo. Ergo, the Jr.
Umali Stuart Jr, Butch.
Butch, taken from the burly and benign weekly cartoon character
of the long-ago defunct Saturday Evening Post.
Hey, that's the Spanish form of Godfrey, meaning "friend of God."
And boys and girls, that's not bad company.
But alas, although recognizable and phonetically agreeable
to the vowel-laden language of
later on, in the United States,
the Godofredo would suffer countless misspellings and mutilations.
Godfred. Godfredo. Goodfred. Godfredd. Godredo. Gofrego.
Godofred. Gofredo. Gotfried. Gofdredo. Gofodredo. Gopofordo.
Even a couple of Js. . .
Jodofredo. Jodofred. Jodredo.
I lost count . . . and stopped counting long ago,
thankful for the virtue of patience, that comes from being "friend of God"
when asked, those countless numbers of times, over the phone,
Um. . . can you please spell that?
And always thankful I was not made to suffer the nickname mediocrity of "Junior."
The Stuart name, a lifelong burden,
the disconnect between name and physiognomy.
You spend a good time of your life explaining it.
Once I imagined he was a English pirate,
a black patch over one eye,
expelled from the royal family of the Stuarts.
Alas, the truth, nothing as inglorious as that.
Rather, the origin is laced with a romantic detail.
Bernard Stuart, an officer, actually, no pirate patch,
who came with the British invasion of 1762.
One day, chanced upon a native lass bathing in the river, naked.
Bernard came to the rescue, covering her nakedness
from the eyes of tempted, sex-starved, and deprived Englishmen,
riding her off to the safety of her parents.
A fortuitous encounter that led to rescue, courtship, and
the subsequent generations of Stuarts in the Philippines.
The Umali name, my mother's.
A productive progeny that sprouted from Batangas.
Along the way,
from a social or political rifting,
or perhaps, from a difference in color and complexion,
the clan color-coded into black and white.
Umaling-puti (white umali) and Umaling-itim (black Umali).
We got the color black.
Maria was my yaya, or nanny.
She took care of the goat that was always in tow
during the sudden family departures in the hurry-scurry of the
last months of the Japanese occupation.
The goat provided a supplement source of milk.
Perhaps it is cause for my aversion for caldereta and, for that
matter, any goat dish.
Back to Maria. . .My flirtatious yaya was called "Peaches"
by the liberating G.I. Joes.
Alas, her young flirtatious life was ended by the ricochet of
an accidentally fired GI Joe rifle.
Back to the goat.
After Maria's death, the task of attending to the nanny goat went
an eight-year old from Tiaong, taking it to the fields to graze,
moving its stake a few times daily.
Oh, how she must have hated the job.
One day she hurried back, running, winded and flustered
saying the goat was dead, bitten by a snake.
My father applied his medical skills for a veterinary postmortem.
Examination of the dead ruminant easily revealed the
cause of death—
not by a venomous bite, but by half a dozen ice-pick stab wounds.
I heard Adriana returned to the bucolic rural life in Tiaong,
raised a family, with no other known SPCA-related crimes.
Nor did her single premeditated goat-killing progress to any known
Early on, I had lessons on trusting adults.
I was three. I had really curly hair. Big curls.
They thought that shaving it off clean would cause it to go straight
I overheard my father whispering the dastardly plot to the barber.
But as long as I could keep awake, it wasn't going to happen.
I was intent on fighting the barbershop sleepiness.
z z z z z z z . . .
Alas, I woke up bald as a ping pong.
But the curls grew back.
Oh. . . wilder and curlier.
My mother kept a 3-year old photo.
It showed me with a big head, clean shaven,
probably taken after the dastardly barber-father conspiracy.
My mom said my head was really big, not hydrocephalic big,
but big. . .
and they called me "Tommy Tomorrow."
My research revealed he was a DC comic book space hero that came out in 1947.
Tommy T. is blond and blue eyed.
I was ping-pong bald and brown-eyed.
I think the Tommy Tomorrow had to do with my head being as big and round
as the space helmet he wore in some of his comic book adventures.
You looked like Tommy Tomorrow.
When I was four, I was abandoned by my parents on weekends.
It must have been a time of bustling family life.
There were the two older siblings,
Sluggo and Nancy. I was third.
My mother was probably pregnant.
And there was another
brother, Rollie, between me and the pregnancy.
I guess I was a Monday-to-Friday burden to a bustling busy family life.
Every Sunday afternoon, I was deposited at my father's sister
The parents must have agonized over it.
I remember the M&Ms and caramel corn bribes handed with the
goodbye kisses and hugs.
It must have lessened their guilt.
There was a cousin, Ted, about my age.
They must have figured, hmm, the cousin
a mental health cushion for my weekly abandonment
and eased their guilt a little bit more.
I was picked up Friday afternoon for weekend doses of family life.
Then redeposited Sunday with more M&Ms, caramel corn, kisses
I must have suffered those separations.
I remember the black bag stuffed with my weekend clothes and stuff.
Right after the kisses, hugs and goodbyes, I would hurry to my
palm the kisses off my cheeks, trying to remember what parent
kissed what cheek-side
and wipe my palms on the sides of the bag,
a side for my father's kiss, the other side, my mother's.
During the week, when I missed them
I would go to the bag, and touch the kisses on each side.
Many many years later, I told my mother about it, and she cried.
She said I should have told them.
Yeah, how does a four year-old argue
the parental wisdom of weekend abandoment
sugared with bagfuls of God's wonderful inventions, caramel corn and M & Ms,
mediating and mollifying, bullying and bribing me into sufferance.
I grew up with Dick and Jane. And, Spot.
It was the age before television, before the Ninja turtles and
Barney and pals,
and all those cartoon characters that now baby-sits the preschool
It was a time when parents still found time and great delight
in guiding their children
through their first musical ABCDEFG and ten little indians,
in their first reading adventures, stumbling through those silly
and simple first lines:
See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run.
And the many nursery rhymes and fairy tales -
Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs, Humpty-Dumpty,
Little Red Riding Hood, Jack n' Jill, and company,
providing allegorical elements to life's later nasty realities.
When I was five or six, I was black for a day.
There was a children's costume party.
My father wanted me to go as Little Black Sambo. I refused.
He bought my resistance, promised me one peso.
I was painted black with Chinese ink.
Face, neck, hands and whatever showed out the edges of the colorful
Red pants and yellow umbrella
There is a picture, the white of the eyes and the teeth grinning
out of the blackened face.
The costume won a prize, second or third.
My father never gave me the peso.
Many many years later, I reminded him of the unpaid peso.
He just smiled, and still didn't pay the peso,
which must have depreciated to ten cents of its original bargaining
I was a sleepwalker.
That is why I never got beyond Cub-Scouting.
I really wanted to become a Boy Scout.
But Boy Scouts went camping and my parents were afraid I'd sleepwalk
and fall off a cliff or go ker-crushing down some gully.
There wasn't much to remember of my cub-scouting days,
except my pretty den-mother in her blue uniform—I had a
precocious crush on her.
During the elementary school years, we lived in Manila,
moving from place to place, rental houses just blocks away from each other,
until a house was bought at the end of Don Pedro Street
abutting a sidestream of the Pasig River,
often stagnant with stench, water lilies and essential river detritus.
The river swelled with the rains and the typhoons,
sometimes overflowing to the first floor,
bringing fish and an assortment of river debris.
Across the street was a cluster of squatter houses
which for many years would provide a 101 on the poor,
providing early lessons and insight to last a lifetime.
While my mother grew up in gentrified provincial privilege
where she was early on forbidden to talk with the servants,
in Don Pedro we lived in proximity to the poor,
developing a familiarity and closeness with them,
with nary a forbidding word from my parents.
I played with them, shared stories, entered their homes
and peeked at their lives and rituals.
Once, they slaughtered a dog, hanging on hind legs,
slitting the throat, the blood dripping on glasses
and drank for asthma and sundry other uses.
My parents never prohibited me from mingling with the squatter folk.
In fact, I remember their helping them out many times.
It became easy and natural to talk to the street people,
to know the streetmongers and local toughies by name,
to befriend vagrant kids and help out whenever,
lending them my father's well-appointed shoe-shine box
for their day's commerce of shining shoes,
afraid they might not return it at day's end. . . but they always did.
I remember my father frowning and pondering
the rapidly diminishing contents of the cans of shoe wax.
Surprisingly, the precocious street culture was not marred by delinquency,
other than the few street-roaming nights, throwing stones up the rooftops,
scampering away in juvenile glee as stones rattled down the metal roofs.
When I was 11 or 12, I was asked by one of the squatter folk
to be godfather, ninong, to their newborn.
I was so bothered and anguished, how I would be
berated by my parents,
straying into their destitute lives, to be asked to be godparent.
I decline to be ninong, with some lame excuse.
Years later when I mentioned the story to my parents,
I was gently chided for refusing, that it was some kind of honor
that one should never refuse.
I was a La Sallite, kindergarten through high school.
At that time, one in a short list of what may be considered "Ivy
The school icon was the Green Archer: an archer with a funny green
and a matching green costume, the color of fresh spinach,
kneeling on one knee, bow and arrow drawn, its aim frozen at an
Or maybe, aimed at the rival icons: blue eagles, red lions or
Later on you became aware of the rivalries, academics and sports,
the most intense, with the Blue Eagles.
The cheer that still reverberates in my memory bank.
Animo La Salle, beat Ateneo.
Animo La Salle, beat Ateneo.
The rivalry still lingers on, albeit, just in the hardcourts of
It was a great twelve years, punctuated early on by a first-in-class
gold medal in Prep year.
Alas, it was my only flash of academic potential, as it became
clear early on
that education was too long an effort to focus solely on academic
to the detriment of education and experiences in the University of Life,
its wonder years on the fringe with its doses of delinquent joys.
This early choice for juvenile anomie and academic underachievement
reflected on report cards, with the color-coded ABCD of deportment.
There were a lot of red-penciled Cs and Ds for bad behavior,
often dramatically circled or asterisked.
My mother kept those report cards, providing recorded memento
of an educational odyssey that was focused on just passing,
going for 75s, and shucking the pursuit for academic accolades.
Still, I was always a section-A student, except for a short-lived
demotion to section-B
once in elementary school, whereupon, I was, soon enough, promoted
back to section A.
My archer days were punctuated by appearances before the Board
This is a fearsome and threatening piece of wood, you feel pain just by looking at it,
about two feet long, six inches wide, an inch thick, with a good
that dispensed its brand of corrective and corporeal punishment,
with the rhythmic repetitive whapping of the palms.
It was torturous but short-lived enough to endure without tears.
And infrequent enough to put into the chapter of Rite of Passage,
with lessons that lasted only as long as the redness and stinging
of the chosen palm.
There were a number of whappings.
From after-school Breaking-and-Entering of the bookstore,
distributing the proceeds—school pins, pens and pencils—to
Being caught entering the the gym metal grillworks for "free"
admission to Friday night movies.
Minor infractions and blips in the journey of enlightenment and
that did not merit being brought to the attention of my parents.
There were many other times of educational misconducts,
misdemeanors that did not merit corporeal whappings,
instead, kinder and gentler namby-pamby punishments,
like being made to kneel in front of the class,
(so flugging Christian-medieval)
like writing you full name a hundred or a thousand times,
and suffering through those callus-inducing efforts
muttering a grievance of inequity, those times wishing
I was Chinese with a last name like Ty or Uy, a first name, like Wu or Li..
But I devised a special writing tool, speeding through the punishment
two pens tied together.
Sometimes, there were punishments meted out after class.
When the teacher tells you to pull down your pants.
Then you get two or three mild plastic ruler pattings on the bare butt.
Many years later, older and wiser, I remember and realize those times
as pseudo-punishments done for the sexually gratifying tush-viewings.
Oh, the ruler-wielding teacher was gay.
At home, corrective educational measures were also carried out.
Rarely, I brought home a report card with failing grades
when underachievement missed the safety zone of 75.
The failing marks were highlighted in bold red pencil.
This would be met with the Belt of Education.
It delivered three- or four-whapping strikes
always meted out by my father,
and always preceded with the short parental apology disclaimer:
I hate doing this, but I am doing so for your own good.
Sometimes, it's bare-butt, sometimes, it's notebook-padded butt-covered
My father must have known about the notebook-padding
as padded-whappings made a different sound.
And the whippings were remedial and rehabilitative,
invariably followed by a short period of overachievement,
the next report cards going north.
Soon after, corporeal punishment went out of vogue,
and the younger siblings were fortunately freed from the threat and welt of
In fifth or sixth grade, perhaps, even a year earlier
i had my first taste of a nicotine buzz.
and I salvaged my father's Banker's Club cigarette butts,
scavenging off small mountains off ashtrays,
picking up butts from the ground,
straightening the stubs, flicking off the ashes from the burnt tips,
A two-incher was nicotine heaven.
We coughed and gagged silly at first,
fast getting used to bitter and bronchialy irritating draws.
Afterwards, we would dry-wash the telltale smell of smoking,
swirling teaspoonfuls of Nescafe coffee grounds.
By the time I quit at age 33, I was chain-smoking two to three packs a day.
These were the days of radio and comic books,
long before television consumed the idle moments.
Radio was king, a big wooden box, pre-transistorization,
monolithic on the counter top, the whole family huddled around,
enthralled and mesmerized with the half-hour episodes
of action / drama serials, that ends, always, hanging in suspense,
to be continued, same time tomorrow.
Years later, I saw the how the magic was delivered,
with as great a fascination, watched radio-actors
reading scripts and emoting before their mikes,
while the sound-effects guy produced from sundry objects
of coconut shells, ordinary pieces of everyday refuse,
reproducing the magic of sounds that gave resonance to the stories.
And there were the comic books, providing graphics the radio couldn't.
Weekly doses of Tagalog comics, filled with black-and-white pen and ink art,
from which I endlessly copied, sketching, learning the ways of the drawing pen.
And the colorful American comic books, filling our worlds with action heroes,
the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Silver, Tommy Tomorrow and Buck Rogers,
and the Classics Illustrated series that provided a bridge into literature
laden with heroes and adventures, with more cowboys and indians,
Boone and Bowie, Custer and Sitting Bull,
and the English contributing in their colorful cast of King Arthur and his Knights
and their tragic Shakespearean heroes.
And the yard games and street games we played – piko, patintero, touch, slap-hands.
Tex, flicking cards in the air, hoping for face-pairs as it lands on the ground.
Jolens, rolling marbles on holes in the ground.
Inventing and betting on games, with rubber bands and bottle caps.
Making spinning tops from scratch, slingshots,
and toys from discards of strings, rubber and wood.
Collecting insects, pitting spiders, and catching dragonflies.
Yes, those were the days, before television and computers,
when children found delight in their inventions
and the simple adventures of their days.
I think I started dabbling in art when I was four.
My mother also
kept those early works.
This artistic flare was recognized early in my Archer days.
I put it to good use.
I was charged with the task of calligraphing the bimonthly achievement
certificates in old-English.
Done during school hours, I was freed from the classroom boredom
And of course, this required masterful and unhurried attention.
Of course, a euphemism for milking the hours of freedom.
My art must have carried merit.
Often, teachers never return my school projects.
Elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of biblical scenes to accompany Religion subject assignments.
While the rest of the classmates works were returned, mine somehow mysteriously gets lost.
And sometimes, art serves a more devious purpose.
Once, I painstakingly produced a series of one-inch square sketches of priestly vestments,
neatly stacked and stapled together as an exam reference, a codigo, a cheating-tool.
Brother F. sneaked up from behind, caught me riffling through the pages.
Appreciating the artistic effort in the work of miniature art,
asked how many hours I spent on it.
He said You could have spent that time studying, like everyone else.
But art is the medium.
And alas, this one, another I never got back.
Art also brought economic opportunities.
By sophomore year, I had a little business on the side.
Quite opportune, for I have started playing billiards and the
Expensive pastimes on a meager allowance.
I have started doing nude sketches to occupy myself
through the interminable hours of boredom and lectures.
Soon enough, the nudes caught the attention of some classmates.
And an art service-enterprise was born, sketching their daydreams
Classmates brought me black-and-white photographs of faces which
I sketch into some likeness.
When some degree of facial likeness was achieved or approved,
I would proceed to draw the rest of the anatomy in resplendent
In whatever pose or contortion they wished or dared to imagine.
It wasn't much, but the extra income was godsend.
It allowed for a more gastronomically filling recess time indulgence
of a coke and a sandwich.
with residual jingles in the pocket that supported after-school recreational indulgences
of billiards and pinballs.
I had a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy
but could not refrain from contemplating the whence of these needs
from what photo albums these photographs were borrowed from.
and strongly suspected the Oedipal roots of their desires,
and of course, was quite aware of their eventual sinful palmar use.
I was merely the purveyor of pleasure.
Alas, the enterprise did not last long enough to contribute to
the nest egg.
Catholic remorse caught up with my creativity.
One day, I was approached by Brother C. who told me that a classmate,
despondent and overwhelmed with guilt, came to him with a portfolio
of my nude sketches
confessing that every time he looked at them, he was overcome
I Kid you not!
Thankless horny bastard with his callused palms!
Brother C. then demanded that I hand over all my sketches of sin.
He would not believe there were no others,
that the sketches were on-demand, commissioned sketches.
I would have liked to call them "art."
But at that time, I had neither depth of art philosophy
or the polished arguments for the art of nudity.
Despite my repeated and imploring avowals that there was no cache
of naked sketches
Brother C. gave me twenty-four hours to hand over the rest of
the sinful collection.
He threatened to inform my parents if I failed to do so
And so. . .
Deep into to the night and into the hours of morning,
I sketched with a frenzied pen, page after page of women
in varying degrees of undress and wanton nakedness.
The next morning, bleary-eyed, I handed him my Portfolio-of-Sin.
And. . .
A few days later my parents were summoned to the principal's
to discuss the grievousness of my sins and the threatening possibility
My mother came out of the principal's office at the tail-end of
I am not sure if she was shown the contents of the art-portfolio.
She never told me.
Perhaps she was told of the sins my work generated.
She never told me.
But she told the principal of my precocious penchant for art,
of the unavoidable nudity in the gifts of art books.
And she told me, too: Godofredo! Do you know how much
I had to beg for you?
(My mother only used "Godofredo" in states of extreme
exasperation and frustration.)
And in the end, the sentence was dispensed with Christian Brother
Suspension instead of expulsion.
And I was not allowed to return to Religion class, resultiing
in my first ever "Failed" grade
and for which I had to suffer making up with summer school.
What was the lesson? None.
Or, maybe, some.
Looking back, I should have done and sold the art with a disclaimer:
Sin at your own expense.
Or, since they were unsigned works of sin, I could have said:
Or. . . Prove it!
And I know who sold me out, and karma has dealt him
And Brother C? I suffered and sacrificed a sleepless night of
with his reassurance that my parents would not be called in.
And in the end, my mother still suffered the ignominy of pleadiing
for my academic survival.
It is his good fortune that I lived and practiced the expectations of my given name,
Friend of God,
and embraced the teachings of Christian
forgiveness and Gandhi's nonviolence.
Catholicism really packages sin like no other religion.
What can be more original than Original Sin.
Adam and Eve, the Serpent and a Tree,
fruits plump with promises and possibilities.
Serpent catches Eve at a vulnerable time of the month,
Eve bites the apple, passes it to Adam boy,
telling him, as he hesitates: You'd better! Or you don't get any.
Adam knew Eve wasn't talking apple.
gives it a bite,
and God screamed "What the hell happened?"
Adam pointing blame on Eve who was pointing at the snake who couldn't really point.
And from this sorry scene that caused the sorry fall of man came the innateness
Jesus H. Christ! That is mother-fluggin' deep.
And Adam I didn't even swallow it!
It got stuck, became known as the
Ergo, banished from Eden.
Then second-son Cain killed first-son Abel.
But when asked, his hands still bloody, Cain exclaimed in histrionic
Am I my brother's keeper?
Adam, the apple biter.
Eve, abettor and co-biter.
Original sin and all, don't ponder why we are what we are.
That biblical first family was not known to be good role models.
So we grew up in theologic fear,
constantly threatened by eternal damnation.
We were taught the complexities, consequences,
and categories of sin: venial sins and mortal sins.
Venial sin was graphically depicted as a dotted white heart.
The dots represent minor sins, like minor misdemeanors.
You can have a thousand dots or venial sins, it will not deprive
the soul of divine grace.
You can still make it to heaven, but not straight to heaven,
you might have to pass
through purgatory and serve time.
Examples of venial sin: lying, cursing. Cheating, maybe.
Mortal sin fills your graphic white heart with black, even just
one silly mortal sin.
A mortal sin is deep shit serious.
Whether you have one or twenty, dying with a heart blackened with
takes you straight to hell.
That's right. Straight to fluggin' hell.
No pit stops to the fires of eternal damnation.
No ifs or buts, no plea bargainings.
Examples of mortal sin:
Breaking any of the ten commandments.
Missing mass on the Lord's day.
Even masturbation, the priest told me.
I guess it's includes coveting your neighbor's wife or daughter.
Hell must be a crowded place.
I was hoping mastubation could be reclassified into a venial sin.
Imagine a thousand masturbatory venial dots.
And still make it to heaven !
Alas, I was told an ecumenical edict canceled venial sin and purgatory.
and canceled St Christopher's sainthood.
I hope not. It would make for a tougher time for sinners.
Venial sin, peccato veniale, is a great concept.
It allowed heaven despite a profusion of minor sins.
Purgatory, likewise, a flaming expiatory pit stop on the way to heaven.
Still, original sin and sins from messenger Moses's stone tablets
with ten don't-break but sure-to-be-broken commandments weren't enough
to burden our lives with the threat of fiery destinations,
a pit-stop in purgatory or eternal damnation in hell.
Sometime, way post-Calvary, new sins were laid down.
The Cardinal Sins, aka, the Seven Deadly Sins.
Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.
Sins I have been guilty of at one time or another,
one of them, alas, too often, a daily transgression.
Fortunately, along with making sin out of human frailties,
seven Sacraments were formulated – baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist,
penance, ordination, matrimony and extreme unction –
many of them sin-erasing and grace-imbuing.
Extreme unction . . . the 'Last Rites,' the annointing of the dying,
if you're lucky to have the padre around,
he can tag your soul with a straight-to-heaven VIP pass.
Thank God for Sacraments.
Without them, Hell would be a hell of a much much more crowded place.
So we grew up waging a war on sin.
Daily doses of Religion class, from kindergarten to fourth-year
Teachings that included sainthood and martyrdom.
There was this classic hypothetical test for matyrdom,
the Saracen blade on your neck.
Denounce your faith, and you live.
Admit to your Catholicism, and die.
Whoa! Even with a 100 virgins, that's a no-brainer.
Meaning, I not into blood and neck wounds.
There were other extracurricular salvation-focused activities.
Like learning to serve mass, an endeavor that required the memorization
of the mass in Latin.
But more important, becoming an acolyte was a hedge on Religion
an automatic extra five points added.
Then, there was the plenary indulgence.
For non-Catholics this might be incomprehensible.
Plenary indulgences are like "salvation coupons" acquired
through prayer and sacrifice.
It gives an assurance of an opportunity to die in a "state
I accumulated a good number of them, a reassuring number to take
me to heaven's gate.
But I have no idea if they might have been canceled
venial sin, purgatory, and St. Christopher.
Holy gazoonkas! Salvation coupons with expiry dates.
There was a once-a-month sacramental cleansing.
Confession, one day, and communion, the followiing day.
Classes were interrupted one at a time, and the students, en bloc,
would march to the chapel.
There were confessionals on both sides,
Sin-cleansing boxes invented by the religion that invented original sin.
These mysteriously forbidding dark-varnished gothic wooden movable
with kneeling spaces on opposite sides, with tiny grilled and
thickly curtained windows
that opened to a darkened cubicle in the middle, where sits the
to whom you spill out in whispered guilt, the day, week or month's
accumulation of sins.
And in a boy's school raging with new-found testosterone,
the sins were most likely mortal sins of palmar self-abuse, fueled
or aided by generic sexual fantasies.
Or at the least: Bless me father, for I have sinned. .
. I had impure thoughts. . . again.
For a long time, my sins were fueled by black and whites of Kim
Jane Russell sprawled in the barn hay, and of course, Marylyn
Monroe's Seven-Year-Itch pic.
After absolution comes penance, usually Our Fathers and Hail Marys,
in a number determined by the gravity of sin, with which we are
dispatched to the altar rail
where we kneel in quiet penitence, hurrying through the silent
recitation of penance,
not wanting to take conspicuously long, lest it causes conjecture
on your sins' gravity.
Somestimes I am forced to finish the recitation of penance in the privacy of home.
The following morning, the student body assembles in the chapel for mass and
A monthly congregation of young boys, souls white with grace.
As the pews empty in hushed shuffling,
the communicants holding their hands in prayer.
Once, or twice, I was left sitting alone, dreadfully conspicuous
in the middle of rows of emptied benches, suffering the
of the cleansed and pious on their way to the altar rail to receive
the communion host.
Sinner! What sin hast thou committed? The penance still fresh
from thy lips!
A venial sin still allowed you to take communion.
But at an age raging with testosterone and bedeviled by generic temptations
the twenty four hours between penance and communion
is a sufferingly too long a period of time to remain in the requisite state of grace,
to partake in the sacramental bread-and-wine body-and-blood celebration.
I confess I have gone to the altar, many a time, my soul black as sin.
Thank god for plenary indulgencess and salvation coupons.
But there were also doses of non-curricular religion.
Severe doses of domestic religion.
In the province, compulsory evening prayers with the grandmother.
Nightly rosaries in Tagalog, all 53 beads, replete with mysteries.
At home, I remember a few years, likewise, of nightly prayers
and wednesday novenas to the Mother of Perpetual Help,
complete with hymns and litanies.
On Holy Thursdays, making rounds of churches on the way to Imus.
Doing countless Stations of the Cross.
Of course, there was Sunday Mass,
compelled by the mortal-sin-eternal-damnation thingy,
Later on, as life becomes more complicated and arduous,
as challenges piled up and failures threatened,
with God and the Virgin Mary overwhelmed with humanity's desperate prayers,
there were saints, patron saints galore, specialized for all different human needs,
for all professions, even patron saints for lawyers.
Growing up, the most often called upon was St. Jude.
St. Jude, patron saint of the Impossible,
for all those emergent, desperate and hopeless times.
A favorite go-to saint by students as the semester nears its end.
And when you feel you have been abandoned by the saints,
there's your guardian angel.
These are high school years in a boy's school.
Of new and raging testosterone.
Before Playboy, before Hustler.
Before Technicolor sin.
This was time when masturbatory alternatives to the classy photos
of Kim, Marilyn and Jane
were palm-sized newsprint editions of porn
with blurred black-and-white copulating images interspersed
between pages of titillating porn stories in Tagalog.
They were sold as "Bedtime Stories" or "Fighting
Familiar and recurring components to the litany of regularly confessed sins.
But the testosterone started intruding upon childhood innocence
long before Kim, Jane and Marilyn.
Way back in elementary school, there were early doses of Sex 101.
The earliest was the unsettling awareness of a that strange excitement
when the maid would soaped me all over in my daily showers.
Whoa! What is this that thrills, tingles and excites?
After a number of times, I went to my mother and said:
I think I am old enough
to do my own showers now.
My mother, surprised at my precocity, could only muster a sheepish "Oh. . . ok."
And a little later on I realized how stupid, stupid, stupid that
prematurely giving up a childhood perk,
instead of milking it to its hormonally raging end.
Really. . . stupid, stupid, stupid.
Another time, I came upon the laundry woman take a break from her laundry washing,
pull out her post-partum milk-filled breast and started squeezing
I watched in amazement at the long curving line of squirting milk.
She said she was cleaning it.
And asked if I wanted to taste it
. . . as long as I promised not to tell my mother.
She put a few drops on her finger.
I remember how intensely sweet it was.
As the testosterone started to rage in elementary school years,
sex became a subject of increasing interest and exploration,
beyond the generic palmar indulgences
before the availability of more graphic 'bedtime stories' porn,
and thank God, way way before cyber porn.
From a serious effort and complicated process of cajolement,
I was able to convince a cousin to be our object of sexual intercourse
and fulfill our hormonally confused Grail.
The initiates included two other cousins, I guess, early groupies.
The two level house shared by four or five families
required serious planning for a midnight rendezvous.
In the quiet of the night, we met on the second floor bathroom.
In hushed conspiratorial silence, we embarked on a menage-a-quarto,
a cousin standing, her back against the wall,
lifting her skirt
and pulling down her panties.
The three of us - I was the lead-boy in an unhurried line,
out our preadolescent weenies
and stepped forward in an orderly fashion, holding our little
lightly touching it to the cousin's awaiting and sacrificial pudendum,
then proceeding to the back of the short line for a second and
Alas, all severely Catholic boys and girl, guilt and sin burdened their souls,
or perhaps, just a case of blabbering and bragging,
because in just a few days, it snuck into my mother's grapevine.
I still remember her shrill screams, in incredible decibels of incredulity:
What! You put your pititing (penis) into her chichay (vagina)
What! What! . . . echoing with her disbelief.
She finally settled down when she surmised from the Q and A
that there was no penetration.
A few weeks later, undeterred, there was another effort of cajolery with another cousin.
Alas. . . that failed.
Soon the cousins left and one of the bottom rooms were rented
to a woman, E.
In the pie in the sky of pre-teen yearnings,
this was a slice of pie served by the muse of my preadolescent dreams.
Every day after school, I would pass by her window by the bottom
of the steps.
Many times I never made it up the steps.
E. was always there during the day. She worked nights.
She always had comic books by her bed.
I visited her room every chance I had.
and sat with her in her bed, to pretend to read her comic books
while I gazed at her past the edges of the comic book pages.
She was beautiful.
and always smelled of a sinful concoction of scents.
Perhaps, it was just the generic fragrance of bath soap.
But I was dizzy in the delights of scent and forbidden sights.
She always wore something light and wispy, that bared part of
Slivers of openings that revealed verboten patches of flesh.
In the afternoons, the window by the bed would catch the late
and the bathe the room with its ethereal glow
as the magic of light and shadows would slowly reveal
through the thin veil of thin and wispy, the sensuous curves of
and her nipples punctuating the carnal vision.
One day, too soon, she was gone.
Many summers of childhood were spent in Tiaong,
in that ancestral stone house with the sculpture of the half-naked Elias
at the center of the horseshoe-shaped pool,
inspired and drawn from Jose Rizal's
Noli Me Tangere,
frozen in time, in his brawn and bravado, battling a crocodile
that symbolized the common man's struggle against the collective burgis.
The house was built in 1927 to Tomas Mapua's architectural design,
historied by the Japanese occupation and damaged by the liberation bombing.
It houses many childhood memories.
Doña Concha and Don Tomas.
They orchestrated many of our childhood days.
A grandmother who lorded over and ran the business of their land.
A grandfather, who endlessly doted over his grandchildren.
Grew up with cousins, with the embellishments of provincial privilege.
Weekend picnics in the rivers, banana tree rafts afloat with lunch and delicacies.
Carabao cart rides through the coconut plantations
or walking the narrow footpaths of the ricelands.
When the grandparents died, the house slowly went into disuse.
And except for occasional shortlived occupancies
inevitably aging into disrepair, abandonment and hauntedness.
It still stands. . . the oldest house in Tiaong,
relic and repository that reminds of a time past,
with its colonial trimmings, the age of the hacienderos,
the Japanese occupation, a childhood that many shared,
and the many ignominuous stories of kin, old and recent –
most edging into the fringes of memory and unremembered.
But what remains, after all these years, is Doña Concha.
Remembered for her charity, for the many parcels of land
she has contributed to the remote barangays of Tiaong,
and the many schools erected and dedicated in her name.
In high school I was warned masturbation can make you mad,
adding to a lengthening list of life-restricting don'ts,
many, all, eventually debunked by
If you go to bed with your hair wet, you will wake up blind.
Walking after a meal will give you appendicitis.
If you jump up and down, as high as you can, on Good Saturday,
you will grow taller.
I didn't grow tall.
Nor go blind.
Never had appendicitis.
And I'm not mad. . . (I think.)
I was never into sports. I mean, sports participation.
Through grade school into high school, classmates were growing around me.
Even classmates just as tall ran faster and jumped higher.
I guess, then, I hated sweating and exertion.
I somehow managed to excuse myself from Physical Education.
Even in college, I had a medical certificate made for "Asthma"
to excuse me from weekly classes of PhysEd.
Although not a participant, I am the bona-fide spectator,
of many sports,
too many sports,
betting on it, giving points, and taking odds.
The last year of high school, I was somewhat frantic.
The years of underachievement flew by.with delightful and delinquent
The year would end with the Graduation Year Book, with pictures
with the list of extracurricular activities. Mine will have no
I think I joined the Chess Club, maybe something else.
There was still a rather empty expanse of white space under my
It is traditional to pass the year book around
for your classmates' signatures and dedications.
I read the assortment of dedications on the other classmates'
Most were empowering words for life's coming challenges,
Some laced with affirming recognition and expectation: Most
likely to succeed.
Alas, mine had none of those.
I would have settled for something like: Thanks for the memories.
But no luck on that.
But one stuck like glue to memory,
and perhaps, fairly summarized my days as an archer:
To Butch, the class character.
And, truly fortunate for the La Sallite education.
And have worn that badge of green with quiet pride.
Of course, I wondered how much of what we have become
came from family, circumstance, and serendipity.
Later, on recurring occasions, when a hurdle is passed,
when an opportunity presents,
I would think: it's the green education,
that made one confident and sure,
made challenges seem easier,
put one foot inside the door,
or got a step ahead of the rest.
Green, with too much religion.
Yes, it had shortcomings.
Abridged and depthless teaching of Philippine history.
A modicum of Philippine literature,
no Me-Tangere or Filibusterismo.
Maybe paragraph-caricatures of revolutionary heroes.
A literary landscape bursting at the seams
with English and American,
Shakespeare, Poe, Longfellow,
bushelfuls of cowboys and indians,
and the Classics' motley of characrters.
And too much religion. Severe doses of religion.
From the early years of cathechismal rote,
to help me remember who made me and why God made me –
To know Him, to love Him and to serve Him.
The seriously thick pages of the bible,
bursting at the seams with stories of miracles, murder and mayhem.
From the incredible seven days of creation,
to-date, an unsurpassed engineering feat,
to the early pages smeared with original sin and bloodied by Cain's first homicide.
Lot's wife turning to salt. Jonah swallowed by the whale. . . and surviving.
And man, oh, man. Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.
Jesus H. Christ, that is one seriously over-the-top miracle.
And that is Old Testament.
The New Testament is just a miracle-heavy.
Four authors–Matthew, Mark, Luke and John writing about the King of the Jews.
Timeless parables, sermons and beatitudes.
Timeless characters: the good sam and the prodigal son.
Top-notch miracles. Virgin birth. Water into wine. Loaves and fishes. Raising of Lazarus.
And his miracle-le-gran, His own resurrection.
Who needs fiction, when there is this is a pulse-racing read in one volume,
free, in every hotel room's bedside drawer.
If that's not enough, there's monthly confessions, communions and benedictions.
Confessions and communions were sort of interactive.
The benedictions I never figured out.
Just some ritual of incense burning and smoke fogging up the altar
and the priest murmuring unintelligible Latin.
What's the point of all these?
Um . . . just that. . . there was a lot of religion.
And with more than 300 years of Christianity and colonization,
and severely Catholic parents,
there really wasn't much choice.
I would still prefer
that over some religion that requires you to pray five times a day
that shuns the open appreciation of the beauty of women,
that wages a jihad on unbelievers,
even if it promises seventy plus virgins for a blow-yourself-up martyrdom.
Now. . . Rastafarianism with the cannabis rituals. . .
Hmm. . . I have to think about that.
What a game.
Life's first quarter far from finished and already burdened by
several realities and events.
I was a mistake, a product of a failed rhythm method. Merciless.
Called Tommy Tomorrow early on. Merciless.
Weekend abandonments, early on. Merciless.
And now leaving the hallowed halls of high school as "class
Um. . . merciless.
I wanted to go to Art School, and even Europe was bandied about.
But as I was graduating from High School,
my older brother, who was on his third year of premedical school,
developed mumps and its dreaded complication: orchitis.
Orchitis or not, I think my brother just wanted out.
Alas, both my parents were physicians,
and was expected, inevitable
to place the onus of their Hippocratic dream on me,
of having a physican in ther family and the clan on me.
My mother, the nominal healer, retired soon after graduation
for the nobler calling of motherhood, raising the eventual seven children
with their rabid and disparate temperaments.
Father practiced his kind of country medicine,
and I accompanied him often, tugging along in his housecalls,
depositing the patients' warm jars
of urine for my safekeeping.
But keeper-of-warm-jars-of-pee didn't enkindle me into medicine.
Maybe, it was his war-time stories of making rounds in Japanese
and saving many from death or torture by diagnosing them with
like tuberculosis or some kind of plague that might spread in
consequently haveing the the poor souls summarily banished
from the garrison to die their
Good story, but it wasn't that either that took me from art to
I think is was just the dutiful son surrendering his earlier dreams
to a parental wish and plea to have a son follow in their footsteps.
Mr Mistake. Mr Class Character. Mr Dutiful son.
Both parents were doctors.
Did I really have a choice?
Already edematous and saturated with theology,
I segued from the moulding hands of the Christian Brothers
to the educational citadel of the Dominican fathers.
From the ivy-leagued halls of La Salle
to the melting-potted environs of Santa tomas.
became glaringly aware of the benefits
Archer roots provided an edge—a certain hubris, a kind of
that elicited varying amounts of awe—and its own subtle strut.
More noticeably, it was an edge in English.
Doing the math, it would be 20 fluggin' years of an educational
ruled by men garbed in their white religious garbs.
But nonetheless, for the next eight years, I was a Thomasian,
dedicating three years of semesters and summer
school for pre-med
five years of medical school.
I continued my pursuit of education, in continuing committment to underachievement,
with the mastery of the tools and ways of achieving passing grades:
cramming, cramming, and more cramming,
and if that faills, missed exams and special make-up exams.
Absences were maxed to the limit.
Sneaked out, crawling, after roll-call
to catch the peso-and-ten
first showing in movie houses.
Passing continued to be no-sweat easy.
Once, I embarked on an effort to prove to myself
that underneath the chronic underachievement
I was capable of putting together a semester of graded excellence.
And indeed, I put out an impressive academic semester,
and soon relapsed back to the old commitment of academic underachievement.
April 17, 1961 was the botched Bay of Pigs.
November 23, 1963 John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
February 1965 saw the start of the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Medical school was five more years of under achievment.
rife with conflicts, recurring anomie and seasonal personal doubts.
It was somewhat facilitated by attending it in Santo Tomas
where both parents, both physicians, were alumni,
and quite a number of the my professors were their classmates.
Medicine was a long and fascinating journey ,
years of learning and exploration,
weaving through the separate and unfamiliar disciplines
of anatomy, histology, physiology, pharmacology, pathology,
that will eventually provide science and connections
to the seeming mysteries of the human condition.
Freshman anatomy was the initiation in our quest of learning.
A room laden heavy with the reek of formaldehyde,
rows of cadavers in stainless steel beds, shrouded in white,
the nameless and bloodless, the silent sacrificial dead.
With out gleaming stainless steel scalpels,
slicing through and cutting, piece by piece, organ by organ,
in the wake of our dissection and learning
their shreds and fragments slowly filling up the buckets.
Finally, a year of anatomical dissection completed,
the thousands of fragments are laid to rest
there is a mass burial for the nameless souls
to lend humanity to their silent service and our indebtedness.
That from the dead, we learn for the living.
Underachievement was sadly occasionally facilitated educational
Not just the usual venial sin peeks on your seat-mates' test papers
or the system of signals or whispered transfers of answers.
There was the unavoidable commerce of exam papers sold off-the-press,
a source of added income for professors' secretaries and lab assistants,
selling educational aids to the educationally lazy.
The slow shedding of squeamishness,
brains, hearts and body parts staring back from formalin jars.
Jerking frog legs in physiology class.
Parasites and the army of worms that fed into evidence-based
for things raw, or rare and bleeding slabs of steak.
Knowledge seamlessly segueing from theory to practicum,
the iconic stethoscope amplying the sounds
of heart beats, breath sounds and borborygmi,
as skills became defined and honed
as we are slowly led to our inclinations and eventual specializations.
My earlier dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon, slowly fading.
Of course, there was never any attempt at scholastic
No summa cum laude, magna cum laude, or even cum laude.
My goal, as always, was pasado bastante laude,
a goal that lowered the achievement bar
and allowed for concurrent courses in the University of Life.
The first summer break, I was asked to a attend summer school
for a friend's friend.
In my anomie and unquenchable thirst for enlightenment, I agreed.
I informed my parents, matter-of- factly, whom I thought would
merely shake their heads
in usual disbelief and consenting resignation for my unending
Alas, it was met with great dismay and anxiety,
and to boot, hurried advice and counsel from a lawyer-uncle,
who warned me of criminal complicity in fraud,
in the threshold of endeavors in the most noble of professions,
Of course, all of that fell on deaf ears.
In the anonymity in an unfamiliar univeristy,
I attended a summer class on Public Speaking and Debate as Arturo
Every one was required to stand up in front to deliver a sample
The class, impressed by my delivery, voted me class president.
From the teacher, I sensed a fondness and admiration.
When summer school ended, he invited me to join his debating team.
I suffered a pang of typical Christian guilt.
The following semester, he searched out Arturo C to join the debate club.
There was an exchange of confused incredulity and denials
between him and the real Arturo C.
But you're not Arturo C. . . Yes, I am, but
I didn't. . .But your name. . Yes, but
that's not me. . .
There must be another. . There's only one. . . This is your transcript. . .
Yes, but I'm not. . .
By sophomore year, music intruded into my academic endeavors.
Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, Paul Anka were fading from the music scene.
Instrumental rock bounded into the scene and the Ventures reigned
For a while, music stopped singing, as guitars twanged and reverbed.
Locally, RJ and the Riots ruled.
Walk Don't Run became the instrumental anthem.
Then folk music snuck in.
Locally, it might have started with the Kingston
Trio, Tom Dooley.
Then, Joan Baez, the Bob Dylan. Peter, Paul and Mary.
Here, folk music lacked heart and soul, angst and dissent
that fueled it and caused it to rage in America,
We embraced it here for the melody and harmony,
for the simple messages and metaphors of love
and loves lost,
with the anger, discontent, and protest of the songs
incongruous with the halcyon days of life
in this part of the world.
Nonetheless, it was folk music that hooked me.
Formed a group, Two and A Lady,
with a repertoire of mostly
Peter Paul and Mary songs,
sang with good harmony, albeit, short on passion.
How could you sing otherwise?
World War II and the Japanese occupation distanced by decades.
With no revolution in our souls, they were empty lyrics.
Apolitical souls in the halcyon days in a place still called the
Tiger of Asia.
We sang folk, making appearances on television shows and campus
For television shows, we taped into the morning hours.
In between waits and takes, peeking into thick medical books in
for next day's exam or some makeup exam or a special-exam for
a missed make-up exam.
We sang till we splintered. We splintered because the Lady left.
It was a nice patch of time.
A musical interlude in the midst of medical college.
Now I must confess.
All those years of Two and A Lady, I was in love with the lady.
The raging hormones, testosterone oozing off hair follicles and
The intolerable painful physical closeness.
I wrote long letters, avowals of love.
Letters never sent, consigned to a shoebox,
testament to a calvary of unrequited love.
The dollar exchanged to four pesos. A peso bought a pack of Camel.
Short time motel rooms, P19.50.
I continued to dabble in art; the passion, constant and simmering.
It was Pop Art that
sustained the yearning and the ache.
Warhol's Brillo Pad works came out '64.
Huh? Gee. Brillo Pads.
Roy Lichtenstein was putting out his comic book kind of art.
That was long long ago, prehistoric, relatively non-visual times
when art news and images came only in the limited servings
of what weekly magazines like Time, Newsweek, or Life
would occasionally feature, and local television, more rarely so.
And stil, the simmering passions for art waged its war
the unrelenting academic demands of Medicine.
Often I battled with self-doubts and recurring angst
of why I allowed myself to be hassled into medicine.
My mother was always ready with a parry and a tempering advice.
You have only four years left. Then, you can devote yourself
to art for the rest of your life.
A year later. . .
You have three years left. Then you can. . .
A year later, three done, two left,
I have lost the taste for battle.
Art took a respite, as I dedicated myself to the task of completing
my medical studies.
By fourth year, the academic landscape had changed.
We moved from the classrooms to the clinics,
from froglegs and cadavers to really sick people.
Real blood, real suppuration, real dying, real dead.
Searching, shelving, and sorting through tomes of theory
to connect the incredible dots of symptoms and signs.
strutting in our whites, adorned with the dangling badge
of the black stethoscope
slung on our necks.
1968. Warhol came up with Campbell's Soup 1.
It was a seminal event for me.
Blew me away.
I was incredulous and dazed with delight.
This is art?
Jesus H. Christ.
Yes, of course, it is art.
Yes. . . and in America, such things are possible.
I was irrevocably hooked.
And America beckoned, a little more.
On the 4th year of medical school, I was asked to put a group together
for an intra-collegiate singing competition.
Called the Golden Echoes.
The group won First Prize, singing the Sandpipers song: Guantanamera.
Internship was a whirlwind year, and a blur.
A twelve-month internship outside the restricting environs of
the Dominican citadel.
rotating from one affliliate specialty hospital or clinic to the next.
There is not much I can remember of the last year.
Just one, or two events.
Other than being voted class president as Arturo C,
my academic life
has been devoid of political aspirations.
My Thomasian years were almost so.
Like the Archer years, I did not seek membership in organizations.
There were two medical fraternities: Caduceus, I think, and Tau
I had invitations to join both, enticed by one that they would go easy on me,
I declined the benefits of their brotherhoods.
As senior-year elections were nearing, I joked that I would
run for president.
A friend laughed, said I couldn't win against the frat boys.
I ran and I won.
And was burdened with almost immediate regrets.
Antisocial, prone to isolationism and protracted
periods of solitude,
I did not have the desire nor ability for the activities of office.
I disappeared almost immediately, thankful for the female president
and the male vice-president who took over the helm.
The other, my rotation in obstetrics, in a government hospital providing service to the indigent.
The every third night call was shared with another intern,
working into inevitalbe exhaustion into the morning hours,
manning rows of tables, often filled with gravidas
screaming in obstetrical pain, promising: Never
Sometimes they never made it to the table,
A patient delivered in the back of a taxicab.
But most nights, we sat, gowned and gloved,
gazing at the progressive bulging of vaginas as the head pushes forward,
expectant for the multigravida's hasty delivery,
or scissors in hand, ready to deliver the primigravidal episiotomy.
While a nurse goes around measuring cervical dilations,
announcing: Placenta out.
or warning of imminent deliveries: Fully dilated!
or frantically screaming: Baby out!
If there was time, we would rush to the bucket of Phisohex
for a hurried effort of glove disinfection.
Some times, you just rush to the "baby coming out" table,
the baby half out,
to guide it in the last stage of vaginal passage,
hastily cutting and clamping the cord,
and rushing to another table and gravida
as another head vigorously pushes into the world,
deaf to the discordant chorus of screaming women.
One night, at brink of exhaustion, after cutting the cord
a baby slipped through my
hands, did a half-somersault,
kerplunked and squished into a bucket
half-filled with placenta.
I did a few post-delivery follow-ups on the infant,
making sure the baby was moving all fours and crying heartily.
The baby was fine and the parents were delighted and thankful
my concerned follow up care
unaware of their baby's precocious circus act.
The last year's tuition was less than a thousand pesos.
I got my diploma, in its traditional beige and expensive texture,
laden with the essential and impressive Latin.
I never framed it.
It's folded somewhere, hopelessly creased.
In fact, I never framed or hung diplomas and certificates.
I was often badgered about the absence of framed parchment in
my office rooms.
For many, graduation was the prologue for the American dream.
The interim offered few other choices; many went to hospital
I chose the freedom and adventure of pharmaceutical-sponsored medical missions,
with its opportunity for traveling the islands and provinces,
remote places, deep in the bowels of boondocks.
Memorable were the town feasts that awaited us in the hosting
and the inevitable evenings of bacchanalia.
Somewhere way up north, in the middle of a mission clinic, I was handed
Your father dead. Awaiting you for burial.
Seeking catharsis, I ran into the wind, with nowhere to go but
the limits of exhaustion.
I settled down, tearful.
Then headed home.
A banca ride, a connection of jeepney rides, and a long
bus ride to Manila,
sobbing through lonely hours of grief and loss, wondering at its
assured by a certainty that my mother was comforted by the love
In too long stretch of bus-bumpy grief, I even imagined him
in the coffin
in peaceful repose, wearing his favorite light blue suit.
I arrived past midnight, found the house in a strange familiar
My sister, wakened from my knocking, asked what I was doing back
Shortly after, my father came out, a most welcome apparition.
He said he felt like he has gotten a second lease on life.
July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
There were a few more sundry medical endeavors.
A nightly school clinic I relieved my father from.
Another, a brief and fascinating understudy with a cosmetic surgeon,
cutting away, pulling back the ravages of aging,
eyes, noses, boobs, wrinkles, and sagging bags,
fulfilling dreams with silicon implants,
feminizing males by subtractions and augmentations.
I considered the specialty briefly.
Thought it could be a merging of medicine and art.
Egads! Glad a guardian angel intervened.
And finally, there was time for art.
A two-year immersion
exploring different mediums: ceramics, fiberglass, polymer, woodcuts,
including a short and failed attempt at the potter's wheel.
I hang around an artist workship, fiddliing around with art forms
and flirting with Japayuki hostesses killing their daytime hours.
I entered a juried mixed-media competition, I won first prize
In another, with entrees untagged in a juried competition in ceramics,
I won Grand Prize with a "Last Supper" entry,
and two other
prizes: first and honorable mention.
The Plaza Miranda bombing occurred in August 21, 1971.
9 people were killed. Scores wounded.
There was a flurry of finger pointing.
Incumbent Marcos was blamed.
He blamed the communists.
He suspended the writ of habeas corpus
and soon after, declared martial law.
Plaza Miranda ceased to be.
After a medical employment opportunity in Nigeria failed to materialize
American loomed large in the horizon.
For health care providers, doctors and nurses
it was easy and accessible, the inevitable destination.
For many it was the elusive dream, the expensive eden.
For pregnant applicants, it is a desperate need to leave,
months later, to "anchor" their babies for its future eden.
Many suffer the long and uncertain wait,
banking on embellished applications, faked bank accounts,
the lottery of quotas, and the intervention of prayers
seeking hope in this distant diaspora
away from all things familiar, away from homeland.
And it's a difficult journey.
Not just jumping borders.
It's a flight to
An expensive flight to Eden.
For some, a nightmare of hock and usury.
Or you could choose to go as a tourist.
And pray the god of serendipity grants you good fortune.
Once there, choices await.
Legitimacy through work sponsorship or marriage
if one can manage it before the visa expires.
Otherwise, many become the invisible tourist.
Tago-nang-tago. Literally, hiding-and-hiding.
Disappearing in the melting-pot.
No. Not really a melting pot.
But pockets of ethnicities. Separate. Exclusive.
Culture-bound. Xenophobic, sometimes.
A Filipino community is an efficient pocket.
Providing a hospitable sanctuary.
I applied for a tourist visa.
Although I have already passed the requisite exam, I did not apply as a physician,
which would have facilitated gaining entry
through a medical working visa.
Instead, I elected to go as a tourist, to travel the country, see
my soul overflowing with passion and imagined adventures.
The possibilities with art, visting the galleries, maybe even apprenticeship with an artist.
The processing gentleman at the U.S. embasy said:
I don't believe you. I know you're not coming back.
I said I would.
Grudglingly, he approved my tourist visa application.
There were six pesos to a dollar.
A peso for a pack of Lucky Strikes.
The sexual revolution was a decade or two away.
Young males rabid with testosterone circled the red light districts
Mabini, Pasay, the barbecue strips of Dewey Blvd.
Fifteen to twenty pesos paid for a prostitute.
Short-time motel rooms were P19.50.
November 1971, I left for America.
With about fifteen hundred dollars funding a pocketful of dreams.
My parents brought me to the airport.
My mother's parting words: You know you can come back anytime.
My father's parting words: If I die, don't come back. Just say a prayer for me.
Yeah. . . the grand opposites of parental angst.
I landed in San Francisco, cabbed to Mill Valley.
An incredible chunk from my nest egg.
My first few weeks were in a one-room pad, courtesy of a Pete
an American returning the courtesy of hospitality given when he
visited the Philippines.
Same night I arrived, aching and weary from travel, he took me some place,
inserted ourselves into a circle of people where a joint was being
and got my first American buzz.
A good one.
A few nights later, his girlfriend's daughter comes to me, naked
from the waist up,
asking for a light for her mom's cigarette, dangling from her lips,
her mortal sin-inducing nubile breasts. . .
. . . Bless me father for I have sinned. . .
reflecting the dance of the flickering glow from a Bic's conspiratorial
Wow! Jiminy crickets!
This is America?
I met Leila. a few years earlier in the Philippines,
the last year of my medical school, the last year of her BS studies.
A blinding exploration of love in a landscape of hormones gone mad.
Put on hold.
She left for the U.S. a few months earlier.
We met in California.
It was a short renewal.
A short story of love.
It didn't seem to anyone in her family that I would amount to anything.
She was young, the youngest in her family, needing to be protected
from all the things they saw or didn't see in me.
Later, she confessed, her family conspired to break us apart.
And so in LA, the earlier promise of love and life floundered
Too soon, forlorn and heartbroken, I was flying to New Jersey.
My journey for art was long on adventure, low on wisdom, and short
My move to New Jersey severely dwindled my dollar stash,.
My continued survival through winter, by the grace of a cousin, Noli.
By February, my bankroll was down to a fistful of dollars.
Returning to the Philippines was one of two options.
Medicine was the other one.
I interviewed for an internship at a general hospital in New Brunswick,
Then and there, I was offered a position for a rotating intership to
start in July.
Soon, my years of underachievement would expose me.
There were still four months to internship
and there was a large
and gaping hole in my pocket.
I was a charity-case free-loading on a cousin.
Through a cousin's friend, Ed, I got an under-the-table employment
in a small-boat company.
Squeegeeing noxious polymer liquid on sheets of fiberglass.
It was a disparate crew made up of an assortment of social pathologies.
Ed was an ex-convict who had trouble getting it up.
A married co-worker had the hots for him, and kept making unrequited
unware that he couldn't get it up or maintain a functional tumescence.
Another, an unmarried fat forty year-old Italian who lived with
who packed him a daily five-course Italian lunch.
Another guy who barely spoke a word the whole day,
and when he did, only to mumble to himself
And I. . . with my socially dysfunctional existence,
finally, for the first time in my life, in all and any measure,
suddenly feeling the most normal of the group.
Once a week, everyone would take a break from the squeegee
and rotate on a day of janitorial duty.
Ed knew I was a doctor, felt bad, and offered to do my janitorial rotation
I was paid $1.90 an hour, took home 90 dollars and change on Saturdays.
It paid for weekend beer at a local bar, a few games at a
and leftovers to replenish much dwindled funds.
July came, soon enough.
I embarked on a journey of Medicine.
I had no idea at that time where it would take me.
Or that It would be a voyage that would take the next thirty years, and more.
But first, my years of academic underachievement
my dreadful deficiencies and inefficiencies.
On September 21, 1972, Marcos declared martial law in
Middlesex General Hospital was an accredited teaching hospital.
Like many of such, it attracted applicants from a motley of nationalities.
My group consisted of an Egyptian, a few Chinese, a Czech, many
from India, and myself, the sole Filipino.
I was the weakest in the group.
Well, maybe, except maybe for
who went through her internship with a dictionary in hand.
I did not do hospital residency after graduation
and was unfamiliar with the necessary skills essential for
And although I could wing through the basics,
the theory part was glaringly deficient, my clinical skills, woefully
A difficult initiation into Western medicine.
A year of humbling experiences.
An Indian resident, Dr Subaya, took me under his wing.
He must have seen in me some kind of promise,
gave me the
time and patience during my rotation in internal medicine,
and guided me in the
techniques of procedures and biopsies.
My reeducation has started.
But Internal Medicine was still an uncertain calling.
Towards the end of internship, with nowwhere to go
I applied for a residency in Pathology in a New York hospital.
After the interview, assured of a position, I was taken around
what the bulk of my first year's residency work would be.
Measuring and dictating notes on aborted fetuses.
It would fill the next few weeks of sleep with nightmares.
I backed out of the residency.
By then, it was too late to apply for an internal medicine residency
in my hospital of internship.
All the residency positions were taken.
Also, the Chief of Medicine did not think I had the skills
to teach incoming interns.
He offered me another year of internship which he assured me
as another year for the three years required for an Internal Medicine
Of course, I declined.
The year of internship was dog-eared with art.
In a ceramic art show, I entered a smaller version of the "Last
that won the grand prize a year and a half ago at the ceramic
show in Manila.
Again, It won Grand Prize, with a trophy to boot.
Another piece, "The Metamorphosis of Judas" won third
Weekends I would haul my artwork to boardwalks and weekend art
I accummulated a drawerful of "ribbon" prizes.
The year of internship was dog-eared with some memorable days
In a ceramic art show, I entered a smaller version of the "Last
that won the grand prize a year and a half ago at the ceramic
show in Manila.
Again, It won Grand Prize again, with a trophy to boot.
Another piece, "The Metamorphosis of Judas" won third
There were other art shows, hauling artwork to boardwalks and weekend art
often coming home
Christmas eve, with nowhere to go, four of the interns decided
to come to my place.
After our hospital day's work, we hurried to grocery store for
our night's feast.
No one warned us.
All the stores were closed.
Nothing else to do, nowhere else to go,
they still came to my one room apartment.
Simply furnished with a bean bag chair, flea market cushions
and tabletop propped on empty tape canisters.
We feasted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,
an assortment of snacks, washed down with Coca-Cola,
while we exchanged stories of motherlands.
Mr. Fish was a cardiac patient who took a liking for me.
During his recurrent admissions, I spent much time with him, exchanging stories.
One quiet night of call, I made a pencil portrait sketch and gifted it.
He invited me to his house for dinner.
Always tried fixing me up with the pretty nurses.
One weekend, he was admitted in cardiac arrest.
The resuscitation effort was only successful in bringing back a heart beat.
But there were all the other signs of irreversible brain damage.
Fixed and dilated pupils.
His vital signs maintained by mechanical ventilation
and a curtain intravenous pharmaceutical lines.
I asked the nurse why he was being kept alive.
She said: The doctor doesn't want to turn it off. . . yet.
I turned the respirator off. His vital signs petered away.
I declared him dead.
And went to talk to the family.
I never received any censure.
And, there was. . . sex, drugs and rock n' roll.
Well. . . sex and drugs. No rock n' roll.
My music was acoustic guitar. Classic pieces.
More Bach minuets and bourrees than Beetles and BeeGees.
I hang on to folk music, although it was dying off the landscape.
But still, the acoustic music provided background music
nights of alcohol fueled and smoky extended realities.
This was the early seventies.
Although there was acid, marijuana
was the social bridge.
Occasionally, one chanced into Thai sticks,
skewered premium buds
of seedless marijuana.
Alas, I don't think I looked like a dope-head.
But a joint materialized in near every social encounter.
Well, the long hair, artist, guitar-playing persona surely didn't
Much later on, with shorter hair, and the accoutrements of private practice,
I was always assumed the street-smart expert on drugs.
Alas, the chronic allergic sniffles was attributed to some kind of drug abuse.
And, there was sex, or opportunities for it.
More than any other immigrant population,
for that matter, perhaps, more than any other profession,
physician gets laid the most.
The medical profession has a singular allure
for nurses, secretaries, ward clerks,
suffering boredom, loneliness and the vicissitudes of family life
finding sanctuary and respite in the intimate environs of clinics
many playing confusing and interchangeable roles of prey
and the noblest of profession with his noble hard-on gets his
ample noble share.
During my internship, I met C., a Flemington Jersey lass.
Fell in love.
I thought it was the "cosmic" thing.
She was Episcopalian.
I was Catholic.
We wanted to get married in a park.
The minister said, No, it has to be in church, the House of God.
I dug into my cathechismal bag and countered:
God is everywhere!
Unconvinced by my repartee, I threatened
if he refused
I would seek another pastor.
He agreed, but with a compromise.
Instead of a park, my in-laws' backyard.
Under an oak tree, with a yellow ribbon tied around it.
The minister, probably upset he couldn't get me inside God's house,
delivered an ill-chosen ill-omened homily
and the fragility of relationships.
The sermon upset me none.
I was high as a kite with a New Jersey buzz.
I wore an off-white well-tailored Hongkong-rushed suit.
People dress like this where you come from?
They must have watched a Geographic Mag special
with natives wearing G-strings.
March 29, 1973, U. S. withdrew from Vietnam.
With no available residency in an Internal Medicine teaching program,
and the lean pickings for other specialty residencies in late June,
I opted for a house staff position in a non-teaching hospital.
We trucked our meager possessions to Baltimore,
Everything fit in a pint-sized U-Haul.
Generic pieces of furniture, bed, pillow-couch, dining table,
kitchen necessities, boxes of books, a guitar,
still unopened wedding gifts,
and schnookel, a three-month old schnauzer that C. definitely had to have.
Schnookel's name, I think, derives from a German word meaning 'sweetheart.'
From a country with a penchant for eating dogs, rather than as house pets,
I was indifferent to her cropped wiry coat and weird muzzle whiskered cuteness,
at the same time, incredulous at the 30-some dollars spent monthly
to trrim her coat and whisker.
A hyper dog. Well, she was abandoned daily.
We'd come home to find the furniture legs, slippers, shoes,
carpet corners, pillows, in increasing degrees of chewed-up-ness.
Belonging to the old school of punishment-for-character-development
there were varying measures of doggie-corporeal punishment
which she seemed to accept with guilty-doggie-equanimity.
I tried to teach her dog tricks, to kneel, roll over,
shake hands and beg, but learned none of it.
What she leaned, from god knows where, was to hump my leg.
Yes, hump my leg.
Coming home, dog-tired from long days of hospital work,
she'd come rushing to meet me, in frenzied delight
humping hard at my shin bone, to C's dismay and my perverse delight.
Provident Hospital was a non-teaching hospital at the edge of
The patients, the nurses and support staff were mostly black.
A few of the attending physicians
the rest of the medical staff were mostly of immigrant roots.
The house staff were a motley group of interns or residents,
two Filipinos, a Spaniard, a Korean, a few from India, and a Thai.
It was a half-way house for rejects,
residents who missed out on placement to teaching hospitals.
I took it as an opportunity for a re-education into Medicine.
For the next six months, I embarked on a review course in medicine.
I pored on tomes of books, read and re-read, day and night,
and read again on the diagnoses of every patient that I was involved with.
In the alien enviroment of the cardiac-intensive care unit,
I confessed my ignorance and asked the nurses for help,
who more than willingly guided me through an on-site ABC of acute
I bought books in electrocardiography,
studied the electrical
basis of rhythms and patterns.
I honed my auscultatiion skills, listened to tapes of cardiac
murmurs and sounds.
It was the beginning of a fascinating journey.
Early on, I found surgery's mechanical dexterity unappealing. Nixed it.
Specialty medicine was too limiting.
The heart, the endocrine system, the gastrointerestinal, hematology,
the nervous system.
Ear nose throat. Oh. . . there's the skin. . . dermatology, cushy, low stress.
None of the Specialties appealed to me.
Internal Medicine continued to draw me in.
The challenge of distilling of layers of complexity into dots of information.
The seeming unconnectedness of conundrums and clues.
The connecting of the dots.
Yes. Connect-the-dots medicine.
First-stop medicine. Blood-and-guts medicine. Gateway medicine.
Somewhere along that fascinating journey of relearning and reeducation,
came the realization and epiphany that in Internal Medicine
was the true art of medicine.
And with it, the mawkish hubris, believing that more than any branch of
it is internal medicine, practiced to craft and commitment,
that brings one closest to
the human condition.
Barely four months in Provident Hospital, deep in my effort of
the Chief of Internal Medicine, a Thai immigrant, took me aside
and told me I was wasting my time there and should finish my residency.
He heard of a new residency program in Internal Medicine
and made me an appointment to interview for a residency position.
I was interviewed by the Chiefs of Medicine, Infectious Disease
The muses or gods must have intervened.
All the questions asked were on topics I have read over the past
two or three days.
I looked at it as more luck than erudition.
The Chief of Infectious Disease asked why I wasn't on a residency program,
and added: What a loss for the last
program that didn't keep me.
I was allowed to break my contract with Provident Hospital.
January, I started on my Internal Medicine residency in Franklin
Square Hospital in Baltimore County.
It was a whirlwind year.
The fascination with medicine grew.
The residency program was new.
The interns and residents in internal medicine was a motley crew
of cultural diversity.
Interns and residents from India, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
There were Americans rotating through Medicine from the Family
A bright group, and despite occasional doses of intrigue and short-lived
there was a warm camaraderie that provided an exciting environ
Also, it was cultural diversity that scrumptiously manifested
social evenings of feasting tables
that surprised our appetites with the adventures and assaults of spices
and invariably mouth-numbing fire-breathing concoctions.
It was a great time for relearning and improving skills.
It was a time before the age of "more" technology
early CTScan, pre-MRI, pre-CPK, way pre-Troponin,
before the deluge of expensive diagnosing armamentaria.
Despite my years of underachievement in medical school,
the basics in the art of auscultation stuck.
And in internal medicine, the stethoscope is the indispensable
a fascinating and powerful implement, amplifying the inner human sounds
of bruits, gallops, murmurs, rhythms, snaps, rales and crepitations,
providing critical clues for diagnosis and treatment.
I enjoyed the diagnostic challenges.
practiced and honed on the oft-neglected art of history taking,
clues spilling out from the layers of questions,
examining the patient, listening to sounds, laying hands,
reconciling the laboratory data, then. . . connecting the dots,
the wonderful eurekas arriving at the correct diagnosis.
And sometimes, the humbling ocassions of missing it.
On one emergency room duty, a forty-some year old female was
brought in for chest pains.
By the time I saw her, after a GI antacid cocktail given by the
nurse, the pain has almost resolved
The history revealed nothing to suggest a cardiac problem, no
family history, no lifestyle risks.
A system review suggested acid-reflux problems.
Her electrocardiogram was normal.
Her physical exam, except for minimal epigastric tenderness, was
This was the time before the availabity of cardiac enzymes for
emergency room screening.
She was sent home, pain-free and reassured.
Four hours later she was brought back to the emergency room in
Resuscitation efforts, which I led, failed.
For days I was paralyzed, incredulous, burdened by uncertainty.
I consulted on it, played it again and again in my mind,
agonizingly searched for the error or clinical misjudgment.
And found none.
I considered a safer specialty.
Dermatology flirted as a specialty.
But stayed in internal medicine.
The death was an early lesson.
A lesson that stayed with me.
A crossroad, pondering and reflecting, burdened by a realization
that no matter the science, no matter the thoroughness and commitment,
I will be brought back to this crossroad, again and again.
To ponder a death, to ponder what omission,
To ponder what else could have been done.
Or, to ponder what you should not have been done.
Centuries ago, Ambroise Paré phrased the motto:
Guérir quelquefois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours.
"To cure occasionally, relieve often, console always."
Only in the absolute commitment to that can we justify and comfort
In the occasionnal and inevitable deaths that surprise us.
A Jewish couple came to dinner.
The guy a fellow resident at the hospital.
They brought a bottle of red wine,
a departure from the beer and
Tanduay of the Philippine days.
This was my first taste into the civilized world of grapey libation.
I found it unpleasantly tannic and warm.
I put a couple of ice cubes in it.
Um. . . Better.
My proletarian ways were exposed
and ended future social interactions with the couple.
By mid year, my marriage was floundering.
Medicine consumed my hours. Her studies consumed hers.
She wanted to find herself.
It was that time when "searching for oneself" was de
She also wanted to try modeling in New York.
I told her she was too short.
She left anyway.
It broke my heart.
And she took Schnookel and her humpin'-doggin' ways with her.
A broken heart.
A different kind of crossroad.
I wanted to leave.
Start anew. Someplace. Any place.
Even, back home.
I sold my artwork for a plane ticket and extra cash.
Soon, I packed my bags.
Ken L., the Chief of Medicine came to my apartment.
I imagine, to rescue me from my decision.
We talked, idle chatter. I played guitar.
A few gin and tonics.
Offered me a place, a room, in his home.
To crash, to put the pieces together, to chill.
I didn't take him up on the offer.
But it was an act of kindness and concern I have never forgotten.
I stayed on.
More than twenty years later, I thanked him for that act of kindness,
how the evening made me change my mind about leaving.
And in more ways than one, changed my life.
I choked on my words.
For me, pleasantly cathartic.
On my second year, I was offered the Chief Resident position.
A validating vote of confidence.
It was an incredible year of learning and teaching
and gaining hands-on experience on bedside procedures.
The climactic personal event was being asked to insert an emergency
on a myocardial infarction patient going into varying degrees
of heart block.
Some holiday weekend.
There were no cardiologists immediately available.
I successfully threaded wires through a subclavian stick,
A fluoroscopy machine and a cardiac-PA
For someone who could have been measuring aborted fetuses,
it was a personally defining moment.
An immeasurably exhilarating moment.
I met B., a lass from the farmlands of the Midwest.
A chance elevator encounter and weeks of corridor flirting led
to an 8-year relationship.
She left her husband of six months.
"All is fair in love and war."
She said he said I was a gook.
It was a first-time word that required a dictionary check.
Said she frequently dreamt of having a Korean lover.
I guess gooks all look alike in the ethereal haziness of dreams.
She became the alter ego.
We shared in music. My guitar, Her flute. We sang together.
She was country music crazy. Late seventies. Early eighties.
Don Williams, Merle Haggard. Willie Nelson.
Some loves songs that continue to break my heart to this
Oh. . did I mention she had great farm legs.
Healthy looking gams, thighs, goobers
In her tight jeans, black men would just gawk and ogle,
their heads and say Oh, Sweet Jesus!
And she loved her dope, marijuana mostly.
She half-filled cigarettes with grass and repacked them, perfectly.
And loved lacing her cookies with it.
We were high on the Swiss alps, munching on Maryland-baked cookies
That was the time before airport sniffing dogs.
Later, she invented a smokie surf-and-turf. Grass and snow.
Days of reckless anomie.
Days long gone.
A few months left of the chief residency year,
I was granted an
unheard-of privelege and allowed to take a part-time job
as a Medical Officer at the Maryland House of Correction.
A maximum security prison in Jessup.
There were an hour-and-a-half of Monday-to-Friday morning clinics,
for which I had to rush out of Franklin Square after morning rounds
Massive metal sliding doors, opening, and clanging
walking through a gauntlet of men in the fringe of existence,
in their silent honesty of failures, hardened criminals, recidivists,
murderers, rapists, perverts
and the so-many who claim their innocence.
The first chore is to ask if anyone was put in the "Hole,"
a dungeon relic
from the Dark Ages,
down a long flight of steps, to a few rooms in the dark and dank,
where we might find a recalcitrant soul, half-naked
curled and shivering
in his shield of blanket.
Next, to attend to any claims of anal rape
and the unpleasant
task of confirming it with rectal swabs and smears.
Then rounds in two Segragation Halls, fifty cells each.
Each cell as wide as the arms' stretch in a yawn,
their days scratched on to the walls,
some walls pasted with pages of naked women,
shared and silent surrogates.
Listened to generic complaints, headaches, frayed nerves,
Recurrent requests for sleepers, pain killers, anxiolytics.
Then to Lock-Up, where some prisoners are punitively placed in
or where some request self-imposed protective isolation.
I walked the line of cells, from end to end, listening to the
litany of human misery,
their maladies, real and invented, and their ephemeral needs.
The first days my hands shook so hard I had to hook my fingers
onto the door bars
to steady my hands as I held and wrote on the chart.
The guard escort warned me many times: Don't stay too
They have splashed buckets of shit and urine on doctors.
I heard quite a number of doctors lasted only a week
A few, just a day.
I never got splashed on.
After a few weeks, their greetings became cordial.
Good morning, Dr. Sharp.
I always wore a suit. They loved my threads.
But it still took a while to get over my fears.
In the clinics, I had to learn the language of their complaints,
the real and the feigned,
the bartering and the pacts, the culture and trade of the drugs.
Everyone was testing the new doctor.
Everyone wanted drugs: pain killers, sleeping pills, nerve busters,
or for that matter, any medication with trade-in value.
Many of the maladies are feigned and the drugs found their way
into the local drug trade.
Doc, those motherfucking pills don't do the job.
Doc, some motherfucker stole my pills.
Doc, I still get these motherfucking headaches.
There was no science in the medicine.
But there was skill and art in the pacts.
Doc, my motherfucking nerves are acting up.
Here comes the Equanil line.
They liked their Darvons, Valiums, Soma.
They liked anything they can shoot, through the arms, throught
the nose, through the toes.
They liked anything they can trade or sell.
Five for a Valium, three for a Soma, a dollar for a Darvon.
Two packs of cigarettes for an Equanil.
They play poker or Jacks, betting and bidding on pills and capsules.
If I scrimp on writing prescriptions, they'll bug the motherfucking
bejesus out of me
and sign up for clinic visits two or three times every motherfucking
The other doctor, a few months ahead in the trenches, advised
You gotta stay tough.
So I gave tough a try.
Started talking their mother-fucker embellished language.
The first time I used "motherfucker," it turned heads
Ok, I'll give enough pills to last the fucking month,
but I don't want to see you for a mother-fucking month.
They'd say: Deal, Doc.
Or Word, Doc.
Soon enough, my hands weren't shaking anymore, and I could look
them in the motherfucking eye.
And I don't see them for a month.
When it came to pill pacts, they were always true to their motherfucking
I brought the language home with me.
B. noticed, said You're starting to talk like a sailor.
In elementary school, when my mother heard me cursing putang
ina, she soaped my mouth.
Alas, my short stint as a prison doctor left me permanently afflicted
with a motherfucking penchant for cussing.
A malady so severe, my mother would have suffered elbow tendinitis
soaping the curses off my mouth.
There was a prison hospital, mostly empty, except for a
chronic patient or two.
One was an elderly man, who has been in prison most of his adult
He had nowhere to go to. No family. No home. No children who cared
Maladies were invented for him that justifed chronic use of the
in exchange for the cleaning and janitorial services he gladly
This and other small favors I did for the inmates did not go unnoticed.
Soon, my clinic patients were being screened by inmate bosses,
abusers and trouble makers
were kept away.
One time I was warned: Monday, don't come to work, there
will be a small riot.
And true enough, there was.
As residency was ending, I had three offers to join in private
The second, with too much baggage of censure, I turned down outright.
Another was appealing, two Jewish doctors, but was asking me to cut my hair short.
Thought the request was too establishment, I nixed that too.
But many years later, a photo relic showed what I was being asked
to cut off.
Lordy, lordy, lordy.
I was still fashioning my motherfucking Mod-Squad afro-type hairdo.
I asked everyone why no one told me it looked so anachronistically
I took the first offer, from a guy who expressed interest early in my residency days.
Even then he
saw in medicine the potential of realizing his vision,
medicine as instrument of power and politics.
We formed the base for what would grow into a successful enterprise,
for a while, a brotherhood of men
immersed in the humanity and commerce of their profession,
becoming one of the busiest and more successful private practices
Rosedale part of Baltimore County.
The practice grew from two to five physicians,
a new physician adding each year or two.
It became a multispecialty group.
A cardiologist, oncologist, pulmonologist, and a gastroenterologist.
The group was a rainbow coalition of ethnicities.
From the Dominican Republic, Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh,
and a Baltimore born-and-bred Jewish physician.
I was the basic internist.
Loved the blood and guts work.
From the start, I begged off committee appointments, medical politics and
Although there was a busy clinic practice, the bulk of the work
was hospital practice,
many of the patients referred by local practitioners for hospital admission
of acute life-threatening problems.
Almost always there was a handful of patients in the cardiac and
intensive care units.
It was a time before the hospitalists became in vogue.
At the peak of the practice, we averaged about 60 to 70 patients
in the three hospitals we rounded.
Weekends, the partners take off, the on-call worked it alone.
Alone, doing patient rounds, new admissions,
and inbetween, phone calls from patients with their generic complaints
families inquiring on the condition of their loved one,
from sunrise to way past sundown, sometimes to the midnight hours.
Tired to the bone, you crawl to bed.
Some nights, you get called back to the hospital,
for a patient taking a turn for the worse, or an imminent death,
or for a patient admitted for an acute cardiopulmonary problem.
You crawl out of bed, dragging your weary bones.
It was hard work, with the measures of good life.
It was the time before utilization reviews
where patients were admitted, not just because of life-and-death conditions,
but also for their
sundry non-threatening maladies
providing an added ka-ching to the commerce of medicine.
Halcyon days of medical commerce that allowed the good life.
Long weekends, frequent
respites and travels, returning refreshed
Back to the familiar grind of patients and pathologies.
We joked about the math and economics of our profession,
in a month, earning much less than half of what some baseball players would make in a single at-bat.
Friend of God.
Given name that presented as a problem every now and then.
Too frequent, a cause of misspelling; and sometimes, a misattribution.
Once, I advised a daughter on her mother's diagnosis of metastatic cancer
carefully treading and explaining the options for supportive and palliative care
and the withdrawal of life-extending measure.
She screamed a long stretch of invectives
God! I know you have 'god' in your name.
But you're not God! How dare you decide my mother's life!
The guitar was never idle.
Always ready to provide therapeutic doses of sound.
A repertoire of classic pieces, practiced to reasonable perfection.
And the songs, mostly folk and 80s country and ballads,
more often singing of love found or pining of love lost.
I was asked to perform for weddings of nurses and residents.
After a few years of this musical avocation, the chief of Family Medicine
Perhaps, you should stop singing for the residents' weddings,
they separate within a year.
Guérir quelquefois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours..
To cure occasionally, relieve often, console always.
Both tenet and maxim, it guides many in their practice of medicine.
And good medicine demands work and sacrifice,
way beyond the three A's that I was mentored with early on.
Ability, availability and amiability.
But I have seen some successful practices run on just two A's
balanced up by an indefinable ingredient of "style"
that cements a bond of trust and loyalty.
I have covered physicians' practices during their vacation or
or took care of their patients during their hospital admissions,
and listened to them talk of their physicians in awe.
while reading through the charts or listening to their histories
that exposes a dreadful level of negligent care.
But some practitioners are blessed with accidental humanity
practicing their profession with caring and compassion,
with doses of consoling words or comforting touches
always dispensed in unhurried time
that more than make up for their negligence, ommisions and ignorance.
Medicine is both science and art, sometimes more of the latter,
reliant on tincture of time, faith and placebo.
. . and luck.
They come to us, not just for the cure and the comforting.
But also, with their hopes and fears.
Ready to bare their souls, if we have the time to care,
with many stories they want to tell, if we have time to listen.
And if we care and listen, the stories are often windows to their illness
or sometimes, doors they invite you to enter, if you care to enter,
into rooms filled with their
dreadful or sad little secrets
that might explain the whence of their maladies.
You try to fit that all in a 20- or 30-minute visit.
It is impossible to do that in the 15-minute visit alloted
by managed care's ka-ching-ka-ching kind of jiffy-lube medicine.
I became the "astute" clinician, a reference that embarassed
Compliments always left me tongue-tied and uncomfortable,
in awe as i was, of the brilliance of the many physicians around
who taught and mentored me.
I felt mine was a simple system of hard work,
learning the art of the history taking, the patience to listen,
and blessed with an ability to connect the dots.
But there were many humbling moments.
Times when the dots won't connect.
Or times where there were no dots to connect.
Dr. S called: I need help on this patient.
She keeps telling me she's going to die.
The tests I've done are all normal.
Please put her in the hospital,
run her through some tests to reassure
She was a woman in her mid thirties.
Healthy, with no significant past history.
Nothing in the family history of concern.
A physical exam that essentially normal.
She told me: I am going to die.
It was a friday.
Her admission tests, xrays, labs and ekg were all fine.
No red flags.
Reassured her of the normality of the results,
trying to counter her uncanny premonition of death.
I figured on keeping her over the weekend, and discharging her
Sunday night she was found dead during the nurse's routine vital
An autopsy was done.
During the interminable wait I pondered on what I missed.
What pathology would be revealed at postmortem.
It revealed nothing.
Forewarned, yet unpreventable.
An inexplicable death.
Most are not inexplicable.
Deaths hover over our days, familiar, often predictable,
a welcome end to a painful and protracted struggle.
When all else have failed, we must guide them into that end.
The dignified death, unfamiliar to many
who choose instead to wage against the inevitable
with desperate efforts to extend life
believing it is part of their god's grand design.
There are deaths that come with suddenness.
A patient is brought lifeless into the emergency room.
Or found unresponsive in the ward.
The paging operator calls a Dr Blue or a Code Blue.
There is a hurry-scurry of activity
doctors and nurses taking pause, then responding,
the crash-cart rolling down the corridors
all rushing and congregating to the 'code.'
A lead doctor conducts the CPR
goes through an ABCD of resuscitation
orchestrating the chaotic beside activity
of doctors, nurses, respiratory techs with their assigned chores.
intubating, bagging, compressing, frantically searching for veins.
Reading the streaming EKG and calling out the directions.
Pump. Flat line. Shock. Lidocaine. Bicarb. Calcium.
Bolus. Shock. Pump. Lab. Gases. Pump.
Sinus rhythm. Pulse check. Blood pressure check.
Sometimes you quit. Note the time. Pronounce the patient dead.
As often, you bring them back.
A drama of life and death.
The ABC of it is routine,
The outcome never predictable.
And it never ceases to exhilarate.
More so when a patient tells you later,
Thanks. I was dead. I was watching everything from across the room.
Sometimes, it can be far from routine,
removed the efficiency of the hospital and trained personne.l
A 40-some patient, visiting from Pennsylvania,
came to the clinic to consult on recent onset chest pains.
With the day's schedule slightly backed up, the tech decided do an EKG.
Unknown to him that the patient's clinical history was significant
and reading the EKG to be normal, he told him to do sit-ups.
After a minute or two, he started having chest pains, then collapsed.
The tech interrupted my clinic, told me:
A patient passed out in the EKG room.
Rushed to find the patient, not passed out, but lifeless and pulseless.
In full cardiac arrest.
No nurses, no support staff.
Other than the tech who asked the patient to do sit-ups,
who had just about lost it completely at that point.
And a front-office staff of secretaries
whose expertise were insurance forms and billing,
unprepared and untrained for such emergent events,
running around in panicky circles in a circus of comic confusion.
Get the oxygen!
Where's the oxygen?
Do we have oxygen?
I've never seen oxygen around here.
A frenzied search for oxygen and a frantic call to 911.
The patient was lying on a high and narrow examining table.
I needed a stool for better compression leverage,
They couldn't find a stool.
I gave as strong a pound on his chest, climbed the table,
straddled him and started doing external cardiac compressions
while straining to read the streaming EKG printouts.
The oxygen tank was still missing. The tech did mouth-to-mouth.
By the time the emergency recue team arrived,
at about the same time the oxygen tank was located,
the patient had stabilized into a regular rhythm and vital signs.
He survived his heart attack.
His family called, effusive with praise and gratitude.
God for a day. They said
I walk on water.
There were unpredictable visits of unfathomable dark moods.
Often, the catalyst, some absurd and inane incident.
Almost always, benign, manageable, short-lived.
Growing up, the family made fun of it, that the moon was full,
the dogs would be howling, and soon I would be lost in my dark moods.
Always I attributed it to the benign madness that came with creativity.
Seasonal or recurrent disruptions of the delicate balance
between neurons, chemistry, synapses and electrical wiring,
and the million and one pieces of unpleasant memories surfacing,
overwhelming, possessing, controlling,
immobilizing in some vast emptiness.
Or as the Chinese see it, as imbalances of the energy meridians,
But sometimes, it takes form, frightening but familiar.
It seems to have visited before.
It will be gone. Sooner or later.
Let me just do battle with it.
One time, the demon came with brutal vengeance.
Insiduously, it took form, gained a foothold.
A month into it, of dark days and sleepness nights.
John Lennon was shot dead.
I nose-dived into a bottomless abyss.
Difficult to put in words.
An inexplicable emptiness.
A heavy torturous nothingness.
A brutal emotional blackhole.
Medical work kept me going, the malady undetected by people at work.
None of my partners noticed.
No patient died during that span.
Moving, motion helped.
I would get on my car at four in the morning,
drive the beltway towards Washington,
returning as the sun was starting to rise.
B. was there. Suffered the long quiet months.
Watched over me.
I flushed down everything that I could overdose on.
It was a long time before prozac.
It lasted a while, four, five months.
Spring came, it must have helped.
Unnoticeably, slowly, it lifted.
One day, I realized. . . I was feeling fine.
Surviving it was reassuring.
Having survived it came with the knowing thatI would survive it again.
The demons have revisited.
But never, again, as it did that once.
My mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.
Eighteen of 19 nodes were positive.
The surgeon gave her six months.
She tried chemo but found the side effects of the first treatment intolerable.
She went the alternative routes: Laetrile, from apricot pits.
Vitamins and supplements.
A trip to Lourdes before heading for Baltimore.
The powers of prayers and placebo, faith and the fringe.
She survived another twenty years.
My parents visited me in Baltimore, the early 80s.
It was fall, the colors were changing.
My mother was almost blind.
We drove through autumnland.
Through parts of interstate-95
early with the colors of October's palette
Then up to the Shenandoah Valley's
through West Virginia's winding backroads
the forests and mountain faces ablaze.
They sat in the back, father excitedly describing the colors as
we passed them by.
The yellows and reds, the pink and oranges.
I stole rearview mirror glances at my mother
who sat straight, her eyes closed, with a smile on her face.
Later, recalling the highlights of their vacation,
she said the drive through autumnland was one of her favorite parts of
B. took regular breaks to visit her folks in Minnesota.
Returning from one of those visits, she told me she was leaving me.
She ran into her high school sweetheart who offered her things
She left in 83.
On a February, a day before Valentine's, I think.
In the midst of one of the heaviest snowstorms
I remember the goodbyes, in the airport waiting lounge.
I could hear, feel, my heart breaking, watching her walk away,
then disappearing as the airport
closed behind her.
There are some country songs that sing of such a time.
Of love ending.
Of love walking away.
Of pain, of emptiness.
Oh, sweet Jesus, how it broke my heart.
But. . . all's fair in love and war.
A few months later, August 21, 1983. Ninoy Aquino was
I wrote a piece: Nasaan Ang Mga Bayani?
Where are the Heroes?
I made a collage art work, with the same title.
R. stumbled into my life, a friend.
Became my literary muse.
Became a platonic love.
We exchanged missives, short notes, poems.
A world of words laced with magic and metaphors.
And slowly, in the inevitable consequence of proximity
platonic became passion became carnal became friendship.
The friendship stays, lingers, sustained by a memory
that once we lived in a castle of words,
a strange world, all our own.
I dabbled in acupuncture for a while.
Took a course in electrical acupuncture.
Pondered the meridians, points, yin and yangs,
balancing of energies, endorphins, and qi.
The disruption of the electrical pathways as cause of disease.
The continuity of within and without.
I liked the electricity of it.
Another electrical system, a life force energy continuum,
not as specialized and recordable
as the brain's EEG, the heart's ECG,
the nerves and muscles' EMG.
In my practice, it worked more often than not.
Gave a man a series of treatments for erectile dysfunction.
He said, It worked!
But always at a wrong time, in the middle of the night,
when his wife refused to be bothered.
It helped a friend, perhaps, for a while.
Iris was a next door neighbor, a sad woman, long afflicted by depression.
Plagued by demons that taunted her.
Dreadful failures of motherhood.
With three previous failed attempts to end her life through
She chastised me on the silver Corvette I bought when B. left.
She said it was a phallic expression, an obvious attempt at covering
up a failed relationship.
Months later, she invited me for dinner.
Hmm. . . I confess. . .
I thought it was an overture for romantic possibilities.
A scrumptious dinner and a bottle of red later,
she revealed the nature of her invite, saying:
I want you to help me kill myself.
Cupid scampered away, laughing.
I spent the rest of the evening exhorting with all the Hippocratic
arguments I can manage.
Her depression was chronic, but succumbed to seasonal worsening
in the winter months.
Antidepresssants barely smoothed the ragged edges of her malady.
I offered and she agreed to a course acupuncture treatments,
hoping that a meridian balancing of energies might help.
She completed a course, and she said it helped.
Six months later, I ran into her at the grocery store,
exchanged pleasantries, asked how she was.
Nothing revealed in her face.
A weekater, she was dead.
She had bought a gun. . . and ate a bullet.
1983, I lucked into buying a shell of an old brick townhouse
point, a quaint and historic waterfront community,
beneficiary to Baltimore's Inner Harbor rennaissance,
and one of the sanctuary neighborhoods of Baltimore,
within walking distance to the ethnic communities of Little Italy and Greektown,
invisibly fenced and economically insulated from travails and
maladies of inner city life.
It was early in its years of gentrification and upscaling,
homeless people littered the benches, panhandlers harrassed the
sleeping winos took their siestas wherever, in benches, sidewalks, alleys and doorsteps .
They were part of its old world ambience,
with its profusion of
antique shops and craft stores
restaurants, dives, and pubs galore
with live music that splashed out onto the sidewalks.
1622 Thames Street was one of the oldest houses in Fell's point,
160 years or older, crumbling brick works, leaky roofs, rat-infested.
With the help of friends, the inner shell was stripped and transformed
into a contemporary living space of wood, metal and drywall.
I bought it for a fast-flip – to renovate and sell
for a profit.
Instead it became home for the next twenty years.
The first floor front room became Thame Street Gallery which showed my
and provided that space where I became the artist,
work, shedding the physician's
A great time, never tiring of the gallery talk, explaining
and feeding off the visitors' accolades..
Nights, the town transformed.
As the early evening fine-dining
crowds receded to suburbia,
the late evening Bawlamer locals materialized for their raucous
The deepening night brings the barroom brawls, the sirens and
in decibels that crescendoed into the closing time hours.
The gallery usually stayed open late, an avid witness to the nightly
The goths in rebellious statement of black, sequined and pierced,
hair dyed eerie shades.
The drug dealers and drug users and countless good-time seekers
seeking to forget.
Some begged to use the gallery comfort room, pleading their urgent
but ofen, more than a pee, also for a toke and a snort.
One time, I caught someone in the middle of doing an Eight-Ball.
Sometimes, they'd leave small appreciative tokens of grass or
There were a few house calls made in ungodly hours of night or early
for a few locals having adverse street-drug reactions.
Soon enough, my permissive ways created rumors of drug-dealing.
Sharing a common alley walkway with a drug-dealing neighbor didn't help.
Rumors spread that I was in cahoots with local drug dealers.
It took a month or two of fruitless surveillance by unmarked cars
and undercover to pull away.
A "No Public Restroom" sign stopped the courtesy use
of the gallery restroom.
It was a nice stretch of time.
Of art. Music. Inner city life.
An American street theater.
Although long separated and divorced from C, I kept in touch with the in-laws.
I learned of their slowly failing healths from their daughter Kathy.
Helped with the economics of their medical needs through pharmaceutical samples.
On one visit, I was surprised to find Schnookel with them.
She had gotten sickly, with gout and kidney problems.
Burdensome for C., she gave her to her parents to care for.
All those years, so surprised that she remembered,
scampered to meet me, in frenzied delight.
and started humping hard at my shin bone, to my perverse delight.
In February 1986, I watch for days, mesmerized, gripped, shivering
the televised unfolding of the Philippine
people power revolution.
Fueled by years of festering anger and frustration against the
Watched the tanks, the swelling masses of people,
the rapidly multiplying cast of characters, the circus of political
the lumpenproletariat providing noise and number,
marching into the crescendo of that historic crossroad in EDSA.
Four days that galvanized the nation and transfixed the world.
The culmination of the rivalry between Marcos and Ninoy,
climaxing non-violently with the ouster of a dictator,
the end of his regime of oppression and terror.
Where are the heroes?
I asked when Ninoy was assassinated.
I watched them for days, the collective hero . . .the masa.
But in the epilogue, everyone started dipping their fingers into the
The high-end political defectors and military rebels – without
us, it couldn't have happened.
The bourgeosie and power-elites – only because we
allowed it to happen.
In the end, the miracle brokers won.
With nuns standing their grounds on advancing tanks, a Cardinal
the bloodless coup, and a populace steeped in religiosity,
it was no hard-sell.
The Miracle of Edsa.
A few years later, they built the Edsa
In 1987, I received a third notice from the immigration office.
an invitation to
apply for citizenship.
My immigrant status was fast-tracked by a marriage to a Jersey girl in
(That's a Tom Wait's song).
Long before that, just a few years in America, in awe and
I wrote an impassioned letter to my parents,
in America I have found the country
with the spirit, ideals, passions, freedoms that I could embrace.
To take from and give to.
Sadly apologizing that I was thinking of applying for U.S. citizenship.
Still, I declined two earlier invitations for citizenship application,
birthright and vestigial patriotic notions.
By then, I have been in America more than 16 years.
I have already metamorphosed.
My Americanization long ago accomplished.
Finally, I went to the immigration office to file an application.
I was surprised when the officer dispatched me to an examiner for Q and A.
Usually, you were made to fill up an application and return for
I expressed surprise and unpreparedness.
He smiled, said Go ahead. You'll do fine.
Lordy. Lordy. Lordy.
I failed. Miserably. Shamefully.
I returned a few weeks later.
Prepared to sing the Star-Spangled
Banner, accapela if I had to.
I aced it. No anthem needed.
Came back weeks later for the oath-taking.
And brought home the oath-taking flag as memento.
I made a sculpture, a stylized plaster figure
looking out the art gallery window that opened to a pedestrian sidewalk.
It held the small oath-taking flag in its hand, fluttering in
One day, I looked up instinctively, alertedby the raucous sounds
a group of inebriated young men who just walked by.
The flag was gone.
I ran after a group of college kids disappearing around the corner.
Yelling to them, they stopped.
I demanded to have the flag back.
One of them uttered a group denial. We don't have it.
It was there. Now it's gone. One of you took it.
Second group denial: We don't have it.
They were too big, too many, and too tipsy;
a situation futile for a civilized exchange of words.
Shaking my head, I walked away, quietly lamentaing the loss of
A minute later, one of them came back to the gallery,
handed me the flag, saying I'm really sorry.
There was a restlessness that surfaced too often.
Yes, Medicine as profession allowed a good life.
It's seeming noble humanity also had a murky side.
Before the gatekeepers and sentinels came to keep watch
over the commerce of medicine.
There were so many ways to milk the medical cow.
Procedures, laboratories, referrals, charting.
Then, to continue required inevitable forms of milking.
In 88, I pondered a sabbatical.
I quit my private practice of 13 years.
Perhaps, even thought I was done with medicine.
Went back to the Philippines, built a house in Baguio.
Seduced by the idea of doing art full-time.
The weather was perfect, but the culture so strange.
I searched for my muse but all I found was a vacuum of creativity.
After six months, I returned to Baltimore.
To Fell's Point.
I was barely five when my grandfather died.
I remember the burial. The procession to the cemetery.
The freshly painted white tomb, with its massive cross at one end.
The gaping opening at the unfinished end,
with the pile of cinder blocks that would seal the hole,
to finally wall off the dead in casketed repose.
I remember the tearful lacerating wailing of the women
as the coffin was
being pushed into the dark of the nicho,
the swelling sound of sorrow as the opening diminished with each
the cacophony of mournful sounds that lingered long after the
The tearful and anguished ritual of final separation.
My father died in 89.
I was in Maryland when I got the call.
They wanted to wait for me.
I tried to make it home through an uncommon connection of flights.
But father was going through too much agonal
They turned off the life-supporting measures.
I didn't make it in time for goodbyes.
His death was not sudden.
a long suffering decline from heart
that slowly nibbled at his gregarious love of life.
After a heart attack more than 20 years before, he confronted
Gave up his nightly Chivas or cognac.
Mounted the exercise bike with great passion.
So proud of how he turned his cholesterol numbers back.
On my last visit, looking back, there must have been a feeling
it was our last time.
He was giving me some of his personal items, books.
Himself, a physician, he sensed from the recent years
of declining health
his coming confrontation with his mortality.
His wish to be cremated was long ago decided.
His cremation, the first of many that would follow in the clan.
Then, cremation was an uncommon event.
At one time, requiring the purchase of a dispensation.
It hyperaccelerates the dust-unto-dust idiom of our mortality.
It subtracts from death, the rituals of grieving,
the long held traditions
of religion and rituals.
the indigenous contributions of customs, myths and superstitions.
The coffin's glitz and glitter that measures social status.
The wake, the sorrow-filled faces paying their respects,
in seeming prayers, with their final thoughts
He looks so peaceful.
As the garden of flowered condolences
engulf the coffin with ephemeral scents.
To share a thought, one last time.
To remember together, something, one last time.
The rituals of the rich.
The rituals of the poor.
In the province, there is the tupada, cockfights to raise money
to help defray expenses.
Card games, tong-its, mahjong to add to the funereal
In the urban areas, unclaimed corpses are claimed
to be used for acquiring a permit for gambling durings the wake's duration.
A ghoulish commerce, but a burial
Then for both the rich and the poor, the traditions of prayers.
Nine days of nightly prayers, punctuated by apatan (4th-day) and siyaman (9th-day)
The tapusan, the last day of prayers, the 30th day for women, the 40th day for men.
And a year later,
the babang luksa, the final prayer event
when grieving is officially lifted, the black wardrobe retired.
Although many of these rituals persist,
cremation diminishes and dulls the grieving process.
From dust unto dust, cremation hastens it.
Father's body was taken to the crematorium.
The family was assembled in a room with a big glass window,
the view opening to a space that connected to the crematory.
The gurney rolled in, my father still clothe in wake attire.
We were told polyester left a film of black soot.
My brother and I undressed him to his cotton underwear.
My mother stood by, blind, but sensing, listening.
The crematory door opened and revealed an inner space littered
with bone fragments.
The attendant shrugged, tried to say That's the way it is.
Like table crumbs, I thought.
It was unimaginable and unacceptable mixing father's remains with
My brother asked him to sweep it clean, which the attendant gladly did,
after some assurance of a
tip for the extra broom-and-rake services.
The flat bed was separated from the gurney, pushed inside.
The window was filled with faces, sibliings, children, waving
There was sadness, some tears, but no wailing.
The door closed, the heat turned on.
While the chimney smoked, I searched for an urn.
While the family waited, exchanging stories of father, new and old, retold, reshared.
A few hours later, only bones remained, small and large fragments,
in the outline of a body.
It was broomed into a pile, raked into on a bucket, poured into crushing machine
to grind to a homogeneous pebbles of osseous remains.
Then to a waiting marble urn, then back to the house.
Alas, cremation would repeat itself, too many times.
In twelve years, there would be five deaths in the family,
three, too soon; two, unexpected.
The last two deaths did away with the traditional wakes.
Straight to cremation, followed by nine days of ash-wake.
Death became familiar.
Grieving found new rituals.
While there might have been the initial wailing of grief,
there were no longer the mournful sounds of final separation.
The accelerated ash-to-ash ritual altered the grieving.
The ashes were taken back home.
Perhaps, there was some comfort to proximity with the remains.
The urns found their home in an antique cabinet
in a corner of the parents bedroom, among a collection
statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary,
and other objects of devotion.
After a truncated sabbatical, or a failed effort at early retirement,
I went back to medicine, in the managed-care setting,
in it for the next 14 years,
working a part-time schedule, three to four days a weeks,
six months a year, three on, three off, or, six on, six off.
Quite unlike the Jewish communities of Reisterstown
or the blue-collar patient population of Rosedale,
I worked in a clinic
serving a patient population
and a culture
I was unfamiliar with.
The Eager Street clinic, serving the black community of East Baltimore.
The Fells Point residence was barely a mile away,
but up to that time, it was unexplored.
There were no fences, just a visual transition
from the poor white communities that collared Fells Point
to the ghetto landscape of inner city life.
of abandoned neighborhoods, boarded up tenement
The sounds of sirens and the familiar popping of gunfire in the nights.
Not a place to wander to, not a place to get lost in.
I didn't just wander in.
The inner city became a place of work for the next twelve years.
The patients at the Eager Street Clinic were mostly black, mostly East Baltimore.
They came with their sundry of generic complaints and maladies,
many consequent to the tragedies of inner city
Drug addictions, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies,
sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS.
Some come to the clinic, high on something, or down on another.
Or reeking of thunderbird wine, eyes ablaze, pupils dilated,
to stay awake, some dozing off while talking.
Part of the days, always spent in filling up their disability and medicaid forms
urgently needed to access their food stamps and month's end checks.
Many times, food stamps are sold or exchanged for heroin or
Drive-bys were common, stray bullets and accidental victims,
or the wrong house sprayed with bullets.
In too many streets, drugs were the inescapable day-to-day commerce.
Everyone either bought or sold.
Its middle class have long ago trickled out to suburbia.
Of the underclass, many tried to leave, only a few could.
To nearby communities where they were resented and unwelcome.
To Virginia or North Carolina or wherever a relative might offer
a place of sanctuary.
But for most, there is nowhere to go.
Most are born, live and die in Baltimore.
If you have time to listen, there are a thousand and one stories.
Stories from the 'hood.
Of helplessness and hopelessness.
A daughter dying of AIDS.
A son gone to prison.
A child slain by an errant drive-by bullet.
A son's suicide and a note left behind that the mother has read a hundred times,
trying to understand, searching for answers in prayers and from
A daughter just out of crack detox, returning to a home
in a street where everyone is either using or selling.
A minister, down on his knees, pounding the floor with his fists,
in tears, speaking of hopelessness for his people.
A mother in and out of detox, her drug needs paid for by tricks,
shoplifting, or selling her children's Christmas toys.
At month's end, men and women, young and old, line up,
to the ground, as they fight over samples of crack vials
thrown from the back seat of a dark-tinted
whetting drug appetites to commit tomorrow's food stamps and medicaid
When the checks arrive, the dealer next door sell out by noon
time, seventy thousand, easy.
A young woman with AIDS, selling tricks to support a 150-dollar-a-day
Drug runners in too many street corners, with their languages
of whistles and signals.
Where are the men?
We're all afraid. Nothing we can do. You call
the cops, they don't come.
If they come, the dealers will get back at you.
They have eyes. Ears.
Man, they know who's snitching
We can't sit on the
When the sun sets, you go inside.
To your TV, to your VCR.
Where are grandmothers and grandfathers?
They have become foster parents, baby
sitters to grandchildren
whose mothers are out searching for crack,
whose fathers are serving
Stories from the 'hood, sometimes you can't help it, a tear breaks
All I can do is listen. A silent touching of hands. A hand on
They are thankful that I took time to listen.
Many times they say Thank you.
a slow quiet nod of the head.
Sometimes, a hug.
I learned to listen.
Made time to listen.
Learned how to draw out the stories,
Countless little stories and details of their lives.
Their vegetable gardens. Hoping the tomatoes will be as good this year.
Their weekend bus trip to the casino, their pockets emptied, their bellies stuffed.
An upcoming cruise, a lifetime dream.
A family illness or death. A wedding. Their thanksgiving dinner.
I made little cryptic notes, tiny drawings on the corner of the chart.
A tomato. A cruise ship. A wedding cake.
Or innocent little drawings for information only I can read.
A nose for cocaine use, a line-graphic for a marihuana joint.
On their next visit, the notes and drawings remind me,
their faces lighting up as I ask about the tomato garden,
how the cruise was or where they went for the honeymoon.
They would smile from ear to ear, so happy that I remembered.
The clinic support staff were mostly black
W., the specialty factotum, adopted me as brother.
With many others in the staff, taught me a 101 on black culture.
It took some time, but slowly, as i earned their trust
they started sharing with me the intimate details of their lives.
Learned the nuances of black language,
their signals, their postures, their struts.
Learned about the black shades of their prejudices,
the ebony black and the high yellow.
Some referred to me as 'brother' or 'homey,'
not in disrespect, but as a
final word of acceptance.
Sometimes, I was allowed to enter rooms of their inner sanctums,
lined with anger, scarred by prejudice, simmering beneath the
A few spoke openly of their resentment and distrust of whites.
Of this or that clinic doctor's obvious prejudice.
A few times, I argued.
W. would say:
You're blind. You just can't
But I have seen it. Listened to it. Read about
Growing up, reading, browsing through history books.
The black and white
photographs of lynchings.
Later, reading more. Tuskagee. Antibellum South.
More recent, there was the videotaped Rodney King beating
and the acquittal that sparked the L.A. riots.
How can one be blind to that.
How can one not see that.
It was easy to see the whence of their anger
at the incredible conspiracy of prejudice.
I have wondered, too many times,
how does one heal from that kind of hurt?
In 1995, through months of the O.J. Simpson murder trial
the staff followed the proceeding closely, talked about it.
Some confessed they thought he was guilty.
The day the verdict was read, the clinic came to a standstill.
The staff were glued to a small television, sneaked in for the event.
The eerie and nervous
silence exploded into a burst of cheer and elation.
Fists pumping in the air
It was a communal celebration, not of Simpson's vindication.
Something else, from deep inside, that linked their cheer and
For many of them thought him guilty.
W. caught in a moment of exhilaration, admitted to me:
It's a get-back.
Racism still exists.
And prejudice, in all its myriad forms.
It is part of the nature of homo sapiens.
For some, it is
difficult to do away with the hate, as it is for some to heal the hurt.
We can institute laws, preach political correctness.
Sing songs that imagine a brotherhood of men.
But how to legislate the thoughts and silent prejudices of men?
Maybe less. Maybe not as loud. Maybe, more hesitant
But still there, in the seeming safety of circles of friends.
The discriminations and slurs uttered in unguarded moments,
fueled by alcohol, annoyance, or anger.
Odious , brutal,
subtle or veiled by political correctness.
Slipping out in countless ethnic jokes.
Working with partners from Caribbean, Bangladesh,
Pakistan, India, and a Jewish doctor.
An Egyptian, friend and mentor.
A doctor friend and his German wife.
A practice that stretched from Jewish Reisterstown,
blue-collar Rosedale, to inner-city black Baltimore.
It was always there.
In all degrees of hurt and venom.
In 1989, I applied for a part-time job in an inner city clinic
that provided care for people with HIV and AIDS.
HIV has long broken out of its shell,
spreading, but still mysterious, unfamiliar,
starting to appear in small community hospitals.
Ignorance terrorized the public, even the community of doctors.
Many refused to care for them, instead referred them out.
Even infectious disease specialists referred them to the university.
clinics funded and set up to
provide specialilzed services and care.
It was a fringe population of patients that society would rather
keep on ignoring,
blaming it on the consequences of addictions, homesexuality,
life-style choices and risk-laden adventures.
In the interview, the clinic medical director asked
Will you have any problems working with gay people?
The clinic was manned and ran by a front-liine of foot
all, or mostly gays and lesbians, I thought, volunteer doctors,
nurses, medical assistants, nutritionists, social workers
The patients were a mix of gays and heterosexuals.
For most gays and lesbians, sexual orientation is easily revealed
by nuances of body language and voice.
Some patients choose an anonymity of
preferring to give a history of addiction and
intravenous drug use
as source of HIV rather than admit to homosexuality.
Or, an accidental needle stick.
Or an accidental splash of blood.
A few years working in the clinic, I was relating stories of a
recent travel with a girl-friend
and the nurse gave me a quizzical look, asked
You're not gay?
We all thought. . . see, everyone here is either gay or lesbian.
No. Dr J. is straight.
No. We think he's gay.
It was a a polarizing time, shrouded by fear, mystery and ignorance.
The afflicted shunned into a purgatory of intolerances, festering
discriminations, anti-gay hysteria.
The fire stoked by fundamentalists, always ready with extracted
ranting on the afflicted with pronouncements of God's
wrath and vengeful punishments.
As the circus played – the media, politicians and
the scientific egos racing for their grail of discoveries.
In some places, surgeons wore astronaut-type insulated surgical
as industry urgently looked into the commerce and profit
of making metal-based gloves impervious to needle sticks or scalpel cuts.
Some doctors were afraid to touch infected patients,
to breath the same air.
I, too, was afflicted by ignorance and fear.
I gloved my fears.
At first, I double-gloved, threatened by uncertainties of contaminations
drawing blood or simply doing physical examinations
A few times I got splattered with blood, sprayed with saliva.
Once, I bled from a scratch by a patient's fingernail.
They brought sleepless nights.
Some patients brought pastries and cakes, some they baked themselves.
At first, I could not partake of them, made sundry comic excuses,
that I just had dinner, imagining the virus smouldering in
A colleague asked me Why are you doing it?
I don't remember what I said. But likely nothing with any profundity.
There's not too many doctors doing it. . . or, just because.
She was so moved. Ignorance and fear can do that.
She said You will be blessed by God.
I did not see God in the trenches.
Yes. God was not in the trenches.
The ministers of religion were all too busy damning the souls of the afflicted.
Perhaps, it was not so strange, in the suffering and the painful journey to their deaths,
in all the years I spent caring for patients with HIV and AIDS,
not once did I hear an invocation to God, to any god.
This was the time of AIDS before AZT,
when all we could advise were untested supplements
and dispensed hope with the uncertain promise
that drugs and the magical vaccine were just around the corner.
The gay community's grapevine was incredibly efficient.
with its bourgeoning underground commerce of fringe therapies,
for anything that could blunt the edges of hopelessness.
They shared with me their secret concoctions of self-medications.
Animal organ and exotic plant extracts,
herbal remedies from far-flung
corners of the world.
Many were still asymptomatic.
But many were starting to get sick.
A few were dyiing.
Patients were coming, searching for hope, asking questions.
When will i die?
How much longer do I have
Can I still buy a car?
And what do you say to a 16-year old black kid who says
Not as a question. But acceptance.
Or another who says It's government orchestrated ethnic
Or another whose father, a minister, banished him for his homosexuality.
Sometimes there are no answers
just bromides of hope laced with white lies
Early on, for the infected, for the symptomatic, there was so
Patients continued to die, despite the short-lived promise of the
that followed AZT – the NRTIs and the NNRTIs,
before the arrival of protease inhibitors.
As lives became predictably abbreviated,
viatical settlements came into vogue,
patients selling their
desperate to fast-forward and indulge a future dream tomorrow.
Dying was the constant ogre, becoming so familiar.
knew someone who was dying or who died, a friend or lover.
John H. says he is the only one left in his circle of fifteen
A common story, of circles lost.
Rare is the gentle death, dying usually sufferingly slow.
Some chose to orchestrate their deaths, deciding when and
Before the dementia or the diarrhea disables.
Before the emaciation immobilizes or dermatologic cancer exposes.
By a death cocktail concocted from hoarded prescriptions
of nembutals, valiums, antinauseants and a bottle of cabernet.
By assisted suicide.
It is never easy, talking to the wife or lover left behind.
Sometimes, they shared the details.
A letter left behind.
The handful of pills.
The infusions and injections, the intravenous ways of dying.
The holding of hands.
Often, despite the cruel slowness of their deaths,
peaceful way their lovers passed away.
A patient's wife shared her story.
She needed to talk about it.
Perhaps, to find closure.
Her husband drove from Canada to Baltimore every four or six weeks.
kept his appointments faithfully.
Perhaps the distance kept his disease in secrecy.
He was a Muslim, bisexual, and progressing in his disease.
She knew of his infection, forgiveness given long ago.
She also saw an increasing despondency
as he anguished over the shame and
the suffering he was causing her.
One day she came home to a strange silence,
everything spotlessly clean, nothing in its usual state of disarray.
The bedroom likewise.
Everyhting eerily in place.
She knew before she saw the note, taped on the bathroom door.
Please don't come in alone.
She called a close friend.
He hanged himself.
There was a note, asking for forgiveness.
He was buried before the next sundown
with the usual trimmings of Muslim rituals.
The death certificate lists the cause of death as suicide.
His illness forever concealed.
By the time I walked away from AIDS medicine, the landscape had
There was more science and pharmaceuticals.
The family of protease inhibitors has been added to
the treatment armamentaria.
With aggressive treatment, HAART, highly aggressive antiretroviral therapy,
the virus was subdued, not defeated, but became undetectable.
Cell counts were climbing back up.
Before I left, beckoned to another crossroad, I had attained a level of expertise,
caring for more than 150 AIDS patients in two clinics.
I was dispensing real hope, not old hope laced with lies and heavy doses of placebo.
Rather than the merciless truncation of lives I saw early on,
the patients were living longer.
Many have gone back to school, or planning to.
Many looked at a future filled with the clutter of mundane things
and normal dreams.
It was a different kind of medicine, for a long time, more art
It tested the Hippocratic tenets and maxims of medicine.
Yet, it was the part of medicine In its landscape of the dead and dying
that left me fulfilled the most, enriched by the privilege
of working with a community of volunteers,
of gays and lesbians.
who gave to a population of patients, immeasurable caring, concern and compassion
while so many others stayed in the sidelines.
So many stories of gay patients
and their lovers
staying on together until the end,
one taking care of the other,
one to be left behind,
through the dementia, the diarrhea, the emaciation,
through the days disabled by multidrug side effects,
feeding cleaning bathing comforting
caring love committment devotion
companion husband lover friend.
A window into stories of love.
And for those ministers of their gods who rant and rave against
this kind of love between men
for the politicians who rant and rave against same-sex love and
look in this window and read the stories from their Book Of Love
and perhaps learn a thing or two about compassion
or learn something new about love.
In 1990, a 7.7 Richter earthquake struck central and northern
Baguio, the summer capital, suffered widespread devastation.
The house I built by the edge of a cliff, cracked and twisted
on its beams,
and leaned precariously 15 degrees to the cliffside.
The aftershocks were strong and there was great concern
that the house would tumble and crumble down the cliff.
My brother Arthur suggested that the house be stripped,
save what could be
saved, and haul the innards to Manila.
The aftershocks did continue for a time, as the grounds shifted
and by some fluke or by the grace of the rice gods, the house
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo erupted.
The cataclysmic event spewed magma, minerals and metals,
and aerosolized the atmosphere with a global layer of chemical
Some said it imbued the sunsets with a deeper palette of colors.
In 1992, Arthur died. Young, 52. Unexpected. But in the retelling of his last month, with discomforts attributed to indigestive complaints, from his cumulation of life-style
indulgences and from the history I gathered, it was most likely a cardiac death. Because Rollie was visiting in Maryland at that time, I did not return
to the Philippines for the funeral. Instead, Rollie and I exchanged reminiscences. Rollie interjected more than once, sighing with relief, that after many years of a strained relationship with Arthur, he was able to patch up things, started talking to him again before he left for the States. There was much we talked about, his last years of anomie, of hard luck, scrapping an existence at the barrel's bottom. Tiaong providiing a sanctuary and lifestyle on the fringe, of excesses served and cloaked from view by his faithful minions.
A few months later, a strange occurrence of sounds visited in
the Fell's Point abode.
The sound of an alarm clock, went on and off, fifteen seconds at a time,
going around the bedroom, as a friend and I searched in vain for the source of the ringing.
Eventually, it stopped.
The night before, he came is a dream.
Knocked on the alley door. I asked him
What are you doing here?
A visitation. A goodbye.
Intrigued, a week later I made a long distance call to the Philippines.
Talked to Joanna, Arthur's daughter
She said her father did have an alarm clock,
one he always carried with him wherever he went.
She played the alarm on the clock, the sound so familiar,
the same sound that visited a week ago
Sometime in the 80s, I started camping.
I researched the basics, purchased the essential equipment.
On an early spring weekend, I ventured to Assateague Island, Maryland.
I set up tent close to the dunes,
complete with a campsite shower and a chemical tent-porta-potti box.
The lullaby of gentle waves, the solitude, the aloneness.
Far from the madding crowd.
I was hooked.
From tenderfoot, I became the profienct camper.
Learned to set up camp, tent and gear in record time.
Once a campground ranger watched, intently and curiously,
as I put together a 10' by 12' screen tent,
with its complicated connections and tangle of poles,
usually requiring a combined effort of at least two people.
When I finished, he came up, quite impressed, shook my hand and said:
never seen anyone do that alone.
Slowly, I accumulated camping equipment.
This was no low-end horse-and-blanket Marlboro-Man
kind of camping.
This was high-end, creature-comfort state-of-the-art tent camping.
Portable, mobile, foldable, lightweight, functional.
Summertime, the northeast States offered a respite from Baltimore's dog days.
In the fall, the raging palette of West Virginia's foliage beckoned.
Once, I camped alone for two weeks, high up a West Virginia mountain.
At night, I listened to the winds moan and snake through the valleys,
the unfamiliar sounds of animals, more threatening in the dark,
the rustle of leaves and the snapping of twigs
seeming approaching footsteps of forest ogres
poking fear through the flimsy barriers of tent,
a loaded shotgun by my side, providing an ephemeral dose of courage.
Half the time, I camped alone. Half the times, with friends.
In solitude, or sharing it.
Camping often enough, I learned of nature's unpredictable tempers.
Rainstorms, windstorms, thunderstorms.
Once, I had to seek refuge from a violent thunderstorm.
Sought sanctuary in my car.
Returned to find the tent gone.
Stakes tracking out to sea.
One winter, on adolescent impulse, I bought a snow mobile.
Called it: F. R. George.
My friend Richard provided the brawn and company,
single-handedly loading and unloading the snowmobile on his pickup,
We drove to Potter Country, Pennsylvania,
two winter cowboys intent on a two-week adventure
through twisting snow-covered mountain trails.
Late afternoon, bone-tired from hours of bumping through packed snow trails,
we picked a spot off the trail, shoveled out a space for our tent,
set up an early camp to rest our weary souls.
As the adrenaline slowly settled down,
it also started to slowly feel like an icebox inside the tent.
Almost in unison, we said This is fucking cold.
The two winter cowboys skedaddled out of the cold
to the warm cozy comforts of an inn.
It was an exhausting outdoor activity.
We gave up on Potter County in three days.
Drove up north to Niagara Falls, New York.
Then back down to Deep Creek Lake in West Vrginia,
seeking little adventures from the wintry landscape,
going full throttle-crazy against the bitter cold,
snowmobiling up challenging hills and across expanses of frozen lakes.
Great fun, but the cold beat us up.
We were back in Baltimore in 10 days, with leftover days.
In the mid-90s, I packed my 6-month old VW Golf for a cross-country
Wanting an able-bodied companion, I asked a friend along.
Roy. Carpenter. Burly man. Drug-using history.
One condition. It was to be drug-free trip.
And readily, he agreed.
Packed the car to brim-and-hilt, save for a sliver of backview
on the rear-view mirror.
Two tents, cookware, guitar, portable toilet, sketchbooks, art supply essentials,
maps, guides, medical bag, wine, cheese and crackers.
Even lambanog laced with Pear-Williams, a bottle of 20-year old Port.
A CB-radio, short-wave radio, small TV.
There was no set time-schedule or destination,
other than a decision to avoid the big cities and camp only in National
and State Parks.
The rest was whim and winging-it, with a nightly map-check on
where-am-I? and where-next?
I pointed the Golf westward, barrelled out through the Pennsylvania
Slept the first night in the Golf in some truckstop.
Then to Wisconsin through Minnesota, to South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore.
On the third day, I woke to find Roy gone. His tent neatly folded.
I thought he might have fallen off the cliff.
Searched everywhere, even looked down the camp toilet,
he might have been
off the earth while doing his thing.
I walked around the campsite, hollering his name.
Roy. Roy. Roy.
A few campers thought I was looking for my dog.
Finally, I went to the ranger station..
Was told a big man with a
red bandana on his pate,
toting a small suitcase, walked out into the highway, a few hours
The Golf caught up with him miles down the road, in a junction,
waiting for a ride.
What followed was
a Cheech-and-Chong episode worthy of a Saturday Night Live.
Roy! Jesus H. Christ! What the fuck?
"I don't feel good about this trip."
Fuck! You could have left a note. I thought you fell off the
"I'll hitchhike back to Baltimore. I've seen it on TV.
I've always wanted to do that."
You have no fucking money!
"That's ok. I'll do small jobs along the way."
Yeah, fuckin' cowboy.
Offered him money, which he refused.
And I drove away. Ten miles later, gripped with concern,
I turned back.
Found him in same spot, still waiting for a hitching ride.
After refusing it a second and third time, he finally took 200
and drove away a second time.
A year or two later, he came to see me, repentant and apologetic,
saying he was going through drug withdrawal at that time.
He said he has changed.
Asked if he was drug free now.
He said: Just now and then.
Minus burly Roy, to fend off small bears and generic
threats, I felt vulnerable.
Shit. What now?
Decided to forge ahead.
To Wyoming through the tip of Bighorn National Forest.
Camped at Yellowstone Park.
Vistas changed like an impatient slide show, spectacular scenic
that unfolded as I screeched around unending winding roads and perilous
Ice-capped mountains, gullies, rock formations, through blinding
rain and thunderstorms,
from rushing rivers below through 15-foot snow walls up the mountain
to the Grand Canyons,
through the tundras and petrified dunes
of New Mexico into its vast white dune park,
through Arizona lined with cacti
and Joshua trees.
through Vegas, the Death Valley, Redwood and Yosemite National
through the breathtaking coastline of Oregon,
small towns and scenic back roads.
Some days, drove less than a 100 miles to the next National
Some days, more than 500, once or twice, close to 700,
decamping at the break of dawn, ending the day late at night,
soaked in scenery but weary to the bone.
Sometimes too tired to pitch a tent, I struggled into a restless
hopelessly attempting to rearrange limbs and torso
in the cramped unforgiving front-seat space of the Golf.
Some nights, too weary to cook, I fed the hunger with wine,
cheese and bread.
Every fourth or fifth night, I sought the comforts of a motel along
to indulge in a hot shower, clean the toilet equipment, and catch
I became the proficient camper, pitching and dismantling camp
with increasing ease.
and surviving on ascetic food fare.
Often, I slept to the sounds of the deepening night, weighed down by weariness,
sleep shattering to wakefulness with the deafening rushing of rivers
or the maddening cacophonous singing of birds.
A dissonance most welcome, remembering the urban morning sounds
garbage trucks and the metal clanking of its jaws.
Often, I decamped before the campsite awakened,
when the boomboxes and car-stereos blared the rap and the rock.
Early starts brought sightseeing bounties.
The peaceful valleys
still in slumber.
The early sunlight and the morning mist casting its ethereal veil.
In Washington State, contemplated heading back east through Canada.
Decided against it and started driving back through the vastness of
the Glacier National Park, theater of its massive chameleonic
casting undulating shadows on barren prairie plains.
The manic-frenetic pace was cathcing up fast, getting wearier
by the day.
I was starting to talk to myself, reading billboards and plate-numbers
Tired of the CB radio's mindless prattle
and the recurrent country music songs of lost loves and tortured
The rest of trip back was a blur. . .through North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconcin,
Illonois, Indiana, Ohio, Penn back to Maryland,
21 days and more than 12,000 miles later.
All the other 80-plus countries traveled,
nothing yet compares to the scenic beauty
in that cross-country odyssey.
The 80-plus countries, many twice- and thrice-traveled fill up
a travel cache
of stories, photographs and memories, doses of great fun and inevitable
Delays and detours, lost and misplaced luggage, missed flights,
culinary disasters and gastrointestinal intolerances, and the sundry of mysterious
And there have been many occasions that took me out of medical anonymity
to become the Good Samaritan.
One medical travel story comes to the forefront – Morocco.
It was suppose to be a 9-day travel in Morocco, sampling
culture and cuisine of Rabat, Casablanca, Meknes, Fes, and Marrakech.
On the second night, I noticed a fellow traveler, a lady from
New York, dining alone,
without her artist husband whom I met the night before.
She said He has taken ill with fever, abdominal
pains and diarrhea.
That night, I took myself out of medical anonymity and made a
The following day, the husband rejoined the tour bus, brimming
an appreciative smile.
That following day, ambling through the narrow stone-walled streets
of the Marrakech market,
I watched helpless, as a donkey trotting down the cobbled-stone
its wares strapped on its back and precariously balanced on both
squeaking by the New York lady, with horror on her face, forced
against the wall
the donkey load pressing and crushing on her chest.
An auscultatory exam reassured that the lungs were not crushed.
her breathlessness, more from panic, and the pain from contusion.
I treated her with reassuring follow-ups and and regular doses
Alas, by the fifth day, one of the nemesis of foreign travel was
increasingly taking toll,
more than half of the travel group was already taken ill by a
By the sixth day, more added to the count, some even projectile
vomiting in public places,
frantically searching and hurrying-scurrying to public restrooms.
It was a a dispirited and gloomy busload-full of tourists, in
heaves and runs.
as I dispensed from rapidly dwindling supplies of antibiotics,
analgesics and antidiarrheals.
Providence must have intervened, and the last days left in Morocco
were enjoyed in intestinal calm.
Until. . . the last day, assembled in the lobby, our Moroccan
guide was running quite late,
hurriedly giving last-minute instructions on the etcetera of airport
procedures and paperwork.
Then, barely finished, the last word still hanging from his lip,
he turned around,
intent on a fast clip and stride to hurriedly lead his flock of
travelers to the bus . . .
He walked right into this massive Samsonesque marble hotel pillar.
Stupefied, he slowly collapsed to the floor, a wide bleeding gash
over his left eye.
He refused to be taken to the local hospital, and pleaded with
me Please do something.
Curtained by a half-circle of concerned fellow travelers, I did
a sutureless wound closure.
Later, in the bus, en route to the airport, watching the moroccan
guide in his bloodied caftan
and a left eye half closed from pressure bandages and steri-strips
and the rest of the travelers in intestinal calm, I indulged in
a moment of self-satisfaction.
Generic problems, yes. And I thought, Go ahead! Throw
in a cardiac arrest. I'm up for it.
A little later, barely settled on the return flight via
New York, there came the amplified call.
Is there a doctor on board?
Anonymity was no longer possible. I was sitting next
to the New York couple.
With the rest of the Escherichian-afflicted scattered all over
I just hoped the call was not for something gastrointestinal.
The Good Samaritan was led to an 80-plus elderly male, feverish
and achy with a viral affliction
which I treated with reassurances, fluids and acetaminophen.
Barely settled back in my seat, the stewardess came to me and
that a woman was waiting in the galley, needing assistance.
And off to the galley Good Sam went, and there, behind the drawn
was this drop-dead gorgeous French woman in a red floral-printed
dress (a detail I strangely remember),
holding a vial of antibiotic on one hand and a syringe on the
pleading in stuttered English that she is hours late on an injection
for what i surmised was for a sexually-transmitted disease.
Before my hesitation and concern could deepen into doubts,
the lady lifeted her skirt, pulled her panties downs, to expose
a full left derriere
with visible injection marks, giving verity and justifiable urgency
to her request.
Yes, I gave her the shot.
And, no, the cardiac arrest did not happen my way, although I
did not stop imagining its occurrence
until after I have extracted my bags from the airport carousel
It was not all medicine. There was a day in Fez, its medina, the
scents and sounds in the souks shops
the color and costumes of the street theater of Moroccan men and
women in their jalabas and kaftans.
It was a memorable travel, the travel medicine made it doubly
In the 90s, a trimmed-down schedule of medical work allowed
and more frequent visits to the Philippines
to the family farm in Tiaong,
50-some hilly hectares of agricultural land
with a peak boasting a circumferential view of the mountains and the verdant countryside,
the neighboring barangays, the green of the ricefields and
blanketing tops of ococonut trees,
and in the distance, the imposing peaks of Mts. Banahaw and
To family, it was the Farm and the Peak.
OId-timers referred to the Farm as "Proces," a rural
contraction for an uncle's four women in his life.
The peak was referred to as "Pulang Lupa" for its red
gravelly volcanic soil.
Others call it "Pinagbanderahan" (flag site) where the
Japanese held strategic camp during its provincial occupation.
To family, the Peak was the traditional destination for the young ones on Easter sunday gathering,
their walk up rewarded by a serving of fresh buko juice and coconuts.
With my brother Louie, there were recurrent evenings, tippling
on 90-proof lambanog
that never failed to fuel our conversations, designing little
dreams, dreaming little visions.
Of building a small public library, for the town had none.
Or a small school, a one-room school,
even amused ourselves, thinking of a name. . . Liceo Pulang Lupa.
In 1997, I went up the Peak again, accompanied by Ruben,
on-and-off family employee, when he was away from intermittent NPA employ.
We pitched tents and camped for three days,
clearing the overgrowths and saplings, slowly revealing the surrounding
At nights, by campfire, I listened to Ruben tell his stories of the
under a celestial canopy, ablaze with its constellations
engulfed by layers of sounds hiding in the dark.
As the clearing was completed, the peak revealed itself, a vast
and empty canvas,
sitting atop a hill overlooking an incredible vista of mountains
and the countryside.
In April 1998, I started building Pulang Lupa.
At the start, my brother Rollie was a great help, allowing me
to return to my Baltimore clinics.
It was his long time dream, one much older than mine, to make
something of the land.
And before him, my mother and older brother Arthur, all dreaming
something for the idle land.
He shared in my excitement, the possibilities were intoxicating.
He supervised the laying of the
foundation works for the first buildings.
Sadly, he would never see the fruition of our dream.
Early on in my return visit in July, I was notifed Rollie suddenly
Later I would learn he went into cardiac arrest in Los Baños
and taken to Manila.
He had previous confrontations with cardiac problems.
About a year ago, he was airlifted from Mindanao
diagnosed to have a heart attack, subsequently had a quadruple
Unfortunately, he could not shed his lifestyle dependencies.
When I got to the emergency room, I found him beyond help,
with signs of irreversible hypoxic brain damage,
his pupils fixed and dilated
his vital signs pharmaceutically manintained.
I told his family of the hopeless prognosis.
No further tests were done.
He was taken to his room where his family and kin awaited.
To die there, rather than in the impersonal and too clinical death
midst the chaotic theater of the emegency room.
To me, he was gone.
Or perhaps, if his spirit lingered, he was just waiting for the goodbyes
to be said.
A year ago, while he was recovering from his first attack, we
Or, rather, he talked and I listened.
Stories that opened a window into his life, hidden from view.
Stories that resuscitated as he lay in his death bed
in a tangled curtain of wires, tubings, and intravenous lines
in the rhythmic mechanical sounds of the respirator
as his heart streamed green patterns of beats across the monitor
vital signs maintained by pharmaceuticals started in the emergency room.
I watched, waited, while goodbyes were said.
Prayers offered, forgiveness given or asked.
I started to taper down the medicines, a little at a time.
the monitor numbers drop.
Watched the heart's green complexes slowing to a rhythm before inevitable
Said He's leaving us.
Beckoning for a final goodbye.
The early construction of Pulang Lupa was all consuming.
It was hampered by the weather, water supply was always wanting.
Often, it was delivered by a small-truck tankloads of of river water.
When the rains would make the road impassable for deliveries,
Ruben would painstakingly shovel water accumulating in puddles
into buckets and small drums of water.
Horses would supplement the supply, hauling five-gallon jugs
stapped on its back from the village deep wells.
There were many work stoppages, waiting for weather to clear and the
roads to dry.
There were no architectural plans.
Just a foreman to orchestrate the work with a motley crew of artisans
I drew plans on cardboard boxes, backs of old calendar pages and
scraps of plywood,
forever disappearing as kindling or some secondary use.
Eventually the foreman caught up with what I was trying to achieve.
Lines, alignments, symmetries and various design elements.
Quite a few times I would tear down and redo things that didn't
look right to me,
to the foreman Vic's head-scratching incredulity.
Twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, after the day's work,
I brought out a half-gallon of lambanog,
to the men's delight and their waiting wives' dismay.
The jiggerful of arrack would go round-and-round,
fueling and loosening the men's storytelling,
as the decibels increased and the stories slurred.
And I was the voracious listener, taking the occasional jigger,
while slowly being filled with the stories of their lives.
But it was more than drinking and getting drunk.
It was also a rural ritual.
A social hour, exchanging stories, local news, secrets,
current events, town politics, and gossips.
The one-room school house did not happen.
Instead, it mushroomed into a complex of buildings.
On a personal level, it was my scultural grand opus
a vast empty canvas that slowly filled up
with a collage of buildings connected by steps and walkways,
careful that the elements did not obstruct each other,
each sharing in the scenic vista of mountains and countryside.
I stared at empty spaces, endlessly sketching in my mind.
drawing and redrawing, designing and redesigning,
adding, extending, altering, tearing down and rebuilding.
During the early years of Pulang Lupa's construction,
my time was divided between Tiaong and Baltimore,
twice a year to Tiaong, staying 3 months at a time, a few times, longer.
Although the Baltimore clinics adapted to my long absences,
continuity of care was starting to suffer from the three month
I quit my regular clinic at Eager Street and stated taking assignments in the satellite clinics,
covering physicians on vacation, conferences, sabatticals or maternity leaves.
The ten or more years practing in the inner city were most fulfilling.
Medicine in an incredible environment of learning and teaching
with the clinic affiliation with Johns Hopkins Hospital.
It was a different kind of medicine practiced in the managed-care setting,
removed from the day-to-day temptations of commerce.
A serendipitous fusion of medicine and cultural immersion.
I became the brother, the homie.
Came to know of their God and the prayers in their lives.
At a time when I might already have walked away from my God,
I was struck by the religiosity of the inner city folk.
They relinquished to God's will the outcome of their illnesses
Early on, I used to smile when they would say when they got better.
I thank God and I thank you.
They tell me how they prayed.
I was arrogant and amused, having to share with their beliefs,
as I thought their improvements were the fruits of my labors
and the ministrations
But somewhere along the countless minuets of life and death
of lives saved and lives lost, even as science triumphed,
I came to realize prayers were more than generic doses of placebo.
And learned from the patients, its powers, its comforting ways.
And in the end, it was I who rediscovered prayer.
Some kind of epiphany from watching the patients
in their resolute strength, serenity and resignation.
If it was placebo, it worked bettter than those ones we prescribed
Later, whatever its pathways or mechanisms, it became part of my treatment.
Talking about prayer.
Asking them to pray
for what ever wonderful ways it would help
what I was trying to do.
My mother died In 2000. She was 86.
For years her health has been in slow and age-related steady decline
She adapted to the gradual deepening darkness of her world
while contuing her daily kilometer of exercise, walking aroung
the big dining table,
her path cleared of chairs and obstacles,
a completed circle marked by a piece of tape at the the table's
Her days were filled with mental word games, jumbles and crossword
a long list of mnemonic exercises, and hours listening to readings
from her children.
She had long resigned herself to the eventuality of her death,
dreading the specter of intensive care unit, immobilized with
tubes and wires
intubated and hooked to a mechanical ventilator.
So many times, she voiced her fears
and asked for reassurances that her life not be needlessly prolonged.
She initially resisted, later consenting, to the implantation
of a temporary pacemaker.
Her string of illnesses brought her to regular visits to physicians
Alas, too many times, I was angered and horrified
at the recurrent instances of negligence, inattention and incompetence.
She was eventually hospitalized, for exploratory surgery for a
suspected colon cancer.
A pre-admission cough and respiratory difficulty raised the possibility of pulmonary
I wrote a clinical summary which included my clinical impressions.
Alas, my suspicions were discounted,
saying what I suspected was "normal" for old patients.
Her condition needed to be stabilized before surgery.
And stabilize, it did not.
Suboptimal care saw to that.
Visits from doctors giving her few hurried minutes of rounding-time.
My mother's condition worsened daily, and In about 10 days, she
was much worse.
Her lungs were filling up with fluid.
She asked to be taken home. To die.
The scheduled lung scan done on her day of discharge
my earlier suspicion of pulmonary embolism.
I am tired. Please. I just want to go home.
We took mama home.
Away from the hospital ambience of white-starched nurses
and white-coated doctors hurrying through their rounds,
restricted visitation hours, the intrusive blaring
of the paging system.
To a room at home, surrounded by family, giving care, keeping
Relatives came, for quiet forgiveness, for prayers, for closure.
I slowly withdrew her medications and fluids.
Replaced them with medications to keep her comfortable.
In the process, science and pharmaceuticals failed in its expected
She suffered the discomforts of dehydration,
as she drifted in and out of a semi-coma,
her parched lips instinctively sucking of wet towels
opening her mouth to small doses of ice chips.
Many times she slid into pharmaceutical coma,
Only to waken from them.
I suffered those moments.
But she passed away, surrounded by family,
as she wished, as home.
And as she wished, she was cremated on the same day.
Brought the ashes back home.
I went to look at the room where she died,
not certain why,
perhaps, just because. . .
A wispy band of bluish-white cloud hang in the room.
in an instant it was gone.
My mother's dying haunted me for a long time.
Wondering what more I could have done.
Long before she died, she expressed her many fears.
Not of dying, but how she would die, how she might suffer.
She turned to me, her doctor son.
I made a promise, reassurances.
That in the end, her death would be a dignified one.
Yet, she still suffered in her dying.
She came out of pharmaceutical coma,
a few times, awakening, so aware, surprised,
her fists clenced, thumping the bed with all her feeble strength,
whispering Why am I still alive?
Dignity in death does not come easy in a culture ruled by religion
whose sole ministration is the sacramental anointing of extreme unction
and a promise of salvation.
My mother's last years and death was sadly revealing of
the deficiencies and poor quality of her health care.
I had the unfortunate experience of having accompanied her
through long waits for her too short and too hurried visits,
the inattention of the doctor, the inadequacies of the treatments.
It is a sad commentary on a profession that has become
too focused on the ka-ching and commerce.
There was an "ash wake" with the nine days of prayer.
After 30 days, there was the traditional "tapusan,"
I had a separate celebration in Pulang Lupa, with the villagers
joining in prayers and a small feast.
Against rural tradtions, the feasting food was not all consumed,
At that time I was not aware of a rural superstition that concerned"tapusan" leftovers.
From Pulang Lupa, I stopped by the family house in Mandaluyong
to pick up sundry supplies to take to Baguio.
I knocked for a few minutes, calling Cora! Cora!
I went to the adjoining house, asked my sister Angie if Cora was
She said she was just talking to her an hour or so ago.
I got the house key, entered, and found Cora
sitting in bed, her back leaning on the wall, her legs hanging by the
seeming to having fallen asleep while watching television.
She did not repond to a gentle slapping of her thigh.
I noticed her feet were mottled blue
her shorts stained with dry urine.
She was dead.
Leila wanted to do CPR.
The signs dictated otherwise.
It was difficult breaking the news to her two children.
She was cremated the same day.
She died, a year and less than a week after mother's death.
Cora fills up a room in my heart.
Her marriage to Arthur failed so long ago, but she stayed with
I do not know what her other choices were, but she chose to stay.
She was mother's faithful companion, an alter ego,
assumed the burden of her care in her advancing years,
her eyes in her years of progressing blindness.
As she did for mother, she did for everyone else in the family,
and for anyone else in the compound's families of dysfunctional
She was "radio-balita," news and gossip filtered to
and through her,
not too many secrets safe in her keeping.
She was always there with a helping hand,
dispensing generic advice and her brand of homespun medicine.
And all these in saintly resignation awash in an eternally sunny
When I returned to Pulang Lupa and spoke of Cora's death,
Mina, the village lady who served as "katiwala"
said she wasn't surprised that she died.
A year ago, the small feast that was partaken of in celebration
of my mother's"tapusan" prayer ritual
was not all consumed, the leftovers kept, instead of all being
given away the same day.
It foreboded of another death, of a relative or love one, following
within a year.
Pulang Lupa continued to sprout up from the ground; buildings
When the first phase was completed, it was painted. . . white.
Imposing, even from afar, from the neighboring barangays,
intermittently peaking in view from the national road,
a cluster of white buildings, atop the hill of Lumingon.
So, the White House name.
I waged a small campaign to keep the Pulang Lupa name.
The White House moniker stuck.
Each return to Pulang Lupa further immersed me into Tiaong's rural
Awash in superstitions and alive with mythological creatures.
The frightening predatory creatures of childhood suddenly closer,
The kapre, monstrous and hairy, high up on the tree, his presence
given away at night, as he puffs on his giant cigar, the red glow
lighting his face.
The tikbalang, the upper half-horse, the lower human-form, hiding
in bamboo groves,
preying on those afoot, casting his spell, leading men astray,
The elves, black or white, duwendeng-item or duwendeng
and the earth-dwellers, lamang-lupa, nuno-sa-punso,
inhibiting the termite mounds,
the other creatures of the night, the asuwang in its various forms,
the mananangal, feeding on infant's livers,
and the White Lady afloat in ethereal ghostliness,
a cast of characters providing theater to their rural lives.
And in this milieu. . .
of superstitions and mythological creatures,
of maladies cast by gnomes and elves,
of spells, counter spells and possessions,
where the villagers whistle to summon a breeze
and predict tomorrow's weather by the starriness of the night
where the local healers diagnose illnesses
by the configurations of candles drippings,
alum, embers, or eggs whites in oil or water,
and dispense their folkloric treatments
with concoctions of herbal roots, seeds, leaves and flowers
or fragments of paper inscribed with prayers in pig-Latin,
pasted on skin or stucked in bodily orifices,
and all the final outcomes resigned to God's grace and will,
in this millieu. . .
. . . I dared practice my brand of Western medicine.
Word got around fast. A new doctor in town.
I was "less expensive" than a visit
to the town doctor.
Meaning, free. Gratis.
And to boot, free medicines, too, when available
from boxes of medical samples from Baltimore,
later on from Leila's salvaged boxes of pharmaceuticals from L.A.
Some came with prescriptions written by local doctors.
Some came for second opinions.
Many presented with maladies, persistent or recurrent
despite visits to the local albularyos and medicos
and their treatments of herbal concoctions, tawas, bulongs and orasyons.
or various esoteria from their indigenous bags of treatments.
Well, it's not really all gratis medicine.
Actually, some back with tokens of their appreciation,
with their visit or returning a day or two later,
with their bag or basket of sundry things.
Freshly harvested vegetables, sitaw or kalabasa, a papaya, bananas,
half of a jackfruit, bags of crackers or peanuts from the sari-sari store,
a bottle of achara, yes. . . a chicken, once.
Native, the patient proudly asserted.
Once, a patient's mother came with a small basket of bayabas fruits.
The next day I ran into her, oblivious to my approach,
her basket almost full of bayabas
being picked from my brother's trees.
Alas, allopathic medicine was in comic and constant conflict with the
My diagnoses were forever challenged by the pronouncements
of albularyos and medicos, even by the rural system of health beliefs.
Villagers preferred to believe the folkloric causes of their afflictions:
earth dwellers, elves, bad winds, and sorcery,
rather than the science-based mechanisms of pathologies.
Often, after a consultation with me, free medicines and all,
they would still seek the albularyo's help, for a tapal,
a magic twig,
an herbal decoction, a bulong or orasyon.
I diagnosed a woman with breast cancer, metastases all over,
confimed by biopsy, and eventually scheduled for palliative surgery.
A local healer disagreed with the cancer diagnosis,
said it was caused by a spell cast by a creature of folklore,
and advised a treatment of herbs, tawas, and orasyons.
A neighbor who had a problem with a breast mass in the past,
shared an advice that her albularyo had given her:
to have her husband straddle her, and to roll his testicles over the lump.
A day before her trip to Manila for surgery,
maggots squiggling out of the ulcerating breast mass,
she asked if she could make another visit to the local healer.
Another patient I was asked to do a housecall on
showed to have a stroke, a left sided-weakness, with hypertension,
and to boot, a contralateral carotid bruit.
I started her on treatment, antihypertensives and blood thinners,
hopefully to prevent or delay another stroke.
A week later, I learned the family stopped the treatments.
An alburlayo they consulted said it wasn't a stroke,
and started a regimen of massage, herbals and vitamins
for what he diagnosed as pasmang-ugat,
a malady brought about by a hot-and-cold imbalance.
Later, I would lightheartedly require that before patients consult,
they should already have consulted their albularyos,
and tried their sundry of rural remedies.
I do not denigrate the local healers.
Except those who have started to mix the alternative modalities
with prescription pharmaceuticals, ignorant of their adverse effects.
Alas, for many of the rural poor, they are the only affordable ministers of healing.
Albularyos, medicos, hilots, and shamans with their otherworldly view of maladies,
low on science, high on mythoogy and folklore.
But a view so easily comprehensible to the rural mind.
Familiar modalities - tawas, kudlit, tapal, bulong, orasyon.
Often a pittance payment compared to a doctor's visit
that can cost a two to three days of wages,
with prescriptions, too often, unaffordable.
they survive, as long or longer than the urban-suburban rich
diagnostic workups and costly maintenance prescriptions,
from whom I hear of more sudden deaths than from the rural poor.
They survive as long, on reigmens of faith, prayers, and esoteric placebos.
Or, perhaps, they survive as a consequence of poverty.
Where meat is only an occasional luxury.
As they are forced on the frequent diet of inexpensive market fish.
Or too frequent cans of sardines.
Or dishes made from weeds pulled from the river banks,
wild herbs, leaves, and roots that become ginatan (coconut) dishes,
suffering their diets, unaware of their wonderful benefits.
Often, they survive to old ages.
And when age catches up, they might even welcome death.
The rural folk accept death with surprising equanimity.
An aging woman down the hill, matter-of-factly, asked
me a few times
if I had at my disposal: Ang gamot ng kamatayan.
. . The death pill.
She said she had already picked out her burial dress.
She was tired.
Alas, lasted another year, dying the slow death,
suffering the decubiti of bedriddenness and immobility.
Another time, past midnight, I was asked to visit a man down the
In the rain and through muddied paths, I trudged,
Ruben guiding me through the dark of night.
The patient was sitting, slouched forward, somewhat breathless.
Tulungan mo ako. Bigyan mo na ako ng gamot ng kamatayan.
(Please help me. Just give me the death pill.)
His diagnosis was uncertain.
The xrays read possible tuberculosis vs possible metastatic disease.
His coffers have long been emptied by many visits to the provincial hospital,
that provided no hope; only costly and shortlived relief for his breathlessness.
He said he has been sitting up for days, unable to lie down.
I told him there was no death pill.
But sat with him. And talked to him, with all the situational wisdom I could muster.
About dying, about spending what was left of his time
in prayers, in closure, in forgiving.
I left him a handful of Tylenols.
A few days later he died.
His daughter came up, thanking me for visiting
and spending time with her father,
for talking to him,
for the powerful pills that allowed him to rest and sleep soundly in his last days.
I was in Baltimore, during one of my prolonged absences,
when I received news that the Ruben, the Pulang Lupa caretaker,
It was a well-planned killing, perpetrated at deepening dusk,
the electrical lines cut off,
approached from behind, stabbed, while napping in the courtyard bench.
He staggered out of the courtyard, trying to call for help.
There was a witness, an 8-year old granddaughter,
but unreliable in her fright and the dark of the twilight.
There were two suspects.
A suspecting husband who spied from high up a coconut tree
watching ruben having a dilliance with his wife.
The other, someone Ruben pulled a gun on, caught stealing bamboo sprouts.
No one was ever charged.
The spying husband left in the dark of night, a week later.
The other still loiters around, with his petty larcenous preoccupations.
September 11, 2001.
I was working one of the Baltimore
when the nurse interrupted my charting to tell me a plane hit New York.
I rushed to the TV lounge tto watch a plane hit the second tower.
For the next hours, the next days and weeks, like many others
I watched mesmerized, unending stream of cascading visuals,
consumed with a cauldron of familiar and unfamilair emotions,
a profound emptiness, sensing and mourning the loss of something
and a dreadful realization that terrorism was no longer remote,
occasional, or improbable.
It had a new face, a rabidness with frightening resolve.
The numbers 9/11 became part of our vocabulary of fears,
of a new reality of uncertainty, an early millenium milestone.
Our modern-day Pearl Harbor.
A year later, Nestor, the caretaker at the Baguio house was murdered.
He caught his wife having an affair with a local guy.
The story is told, while he was lashing out his pent-up fury on
his wife's brothers were texted and came to her rescue.
He died with seventeen slashes and stab wounds, front and back.
I left the country, assured it was an open-and-shut case of homicide.
Alas, his family's coffers could not afford the costs of greasing
the investigative work
and no effort was made to communicate financial needs to me.
His death was eventually labelled a "suicide."
L. was a long-time friend, companion, lover.
We lived together for a long and nurturing time,
shared in many things, but separate in some ways.
She suffered through dark stretches of my days,
the inexplicable recurring madness.
I watched her raised her daughter,
shared in her grandson's early years.
We thought we would grow old together.
Then, Pulang Lupa started to happen.
She visited five times, stretches lasting a month.
It never stopped being the alien place,
unfamiliar, even threatening,
Then, there were things that clung to her,
friends, family, all things familiar, and an independence.
Life in the Philippines would be unembraceable.
It was a slow separation, hesitant, unspoken at first.
eventually, living separately, remaining friends,
waiting for healing hads of
time, distance, and circumstance.
Then came the breast mass.
A mammogram showed a spot.
After a prolonged pacing of indecision, the doctor elected to wait and see.
Six months later, a follow-up mammogram showed the lesion's progression.
L. was angry, and so was I.
Second readings and hindsight suggested
the lesion should have been biopsied and excised from the get-go.
Such is the fallibility of medicine.
An excision biopsy confirmed cancer, extending beyond safety margins.
L. said: I need you. . . for this.
As an internist, after the diagnosis, I am usually distanced
from the choices of treatment and the terrible
realities of prognosis.
Usually, in practice, a patient would be referred to the cancer specialists,
the surgeon, radiation and medical oncologists
to orchestrate the therapeutic decisions within the purview of their expertise.
This one time, there was to be no distancing.
It was to be an unfamiliar journey.
I read through the literature, often conflicting recommendations.
Read on surgical options, radiation, chemo, and hormonal therapies,
pro and cons,
toxicities and five-year survival rates of various protocols,
weighing survival rates vs complications or dying from treatments.
Pondering the alternatives, agonizing on the choice.
Watching her, from one treatment to the next,
seemingly undaunted, yet palpably frail inside,
working through the days, fretting over the choice of wig
to hide the the ravaging onslaught of chemotherapy.
Eventually, I snipped off her last patches of hair.
She survived her cancer.
As a physician, a doubly profound and new experience,
a unusual proximity to an illness,
with its familiar and unfamiliar underpinnings.
It left me, strangely, surprisingly, enriched.
I must have "returned" when I started builing Pulang
Although the years divided into blocks of three to six months
shuffling between the construction of Pulang Lupa and medicine in Baltimore,
the balance was shifting.
As Pulang Lupa mushroomed, so did the dreams and visions.
The possibilities were exhilarating.
Even the art was happening with novel abandon.
I thought I could find a balance in a divided existence,
between Baltimore and Tiaong.
but the allure of going back to the Philippines full-time grew with each
In 2001, with hesitance, I sold the Fell's Point
and with sadness, shut down the Thames Street Gallery.
In 2003, I resigned from the the Baltimore clinics,
and dismantled a life of some thirty years.
Maryland, Baltimore, medicine, and art.
Unlinking from friends, lovers and loved ones.
Leila returned to my life.
After more than 30 years. . .
Then, the suddenness of its ending.
Now, the strangeness of its return. . .
If I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would not have returned.
Or maybe, I would have taken a different path on the crossroad.
Now I wonder. . . if I simply chose to live the good life,
a bohemian existence, the urban artist,
or teaching medicine part-time in the university,
or just idling away in the city life and culture
with all the accoutrements and indulgences of a nest egg.
No. Instead I chose rural Tiaong.
In some ways, it's Any Smal lTown, Philippines.
But it was, also, birthplace and hometown.
Maybe, it just all the childhood memories that tugged.
Maybe, my grandmother. My mother.
Maybe, I just tippled on too much lambanog with my brother,
dreaming dreams, poking at possibilities,
imagining things we could do for the town,
a town caught in some kind of inertia.
No cystal balls. No card readers. No fortune tellers.
Just a mix of hubris and naivete.
And an Americanness.
And over the next few years, my pandora's box slowly opened
with failures and frustrations, with conflicts and intrigues.
challenges that crossed my path,
many unfamiliar to my experience and expertise.
In Baltimore, I was labeled by some in the Filipino
community as the "brown American"
from a social distancing that was misunderstood, perceived as
rather than the self-imposed isolation that freed from
an inability for idle chatter, an affliction as long ago as my
Now, having returned, much of what I do is labeled as being "too American."
I think it's just the lifetime affliction of "one-track-mindedness,"
fodder to the parent's recurrent amusement and incredulity.
Yes, perhaps, I have become "too" American.
Thirty years of cultural immersion can do that,
Yes, perhaps, having become "too" American was what brought me back.
Wanting to do things this side of the world.
In my hometown.
The many visits, years before finally returning, slowly painted a picture
of worsening maladies that plagued the country.
Each visit added a patch to the collage of a landscape
of political corruption, of social malaise and the suffering masa.
There were many nights of animated talks with my brother and sister,
lambanog fueling our passions and belief in the future,
seeds of low-grade activism germinating
with hopelessly romantic notions of change.
Louie was confident. Change is around the corner.
The creme de la creme of La Sallites and Ateneans,
U.P. activism, too boot, coalescing into one formidable force of change.
I eagerly drank into that cup of hope.
Alas, later, to sadly learn that many of the la creme
slinkered to the political establishment.
Angie's hope was later tempered, that change was far from imminent,
but possible through the thousands of scattered grass-root efforts.
Alas, the la creme is old, balding and dying off.
The grass-roots hopelessly unable to mount efforts of measurable change,
unable to coalesce against the unyielding powers in the institution of corruption.
Ricardo is my friend and alter ego. A burgis Manileño
who provides me a 101 on certain urban matters of his expertise.
Ready with elucidations on bourgeoise-related current events.
He readily criticizes me on my recurring quixotic musings.
I am certain I have bored him too many times,
about the corruption, the elusive change,
and the Filipino's disabling inertia.
He said: Duwag ang Filipino. Walang bayag. (Cowards. No balls.)
Perhaps, too stern a pronouncement, an unkind mismeasure.
But there are some painful realities to our collectively diminished courage.
Centuries of colonialisms have subjugated our collective will.
Reduced us to pathologic timidity and resignation.
The heroes, few and far between.
Delivered from colonization, occupation and oppression
by liberators who become the new colonizers.
I counter: 7,280 islands. That's the problem.
More than geographic separations, it isolates and disconnects.
A rabid regionalism that dilutes and divides the collective will
and prevents a true masa movement.
Also, we don't have a bellicose streak in our DNA.
In more than 300 years of Spanish rule, there were too few battles won.
The first was Lapu-Lapu's.
The other two were more then 300 years later.
Not turn-the-tide victories.
No, we not a warring people.
It's more than the thousands of islands and thousand of miles that separate.
That has severely diluted the bellicosity in out souls.
Why are we so corrupt?
Inevitably, conversations lead to that question.
We have talked it to death.
Most Catholic, most corrupt.
Is it the easy confessional cleansing of corruption as sin?
Its easy absolution by penance?
How did we get this way?
Some say it was started way back to the Spanish colonization.
Some say it's the Chinese.
Some dates it to Quirino's golden arinola.
Of course, Marcos and Company redefined it.
What came before and after them.
The math is staggering.
It has been said, more than 65 to 70 centavos of every pesos
goes to the coffers of corruption.
Ricardo said: If not more.
When Erap got convicted of plunder, there was a collective sigh of relief.
It's about time.
We have to set an example.
We have to start somewhere. . .
It sends a lesson and a message.
Politicians will start thinking twice. . .
That's good. Someone high up.
I asked Based on the definition of plunder,
who are the politicians, in the past 30 years, who are not guilty of plunder?
Salonga. Tañada. Pelaez. Joker Arroyo. Diokno. . . Five fingers. . .
Um. . .
Rene Sagisag? . . . Six fingers.
A short list. Not easy to add to.
Of course, greed and corruption are not unique to Philippine politics.
It is generic to most third-world democratic systems,
with power achieved only with unavoidable indebtedness,
reimbursed through cronyism, nepotism,
the countless political sleight-of-hand ways applied to pork and plunder,
and the myriads of ways policies are reshaped for the benefit of the few.
What is unique is the heartlessness and the absence of sophistication and shame.
Nothing is safe from the leeching and the bleeding.
off the top as the monies get disbursed
for infrastructure, education, healthcare–roads, books, medicines.
I asked someone who won a recent local election.
What is your program? Malinis ba?
His reply, immediate: Babawiin muna.
Incredible millions are spent in getting elected.
It would take many lifetimes of political service to get it back.
But through pork and plunder and political machinations of corruption
one gets in back, and much much more, in less than a term of office.
The incomparable ROI of the business of politics.
And the populace has long resigned to this reality of Philippine life.
Corruption is its other original sin.
For the burgis, it is what it is.
An immutable fact of life in this country.
Many of them, independent of its machinations,
While some are gears in the machineries of corruption.
The middle class are making do.
Many surviving through one of many economic diasporas.
Both yearn for a change.
Sadly, all sing the familiar chorus.
Not in our lifetime.
Sharing in the feeling that there is no alternative to the reigning rule of the corrupt
and that the elections, rather than a democratic instrument of choice or change
do nothing but provide a perpetuation of the corrupt status quo.
A musical chair of corruption.
The masa are afflicted with a more profound hopelessness.
Long resigned to the impossibility of change.
Not even in the next lifetime.
They share the chorus.
Lahat magnanakaw. . . Wala namang ipapalit.
(They are all thieves. . . They are all the same.)
Their voice is scattered, regionally diluted.
Their protestations barely audible whimpers.
Their collective outrage never threatening to the ruling powers.
Or, collectively threatening, albeit short-lived, only when called upon
as the lumpenproletariat, to provide noise, number and decibel
for the recurrent oppositional protests, marches and coup d'etats attempts.
Yet it is the masa vote that determines elections outcomes.
And they are feted to a campaign circus
replete with same-same predictable promises of change
with busloads doses of celebrities and entertainment.
They know too well the futility of hope and change.
At least get something for the vote.
Votes are sold for the 500 pesos, o half sack of rice, or bottle of liquor.
Or a promise. . . if elected.
Once, I waxed romantic about change and possibility.
Decrying the dreadful state of education.
The dreadful decline of English proficiency.
I suggested calling upon the retiring and returning diaspora,
that population so rich with its doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists
their incredible knowledge and abilities destined for oblivion and senility.
I pondered the possibility of them dedicating and donating
one or two years of their retirement years to teaching
in their school or province of choice.
Who needs the Peace Corp with this endless supply of talent?
Ricardo smiles and says
Nice thought. Go ahead, write about it. See if anyone listens.
There is never a lack of talk, testosterone-and-alcohol-fueled,
of a coalition between the bourgeoisie, the military and their "chosen leader."
with the cast of opportunist angels of change who will star
in this dream team of a revolution.
Talk and passion, with
the longevity of a hangover.
Alas. . . I join the ranks of those who have resigned to the impossibility of change.
To the realities that burden the possibility of change.
Everything is too corrupt and the corruption so deep.
with the populace silenced by timidity, conditioned to subservience.
The rabid regionalism, Islands that isolate.
The waters that distances and further dilutes the collective passion.
A democracy mired in the detritus and excrement of the corrupt.
No heroes in sight.
No mechanisms for change.
There is nothing in the immediate landscape.
I have ceased waxing lyrical for change.
Yes. . . Not in our lifetime.
Pulang Lupa is the microcosm of many small towns,
seasonally agricultural, at the mercy of unpredictable typhoons and El Niños.
In between, the farmers survive on their second trade,
competing with carpenters and masons who depend on it as sole craft.
Too often, the harvest is unable to provide the basic needs during the dry season.
The cow or carabao or gun is sold.
On dire times, a 5-6 loan is taken, paid at 10 percent a month.
Sometimes, meals diminsh to twice a day.
Often it's rice and dried fish, or sardines.
There's no miracle of loaves and fishes.
An old man I was treating for hypertension told me:
Many times, it's just rice and salt or patis.
I've heard that so many times
Early on, I was amused by what I thought was an exaggeration of their needs.
But I have seen it too many times.
Many children go to bed hungry.
Some infants are weaned off from milk at 6 or 8 months,
feedings substituted with "am," sweetened rice water.
Teeth are lost so early on.
There's a mental dullness that struggles with education.
The children are familiar with worms,
pulling it out of their butts, occasionally coughing it up.
Many are weaned off the care and watch of parents too early,
to join the community of children with whom they share the same plight.
Too young and innocent to understand the whys of their stories,
and the shrunken circumference of their future lives.
But today, they play to their hearts' delight,
endlessly performing, posing, singing and dancing.
People from the other side of the fence, watch, listen,
and agree: We really are a happy race.
Rich in street smarts, so wanting in parented wisdom,
many sharing the reality and tragedy of ignorance.
Education is not a right. It is the privelege of the burgis and middle class.
Many never make it past elementary education.
Of those who manage through high school,
few can afford a college education.
The Pulang Lupa Foundation was established in 2001.
With Leila's help, we set up a scholarship and educational assistance program.
The foundation has graduated a small number into professional lives.
Also, provided assistance for day-care needs,
elementary and high school tuitions, books and school supplies.
Beyond educational projects, built a tuklong for a Lusacan village,
youth activities, a short-lived art club and a marching-band.
Gratis medical consultations.
Deworming the children of their familiar squiggly infestations.
Providing financial support and loans for seasonal plantings.
Grass roots efforts in the boondocks.
Some days I felt like a "mayor" of Pulang Lupa.
I'd wake up to find eight to ten people waiting in the kubo.
Always, they come unannounced,
my availability known through the rural grapevine.
A parent with a son or daughter asking for a scholarship.
A farmer asking for financing on a seasonal planting.
Someone selling a carabao, horse or billy goat.
Someone with an emergent need, selling a gun.
Someone offering a price for a coconut or banana harvest.
Or asking a loan or seeking employment.
A medical consultation or a second opinion.
Or asking for medical samples for a prescription need.
In each visit, there is a story, if one cares to listen.
Stories to break your heart.
But as there are stories that sadden,
there are as many stories that anger.
Some who showered us with praises, stole as we turned our backs.
Padded expenses, faked or doctored receipts.
Some parents and students exaggerated their needs and impoverishment
to better qualify for educational assistance.
One who said he would take a bullet, repaid us with thievery, dishonesties and lies.
Crops are harvested on the sly, banana trees hewn down,
trees hacked down for firewood.
Electrical lines cuts down, five separate times,
water pumps, metal windows, corrugated roofs,
for the underground rural wire-and-metal market.
I heard it so many times –
Dahil sa kahirapan. Because we're poor.
But many times, it was because it was just easier than working.
After so many umpteen times, you sadly see a culture of dishonesty.
Some draw on their rural brand of twisted philosophy
saying their thievery is no different than the politicians.
I made a small rural-based survey, one question.
Given the opportunity, how many would steal or alter receipts?
My caretaker said Six out of ten.
And she's been caught with one hand in the cookie jar.
Others said Eight to ten out of ten.
To the one who said ten, I asked Including you?
He immediately parried No! No! I mean nine.
I could not completely retire from medicine.
In Tiaong, the albularyos and the alternative modalities reign supreme.
Folklore and mythology explain the pathologies of many their diseases.
The duwendes, kulam, balis, usog, pasma.
Of course, I tried to deconstruct it. Failed.
Many cases resolve with the placebos and tincture of time,
always attributed to the arbularyo's or medico's healing ways.
Some cases that persist are brought to me.
Sometimes, too late for my intervention.
Sometimes, an opportunity to merge the science of my medicine
with the folklore of their beliefs.
Yet, despite the an absence of traditional health care.
people survive their sundry of maladies
with folkloric remedies, prayers and tincture of time.
The more serious illnesses make it to traditional consultations,
but too often, the treatments are never pursued,
the work up and surgeries too costly, the prescriptions
Long-term maintenance medications are non-existent.
And when the choice is buying medicines
or a few kilos of rice or food on the table,
It is a no-brainer.
Also, I have wondered many times at their rural hardiness.
Despite the utter absence of nutritional guidelines,
with the excesses of the salty and fatty,
they survive into relative longevity.
is it the freshly picked roots, leaves, tubers, fruits and vegetables
that grow in the wild or robin-hooded off the rich?
The absence of urban stress?
The bucolic simplicity of their lives?
The credo of their existence?
Medical care is a privelege of the burgis and middle class.
But for many of them, it is still a crapshoot.
Medicine is commerce first, ability second, and compassion a distant third.
Many attempt specialty medicine without requisite training,
while many specialists woefully wing through the complexities of internal medicine.
I have witnessed its appalling ministrations with my mother's final years,
of dreadful inattention, glaring omissions, terrible mismanagements.
And later, in countless stories from kin and friends
and the incredible inefficiences revealed from the reviewing of charts.
I commented to a doctor, asked why it was so.
It is what it is. Go back to medicine. Start a revolution.
It was a tempting challenge.
It would have consume all that is left of time.
And I could not imagine
making a difference teaching for a few years.
It would require a deconstruction of the way we think,
move beyond long established barriers of reasoning.
The "art of medicine" is an abstract confluence of knowledge, intuitiveness,
and the ability to ask, to extract the clues and the mundane,
with time to listen and time to connect-the-dots.
But the malady is many layers deep.
It is not just bringing the art into medicine.
Good medicine is difficult when the business of medicine
tries to cram as many patients with 10-minute visits.
I remember a visit I accompanied my mother to.
A 12-minute of a comedy show where the doctor
spent most of the time going through my mother's thickened chart
nodding on and off, uh-huh, um. . .
Oh, yes. . . um. . you have a pacemaker.
I wanted to jump over the desk and wring the fucker's neck.
Oh, yes. It is a malady many layers deep,
in a profession sorely lacking in censure,
serving an unquestioning public subservient to the demigodly pronouncements of their healers.
Kaching medicine is not just an urban malady.
The boondocks are also recipient to the dark side of the business of medicine.
A pregnant caretaker, her pregnancy seemingly magnified by obesity
decided to deliver in a clinic setting, hurried to the next town
and was referred to the next town's clinic,
where she was asked to fork out thirty thousand pesos.
For an emergency ceasarean section.
In increasing labor pains, she rushed to the provincial hospital,
barely making it, delivering vaginally with great ease and great economy.
It was a challenge I did not take on.
I think another choice was made early on at the start of Pulang Lupa's construction.
The daily kilometer walks to-and-fro the peak
were interrupted countless times by the flora along the winding footpaths.
I started making colored pencil sketches of the many nameless flowers.
There were names for the plants common in village life and healing folklore.
The rest were simply clumped into three names –
damo (weed), baging (vine) and halaman (plant).
The villagers were eager teachers to my ignorance and interests.
Soon enough they were sharing their how-to on plants.
Leaves chewed and spit on freshly circumcised wounds.
Or leaves pounded, decocted, infused, heated, oiled for sundry uses.
Soon, I became the avid listener to stories of their fascinating world
of elves and earth dwellers, the kapre, tikbalang and the white lady,
spells and counterspells, anting-antings,
the superstitions ever-present in their daily lives
and the their belief system that rules life, health and death.
It is a world somewhat familiar, from meandering childhood memories.
Soon, I was deep into a study of Philippine alternative medicine.
A compilation and fascination that continue to consume much of the days,
fueled by an obsessive one-track-mindedness,
Interviewing the villagers, elders, hilots, albularyos, farmers, jeepney drivers, carpenters
and anyone and everyone who had a story or snippet of folklore medicine to share.
There were countless hikes, many hills and little mean mountains,
seashores, marshes, open fields,
knocking on doors, intruding inside fenced gardens,
digital camera in hand, clicking, clicking, clicking.
So many came out to help, to answer a question, provide a name,
or offer a plant story of folklore.
And later, the countless hours sorting out the clutter of info
the digital images, uploading into cyberspace
working into the early hours of morning,
until cerebral crowding and weariness force me to shutdown.
Many years into the compilation and more than 500 medicinal plants later,
I have wondered many times: Is this worth it?
And asked myself: Is anyone reading this?
But there are enough emails that have given thanks for the effort,
students and teachers who have strayed into the website.
And many who were seeking from the compilation an alternative cure
for a desperate need or seeming hopeless situation.
Some see it as "advocacy," some as "legacy,"
emails showering with praise and gratitude
that nudge me out of doldrums and inertia,
some renewing my resolve.
Picker-uppers, I call them. They justify the madness in the effort.
So, in the end, I have become the accidental teacher.
Gunfire is a part of the daily background noise,
happening so often it merits nothing more than cursory hesitation,
to wonder what kind, a .45, automatic, or assault rifle,
or to wonder if there's a wedding, baptism, or birthday nearby,
or someone testing a newly acquired firearm.
Often, deep in the bacchanalia of festivity,
the host or a guest would pull out his firearm
to fire a magazine's worth of celebratory gunfire.
A guess is that more than 80% of households have a gun or two or more.
And 95 %, if not more, are unlicensed, kolorum.
Many are handmade - usually .38 paltiks.
Or, homemade shotguns-sulpaks.
On an early morning of late November 2005,
the usual bucolic quiet of rural Tiaong was broken by the sound of gunfire.
At first I thought it to be a early holiday firecrackers accompanying a drunken revelry.
But soon, there was screaming and an apparent exchange of gunfire.
Local police, acting on a tip, stopped vehicles filled with NPAs,
unbeknownst to them, well armed.
The confrontation turned awry.
The local police was initially outnumbered and outgunned,
until the arrival of a military contingency.
The 30-minute battle left dead on both sides.
At the break of dawn, heavily armed soldiers came up to Pulang Lupa,
looking for wounded NPAs who might have sought shelter.
They were met by my male staff, none of whom had any ID,
all suspiciously looking - boondocky and scruffy.
When they were asked for therir employer's name,
they said they
only knew me as "Doc."
So they searched the grounds, even kicked a door down.
Found no wounded NPAs.
A surreal week followed.
Surveillance helicopters frequented the skies.
There were scattered skirmishes nearby,
sounds of heavy artillery in the afternoons to early evenings.
At nights, the choppers dropped flares,
streaming lights piercing through the dark,
dazzlingly light up the countryside.
For days it went on, sounds and sights,
the encounters slowly receding
farther away into the barangays of Anastasia and Cabatang.
For most local folk, it was llife as usual.
The school kids glad for the suspended days of school.
The village folk adapting to the temporary inconveniences
while providing daily updates of evacuations, body count,
and livestock lost.
Tears come easy. Always have.
Sad movies. Sad stories.
Or in the middle of singing a song, a line breaking through.
Often, incomprehensible, for the suddenness, the why.
A few times, an accidental melody from the radio.
a plaintive violin piece uexpectedly bringing me to tears.
One, I tracked down the title from a radio station that played it.
Waited two weeks for the CD purchase to arrive,
only to listen to it, passionless and uninspired.
There were also those violent tearful episodes, since the mid-eighties,
recurring every three or four years, lasting an hour to three hours.
From out of nowhere, sudden, paroxysmal, cleansing, cathartic.
This is violent tearful sobbing.
The first time it happened, it was quite scary.
As the episodes became familiar, I would manage a laugh between sobs.
It would cease as suddenly as it starts, to leave me severely exhausted.
I have pondered the whence.
Medicine? The dying? The deaths?
An restless incarnate, surfacing from some obscure niche within?
Or the countless minutiae of life's experiences,
breaking through the frail barriers of memories,
opening floodgates of emotions.
They seem to have gone. Or, in remission.
None since I have returned.
2009, a year of events.
August 1, 2009,
Cory Aquino passed away.
Pacquiao beat Cotto to a pulp; the world celebrates a boxer.
He is given a hero's welcome every time he returns victorious.
He's a pugilist. A damn good one. But a hero. . . no.
CNN's voted its Hero of the Year - Efren Peñaflorida,
the pushcart educator, for his Kariton Klassroom advocacy.
A hero? No. Perhaps, a humanitarian.
But that same year, two real heroes.
Muelmar Magallanes, a construction worker, and Pfc. Venancio Ancheta
saving 50 people between themselves, before they perished
in typhoon Ondoy's raging floodwaters.
I choke up when I read their stories.
A silent sob.
I confess. . . their stories bring tears.
My kind of heroes, now forgotten.
Christmas 2009, with the inevitable December blues.
It still came, the inexplicable dark cloud of depression.
Seasonal, recurring, mild, manageable with its predictable end.
Still . . .
I thought it was the cold Baltimore Decembers,
the barrenness of the wintry landscapes
the shortening light and lengthening dark of the days
and the long and glittery commerce of Christmas.
Here, it still came.
In tropical December months
I still waged a battle with the seasonal Scrooge within.
On the 23rd, the villagers came up, sixty-some, young and old,
for the annual event of gift-giving, usually of food baskets
and clothes, old and new,
some worn once or twice, or grown out of by kids.
This year the clothes were sent by Leila, collected from her California friends.
four big boxes filled with clothing and shoes.
The big draw was
sweaters and jackets, given out to squealing delights,
so timely for the unusual chill of the December days.
From the grapevine, I heard how so many were proudly parading
up and down the village paths, showing off their colorful hooded jackets.
For many days, villagers came up, asking if there were any left.
Many said it was the best thing they got for Christmas.
Christmas eve, I drove to Manila, the car loaded
with small bags filled with food and toys.
The streets were deserted,
except for homeless people, street kids and panhandlers,
people rummaging through early holiday debris,
children caroling for the commerce, discordant and desperate,
hookers looking for a last-minute tricks to add to their feasting table.
all searching for a piece of their Christmas.
I drove around handing out bags, as I searched for my Christmas.
Christmas day, I drove around deserted avenues in a snail's pace,
freed from its curtain of traffic and urban bustle and hustle,
discovering the sidewalks and the street people
enjoying the quiet of their make-do homes
of pedestrian concrete and cardboard walls.
On the red lights, the beggars came up, in surprising droves,
mostly young mothers, gaunt, in colorful but tattered garbs,
with clinging infants, props to their street corner begging.
Muslims, Badjaos from Mindanao, referred to as palao or lumaan,
God-forsaken, oppressed, dispersed by desperation
seeking day-to-day existence in the commerce and charity of red lights.
A surreal Christmas day, handing out bags to non-Christians.
In 2011. I applied for dual citizenship.
An incredibly easy process that barely took five hours.
Life is a circle.
Coming back to what I left.
Reclaiming a birthright.
Citizenship brought back some rights.
We bantered about running for Town Mayor.
On a program that would promise
every peso in the coffer from whatever source,
to be spent for education, health care, and local services.
It's a fool's dream. . . fizzled soon enough.
Another right of citizenship. . I purchased firearms.
And a permit to carry to boot.
I miss the four seasons, the sundry faces of nature.
While I study and divine the science of its cycles,
often I opt for the childlike ignorance,
to just bathe myself with it wondrous magic,
with its exhilarating servings of ephemeral beauty.
The blazing colors of autumn.
Tenting under the canopy of the October colors.
As November bares into the gray
before the winter chills.
The snow that blankets the barren landscape of winter.
The pleasures of snowbound days,
watching the flakes slowly build white on the branches.
And soon enough, the flowering dogwoods
and the slow greening of early spring,
camping in the still desolate dunes of Assateague Island.
as the months march on
to welcome the rituals of the sunworshippers
who titillates with
their seasonal nakednes.
And when the dog days of summer stifle and smother
to once again pine for the gentle days of autumn.
As I continue to yearn for those four seasons,
Tiaong has revealed the rural wonders of Mother Nature.
Perched on that small hill, away from the madding crowd.
I have watched its cycles of beauty
and listened to its raging tempers.
The monsoon rains and the drowning of crops.
the typhoons viciously whipping across.
In its wake, to waken to a stillness,
to find some giant acacia trees uprooted,
coconut trees supine on the ground.
And some nights. . .
A collar of distant lights from neighboring barangays.
Above, the unimpeded celestial canopy of stars,
the predictable arcs of the moon and planets,
the unpredictable clouds that veil the night skies.
But on a moonless and cloudless night,
I can only gaze at that fiery firmament,
shaking my head in wonderment,
in its splendor, feeling strangely diminished.
Hoping for a falling star, always ready with a wish.
And the winds. . .
blowing fiercely in January and February.
The villagers call them by two names, amihan or habagat,
one or the other,
the science matters little to them.
Days, the trees sway and bend
bowing to the majesty of its power.
Nights, in the dark, the winds moan
plaintive, mysterious, and eerie.
Some hear voices in them.
Messages from afar, from beyond.
The sunset. . .
The early months also bring the spectacles of it.
The play of clouds and colors, as the sun
sinks below the edges of the Ayusan mountains.
Some mediocre, to forgive the lazy gods,
some so grand, to ponder a god's design.
And sometimes, like an artist gone mad,
playing god with his colors,
splashing the west with swatches
Like the snowflake, none ever the same.
The sunrise. . .
I have met one too many times.
Now I struggle with the wearines
pleading with sleep, to wait a while longer,
for the breaking of dawn,
the dark shades of night tinting with the colors of sunrise.
Mount Cristobal and Banahaw coming out of shadows
revealing its bed of clouds.
the village of Lusacan enveloped by the morning mist.
The ethereal landscape of sunrise,
mysterious, unexpected, mystical.
like the snowflake, none ever the same.
The rainbows. . .
sometimes suddenly arching in the distance,
from some far-away rain, some so wide and grand,
sometimes, two in unison.
and despite the science of raindrops, prisms and refraction,
I opt to watch with the childhood's delight. . .
imagining the pot of gold at one end
while wondering what lies on the rainbow's other end.
The cycles. . .
of the plants and trees, their flowers, pods, and fruits.
They unfold arround me,
I have learned their rhythms.
The cycles. . .
of the flowers, the seasonal accenting the perennials.
The blooming flowers of the acacia,
their dark pods punctuating the grounds.
The kakawati, redolent of cherry blossoms,
pink and white petals
lacing the footpaths.
The cycle of its pods, green, then brown and brittle,
on a quiet day in March,
to snap off their branches, in some kind
of delightgul rhythmic cadence and unison
in some kind of botanical conspiracy,
cracking and snapping for hours,
like the mild tapping and beating of some mystic drum.
So, where does this story end?
Is there another adventure or crossroad to insert before these last chapters?
Many stories linger in the sulci where memories dwell.
Some, long forgotten, suddenly, surprisingly surfacing.
Some stories beg to be written, but may cause anguish to some.
There is no autobiographical megalomania in this effort.
The writing has genesis from the laughter elicited
from some of the stories of early childhood and adolescence.
Friends and kin said I should write them down.
Surely, the funny and the laughter lessened as I grew older
But I still try to practice what I preach.
A prescription I have always handed out.
To try to have one rollicking tearful good laugh a day.
There were loves that sustained, that nurtured,
that graced my life with all its wonderful complexities
and countless moments of passion and pleasure,
and as often, countless moments of pain and anguish.
The wonderment of its beginnings and the suddenness of its endings.
There are no children, no family in the story,
in the many crossroads and turns taken
in the many decisions and choices made.
Perhaps it was the recurrent need for isolation.
Alas, the unusual capacity for solitude and aloneness.
The inexplicable ways of life as I chose it.
I have wondered where the story would have gone
if there were children, if there was a family.
A different life.
A different story.
The God of childhood left my story long ago.
It wasn't an epiphany, but small degrees of slow realization.
I lacked the blind faith to sustain me through recurring and accumulating doubts.
There was the widening chasm between religion that I grew up in
and the science that I was growing into.
If the choice in God lies in its present countless varied institutions of beiefs,
then I am an atheist.
Or an agnostic atheist.
I do not believe in heaven or hell of theology.
I believe in a persistence of an energy after death.
Spirits and ghosts.
I believe in the innateness of good and of evil,
each struggling at opposite ends,
the in-between, the struggling multitude
forever caught in the tug-of-war of good and evil.
I wish I could believe in a Supreme Being.
Then, I would be a Freemason.
Still, without a god, I am still bathed with the residuals of religion,
the biblical stories that colored my childhood, the parables, the gospels,
the saints and miracles, the prayers and rituals, sins and salvation.
They have indelibly contributed to my moral construct.
And perhaps, in any measure of good and evil,
I would like to imagine, in the final mathematics of how I lived,
I have done much more good than evil.
And a deity, if there is one I have failed to know, can judge me so.
Hell? It can't possibly exist.
Hell is a generic instrument of fear wielded by most modern religions.
The fear as intrument for the purpose of religion's commerce.
Hell is not in the afterlife.
It is where we live today.
It is what we leave behind when we die.
Now, the days are filled with plants, music, and art.
The work on plants consume my time.
It started with 10 plants. Grew to a 100.
500 seemed an incredibly ambitious number.
A hundred or two ago, I imagined I'd stop at a thousand..
I have passed that now.
And I still continue to delight at the sighting
of an unfamiliar plant, tree, leaf, flower or fruit.
As I wonder on its details,
I ponder its possible powers.
Alas, the plants have taken me away from the art.
The artworks have become infrequent.
When they happen, it surprises, bathes my spirit with wonder.
And everyday, I play my music, sing to the songs,
Pondering its poetry.
Wondering why it tugs.
I play to myself, and for anyone who'd care to listen.
February 2012, I started the rehabilitation of the ancestral house in Tiaong.
I stare at the skeletal remains of the stripped insides.
The ceiling lattice works, the joists, and post-and beams.
Daily, I ponder why I took on the work.
I was born in that house.
It sings memories to me.
Images and the sounds of childhood.
Racing around the garden pool.
Cousins and siblings growing up together in some halcyon past.
The grandparents who doted on us.
A real ancestral house.
For now, it consumes my days.
From the decay and disrepair, the ghostly emptiness,
I watch a slow metamorphosis.
Nary a ghost.
Perhaps, the spirits watch in wonderment, wondering why.
Maybe, the story ends quietly.
No culminating event to punctuate the end.
Unlike the book of fiction with the remaining pages thinning down
as the plot predictably orchestrates into its suspenseful or sorrowful climax.
Here the days thin down, rather than the pages.
Pondering the inescapable shadows of mortality,
what challenges remain, what adventures are still possible,
what gods will resurface.
Maybe, as the days wind down or as the idle time increases,
I could set out to do some of the things I have never done.
Like learn how to swim and roller skate.
Travel what's left of the countries untravelled.
See the aurora borealis.
Or maybe, come to another crossroad or pick up another benign adventure or two.
Ricardo has talked about a top-ten burger drive across the U.S.
A perilous hyperlipidemic gastronomic odyssey.
Or, maybe. . . just do the next 500 plants.
Or, maybe. . .airstream into the sunset.
Or, maybe. . . run for town mayor.
Or, maybe. . . become a father.