“Only you know what this means.”
The manggagamot, a young Masbatena in her early 30s, gave me a sinister look and pointed to what looked like an umbilical cord, which extended from the object formed out of melting the candle. I looked at my parents, perplexed and ashamed for no clear reason. What of all my secrets could match the faith healer’s interpretation of the thing: an angel, she said, but which also resembled a praying fetus?
I was already feeling uneasy. The manggagamot was, of course, insinuating that my deepest secret was a child of my own, and my parents and everyone else who heard her could have been thinking of this, too. Liberal as they may be as parents, ‘Ma and ‘Pa are also superstitious, and for them, there was no way the tawas could lie.
Would telling them the truth — that I am an agnostic 20-year-old virgin who professes faith in socialism — be more shameful than what they were thinking?
To unearth whatever secret was not the original reason we were in that place, a cramped and dilapidated two-storey house whose interior did not resemble any of a typical albularyo’s place except for its altar, which was even less sophisticated than the one we had at our home. The initial plan — which was only a side-trip of our short three-day visit to my dying grandmother — was to consult my mom’s persistently aching right arm. Her condition, of course, had nothing to do with her faith but with years of washing our clothes, cooking our food, and working hard for the family.
I went with my parents, anyway, but it was mainly to amuse myself with the possible explanations the albularyo could come up with for my hangover from the night before, all through her pagtatawas.
The pagtatawas and similar rituals may be as old as the albularyo or manggagamot folk, who have been in existence even before the Church waged a war — ideological on one front, physical and violent on the other — against the babaylan, the female or effeminate male spiritual guides who also served as doctors of pre-hispanic communities.
Three centuries hence, a young albularyo in her pink sando tried to combine both Catholicism and animism to fill my parents’ dissatisfaction with the wonders of modern medicine.
Both raised in far-flung rural communities, my parents have a penchant for faith-healing. When I was eight, Mama welcomed home Lola Lita, an old manggagamot whose grandmother-like instinct we adored, so much so that we allowed her to live with us for the next two years. We let her set up her altar, laden with all the sophistry of occult medicine, dark liquid bottles, a powerful San Benito crucifix, and a black banga for donations. In our sala we entertained guests who were sick and were desperate for the healing she performed before a “growing” Sto. Nino, which was the only thing she left when she finally hid from the people she had swindled.
And so I must know we were only being fooled by the young manggagamot, whose blandness of “performance” — when fared against that of Lola Lita — truly disappointed me. Nevertheless, my parents believed her wholeheartedly.
Without even asking what she was being consulted about in the first place, she advised my mother to offer novena and food to the latter’s deceased father and grandfather. This was how she concluded her first healing session: she murmured not a single prayer, nor did she look in our eyes. She allowed the candle to melt and form, and this was the only ritual that became the basis for the long and awkward silence that consumed us when it was my turn.
The object was in my head, the faith-healer said, or it could actually be sitting on my shoulders a la the vengeful ghost in The Shutter film so that it gave me occasional — although in truth, pretty much normal — headaches.
“My son is young, having just graduated from college,” Papa defensively told the faith-healer, whose name we did not even get all throughout the healing.
Now the burden of both claim and proof is on me, I thought. I recalled all the secrets I keep, but I would never dare tell any of them to my parents, not especially at that moment. Another customer of the faith-healer, a regular it seemed, came and witnessed my trial. I was sweating profusely.
“He could have had a younger sibling,” Mama blurted out, seeing all this time how uncomfortable I was.
“Sorry, ‘nak,” she said in great shame and regret as tears started rolling down her cheeks.
I froze. I finally understood the truth none of us asked for: it was an unplanned pregnancy two years after my birth, and four years after my sister’s, both through cesarean operations. Facing this complication, my mother, 37 at the time, was made to choose between her life and that of the unborn, following the advice of her relatives who supported her during the most crucial times of her life, and while dad was working abroad. (While there is no direct evidence linking maternal death and multiple C-section operations, the latter are found to increase the risk of maternal and natal problems.)
She — as the faith-healer supposed her gender — was about two-months-old when Mama drank a bitter liquid. ‘Ma continued sobbing as she described what happened; the size of the blood-soaked being she flushed down the toilet; how she must have looked like my Ate by now.
I am not too familiar with the debates surrounding abortion and life, and I have no idea whether what ‘Ma aborted could have qualified as “life.” Pro-life groups argue that human life is conceived the moment a sperm and an egg meet. Some otherwise argue that the debate on what defines human life in the womb is less important insofar as the life of the woman carrying the child, or entity for that matter, is concerned. All I know is that the greatest woman in my life made her choice for her own body, and it is all that matters.
“Knowing this secret, we would often look at each other, your Papa and your kuya, every time you said you wanted a younger sibling,” ‘Ma said. They hid the secret from me so as not to hurt me, I surmised. But it did not hurt me at all. What did was realizing how tormenting the experience of hiding the truth must have been for my mother.
“It’s a mortal sin,” the manggagamot quipped. I wanted to slap her, but then I realized that for centuries, it has been the project of the Church — the institution we pledged faith in — to control women’s bodies. By saying what she said, the faith-healer echoed what the faithful would probably tell my mother as well: that by doing abortion, ‘Ma deliberately “murdered” the unborn child.
The only practical thing I could do to comfort my ‘Ma was to tell her that the angel she conceived — as first described by the clueless faith-healer — has guided us all through the years and has kept us safe from harm, and that what she did was necessary and completely understandable.
As her brother, I am the child’s key to heaven, the manggagamot said, and so I must perform the salvation. Of course, this was the case because I was the subject of the quackery which accidentally led to this revelation. The faith-healer gave her prescription: nine candles for each of the required nine days of prayer for the child’s soul, after which, the fetus-shaped candle wax must be buried in a cemetery or in our backyard. I must lead the prayer, the faith-healer said, and failure to do our part would form karmic retribution on her.
The only time I felt compelled to pray was before family meal, but now I had to sustain a nine-day prayer crusade, not because I believed the faith-healer’s advice but because I must do it for my family’s peace of mind, especially my mother’s.
The young albularyo pulled out a white cellphone box, then she handed me a pen and a white paper and asked me to name my “sister.” A name — how odd that for someone who thinks the least of picturing his future family, and of planning on what to call his children, was then in charge of naming a child.
It was harder than I thought. Their eyes were all on me, expecting a good name to baptize the child with.
I grew up wanting to change my given name. In class, the first-day joke — or so it was until I grew tired of hearing it — was whether I would change the “Boy” in my name should I already be a “man.” My great dislike over my name intensified when I learned that had it not been for my aunt’s request, the name ‘Ma should have given me was “Albert Nathaniel,” in keeping with the tradition of giving her children initials starting with the letter A.
Nathalia — the name popped into my head. That was it. If I had a younger sister, I would certainly name her this, I thought. In truth, at that moment, whether or not she was already human, I also wanted to believe I could have had a younger sister. Giving her an identity reinforced the albularyo’s reading, but I also saw how happy my mother was with the name. This was a contradiction I could hardly reconcile, but I knew our individual and collective acceptance of what happened would be the path to the healing ‘Ma needed.
The manggagamot placed the paper inside the white box. It served as her coffin, and mom brought it with us upon returning to Manila. On our way to my grandmother’s home where we stayed in Dimasalang, I learned that ‘Pa told my aunt and ‘Ma to keep what happened just between the four of us.
“Why should I hide it?” ‘Ma sharply responded. And it was, for me, the true turning point of what extraordinarily transpired during that one morning — to see my mother comfortably open her story up to my relatives, to own the past she tried to hide in shame, to see her slowly heal and reveal the stronger woman that she is.