Lady with the bell
I had lunch with my 91-year-old friend the other day. The lunch extended to five and a half hours.
I had not known my friend very long. It was July of 2012 when I first came to her house to see her work and to interview her. The house was something else. Built in the 50s, on a hill, it was where my friend did what she did best.
On that first meeting, I knew immediately she had taken a fancy to me. She kept talking and talking – she had a treasure trove of memories and information – while I simply soaked it all up. She showed me her room filled with mementos of her accomplished past and the love of her life, who had passed on ten years before.
When I left her, day had turned to night and her house had become dark and quiet. Only a houseboy was cleaning up after the cast members and guests had left.
We lost touch. I had heard she had an accident and I had planned on visiting her, but I became so engrossed in my own affairs that I felt I did not have time for anything – anyone – else. I should be ashamed of myself for feeling thus. We should not be so self-absorbed.
On Saturday morning I woke up to a text message from my friend and we agreed I should have lunch in her house on Monday.
This time around, it was not quite the house on the hill. It was, instead, a modern one-level apartment. When I entered the living room I saw immediately that it was populated with the same antiques, books, papers, photographs, religious images that had once been inside my friend's chambers. I thought I faintly heard a scratchy kundiman playing in the background.
Soon, my friend emerged, carrying a bell and assisted by a pleasant caregiver. “It's not the same place,” she told me. “I've had to sell my place and move.”
I learned that she had fallen off the stairs one day in her home and hit her head and her hip. She stayed three months in the hospital. She was then 90. “Anybody would have died,” she said. “But here I am. After that my friends and my lawyers decided I should transfer to this house.”
I imagined it must have been tough for her to sell her home, which she had built with the man she loved very much (she still talked about him glowingly) and which she occasionally converted into an alternative theater for an intimate audience.
My friend was really and truly alone. She had no family left – all her four sisters are gone. Her husband was gone. Her son, too. Only her caregiver and two other househelpers kept her company. I wondered how it must feel to be alone and be dependent on strangers for the simplest of your movements.
“Sometimes I look around this place and wonder what will become of them if I just conk one day,” my friend said, matter-of-factly. I was aghast that she could speak so candidly about death and how tantalizingly close it was to her. She then sounded her big bell and asked her caregiver what the dessert was. We had just finished a sumptuous lunch of sinigang na hipon, lumpiang togue and inihaw na talong with bagoong.
Dessert was turon. Just as delicious.
My friend talked about places she had visited and friends she had made. She knows many prominent people, both dead and alive. She's had a stellar career. She's had a wonderful marriage to a wonderful man who gave her the freedom to pursue what she really wanted.
“I like talking to you,” she said. And indeed she was particularly curious about my work as a journalist, my children, my graduate studies, even my recent involvement with an NGO. How do I manage to do all these? “It's like I am reliving my life through you.”
She complimented my writing style and asked whether I was not afraid to be writing editorials that might incur the ire of some very powerful people. “Don't they say that this country is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists?”
I showed her a picture of me and my kids and she inquired about each one's age and field of interest.
She congratulated me for finally earning my MA and gave suggestions on possible dissertation topics I could use should I eventually consider getting a PhD.
“What is this thing called social media?” she wanted to know. I tried to tell her that the Internet is not altogether bad, that one could use one's time wisely and read books or watch documentaries online. Midway into my sentence, she confessed: “I have to admit that what you're saying is alien to me.”
What is not alien to my friend is her desire to use her field to instill confidence and leadership in people, especially the poor. She described a former neighbor who used to be a pharmacy assistant, but who eventually joined her group. This neighbor has now gathered up the guts to set up her own clinic.
It was getting dark and I should have started work hours ago. I wondered how I could break her fond recollections and tell her that I had to leave even though I did not want to, just yet. She seemed to be so happy having me there. “I like having visitors because as you see I eat alone.”
I walked away from her house thinking how I would feel if I were in the same situation. But I could not, for the life of me, pity my friend, because she's lived her dream, accomplished much, loved deeply and carried on living despite pain and loss. How many people run the course of their lives without being able to do all those, or without even knowing that this is what living is all about?
I will likely be back soon. I will bring my friend some flowers and cake for Valentine's. That ought to make her smile, her eyes dancing like a little girl's.