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What I've Longed to Hear Since My Mother Stopped Singing

Ian Benetua Dec 30 2021

O Lonely Night

A solitary walk through Christmas eve.

T he December of what I now call “the Year of the Plague” announced its arrival in the city without any fanfare.

Three months ago, the shopping malls began the annual ritual of playing Christmas songs on the first day of the -ber months, but during that time, there was a vacuum in which they were aired across a city in lockdown. The year was 2020 and the world moved in slow motion, and it slowed further down to slower still.

In December, Santa and all his reindeers can be seen everywhere, not just in mall spaces where artificial Christmas trees sprout from the ground, giant gift boxes scatter the open areas, and colorful lanterns dangle from the ceiling. The many versions of Santa, both fat and skinny, were adorned in red, bundled up for the non-existent winter in a tropical climate. They can all be seen cozying up for the cooler weather in the windows of local stores. Meanwhile, commercial Christmas tunes such as the undying “Star ng Pasko” did little to unburden everyone from the turmoil of the pandemic. 

By this time, the virus had already pressed down its enormous weight on the world, restricting movement and separating lives more than any of us could have defied. I was at a German restaurant in Ortigas with a few friends on the second week of the month. At our outdoor table, we were evenly spaced out from one another as we consumed, bite after bite, plates of pork cutlets and sausages, and discussed how to go about the unusual holiday season. Each one of them had a plan to fly back home—no matter how tedious the requirements were—to a troubled family, an unknown lover, or perhaps even a kind stranger. None were hoping to spend the remaining days of the Year of the Plague alone.

Until that day, my weekly phone calls with my mother leading up to the holidays had been following the usual twisted family stories and national news. I had shared with her the typical things I was learning about people and politics in my line of work in government and, almost naturally, she had asked when I would be flying back home to Davao City for a Christmas vacation. I think my head had meandered temporarily, and then, almost on autopilot, I said, “I won’t. I’ll be staying here.”

As early as August, I already calculated the risks of flying back home as the virus was lingering around elsewhere and flights were being cancelled here and there. I shared with my family a bunch of excuses for withholding myself and prolonging my stay in Manila. At one point, I no longer cared whether I would die alone or live the somber existence I had left behind in a condominium unit. I have wondered if I lived in the city with such a lonely and solitary life that I fell into its arms like all the millions of us who, despite ourselves, badly wanted to be invisible yet heard and cared for at the same time.

All I know now is that the remaining days I spent alone during that Christmas Day and towards the New Year were among the few times in my life when I felt, for once, that I was myself. It was then when I recognized with the miserable clarity of not having to explain how I would be at ease whenever I am alone. It was only during such rare occasions when I was able to wander and get lost without being tethered to the obligatory gatherings around the family table that others could find so tedious and unnerving.

O n the afternoon of the 24th, I walked along Ayala Avenue where there was little traffic and almost no pedestrians. The scene that unfolded itself was more comforting than it was already desolate. The row of offices and stores along the road had not changed, with their glass windows teeming with Filipino-themed ornaments. The signs of the season became more glaring as I walked deeper into Makati’s business district. I remembered my trips around the same district, as a passerby, to watch the astounding displays of lights and embellishments. It was as if the people spared no effort to welcome the holidays, although the pandemic had made the walking streets so hollow.

I was somehow reminded why I was not a stranger to being alone during the holidays. After all, I have spent Christmas Day of 2016 all by myself in New York City where I was doing a sort of writer’s pilgrimage. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I strolled along the streets of Greenwich Village, trying to recall a grid map of Lower Manhattan. Dusk fell surreptitiously with a winter breeze and a cloak of lilac hue that peeked between the intersections of the roads. I steadied my walk towards my university dormitory, and, fifteen minutes later, the Washington Square Arch revealed itself like a ship docked in the dim light. It felt liberating to walk through the hollow streets of a city that prides itself as one that never sleeps. The silence that lingered in the district was the kind that one would feel in a desert or library, a blanket of peace that feeds one’s longing and never goes away.

Back in Manila, the pandemic fueled a different type of silence in the gaps and cracks of its roads—one that should have remained in prisons, cemeteries, and war zones. The holiday season was eerily different. Night was falling when I reached home, dragging myself in worn out shorts and shirts through pock-marked streets that glowed with a scarlet tone. Everything was green and red. It did not matter where I looked: the police station, the hotel lobbies, the long concrete driving path leading up to the main road, the Ministop store next building, the street children caroling on the unsuspecting passerby. Everywhere, there was an abundance of holiday spirit despite the measured restrictions, in changing hues of green and red, never to be unnoticed. Even the wooden pole of the electric posts outside was ornamented with lanterns and papier-mâché ribbons in Christmas colors blowing to the direction of the December wind.

Yet, somewhere on top of a condominium, I did not escape from the trilling Christmas songs coming through the white walls, the closed window, and empty hallways. They chimed cheerfully from the speakers of a neighbor who lived two doors away. The way the songs were played became so constant that even when I can’t exactly hear them —even just a few hours before Christmas Eve or if Jose Mari Chan had already grown tired of singing—I cannot be so certain if it’s dead silent already in the building. Through some strange rhythm, these classic Christmas songs—played repetitively and with the familiar voices—became a comfort zone for me, an uneasy gift from a stranger to remind me that I would not have to be lonely until the holiday season has gone and packed its bags to be off on its merry way.

T o what then do I owe this understanding that loneliness could be such a crowded place like the city itself? The hallway fell silent just before the next song began, my cue to go once more. I made one last attempt to go and spend the remaining hours outdoors before midnight, nearly making a run right into the deserted urban neighborhood. I found myself passing through San Isidro Labrador Church where there was a group of people lighting candles from beyond the gates. The security personnel motioned them to stay behind a certain line as the church itself was closed.

Moonlight touched the churchgoers’ cotton shirts as some of them bowed their heads and murmured prayers. Once again, I was reminded of the spectacle and solitude of the empty streets of a city in crisis. The cold air brought chills to my thighs. Next to them, I caught myself looking at the families who seemed younger than me holding other children by the hand. A family greeted each other a merry Christmas. A group of street children sang Christmas songs around them. Ah, the weary world rejoices. As people began their unhurried retreat from the church gates, I thumbed my phone to confirm my order of a chicken set meal – my personal noche Buena – from a nearby Kenny Rogers and pushed right through the dimly lit passages, back out into the lonely night.

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