In life, there are blessings that we expect and there are blessings that happen out of nowhere. For me, it is the latter that is more overwhelming, the kind that moves you from within when you least expect it.
When I visited an old schoolmate of mine a week ago, I never knew how much blessed I would feel. For over a month, news about the metastasis of her breast cancer was passed on from one friend to another. I thought it was an ordinary update that would pass me by but since her condition has worsened as the days went by, a call-out of support and prayer power from friends and classmates was made.
News like this crush me. I don’t like it when I hear of anyone’s suffering. All the more I can’t bear it when someone’s dying. It is heart-wrenching, believe me. I have seen my beloved Tita Eve leave before my very eyes. The dawn when my second mother let out her last breath, her heart beat its last, her eyes closed forever, death freezes you and numbs you and the pain simulates an inner scream that sucks the life out of you for a very long, long, long time.
And to hear of someone in her deathbed makes me cringe big time. Sure, some of us have sorta started on our bucket list and have uttered hypothetical “pabilins” in jest; but when one’s mortality clock is about to off its mean alarm, it makes me think….
What do you really do when your time will soon be up? When you know that the inevitable looms, how much will you cram to make memories, how eager are you to rush and do closures, and how keen are you to make a mark in this world? Have you wondered, what will be your final performance just before the curtains fall?
For some time now, I easily get bothered with news of ailments, confinements and most of all, interments. Still fresh from attending an ex-officemate’s wake last month, there was something about this story of my grade school acquaintance that I couldn’t quite shake off. Maybe it’s because her breast cancer started on stage 2 which is quite similar to an adsister’s plight in 2007. Or maybe there was a part of me that could relate since they found 3 lumps in my chest last year. Or just maybe me and this girl belong to a generation when they say that life has begun, when in reality, life can near its end at any given time. Even if I couldn’t pin down the reason, I knew I needed to do what I had to do.
Eileen Asuque was a batchmate of mine during my primary years at the College of the Holy Spirit in Mendiola. And I thought my connection to her would just be like that. Admittedly, memories that belong 30 years ago can be a quite a struggle to remember. Last night, as I found myself leafing through dusty and crusty Dove yearbooks, I wanted to score some kind of reminiscence that can trigger a meaningful flashback. I learned Eileen was never a classmate of mine ever. I don’t think we ever belonged to the same club. We simply belonged to the same batch. Perhaps, Eileen may have recollections of me making a fool of myself way back from my awkward Travolta dancing, to my catatonic acting in school Christmas plays, to my garrulous extemporaneous speaking gigs to my eager beaver student council forays. On the other hand, the only factoid I have of her is that some of my classmates became her classmates, and that was that.
Fast forward to today, as I get swallowed by corporate slavery, I would encounter her name in a Facebook thread and would be told that this old schoolmate was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent mastectomy. Her cancer upped two stages and escalated to cancer of the bones. All this in a period of less than three years.
Last week, it was a delight to know that CHS classmates were planning a get-together . But before I could even immerse in the joy of possible reminiscing, a flash update from a classmate detailed that time may not be on our side. When a window presented itself, I knew that I wanted to see her at the soonest possible time. But what kept bugging me is this assumed awkwardness between the two of us. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t recognize me. I just might even just end up stressing Eileen trying to remember who the hell I was. But I had a simple mission in mind. To visit a sick person, to pray and to wish her well. Whatever threat of uneasiness should be irrelevant since what should matter is to do what is right. Seeing an old schoolmate who is on her last stretch should naturally be a deed of the spirit.
That Friday, I sought Eileen out. I called earlier and learned she was sleeping so I just said to the one who answered that I’d just drop by and say a prayer. I prepared a letter for Eileen to read in case she wakes up and sniffs the presence of a stranger. When I knocked on her door, her nanny Elsie welcomed and accompanied me to her bedroom door. As if life was rendered in slow motion, the door creaked open, then a man appeared (Eileen’s brother Eric) smiled at me; and as the door swinged farther, Eileen Asuque, that CHS batchmate of mine that I have no memory of, looked at me intently. I immediately approached her and handed over a rose and a letter that I scribbled earlier. I guess my articulation skills left me as I scoured for words on how best to make her know me without subjecting her to undue melancholic pressure. “I am Carmina,” was what initially escaped my mouth, an introduction I seldom use for some time now but I guess it’s the only way that I could best be remembered by classmates of yesteryears aside from the hard-to-pronounce Spanish surname. Eileen looked pale and had an oxygen tube attached to her nose for breathing. Her skin looked flawless though she had little a band-aid on the side of her forehead. Her hands were a wee bit swollen but you could tell that she did lose weight. But when I scanned her, she looked good to me, not the frail sad type of hospital drama series. In fact, Eileen was cute in her pigtails as she sat upright in her bed. I was even joking that I looked more stressed than her. Her voice was soft but you easily make out what she would say. She thought I was another “Carmina.” I then remembered that there were two or three of us who had the same first name back then.
It was amazing how she welcomed me that afternoon and how we shortly went back the nostalgia lane of the 80s. It was a surprise to know that Eileen also went to the same high school I went to. She too was a kulasa. I just felt so shamed that despite knowing that I still couldn’t remember her. Perhaps, my juvenile delinquencies and idiosyncrasies have muffled by memory bank. It took a while for her to recall who I am but it was fairly okay. I surmised that her eureka moment was when she mentioned terms that I simply made out as “president.” Funny but at the specific moment of my visit, I knew I was somehow reliving my duties to my batch.
Sans the whiteboard that she normally uses to communicate her thoughts so as to avoid breathlessness, Eileen and I (along with her brother Eric) managed to talk for over an hour. I never expected for her to stay awake that long and for her to talk that long. Must be divine grace since she never exhibited any signs of being tired or being bored with me. Of course, I was wary on whether we were babbling too much and whether she wanted to rest so I would ask her from time to time if she wanted to pause. I didn’t probe too much about what led to her condition. I was more into knowing how she was coping now. She takes Dolcet, a painkiller thrice a day, and her appetite has significantly decreased. Two spoonfuls of food is enough for her, plus a serving of Ensure at times. But she couldn’t eat too much lest she burp and have a difficult time breathing.
In examining Eileen’s aura, I could say she has accepted her fate. As Eric bluntly mapped life out, death is the ending of everyone’s journey. He even retorted that bringing Eileen home from the hospital must be considered fortunate since she have the luxury of time to prepare for a real “homecoming.” I must say that man is very realistic. He was forthright in saying that he wasn’t reaching for the moon with regard to his ate’s condition. He even related to me they weren’t even praying that Eileen would reach Christmas. Eric said their prayer was simple – “ God, hirit pa… isang araw.” I began to well up upon hearing this. Indeed, every day given to Eileen is a blessing. Every minute is sixty seconds of grace. I even seconded that every breath is truly something to be grateful for. I couldn’t help but be moved by how these siblings looked after each other. I felt their love. Eileen even said “I am like this because of him,” while she mustered enough energy to lift a finger and point to the man as her life’s anchor. It is very evident how Eric breathes strength and hope in his sister.
From time to time, Eric would leave me and Eileen and come back for another round of babble that simulated the glee you get from tuning in to Friday Magic Madness. He provided the humor and balance in my visit. He filled in the blanks of my queries to Eileen. With all the recollection we exchanged, we must have shared the same sphere of exhilarating adolescence; having attended the same Valle clubhouse parties, bopped to exclusive mobile mixes and even graced the drag races in Greenhills. I knew our repartee entertained Eileen in a way. For me, almost always, an 80s talk can prove to be engaging and therapeutic.
When I continued to chat with Eileen, I would do a rundown of the names of our batchmates who were praying for her wellness. Devoid of words, I can sense her sincere appreciation. Her piercing gaze expressed so much gratitude for people who were rooting for her. Then, I felt an inner bounce when Eileen said “I want to fight.” I wanted to shake her like crazy and be giddy with her and throw confetti. She continued by saying that she still has a mission. To date, Eileen is busy with her manuscript that is tied up with her devotion to the Divine Mercy. The title slips my mind right now but I distinctly recall her saying that she acknowledges the fact that she needs to go through intense suffering for her to write her book. I salute writers who scribble for a noble purpose. Being a writer myself, I admire this woman who till the last days on earth will prefer to string words for other people, rather than write things to eulogize herself. Quite inspiring.
I told Eileen that I didn’t have much to offer except for my sincere friendship and prayers. Truth be told, I may be a poor hag but I’m proud to be rich in good intentions. Upon saying this I took out prayer sheets I borrowed from Mama Siony. Then it was time for us to be in the holy presence of God. I told Eileen that I asked my mother for prayers that I can utter for her. My mother gave me specific prayers for sick people. I then held her hand and invoked the heavens. We prayed for her healing but most importantly, we prayed for God’s will. And I knew she was prepared for the inevitable so I whispered to Eileen, “I know you are ready that is why we will pray this.” I then continued to pray with her a “prayer for the dying.” Then I just ended with an impromptu prayer for her. It was like I was thrown back to my extemporaneous speaking competitions in grade school when I would babble like crazy to create a story to entertain a crowd, but this time, my verbosity was for the sake of spirituality. Eileen was my lone audience, my most important spectator. Her immense faith was my winning piece. And I knew speaking from the heart is what Eileen truly deserves. I hope I have uttered enough to knock the heavens to listen to us.
Before I bade Eileen goodbye, I jokingly said that much as I wanted to take her picture for posterity, I would prefer to snap a picture of our hands held together. I wanted it that way because I knew our joined hands was a sign of amity and for the very first time, I knew that she was no longer just any forgettable batchmate of mine, she is now a friend.
In hindsight, I came to offer comfort to a woman who was battling the dreaded big “C” but in the end, I was the one who felt so much healed with this encounter.
We ask so much from life. We yearn for so much blessings. But you know that there is the kind of blessing that you don’t wait to be bestowed on you. You look for it. You immerse in it. You embrace it.
I am blessed with a renewed friendship with a fellow Holy Mamaw kid who romped around the ghastly corridors of CHS. I am blessed for knowing that perhaps that same little kid who may have smiled obliviously at me during my age of innocence is now holding my hand and reminding me that in life, you have the power in you to fight to the very end.
What I thought would be a dreary afternoon of staring at the face of death actually turned out to be one of those rare moments I would truly see a genuine glimpse of life.
Thank you Mary Eileen Joy Asuque for that.