Beyond Deadlines is proud to serialize Mr. Romy Morales’ first book “Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien).” It is a personal account of a Filipino immigrant in the United States. It is a must read for those who wish to migrate to the U.S. Come let us join Romy in his journey and see what is in store for us.
The morning flight from Toronto, Canada to Oregon, U.S.A. was smooth and this time there was no hassle in the airport. Tiya Maring was supposed to meet me but she was nowhere in sight.*
*In the Philippines, we use the prefix Tiya for women and Tiyo for men (Aunt and Uncle in English) among others to show our respect for older people.
Tiya Maring is an elderly woman whom I met before leaving the Philippines for good. She promised to help me if ever I came to the United States. She said I could stay in her home care, and pay my rent by working around the place.
Now here I was to collect the promise, but where was she? I waited some more but no one came. I still kept waiting, hoping to at least see some Filipinos who I could ask for help, but there were none.
After two hours or so, I decided to get a cab. I went out of the airport terminal to the other side of the street where the taxicab bay is located. As I approached the area, one cab driver, a burly black man, grabbed my luggage and threw it inside his big green van before I could even ask if he’d be able to help me find Tiya Maring’s place since I was new in Portland.
Once inside the cab and after learning of my problem, the cab driver said “No problem.”
He fished out a map, figured a route, switched on the cab engine and we drove off. The ID pinned on his polo shirt identified him as Michael Dixon.
“Are you a jockey,” he asked as he drove.
“Nope,” I said, releasing a faint smile into the cold Oregon air.
“I thought you were.”
No doubt he mistook me for a jockey because of my height. I wasn’t offended by his remark and I told him I write for a living.
“My son, too, wants to be a writer. He’s good. I’ve read some of his writings. Where are you from?”
“I’m a Jamaican. Been in the Philippines during the Vietnam War…assigned in a hospital at Clark Air Base. I attended the wounded soldiers flown from Vietnam. That was long time ago.”
I felt comfortable with Michael. On the way to Tiya Maring’s place, I requested that he stay with me until I find her house.
“If we can’t find the house, please don’t leave me. Take me to a cheap hotel to spend the night,” I pleaded to which he nodded in approval.
He turned right onto a side street, driving slowly so we could read the numbers on the houses as it was already dusk. He said we were close to the place and yes…we found it.
It was late in the evening and dark. The place was so quiet you could hear a pin drop, maybe some of the residents were already asleep. He parked the taxi, with its beams glaring, in front of a house that bore Tiya Maring’s address.
I knocked. Nobody answered while Michael waited patiently in the car, waiting to see if anyone would answer the door.
I knocked again a little louder, hoping not to create a disturbing noise in the neighborhood. It relieved me when Tiya Maring peeped through the window curtain. Michael brought the luggage out of the van.
I gave him fifty and he sped off.
The next morning, Tiya Maring’s son Alvin was surprised to see me lying on the couch. Apparently, his mother, Tiya Maring, hadn’t told him I was coming and would be staying.
I could tell that Alvin wanted to talk straight to me and was apparently searching the best way to do it without being offensive and thus in a most diplomatic way, he said, visitors are not allowed to sleep on the sofa of a home care. He added that only a certain number of people could stay in the house, otherwise there could be trouble.
It became clear tome at that point who owned the facility – Alvin.
I thought that it was just the only misunderstanding until, just as quickly as the first did, another came up.
“Mom didn’t tell me I would help you get a job,” said Alvin. “Besides, my brother-in-law has taken the job. We’re committed to Jack already.”
What he said felt like a big stone hitting me hard. I was unable to move, I could barely react to what he was saying. Slowly, slowly…I took a deep breath.
“I’m leaving tomorrow for San Jose. All I need is a little help to get me to the Greyhound bus station,” are all I could say. A pond of tears could have flowed from my eyes but like the Hoover Dam that stops Lake Meade from flooding the sin city of Las Vegas, I held it back.
Jack, who was in the kitchen, apparently heard everything. I learned of it a couple of hours later when Jack asked me to go with him.
Either Jack didn’t like what he had heard or he just didn’t want me to feel disappointed. He was acting like a kind stranger. Nevertheless, I think he remembered me – it was at his silver wedding in Pampanga that I met Tiya Maring through one of her nephews who had brought me there.
Jack had been in the medical supplies and hospital equipment business in the Philippines, with two medical clinics in Pampanga. He was making good money with his business and yet he had accepted the job of caregiver in the United States when it was offered to him.
Jack took me to the Star Cabaret, of all places, not far from the home care. I have no idea why he brought me there as it was noontime. Probably, at that moment, that was what he thought could appease me or lighten up my spirit.
Later I would learn from him it was his way of keeping his sanity in the absence of his wife, who is still in the Philippines. There was a small circular stage inside the cabaret with a stainless pole in the middle where dancers danced, gyrated, snaked around and even tread on it like monkeys on tree branches.
There were only three dancers when we came in—Ginger, Amber and another whose name we didn’t catch. Anyway, it does not matter since Ginger and Amber’s name were most likely fictitious.
Amber and Ginger sat with us at our small table right in front of the circular stage. Amber said she had two kids while Ginger had a baby girl named Laila. Jack offered them drinks.
When they went back on stage to perform, Jack threw several one dollar bills on them. He was generous with them that both dancers danced with gusto and spread their legs without qualm, leaving nothing to imagination.
We left the club at two in the afternoon and went directly to the school where Chad – one of Alvin’s patients – was enrolled. The teacher had reported that Chad had a spat with one of his classmates, kicked him, and hit another one. Because of what Chad did in school, Alvin made him stand up against the wall in the house for several minutes as punishment.
In mid-afternoon, Alvin asked me to join the children in celebrating Halloween at the mall. Children in Halloween getup and grown-ups in costume went around to every store in the mall shouting “trick or treat” to which the sales personnel responded with the generous handing of chocolates and candies to the tricksters.
For days before the event, the children and their parents had obviously busied themselves buying costumes, candies, toys and pumpkins. Some had no doubt transformed their houses into something suitably ghostly or haunted. Nobody enjoyed the fun more than the kids being cared for by Alvin and his wife, Julieta.
Chad was a mentally retarded boy with physical disability. He stands only five feet, quite short for his age of 18 years. He was one who demanded attention. Wanting to get noticed, he hit one of his classmates.
Most of the patients Jack was taking care of, however, were adults.
There was Shana, suffering from a cerebral palsy. She was tall, quiet, and well-behaved. And pretty. Once she sat down, she would stay there forever unless told to get up or move. She kept herself busy by stringing beads.
Joe was 5’7″ and autistic. He talked to himself most of the time.
Alvin and Julieta were also taking care of another group in their second house.
There were Tyler and Didi, deaf- mutes. Didi had a peculiar attraction to the hands and hair of both sexes. One time she gently touched and caressed my hair. She also studied my hands and fingers, gently turning them over and again. She only stopped, after Alvin called her attention.
Randy was mentally retarded; he moaned now and then until it annoyed everyone. Then he would stop, only to resume moaning as if his voice was coming from the grave.
Later that evening, Tiya Maring gave me blanket that really had a foul smell, like human waste. I’d like to think she hadn’t noticed. Perhaps was it the couch that smelled since the patients sat on it all day? Whatever! The nights in Portland are cold. I stretched my body on the only sofa offered to me and covered it with the smelly blanket.
The following day, the first of November, Tiya Maring handed me a St. Jude Thaddeus prayer book. She said if I prayed hard, God would help me adding that she would continue praying for me.
I was supposed to leave for San Jose that day but Alvin postponed my departure. He showed me around downtown Beaverton instead. His two children were with us, and so was Tiya Maring. This time, Alvin was really kind.
We went to the Grotto, overlooking Beaverton. In the small chapel on top of the mountain, he bought candles for everyone to light. I lit mine and prayed again for God’s help. We had our dinner of pizza at the Chuckie Cheese.
The next morning, Tiya Maring woke up early. She prepared cookies, four sandwiches with peanut butter, strawberry and ham, and gave me a $20 bill.
“Take it with you,” she said. “I also did the same to Lydia when she was still looking for a job here in Oregon.”
Lydia came to Portland as a tourist and approached Tiya Maring for assistance. She’s now a programmer.
Alvin and I left the house for the Greyhound station. He helped me with my baggage. I felt he was reaching out to me. He explained again why I couldn’t stay in his home care.
“Under Federal law no one is allowed to sleep in the living room of a facility. You must have your own room.”
He promised to convince Lydia to share her room with me while he looks for my own place. He stressed though he was not making any commitment. A smile glistened in my face.
“You might want to join us in San Francisco when we celebrate my daughter’s birthday in December. I might have a decision by then. Julieta and I have agreed you might be a good substitute for Jack.”
He encouraged me though to also try my luck in San Jose. I gave him my friend’s address just before I boarded the bus. I was on my way to California.
It was an overnight trip. Andy and Arlene Casabar were already waiting at the Greyhound station when I arrived. We had breakfast at the McDonald’s and soon afterwards headed straight home.
I occupied their son’s room while their son graciously agreed to join his younger sister in her room just next to where I would be staying. I rested and slept the whole day.
Andy is one of my best friends. We met at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) where we both once worked. He was a laboratory technician at the Cytology Department while I was an administrative officer of the Department of Radiology and Cancer Institute.
Andy met his wife in the same department where she was a medical technician. When they had their first child, I stood as one of the godfathers during the baby’s baptism. Unfortunately, the baby would not live long; he had a congenital heart problem.
Our meeting at PGH was memorable. A big storm had just hit the country; all of Manila was underwater, in some areas as deep as five feet. Manila was in total darkness. There was no transportation available, and many commuters were stranded including us—Andy and I. We were stranded in the hospital and stayed there for two nights straight. We slept anywhere we could—the doctor’s lounge, the x-ray room, anywhere. There was no electricity, the cafeteria was closed, and there was no food.
The situation brought us closer together. We opened the hospital’s office drawers hoping to find food to eat. We were food scavengers. We even drank the vodkas kept in the operating rooms that Andy said were used to soften phlegm before heart surgery.
After three days the storm stopped and the flood subsided. We walked all the way to our respective homes. It seemed almost everyone were in the street. Manila was a total mess. Trees and electric posts were down. Roofs were uprooted. Fallen trees crushed cars and a lot of tree branches were broken.
Several month thereafter, Andy left for Saudi Arabia with his wife. Then I learned they had migrated to the United States, finally settling down in San Jose. I worked in the hospital for many more years to come.
When I got my U.S. visa in 1992, I contacted them. From then on, whenever I had a chance to visit the United States, I would always stay with them. This was my fourth visit to their home.
Yesterday, November 4, was my mother’s birthday. She turned 80. For the first time I was not around to celebrate her birthday.
Mother usually celebrates her birthday on November 1, All Saints’ Day in the Philippines. On that day people trekked to the cemeteries, visited their dead and brought lots of food. All Saint’s day is a feast day.
So when Mother opted to celebrate her birthday on November 1 instead of November 4, it was really a way to cut on expenses and avoid celebrating two events in a span of only three days. She also chose that particular day because it was a time of the year when we, her children, could all be together paying our respect to our father and brothers, who were buried in the same cemetery lot.
Mother had been so much to me as she is to all of us. It was her who raised all my three sisters and four brothers. There was a fourth sister, though. I had heard from my parents that she died when she was only a few months old. They never talked of her much. I was still young when she passed away. I never had the chance to ask Mother about her. Two of my remaining seven siblings, who were younger than I, had also already passed away.
On a weekend break from grade school, my brother Danilo and I went to the breakwater of Manila Bay in Baclaran to enjoy its water. Danilo could swim, I couldn’t. Approaching the breakwater, he was fearless. I stayed on the shore, wading in water which is up to my chest. I didn’t know how good of a swimmer my brother was, all I knew was that we both wanted to swim and cool off due to the summer heat and that he went too far and drowned.
My other brother, Rodolfo died of rhadomyocarcoma – cancer of the muscle. He got the dreaded disease when his right thigh was accidentally hit by a heavy piece of wood in a construction site in the Middle East. He is in pain since then. To alleviate the pain, he would put some pressure on the affected thigh – not knowing that it just worsens his condition.
Rodolfo came to me at the PGH and I helped him see a doctor for a private consultation. I didn’t know then what the doctor told him and other than the need to amputate his leg, he has not said anything.
My brother, who had only reached second year in high school, might not have fully understood why his leg couldn’t be saved. Frightened, he left the hospital without telling me anything else and I lost track of him.
When he came back two months later, he was already in terrible pain and it was killing him. That time, I personally accompanied him to the doctor and only then did I learned that he was suffering from a form of cancer that affects the muscle.
The doctors said they would see if cutting my brother’s leg off would still help. I explained everything to him and he consented to be amputated. I knew he couldn’t say no because of the severe pain. He had no choice.
When he came out of the operating room, the surgeons said it was useless to remove the leg. The disease had metastasized up in his body. I was devastated. I wasn’t sure whether he understood his fate.
During his hospital confinement, he would walk to my office in crutches and smiled at me through his pain, just to show he was trying his best to stay alive. Maybe he thought he could still be cured. He had a baby daughter and a caring wife. After six months or so, he passed away despite the chemotherapy treatments.
My two brothers never had a chance to enjoy what life was. God took them away so soon. With their deaths, mother had never shown any sign of breaking down. I knew she was agonizing in sorrow but she is a courageous woman and I admire her for that. She never complained and saw to it that we had food to eat, clothes to wear and a little money to take to school. She managed these by cooking and delivering snacks to the employees of a government hospital.
My father also helped us but not in a big way. He was into cockfighting and his income is based on luck. There were times when the winnings were good and we would have plenty to eat but not always.
During the lean times for my father, mother would provide. Even when she turned 70, she didn’t want to stop working. What she loved most was to sell food so I opened a small canteen near the university belt where I had lived for some time. It was a way to keep her going. I knew she was tired but she didn’t want to do nothing. I guess all mothers are like her.
I watched the Sixth Happiness on television. It was a British-Indian collaboration project featuring a disabled person who had been wheelchair-bound since birth; the drama concerns the sacrifice his mother underwent in taking care of him, his being a homosexual, his love and disappointments. It’s a very moving film. It reminds me of my own mother—her struggles, her sacrifices and her love for me.
(to be continued…)