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

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The Road Warrior

Essayist EDMARK TAN rides shotgun as his proud father bravely navigates roads complicated by Alzheimer’s disease. (Images by LEAH DE LEON.)

 

How does it begin, the story between a Father and son? Early morning, a sharp slap on my shoulders or arms, and immediately I would wake up. Satisfied that I was up and about, even though I had squinting eyes like a catfish, and fingers so stiff you couldn’t unbend them with pliers, Father would deliberately cross the room he shares with me and my baby sister, swiftly go down the creaky stairs to the first floor bathroom and thereby take his fifteen-minute shower (count it!) But before that, he would take a little side-trip to the kitchen sink, and proceed to wake up the whole house with loud bullfrog croaks, his morning ritual of coughing-up phlegm and other undesirable entities. I used to think that if he tried hard enough, Father might cough-up his heart.

Father would wake me up, and then some. Right after he goes down, I would curl up on one side of the bed and shut my eyes, just to catch a few more moments with the ever-elusive animal, sleep. I would keep a careful ear out for the footsteps of my Father, and the moment I hear his sharp, consistent steps going up to the third floor bedroom, I would spring right-up like a mousetrap, and proceed to get dressed with my tacky school uniform: sando, khaki slacks, white polo. This was my “morning exercise“during my elementary school years. I used to think that I was a ninja, training during early mornings in the art of sound discernment, knowing people by the way they walk: Soft, hidden steps, Mother; sharp, light steps, big sister; loud, heavy steps, either one of the brothers. But it was my Father’s footsteps that were the most distinct. The stairs would creak only half-heartedly, as though reluctant to acknowledge the presence of his weight. Perhaps it was because of how my Father climbs the stairs, stepping only with the front half of his feet, leaving the other half to hang between the ambivalence of a missing step trying to gain some ground, and a springing step denoting a rapid walker. Years later, my Mother would tell me that I climbed the stairs just like my Father, with the same half-front of the foot doing all the work, leaving behind the other half to wallow in suspension. Why we do the same half-ass steps, I still don’t know.

Leaving behind the stairs and other accumulated habits, the story between my Father and me properly begins right after our breakfast, during the ten to fifteen minute ride to school. As far as I can remember, I had the “privilege” of riding shotgun in the family car, which was then a blue Tamaraw FX. By the time we sold the Tamaraw, it was already “young” enough to be a mistress. That car would be replaced by a green Toyota Revo during my fifth grade, and it was up to that car where I had to fulfill my morning responsibility, the one I call “shotgun dues”. The job was simple. Whoever rides shotgun during the morning carpool would have the job of buying the newspaper from our favorite street vendor, the one just right in front of the entrance to the Mercury Drug store on Mayon Street (the little street store is still there up until now.)

If I can rate my childhood and “growing-up sane” score from one to ten from the quality of the newspaper my Father preferred, it would probably be five, which, when properly labeled would read: “that time of my life when colors still had different meanings.” From grade one to grade six, he bought only The People’s Journal, six pesos of all white and red pages, with a few palsy words for news and opinion, and all the other pages dedicated to the sexual, the trivial, horoscopes, comics, and the crossword puzzle. The entertainment section in the middle would be full-color, with some (almost) nude actress in one pose or the other. As I entered high school, my Father suddenly turned to the Philippine Star, all blue and yellow, only fifteen pesos then. As a rule of thumb, the quality of the newspaper is amplified by the quality of the comics section, and the Philippine Star delivered. Each morning, my older siblings, a fierce sister and two equally fierce brothers, would fight in the middle tier of the car as to who gets to read the comics section first. Mother would just sit there with them, silently reading the cover story. Sometimes she would comment blithely on how Father drives the car, a man who was all sharp turns, and sharp words for slow and hao siao drivers. And me? What was I doing during this entire hullabaloo?

I was right up there in the front, silent as a boy can be, especially for one who was too intent on watching his Father drive. I used to have this dream of growing up and taking over the responsibility of driving the family car, but thankfully, I quickly grew out of that delusion. The family car stays with the head of the family. Watching my Father handle the wheel had as much excitement as being part of some police car chase, complete with fast swerves and lane changing, shortcuts through side roads you didn’t know existed, and a curse word for every happening not in line with his Vision of the Road. Like the stoplight suddenly turning red just as we are about to cross, the pedestrians who walk too slow and act as moving barriers, and the car up-front suddenly screeching to a halt for one reason or the other. There are many other uncouth occurrences, many other versions of how a road should be, and Father has a curse word for all of them. We siblings used to play this game when we go to long road trips, counting how many curse words Father will say during the entirety of the travel time. Invariably, we would lose count before we enter the first toll gate.

Ten to fifteen minutes, give or take a few seconds. This was the amount of time Father had allotted for the purpose of driving us to school, which means that if we were not out of the car in that allotted time slot, we would be at the receiving end of one his tirades about time wasters, bad drivers, or else, his loud speech about not being a mere driver for our pleasure. He would sometimes concentrate on me, the boy who always moved too slow, and would give me a hard-nose lecture without taking his eyes from the road. It would be complete with threats ranging from leaving me behind to commute to school alone, to his ever favorite threat of not allowing me to ride his car ever again. In the middle of the threat would be a lot of words about moving faster, moving with more deliberation, to not be as slow as a girl. Really heady stuff, wise words disguised as man-talk collected from years of experience on the road.

I am still amazed at how my Father can maneuver a car with such precision and grace while simultaneously delivering his lectures. His driving speed on the open road would make F1 drivers weep in shame inside their closeted race circuit; my Father, who could make Go-Kart racing look like an extreme sport, especially with his repertoire of driving skills which include: the “foot massage”, or the basic skill of never letting up on the gas pedal; “look-ma, no hands” driving, used in tandem with texting or smoking or wild gesturing to prove his point; the “mouse hole”, or the ability to squeeze into the space between cars you wouldn’t think was a possible fit; the “snake”, or swerving and lane changing as many times as possible on a single stretch of road; the “boomerang”, which is the single motion of driving in and coming out of U-turns in fast speeds, no matter the length of the u-turn; the “bully”, or driving as close as possible to the bumper or the side of the car stupid enough to overtake my Father; the “prophet”, which is when Father is able to “predict” when the stoplight will turn green; the “hard-worker”, which is the ability to inch away the fastest on traffic roads; and finally, one of my favorites, the “dust eater”, which is when Father looks at the car mirrors just to see and gloat over the number of cars left in the wake of his awesome driving. Father has many more driving skills—most of them plagiarized by the jeepney drivers of Metro Manila—which I can’t possibly include here in our narrative due to lack of space. I imagine that it would take a few years, and quite a few lifetimes of dedicated study, just to bring to surface the amount of skill my Father has in terms of driving.Where will it lead to, this story between Father and son? By-passing altogether the ideal of growing up through a Father’s careful teachings about careful driving, we had gone through most of our time together sitting side by side in the front of the car, Father sitting smugly on his hand-wheel throne; me, the willing young lackey by his side. Those ten to fifteen minutes were the only time during the entire day when both of us were sitting marginally still, and close enough that I could hear his hard breathing, close enough for me to say a few words. It didn’t matter if Mother would nag and harp continuously like Mrs. Puff about “driving like he was being chased by ghosts”, or if big sister would exclaim shrilly like an alarm clock about the time, and blame everyone in the car about her being late, or if the two big brothers would exclaim outrageously at one comic strip or the other. I would be sitting shotgun with my Father, both of us silent, or at least, I was silent; I doubt if Father noticed the excitement around him, since he was too busy cursing this and that, lashing out at one car then another, putragis this, putragis that, one finger always at the ready to point. I doubt if he noticed the boy beside him, growing old habitually voiceless, with no other role to fulfill other than the “shotgun dues” done with awe-inspiring thoroughness.

I now wonder about the so-called “privilege” of riding shotgun in the family car. Sure, it had much more space, more so than the cramped middle tier always occupied by my older siblings, along with Mother, and my baby sister, when she finally came of age. I had always wondered why Mother easily gave up her rightful prerogative for calling shotgun forever; her rightful place was to be beside my Father. It’s only now that I’m starting to recognize the subtle signs of my Mother’s cunning and survival skills. Riding “shotgun” indeed. I was always directly at the line of fire! When Father’s temper flared up, I would get the first earful. When Father feels like a preacher of the high road, I would get the first sermon. When Father crashes the car, I would be the first to die along with him.

I had the shotgun responsibility until the end of my 4th year in high school, when one day, Father suddenly decided to stop buying newspapers altogether because he no longer understood the words. Just like the street signs and road wisdom he understood implicitly, almost intuitively, his mind had given up on making and understanding the meaning of the words. They would remain as fixed symbols, catchphrases, signs that will continuously rise to the tip of his tongue, only to slip out again. Father’s memory was slowly leaving him, trickles of gasoline leaking out, until all that is left is the smell of fumes, and faded tire tracks that lead to nowhere.

I’m not sure when he was first diagnosed with the memory loss that was almost certainly a sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s. All I knew was that one day, he came home red-faced and mad with Mother, shouting about stupid doctors that didn’t know what they were talking about, who invented new diseases just so they can charge you more, and a car that he will not leave in the hands of children who didn’t know the first thing about driving. Mother would tell me later that the doctor had advised him to stop driving, just to be on the safe side, and for my Father this was the last straw. I think that at that moment, Father realized this was his dignity being wrestled away. The undisputed head of the family, wielder of the car keys, and so suddenly, to be left with nothing, not even the pride of refusing his family’s assistance with the manliest of tasks.

And how did I react after hearing the news of Father’s retrogression? The first thought that came to my mind was, “I get the family car!”, but of course, this was followed by jumbled guilt-ridden thoughts about not caring enough for my Father, not being enough of a son, not learning how to drive, actually try to listen to my Father’s driving advice, my first joy ride, having Father ride shotgun with me at the helm. I think I would enjoy that. To drive the car with only the two of us, far and away from family noise and squabbles, to go to his favorite bowling alley (Brunswick), to go to Island Cove (Cavite) and enjoy a bit of sun and fishing, and to try and break his record of reaching Baguio in just five hours of driving. Along the way, Father would curse and rant and point at innocent pedestrians as the cause of the bad traffic. Sometimes, he would curse and rant and point at random inanimate objects, like the rock at the middle of the road (humps), or the house in the sidewalk (guardhouse), just for the sheer incredulity of having such objects near the road. He would also curse and rant and point at my driving, my foot being too heavy on the pedal, not signaling enough, signaling too much, gear shifting slowly, all the while wondering aloud about the reason he ever allowed me to drive his car in the first place. But these are all just pipedreams. The day Father lets me (or any of my siblings) drive the family car is the day there is no longer any traffic in Manila. So, in my thinking, there will only be two instances when this can occur: when Pacquiao has a big boxing match, or when the government suddenly decides to color-code all cars except for our plate number.

My Father will never give up the keys. He would rather die. Or that is to say, he would rather kill another driver by crashing the family car before letting us drive. But age has that quality of mellowing out a person until he is soft, malleable, and easily piqued like a rubber duck. Coupled with his memory loss, and soon, all of his driving skill will be taken away, leaving him at the mercy of my imaginary driving skills. But I should not be underestimating Father’s considerable muscle memory when it comes to driving. More amazing than his death-defying crash-course rage-impact driving is his ability to drive automatically, without prior thinking. One minute, his forehead would have creases like folded paper while trying to remember the specific place he wants to go to, and a minute later, he would be wearing a bright smile like a boy eating his umpteenth ice cream cone, after placing a landmark to help jog his memory into place. Another minute, keys in the ignition, hands on the wheel, and off he drives, quite happily, to that place without a name.

Since that day of stupid doctors, my family has been careful to give only one specific name for one generic place. For example, “the mall” would forever be SM San Lazaro. If we would name any other mall, Father would just get frustrated and tell us to go there by ourselves. The same thing goes for “market”, which would only be Suki Market along Mayon Street. “Dentist” would be the small private office on Maria Clara street. As for restaurants, Father holds a special place in his heart for them. He is able to remember them by name, and will not eat anywhere else if we’re near any one of them. Along Retiro, Mang Inasal; along Banawe, all the Chinese restaurants there, pick your poison; in SM San Lazaro, The Aristocrat, and myriad other places for good food and good drink. And his family? I wonder if he sees the same “one name, all children” principle. Come to think of it, it has been years since he called any of his kids by their proper name. The last time he called me by name was when I was taking the UPCAT, and that was for shouting at me for coming late to the pick-up place (because the test was too long, because I had gotten lost.)

If I can be as frank as a male peacock, I will say that I am afraid for my Father, afraid that he will become “the man whose memory is entirely/in Spanish” in one of Eric Gamalinda’s poems. I am not afraid of him losing his memory; all things flow like water. Rather, I am fearful of a one-track mind that can lead to only one place, bringing my Father to that solitude where I cannot follow. There will only be one road, and inevitably it would lead to dead-ends, one way streets, one-way ikot of certain jeepney routes, and train tracks. Endless tracks of parallel train tracks, where I can never meet my Father half-way. Forget meeting head-on. A collision would be a welcome jolt, an impact to get away from comfort zones and accepted habits, but there has been no time for that much needed crash and burn.

I entered college without thinking too much on the added burden of a Father who will one day be entirely dependent on his family for all tasks, however menial and degrading these tasks may be. College has provided me with the groundwork to make the most convenient situation to avoid my Father, whose temperament was progressively getting worse. It also gave me time to invent new excuses, pithy words and phrases about “responsibility” and “seeking my own future”, and my favorite yet, of “becoming my own man”, when all I wanted to do was read and sleep around all day, everyday.

As much as I was afraid for my Father, I also wanted to steer clear from him, to give him a space where he can think about what has happened to his life, of why he is now spending his days doing Sudoku puzzles and playing computer card games. But somehow, I doubt if this space can do anything good for Father’s contemplative powers. I doubt if Father even recognizes this space, much less appreciate it. Does he ever wonder why he always sits alone in one of the living room sofas, watching news and whatever drivels on TV simply flick by his eyes? Does he ever wonder about the silence, or our weary sighs when he complains about one thing and another? Or why his family is no longer impressed when he raises his voice just so he can get his way about being right? Yet for all the dirty justifications I can drudge up from the broken-down well of familial love, I still feel the impending pull of rejection for my father’s “disability”. I don’t want to provide him with excuses.

Because I strongly believed that he will get well. Because I didn’t believe that he was still trying to run full throttle on an almost empty tank. Because I believed that however short the road, it goes both ways. One way, going, the son who grew up feeding on curse words, and shotgun duties, and the comedy of trying to escape his Father’s prying eyes as he tries to get more sleep on a tight schedule. The other way, returning, the Father who never wanted to forget his life, but also never took pains to remember explicitly, the reason why his memory has retired.

Father’s life has become a mere calendar, just waiting for the next important date. Just a crucible of slow time. A compendium of everyday events. I wonder if he still sees each day as a different color, or has everything turned gray in his mind. If I must be sure of something, I would say that for Father, Thursdays would be the color red, symbolizing color-coding and the standstill of a lifestyle based on wheels. Sundays would be the smell of pizza, one-piece-chicken meals, hamburgers, or whatever fast food he would decide as merienda.  Saturday is market day, something my mother has insisted upon since time immemorial. I don’t know why she wants Saturdays, but I’m not questioning her wisdom about food choice, price ranges, and bargains.  My mother is the ultimate prophetess of bargains. Mondays would be midnight black, the collective mood of an entire family getting ready to face yet another week full of curses, grudges, homework, housework, gardening, marketing, and all sorts of touch-and-go activities that enlivens the house with the façade of family.

Time would be a different matter. The phrase “like clockwork” fits my Father like an old t-shirt, with very tight chafing around the neck. Early mornings would still be the same, except for a few changes. Father no longer wakes me up, because my class schedule starts afternoon; we no longer play the father-and-son cops-and-robbers game early morning, to see if he can catch me in the act of sleeping away my preparation time. It is now my Mother who rides shotgun, and my baby sister—finally of elementary age—who sits in the middle tier all by herself. He no longer stops to buy the newspaper on the way to school. Instead, he just gives a speech every morning about the state of current affairs he remembered from last night’s news, and afterwards would proceed to elaborate contemptuously on what he would do if he ever got into a position of political power. Mother will learn how to transform herself into the wise monkey that is perpetually in the action of “Hear no evil”. She will also learn how to nod automatically, and generously, like a bobble-head.

His sense of time for some things remains the same. He still takes fifteen minutes each morning for his shower. He still expects his breakfast at exactly six-thirty in the morning, on the dot. He is still adamant about the ten to fifteen minute ride to school. At home, if lunch is not on the table by eleven thirty, expect to hear grumbles and heavy sighs of disappointment which he thinks will drive the food straight into his mouth like a slingshot. His afternoons have the most variety and excitement. He will have the following choices to while his time away:

a.) Clicking the T.V. remote control to change channels until he has exhausted himself, or until he reaches the early evening for the news reports;

b.) If he is able to reach the early evening without burning off the remote, he will alternate between the news on ABS-CBN or GMA;

c.) If Father gets exhausted before reaching his nightly dose of news, he will turn-off the T.V. and answer one of his Sudoku puzzle books (expert level), or better yet, play with the electronic Sudoku game which was given to him by my sister many Christmases ago;

d.) If all else fails, and he’s not in the mood, he’ll just have a couple of smokes after lunch, go into the living room, lie down on one of the sofas, and sleep off the afternoon. Father, after all, knows the most productive uses for his time, and to be productive means to constantly seek his own comfort.How will it end, this story between Father and son? Father is still the road warrior; he still swerves and cuts and dodges like a madman, but all is well; I will not be dying with him anytime soon. He still has all of his skills in driving and cursing, proving once and for all that the universe has no sense of the ridiculous. If it did, then the first thing it would have done is to remove the source of danger, but then again, I guess the universe does not know the meaning of “causality”, or even “fatality”.

One lazy and abrupt afternoon, I found myself running late for classes yet again. I was caught between the quandary of spending sweat and shoe life commuting under the intense whip of the sun, and asking my father for a ride to school. Obviously, my sense of self-preservation is not yet fully developed (I blame the universe), and I ended up asking Father if he would drop me off. To think that I would trade my life for a few drops of sweat and a pair of shoes already showing the wear-and-tear that can only come from walking around a university frequented by floods. When Father consented, I had the funny feeling that he would suddenly drop me off my old high school; I had temporarily forgotten the “one specific name, one general place” pattern of my Father’s mind. Surprisingly enough, we had a smooth drive to school. I had pleasantly whiled away the driving time by listening to music. Very loud music. I’m very sure I heard Father humming to the loud scratch noises coming from my defective earphones. Every time we would encounter a stoplight, he would just give a chuckle, as though implying that the stoplight had gotten the best of him, for now. He gave the passing cars small admonishments, “tut tut”, like a master spoiling his apprentices. Driving time was smooth like a pregnant woman’s belly. This idyllic time lasted until we reached traffic, and the warrior finally wakes from his slumber with a vengeance.

I am all set to follow the continuation of Father’s warrior lifestyle. I wonder if Father will ever willingly pass-on his collected road secrets to any of his children: short cuts, secret signals, that out-of-way place for the weary driver, and most importantly, his mulish sense of direction. Or do we have to spy on him, and wait until the roads gradually lose all sense of direction. Notice that I say it is the roads that will get lost; as long as I can remember, Father has never asked for directions. Not even once. I will go out on a limb and say that I am unable to imagine the scenario of Father getting lost on the open road. He of the faultless steering. He of the perfect foot pressure. He who knows the city like the back of his own hand, but knows his family merely as out of hand. No, he has never lost sight of what defines him.

One day, Father will be going along one side of the road to reach that nameless destination in his mind, and he will find himself returning to the starting point again and again, because the road has turned senile, and had forgotten the right and wrong sides. On another day, the road will become retarded, and decide stubbornly that there are no right and wrong sides, that any side will do, just so it can finally reach the destination of the weary. Days will pass, and on one fateful driving session, the roads he traveled long ago will no longer reach any destination.Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay won 3rd prize in UST’s Gawad Ustetika 2011 before appearing in “The Varsitarian: Ustetika Folio 2006-2014,” a collection of the prize’s winning works.

 

 

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