by Will Liangco
For a moment I actually believed that our intense, heart-to-heart family intervention worked. Yesterday we sat our father in the middle of the room, and one by one we told him how his uncontrollable urge to hoard paintings, ancient Kenyan pottery, and nubile teenyboppers is ruining our lives. My older sister, Mabel, a palliative care doctor, turned on her soothing doctorly voice for the first time—as if she really believed that this is a problem that can only end in death. For years she would deal with dad’s eccentricities by yelling, shoving a Powerpoint presentation of our state of finances to his face, or slipping in mood-stabilizing medications in his herbal concoctions—but nothing ever worked. This time, she talked to him the way she talks to a jaundiced, dying pancreatic cancer patient—with genuine love and care but with enough art to inquire if he wants to sign a do-not-resuscitate status while his head is clear.
After the talk my sister and I frantically messaged each other.
Carol I think we got through to him this time, she said.
I told you if we just keep calm we can save up on professional interventionalists, I replied. I think we finally did it!
Or so we thought. I am now standing here outside our gate, smoking furiously, watching delivery men hauling in a life-size replica of the Black Nazarene. Surely my father ordered this huge poon weeks ago, but seeing him now clapping and jumping as the statue is being polished and clothed in an ornate velvet dress, any hope for even a mild diminution of his hoarding addiction dissipates.
I look across the empty swimming pool and see my sister in the cottage, her face contorted in a mixture of resigned infuriation and learned helplessness. She, too, is blowing billows of cigarette smoke in the air—we are such good examples to our patients and the medical community. Mabel then flicks the cigarette butt into the biggest ashtray of all—the empty swimming pool. When we were kids our classmates from Mary Knoll would gush at how fortunate we were for living in a mansion with a pool. After swimming with Melanie and Pia we would be lured by the smell of cinnamon to the kitchen, where my mother was waiting with assorted bread served on expensive plates. We would leave behind trails of water on the parquet floor, promptly wiped dry by our manangs. My mother, Blessilda, was not a huge fan of saving the most precious china for special occasions, claiming that such practice is very “noveau riche”, akin to wrapping your sofa in plastic. I flick my cigarette butt at the pool as well. I can’t recall the last time anybody ever used this impractical vortex of water and electricity.
By now, I should be worrying about establishing my practice as an internal medicine specialist, subspecializing in nephrology, sub-subspecializing in kidney transplantation. I should be plotting how to infiltrate all the hospitals in the city, but instead I am losing my mind on how to get rid of all these junk without eliciting mass hysteria. I am one new bonsai delivery away from luring my dad into a vacation in Hongkong while I do an open house for anybody interested to just grab anything for however cheap they want it. And who knows, it can also be an avenue for me to meet men. The past two weeks I’ve been maniacally swiping right on any cute guy on Tinder—I haven’t gone on a date in a while and this aspect of my life should also be top priority. It’s a feat that ate Mabel was able to marry a guy who wasn’t intimidated by a hoarder’s mansion surrounded by a moat and guarded by black hounds.
The last guy I dated two years ago, Don-don dela Pena, was set-up by well-meaning friends (who should be ashamed of themselves!). Just because Don-don wanted to have our first date in Jollibee doesn’t mean the date will be a disaster, I told myself then. Don-don wasn’t particularly ugly, but as soon as he opened his mouth and took over the conversation I knew he was a total loser. It wasn’t really a date—it was a soliloquy told in between slurps of spaghetti, about his job in insurance, the motorbike he was planning to buy, and the many girlfriends he managed to boink. The last girl he was particularly proud of, because, as he specifically pointed out, she was “from Ateneo”. After an hour of yakking about himself he came up for air and suddenly asked me, “By the way, Madam Carol, how old are you?”
“Thirty-six,” I said.
“Oh, isn’t that a risk for babies becoming, you know, mongoloid?”
I had the urge to ram a drumstick down his throat. “Sorry I have to go on rounds,” I said standing up. “I can walk to the parking lot by myself. If you run you can still catch the LRT, the nearest station is that way.”
“Ding!” the door bell rings, saving me from my rather unsavory introspections.
“Carol don’t you open the gate!” Mabel screams from the other end of the pool, running towards me. Behind the gate is a small woman with big eyes, and in her hands is a sack of swords.
I do not want to use the dead mother card, but at this point I am just throwing anything at the wall and hoping something sticks.
“Dad, when mom was in the intensive care unit with that tube in her mouth, and she could only communicate by blinking, and we visited her for the last time, remember that day?” I ask. He sort of grunts as he squirts something into a fake 16th century Toledo sword, spilling some on the mauve chaise longue. The bottle has no label, but the silver-cleaning substance has that very familiar smell: cyanide.
“And where did you get this stuff… this has been banned a long time ago!” I scream, grabbing the bottle from his hand.
“Carolina,” my father sighs. “I know where you’re going with this. I told your mother in her deathbed that I will stop buying… potential investments. But you know what, your mother is dead. And these things are making me happy! Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Wow so now you’re trying to make me feel guilty!” I start to yell.
“Well you were trying to make me feel guilty first!”
“Dad, please,” I take the sword from his hand and place it back in its sheath. “You promised mom. You promised. And she was smiling as you were enumerating all the things you will no longer buy. Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”
“Carolina” he says, grabbing the sword back from me. “The things that you see here—all these swords, the jewelries, the Black Nazarene. All of these, except for the bonsai, I will pass on to you and your sister when I die.”
There’s a lot to unpack here.
“Dad, I would like to make it clear, that we are not interested in taking any of these stuff,” I say. “But just out of curiosity, why not give us the bonsai as well?”
“The bonsai goes to Marjorie.”
“Who the fuck is Marjorie,” I ask, but in the pit of my stomach I think I already know.
“Marjorie is the niece of our driver Fred,” he says with a smile. “She’s very pretty. I already booked a ticket for her flight from Sultan Kudarat. Don’t worry this one’s nineteen.”
“Well you know what,” I start to yell. “I love bonsai! Yes, dad, give me the bonsai. Give me everything!”
I drive to my clinic through afternoon QC traffic accompanied by ten pots of bonsai sitting miserably on the passenger and the backseats. Dad took me up on my offer and happily gave me these samplers— so I can supposedly get a feel of horticulture and re–evaluate my feelings for it. I have one feeling for it and it needs no re-evaluation: HATE!
“Hi dra,” Noemie, my secretary, says cheerily. I flash a half-smile and hand her a small pot—that’s your problem now! She beams at the bonsai and proclaims that it will thrive under her loving care as a perfectly skilled plan-tita. “OMG do I finally have patients?!” I ask, noting the flock of people impatiently watching afternoon soap in the waiting area. For months I would come to this clinic, sit for two hours, and wait. And wait some more. And go home with absolutely no income. It shouldn’t really be surprising–there are already ten nephrologists in this hospital, some of them already in practice before I was even born. After weeks of having zero patients and the clinic bills started coming in I decided to turn off the aircondition. Then some of the lights. I was also able to go through a couple of Russian novels.
“Patients po sila nung derma,” Noemie says sheepishly, pointing to the clinic across ours.
I turn on my Mac—if anything these patient-less clinic hours give me some time to work on my accounting of the expenses in the house. Last month dad’s purchase of supposedly ancient books amounted to two hundred thousand pesos. Collection of antique weaponry: three hundred thousand pesos. Paintings: five hundred thousand. Our walls are now plastered with paintings that have no common theme. Most are not even mounted up—they are just stacked on the floor, waiting for a queen termite or an accidental ember from ate Mabel’s cigarettes to save them from their gratuitous existence.
We think father’s fascination for accumulating things started when he retired from his professorial job in the university to concentrate in business. At that time our chain of appliance stores started to pick up and money started rolling in. He even got into multi-level marketing and became quite masterful at it. That was the time when various renovation jobs started on our old bungalow, constructions giving birth to more and more extensions, additional floors, a swimming pool, an annex A and an annex B, until the house transmogrified into a patchwork mansion both quaint and garish. Rooms, attics, dens that serve no practical purpose started to appear, and why anyone would want a goddamn fireplace in Quezon City is beyond me.
His collecting hobby started with paintings. The first one was a bootleg version of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which he probably purchased for ten times it’s worth. He bought it to impress the seller, Minda Villanueva, whom we suspected eventually became his mistress—or as my mom screamed back in the 80’s in the midst of flying cutlery and breakable objects, his kalukadidang. Word got around among sellers that there is this millionaire who is both lecherous and gullible, ie, the perfect client for things nobody will ever need. If the seller is some mildly attractive female and can feign giggles at his jokes and he has stocks of Viagra, he will pay huge money for a framed souvenir poster of Fido Dido from Expressions.
Noemie knocks on the cubicle door. Oh my do I finally have a patient?
“Hi doc!” It’s Charles, a medical representative, deflating any hope for at least one patient for today. Still, it is a welcome respite from the anxiety of seeing the pie graphs heavily favoring an egress of funds that will inevitably culminate in what we have all been expecting: foreclosure of the mansion.
Charles De Ocampo, an amateur in the pharmaceutical marketing business, has been passing by my clinic for the past six months and I find that he has some good, distracting stories to tell. Of course coming up with these stories is all part of marketing training, with my social media heavily combed through for any common interest he can bring up on his visits. He looks particularly cute this afternoon, but his tight, floral long-sleeved shirt from Zara Men is not really doing his weak shoulders and beginning paunch any favors. His face is sweaty. He reeks of Johnson’s Baby Cologne “Bounce” scent liberally applied to cover the smell of dried sweat and the cigarette he hastily puffed on the way here from another hospital.
He flashes a presentation on his iPad and mumbles his script on the efficacy of this new brand of anti-hypertensive medication, Glambizar. Medical terms are used erroneously, the graphs and statistics mangled—if he weren’t so hot I would ask him to stop after one slide so we can both go home. I don’t necessarily like these mildly pretty boys but his mispronunciations, his cheap smell, and his tendency for v and b confusion somehow add to his charm. On my desk he has placed a box of Cinnabon—I would think that it’s very sweet of him except there’s a huge sticker on the carton labelled Glambizar Losartan 50 mg/tablet.
“Ok Charles,” I finally interrupt his speech. “I’ve already seen those slides so many times. I have something to say.”
“Yes doc?” He flashes his huge boyish grin. He still has braces on, with two brackets missing. I find it oddly attractive.
“You smell like cigarette smoke.”
“Oh… ah… it’s not me… my officemate was smoking when we… ah..”
“I have two sticks left, want to smoke in the stairwell? ”
Charles and I decided to have dinner in Mc Donald’s across the hospital. I learn that his family has lived in the slums of QC most of his life before being relocated to a government housing project in Laguna, and that he is the first one in the family to get a formal education. Upon getting his monthly salary and the extra commission from sales he immediately wires them home for his sister’s SPED tuition fees and his father’s maintenance for diabetes and epilepsy. A few months ago his mother had called him in panic when his father suddenly became unresponsive—his blood sugar apparently crashed down after he received two insulin shots by mistake. The emergency room expenses already amounted to about half a month’s salary, Charles says with a rehearsed crestfallen look, and therefore—here comes the very predictable punchline–he needs to sell more Glambizar to earn more. I feel like a judge in a reality competition listening to a sob story of a cute guy with minimal talent.
On the way back to the parking lot I think I’ve heard him mention the brand name Glambizar three times. I should tell their marketing head to conduct some training on effective subtlety, but a cute guy is a cute guy. The lamp posts in the parking lot start lighting up. A Toyota 86 passes us by and the driver lowers the window.
“Hi Carol I might have a referral for you tomorrow!” Dr. Eugene Llaron, a cardiologist, screams. “Eighty-seven-year-old female with heart failure and septic shock from pneumonia! Intubated! I think she might need dialysis but I’ll just wait for some labs tonight! Looks like it’s going to rain see you tomorrow!” I wave him goodbye with a rush of thrill at the prospect of getting a referral tomorrow! But then with his rapid-fire endorsement I doubt if the patient will even make it through the night.
“Hey Charles why don’t I bring you home?” I ask. After a token resistance and a slight drizzle he finally agrees, to my total elation. I check the passenger seat where I imagine Charles will sweat and fidget trying to make conversation through traffic, with an ounce of flirtation coated in faux-detailing of the horrifically named Glambizar, culminating in a pitstop at the parking lot of a secluded 7-11 where he will kiss me with his breath reeking of cheeseburger onions and cigarette smoke and he will cup my breasts while chanting lest I forget the best anti-hypertensive in the market right now Glambizar Glambizar Glambizar–but what should stare back at me from the passenger seat, with a sneer and some pity, are the plants. Before we can arrange the pots, rain starts to pour down and he is left with no choice but to rush to the backseat. On the way out of the elliptical road we see dreadful rows of red taillights frozen in the sea of traffic. At multiple points he insists that he can just walk to the MRT station. No no no, I will bring you to your apartment! It’s quite late, and it’s raining, and getting very cold. What a predatory cougar, he must be thinking, what a sex-starved woman in her 40’s, well guess what I’m still a few years away from forty… I just look stressed!
We finally reach his apartment and before he can go inside the gate I yell at him to come back to the car.
“Hey! Wait! Take these plants with you!”
“All of these, doc?” he asks with a huge a smile.
Yes! All of them—this tall fortune plant, the red lipstick, this espada—take them all! And there’s more in the trunk! I hand him a wooden crate containing small paintings, some fake jewelry, collectible pens, a sailor’s hat…
“Lots of good stuff in this box, Charles, just tell me if you want more!”
“I promise to take care of them, doc.”
“You don’t have to. You can sell them if you want! I don’t really care!”
Charles asks me, tokenistically I presume, if I want to go inside. I happily say no and drive away in an empty car, the emptiness—the space—strangely making me feel like I’ve just had a great, fulfilling, illicit sex.
With a shrill Ate Mabel wakes me up on a Sunday. While downing his herbal concoction for breakfast, dad suddenly crashed face down on the quartz countertop and dropped on the floor. In an emergency situation Ate Mabel forgets that she is, in fact, a doctor and screams to my face, “Si Dad, nag cardiac ARREST!” I lunge to the kitchen and immediately note, upon hearing him groan, that he did not have a cardiac arrest. A heart attack, maybe, or even a stroke. “No hospitals! No hospitals! No hospitals!” dad chants.
“Let’s go the hospital! Call Fred we’ll bring the Fortuner!” I instruct Ate Mabel.
“The driver’s not here. He’s in the airport to pick up his niece Marjorie!”
I end up hauling dad to the SUV by myself and driving like a maniac to the emergency room. “Just make sure he’s still breathing,” I instruct Ate Mabel, who is just sitting there nervously like a turd. I glower at her on the rearview mirror when I catch her opening the car window for a smoke.
For a Sunday, the emergency room is packed. I ask the resident doctor if I can insert the intravenous line and do the necessary blood tests myself since all the nurses are busy—but more so to spare any personnel from having to deal with this very irascible man. Dad has been throwing invectives non-stop, his curses getting more and more slurred by the minute. Let’s just wait for the utility worker who will bring Sir Ramon to the CT scan department, the resident doctor stammers. “I’ll do it!” I proclaim, and in two seconds I am whizzing through the corridors with my dad on the stretcher.
“Lacunar infarcts,” I tell the only available personnel in the ER—an intern—who is nodding her head, pretending to understand what I’m pointing at on the film. I foresee that the blinking lights and the repeated beeps in the Stroke Unit will drive my father insane—and he will drive everyone else insane, screaming that his bed sheet needs to be replaced or that his IV is not running well—and that I will need to talk to the staff daily for an apology tour. A few days in, dad’s sensorium rapidly deteriorates from a hemorrhagic conversion of the stroke, necessitating brain surgery.
Pneumonia and other complications eventually set in, and by the time he has recovered well enough to reprimand everyone in sight, the bills have swollen to a degree that can cause a second stroke. Dad doesn’t have insurance. He asks me to use his credit cards, and all of them are maxed out. I manage to work out a scheme with the financial counselor that will essentially have me guaranteeing the payments after discharge—which, in time, will cause me to burst an aneurysm because I don’t even have a practice to speak of. If anything I hope that this harrowing incident will teach dad that no, the billing section will not accept a Black Nazarene as payment.
What a shock it must have been for emaciated, young Marjorie to travel all the way from Sultan Kudarat, expecting to take on the role of an exotic Sultana Kudarata married to a business magnate in the city, only to be welcomed by someone requiring tube feeding and bedpans. Instead of the shopping spree in Shoe Mart that Uncle Fred has promised her, she finds herself giving baths to a curmudgeon in a leaking bathtub that nobody has used in decades. To her credit she is the only one who can coax dad into taking his Lipitor, all the private nurses having given up after a few weeks of verbal abuse.
When she first came in Ate Mabel and I took it upon ourselves to tour Marjorie around. To someone who has spent her whole life in a hovel the expanse of the mansion itself must have seemed threatening, and we wanted her to feel welcome. This is the master’s bedroom, where he and my mother used to sleep, I point out. In their place, hundreds of matryoshka dolls from Estonia and from Shoppee are now sprawled on the bed like massacre victims. Behind another arthritic door: more ancient bronze weapons. We guide her through the corridors, walking around the paintings stacked on the floor, the vases that must have nested all sorts of tiny animals, glass-framed commemorative bank notes that were probably given away by banks so they can de-clutter. And of course, the Black Nazarene, which is now bald as the wig is undergoing re-styling as per dad’s demented request.
In the library Marjorie’s eyes widen at the rows of Encyclopedia Americana, Collier’s Encyclopedia, and hardcover volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Marjorie attempts to make small talk by gushing at how expensive these old books must be by now, to which I reply rather harshly, “A magbobote will give probably give us fifty pesos for everything, depending on the total weight”. We make our way to Annex B, leading her to a room that should be considered the Holy Grail of all the treasures in the castle.
The doors swing open and I turn on the chandelier, revealing a high-ceilinged room with gray fiberglass reinforced walls. Immediately we are assailed by a unique mixture of smells—part decomposing wood, part sinigang, with a hint of wet gangrenous diabetic foot. Marjorie gawks at the variety of things on the floor—Coke bottles, huge plastic bags containing old receipts, old clothes, VHS tapes, Styrofoam from Wendy’s all piled on top of each other, forming our very own Smoky Mountain.
“Dad’s a collector, Marjorie,” Ate Mabel declares. “He gets attached to things. Even trash.”
Marjorie laughs nervously, but she still manages to ask the questions that everyone has been asking all these years—questions that are all fair, sensible, intelligent, rational: Don’t you have enough katulong to take care of these things? Won’t these catch fire? Won’t these rodents cause disease? Why would he keep trash? Did you try to talk to him? Can’t you throw these things out? Cant…
We can, Marjorie, we can. But as soon as he gets a whiff that someone is threatening these things he throws a fit and gets violent at times. In the weeks leading to her death my mother hired people to sneak these pieces of trash out of the house. The discovery led to dad lashing out at our mother with threats of violence, followed by bouts of depressive episodes. For the both of them. We had to rent a separate condominium for our mother, where one day we found her unconscious.
“Did you have any idea that he is this weird, when you were video messaging each other?” I ask Marjorie.
The chandelier starts to flicker. We see a cockroach awkwardly flying and landing on the floor. Marjorie promptly runs after it, and after several attempts successfully stomps on it. She giggles at her own dexterity. From this vantage point we notice how young she really looks, masked only by the pallor and emaciation from a lifetime of poverty.
“Then why did you still come here, Marjorie?” Ate Mabel asks.
“Because I love him ma’am,” she declares.
Ate Mabel and I both sigh—no matter how trite and possibly unrealistic, we still want our father to experience happiness late in his life.
“And I think, ma’am… I think I can change him.”
Ate Mabel and I look at each other, and, not unkindly, we burst out laughing.⊗