It’s been two months since my sister, Ate Mabelle passed away. To be brutally frank and frankly brutal as I have told anyone who asked, “No, I’m (still) not okay.” In fact, I don’t even know if there will come a time that I’ll be okay with such loss. She died before sunset, a day before my birthday and I was at work. The fading light as the sun came down while traversing the trip back home mirrored how I felt.
We were born seven years apart, she told me she wished for a baby sister then. Growing up because of the age gap, we had the usual sibling fights but we do it in ‘mute’ mode because our parents were strict. Any squabble is frowned upon and if caught, no matter whose fault it was, we’ll both be punished.
She was my big sister, the one who carried me and my fat butt when I was a baby; the one who took care of my bruises when I tripped at the park; the one who always took home a piece of what they baked at Home Room for me to taste; the one who secretly gives me three Benson chocolates every school afternoon (we were not allowed to eat too much sweets); the one who hid a flashlight under her pillow so that when lights were off to sleep (or worse, brownout) she’d hand it to me and I’d sleep with it open underneath my blanket; my library companion in UST (me in freshman high school and she to graduate from college); one of those who didn’t find it weird that I like modern art & interiors and psycho-legal thrillers and she was such a voracious reader about Mama Mary and Bible history; the one who influenced me about the joys of cooking and taught me how to cook from the basics to ‘potajes;’ the one who always had that good eye for fashion (she had a wide range of heels, leather bags even had a crocodile skin bag in college, custom party clothes, and enjoyed wearing matching sets of earrings and necklaces that our father brings after every trip abroad) while I (up to this day and age), favors androgynous and quirky mismatched pieces; the one who encouraged me that its okay to wear what I want even if it looks weird, crazy or flamboyant (she would even buy me unique pieces); the one who shared her deep and unfailing devotion to Catholicism (read up on Marian history, Ark of the Covenant, etc.) yet has an open mind to the esoteric (Jaime Licauco books and alien stories); the one who shared my fascination for David Attenborough documentaries then switching to Akira Kurosawa films; the one who firmly believed that I can be a (frustrated) coloratura and pushed me to audition for commercials (unbeknownst to our parents) because she wants me to be an artista. I could go on and on…
During her senior year in college (UST Commerce), she would balance her Accounting subject assignments with our actual business Books of Accounts. Her real choice was to take up medicine or nutrition but our father said no, stating that as the first-born, she should learn/know how to take care of the businesses (fishing boats in Navotas which supplied seafood to a popular restaurant along Roxas Boulevard, truck rentals for tv/film lighting equipments, car repair shop partnerships, marble partnership in Mindoro, etc.) while he was abroad. Suffice it to say, she was the dutiful child while I bended almost every rule. So there was a bit of a rift there until I entered high school.
My sister was about to graduate from college and I just entered freshman high year at the same school (University of Santo Tomas). Our parents couldn’t be be more proud because they value education so much. But things went on a different turn. Being in the Ace class became hard for me not academically though, but because I was bullied by a group of girls and I suddenly became sickly. Back then being bullied was not discussed openly and the black out spells didn’t do much help. They only found out about the bullying and black out spells when after bringing our father to the airport to fly back to his duty in Africa, they had to fetch me at the UST Clinic. My Level Adviser, mother and sister talked with the bully/ies which helped a bit but on the health side, the doctors didn’t know the precise reason why I black out (Leukemia maybe?).
It was a good thing that my sister noticed and we talked about my dyslexia, OCD and anxiety attacks then. Maybe those developed or were aggravated because of my fear to disappoint the parentals if I lose the Ace class due to my unexplained illness. So we prayed every day before and after school at Santissimo Rosario Parish Church for guidance and she pushed me to practice singing and reading out loud every day for focus. It also helped a lot that our cousin Ate Fely gave me educational toys like Lego, crossword puzzles and rubik’s cube (no, we didn’t own a single Barbie because our parents thought she was a ‘weak’ influence). We’d happily troop to the library to finish the SRA books (yep, those were the days), frequent National Bookstore along Quezon Avenue and Gift Gate (my sister then had a wide collection of Zashikibuta, My Melody, etc.) – We became close again.
Then I was sent home early (again) and she arrived to find me shaking uncontrollably and our helper was freaking out already. She said she was at school and suddenly felt so compelled and almost ran home (sisters’ instinct I guess). Our parents were in Mindoro, our cousin Ate Fely was at work and our Ninang Maura was in Abra. My sister hugged me tight helplessly trying to stop my chills, crying while praying, begging the Lord to make me well and promising to always take care of me. I knew then that she really loves me unconditionally. We referred to that instance as our ‘Pieta’ moment.
She was supposed to take up further studies in business, our father enrolled her at a business school in Makati but she didn’t finish it. She stood up against it stating that it was unfair for I was allowed to take up whatever I want (Interior Design or AB Law, when our father wanted me to take up Civil Engineering or our mother’s choice, Pharmacy) and that she needs a breather, a normal life for once. I was so proud of her for finally speaking out for herself.
The years after that were tumultuous because our parents’ health began deteriorating. So the businesses were snuffed one by one either because workers and partners were dishonest and took advantage, and people who owed money were suddenly forgetful of their commitments. I remember vividly how our father prayed at Quiapo Church standing speechless, staring straight at the Crucified Christ for an hour, “Bahala na ang Diyos.” was what he said after.
Our parents died eight months apart during my senior year. Our Ninang Maura and cousin Ate Fely took us in. And after a few years later, our Ninang Maura passed away too. So it was only me, and my two Ates.
Armed with courage and determination, we found ourselves blessed with good jobs (Ate Fely still at PDDCP/DTI, my sister at the House of Representatives and me at Mowelfund). My sister was very generous to a fault. She would buy unnecessary stuff and treat us to fancy restaurants on a whim. She said she was working hard to give us a better life and that life is short not to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
And work hard she did which earned her a gallstone and appendicitis operation which developed out of so much stress. She had such a strong threshold of tolerance to pain that she didn’t get admitted until just a few hours before her appendix would have burst. That was what her doctor said to me while she was still at the recovery room while handing me the gallstone (as big as a grape) that he took from her. He told me to give it to my sister as a reminder that in all his years as a specialist, he hasn’t encountered such a patient as her and that she should take it easy. But taking it easy was not in my sister’s vocabulary and after a few years she went through two strokes and a hysterectomy.
I will not write about nor want to remember certain things about the last decade of her life out of my promise to her and will just remember her saying, “Hayaan mo na.” For whatever its worth, those who genuinely know us, knows how close we were. We had disagreements yes, but there was never a time wherein we severed ties. We had ‘secret rendezvous’ wherein we talked about anything and everything in our lives (no secrets) that I will cherish and am so thankful to God. To some she may seem feisty, but she’s just straight up frank and I’m the one with the temper (which she and Ate Fely has worked hard on for me to tame) though I may smile all the time (surprise!).
All in all, now at 3:08am while the music playing is ‘This is a song not necessarily sweet’ by the 5th Dimension (totally random but apropos), I guess I have finally forced myself out of denial or numbness and allowed the tears to freely fall, grateful to have found the courage to write this in memoriam and as an acceptance of the reality that she has already passed.
I take back what I said during your wake Ate. No, you’re not ‘madaya’ because you left me and Ate Fely. You gave so much of yourself and wanted to give more but its just that you are only human and can only take so much especially physically.
Thank you for everything and I know as you promised God during our ‘Pieta’ moment, that you’re still taking care of me wherever you are. What today’s scheduled commitment could have made such a difference in our lives but only God knows why things happened this way. As you said in a recent dream, “…’wag magagalit, ok na..” I’ll take your word for it. Send my love to our parents and Ninang Maura. One day at a time…’til we meet again.