My grandparents took me on a trip out to Pampanga that one weekend in February, the month before I turned 8.
“Who are we seeing?” I asked.
“To see a friend,” my grandmother replied, swiping her lipstick over her thin, glossed lips.
I don’t remember how long the drive to Pampanga took; I was asleep for most of it. I was lying down on the backseat of their old maroon sedan, with a Walkman in my fist.
My grandfather stopped by an old, concrete house where several other cars were parked outside. The exterior walls were painted white but waterlogged from rain, its roofing and gate a dated green. I took my headphones off, pushed it along with the Walkman and tucked it underneath a pillow in the car, and stepped out.
There was a crowd huddling in the porch, some with Styrofoam cups of coffee, others eating biscuits. My grandmother took my hand and I walked with her to the door. By the door stood a podium, where a photo of a middle-aged woman was pasted beside her name: “Elvira [redacted].” Underneath it was an open guest book. My grandmother quickly wrote our names and address before passing through the door.
My grandmother tugged at my hand and she led me through a sea of black skirts and pants, and green bamboo poles with white flower wreathes perched above them. The smell of stale coffee started to waft up my nose as we went farther into the crowd, while hushed prayers grew louder and louder as we got closer to where she wanted to take us. My ears started to ring.
We ended up in front of a long, white coffin with silver inlays. She lifted me by my waist and held me by her side.
I saw Elvira, a middle-aged woman, encased underneath a thin glass pane. She had skin as pale as her white-laced gown, in contrast to her thin, jet-black hair. Her freckles and liver marks have turned into dull brown. I looked at her face and noticed the large, stitched lump just above her temple. I remember it was as large as my fist. A mole sat underneath her nostril, and her mouth was curled in a carefully crafted smile.
My grandmother put me down and took my hand once again. She settled the both of us on an old, dusty couch, ironing out her black dress before sitting me on her lap. When we settled, I asked her who she was. She looked at me and patted my hair, ignoring my question, before turning away to talk to the person standing in front of us.
I’d never met Elvira — Eves, as I heard my grandmother call her — nor had I ever known of her until we went to see her that day. They didn’t tell me what had happened, and they refused to tell me when I asked.
So instead, whenever they disregarded or ignored the things I said, I did something else: I listened. I listened to them talk to the others in and around the house. My grandparents had whispered out “condolence” to a few of the people by the doorway, each word enacted with a hug (from my grandmother) or a handshake (from my grandfather).
I heard my grandmother say that Elvira was one of her good friends. Turned 45 that year, married, had two daughters. My grandmother would then say to every person she spoke with how well-loved she was, how kind-hearted she was, and that the last time they spoke, she thought Elvira was getting better. The conversation that struck me the most was with the one who asked the same thing I’d been wanting to know since we got there: What happened?
“She just couldn’t handle it. I told her it’ll pass. I said, ‘People have gone through worse, Eves.’ ‘You wouldn’t believe what I went through.’
“We sat her down and told her, ‘It’s not that bad, Eves! It’s all in your head.’”
I remember the ride home was quiet. Dionne Warwick’s “The Windows of the World” was playing on that old, dusty Walkman disk player, but the sound seemed to dull into a low hum in my ears. I remember getting home and tucking myself to bed. The conversation I overhead never left my head, and I tried to make sense of what I was feeling. There was a heavy weight on my chest that didn’t seem to go away no matter what I did, and I felt tears well up under my eyes. I didn’t know what I was crying for, and I knew no one in the household would be able to help me understand what it was. I cried myself to sleep.
That night, I met Elvira in a dream. She sat me down the pavement beside her house, in the exact same place where she died, and told me what grief was.
* * *
Yanna Regina Mondoñedo, 22, is a communication arts senior at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
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