Life and Lemons

I was forced to reflect

When you study in a Jesuit school like Ateneo, they force things on you that you would otherwise not have experienced in a public, government-run school like UP (ah the liberty I enjoyed there). In Ateneo they make you think about your life, and claw up issues you work so hard to bury under layers of work emails, memos, cyber-life drama, and Kpop playlists.

But the end-product is graded, and thus, here is the result. Enjoy reading about the mess that it is my life. I truly am working on it 😀

Too Old for This.

At 25 years, I’m not supposed to be having a crisis. That cheerful experience is meant for my 50’s, when the son has met the traitorous friend that is alcohol, the daughter has started dating that boy in the ripped skinny jeans, and the husband makes less sense than my worth at work. But at 25 I’m only halfway there, and I wonder if I would even get to this more socially common crisis age.

It’s not about fear of dying, or dying young. I do not fear death per se, I realized only as I write this. Instead I fear death on a day before I’ve accomplished anything worthwhile. Not an original fear really, leaving the world with no imprint, an invisible man. Many lost men have wandered through this dark veil, the clarity of their lives obscured. But then, I wonder if I’m too young to even be bothering with such dark thoughts, or if I’m already too old to do something about them.

Mine wasn’t an extraordinarily exciting life, and the quarter-life feels so short. One vivid stream of memories that stick out is my left hand holding a pencil, a pen, and somehow always lucky enough to get for my efforts that gold star, that 90++, and then those 1.0s. I get good marks in English at school, and then on summer breaks I do not take my leave. I compile stacks of notebooks, filled with neat scribbles about people in my head, in well-imagined (at times emulated straight from Sweet Valley High and Unicorn Club pocketbooks) plots. I look back at them on the odd lazy day, and feel proud that I cringe only on the sappy love lines, and not on the grammar and composition. I would think, “not bad for 10-year old me”, tuck my notebooks in their special place in the shelves, and grin.

So I knew I was a writer. I knew that when I took journalism as an elective in high school, eventually graduating to features editor for the school paper, The Electron. I remember being allowed by my mother for a sleepover for the first time ever in my life. It was at my mentor’s house, and we were training for the inter-high school competition. I remember that long night, my ego bruised from red marks and relentless critiques on my work and the countless revisions I was forced to write. Come D-day afternoon I wrote my piece, and I remember, vividly, crying in the sink hours later after I came home a loser. But stubborn is in me, says my horoscope, and I said with set determination (albeit only to the mirror)—I can write well, that I am certain.

Fast forward ten years and here I am a bank manager (see how it all fits?). I’ve been trying to work back how I got here, and I have concluded that it all started when we all gave up on my grandfather’s dream of having me as the doctor in the family. The dream died when my sisters and I caught dengue fever, then at the first wave of its popularity. That was my first conscious encounter with the needle, and my 12-year old self was bawling like a pig to the slaughter in the ER. Not something a doctor-to-be would do.

And so we hopped on to the next noble profession, which my mother hereby decreed as accountancy. But lo, the stars and the UP Diliman quota system did not allow that dream too. So after one year and a course shift later, I found myself in a class with Professor Solita Monsod, enrolled in Business Economics. My mother then graciously said, ‘ah, yes, this will do.’

Maybe, in hindsight, we can all blame my mother.

I went through college in the same fashion I did in my academic life—always striving for the top, with a slight competitive streak, and a teeny tendency for grade-consciousness. I had a boyfriend (that counts as a social life), I led my college organization (points for extra-curriculars), and so it looked very much like a well-balanced existence. My college academic life was led by one clear visual goal painted by my parents—a power suit in an air-conditioned office, preferably in a building with elevators. My father particularly liked the part about the elevators, which I think he connected to good pay. ‘The higher the lift goes up, the higher your wage bracket’, was his theory.

Can we blame my father too, for my life as it is today?

And so to a bank I go for employment. At the branch I forgo the elevator, but after six months of tedious training (hired as a fresh graduate) I was already a bank officer. It was a feat that made both mother and father, even grandfather proud. I work with numbers, which I learned in school that I am good at too. I perform the routine the bank has ingrained in my system through months of training and a few years of experience (i.e. punishment through hard labor). I smile at clients even when they scream insults at the bank’s policies and my intellect (which are apparently interchangeable). It is as the customer service code dictates. I monitor my endless work emails, and enjoy the exercise of composing and answering them. I earn a fair amount, and can buy most things I want. But always there are days, even long months, when I come to work bearing a tiny fire of a grudge inside, unable to feel satisfaction.

And I think: I am too young for all this responsibility, all the risk I absorb as a bank officer. And the days pass, watching me grow too old to do something I actually want. I allow this state, falling trap to the routine as I often do. It is comfortable after all.

Comfort, I learned though, follows the behavior of a killer rollercoaster. Slowly it goes up, until it reaches a plateau, then goes for a vertical dive.

Maybe if life is only one aspect, one can strive to be in complete satisfaction at all times, comfortable where they are. Let a person forgo romantic love, and still be happy. Let a person have a perfect family, and so what if there is no food on the table, and no dreams to be accomplished? Let a person live only for work and succeed there, not minding that he is alone, with no care for his family.

I was eating dinner alone, home late again after a hard day’s work and a hard day’s commute. I was musing about the problems I am encountering in my new branch, hating myself for bringing my cares at work to the dinner table. My mother walked by and casually said, ‘I felt a lump in my breast yesterday. Can you schedule a leave on the 10th? That’s when the doctor will confine me for biopsy.’ And off she went. I had to call her back so I can ask for details, stumped as I was for a quick second from the news.

Two things crossed my mind then—one, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) died of breast cancer. Two, I am not allowed to cry or show weakness, not in this house.

February 10 came and together we rode a taxi to the hospital. It was a long uneasy ride. My mother is not the most communicative person. She is strict and conservative, such that she was not someone her children can run to when they get a boo-boo on their knees, or to gush about their first crushes. Not without risk of getting a scolding. My sisters and I resented her for it, until growing up we realized that is simply how she loves, dysfunctional though it might seem. And so we sat in that taxi, and I wondered out loud if my father in Saudi even knew what we were up to, to which she gave a curt, ‘yes’.

It was easily the longest eight days of my life, and I can imagine, a thousand times more so for my mother. There was a distinct feeling of helplessness being in that small private room with her, both of us staring at the ceiling, merely drifting to and from sleep that night before the operation. The only words she said to me was, ‘wake up, it’s time.’ The nurses had come in and I realized it was morning.

I walked with the entourage of nurses as they wheeled my mother in her bed to the operating room. They stopped and scurried off, and I stood next to my mother, watching her continue tracing lines in the ceiling. I dared not hold her hand. Then the surgeon was there, and the nurses were back and they shooed me away.

The operation would take an hour if the lump is benign, two if malignant. I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by old women in wheelchairs and their escorts. I stuffed my ears and let Brandon Flowers sing to me ‘The World that We Live in’, my hands gripping the iPod as the old TV showed images I could not see. My sister arrived past the first hour. She had told our youngest to go straight to school, and then she sat there with me to stare at the TV in grim silence too. After the second hour she had to leave for class. And I was alone again, the noise of the nurses and patients coming and going driving a drill in my head. Why wasn’t anyone coming to talk to me? Was there a sign-up sheet I missed? My phone was getting flooded with texts from my aunts and friends to which I did not know the answer to. Finally on the third hour I got up, bile splashing in my stomach and approached a nearby nurse (in the least agitated manner I can muster lest I strangle her), who said, ‘Oh she’s in the recovery room. Go up to your room and wait for her there.’

Suffice it to say that the agony of that following wait bore the same weight. The next time I saw my mother her left breast had been removed, and days later we were planning her chemotherapy.

Our household underwent a major reorganization of sorts after that. That was only when I realized (shame on me, the eldest daughter) that we were lazy children. It was mother who did all the cooking, the laundry, cleaning the house, and it had to take breast cancer and chemo sessions for the three of us to pick up our load. Father arrived for his vacation soon after, but then before we could settle to a routine he had to go back to work, leaving us, his girls, to our own devices.

This happening might seem incongruent to my earlier premise, my ongoing crisis of life at work and life’s purpose in general. But life—faux philosophical as this may sound—is a tangled web of the things we do every day, and what we are to the people around us.

I muse about this often when I do the laundry. There is no one to talk to when I load the washer, and the water runs too loudly to listen to music. I scrub my mother’s uniforms and I tell myself I should find a new job that pays more, so I can pay for at least her medicine; at best, so I can tell her to quit her high pressure job and find a lighter load to ease her boredom. Or maybe I should stall my graduate schooling until the household expenses feel lighter. I think about my father, who feels lonely and distant, though he knows he needs to keep working where he is for all of us. I worry about my sisters too, close though we are, if they realize the gravity of mother’s condition, and if they have dreams of their own.

And what of my own dreams? After years of struggle I felt I finally found my independence, the ability, and freedom to make my own choices and do as I please (though with my mother’s voice still echoing in my ear). But these days it feels like I’ve lost a bit of that freedom again, and I feel tied closer to my family, with both positive and negative consequences.

I find my day sliced into four now—early morning for my chores, then a huge chunk of it sold to work, then at night it’s time for homework and to indulge in the little writing I can do, in an editorial, unpaid position in a small blog. My friends, on those few occasions I find time for them, scold me for stretching myself out too thin on these different responsibilities that demand different things from me. But I tell them, I cannot be selfish and not take initiative in our house. A cancer patient must not worry, must not be tired or stressed, thus I must be the one to do the groceries, check on the chores, and to supervise my sisters who sometimes seem to be growing up backwards. I cannot be selfish and not work hard in the office, when my superiors trust me, and my staffs depend on me and I depend on my earnings. And then I cannot be completely selfless too, and not pursue my studies when I have looked forward to this for so long; this is a standing plan. And please, indulge me my harmless vices, when I, as a fan girl, write until past midnight on WordPress, on things that have no relevance to the world at large.

So maybe I only lost one kind of freedom, and with that gained new responsibilities, and a greater control of my own life and that of people around me. It all looks like a shabby mess sometimes, when I take a wider perspective and take a peek at my world. There are things out of my control, but a lot within my grasp too. I cannot control my mother’s body, but I can take care of her and her family. I cannot force our youngest to like her course, nor can I magically make my other sister pass her board exams. But I can stand as firm support, and teach them the little that I know, and play with them the games only the three of us understand.

I cannot force myself to like my job, and there is only a certain amount of success I can claim for it given my lukewarm heart. But it is my choice to stay for now, not meaning I mean to be trapped there, not meaning I will choose to be too old before I act. All things will happen in due time, it is a matter of searching and working for the right moment, and the right opportunity.

I still believe I am a writer. I still hold on to that one ringing truth in the book the Alchemist, that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” My laptop is spammed with documents I’ve been working on for years, which will someday see the light of day. My old molding notebooks rest in my shelf, to remind me.
If there is anything to learn with experiences such as this, and with a few others brewing in my memory right now, is that change is permanent and imminent. This is not a fact of life to fear, because if an unexpected change bears upon you it only means you have the power to counteract with change as well. There is no one else to blame. It’s not about feeling too old or too young, that is only an excuse to justify inaction (though I still have to keep reminding myself of that, I need mental reconditioning).

And with that epiphany in mind, I know I will not die an invisible man. In the meantime, John Mayer’s song plays in the background, the main song to the soundtrack of my life that we shall call The Quarter-life Crisis. And he, too, ‘wonder(s) sometimes/About the outcome/Of a still verdictless life.’

And I sing back, with Karaoke fervor:

‘Am I living it right? Am I living it right?
Am I living it right?
Why Georgia, why?’
Coelho, Paolo. The Alchemist. Harper Torch, 1983.
Mayer, John. Room for Squares. Columbia Records, 2001.

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