I was attending a workshop at a resort in Calamba when Mommy called. Calls around this time made me anxious. Ama Guding, our grandfather, has been in the hospital for a few days now.
It was not Mommy’s usual “hello” or “oh?” when I answered the call. She was crying, and in between her wailing, she managed to share the news: According to the doctor, Ama is nearing his death. If ever Ama slept that night, the doctor said, he might not wake up anymore.
Ama was my father figure growing up, since Mommy and my birth father separated when Mommy was just about to give birth to me.
When I arrived at the hospital, Mommy and the aunts and uncles were gathered around Ama. He was sitting on his hospital bed, while one of his great-granddaughters was caressing his back.
Whenever it stopped, he would move his hand in a circular motion to have someone continue the rubbing again. Then, he lay on the bed and wanted someone to rub his stomach. Maybe it lessened the painful sensation he was feeling.
That night, we all stayed in the hospital. It was an opportunity for me to catch up on stories. They were talking about the anting-anting that Ama had.
The first one was always kept in his wallet. I did not know what it looked like; he had given it to my cousin who is a police officer. Its supposed magic was that the bearer would not be hurt by bullets, so, while I joked that it should have been given to me, giving it to a policeman made sense.
The other anting-anting my cousins told me about was inside Ama. According to stories, the only way to get rid of it was if someone would be a willing recipient of it. Because of the anting-anting, even though Ama was already suffering, life would not leave his frail body.
Its powers would manifest every time he drank water. He was weak, but whenever he sipped water from the small bottle that had a straw, which he would reach for himself, he would suddenly feel rejuvenated. His breathing was still difficult, but for a short while, it seemed he’d be feeling slightly better. “Ulikbangon” was what the elders called this interplay of weakness and strength.
Ate Suzanne and I remembered one story that Ama told us when someone who also had an anting-anting in our barangay died. According to Ama, when the person was on his deathbed, he choked and spat out a thick fluid, and one of the grandsons who wanted to have the anting-anting swallowed that liquid, believing it was what conferred eternal life, or at least one longer than usual. It turned out to be just phlegm. We laughed so hard even while we were disgusted by the story. But, recalling it now, we still laughed but no longer as hard.
I watched Ama, who lay on the bed and would sometimes sit and motion for me to rub his back. My aunts told me not to even touch Ama, because according to stories, the soul finds it hard to let go and be free when it feels human touch, drawing the soul back to the suffering body. But it was hard to decline his request. Ama’s lips were drooling as he gasped for oxygen. As the night wore on, his breath took longer to come. Sometimes, I would think he had stopped breathing, but then he would resume again. He murmured “Diyos ko, Diyos ko,” while clutching a white rosary in his hand.
The doctor did not tell him that he might not wake up again from his sleep. But whenever he was about to doze, he would suddenly jolt back awake. I nodded whenever he looked at me, assuring him that I was with him, and he would nod back. Nodding has always been how we communicated.
Whenever he spat fluid into the tin can beside him, a convenient repository that was within his reach, Ate Suzanne and I would look closely, waiting if a bizarre object would come out of his mouth. We did not know what an anting-anting looked like. Some said it was just a dark mass, while others said it would come out in the form of a black insect. But that night, it did not come out of him.
Contrary to what the doctor said, Ama stayed alive the next day. The anting-anting was apparently strong. We figured that he was going to stay around longer. We declined intubation for breathing and food because, as the day passed, Ama started eating more. He ate a lot of oatmeal and lugaw. After another week, we decided to bring him home.
Ama continues to battle difficult breathing, trying to be strong every day. He does seem stronger. A friend told me it is the nature of anting-anting to make one’s last days difficult, that it would never let go. Maybe it was such powers that made Ama stronger. Or maybe, Ama is just fighting hard to stay. And we will fight with him.
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Cheeno Marlo Sayuno, 28, is a resident of Amadeo, Cavite, who blogs at utaklato.tumblr.com.