Memory and hereafter
I call her “Memory” because that’s all she is now: dead, buried, decaying, almost forgotten. I can barely recall her surname. But I remember the last words she said to me and how she looked on the last day of the only summer she existed in my universe.
“I’m so excited about you finally getting out of this place,” she said.
Now Memory is nothing. I still convince myself that she is Somewhere, wherever that is, even when she believed there was no place left to go but decay after her world ended. Maybe I’ll see her again, but not now. And will I find her in heaven, or in the void?
But before you begin to think that this is another piece of sick-lit, another romanticized hospital story where we learn lessons from the ill, I’ll have to stop you. There is no lesson to learn from Memory. I learned nothing. She never cured me of existential dread or taught me how to live life and how to die. Little by little she lost a portion of her vitality. She died gradually before my eyes, and left me nothing but the faint gratitude that I never had to see her complete the dying process, if that still mattered.
Memory was skinny, with black hair that reached to her waist, and she loved wearing T-shirts that showed her collarbones. Her lips were small and grew thin when she smiled. Often she was pale, her lips somewhat gray, and they looked chapped and the skin broke and sometimes they bled randomly. They bled when she smiled. They bled when she frowned. So she resolved to always wear a straight face and wouldn’t let me tell a joke because her lips would bleed again and might not stop bleeding, like before.
She wore a purple shirt with a yellow smiley printed on the chest, like in “Watchmen,” except that there was no blood; she couldn’t anymore afford to bleed anywhere. She came to my bed in the charity ward like she did every morning, right on schedule at around eight. At that time the nurses would have been making their rounds, and my morning nurse—she of the red hair and supple cheeks—would be on her way with the syringe. Memory sat at the foot of my bed and seemed to look at me, but it seemed like she was staring at something else, something beyond me, something beyond anything and everything in the world.
I asked if she felt okay. She said yes, she’s fine. With leukemia plus diabetes, and the constant risk of contracting dengue now that it had peaked to epidemic level again—why wouldn’t she be? She touched my foot through the blankets. The hospital provided only one blanket per patient and those thin silk sheets that barely blocked the cold. The second blanket I had, the thick one, was courtesy of my cousin, who happened to be a nurse. The extra pillow was his doing as well.
“Have you had breakfast?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “But I hated the eggs. Didn’t even taste anything like eggs. I miss real food.”
She’d been here for three months, and never once went home. If this were a fairy tale I’d say her mother, father, or boyfriend came here once a week and brought her homemade meals—how she would have enjoyed eating and feeling like home again—but none of them ever came for her. Her aunt did, but only on the occasions when the doctors were looking for her guardian or when some papers had to be signed. She dealt with her pain and her mortality alone, and sometimes I wanted to pity her, but I couldn’t. She must have grown stronger than me now. Her character had built this large wall on which Death and Disease could only knock but never break through. I, however, still burst quietly into tears when the question of dying visited me before sleep.
When medicine and breakfast hours were over, we went outside to the garden where a large statue of Mary and a crucifix stood. On Sundays a Catholic priest would come and celebrate Masses for the patients. On regular days the patients came here either to pray or to briefly escape the isopropyl atmosphere of the wards. Here, in the open, it smelled of orchids and damp fresh air, and with eyes closed, one could have been in one’s own garden, or somewhere outside and away from the company of the ill and the nearly dying.
And there, I told her. The doctors had agreed to let me go home. They said it was okay, and I felt happy when they did, but soon I wondered if Memory would ever hear the same from them. She only listened to me—the first thing I liked about her when we had to eat together at the cafeteria. She only listened and never said anything until she had to. She was looking at the crucifix and at every second that passed that she had her eyes on the sculpted image of a suffering
Jesus, her stare seemed to transcend the world. She was lost again. She was sliding gradually and yet fast into a world entirely her own. It worried me.
When tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of death, at the uncertainty of after, I comforted myself with the thought that it was nothing but an enigma that I was rushing to answer. There will be time to find out. There will be plenty of years for me to contemplate on the meaning of it all, and the possibility of after all of it. But to Memory, that amount of time was an uncertain measure, and for all we knew it could have amounted to one night, or even less.
And I thought of that. I thought of me returning to school, going to college, graduating, getting a job, and starting a family. And Memory? Would she live long enough to do the same? And if she didn’t, where would she be? She didn’t believe in heaven like she didn’t believe her parents would visit that day, or that she’d get out of it alive. I wondered how she could resign herself to death, to the belief of nothing. To the acceptance that after this, after everything, will be an infinite nothing as the rest of the world moves on and forgets.
And she didn’t have many more years to answer that enigma. The enigma itself is now, the painful now. I imagined being her, waking up every day, thanking God, or whoever she believed in, that she hadn’t died yet, and then thinking that maybe tonight she would, tonight she wouldn’t be so lucky.
“Will you miss me?” she asked.
“I’m so excited about you finally getting out of this place,” she said.
I wanted to say the same for her. I wanted to celebrate with her, leaving this place. This place of torment where one spent the afternoons watching gurneys transport weakened bodies, frail bodies, crying bodies, and dead bodies—all evidence to the decay that dismantles all hope of escape and a healthy full life. But I could only look her in the eye and hope, if not for her then for myself, that she would be fine and she would be home.
I went home the day after. Redhead nurse wheeled me to the lobby where my parents waited. On the way out of the hospital gates I looked back, into one of the windows of the building where the upstairs ward was, and espied her eyes through the half-closed blinds. I wished she’d opened the blinds fully and showed her entire face to me. Maybe it would have felt close enough to goodbye.
Dominic Dayta, 16, from Caloocan City, studies statistics at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
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