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Between life and death

I remember one late afternoon in 2002 while I was lying down on our wooden floor. I was seven years old then, always curious and restless. My grandmother was fixing something in the kitchen and my mother followed her, but stopped to see me on the floor. She laid down beside me, tickled me, and teased me that I was my father’s twin. I childishly slapped her arm, and she suddenly told me, “Hala ka, mamatay ko, ikaw na lang isa” (Oh you poor thing, if I die, you’ll be alone.)

I stopped and looked at her, confused. She covered her face with both hands, pretending that she was crying. I remember crying, bursting into tears at what she said. My grandmother heard and reprimanded her, “Kaning si Shiela noh, sige’g pahilak og bata, murag buang!” (Shiela, you are always making your child cry, you’re crazy!).

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When November came, a big fire in Agdao happened. The source of the fire was the house located just at the back of our kitchen. Mama woke me up using her right leg while she cradled baby James. I woke up feeling heavy and went outside to see the giant, orange monster ready to engulf our small house at any moment. I rushed back inside and pulled Mama and baby James to go outside and find someplace safer. I was afraid that what Mama had told me would come true. After the fire, our neighbors conducted a “bayanihan” clearing of the affected houses. Thankfully, there were no casualties except for a pet dog. Grief crept up on me when I saw the dog’s stiff body. I uttered to myself, “Mamatay gyud tang tanan” (We will all eventually die).

My innocence died first with that fire and, second, with the dog’s body. I was introduced to the idea that life is fleeting and passing. At any time, death will come knocking and you only have two options: to savor what’s left of your life, or to just leave everything behind. Either way, it’s a hard choice.

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At seven, I felt so mature knowing that in a fire, one sweep of its heat and you would die without saying goodbye. The memory was vivid: Mama was carrying my younger sister Gagay and me on either side of her body while walking as fast as she could to get us to another house in a different barangay. The street was filled with shattered glass and I kept looking at Mama’s feet to warn her that her slippers might come off and eventually injure her feet.

I can still remember the siren of the three firetrucks, the loud voices of firemen running toward the dingy alley, the din of the crowd of husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, grandparents gathering by the highway, waiting for some good news. I can still feel the cold wind on my skin as I heard questions like “Nay patay, ser?” (Has anyone died, Sir?), “Kinsay nabilin sa balay?” (Who was left inside the house?), “Ngano mang wala sila nangayog tabang pagsugod sa sunog?” (Why didn’t they ask for help when the fire started?).

My fears died. I went to school looking at the angelic faces of my bully classmates and in my child-like mind, they were all dead. I learned to eat street food like fishball, fishflat, and tempura, and smoked Mik-Mik on straw and Milkee polvoron on the other, similar to a cigarette, feigning dominance and confidence. I learned to accept that the school itself was a burial ground of muted dreams. I learned not to hold on. Time didn’t, too.

We remember our firsts and our lasts, but life happens in between time and death.

Summer came and our neighbors would play a Siakol song to unwind from the heavy week. Mama, together with my cousins and I, would unleash our inner rock stars and sing along with them: “Peksman, mamatay man! Basta’t iyong kagustuhan.”

Then death came as a regular visitor. My young cousin died because of a neglected fever, then his father was next, gone from a security guard’s rage of infidelity. My aunt suddenly fell ill and succumbed to cholesterol. My grandfather vomited from stomach pain, and my grandmother died at peace in her sleep.

What if it was me? I couldn’t help but imagine myself in a coffin. Pale, hard, and frail. Death is the only certain thing all people will go through. But as Arya Stark replied to the God of Death, “Not today.”

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In Third World countries such as the Philippines, death is an extension of existing problems, especially for those who belong to marginalized sectors. Who will shoulder the expenses? Who will pay for the funeral services? How do we prepare the Lingap requirements and the SSS death benefits? But even in these questions, one’s hope dies.

Many of us spend our lives avoiding the thought of death. I believe the greatest death is not living the life you want for yourself and for others. Understanding how short life is should fill us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals.

When my time comes, I’d like to believe I will not be afraid of death anymore because of the many times I’ve seen it in different forms. And if it asked me if I regretted anything during my lifetime, my answer would be no, because I pursued everything that made me feel alive.

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Chedelyn Gee S. Tabalba, 26, was born on the day of the dead. She is a digital content writer by day and a law student by night.

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TAGS: Chedelyn Gee S. Tabalba, life and death, Young Blood
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