by Pauline Lacanilao
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Remember how we were sitting on a pile of stones at the riverbank near my late grandfather’s farmhouse the morning we decided to be together? It was close to noon but, despite scorching in the summer heat, neither of us complained. We were in Mindoro — a van, ferry, and bus ride away from the single, separate lives we’d left behind just the night before. And there, a pair now, under the sun, neither of us moved — save for the occasional tossing of a pebble — lest we disturb the house we had only begun to build. New love is like that, isn’t it. Hesitant and overly-cautious.
I distinctly recall being aware of the morning’s sounds: some hidden birds chirping a melody from the trees, a cow tied to driftwood lowing its baritone, my heart pulsing a drumbeat as your forearm grazed my bare leg to pick up a rock.
It was larger than your hand and oddly shaped, this rock, like the sculpture of a hammer before it’s carved into a hammer. It bulged awkwardly in your palm as you weighed it absentmindedly. You tossed it from your right hand to your left, then held it out to me.
In the stillness of that scorching heat, you had been telling me about one of the first images you saw upon landing in the Philippines, explaining why it made an indelible impression on your oft-forgetful mind.
The United States government shipped you from the East Coast to Eastern Visayas. And in the car, on your way from the airport to what would be your home for the next two years, you noticed piles — mountains, really — of stones on the side of the highway. You described how, on these stones, people lived in houses made up of four sticks and a thatched roof. Your voice, two and a half years after seeing it, still inflected with shock. “They live there, chipping at the mountain with nothing but a crowbar,” you said, looking at the stones we were sitting on, “to make gravel.”
And beside you, on that river, I wondered if that wasn’t exactly what love is: the daily chipping at a mountain with the simplest of tools.
And how many mountains stood before us there on that riverbank. Squinting at the distant horizon, I studied the range that divides the island of Mindoro into its eastern and western provinces, and counted. But the mountains made of stone bled quickly into the mountains made of fear. I lost track of my counting and instead watched as even the sky and valley blended into the face of the mountain range until all that was left was a nondescript landscape — a massive, ominous wall I couldn’t see around. As it turned out, you couldn’t see past it either.
When you left me, it was kind. You spoke nothing but praises in gentle tones. The word but punctuating the end of your sentences with a thud. Boulders falling off a cliff, reshaping the mountain.
You were not in love.
And so the mountain became grief. And we are neighbors here now. I see you sometimes, dragging your heavy crowbar across the crags, back into your thatch-roofed house — and I want to follow you, help you lift your burden, lay your head in my lap and stroke your hair until morning. But. None of that would change the reality of the mountain. How it casts its shadow on everything in our grasp at a certain time of day, how it waits for us beneath our sleeping mats at night.
What can I do but drive the only tool my hands can lift headlong into the heart of this grief. What can I do but lift a pen. To tell a story. To help me make sense of the terrifyingly lonesome landscape before me, to help me chip away at this mountain, until, from it, only a stone remains in both our hands.
When I think of what it is to be brave, I think of my grandfather and my relationship with him. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding his decision to join the army in World War II, but I do know that when he left his childhood home in Negros, he never wanted to return.
He did not speak to me about his past. Being one of thirty-one grandchildren, and a young child at that, I didn’t have the time, space, or desire to have many intimate conversations with him while he was alive. Now, years after his death, I have my regrets. His story has become legend — a family heirloom passed down in one big serving, like his farm, for his children and their children and their children to share. But even before his death, faltering around the house in his soft slippers, the size of his myth padded his frail frame into giant proportions.
Truth is, he frightened me. I knew I was obligated to respect and love my grandfather, but as a child, all I knew about this short, slow man was how he gargled his coffee like mouthwash and awoke every day before dawn. Though I lived with him for three years, the most significant impression I had of him was that there was something eerie about his silence: the way he sat on a straight-backed wooden chair in the corner of the dining room instead of on the padded patio furniture facing the garden lined with orchids; the way he watched the wall light up with the morning instead of watching the morning itself. He was strange, and a stranger. So I avoided him.
And because I deliberately stayed out of his way, I consequently have exactly one memory of a private conversation with him.
It was dusk and I was about ten. I had to type up a homework assignment on the single computer shared by the entire three-generation household. Taking a break, I ascended the stairs towards the kitchen. And there, on the middle step, I met the mythic patriarch, and paused.
His eyes darted from me to the computer. Seeing that the screen was lit up, this austere and quiet man turned vicious. His surprisingly large voice boomed with spite. I guess it wasn’t a conversation after all, though it was private (I’ve never shared this with anyone till now). There was no exchange. I said nothing as he berated me in that narrow stairwell — his insults bouncing off the hollow block walls and sinking sharply into me, knocking down the most fragile pillars of my confidence. It didn’t last long; he merely shouted the details of our last electric bill alongside a litany of my flaws — and was done. Spoiled. Ungrateful. Stupid. Then he walked through what was left of me and shut the computer down without saving my report.
That seemingly insignificant outburst was when I first became aware of the way someone’s idea of me could completely blind them to who I really am. And it didn’t take long for me to hate him for that blindness. I hated him with the silent, sinister hatred that only a child can muster; it lasted even after his death.
Words are powerful in that way. Possess the right words, and you can communicate — you can heal. Fill the gaps in your vocabulary with the wrong words, and it’s staggering what kind of hate you can cultivate.
I find it tragic, therefore, that everything I remember about my grandfather is colored by this resentment. While any good I know of him, I know only from stories, and from stories of stories. I find it awe-inspiring too, though, that despite this, I sincerely feel like I know the man. Such is the nature of a legend.
According to legend, when my grandfather was born at the end of February 1920, all the cattle on his family’s portion of Negros dropped dead. His mother, still in her birthing chair, looked at her wailing newborn and said, “You are a curse”.
Another characteristic of legend is the blurred line between true and true enough. There’s no one left to confirm the following details — but when I imagine him as a little boy, I picture a diminutive version of his grandfatherly self: the dark skin, the flat, wide nose that followed him into his eightieth year, the mouth that stretched so wide across his face it shot past a generation and landed onto mine. And I see him, poor child, served last at dinner, quietly believing his mother’s lie. I see him sprinting in the moonlight to his favorite tree in the corner of a rice field. I hear him crying into the soil.
Years later, when he escaped to the jungle in the middle of the night from the aptly named Bataan Death March, I wonder if he didn’t find some stately narra and collapse into its roots. Afflicted by dysentery, I’m sure he was emaciated in addition to being beaten and bloodied. I imagine his joints jutting out of his flesh. Knotted wood. With his dark, blistered skin, I wonder if he blended into the roots. In his fevered delirium, I wonder if he curled into a curve at the foot of the tree and called it mother. As it cradled him in its rigid embrace, no doubt more gentle than his actual mother’s, I wonder if the tree showed him the truth.
At his loneliest hour, I hope he relived the moment of his escape and finally surrendered himself to his fate all along. He was not a curse and never had been.
I’ve seen one picture of him before the war and I know there must have been a girl. Chiseled jaw, wide chest — like you — how could anyone resist. But that was 1940. On his bucolic island, how could he have understood imperial greed or imagine the way its hateful effects would splinter down an entire continent to find him. How could he have expected how drastically his life, his body, and his future would change in the upcoming months. How could he have known the terrors that awaited him on a dirt road two years and three hundred miles away.
And how could she have known. When he went off to war, I’m positive she wept. But after receiving his first letter that summer, she spent most nights fanning herself in the wide rattan bed she shared with her sisters, suppressing her excited giggles with deep breaths, picturing the sons she’d bear him, pretending her arm was his chest, and laying her cheek there soundly. Innocent girl, when Bataan fell, she didn’t hear for days, I bet. For days, fanning herself to sleep, she didn’t realize that while she dreamt of their wedding banquet in quiet Negros, he’d been deprived of sleep, food, and water. That when he tried to hold her face in his mind, it would dissolve into a cupped palm of water or five-finger pinch of fish and rice. That he’d snap out of his starvation only when, in a matter of seconds, the man marching next to him would collapse from exhaustion, receive a bayonet to the rib, and, still breathing, be kicked into a shallow grave with three or four other writhing bodies. That he was no longer the boy she knew.
When he never returned, the girl must have married someone else. An older man, I suppose, richer and more educated. Tatting her veil a week before her wedding, she smelled a phantom waft of my grandfather’s musk or heard the echo of his bellowing laughter from the street, but shook it off in deference to her husband-to-be. And on her wedding night, about to be a woman now, the girl thought of her dark farm boy once more, and feeling her flesh becoming one with her husband’s, forgave my grandfather for never returning — thanked him, even — then ceased to think of him at all.
For the five years between escaping the Death March and marrying the woman who would become my grandmother, he searched for this nameless girl’s face in every market and every church — hardly knowing if he even remembered it correctly. Maybe he heard word from a friend or cousin telling him that she had married the businessman. Maybe that’s when he decided to never return home.
I sometimes believe that a man who lived through as much suffering as my grandfather did, was only able to live for as long as he had — eighty-seven years — because he needed that much time to fully forgive everyone who wronged him. That is, to turn hatred, shame, and pride into love. Other times, however, I believe the opposite: that maybe he had miraculously forgiven those who wronged him — and that’s what sustained his long life.
I can’t be sure. If I’m honest with myself, I barely know the details of his life. In actuality, most of the legends I’ve heard about him, I only know in part. So it’s unfair to make a judgment call about his character through them. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I need to. And because there is one legend I know in its entirety. Anyway, when it comes to legends, one story is enough.
My grandfather escaped the Death March twice. Once, ultimately, when he stole into the jungle in order to join the guerilla forces whose weapons, unlike the Philippine and American armies’, were still in their possession. And another time, shortly before — at the hands of a Japanese executioner.
During the time that I knew him, my grandfather did not seem like a friendly or loving person. But I’m told he held a dying man in his arms. It is unclear whether the man was failing due to starvation, dysentery, an infected wound, or all of the above, but my grandfather rocked him gently into his final sleep. Before the end, the man — this friend — used his dying breath to ask a favor so simple and expected it was almost pathetic: to find his wife and child and tell them he loved them. The friend slid a photograph into my grandfather’s breast pocket and died.
Later, an enemy soldier barked at some Filipinos and Americans to line up and fall on their knees. He was speaking in another language, but they understood what he demanded by the way his veins were bulging out of his neck and the way his bayonet glinted with the chill of death as it pointed to the ground. They obeyed without hesitation. Among the kneeling Filipinos and Americans was my young grandfather. He was twenty-two, much younger than I was when I finally realized the significance of this particular legend; and yet he watched, with a sage surrender that only the dying and already dead can know, as, one by one, each obedient soldier was executed. With each audible stab, slash, or shot, the bodies slumped like slow, sad dominoes into each other. The death wave steadily approached my grandfather, until only he was left kneeling.
The executioner, perhaps in need of some variety or perhaps having used up his ration of bullets, kicked my grandfather to the ground, positioning his neck for a beheading. It must have been daytime, because when my grandfather was thrust forward and the photograph of his friend’s wife and child slipped out of his shirt and onto the dirt road, it caught the executioner’s eye.
Here’s where the details get hazy. I don’t know if the Japanese soldier, thinking of his own family, became overcome with nostalgia and compassion. I don’t know if he remembered the man he was before the war, rowing out to sea from a black sand shore with his own loving father. I don’t know if the face of a woman and child made him suddenly weary of war and hopeful for more. I don’t know. But the man put the picture back into my grandfather’s pocket, and let him live.
Sweet friend, looking back at our first morning in Mindoro, I realize that the mountains in the distance weren’t composed solely of fear — and they aren’t now composed solely of grief. Packed into the rocks is a substance so vile, after an eternity of existence, no one has yet dared to name it. It’s an amalgamation of hate, shame, and pride. My grandfather lived there for years, but I inherited it — this poison so big entire nations can live on it, so powerful it can end love, so stubborn it can prevent love from hoping to start at all. No word captures it entirely, but I’ll call it Unforgiveness.
Sweet friend, would you chip away at it with me? Would you, in the paralyzing midst of fear, build a four-stick thatched-roof shanty on that shrinking mountain, and be my neighbor there? Would you forgive me for not being the woman you thought I’d be? Especially in grief? How I’ve become my worst self in its grip? Would you forgive me for being unloving? For being unlovable?
I think of my grandfather on his deathbed, the eyes of his executioner still emblazoned in his mind sixty-five years after the inexplicable reprieve; I think of the secret exchange of love that happened between two enemies on one of the bloodiest dirt roads in recent history; I think of the lives that that moment granted — one of them being mine — and I want to be brave. Sweet friend, this grief is heavy, but I will be brave.
It was a Tuesday afternoon in the summer when you asked me to be your girl. I smiled but didn’t answer. So you asked again, but I buried my head into your neck and remained silent. I was afraid to say yes because we were on a crowded balcony, leaning against the railing. I was afraid of the scrutiny. I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of pain that didn’t exist, but could. But would. And as fate’s heavy hand would have it, it was a holiday: The Day of Valor — the anniversary of the Bataan Death March.
Legend says that on the hospital bed, with death glinting above him one last time, my frail grandfather looked up at the ceiling in prayer, and whispered hoarsely, deliberately: “If I’ve ever hurt anyone, let them grant me forgiveness.”
Back at the riverbank, you marveled at the Eastern Visayan gravel makers, saying, “They do something important.” You held the bulging hammer-stone up to me like a gift, and continued, “They open things up.”
Sweet friend, you weren’t in love. But. I was. You held my stone heart in your hand and said, “What’s inside has never seen light — and then it does.”
I hadn’t seen it, but now I do. How the greatest act of bravery is to love. And how the greatest act of love is to forgive.
Editor’s Note on Day of Valor
Day of Valor is not the first piece by Pauline Lacanilao published in Eastlit. Her Bluebird Island was published in the December issue of Eastlit.