by Selina Irene Ocampo Ablaza
“You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?”
– Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”
My cousin was supposed to get married last Saturday. After a year of fretting over preparations, Kuya and his fiancée emailed their guests that the wedding was postponed due to the lockdown. They haven’t chosen a new date yet, which is probably for the best, it feels rather inappropriate to make future plans at this point, we have enough to worry about now, but to quote the email: The comeback is stronger than the setback.
That’s a nice thought. Meanwhile, my other cousin safely gave birth to a baby girl last Sunday, after a couple of false alarms, two mandatory swab tests, and nearly 24 hours alone in the hospital. It was her first Mother’s Day. It was the family’s biggest sigh of relief. The baby’s name is Olivia. We call her Oli.
I thought the feeling of worry would dissipate after the baby’s safe delivery, but it hasn’t. I still feel so heavy. Of course, I was worried about my cousin, but the worry I felt over the past few weeks was greater than it was supposed to be. It felt disproportionate. I realized that what I was feeling was the compounded worry of the whole family. It was the worry of Ate who heard another mom-to-be shouting in pain in the room next to her. It was the worry of my cousin closest to Ate who lives alone in Geneva and never replies, but now video-calls every few days. It was the worry of my mom that makes us pray the rosary every night. I feel their worry. Worry spreads through osmosis, it seeps into things and takes up space, it’s cumulative. The worries of others end up tangled with your own, to the point that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. That’s probably why it feels so heavy.
That’s been the most prevalent feeling this quarantine: this compounding of worry. For the past three months, we’ve all been accumulating worry. It feels like constant addition, or rather, absorption. American novelist and essay writer Leslie Jamison describes empathy like this: “We care because we are porous. The feelings of others matter, they are like matter: they carry weight, exert gravitational pull.” We worry because we care. We care because we are porous, and right now, there’s so much worry to absorb. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to burst. Now that the baby’s born, I thought I’d have one big worry that I could let go of, but after the brief sigh of relief, everything else came flooding back in, eager to fill the space: I worry that I’m not worrying enough, there are people dying, begging for help from a government that only pretends to care. I worry that I’m worrying too much. I worry that I want to quit. I worry that I don’t. I worry that I don’t care enough. I worry that this quarantine will end. I worry that we will still be unkind to each other then.
Maybe I’m just tired, it’s been weeks and weeks. Maybe I just used the story about my cousin to earn your sympathy, to make me sound less selfish. Maybe I’m not as selfish as I think I am. Maybe I want to hear that from someone else. Maybe what I really want is someone to be really good at guessing how I feel, though I know how unreasonable of an expectation that is. Maybe I want someone to take my side for once. Maybe I want to ask for help. Maybe I just want to be gentler with myself.
I worked for two years in the corporate communications and public affairs department of a utility company before I went to graduate school. My job required being at the forefront of crises during calamities: first-hand info from inter-agency Viber chats, preparing for presscon after presscon, learning engineering on the fly to prepare talking points for the media. Work got exciting when there was an emergency.
The worries then were different. By different, I mean well-defined. They added up too, but there were protocols meant to contain them, a checklist of items to cross out one by one. First, draft an initial press statement: The earthquake damaged facilities in the generation, transmission, and distribution sectors. Affected areas are experiencing power interruptions. Send to media contacts. Second, if necessary, plan a press conference. Prepare talking points. Put out little fires before your boss finds out. Third, send regular updates, reassure the people: Power will be restored once operations in all three are back on track. 24/7 restoration efforts are underway, replacement equipment is being transported as we speak.
I miss my job. I still grapple with the worry and creeping sense of dread that I made a mistake leaving it. It was difficult, but it was comfortable. The health insurance was a blessing especially for my parents. They never hesitated to go to the doctor during that time, which was a relief. It would be great to have that now. When my boss asked if I was willing to work for her again back in June, I said yes with no hesitation, despite an already busy schedule. It was a good decision. I managed to slip back into a familiar routine, a splintered version of a time when everything I worried about was tangible, and I could mostly keep things to myself.
I was in Ormoc with my boss days after the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that hit Leyte in 2017. Several areas in the Visayas were experiencing power outages due to the massive damage to different energy facilities. The trip was so sudden, I only found out that I was getting on a 6AM flight at almost midnight the night before. It was my first time on a charter flight. There were only seven passenger seats on the plane: me, my boss, two other bosses from the company, and four media personnel. It was non-stop work that day. I don’t recall the details now, but we went to City Hall to update the local government, held a press briefing for the media, and attended the president’s presscon at the airport.
That evening, we rode a FastCat—which I learned on that day, was a kind of small ferry—from Ormoc to Cebu. Due to the president’s presscon, flights were restricted for 24 hours, so we needed to go to Cebu to take a plane back to Manila—it was one of the longest days of my life. As we departed from the dock, one of the engineers we were with told the reporters to look out the window. The post-earthquake restoration efforts were successful. The power was back, and we watched as the lights came back on, little by little. I knew our work was over for the day, there’s a lightness to that feeling. I don’t think there’s going to be a moment like that any time soon.
Seven months ago, my six-year old niece Andie broke her arm. My family decided to schedule a small lunch at my uncle’s house to cheer her up. Her mom sent us a message warning us not to mention the injury when we saw it. She sent us a photo from the hospital. I was really worried. Andie didn’t want to talk about it.
Andie hid her cast under a big Minnie Mouse sweater, but it was still really obvious, one sleeve was a lot bigger than the other. No one brought it up. Andie and I have always been close, I’m her ninang after all. We were sitting on the couch, and she suddenly got really quiet. She rolled up her sleeve and showed me the cast, which she said was the worst part of having a broken bone. She said it was itchy and that she just wanted to remove it already, but the doctor said she had to keep it on for a while. I made the mistake of telling her that she’ll be more careful in the future. She frowned and said, “But I didn’t do anything!” And she was right, her older sister told me that the injury was caused by a bad fall while they were walking their dog. The dog suddenly made a sharp turn, causing Andie to fall. It wasn’t her fault.
I teared up. I had no idea how to explain to a six-year old that sometimes bad things just happen. Worse, they have a tendency of compounding. The world is often unkind. I hugged Andie and told her that she’s my bravest girl. She was about to start first grade in a new school soon. I think she was worried that her new classmates would see the cast even through their computer screens. Weeks later, she’d tell me that school was okay, but she didn’t know how to make friends.
I sent a photo of me and Andie to my friends that day. All my friends know Andie, they watched her grow up through my stories. Perhaps the only way to deal with the heaviness of worry is to see it as something fluid, as if we carry it in our hands and allow it to flow through the gaps between our fingers. The worry remains, but we shouldn’t grip it so tightly that we strain ourselves with its weight.
Worry is communal, an extension of empathy, a necessary consequence of care. I tell my friends I’m worried about my niece. I know there are bigger things to worry about, but I worry about her, her fractured arm, and how much it’s weighing on her. They worry about me, so they worry about her too. I’m grateful for this sharing of worry, this mutual absorption, this intimacy from a distance with the people I talk to every day. I suspect the lack of physical closeness makes us more honest and more open, as an attempt to approximate proximity, to emulate care without its usual gestures. We care because we are porous. But it can’t all be accumulation, there has to be a release.
My cousin was supposed to get married last year. The wedding was today. I was a reader for the mass. I read the quintessential “love is patient, love is kind” epistle of St. Paul. It wasn’t the wedding that the couple wanted, but it pushed through, and perhaps that is the comeback in itself. It was a sigh of relief, at least, and that’s not nothing.
I’ve always thought the after sounded fictional at most especially at the start of the lockdown. The fact that something had pushed through, albeit on a smaller scale, felt like some kind of proof that the world isn’t ending. There will be an after after all, and that’s a new worry to deal with—the choices we’ll have to make then and the worry that will accumulate all over again.
Kuya and his wife are moving in together. Kuya won’t be my next-door neighbor anymore. Baby Oli’s turning one in May. Her mom sent us a photo of her standing up, holding the railing of her crib. Soon, she’ll be walking on her own. I have a new part-time job with another office. Andie’s almost done with a year of school online. She told me she’s made one friend. I still talk to the same group of friends every day. We talk about how much we’d love to see each other in person in a post-pandemic world.
A recently married friend who lives abroad wrote to me that the current circumstances made her realize that what she wanted was “something (or someone) to lean on when stability is hard to find.” She hopes that I find myself content with my choices too. I suppose there’s no perfect solution to dealing with the worry that continues to pile up and accumulate, but perhaps the closest solution we have is each other.