by Gaia Michelle Faigal Benjamin
The smell of feces stuck to Fel’s fingers. She doused her hands in soap and alcohol, yet the putrid odor clung to her nails like nail polish. Fel knew she was overreacting. The smell was long gone, but the sulfur-stench and slime texture festered in her brain and trickled down her spine. Nurses and caretakers did it all the time. Why couldn’t she? But Fel is not as selfless.
Fel rushed to lift the frail 98-year-old—the plastic gray commode chair was just inches away— but it was too late. By the time Fel had noticed Ima’s soft whimpers, the mess had already oozed out and dribbled down Ima’s skeleton-legs in clumps.
Ate June would’ve been faster. Fel missed the caregiver. For four years Ate June took care of Ima. She was there when Ima ate, when Ima slept, when Ima screamed. When she left she had tears in her eyes. Her husband caught the virus, but no hospital could take him. They were all full. Ate June said she’d miss Ima. Lies, Fel thought. Before she left, Fel made sure to check her clothes and the inner pockets of her bright pink-green duffle bags. Fel loved Ate June, but Ima didn’t. Ima found all sorts of ways to torture the caregiver. Cellphones, jewelry, water bottles— all somehow made their way into her bags, and all curiously when she was out. Thief, Ima would scream, but her stealthy games were not discreet. Once, Ima took Fel’s phone from the table as she studied. Fel pretended not to notice as she watched Ima shuffle away, her fluffy pink slippers squeaking as she stepped. Fel wished she stopped her then, as poor Ima nearly fell when the pomodoro timer ended in a blaring siren and the phone returned with a new crack that went diagonally across. Ima couldn’t walk anymore (a bad fall in the bathroom dislocated her hip), but Fel needed to make sure. Ima’s games escalated when she stopped walking. Six times, Ima screamed murderer. The last time, Ate June cried as she held Ima’s daily meds and lukewarm water.
Years before, Ima called Fel iha. She gave chase when Fel ran naked around the house. She taught Fel to sew and cook caldereta. Today Ima yelped as Fel changed her clothes and threw food on the ground. “ ‘Di masarap.” Not good. The words came out like a whisper. The sauteed vegetable mush that was ginataang gulay seeped into the carpet, leaving a muddy yellow stain. Ima could not shout anymore; her own lungs probably grew tired of the shrill. Fel cut the ripest mango she could find and mixed it with rice and sugar. That, apparently, was good enough.
“Elena?” Ima didn’t recognize her most of the time, but sometimes (rarer now), Ima saw someone else.
“No po Ima. Felicia. My name is Felicia. Your apo, your granddaughter.”
“Wala na po, Ima.” Elena was gone. Only Felicia remained.
“Ah.” But Ima didn’t understand.
Ima’s hands were tiny in the hot pink pail as she washed her hands in the soapy water. Ima never used utensils. Pieces of rice or mango fell as her hands shook. Ima didn’t want help, but every day more and more little specks dropped on Fel’s old Kim Possible t-shirt, now just a meager rag on Ima’s skeleton lap.
Ate June’s husband died. He never got a bed or treatment. Fel’s father called who he could and gave as much as they needed, but it wasn’t enough. Meanwhile, celebrities and government officials got tests, beds, and vaccines in a camera flash. A part of Fel was glad her mother died when she did, just two months before the virus came.
There were no “I love yous” or “goodbyes” when Elena died. Four long years she fought. Back and forth, the cycle of home-pain-hospital-chemo-home-pain-hospital-chemo brought false hope. The cycle needed to end. The last hug before the hospital lingered longer than usual. Elena’s arms—so much colder then, weighed like feathers on Fel’s shoulders. Without a word, Fel knew she would not return. “Take care of Ima.” It was barely a whisper, but the words clutched at Fel’s heart like a baby’s hand. Elena stopped being coherent after that.
Fel and her dad stood, one on each side of Elena’s hospital bed. In the days before her death, Elena kept trying to stand. She pulled on her tubes and called out for itay. She did not look for Fel, her husband, or any of her siblings. She looked for itay. Every utterance of the word stabbed Fel. It boiled her blood as the word mixed with emotions she did not want to exist. Envy. Disappointment. Loneliness. Guilt. Itay died of lung cancer when Elena was 13. She didn’t talk about him much, but twice a year she played Dance With My Father on repeat.
Fel didn’t see the moment her mother died. She could not stomach the convulsions. The movies lied. There were no last words. No clarity. No closing of eyes or drifting into a peaceful, eternal sleep. Just pain, then release.
Ate June’s husband, unlike Fel’s mother, would have no ceremony. No vigil. No procession. Just pain, but no release.
Tito Benny called. He needed money. Elena sent half her living siblings money every month. Elena was the youngest of thirteen children and the first to finish college, supported by scholarships and her older siblings. For a time, she was the center of their world. Some of her siblings clamored for repayment, but Tito Benny was never one of them. His food stall business was booming, his children graduated college and had their own jobs, but the lockdown killed that business and now there are no jobs.
Ima doesn’t remember Tito Benny. When Fel asked about any of Ima’s children, only two stayed in Ima’s memory. Fel never met Tito Cisco, but Ima still sang him lullabies and asked him to shush while she dreamed of choking mud and the nearby squelch of Japanese boots.
Ima often struggled to understand new things. Smartphones, computers, and even microwaves left Ima suspicious and glassy eyed— but she did not struggle with the lockdown. The Japanese soldiers weren’t as forgiving as the barangay tanods outside.
Tomorrow is Ima’s birthday, her second while in lockdown.
“Ima what would you like tomorrow?” Fel asked, but Ima was in in her own world of prayer. Every day since her last birthday, her prayer had been the same.
“Panginoon, kuhanin niyo na po ako. Hindi ko na po kaya.” Lord, please take me. I can’t take it anymore. Prayer was the only time Ima spoke in full sentences. Fel prayed with her, droning empty words to a God she didn’t believe in anymore.
Fel’s father brought a cake— mango, Ima’s favorite. When Fel was younger, he ate at different times just to avoid Ima. Their mutual hatred instantly spoiled any food. Last year it had been just Fel, but today he held the phone camera and filmed as Fel sang ‘happy birthday’. Fel propped her phone against the sweating pitcher and set up a video call with Ima’s children. Less than half now were still alive. Heart attacks, cancer, accidents, shootings —but no one mentioned any of that. No one mentioned Elena or the virus that threatened to destroy their lives. Today, Ima was all that mattered. The screen was a mess of liver spots and foreheads. “Kamusta kayo Ima?” Ima, how are you? Ima was “Ima” to everyone. Ima didn’t respond, but she smiled at the noise. Tito Benny was the loudest. The table vibrated as he shout-sang an old kundiman. The notes jumped in unnatural intervals while the tinny guitar reverberated and bounced in Fel’s chest. Ima didn’t seem to mind. Her eyes disappeared into her wrinkles as she showed off her yellow set of part-teeth, part-gum.
Later, Ima was silent as Fel bathed her and changed her clothes.
“Elena?” The 99-year-old muttered as Fel gently placed her on the bed. Ima’s skeleton-frame was as light as Fel’s backpack.
“No Ima. Felicia,” Fel said as she lied next to Ima on the thin mattress.
Fel allowed herself to weep.