Friday, February 06, 2009

Death, dying and the endless crying

(For Lola Nanay)

I've been always fascinated with death and dying and the rituals, especially the crying, that come with it.

I keep an old photograph of family members standing (and posing) around the casket of an uncle. I was not supposed to be in the photo, but the town photographer forgot to ask me to move aside. So there I was (actually only my head, from neck up), on the right side of the frame, looking sideways straight at the camera, eyes wide, stunned by the electronic flash.

I keep another photograph (in sepia) of people posing outside our old church with an open casket where a dead man (supposedly my great, great grandfather) was lying as if he was sleeping (yes, it's a cliche, but he really looked like he was just having a siesta).

Back there in our old hometown, I've always wondered what the men who take the body of those who die do with it before putting it inside the casket. Some older cousins told me then that the men remove the blood and the intestines and replace it with cotton.

I've always refused to eat dinuguan during a wake.

I was in fourth or fifth grade when two of my brothers - Rhoel and Joel - died. I was there beside them when they had their last breath. My mother told me to kiss them goodbye. I did, and held their hands until they were cold. I did not cry.

I've always believe that my brothers did not leave me. Even until now, I continue to believe that they continue to be around. When the thought comes to mind, it's really embarrassing especially when one is in the middle of something intimate.

(A visit to the old hometown is never complete until I light a candle on my brothers' tomb.)

When I was a sacristan, I saw a number of people die. The priest would always ask me to bring the holy water and the crhism (the holy oil) when he administers the last rites, be it early in the morning, late afternoon, or in the middle of the night.

I also used to pass by the old morgue behind the hospital, on the foot of a hill, in the middle of the night when everything was dark and silent. I can still smell in my mind the aroma of formalin that wafts with the cold breeze as the church bells toll 8 p.m. while rush home from visiting a girlfriend, who later turned out to be a distant cousin.

During those days, I became an expert in tolling the bells when someone dies. For kids, the tolling goes like this: Ting (smallest bell), Tang (middle size), Dong. For adult males: Dong, Tang, Ting. For women: Tang, Ting, Dong.

As a "missionary-in-training" in the countryside, I had my share of baptizing children who were about to die of diarrhea, malaria, and the many diseases we failed to understand during that time. As a reporter later in my life, I witnessed death in so many forms: accidents, killings, suicides, wars, etc.

And I've always wondered what's in the mind of people who are left behind, those who cry out loud as if it's the end of the world, those who try to hold on their tears, those who just stand there in silence.

I have my own share of friends, comrades, relatives, family members who died. I've always wanted to shed a tear or two, but almost all the time I find it hard to cry. I understand the pain of losing someone, I understand the emptiness inside, the pain that starts somewhere in the throat that slowly dries, but I find it hard to cry.

Blessed are they who died ahead of us. At least they won't be here anymore to witness the suffering of those who lost their jobs, those who will lose their brains trying to find enough cash to pay the next bill, those who will keep on guessing what will happen next.

I have been always fascinated with death and dying and the rituals that come with it. I continue to decipher the source of this fascination as I undergo more rituals as another family member leaves for the unknown.

Now I know where the dead people's blood and entrails go, but I still don't eat dinuguan during wakes. I seldom eat during wakes.

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