How Can I Say Thanks for the Things You Have Done For Me?

Things so undeserved
Yet you lived to prove your love for me
The voices of a million angels
Could not express my gratitude
All that I am, and ever hope to be
I owe it all to thee

Now Playing: “My Tribute by Andrae Crouch

MANIBAD SEVENTH DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH: Manibad, Mambusao, Capiz, Western Visayas, Philippines

My grandmother is responsible for the existence of at least six churches, and we visited one of them the day after we buried her. That morning, little children were passing out cupcakes to women in the church, greeting them for Mothers Day. Seeing us walk in, the girl leading the service grabbed the microphone and said, “We’d like to welcome the Fortin family and invite Miss Jillian (read: Jeel-yahn) to the pulpit to give a message to her mother. And also, will you sing” (both of which were statements, not questions, and also the first I had heard of it).

I had no idea what they wanted me to say, and based on the way the congregation was looking back at me, they didn’t either. But then my eyes fell on my mom, sitting in the back row, wearing the last two weeks on her face and shoulders (and also maybe a look of fear, equally unsure of what I was about to say) and the words started flowing on their own, beginning with gratitude to the members of the church who had attended my grandmother’s service the day prior as well as the ones who came every night since her passing to lead worship services for the tens and twenties who visited around the clock, each day.

I went on to continue that it was strangely appropriate, celebrating Mothers Day after two weeks of celebrating my Lola Nanay, and despite how bittersweet it was as well, my mother had proved time and time again through arguably one of the most difficult times of her life that she is Nanay’s daughter – strong, steadfast, forged by fire and led by God’s hand.

Mom, I said, you are the strongest, bravest, most courageous woman I have ever met. You have the biggest heart that no one knows about because you choose to show your affection through your actions rather than your words, just like Nanay did. You have devoted yourself to a life of service – to your family, to your friends, and to countless others whose hands I shook but names I do not know who were able to send their children to school, build their churches, and care for loved ones who fell ill. You are this amazing woman because of the amazing woman who raised you, and every day is an education in how my sister and I may one day live up to the examples set for us… that we may be worthy testaments of your life like you are for Nanay’s exemplary and fulfilling one.

My sister joined me on stage after handing the A/V guy her phone, the track queued up and ready to go. Joanna only had one song stored locally on her phone, and since there was no internet connection available, it would have to do. Like the occasion, the song title and its lyrics were also oddly appropriate, something I made sure to point out before the two of us began to sing “My Tribute.”

We sat down once we were done singing, only after telling our mom how much we loved her. She smiled. She also let us finish her cupcake.

Jillian's mother, pointing at a cupcake with a flag on top that says, "World's Best Mother"

Roxas City, Western Visayas, Philippines

Robinsons Mall / Roxas City / Panay / Western Visayas / Philippines

I had just left the pharmacy, where I had to ask a pharmacist whether or not they had any Vitamin D3 and turmeric capsules to sell. Readily available to purchase off a shelf in the United States, these are considered controlled substances in the Philippines and can only be handed over to your possession by a licensed pharmacist.

Because I guess kids be gettin’ wild, poppin’ dat turmeric.

Now Playing: “Mask Off” by Future

“Sorry, ma’am, we are completely sold out of turmeric capsules and the only thing with Vitamin D is this,“ he said, holding up a foil strip of capsule sachets labeled Calcium + Vitamin D3 + Minerals. “8 pesos each.”

+ Minerals. Not sketchy or flippant at all, I thought to myself. Like, for 16 cents a pop, here’s some of this stuff, then here’s the stuff that you actually wanted, plus some etc. etc. stuff that you may or may not want.

Cool, whatevs. “Twenty please, Kuya. Salamat.”

I found Mom at the supermarket portion of the mall. The malls here are their own, large-scale ecosystems where people go to bask in the air conditioned spaces – a luxury many don’t have in their own homes. You can do anything in a Filipino mall. You can buy every-day outfits, you can buy fancy outfits. You can buy home appliances and homes in general. You can do anything electronic, ever (the regular markets are adjacent to the flea markets – think Houston’s Galleria Mall with an extra floor on top that housed Harwin).

“Ma, they don’t have turmeric.”
“What do you mean, they don’t have turmeric?”
“I mean, they don’t have turmeric.”
“You should have asked the pharmacist.”
“I did ask the pharmacist.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said they’re completely out of turmeric.” And wasn’t dramatic about it at all, either.

Mom shook her head incredulously, almost as if she was more upset than I was over that silly little thing, then responded decidedly, saying, “Buko juice is a better anti-inflammatory, anyway. And since we are here, we can get it fresh.”

We headed to a Buko Loco stand (cause coconut juice can be sooo craaaazy #amirite?) and surveyed our options.

“So this is fresh buko juice?” Mom said to the poor boy manning the stand.

“Ma’am, yes ma’am, po.”
“With only fresh fruits blended in?”
“Y-yes ma’am.”
“Nothing else? Are you sure?”

His eyes darted to the poster behind him. “Yes ma’am, sure na ma’am.”

Mom pursed her lips as she handed over 180 PP – a little over $3.00, hands outstretched to receive the bag of buko juices.

“Okay, sigurado ka,” she said with skepticism in her voice.

Since you’re so sure…

Breakfast with President Duterte

Mambusao, Capiz / Western Visayas / Philippines

We weren’t planning on having breakfast in the apartment that was built on the pulpit of the old church. Our mission that morning – having no choice but to accept it – was to book passage to Manila later that evening, whether it be by plane, train, or automobile. Please God, I prayed silently, by any means except for the latter two. Such had happened the last time we were in the Philippines less than a decade prior, and after losing and subsequently finding my passport, I didn’t think I could handle the excitement a repeat would surely bring this time around.

Continue reading “Breakfast with President Duterte”

Lazy Sunday at Adventure Park

Barangay Talon, Roxas City, Capiz, West Visayas, Philippines

I was fetched by Tito Guenie at 9:30 AM before I had a chance to brush my teeth. I had just finished eating breakfast when he arrived at Tita Elna’s. Tita Elna and her helper, Lynn Lynn, had prepared an impressive spread of chicken longanisa, boiled purple chamote (sweet potato), suman with mango, and Edna cheese omelette served with rice, buttered and toasted pan de sal, and a plate overflowing with citrine colored tambis. And to my delight, there were macaroons and cups of brewed coffee for dessert.

Now Playing: “Pagdating Ng Panahon(When The Time Comes) by Aiza Seguerra

Continue reading “Lazy Sunday at Adventure Park”

Ping Ping & Jing Jing

Mambusao, Capiz / Western Visayas / Philippines
The last time we read together (June 2009)

She was sheepish, “tahimik” when I first met her. She couldn’t have been more than a head and a half tall, only having just turned two or so.

Now, still just as tahimik, she stood up to my ears— an exact replica of her older brother, her eyes kind where his was stern, her smile playful where his was absent.

“You’re Manang Jeel-yahn,” she whispered.

“Do you remember me?” I asked. She paused for a moment, as if she already knew the answer but needed a second to figure out exactly how she should answer. A while passed before she decidedly shook her head.

Continue reading “Ping Ping & Jing Jing”

Nanay Now

Her speed is slow and deliberate
Repetition throughout each conversation
Volume is higher than it used to be
And her speech is slow and deliberate too

My warrior mother
First in battle, forged by fire
Melts at the touch of my grandmother’s leathered hand
Pressing her palm to her face, where tears would be
If she was the type of woman with more feathers

The way this woman softens my mother—
calloused from years of fighting
and hardened and dried out from tears cried about me and my sister—
Breaks my headstrong spirit
And brings me to my knees in the most powerful and humbling of ways.

This is mother/daughter love as God intended it to be illustrated.

Arrival in Mambusao

I woke up in the front seat and there were kids at my window, holding up bags of peanuts and other treats. On the other side of the car, my uncle in the driver’s seat handed the children a few coins. My mom told me to do the same with the change from lunch, of which the smallest bill I had was a 100 PP (a little over $2). Rolling down my window, I handed the girls the bill, saying “just keep it, I’m good” in English because I had no idea how to say it in Tagalog, much less Bisaya (the local dialect). The older girl slowly replied, “tank you, ma’am” and  turned to the younger girl, saying I have no idea what she just said, so let’s get out of here!

Lola Nanay scolded me for giving the children such a large bill, as they were more accustomed to receiving anywhere from 1 centavo to 10 centavos for their wares. And I suppose her reaction was also a warning, as like small cats, the children returned, knocking, holding up those bags of salted snacks, mewing “ma’am, please, peanuts?”

My mind wandered as we continued along. I decided my Uncle Kelyon, my mom’s brother that had picked us up from the airport, and I must be cut from the same cloth. Once we were past the Passi City Pistahan (a town fiesta that caused an extra four hours of traffic, during which I silently had a panic attack), he gunned the fuck down the National Highway past hordes of tricycles lazily making their way down, muttering under his breath how he needed to go to the bathroom (then later pulling the car over to the shoulder to water some trees by the wayside).

Soon enough, Lola Nanay had to go to the restroom too, and at her spritely age of 94 couldn’t be expected to whip it out on the side of the road as easily as Uncle Kelyon. We stopped at my mom’s first cousin’s home along the National Highway in order for Lola to use the restroom. It had taken me long enough to realize that every island had its own National Highway, since Palawan also had a “National Highway” (which in general meant it was the island’s main road).

We honked at the gate of a house painted in bright, fluorescent colors and that was connected to a tiangge, or store in a stall (much like you might find in a bazaar or flea market). The ladies at the tiangge– one being my mom’s first cousin and the other being her daughter, my mom’s niece– recognized Uncle Kelyon at once, and assuming Lola Nanay was his only passenger, began running towards the car repeating “Ate, Ate!”

Uncle Kelyon opened his door and smoothly slid out of the driver’s seat, waving like a politician. “Dito rin si Oday,” he announced passively, motioning towards the backseat and using my mom’s childhood nickname with a tone that was almost a reminder that a piece of the West hadn’t come to visit them, but that a missing piece of home had returned to fulfill her duties as a daughter; it was time for her shift, which her other siblings– the three sons– eagerly welcomed.

Mom’s cousin, Catalina, threw her arms around my mom’s neck, warmly welcoming her home and motioning a silent greeting towards me as well. As her daughter, Gina, helped Lola Nanay inside the house, I heard Catalina tell Mom how beautiful she thought I was, asking, “Is she the one with a husband?”

Mom shook her head.

Catalina’s pause was deafening, cut by a weak response after much delay. “I’m sorry,” I heard her whisper softly in Bisaya.

One of the comfort rooms in the house had a toilet, and as they prepared it for Lola Nanay’s use, they asked Mom if I also needed to use the restroom. As Mom turned to pass on the message, she included, “the other one doesn’t have a toilet, but if you pee on top of the drain, they’ll make sure to sweep in any missed spots.” “Once the water starts running,” Gina added. “Your relatives in the Philippines are poor!” She said with a half smile, almost as if she was apologizing.

You should never apologize, I wanted to say to her. You are all so happy, and you are all so loving. There’s a special kind of care and nurturing that happens here. I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

I danced around the house, waiting for my turn to use the restroom. As I danced, glimpses of unfamiliar yet familiar scenes caught the corners of my eyes: Pizza Hut boxes on the kitchen table, toothbrushes by the refrigerator, an impressive collection of whiskeys (including a bottle of Jack hidden in the corner), seating area after seating area after seating area.

On our way out and out of the blue, Gina’s husband, the fire chief, asked my mother if I was an accountant. Neither of us had alluded to that fact, nor did we know where he could have gotten that from. My mom shrugged at me, saying, “Tell him what you do.” After a few minutes of struggling to make the term “digital marketing consultant” relevant to him, he graciously nodded in understanding, asserting that I not forget the name Rodelyn and, at my first opportunity, “add him on the internet.”