Once, on a rare visit to my grandparents’ house in Bulacan, my grandmother, after covering both of my cheeks with her wet and toothless kisses, placed a hand on my face and traced its outline all the way down to my chin. Her hands were rough, but her touch was as gentle as a mother’s holding a newborn. “Your skin is beautiful,” she said to me in that soft voice typical of women her age. I was reminded of that long ago time when the only compliment I would receive from her was how spotless my plate would be after a snack of oatmeal or chicken noodles while watching our morning programs. As usual, I responded with a laugh and told her how bad her eyesight must already be, because unlike my plate, my skin wasn’t all that spotless. Without missing a single chance to humiliate me in front of an audience, my brother hurried to my side and told our grandmother that my healthy glow wasn’t due to natural beauty at all. He said that it was all thanks to the maximum hours of sleep I get every single day.
I love sleeping. I won’t deny it. Not counting the days wherein I have to nurse a hangover, or an aching body because of spending too much time lifting weights I can’t even carry. Without disruption, I could sleep for twelve hours straight, sometimes, even a whole day. The headache that comes after a particularly long snooze can easily be resolved by an aspirin, and sometimes, by even more sleep. I sleep when I am bored. I sleep when I am hungry and too lazy to cook for myself. I sleep when I am alone. I sleep when I feel alone. Heck, I even sleep when I’m filled with too much anxiety before an important exam. Sleeping for me has become an acquired skill, allowing me to sleep comfortably whenever and wherever – with the lights on or out, in a noisy room, sitting down, and on rare occasions wherein I’m forced to travel publicly, even standing up. As long as my head touches a pillow, or anything close to it.
A physiology professor once said that for one to get the full benefits of sleep, it is essential to sleep in a dark room because melatonin, an important hormone, can only reproduce in the dark. During my time as a science student, I would tell my mother that my melatonin cells were still under production whenever she would scream at me to get out of bed. Since she didn’t know better, she would often leave me alone and remind me to exercise after. “Too much sleep makes you fat,” she would always say. The benefits of sleep remain to be the subject of ongoing research. But one thing is for certain, sleep is a form of rejuvenation and healing.
One: The Feeling of Falling
Sleep has five stages. The first stage is the period where we are preparing to drift off. It is that period between sleepiness and wakefulness. It is the period of light sleep where your mind’s eye starts to see a swirling of colors. Yet, a light tap on the arm is all it takes to jolt you out of it. An electroencephalography – a device that records brain waves – recording in this stage would show a series of crooked lines, like those that would appear on a seismograph placed on top of a table that would be constantly hit by tapping fingers – constant, steady. In this stage, the eyes start to roll slowly, and the lids alternate between opening and closing, the same way the eyes behave when you’re forced to attend a lecture of an aging professor who speaks in a monotonous drawl. During this stage, one begins to experience hypnogogic hallucinations. It is not unusual to hear disembodied voices, see shadow figures, or feel sudden muscle jerks. These twitches, which are called myoclonic jerks, are what often lead to that feeling of suddenly falling, as if the bed was suddenly pulled from beneath you.
Morning. Outside, the streets were slowly being filled with the noise of tricycle motors and the angry shouts of jeepney drivers who blasted their horns, unmindful of the number of sleeping souls around the neighborhood, still cocooned inside the warmth of their wool blankets. The rooster from across the street crows in harmony with the songs of the tiny mayas, and the dog barks. Children and parents exchange shouts as the traffic gets heavier as the clock ticks closer to the beginning of another school day. Inside, streaks of light were slowly making their way into the gaps of the curtains that stood guard by the window, acting as a final defense against the rays of the bright November sun. Christmas was just around the corner. And in preparation for this wonderful occasion, the Earth had just started to cover herself with winds that were cold enough to make sleeping hard to resist.
My classes weren’t until noon, which meant that I still had around five hours to drown myself in sleep. By this time, my mother and my younger sister would be involved in some kind of verbal argument. Mother would insist on a certain kind of dress or ask my sister about last night’s homework, to which my sister would reply with her shrill voice, often filled with spite. They would then proceed into a screaming match that was enough to wake the entire fifth-floor of the apartment. My ears were accustomed to this unpleasantness. And being an indirect descendant of Hypnos, the god of sleep himself, not even this could rouse me from my slumber.
I was dreaming. Or I thought I still was. Back then, the mixture of urban sounds and human voices were like a cloud of smoke fogging my brain. Then, as now, discerning the real from what isn’t remains to be the biggest problem I have to face during my sleep. Amidst the swirl of colors and faces that my brain kept inventing, I heard sobbing. Like a wounded dog left alone with an injured limb. My body remained motionless. Movement hasn’t returned to my muscles yet. The upper bunk of our double-deck was starting to move, the creaking wooden posts only meant that my brother was finally awake. The fog inside my head was starting to thin. Outside, aside from the jeepney horns and tricycle motors, music was playing. The sobbing continued, that sound was familiar. It was a cry I have heard many years ago, during the death of a very dear relative. It was my mother’s.
My eyes flew open. Every inch of my body was suddenly alert. I jumped out of bed, but now that I think about it, it was more like flying out of it. It’s never good to hear someone cry in the morning, unless that someone is a hungry newborn.
The small apartment room seemed like a maze, with cabinets and chairs for walls. My brother was bending over my mother, who was slouched against the door, her hands covering her face.
“What happened?” I asked. My voice wasn’t croaky. It was loud and clear, but the tone of fear was unmistakable. My mother handed me her cellphone, which was lying a few inches from her side. Unsure of what to do, I took it while exchanging worried glances with my brother. A lot of things were running in my mind. Was there an accident? Did someone die?
The text message was perfectly understandable, yet nothing was making any sense. It was from my mama-ninang – mother’s sister. There weren’t any smileys or hahahas. Just four words: Patay na si Jonjon.
“Tito Jonjon is dead.
Myclonic jerk. Beneath me, the floor seemed like it gave way.
Two: Weaving Spindles
The second stage of sleep lasts around fifteen to twenty minutes. In this stage, the brain starts to fall into deeper sleep. Sleepers become harder to awaken. Body temperature drops, and heart rate begins to slow down as well. The brain would start to fire spurts of rhythmic brain wave activity. When viewed from an EEG recording, this would appear as a sudden rise and fall that occurs for a split second. These bursts of brain activity are called sleep spindles. In sleep, these spindles occur right after muscle twitching. Sleep spindles that are generated from the thalamus aids in the prevention of sleep disruption due to external stimuli. We lose muscle control and sleep paralysis – a scary experience for some – occurs, preventing the body to act out any dream.
Losing, in every sense, is not new to me. The feeling of disappointment, often followed by a lingering feeling of worthlessness and failure are as familiar as the nails on my feet. My bouts of misery stemmed from countless failed auditions and disastrous productions, to would-be relationships and mishandled academics. I distinctly remember the first time the world taught me the pains of losing.
My family owned a dog named Blackie. He was big, wolf-like, with fur of the shiniest black. People often asked if he was a half breed, specifically, a cross between a husky and a Labrador. Every morning, Blackie would walk with my grandfather as he travelled to and fro from the water-pump four houses away. Blackie would sit and watch patiently as my grandpa filled six to seven pails with water. When this was done, Blackie would accompany my grandpa as he brought the pails home. The two of them did this every single day, until Blackie was hit by a speeding car. It was raining then, and grandpa, wearing his yellow raincoat and black rubber boots, carried Blackie to our house. I was watching from the front door, holding an umbrella. Grandpa laid Blackie on the foot of the mango tree at the center of the yard. The dog was still alive, but his hind legs were badly injured. They were angled abnormally, and the liquid giving his fur the odd, sticky look could only be blood. Grandpa stood there for a while. He stood still, staring at the dog that was about to expire. Blackie was staring back, his dark eyes silently communicating. The rain wasn’t showing any signs of stopping soon. Without a word, grandpa left. I ran to Blackie and held up my umbrella to him. Then, I was too young to understand the nature of death. Unmindful of the rain drops falling on my back, I remained by Blackie’s side, shielding him. My hand repeatedly smoothed through his damp fur, consoling him that everything was going to be okay, and that it would only be a matter of time before he can walk again. My grandpa returned shortly, holding a rusting shovel and a black garbage bag. Grandpa’s hands were soiled and he smelled of freshly dug earth. He handed me the garbage bag and told me to hold it wide open. Pinning the umbrella between my head and shoulders, I did as I was instructed and held the bag wide open, albeit with some discomfort. Without a word, grandpa carried Blackie’s limp body and threw it into the bag. The young me was too shocked that all I could do was watch, maybe even with my mouth hanging open. He closed the bag with a tight knot and then carried it out of the property. A hole which served as Blackie’s grave had been dug out at the vacant lot next door.
Every time I would ask my grandpa if he still remembers that day Blackie died, how strong the rain was and the exact spot where the dog was buried, he would always shake his head in reply. “Was that how it happened?” he would ask, which he would follow with “…I don’t really remember,” while staring blankly ahead. This reply would irritate me. It made me doubt my own memories. Since it happened so many years ago, it is possible that it was just some made-up child’s fantasy. But two things are sure – that we once had a black dog, and that that dog is now dead.
Tito’s death remains to be like a dream to me. The thought of seeing his face, bloated and stiff inside the glass casket, seems like a horrible, horrible nightmare that is the cause of so many sleepless nights. One I would never want to see again.
My family has seen many deaths, but Tito Jonjon’s is the first in my immediate family. Tito Jonjon was my mother’s younger brother; he was the third child in a brood of four. The impact of his death was so great that whenever we had a gathering, the mere mention of his name is enough to reduce us all into an uncomfortable silence. No one wants to talk about him, because talking about him is painful. At the same time, everyone wants to talk about him because we miss him.
In the case of Blackie, until this very day, I will never understand why my grandpa refuses to talk about that incident in the same way he refuses to talk about Tito Jonjon’s passing. Does he really not remember anything about it? Or was it just a painful memory as well? One he refuses to remember? Did it truly happen or was it just a child’s made up fantasy? Was I just spending too much attention to a simple thing such as the death of a pet? Perhaps. Or maybe, things just affect different people differently.
Three: Dive into the Deep
The third stage of sleep is the beginning of deep sleep. We no longer react to any outer, environmental stimuli. Getting up is harder to do; it’s like being weighed down the bed by a hundred-ton anchor. On the EEG, this phase would be recorded as small and fast waves, like the beating of a heart close to arrest.
People have a very limited understanding of depression. Usually, someone who claims to be suffering from depression is just lonely. Moments of melancholy following a particularly sad circumstance, like failure or the death of a loved one, cannot be characterized as depression. If it can, then, I should’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression many years ago. Two of the things I love to do in excess are symptoms of clinical depression – sleeping and eating. Yet, I’m not the girl walking aimlessly on the streets, with a gaunt face and the will to die in the most horrible way possible (although I do enjoy the macabre and grotesque, especially when done tastefully).
Unlike the death of a pet, the sadness that comes after the death of a loved one is incapacitating. When Tito Jonjon died, we had to wait for a full month before we were able to hold his wake. Before his death, he had been working as a foreman in Riyadh for around seven months. My father works as a civil engineer there, and when they started recruiting laborers for this new mall that they were about to construct, my father gave Tito Jonjon a call. In two months, we dropped him off at the airport and bid him farewell. He died while he was on his way to the hospital. Turns out, he had been experiencing chest pains for a week, it was due to the advice of his roommate that he finally decided to go for a check-up. Poor tito, collapsing just a few feet away from the hospital door. It’s hard to imagine how he must have been treated by the people around him. A foreigner dressed in ripped jeans and a plain white shirt, with a towel wrapped around his head to protect himself from the desert heat, and sunglasses to shield against the desert sand. He must’ve have looked quite strange, with fair skin that not even the sun could burn, walking amidst a crowd of black-veiled women and men in their red and white checked gutras.
I love my tito. I loved him very much. Growing up with Jackie, a cousin who was my age, we would spend afternoons running around the neighborhood street, getting bruised knees and dirty necks. When the both of us strayed too far from our block, it was Tito Jonjon who came to find us. Christmas and New Year’s eve celebrations would be a riot, with him showing off his groovy dance moves while smelling strongly of smoke and beer. He was a drinker and heavy smoker, often finishing half-a-pack in just one sitting. As a drinker, he would guzzle down beer the same way an exhausted jogger would guzzle down water. It was he who gave me and my same-aged cousin our first taste of alcohol, and of smoking.
The memory is still so clear to me. It was dark. The sun had just set and only a few of its rays were left, casting a shadow behind the clouds and painting the horizon a dark orange. Grandmother had already called us in since the rest of the neighborhood kids had returned to their homes as well. Being (naughty) children, me and my cousin decided we could still have a few rounds of hide-and-seek before going home for dinner. Tito Jonjon was sitting from across the street, smoking his cigarette – its red embers the only thing visible as it fell to the ground with every flick of his hand.
“Gabi na, pumasok na kayo,” he said that day. We paid him no mind and continued to play. “Pag tapos ko nito, pumasok na kayo.” We grumbled a reply, promising him that we would stop playing once he finished.
The sun was completely gone, and the mosquitos had started to nibble at our skins. Still not wanting to enter, me and Jackie decided to hang by Tito Jonjon. He was annoyed at first, forcing the two of us to go in, eventually giving up when we remained strong to our resolve.
“Is that delicious ba?” Jackie asked, pointing at the half-inched cigarette stick tito was holding.
“Gusto mo i-try? O.” He handed her the smoke, and my cousin, foolish as she was then, took it and took a hit.
“Blech!!” She sputtered and coughed, before handing the cigarette to me. Foolish as I was, I took it as well. Being children without any idea of how to properly smoke, we didn’t exhale the smoke out. We breathed it in, until our lungs felt like being stabbed. After nearly falling to the ground trying to get the tightness in our chests out, we went home crying and telling our grandmother how tito was a very, very bad man. Behind us, tito lost his breath as well, laughing at us. That night, we both fell with a fever. That day, we both swore to never, ever touch a cigarette again.
Fourth phase is marked by deep sleep. We start to dream. Things that occur during this stage include bed wetting, and sleep walking. Night terrors, episodes where the sleeper experiences an intense feeling of dread commonly experienced by children, are also experienced during this stage. Rousing someone during this stage can be difficult.
His was the first real death of a beloved I have experienced, and frankly, it was unexpected to the point of being shocking. Since Blackie died, I always thought that if there was someone in my family who would kick the bucket soon, it would be one of my grandparents. Because obviously, the older you are, the more likely you are to die ahead. Both of my grandparents are well and healthily moving on to their ninetieth year. My grandpa is still as strong as he was thirty years ago, his mind still as quick. My grandma isn’t as big as she was twenty years ago, nor as strict, but for someone in their mid-eighties, walking up and down the stairs without having to stop for a five minute rest at each step, is a remarkable feat.
Tito Jonjon was forty-seven when he succumbed to the Fates scissors. No one was there to plead for him, he wasn’t even able to plead for himself.
It’s all a joke. He isn’t really dead. He just tagged me in one of his selfies on Facebook yesterday. He even commented on how he had such beautiful nieces. He can’t be dead. No one dies away from the people they loved. No one dies alone. No one deserves to die alone. For several weeks, this was all I could think about. Until there was a body to mourn for, I refused to believe it. It wasn’t true that his body lay frozen in some morgue, in some hospital in Riyadh. It wasn’t true that in a month’s time, we would be holding a wake. It wasn’t true that my tito, our beloved tito, was dead.
A month passed. The body arrived. It was six in the evening. The traffic on the way to the airport was heavy. Cars barely moved. The rain that fogged the windows wasn’t helpful. No one in the packed SUV talked. There was no sound besides the engine. Now and then, my grandmother would ask my older cousin, Ate Jill, if the body had arrived, or if the two men from the funeral parlor were there. Ate Jill would always reply with a “No.” My grandmother seemed dazed, sometimes forgetting where we were headed, even forgetting that Tito Jonjon left the country. “Nako naman mommy, pati ba naman anak mo nakalimutan mo?” grandfather said in a loud voice. He had enough.
Seven wooden caskets were scheduled to arrive that day. The downpour was now reduced to a mere drizzle. Beside us, a woman was being held up by her son. She was sobbing uncontrollably it wouldn’t be a surprise if she fainted on the spot.
“Stand by owa,” Ate Jill instructed me and Jackie as we watched the sobbing woman limp towards a casket that had just arrived, her son trying his best to keep her from falling.
The casket finally arrived. Tito Jonjon was placed inside a mahogany box, stacked with two others. The caskets were wheeled in on a trolley, treated more like shipment than human bodies. Without a second thought, grandmother and tito’s wife, rushed towards the wooden box, wailing like Trojan women.
It was like a scene from a movie: rain falling slowly, dampening our clothes and our spirits; people walking by, unaware of the screams of our agonizing hearts; two women, an old one and a young one, crying over a wooden box; two men, waiting to bring the body to prepare it for its final resting place.
My last memory of my Tito Jonjon is of him lying on a gurney, stripped naked except for his underwear. Plastic tubes were all over him, sucking out the remaining fluids from him. The mortician asked my grandmother for the clothes Tito Jonjon was to wear. She asked when he needed it. He said before tomorrow ends. She nodded, thanked him graciously, and without another word, turned to leave. We all followed.
That night, the reality finally sunk in. For the first time, after a long time, my eyes felt warm. My chest tightened. I blinked. I cried.
Five: Dreaming With Eyes Half-Open
Sleeping is healing. It makes you feel better. After a long, hard day takes its toll on your mind, body, and heart, the next thing you would look forward to after a cold bath is a long and comfortable sleep. A friend once told me that a dreamless sleep is the best kind of sleep. According to him, a dreamless sleep means that the brain is at a state of rest, along with the rest of the body. According to research, a dreamless sleep is impossible, because everybody dreams. It’s just, not everyone can remember their dreams. The reason why I love sleeping is because I love dreaming. Unlike sleep which can only be done with eyes closed, dreaming can be done while wide awake. Daydreaming has become a pastime, a hobby. Not a day goes by without me spending at least a minute daydreaming.
The fifth stage of the sleep cycle is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM is where the eyes start to move rapidly in different directions. This is where all the dreaming and the rejuvenation occur due to intense brain activity. Muscles are paralyzed completely, gross movement is unlikely but inside our heads, our brains are quite busy directing a movie that we can enjoy (sometimes hate) while we sleep. The REM stage is often called the paradoxical sleep because of this reason – intense brain activity, complete muscle paralysis.
Sleeping is healing. It is my coping mechanism, my drug, my anesthesia. It’s been two years since tito died, but my mind still provides me a picture of his smiling face. Emotional wounds that each failure life has thrown my way were remedied by a good night’s sleep. Forgotten memories caused by the more stressful aspects of living make their way back to me through dreams. Sleep reminds me of running through the streets barefoot, catching dragonflies, picking butterfly cocoons from the hibiscus tree, and sipping the nectar of yellow santans… memories that would have otherwise escaped my cluttered mind. Dreams give me the chance to smile again, after a long day of having to live through the harsh realities of the world. Sleep makes me forget about these realities, and sleep offers me a reprieve, and the hope that things will always be better. The things the real world can never offer, we can offer it to ourselves through our dreams. The saddest thing about tito’s untimely death is that, he can no longer dream. He can no longer reach for them.
Tito Jonjon had a vision. He wanted to give his family the best life, be a stronger pillar under that already crumbling roof above their heads. Going to Riyadh offered him the best opportunity to fulfill that dream. Along with that job offer came the promises of better provisions, of no longer relying on family pity, of providing his own children with their own clothes, with his own money. With that job, he saw putting his youngest through college, buying his wife the jewels she desired, and giving his parents a treat or two. For a man who had been dependent on the help of the people around him for so long, this was a dream come true. An emancipation from helplessness, a myoclonic jerk from its paralysis. That wide smile, with his eyes twinkling, will be the most beautiful smile for me. Too bad that I would never get to see it again.
If there is anything else that my heart is dying to say, it’s about my anger for my tito. My anger about how he could just leave his family, leave everybody like this. How he could so easily succumb to cardiac arrest, without even giving a fight. How he could surrender to Death’s promise of ending all suffering. How, instead of just sleeping it all off for a night, he chose to sleep it all off. Forever.
Six: Waking Up
The hardest part about sleeping is waking up, especially when it has to be done early in the morning. When we received that phone call, the day was just beginning. Mother wasn’t even done frying eggs and toasting bread yet. The kettle’s bottom had barely warmed up. Even the room was still filled with traces of the air-conditioner, turned off almost an hour ago. Sweat from being wrapped like a burrito inside a woolen blanket for too long hasn’t even formed yet. On normal days, not even my mother’s angry voice, or the radio on full blast would wake me. But that phone call did. Like a splash of ice cold water on my face, awaking my whole being with a jolt. Yes, the hardest part of sleeping is waking up. And in this case, the hardest part is waking up from the bad dream of a beloved’s passing.
Death is normal. We see it, hear about it, every day. Yet, Death will always be that uninvited guest everyone would hate to see, but know that despite of that, Death must always be let in once Death knocks at our doors with that infamous scythe. Later on, every one of us would be forced to traverse that trail of sadness Death would lay before us, after taking the people we love. But, as all roads, that path would eventually end, and all we have to do is travel on, no matter how long it takes for us to end the journey. Meanwhile, when our feet gets too sore, and our chests get too tight, sleep will always be there to offer us the respite, the energy, to continue our way towards the path of healing.
Tito – uncle
Maya – Eurasian tree sparrow
Santan – Jungle geranium