We lost Ate Elaine when she was thirteen years old. She was a blue baby. The doctors said she had a tiny, needle-prick-sized hole in the valve of her heart. Our parents told us later on, in stories during her wake, that the doctor gave her nine years to live. At that time, the medical procedure for the congenital heart condition gave the patient only a 50% chance of survival, at best. My parents did not want her to suffer through the open heart surgery with very little assurance of success. (Nowadays, my siblings tell me that the present technology allows the patient, easily, to live a long and normal life, post- surgery; it came twenty years late).
Ate Elaine’s favorite song, a number she had heard many times in church, was “I believe”, or “I believe… for every drop… of rain that falls…”. For those who are not familiar with the song, it is embedded here; a youtube video also follows the soundcloud pod; click the pod to stop the autoplay)
When she sang it, she put her palms together in a perfect prayer pose and gazed steadily at the space in front of her, she did not move her head or eyes during the rendition, and slowly sang all the lyrics from memory; and then burst into a big smile after the applause around her. She would sing it at the drop of a hat, anytime, anywhere, standing on our wooden tablả floor in the house, or on a stage in front of an audience.
Ate Elaine, my parents often told us, was the only one who rushed out the door to meet them everytime they got home from work or the market, and would shout “Mommy, mommy” “Daddy, daddy”, and gave hugs for a bar of Hershey’s, or Serg’s or Goya chocolate. She was the easiest to laugh and to please; the gentlest, and the least quarrelsome of the siblings. The only time she “scolded” me was when I fended off children who were milling around her.
She wasn’t allowed to run or to play in the streets without supervision because of her heart condition, but this did not stop her from joining a modified version of Chinese garter, pikὁ (“step-no”), and hide-and-seek, always within a two-block radius of my parents eyesight.
When i was four, and Teng was three, Kuya Junior and I headed our contingent of four children (Myra was a baby) and we broke out of the house, into the streets to play and throw rocks at the carabaos that were regularly brought to pasture in the lot in front of the house. We were expressly prohibited from doing this, we were required to sleep in the afternoons to grow tall. Our parents bolted the door and Mommy slept on a mat at the foot of the bed so we could not get out of the bed without stepping on her. We simply tiptoed quietly, got down the stairs, and stood on a small chair to reach the bolt of the door. We brought Ate Elaine, who was seven, with us. Like a band of prisoners, we were not going to leave her behind.
After hurling rocks at the carabaos, we ran out into the streets to see where they would go. In a minute, I looked behind us and saw the neighbor’s big dog, Judy, she was running toward us ferociously, and we shouted “si Judy, nauulol na” (“Judy had gone mad”), and Kuya Junior shouted, “may rabies yan” (“she has rabies”). We raced up the road, ran for our lives, and dragged Ate Elaine, then made a turn in the vacant lot full of talahib grass, where the carabaos had grazed, we dragged Teng so hard that he tripped on the talahib and had scrapes and abrasions, but we had to get out of there and reach home.
Mommy was furious. Ate Elaine’s skin color had turned violet. That was the only time I had seen her that angry –- the first and the last. She took a blanket , twirled it into a rope, wound it around us to squeeze us, and made us promise not to do this again. It wasn’t physically painful but we cried so hard because she was very angry. When I became an adult and reviewed this in my head, I realized she was probably… both angry and frightened because something untoward could have happened to Ate Elaine then.
But Ate Elaine never squealed on us, or blamed us, she never fought back, she won over.
We moved into a bungalow five years later, and it was three blocks from the church. That night, she and cousin Manang Linda were playing sungka. Ate Elaine could play anyone a mean game of sungka. Manang Linda was watching TV simultaneously, so, when she was not looking, Ate Elaine would scoop up all the shells and pebbles of all the houses and put them in her house (of course, Manang Linda knew and just laughed and let her); that night, she won all the rounds and her house was full.
The next morning, Manang Linda, Manang Nenette, Myra, and I went to early Sunday mass. Myra and I offered flowers at the foot of the statue of the blue Virgin Mary in front and at that moment i had two seconds of sudden throbbing in the heart. When we got home, Mommy was rushing out with tears streaming on her face, and said Ate Elaine had died. She was already in the hospital, Mommy came back to get documents and Ate Elaine’s Sunday frocks, she died from a blood clot that usually resulted from an irregular heart beat caused by her heart condition. Auntie Francing later in the day went to the stores and got her a white satin and lace dress for the wake and funeral.
Ate Elaine was the eldest.
My parents eloped because Mommy said her relatives wanted to marry her off with a provincemate, so she and my father eloped and they settled here in Manila. And so… you could say that Ate Elaine paved the way for the rest of us siblings. All along, we thought she needed protection but from the very beginning, even before birth, she had laid the bricks for the road we would take later on.