Friday, May 2, 2014

The lady with the bell


published on March 30, 2013, MST
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 her very long. It was July of 2012 when I first came to her house to see her work and to interview her. Her house was something else—built in the 50s, on a hill, the sala occasionally transformed into a theater.
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 pictures and clippings of her accomplished past and the love of her life, who had passed on ten years before.
When I left her that first time, day had turned to night and her house had become dark and quiet. Only a houseboy was cleaning up after the other guests had left.
And then, 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.
And then one day I woke up to a text message from my friend; she wondered how I was doing, and we agreed we would have lunch at her house.
The place was, this time around, 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, paintings, papers, photographs and 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 caregiver who wore green scrubs and a constant smile. “It’s not the same place,” my friend told me, looking around. “I’ve had to sell my place and move.” There was no denying the sadness in her eyes.
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. “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 my friend to sell her home, which she had built with the man she loved (she still gushed about him) and which she used to share her love for theater with anybody willing to watch.
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 man who gave her the freedom to pursue what she really wanted. In their time, this was truly unprecedented.
“I like talking to you,” she said. And indeed she was particularly curious about my work, my family life, my advocacies. “It’s like I am reliving my life through you.”
She asked whether I was not afraid to write pieces that might incur the ire of some very powerful people. She even suggested possible dissertation topics I could use if I decide to get a PhD. If. 
“And what is this thing called social media?” she wanted to know. I tried to tell her that the Internet is not altogether bad, and certainly not alien, 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 I do  not understand what you are talking about.”
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.
“Stage gives people confidence. And when they are confident, they do things they did not think they could do.”
It was getting dark and I was gettig anxious because I should have started work hours ago. I wondered how I could break my friend’s 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. 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, dare pity my friend. 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?
Its an honor that she should even desire my company. I’ll visit my friend again, and soon.

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