Her hand still holds the telephone handset. The sound of it dropping onto its base seemed like a closing door, banging and locking her into her guilt and uselessness. The clear blue skies outside her window in Armidale seemed to have turned overcast like the grey skies of her General Santos town. She cups her mouth as she lowers herself onto the floor and feels the tears roll down her cheeks. Her mother’s cry on the phone keeps playing in her mind.
“Inday, ulahi na ang tanan. It was too late for all of us. We tried, but Nene didn’t make it to the hospital.” The old lady’s controlled voice showed the sincerity of their endeavors to save her sister. “We could have saved her if we’ve known beforehand.”
Melissa, or Inday to her family in Gensan, knows that her sister and her sister’s baby could have been saved had her sister been admitted to the lying-in clinic. There, midwives would have been able to determine her state of pregnancy earlier and prescribe a caesarian procedure at the hospital. Melissa had insisted that giving birth at home with the assistance of a midwife would be okay. This is what most women do in the Philippines. Nene agreed.
Now, of course, everyone disagrees with the decision. A member of the family has fallen victim to the idea, and it was Nene, the one Melissa had wanted to come to Australia to join her. It was Nene who Melissa had periodically tried to gather cash for – from delivering pamphlets, to washing dishes at the bistro, to shelving at her local supermarkets – just to be able to help Nene as she struggled to complete a nursing degree. Being the only one overseas, Melissa feels she has the opportunity and responsibility to alleviate her family’s poverty in the Philippines. Her mum always mentions the inadequacy of the income they get from selling dried fish in the market – the very family income that had raised her and her two brothers and a sister at a shanty house.
When Melissa married Ted, an Australian council worker whose name she first saw in a local magazine and to whom she started writing, she imagined sending lots of money home. Her mum could start making renovations to the toilet, perhaps change it from an outhouse to one that would actually be located inside the house. Those boys who used to peep at her as she was doing her business would all be gone and sorry. Then, she would be sending more money to buy clothes for her parents and her nieces and nephews, or simply to add capital to her parents’ business. She knew that they’d wanted to buy a large freezer to store smoked fish. She even imagined giving her younger brother capital to start a poultry business.
However, all these dreams had slowly faded when Ted retired. For her to work full-time would mean killing Ted’s pension money, which he always detests. So what was the point of looking for full-time work? Her dreams of sending money have been shrouded with a thick blanket of sadness and frustration. Casual work here and there in her small New South Wales country town had been her consolation.
She hasn’t been able to send the cash needed for the costs of Nene’s ultrasound and admission to the lying-in clinic. At that time, she thought Nene’s husband could get by. Besides, her main concern was really only to send Nene to school, and she had already done that. Nene graduated. The next thing in her mind was Nene’s application for a nursing job. She had already saved nearly five hundred dollars for it. But what’s the point when the intended person has already gone?
“What’s the point!” she shouted. “Unsa pay pulos, what’s the bloody point?!” She feels a firm lump forming in her throat, seemingly choking her. She bangs the floor with the side of her curled palm. She lowers her head, closes her eyes, and breathes. She feels the tears falling down her cheeks. She wipes her tears with her shirt.
She breathes, trying to contain the emotion, but she can’t. She has to let it out. “Diyos ko,” she bursts out like a calf mooing for its mother in the field. “Oh my God, help us.”
She hears a knock at her door.
“Melissa, is everything alright?”
It’s her next door neighbor, Mary, who heard Melissa’s outbursts. Mary is slow in many ways, but she’s alert to times of distress. Melissa suspects the old lady is in her early seventies. She seems to know many things about her neighbors and their whereabouts, such as Ted going to fish near Ebor Falls that morning.
Melissa pinches her collar again and wipes her face with it. She blows her nose, gets up and drags her feet to the door.
“Mary, my sister passed away this morning,” Melissa croaks while pushing the screen door to let the lady in.
Mary quickly clasps her fingers around Melissa’s arm. “Oh, and the baby?”
Melissa nods. “Yes, it died, too.”
“Oh, dear.” Mary holds Melissa’s hands, slightly pulling her toward the couch. “What happened?”
“The baby was breech, Mary, and it was all too late for everyone back home to save her. Imagine my father’s tricycle taking a woman in labor to the hospital…”
“Wasn’t there supposed to be a midwife?”
“Obviously, she wasn’t much of help, was she? Not when she doesn’t have enough hospital equipment. It’s really different and difficult over there.”
“Oh, dear.” Mary looks on the floor, showing a sense of disappointment in her face. “I wish I can understand the way things are in the Philippines, Melissa. I should visit it one day with you.”
“Yes,” Melissa mumbles, thinking that it would be quite hard for Mary at her age to go out and about town, let alone visit Melissa’s poor place in the Philippines. The smell of dried fish will surely revolt this lady. Melissa remembers the first day she cooked some dried herring, and how Mary sprayed her whole house with air freshener, including her garage.
“So, are you going home?” Mary looks Melissa in the eye. “I think you should. It’s not even a question to ask. She’s your only sister. I think it’s just right for you to go home.”
Melissa bites the tip of her point finger while crossing her legs. She should go home, really, she thinks. She hasn’t been home even once. Things have been tough for her. Every time she has enough money to go home, she’s faced with the dilemma of sending the money home instead. Now, the situation is not different. She only has to add a little bit more, and she can be home in time. She’d be home to see her family again after ten years. She’d be seeing all the nephews and nieces she hasn’t seen since birth. She’d be seeing her childhood friends. How things must have changed in Gensan. If she goes this time, it would be for a funeral of the sister she loved and worked for. Yet again, if she goes, she might need some more money to help with the burial, the interment, the catering, and so on.
“Ahhh,” she sighs. “I don’t have anything to add to my current savings. Reaching two thousand would be impossible. I’d be dreaming. I might not go home, Mary. I wouldn’t have enough,” Melissa mumbles.
“Surely, you and Ted could come up with something.”
“No, I think I’ll stay.”
“Would you be happy about that, though? Obviously, you wouldn’t want something lingering in your mind out of regret.”
Melissa is unable to continue. She knows she can’t go. The money she’d be spending would be better spent if she sent it to her family. But she feels that she should go because Nene would have wanted her to go.
Melissa knows her presence would be much appreciated by her sister. With this reunion, her sister would be saying to forget about the expensive burial. Nene would say, “I just wanted to see you in person.” But Melissa consciously knows her sister is now dead. Does it really matter what the dead think? Do the dead really think? It does matter, though, how the living thinks about what the dead might think. We know this from our feelings for the deceased before their passing. That’s what makes life more meaningful, in a way. It encompasses death. The love for the person is there whether she is present or absent.
“Would you like some tea, Mary?” Melissa stands, composing herself as if nothing has happened. It’s the usual thing she says when Mary visits her house.
“Don’t worry, dear. I don’t want to be a bother to you, especially at this time.”
“Oh, that’s nothing, Mary. That’s life.” Melissa walks to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Mary follows.
Melissa continues, “I suppose we have to take into consideration that death is such a part of life. Also, for me, living so far away from the Philippines is like death already. It kills me to feel that I am inadequate to help them, and that I don’t have enough money to see them.”
Mary looks at Mary’s face intently.
Melissa remembers when the Australian embassy rejected her brothers and parents’ application to visit her in Armidale twice. “Anyway,” she adds, “the toughness of the immigration against many Filipino visitors to visit their family in Australia adds to my death in living away from home.”
“I suppose you really have to accept the fact that you are living in Australia now, and your family is really in the other part of the world. Whether you like it or not, your worlds are kind of divided.” Mary sips her tea.
“I don’t really like to think it that way, Mary, I’m sorry,” she says. “I feel that it is our deep human need, and a part of our human dignity, to have no restrictions in seeing our family as often as we can. If we humans built aviation technology but developed immigration policies that restrict families from getting in touch, then I think we got it all twisted. We’re missing the point.” Melissa shakes her head while nestling her cup in her palms.
“I’m sure there are reasons behind restricting Filipino visitor visas. One of them perhaps is the number of Filipino visitors overstaying their visas.” Mary blinks her eyes as she looks on the sink, her face shows her disappointment for the situation.
“But they should think of wiser solutions for Filipino visitors who stick by the law,” Melissa quickly says.
Mary sighs, looking at the sky, which is now turning overcast. “Here is what the forecaster was talking about,” she says. “I’d better head home and collect my washing.”
Melissa watches Mary waddling to the door and waving goodbye. She straightens her feet on the two adjoining chairs and gulps the rest of her tea. She slams the cup on the table.
She was sad, but now she’s angry. She should voice out what she really wants. Over the years, she has been quiet about being unable to earn lots of money to help her family to survive and to be able to see them in person. That isn’t much to ask, she thinks. She wants to go home! She wants to attend the funeral of her sister. She wants to see her family again! She should tell Ted. She will tell him when he comes home.
Erwin Cabucos teaches English in Brigidine College, Brisbane, Australia. He was born in Carmen, Cotabato and graduated Psychology from Notre Dame University in Cotabato City. He also finished English Education from the University of New England, Australia. Erwin authored two collections of short stories. You may read part 2 of this story here.