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A stray in every way

There was nothing but the sound of crickets as I made my way down the stairs of my apartment. It was already midnight, and the usual Los Baños night crowd was nowhere to be found. I scurried silently along the hallway while clutching the dinner leftovers for the stray cats and dogs. Every night for the past two years, I feed the hungry creatures outside the apartment. The orange tabby cat, which seemed to be nearing the end of his life, approached me first. The cats feasted first, and the hungry dogs followed.

“Do you think you’re sort of stray yourself?” I scrolled my phone and reread the question I received from a friend. “Do you think you’re sort of stray yourself?” she asked. Am I a stray? Astray? Yes. No. I don’t know. I sat frozen for a moment, gathered my scattered thoughts, and responded, “I think I am a stray.”

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I cannot remember the last time I was home. If you are in your 20s working in Luzon, going home to your Visayan provincial hometown is a journey you take once or twice a year. Since the pandemic happened, I have not been home.

Home is not the only thing that the pandemic has taken away from me. I lost my dad to COVID-19 last year. The irreparable emptiness and perpetual grief of losing a family member continue to linger like dark clouds looming overhead. The last moment I spent with Tatay was through a pixelated and blurry Facebook video call. He was lying on the hospital bed, unconscious and drawing his last breaths, while I tried to muster all my words of love and gratitude. I stared at him on a six-inch phone screen, apologized for all my shortcomings, thanked him for the life he gave me, and whispered my goodbye for the last time while drowning in tears. In his last hours in this world, I was deprived of hugging and holding my old man. I bid farewell to my dying Tatay in a video call, and it was the most painful thing I ever endured.

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Tatay’s death left me empty. I lost the fire. The once-flaming and raging light inside me had been extinguished. For a time, living felt like a temporary find-the-spark quest. My situation was exacerbated when one of my offshore employers ran away with his responsibilities and did not pay me for many months of work. I was left stranded alone in my apartment in the middle of the pandemic.

I remember looking at the stars from my apartment balcony and asking them for answers. How can stars dazzle during dark times? I asked the universe. I envied the stars because they shone brightly while my light was fading.

Just like what they say that when you hit rock bottom, there’s no other way but up—the universe somehow granted me another lifeline. Out of nowhere, I had a newfound drive and desire to do better. I started to take care of myself by working out and did my best to improve my sleeping habits. I sent job applications to look for additional sources of income. I paid attention to my mental health and got off social media for a while to let my mind recover.

I was able to find extra work at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. As someone who spent all of his working years in private companies and corporate jobs, a government job is refreshing. UPLB working life strikes the ideal balance between work and play; I get to do work and be my own person after office hours. For the first time in years, I wake up each day with a little bit of hope.

The job entails fieldwork, something that I was not able to experience in my previous employment. I get to interview and interact with farmers and listen to their stories. Their stories are not alien to me because I have lived in their stories before. Back in my hometown, people rely on farming and fishing as their main sources of income. Talking to farmers feels like having a conversation with our neighbors back in Antique where I spent my carefree childhood days. The interviews reminded me of my roots and the happy days I spent under the scorching sun.

The pandemic has taken a lot from us: opportunities, enthusiasm, motivation, chances, happiness, relationships, and people we love. Its aftermath will still linger and stay with us for the years to come. May we heal and continue to hope that the void is something that we can avoid.

Whenever I feed the stray dogs and cats outside the apartment, I would look at the night sky and imagine Tatay looking down and smiling at me. The stray dogs have grown very fond of me to the point where I have given them names. Brown and White, I call them. Sometimes I would look at them wagging their tails and see myself. I am also a stray in my own way—lost, wandering aimlessly in life, and without something to call home. Every waking day, I pray that I find my way and that the universe pushes me toward the right direction. Under the bright starry Los Baños sky, I hug the stray dogs and hope that we’ll never get lost and, together, we’ll find our home.

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Art John I. Agapito, 29, loves playing badminton, jogging, dreaming, and feeding stray animals.

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