Our family and the distance between
I haven’t lived with my family since I was 16 years old, when all of them immigrated to the United States and I had decided to stay in the Philippines. Now, at 35, in my mind’s eye, I could still see our empty house, which served our family of five for many years: family portraits on the antique piano my grandmother had gifted me, the emerald green wallpaper in the living room. When my family left, it became a still, quiet house — only a place where I slept.
“Ate,” this is what my father would call me, being the eldest child. “I’m sorry. I tested COVID positive.” I imagined my father all alone in his house in Florida, one of the hardest hit states in the U.S. He only had the family dog, Tobi, for company. He had no one nearby; my brothers and mother were all in Las Vegas, another virus hotspot.
It might have been around two in the morning when I read his message. When the pandemic hit, I was often anxious and it was usual for me to either binge watch K-drama after K-drama, or pray myself to sleep. “Dear God, please spare me and all my loved ones from this virus,” I’d plead.
Like many of us who has suffered pain and loss in the midst of these cruelly uncertain times, I have accepted the idea that there’s not really much I can do. So I just pray whenever I could. Any time spent became a pocket for prayer: the dishes being washed, the chopping of vegetables, the closing of a book. Even the time spent watching the most slapstick of comedies were infused with prayer: it just bubbled into conscious thought, when in the present, the objective was to escape a reality that was bleak.
My father is 60 and works as an architect in an Army-funded hospital. He wasn’t a frontliner, but he worked with them often. In the days before he told me he was struck by the virus, we’d have video calls. I’d tell him to always be careful and I believed him when he said he took every precaution.
“Yes. Got to go now. Bye! Love you and Sabibi. Tobi misses you both.”
“We love you dad!” I’d reply before ending our calls.
This wasn’t usual for me to say. In fact, I avoided saying it for the longest time. I’ve always been maladroit in my expressions of care. I never really got used to telling my family that I loved them. But since the pandemic, I’ve been saying it more although my relationship with my family has been mostly fraught and I mostly got along with just my younger brothers.
Even at our best, we were pretty much very insular people. Affection wasn’t something that flowed naturally in our household. There wasn’t much of a household anyway, since we’ve all moved away, each in our own directions, living connected yet somewhat fractal lives.
When my father told me that he was stricken by the virus, suddenly all the distance and time between us felt compressed in a series of memories mainly because we’ve been absent in each other’s lives: the clear, blue waters of Hawaii where he worked in a resort, the pastoral scenes of Monterey, the designer shops in Silicon Valley, and most strikingly, the walled City of Intramuros here back home, which he helped restore when he was still in his prime, his greatest gift to a country he left out of disillusionment, his gift which is our family’s source of quiet pride.
After father said he was sick, I was gripped with fear. Unanswered messages sent me bargaining with God. “Don’t let this get any worse, please.” My mind would wander into my father’s Florida house with its vast, green lawn and all of its American tidiness. I would see him well with the dog and I would pray so hard that that version of reality would be so. The amount of time he wouldn’t reply was agonizing. He finally answered after days. “Your aunts sent me medication and the doctor calls me every day. My church friends check up on me and leave food on my doorstep.” Relief washed over me as I read his messages. “Good, pa. Good. I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad.”
My brother in Las Vegas posted a story on Instagram that he was unable to taste his food. This was roughly a week after my father told me he was ill. My younger brother was a teacher, and during the pandemic, we often talked about distance learning. “I worry about my kids,” he told me.
He deliberately choose to teach in a low income community because he wanted to give back. “Distance learning may not be for them because most of them have family situations that will hinder them from learning. I wish I could be with my kids,” he would always tell me as he worked on lesson plans. “In a physical classroom, I could guarantee that they would learn something. And I could encourage them.”
I think of my brother’s students, faceless to me, but known and so precious to him, mostly at-risk youths from black and Hispanic communities, students who juggled jobs and tumultuous home lives. They were most likely working as frontliners—delivery personnel, grocery cashiers, cleaners. They couldn’t stop working, couldn’t stay at home, just like many Filipinos who live in even poorer conditions.
“Go to the doctor,” I messaged my brother after seeing his IG story. I have turned into the designated family nagger, always telling my family to keep safe and go see the doctor. If I could, I’d drag them all to the clinic myself, but I am thousands of miles away. “How is kuya? How is mom?” I asked.
“Kuya’s fine. He’s not sick. Mom’s… she probably has what I have.”
I haven’t thought of my mother in a very long time. In fact, I have ignored her; it is my relationship with her that is most tumultuous. But the possibility of her being struck by the same disease made me feel sorry for her. My old indifference and my brother’s casual mention of how she was doing made me think. It must be so sad for the sick to be forgotten. This is not the time to be unloved.
Just like here in Manila, getting healthcare was also difficult in America. Hospitals were full, appointments were overflowing, healthcare professionals were also overwhelmed. When my brother and mom finally got to see a doctor, what I feared was confirmed: they too were COVID positive. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that 3 out of 5 of us were sick.
After many years of thinking of “family” as a label, a term used for easy categorization, its meaning in my heart shifted back into what it was supposed to be: they were also my loved ones. Knowing that they were in danger nearly drove me mad.
I am angered by this virus, this thing we couldn’t see. I am angry at all these flippant people all over the world who insist on this being a hoax, a “plandemic.” How can they be so cavalier when so many of us did not make it and are mourned for? Most of all, I am angry at government officials — ours most especially — for debasing the Filipino even further by being incompetent, opportunistic and corrupt. I am repulsed by how they have caused the suffering of countless people who had already been vulnerable even before the virus spread.
Here I am, inert and in isolation. I refuse to force normalcy on to my little corner of the world even when others have begun to do so. This isn’t me living in fear, as some may say; this is me living based on what the world really is right now — it is still not safe. So again, just like so many of us, all I can do is pray. I am a small voice among many other small voices, sometimes steadfast, sometimes wavering, but always earnest — for God to hear us.
Donna Patricia Manio is a communications officer in one of the country’s most luxurious hotel and leisure destinations. She was a fellow for creative nonfiction at the 58th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, holds a master’s degree from De La Salle University, and is a proud mother to a brilliant and beautiful daughter. This is her second essay for INQUIRER.net’s “Love. Life.” column.
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Posted by INQUIRER.net on Wednesday, February 13, 2019
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