Arnel, he thought, was a name no nobler than some other people’s names. The mother had first a daughter followed by two sons each with a year interval, and settling for that found no need for another child. Shrugging it off as another blessing, the husband had trouble sleeping after the late night annunciation of his wife’s fourth pregnancy. That name was a reminder of an ill-timed birth. It neither stood for melted together names of both parents and was even less appealing compared to names as Theabelle, Christoff, and Francis. If those weren’t his siblings’ names and himself not christened Arnel he wouldn’t have had the strength to crumple the signed letter in his hand as he stood by the church’s entrance scanning for a seat.
The recommendation letter on his right hand prevented him from making the sign of the cross, or so he reasoned. San Pedro Church stood in the heart of the city; against the towering pink painted City Hall building, in contrast to the church’s gray scheme.
A priest darted across the altar, disappearing behing the purple tarpauline in which the verses read as “To you alone, O Lord, to you alone, and not to us, must glory be given because of your constant love and faithfulness” Psalm 115:1.
Two giggling teenagers walked up the aisle to sit themselves a pew before where a middle aged woman knelt. The woman raised her bowed head when the girls chuckled to themselves. Arnel went to sit at the last pew.
He thought he was there to pray, but he hadn’t even uttered a memorized prayer. He placed the crumpled sheet on his lap and ironed it with his palms. The familiar name signed at the bottomest part read Mr. Samuel Delagado. After folding it, he slipped the letter inside his pants’ right pocket and the smooth feel of the paper on his thigh reminded him of the man’s death.
He died. Thea broke this news to him on an early Sunday afternoon. His thin bespectacled sister appeared by his apartment door after a two-day teachers’ seminar here in Davao. She busied herself with the contents of his mini refrigerator. She found his three-day old apple and went to wash it at the tap. She reappeared to find him filling up bio-datas.
“Have you phoned mother?” she asked and without waiting for his reply continued, “She thought it’s best to tell you about it personally.”
Both of them were silent. She took another bite from the fruit. He wasn’t as eager to receive news from their hometown; since it was only looming anouncements about deaths in the family especially when three years ago, Francis came, teary eyed telling him, “Papa had his last attack.” He cried then and he knew that with a sister standing in front of him, that uneventful afternoon, he would be expected to cry once more.
“He hanged himself. Of all the teachers in Mabini, Mr. Delagado committed suicide,” her last sentence dropped as if it were a passing commentary.
“I heard he was sick months ago,” Arnel managed to say. There was nothing to ask except from the fact that his former Music teacher ended his life through a traditional death. He found no strength to continue answering the bio datas. He sat motionless. His sister, also a teacher from the same school where Mr. Delagado worked for many years, placed her free hand over his shoulders and said, “He was. We knew he was.”
“Come home Friday morning to attend the burial,” this invitation sounded heavy as the creaking apartment door where both of them stood facing each other. Arnel knew that she will not accept his offer to accompany her to the terminal, from where she will board a bus for Mabini. After a two-hour trip, she will drop by their hometown’s terminal, where many pedicab drivers await for passengers and their eight-peso fare. Thea who left at 3:30 PM will arrive in Mabini sometime around 5:30 PM; just in time to attend the novena for the dead at six in the evening.
She told him Mr. Delagado’s body will not be allowed at the San Gabriel Parish Church. She left him a weak smile, which reminded Arnel of how she had once smiled that time she taught him of a teacher’s day letter addressed to her brother’s favorite Music teacher.
He realized he had sat longer than he had intended. Some people he hadn’t noticed before were already leaving. The two giggly teenagers were gone and also the woman. A few minutes later, a woman whom he thought was already in her thirties, sat with him in the same pew. She wore bangles on her wrists and fancy pearl earrings, her lips were painted red. She smiled at him. The long wooden seat separated them spaces from each other, they sat on both ends.
“Has He been answering your prayers?” She casually asked, addressing no one in particular. He thought, he was the one he was talking to since she looked at him before staring straight to the altar.
“I don’t know,” He answered. There was no harm talking to strangers inside the church espacially when they were meters apart.
“I hear babies cry at night. He hasn’t forgiven me and now, I won’t have another baby,” she said this in a croaky voice. The noise of the traffic outside hadn’t drowned her words completely, making Arnel understand what she had just confided.
She stood up and left just as sudden as she had sat down beside him. He took his cellphone from his pocket and glanced at the time, it was already four in the afternoon. He rose from his seat and went out of the church. The whole extent of San Pedro Street was filled with jeepneys and multicabs, some drivers in askance motioned him for a ride, he refused them by shaking his head.
In Mabini, the Salvador family befriended the Delagados after moving in the neighborhood, Mrs. Salvador was by that time pregnant for her fourth child. The couple who lived a lot next to them, wasn’t blessed with children; they were overjoyed when the Salvadors occupied the long vacanted house. Mrs. Delagado offered the children meriendas on Saturday afternoons.
Arnel was the closest to Mr. Delagado. When time came, his sister and brothers’ left for school, Arnel would often visit their neighbor. He was fondly called “langga” by the couple.
“Why don’t you have any children?” his young eager eyes cast a curious look on the aged woman, who was at that time watering her Rosal blooms.
She patted the boy’s head saying, “Well, you can be our son,” as with her finger she touched his nose’s tip.
Behind the glass covering of the white coffin, Arnel saw that familiar face. He had aged through the years as the wrinkled forehead suggested. There were no marks on his neck, somehow to console his family of the long struggle Mr. Delagado must’ve felt as he hung at their kitchen’s ceiling. The flames of the lit candles on each end of the casket, danced as a gentle breeze swept.
Feeling a hand on his back, he turned to see the swollen eyes of the widowed wife; without any words to comfort her, Arnel hugged the pettite figure who had not once restricted him from going in and out of their life.
“You have come,” Mrs. Delagado said. Her bereaved voice choking as she sat down the nearest stool.
“He was for me a father,” These words seemed for Arnel, the hardest things to utter. Much harder than the songs he was made to sing along with the others; those practices when Mr. Delagado was in his most unpleasant mood when he coached their choral group, wherein Arnel was a member. Music, he once said, when we listen deeply tells us a story.
The way to the cemetery was long. Coconut trees lined the concrete streets of Mabini. The file of vehicles stretched on the right lane of the street. Unlike most cemeteries, the Mabini Public Cemetery ws not as jammed as those in Davao City. A month ago, Arnel bade his farewells to a close friend who died in a vehicular accident in Toril. By then, he hadn’t expected that someone much dearer to him more than anyone else, might follow thereafter. They had passed by the parish’s closed gates on their way to the cemetery. A close friend of the couple, a priest came to leave his testimony for the departed, “All we can do is pray for his soul. He was a good man.”
Mrs. Delagado’s shreik was heard as the coffin was lowered to the ground. She clasped her arms over Arnel. She was nauseted, Arnel struggled to keep her on her feet. His mother came to fan Mrs. Delagado. The people at the back strained their necks to witness the woman’s grief. They heard her say, “Pang, why did you leave me?” But the servicemen continued covering the hole they cast the coffin into.
The ceremony was brief or so Arnel thought; In fact there seemed to be no ceremony at all. They gathered at the cemetery to bury the dead, not to pray more novenas. There was no officiating priest.
After an hour, only the close relatives of the family was left and so was Arnel’s family. He sat beside her mother and sister when Mrs. Delagado came to him and handed him a sheet of paper. He stared at the woman, trying to smile despite the tears welling in her eyes.
“He told me to give you this,” She took his hands and held it tight together with the paper, “ It’s late but at least accept it.”
It was a recommendation letter. It was a printed copy. He knew he detested computers, even at least learning typing on it. A week before him leaving for Davao for college, he heard his typewriter clanking at every hard push of its keys. The machine almost as mechanical as the sound of his father’s car engine, when he left at early mornings for the office. Mr. Delagado could’ve asked someone to do it for him, sparing him confrontation with computers.
Southbound buses’ routes’ pass by Almendras gym for Ecoland Overland Terminal. Arnel, in haste to catch a Catalunan Grande bound jeepney at Pichon Street, found himself loitering on the concrete island that separates City Hall from San Pedro Church. He had gone out of the church knowing that he hadn’t started a conversation with Him, nor even acknowledged Him inside His own house. Arnel knew no words to describe what he had just came home for in Mabini and he knew no name to give it.
He overheard a lawyer once say, “Insanity is an excuse for law.” If Mrs. Delagado was too afraid to tell the people that there was something wrong with her husband especially since the incident when he blurted out, “Someone is going to kill me.” Those times when he was hysterical and only anti-depressants prescribed by the doctor calmed him, she might’ve known, as Arnel had thought, Mr. Delagado was not in his right mind. He was not himself still that afternoon when he knotted a rope at the ceiling and floated there until he was discovered by his bewildered wife. The medical term paranoia streaked through Arnel’s mind, seeming gentler than insanity as a diagnosis.
He was about to sit down, to let more time pass; watching as he pleased, the drivers careening along the the streets and some passers-by oblivious to what he had just realized after his teacher’s burial not stopping as the bells chimed for the Angelus.
A hand tugged behind him.
“Kuya, kuya, palit ka’g kandila?” A ragged boy, with snot trailing down his nose came up to him, his dirty nails in contrast with the whiteness of the wax candles he held. He had on his feet two different pairs of slippers. Arnel thought that the boy is as young as Christoff’s son. Jasper, his nephew’s name, was born a year before his grandfather’s death.
Arnel remembered accompanying his parents to the pediatric ward where the newborn was and he heard his father saying under his breath, on their flight of the stairs to the third floor, “Arnel, don’t you think Joshua is a good name for a baby boy?”
“I think so,” He immediately replied. His mother was already hurrying to room 206, where their first grandchild was. Arnel walked beside his aging father in his slow pace, at those moments, he tried hard to understand the count of his remaining days. He was to leave for college then, and he wondered about times he’d missed being far from them. The baby, who was to be named Jasper not Joshua, yawned as his grandfather took him on his arms, lulling it to sleep.
Past the boy, he had seen the gatekeeper closing the church. The man, dressed in a white robe, resembling a priest, fastened the gates together with a chain and lock before the he put off the church’s lights.
He searched his pockets for a coin. After handing it to the child, he took the candle. The child seeing another passerby left. Arnel saw him tugging the woman; again offering her his candles.
The church was closed. It was still early, his phone read 7:53 PM. He was angered by how inconsiderate the Church was of suicide. Most people in the town knew that Mr. Delagado was suffering some kind of illness. He sat down on a bench overlooking the church. The waning moon shone not as bright the lights of the nearby Rizal Park. He was too was afraid, like Mrs. Delagado, that he had lost his faith. Before leaving that afternoon, his mother came to him and kissed him lightly on his cheeks saying, “He suggested you to be named Arnel. He was so dear to us that we naver named you Joshua.”
Traversing on the streets of San Pedro Extension were the jeepneys with the plates about their front mirrors Matina, Bangkal, NCCC Mall, etc. all with there certain routes and so-called destinations. There were job applications to fill up, since a fresh graduate of Information Technology was said to find his space somewhere in desired positions. He, Arnel, who as a child promised a dear friend to become a music teacher like him, with a recommendation letter in his pocket and a candle in his hands had nowhere to go that Friday night. Where to light the candle since the Church’s gates were already closed was a question; if only someone could give him the answer whether the candle should stand for his losing faith or a prayer to mount the dead to heaven’s gates.