I vividly remember that one Christmas Eve. Unlike all other Christmas Eves when the house is filled with the jubilant air of a family celebrating the holidays in torn gift wrappers, a sumptuous feast, and the warmth of contented hearts, on that year, December2011, the house seemed empty and cold.
I stared out the window with all the lights out; it was festive outside our house. The streets had parols and there was the occasional firecracker followed by a yell and the scampering of feet – we live three hours away from Davao so the banning of fireworks was unheard of. The scene outside was quite a contrast compared to the lifeless house that forgot about Christmas.
As a family tradition, my mother would prepare our Noche Buena feast on the day itself. Typically, it is a tiresome day of making sure that the ox tongue is boiling away over firewood. This would be the star of mother’s lengua in white sauce; her delicacy known all over Nabunturan. On top of that, there is also the carbonara, karekare, and baby backribs to take care of. Mother also prides herself with making the best no-bake blueberry cheesecakes in town. A recipe she has perfected over the years.
But no cooking commenced on that day. I did not bother to touch the unopened cans on the table because I do not recall a single Noche Buena when my mother failed to cook. It felt wrong to continue without her supervision. She wouldn’t like that either. She forgot to leave us instructions. She never forgets to leave instructions.
The day before, my parents had to leave for the hospital with my sister. I remember how they all came, these strangers, how they all packed the bags my parents would carry with them to the ER, how they all hurried to take Christmas Eve from us. I was sitting on the bed with Bernice. All these people who came, they looked past us. Bernice was playing with an orange airplane that made these annoying beep beep sounds. The toy was a Christmas present from our parents. It was unwrapped earlier than planned. Blood was dripping from both Bernice’s nostrils. She did not notice this. She kept playing with that annoying orange toy. I do not remember wiping away the blood but I recall that it had not stopped dripping for quite some time.
Bernice is the youngest and sixth child of the Tulio brood. She was a cheerful baby who did not complain as often as other babies did. I think that at an early age, she knew how troubling it was for my mother to have her. She was an “accidental” baby and my mother was already in her 40s at that time. She was but a few months old when the doctors diagnosed it as leukemia. For the life of me, I cannot remember what type it was. I never knew it would develop sporadically and that it could befall such an innocent victim as my Bernice.
The ambulance came for my sister that night. I recall seeing Bernice in my mother’s arms, and seeing all our pain in my father’s eyes. It was a few hours before midnight. As family tradition would have it, Christmas presents are opened on Christmas Eve. Again, it seemed wrong to go on with the celebration under the circumstances. But I had to. I gave out the presents to my other siblings. They needed the distraction; it was still Christmas anyway. I watched the kids tear open their presents while our youngest sibling fought for dear life in an ambulance that catapulted towards the nearest hospital an hour’s ride away. I watched them rip away the delicate gift wrapping that I had carefully creased to perfection. I watched as leukemia ripped away my baby sister’s life. All I could do was watch. Bernice lived through that night. My mom jumped out of the ambulance and sprinted towards the ER with Bernice in her arms even as the ambulance driver was still maneuvering the vehicle to a stop.
The day she died, no one told me. No calls, no text messages. But since we live in a small town where news is hardly a day cold before it reaches everyone, somebody already offered me condolences without me knowing who had died. I was in school when I got the news. I hurried home that very day. Home was a surprising scene of a spotless house, cleared away to make room for a coffin. That, and a hot and cold water dispenser – we never had one of those.
I remember telling my mother that I did not want to see Bernice that way; that I wanted to preserve a memory of her alive. My mother would not have it. We must have looked ridiculous: two women tugging and pulling at each other in front of a coffin. I was forced to look at Bernice’s cold corpse. It was not that bad. She looked like she was sleeping. Free from all the pain that cursed disease had given her. She was at peace.
It was her birthday last May 31. She would have been 6 years old. I did not go home to Nabunturan to visit her grave; I did not light a candle for her at church. I noticed I have been brushing off her memories lately. Looking back, one of my dearest friends had composed a song in tribute to her and sang it at the funeral. That friend gave me a recording of the song. It has been years since I’ve been able to listen to it.
Recently, I was planning to get her name tattooed on me but I chickened out. Maybe next year. Yet I do not really know what I am waiting for.
Betsy Tulio is a BA Communication Arts graduate of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She is an avid supporter of local music, film, and art; also, of the independent artists who thrive In Davao’s rich art scene.