Saturday, October 31, 2015

Viva la muerte

THE DEAD are alive.

In South America, the Day of the Dead is animated by the belief that “los muertos están vivos,” Sam Mendes, director of “Spectre,” the latest James Bond film, told Ruben V. Nepales of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The British spy encounters again the ghosts of his past in “Spectre”. Who are more disconcerting to meet: the specters of strangers or familiar ghosts?

While browsing in a Tagaytay surplus store, I came across Mexican folk art that showed skeletons disporting in a bar and a bowling alley. I was fascinated but could not get myself to buy the cheap knickknacks and display them at home.

The tableaux of the dead are popular in Mexico. Celebrating El Dia de los Muertos, Mexicans believe that that dead visit the living on Nov. 1 and depart on Nov. 2.

With paper, tin, and other materials, folk artists feature miniature coffins and skeletons in situations familiar to the living: attending a wedding, reuniting with friends, and enjoying a game.

Those who have left this world may still pine for the old. How do we feel about sharing space with them?

The dead I do not know leave me with a mystical fear, which I chase off with Catholic rituals. When a colleague stored a skeleton in the faculty room for artistic study, half of us wanted a priest to bless the remains and put the wandering soul to rest. It was hard to check papers in the company of that box of bones.

On the other hand, some would rather not meet a departed loved one. After my 97-year-old grandmother passed away, wake regulars retold how people heard her walk around in my grandparents’ bedroom, tap her toothbrush as if shaking off water, or swing open the kitchen door when people had been drinking till midnight.

Despite that vacant bedroom, the many relations who came home for her wake and burial insisted on camping out in the sala. One day, to freshen up the room, a cousin sprayed disinfectant. A helper, who came in, turned hysterical, claiming Lola was visiting, bringing a scent of flowers. My cousin showed her the disinfectant can that bore the label of a floral scent.

I take comfort from my dead. During my graduate studies at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, my father, deceased for seven years, looked out for me.

Once, after a dawn trip by bus from Pampanga and a jeepney ride from Edsa, I reached the campus, bleary not just from hours of travel but also distracted by class concerns.

When my jeepney came to a stop at the UP Oval, I did not immediately step down because I had been mesmerized by the red hood of the private SUV following us. Bright and wet-looking, the paint sheen reminded me of the blue Volkswagen Beetle my father had buffed for hours every day.
It was the shifting shadows made by the UP Diliman tree canopies on the red hood that first made me realize that, while my jeepney had come to a full stop, the following vehicle had not. In the next instant, the SUV crashed against the stepboard of the jeepney. If I had dismounted then, my legs would have been crushed in the impact.

From kindergarten till college, Papang drove my sister and I to school. He was familiar with my habit of reading a novel or cramming for an exam on the way to school. He also knew how bright colors could distract me from daydreaming. For the living, it is so much better that the dead are with us.

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* First published in the November 1, 2015 issue of “Matamata,” Sun.Star Cebu’s Sunday editorial-page column

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