The presence of Nanay whom I have not seen


Aside from the spooky, the manicured creepy or the relentless ghost stories common in mass media, the dead really haunt. Stripped of the terrifying connotation, this haunting can be productive; it depends on how one views death, our relationship with the dead and the kind of contact we can have with them.

June this year, it was Father’s Day. The family went to the cemetery where my maternal grandmother rests. It was a departure in at least two ways: Father’s Day was not spent to feast in a restaurant and then take pictures; we found ourselves with Nanay in the middle of June, not the start of November. Tatay, mama’s father, spoke of something literally intangible, hard to grasp. He said he felt her while he was still alone beside her grave, when we were not yet around. I assumed he was talking about Nanay whom I never really met; she passed away a year before I was born. Tatay spoke of something about the wind, an unusual motion, a strange show of force. A gust engulfed him. He observed the surroundings and saw similarly lively wind dancing. I think that’s when he knew Nanay was there with him.

I tried to think of science and its many failings and how these precisely should not dampen us. I try to think of other forms of knowledge which can complement, rather than compete with the scientific—the methodical, the objective, sometimes positivistic. I think of religion and how it tends to explain everything, to speak of everything—disappointingly with blanket certainty, suspicious simplifications. I’d like to look at religion culturally and historically: how it came to be organized, how it came up with its propositions. Just a fresh fault of mine: I want to look at religion in the plural, hence “religions,” varied ways of approaching things, trying to fathom them and negotiate with our much greater incertitude and fears.

I murmur to myself as I think of that story Tatay told and the spirit of Nanay I fancy myself grasping then, even in the faintest and vaguest of ways. I do now know if she was there with me, with us that day at the cemetery, but I felt her and believe she was there, and I would not couch that belief in a mathematical theorem or back it up with a biblical verse. I try to keep in mind this gap between what I know and what I believe, trying hard not to mistake one with the other. But both what I know and what I believe, I crush to the bones and interrogate: I do not like being too solid, I get wet with symbolic surprises.

My Marxist leanings have a lot do with this, I am quite sure. Not an irrelevant sidenote: is that funny or troubling, maybe touching?—modifying ‘sureness’ as just ‘quite’ and hence not absolute. I do not wish to forsake certainties; I just want them constantly tested, for it is with such testing that they can be confirmed, or denied, or modified. When Tatay told his story, I got wet with surprise. I hardly remember anyone from the big family—not just my mother and my sibling but also my titas and titos and my cousins—speak of Nanay like that, something that can be felt, immaterial but present. It was a sweet anecdote rich in spiritual and philosophical undertones. Most of all I guess, it was an anecdote full of hope and love, both active, persistent. When family members speak of Nanay, they speak of her as someone who used to live, someone who used to be here, in “our world,” with us, with them, cooking good food, manning the family store, maybe sending them to sleep, talking to them, laughing with them. When I came into “this” world, Nanay is elsewhere.

Here, I risk an attempt to be surprising. Have we not been intrigued by such ways of saying things—“our” world, “this” world? These expressions imply an elsewhere, a “there,” a beyond. But the question I would ask is not “Where exactly is ‘that’ world?” but “What is the relationship of ‘our’ world, ‘this’ world to ‘that’ world?

With trembling voice, I want to speak of continuities not motivated divisions. When Dante wrote of paradiso, inferno and purgatorio, I believe he was mainly operating symbolically. Similarly, I view these ‘worlds,’ these places not in literal terms, as places that are really ‘out there,’ welcoming only whoever has passed whatever criteria have been set for successful passage-repentance, goodness of the heart, faith, lust for life.

Resil Mojares looked at culture and language to uncover other views apart from the dominant Catholic one. In ‘A Surplus of Souls,’ he pointed out the many linguistic terms used to denote and differentiate between the souls of the living and the souls of the dead. For the former, there is “aningaas” in Ilokano, “ginawa” in Subanon, “kalag” in Bisaya. For the latter, there are “kalolua,” “gimua” and “umalagad.” In a different essay, ‘Catching Souls,’ he mentioned the rather enriching and revealing ambiguity in the word ‘tibao.’ This can be a reference to the ritual for the dead or a hunting term. The ritual is premised on the belief that after three days the dead would return and so they have to gather at the house to prepare for the visit. As a hunting term, ‘tibao’ pertains to the act of “visiting a trap or snare that one has set to collect whatever has been caught” (p. 89). One’s beliefs are interlinked with one’s way of life. The dead can still be there, can still be ‘caught’ whether by memorializing them, visiting them in cemeteries or preparing rituals for them at home.

From Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism, two terms of interest: “maca” and ““caloualhatian.” Rafael said that “maca” used to mean “life after death” for the Tagalogs but that meaning no longer applies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead, the “the dictionaries of those periods render ‘maca’ as ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’” (170). With the advance of history and the alteration of material conditions, social practices and language change as well. These can reveal new possibilities, new contradictions to resolve, new surprises that await our shock, our submission, our antsy wish to struggle.

Meanwhile, “caloualhatian” is more prevalently understood to refer to “a state of profound rest, as when one is in deep sleep, or dead” (170). Without the “Christian gloss,” the term relaxes the boundary between this and that world, this life and another. That is why when Tatay spoke of Nanay’s presence—I do not know, whether as a spirit, as manifested by the wind or a thought in his heart, a feeling in his head—last Father’s Day in the cemetery where she rests, I believe him, in a solemn, submissive kind of way. I was submitting not to the actual reality of it, as if I can know it for sure, but to the silent and sweet recognition that I do not and cannot know all. There was Nanay in my face, vague and without body. And there was Tatay too, more tangible, speaking of such vagueness but whose fond manner is unmistakable. To such flashes of certitude I cling as I look at the uncertain and the unknowable. #


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