Islander in the City by Pablo A. Tariman:


Grandson and grandpa on the day of his mother’s burial and at age 3 with the author after a concert at Pasig Museum.

My grandson turns 19 Saturday this weekend..

He was named after another activist-poet who died in the South. I took full custody of him since his grade school days.

One way or the other, he changed my grandfather routine and the way I looked at life.

Without household help, I had to do everything: waking up at 4 a.m. to cook breakfast so he could make it to his 6 a.m. class, washing and ironing his school uniforms, attending PTA meetings, and, horror of horrors, being present at his first communion, which petrified me because the priest sounded like Father Damaso during the homily.

My grandson noticed how I reacted.

By now he knows why I don’t go to church even if we have lived near a historic house of worship for many years.

I gave my grandson his first bike. I also treated him to his first movie, his first play, and his first ballet — and he must have realized then that I am closer to the temple of the arts than to a house of worship.

As he grew older, he discovered that his godmother was a famous filmmaker and his godfather sang jazz, and that my best friend, a pianist, would call at 4 a.m. He’d often wonder why I’d be guffawing on the phone at that unholy hour.

Because my friend would tease me about becoming grandfather of the year, and that I needed just a few more points to be considered for canonization.

It was on his 18th year that he lost his mother.

I remember how that week looked like.

It is easy to say you are prepared to see the worst happening to your daughter because of her involvement in the movement. But when you see her in the picture, cold and lifeless on a mountain trail, you know you need more courage to accept what has happened to her.

I was looking at my grandson that morning still asleep, when I accepted the news. My next predicament was how to break the news to him.

I knew I couldn’t do it.

The next day, her violent death was all over Facebook. The newspapers also carried news of the encounter.

It is the first death in the family. She was the second of my three daughters.

And so her death was all over FB. I went into denial, even as I reminded myself it would be better to accept what had happened.

I asked a family friend to come to break the news to my grandson. I didn’t think I could handle it without turning the moment into a scene from a teleserye. And so the family friend arrived, condoled.

Then I asked him to take on the sad task of breaking the news to my grandson. He did it gently, from what I could figure out.

Minutes later, I saw my very composed grandson. No breaking down. No tears. I even saw him break into a wan smile as if to tell me, “This is not a big deal. I can handle this.”

The sad news transmitted, I let out a sigh of relief. My grandson is made of sterner stuff, and he showed it.

Then he told me he knew something was wrong just by reading my face that early morning, while I was trying to confirm the news.

I told myself we could move on and do what had to be done.

We had to fly to Bacolod to claim the body. We had to subject ourselves to swab tests to be able to board the plane. We had to apply for Silay and Bacolod passes so we could move around.

That was my first swab test. What if I tested positive? Did this mean only my grandson could fly to Bacolod while I had to face isolation?

The swab test results didn’t come on time by email for us to be able to board the Monday 8 a.m. flight. No way could you board the plane without the results of your swab test, the lady at the check-in counter told us.

We had to rebook our tickets for an afternoon flight. The swab test results finally arrived after the plane had left. My grandson and I tested negative!

We were able to rebook an early afternoon direct flight direct to Silay-Bacolod airport. Meanwhile, I had to brace myself for what I would see when I claimed my daughter’s body.

I have never been inside a funeral morgue. I have never been inside a dingy room full of dead bodies. Before the plane landed, I had to let go of my quiet sobbing. After all, this was not my idea of my last reunion with my daughter.

First order of the day upon arrival was a briefing with our lawyer, who happens to be a city councilor.

I needed to present papers to be able to claim my daughter’s body: birth certificate, marriage certificate, my grandson’s valid ID and birth certificate, and my ID and birth certificate.

Next was the moment of truth.

The funeral parlor aide guided us to a room full of dead bodies all covered in white cloth. I looked at my grandson. I wondered how he would react upon seeing his dead mother for the first time.

When I saw my daughter’s lifeless body on that steel stretcher, I let out a long, painful howl of grief. I embraced her and kissed her forehead like the last time we saw each other.

He saw how helpless I was that moment, so I felt my grandson’s hands massaging my shoulder as I cried endlessly. My grandson’s inner strength is unbelievable.

No tears for him. No breakdown like I had.

* * *

By and large, 19 years with a grandson allows you to review what living and coping are all about.

You learn to cope when he is sick, and you call his pediatrician in the dead of night asking what to do with an overly high fever.

When he comes home with medals and citations, you realize that your little sacrifices have paid off, and you are glad you are still alive to enjoy life with a child who has learned to live without his parents. In time, he realizes that you only earn so much and that your circle of friends is so tight.

If I can help it, I spare my grandson my private woes. But one I could not hide from him was when his godmother (the filmmaker) died and I let out a howl of grief when I heard her death announced on TV.

He probably understood why I skipped the wake. I asked him how she looked in her coffin; he said she looked beautiful and at peace.

As your grandson turns 19, you know you only have a few more good years to spare. One of your eyes has started to dim, requiring visits to an ophthalmologist. Your hypertension has graduated to another critical stage, and you are constantly advised to see a cardiologist to make sure you will survive another week of deadlines. It won’t be long when you’d need a wheelchair to watch shows at the Cultural Center and

before boarding another domestic flight.

The signs of autumn are all there: You keep hitting the glass door of a Makati museum before a concert, you keep missing a step while looking for your seat at an event. You could have made a spectacle of yourself when you nearly rolled down the aisle before the curtains rose.

Like it or not, 19 years of “single grandparenthood” is a badge of honor, and you are amply rewarded when grandson comes home announcing that he won this and that Metro Manila competition.

He won hands down in a nationwide quiz on Chinese history. I look at his picture at the Great Wall of China (part of his prize) with love and pride. I don’t expect to visit Beijing in my lifetime, and I am glad my grandson did.

When he turned 18 last March, I bought a cake and I told him I didn’t invite anyone, not even his aunt and cousins who live nearby.

We shared a quiet lunch.

He blew his cake.

And we braced for the long lockdown.

* * *

I doodled a poem somewhere sometime in one of those restless months:

He is cool

About living quietly

In a solitary room

For many weeks now.

On the seventh week

Of quarantine,

I saw a sudden growth

Of fine black hair

On his chin

and upper lip.

Then I think of

His early portraits.

His first bike,

His first walk to school,

His first dip at the pool,

His first flight

On an island

Where his grandfather

Was born.

I remember his first dash

On a deserted beach

One summer day.

It was his first taste of freedom

His first instinctive run

As he enjoyed the island gale

washing his face.

I like freezing

his picture

on the white sand

running on a beach

to nowhere.

* * *

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