My Tatay’s (grandpa in Tagalog) birthday was recent (April 8th), so I decided to write this creative non-fiction piece as a tribute to him. I plan on submitting this for my creative writing class, but figured since I haven’t posted any stories in a while, I’ll post this draft here as well.
Notice this is a DRAFT, a first draft at that, which I haven’t looked at since writing it on the 8th. Once I get the chance to revise it, I’ll post the updated version under my Writing page.
Word Count: 2,873
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy!
On the nineteenth of September 2002, Dionisio Mercado laid down and passed his last breath in the middle of the night beneath an eleven by eight and a half photo of Christ. No one knows whether he died on the twentieth or soon after he’d fallen asleep. He rarely ever moved in his sleep, reason why my grandmother never noticed him leaving his body behind.
He laid down, arms flung out just far enough to ease joints that spent hours abused to complete the finishing touches to a house he would never be able to live in, but not so much he burdened his wife already asleep beside him. Over forty years of cleaning and maintaining the benches, pews, candelabras, crucifixes, and bowls of holy water at San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, he finally had enough to build a home his wife and children and grandchildren could live in with a tiny sense of comfort, even if it would take another fourteen years before the house would get heating plumbing. It was a house that no longer had a roof made of wooden planks covered with hundreds of banana leaves stripped and dried to the color of sand along miles of American beaches on the East Coast—several shades darker than the fine grains of near white sand of Baler Beach only a ten minutes walk once you stepped out the door. Part of the money also came from years driving the gobernador to countless meetings around the municipality of Sabang. Occasionally he’d drive the wife and kids around too—to school, to press meetings, to parties. One time, the car was hijacked, but the jacker dropped him off and let him live. The gobernador didn’t care for the stolen car; he cared for the driver.
They say when they found him in the morning he was positioned as Christ was on the cross, arms out with one leg resting over the other. He laid down long after the sun nestled behind the Caraballo de Baler mountains miles in the distance, sometimes invisible in the early light of day, obscured by thick clouds of mist and fog that crept down from top of the mountains. My mother said when I was younger, I would cry from my crib beside the window, waking from infantile dreams to the sight of the mountain’s shadows looming like a higante. She said my nanay told me stories of higante who fought in the clouds during storms, banging war drums and shooting bolts of lighting down on those who have sinned one too many times—higantes with skin covered in boils and wrinkles like the cracks ripped through drought lands. They wore the skins of animals for loins, and fashioned skulls strung together to make necklaces to adorn their fat necks. My nanay liked to tell me—an infant too young to understand—that if I stayed up too late I’d see a higante’s single eye peering through the window, it’s chubby fingers ready to reach through and grab me. My mother hated it when she told me these stories because I would never stop crying. Dionisio hated it too, scooping me up into his arms and tossing me into the air. And I wouldn’t be afraid, because even at one year old I somehow knew he would be there to catch me every time.
Dionisio Mercado, Manong Duni to kapitbahay in Baler and Tatay Duni to his grandchildren. He was a skinny man, more bone than meat and missing a tooth that made his smile something no one could take seriously. He was a man with a smile too large for his face, always set in a laugh when there wasn’t a homemade cigarette tucked between his lips made from crushed herbs and wrapped in dried banana leaves. His thick, dark hair was something I inherited, but not his equally dark and bushy brows—too expressive that sometimes made him look like the cartoons my Kuya Caloy would draw. They say he died with one sock on. He was too exhausted to take the other off.
I was sitting at a dinner table nearly 8,500 miles on the other side of the world, eating some adobo my mom had made with a little too much soy sauce and not enough chicken. I was sitting on the edge of my chair, toes barely reaching the floor even as a seven-year-old. I wanted to leave the table to watch cartoons in the living room, having been left behind while my mother started the dishes and my father sat in the living room watching the evening news. I wasn’t allowed to leave the table, a picky eater and a small eater who pecked her food like a newly weaned kitten.
As I slid on and off my chair, wondering if I could get away with slipping from the table and sneaking upstairs. I had recently mastered the art of going up and down the stairs without making them creak. The trick was to walk on top of the shoes that bordered either sides of the steps. The planks didn’t creak as loud on the sides as they did at the center.
Just as my feet flattened on the floor, a plate shattered. I hopped back up on my chair and picked up my spoon, shoving it into my mouth.
“Ano yon!” my father called from the living room, just raising his head enough from behind the couch to look at me.
“Wala. Na dulas yon plato,” my mother said with calm.
I twisted in my chair, hands on the top rung and watching her pick up shards of a plate from the kitchen floor with hands still covered with soap suds. I turn back around, listening to her pop open the garbage can and dump the shards. She resumed washing dishes, unfazed.
The phone rang minutes later, my father reaching for it without looking away from the television screen, still flashing news coverage of the 9-11 attack the year before. He listened, hung up, and called to my mother.
“Gemma! Tumawag ka daw sa manga kapatid mo. Ngayon na.”
“Ng huhugas pa ako!”
“Ngayon na. Parang my nagyari.”
That got my mother to turn off the faucet. She dried her hands right on her shirt, coming out the kitchen to grab the phone sitting on the radiator in the dinning room. She dialed the numbers she memorized as a child when she stilled lived in Baler. She stood at the window, looking out to the gray skies—gray because the sun had already set, but the night hadn’t yet settled.
I pushed the rice and chicken strips around on my plate, trying to find an arrangement that made it look like I’d eaten some since they left me at the table.
But then my mother starts screaming and yelling, stomping the ground and loosing one of her chinelas, which she never walked around the house without. Even today, she can’t walk around the house without wearing her chinelas. She spoke too quickly for me to understand, words that came out through hysterical tears and a nose drowning with mucus that hadn’t been there seconds before.
My father rushed to us, only a few strides away, yelling for her to be quiet. But she doesn’t stop. She keeps stomping her bare feet, a fisted hand pounding at her chest.
“Mommy, anong ng yari?” I was finally out of the chair, tugging at her shirt and trying to hold her up from collapsing. “Mommy!”
“Patay na siya! Patay na!” she sobbed. “Patay na si Tatay!”
It didn’t register right away. It suddenly felt like I were sitting in class as a Pre-K student again—surrounded by other kids and taught by a teacher who spoke a language I had yet to learn. But I had understood my father when he said to call her siblings. To call because something had happened.
Her family didn’t have the money to make the collect call to America from their end, but the family on my father’s side that remained in the Philippines did. It was convenient that they lived just beyond the banana trees in my mother’s family’s backyard. Then again, surely they would have called us without having my mom’s sister come over asking to have them call us to have us call them. They would have heard the screaming, understood what they meant when they yelled, “Patay na siya” and know who.
I didn’t need to know what those words meant, because my body reacted to gut instinct. It knew the word before my mind did, and drove me to the sink in the kitchen, to get on my toes with my neck resting on the edge as I vomited my dinner on plates covered with soap.
There were still grains of whole rice, my dinner not fully digested. I had felt it pour out my nose, which then burned when my stomach had emptied and all that remained was bile.
“Mommy, I sukaed—“ I said, a word I realized years later didn’t exist because verbs weren’t conjugated the same way in Tagalog as they were in English. Sukaed—a word that was evidence of my transition from Tagalog to English.
My mother didn’t hear me.
She couldn’t hear anything other than those grainy words, transmitted to us from over 8,500 miles away, even when she’d already heard them and the phone was no longer pressed to her ear. She didn’t hear my father talk to her sisters when he took the phone from her, trying to get an understanding of what had happened.
He hadn’t heard me either.
That night, the sky was clear, but I somehow remember it was raining and raining and raining.
I like to tell people my favorite animal is a giraffe because it reminds me of Tatay. They don’t know that in my head I’d painted myself to be wearing a giraffe backpack the night we received the call that he was dead. In reality, I wouldn’t get that giraffe backpack with a matching giraffe keychain until months later. The backpack has since then gone missing, but in high school I found the keychain. We brought in objects one day for an English assignment—we would write about the object and the memories they carry with them. Most kids brought in items given to them by their since dead grandparents—teddy bears, baby blankets, prayer beads, and items of clothing. I brought in a feather I’d kept from a visit to the park when I was five.
Too embarrassed to share the simple story, I unclasped giraffe keychain from my backpack and told my constructed memory—a memory only I would know was half embellished go give the keychain significance. But after that day, I kept the keychain clasped to the belt loop of my uniform and find myself grabbing for it when I got nervous. Somehow I had infused the idea with the memory, and for a while the giraffe backpack was there that night of the call.
In truth, I probably just wanted something tangible to attach Tatay’s memory to. I no longer had anything he had given me to bring with me to the States when I left in August of 1997. Up until I graduated high school, the giraffe keychain remained at my waist. And when his arms, plump balls of brown fleece attacked to thick threads of beige yarn, were ripped off, I placed him in my memory box—filled with letters from my kuyas in the Philippines. They wrote often then, their letters never reaching me unless someone went to the Philippines for a trip and came back to deliver them. Even Tatay wrote. Those letters I also keep, his writing a surprising fine script against the blue lines on yellow sheets of notepad, methodically folded into three sections to perfectly fit into a white envelope.
Giraffes are still my favorite animal.
I was just out of the bath and in a white shirt and my overalls. I should have been in my chinelas, but I had managed to escape Nanay as she dumped my bath water away from the house. I never liked the feeling of the plastic straps between my always damp toes—if not from beach water, then from the sweat caused by Baler heat. I went everywhere barefoot if I got away with it, something I still carry with me today—always pulling off my shoes and boots or kicking off my sandals whenever I get the chance.
I never minded walking barefoot outside. The sand and dust from the caye dried me feet in four steps.
I ran from around the house—a single story L-shaped structure with walls made entirely of cement to keep the inside cool from dry spells and summer heat. Tatay had built the stilt house filling the empty space of the ground house, making our lot look like it had a square house with strange empty spaces cutting through it if you ever looked at it from a plane. It was elevated three meters into the air. The space was reachable with a wooden ladder you pulled down by a rope. It served as our shelter when hurricane rains flooded the streets of Baler, which often took days to clear.
What I remember best is Tatay leaning on one of the stilts, looking out toward the beach not even a mile away as he talked with Tatay Emoy.
His feet were always chalky brown like mine, even when he wore his chinelas. He had a tendency to slip his feet out and run his toes against the sand covered street. He stood there grinning, his arms crossed and a small bag of orange Fanta gripped in his hand—a brightly colored straw sticking out from where his index finger curled against his thumb, blackened from one too many hammer hits.
I’d crouched at the edge of our ground house, tossing pebbles hopping he’d notice and call me over.
Tatay Emoy noticed the pebbles first, looking overhead—another spot I liked throwing small rocks or dropping green or brown geckos from. Nanay hated having him over, even if he was her brother-in-law.
“Mabaho!” she’d say, pinching her nose and squinting her eyes. “Sting-ki!” She’d say for me.
Tatay Emoy bathed…in his own sweat and must, and he couldn’t help the fact he loved the smell of araw—sometimes spending hours out in the broiling sun along the shore to get the right scent of the sun against his skin. His body was freckled with sun spots, his skin wrinkled and creased to make him look like he were in his eighties rather than his early fifties. He lived several blocks away from us, always finding a few hours to spare to sit on the bench beneath Tatay’s stilt house and chat and visit one of his pamangkin.
Tatay Emoy watched a pebble bounce to his own barefoot, and he scratched the spot with the yellowed nail of his big toe. He smiled and kept on talking to Tatay, having found the source of the pebbles. Tatay went on talking, pretending as if he hadn’t noticed the pebbles, but his ears had already attuned to the quiet that followed after Nanay had dried me. He’d known I’d come around the house and start throwing rocks even before I did.
“Tatay,” I hissed. I hid behind the building mid-syllable, already giggling behind once clean hands turned brown from the rocks.
I did it again and again, until he was there on the other side of the corner. He scooped me into his arms, swinging me around the way Nanay whipped out clothes before hanging them to dry in our yard.
I screamed and giggled as he swung me around, finally setting me down when his shoulders started aching. I hurried over to Tatay Emoy, resting between his knees as he kissed my head and handed me the bag of orange soda. I kicked around the rocks I’d thrown as I drank, listening to Tatay and Tatay Emoy continue their conversation.
“Po-lin!” Nanay would holler almost like a song. “Po-lin! Nansan ka!” And then she’d round the corner, her lips rounded to prepare another “Po.” But before she can complete my name, she’s shrieking, stomping her foot and slapping her hand against her thigh. “’Tangires!” she would curse before hauling me from Tatay Emoy. “Pinaligo ku na yung bata at hinalikan mo pa. Ang baho-baho mo!” She would hold me out at arms length, laughing with the straw between my lips as I still drank my soda, and sigh deeply.
Whenever Tatay Emoy came around, my Nanay would shower me at least three times.
“Na tatandaan mo yon?” my mother would ask me years later.
“Of course I remember,” I’d always reply. “You and Nanay both, always yelling at me and Tatay and Tatay Emoy because I never minded him hugging or kissing me, even if he did stink like hell.”
“Don’t say hell.”
“Fine. Even if he smelled like tae.”
“Ano pa natatandaan mo?”
A lot, mom. I remember a lot of memories with Tatay—both real, imagined, and embellished—even without the giraffe keychain.
I hope you enjoyed. Comments, critiques, and suggestions are always welcomed!