IT IS NIGHTTIME and so humid that moisture in the air speckles our camera with white, blurred dots as though it is snowing in Noveleta. Mom, Dad, Mason and I surround great-grandmother and great-grandfather Malikay’s graves as we stand before the tripod. We pose as though for a family portrait, positioning our ancestors among us as a sign of respect.
Mason jabs my side as the photo is taken and I flinch. His laugh reverberates in the small cemetery. The graveyard is surprisingly silent, lacking the hum of tricycle, car or jeepney that pervades the village. I leave Mason’s side to tour the graves on my own. “Miguel Malikay Sr.,” “Miguel Malikay Jr.,” “Manuelo Malikay Sr.,” “Manuelo Malikay Jr.”
Dad’s head is bowed reverentially by Lolo Bayag’s grave, but Mason keeps asking him questions. “How old is this place?” he asks, standing beside grand-uncle Adolfo’s grave.
“Hundreds of years old.”
“And only Malikays can be buried here?”
“Can I be buried here?” I call from across the yard.
“Don’t you want to be buried with us in Toronto?” Mom asks from beside grandaunt Teodora’s grave.
“I find this place a bit too old and run down, to be honest,” Mason says, moving towards grand-uncle Arthurio’s grave. “And it’s in the middle of nowhere, too. Who will visit you here? I sure won’t.”
I shrug. There’s something nice about being buried in an old-fashioned family graveyard rather than in a cubbyhole on a vast park ground in Toronto.
After a moment of silence, Dad looks around, taking inventory of the four of us together—living relatives among dead ones. “Are you ready to go?” he asks.
“I guess,” I say. “I can’t believe we’ve had a family graveyard this whole time and I’ve never heard of it. When can we come back?”
“We’ll come back next time we visit,” Dad says, though his last visit to the Philippines was over twenty-five years ago. “Right now we should visit the Malikay house before it gets too late. It’s not too far from here.”
“Who lives there now?” Mason asks.
“Tito Sisi, Papa Lamig’s brother. He’s the only Malikay living there now.”
“Is he like Papa Lamig?” I ask.
“Kind of,” Dad says, “but the two don’t get along.”
Though the walk to the house from the graveyard would have taken five minutes, the drive takes us ten. Our van is one of the few vehicles on the crowded rural road, where pedestrians take up most of the space.
We pull over in front of the Malikay house. Small and faded, it seems to sag under the humidity where it hides behind abaca trees and alcantarea bushes. Dad parks the van and brushes his fingers over the iron rail gate, testing its spikes gently as though expecting it to crumble.
“Does the house look the same, Dad?” Mason asks as he approaches.
Dad speaks to her in Tagalog too rapid for me to understand.
“Exactly,” Dad says, letting himself into the yard. He ducks around, brushing the leaves of spider plants and romblons as though saying hello to each one. Instead of ringing the bell when he reaches the front door, he tests the handle. Finding that it’s unlocked, he steps inside. He ignores our protests: “Dad, shouldn’t you ring the bell?” and “Why doesn’t Tito Sisi lock his door?” We stand outside, unsure of what to do, until he emerges again. “What are you guys waiting for?” he asks.
Inside I expect to find peeling wallpaper, worn furniture draped in plastic and the smell of old wood. Instead the house is painted in varying shades of bright red and white and boasts modern divans of leather and silk.
“Tito, are you home?” Dad calls, wandering around the first floor. “Tito, it’s Ton.”
A young woman emerges from a back room, wiping her hands on a ratty dishtowel. “Hello?” She doesn’t sound afraid, though there are four strangers in the house. Dad speaks to her in Tagalog too rapid for me to understand. Her eyes soon light up with comprehension. “Maghintay dito,” she says. Wait here.
She leaves us in the room and returns with Tito Sisi. Though skinnier and shorter, Tito Sisi looks like Papa Lamig with his shuffling steps, bowed neck and bald head. Even the age spots on his scalp seem to map the same territory as my grandfather’s.
“Kamusta, Tito Sisi,” Dad says loudly. “It’s Ton, son of Lamig.” Dad gestures at himself exaggeratedly as though his slowly moving arms will help to jolt Tito Sisi’s aged memory. Tito Sisi says something in
Tagalog—a gruff bark. Dad drops his arms to his sides, stunned into silence, before laughing.
“Tito Sisi says he’s not deaf and that Dad doesn’t have to yell,” Mom translates.
“Your kids don’t speak Tagalog?” Tito Sisi asks. His English surprises me. Though fluent in English, Papa Lamig reverted to Tagalog in his old age. I hardly expected this other old Malikay to speak anything but Tagalog in the Philippines.
“No, po,” Dad says.
Tito Sisi grunts. I can’t tell if he’s expressing his disapproval or clearing his throat. I know that, like all Malikay men, Tito Sisi may merely sound angry even if he’s not. “So, how have you been?” he asks. The question is posed so offhandedly that it’s clear he doesn’t care about the answer. Dad has been away for too long, both in distance and familial connection, to be of any interest to Tito Sisi in his age and corner of the world.
“Fine,” Dad answers in brisk Malikay fashion.
“And your dad?” Tito Sisi’s darting eyes betray a greater interest in the matter.
“That old man must be slow and deaf if you had the nerve to speak to me like that.”
“Slow and deaf, or just quiet,” Mom says.
“Probably just quiet and stubborn and sullen as always,” Tito Sisi mutters. We don’t reply, unsure of how to respond to a relative so at odds with our grandfather. Tito Sisi notices our discomfort. “But I’m talking about old fights for old farts, aren’t I?” He offers us a smile, though it’s more a grim press of the lips than anything else. He sighs. “Here I am, an old man, in this small rundown town, visiting that small rundown graveyard every day. In no time at all I’ll be sleeping there every night.” His voice is strong and lucid, though the change in topic is wandering. “Here I am, an old man, in this small rundown house—”
“The place looks good, Tito,” Dad says.
“—built by my older brother. Here I am, an old man, though no one wanted this house, and I still don’t want it. It would be nice if Kuya Lamig visited sometime.” The young lady beside him coughs. “But I suppose he can’t, right?” Tito Sisi looks guiltily at the lady, as though just realizing the inappropriate subject. “Have you met Delia yet?” he asks.
“Yes, we spoke earlier,” Dad says, nodding politely at Delia.
“What a cold way to greet your. . .What would you two be?” he asks, turning to Delia.
Delia clicks her tongue in a disapproving way. “I don’t know, Papa. You seem tired. We should stop walking to the cemetery. You’re too old.”
“I’m not old,” Tito Sisi bristles despite what he’d said earlier. “I’m as sharp as can be, and you two are related, though twice removed.” He turns to Dad. “This is my granddaughter, Ton. This silly girl tends to her silly grandfather.” He smiles at Delia—a real smile this time.
Upon hearing this we swarm towards her. “Hello,” we say. “It’s nice to meet you.” “We didn’t know.” We kiss her cheek, but the belated greeting feels awkward.
I can’t help but feel guilty when I see Tito Sisi’s fond smile. I don’t know what’s happened to Tito Sisi’s wife, children or other grandchildren—no one bothers to ask—but Tito Sisi’s living arrangements stand in stark contrast to Papa Lamig’s in Toronto. Papa Lamig is tended by strangers and visited once every two weeks despite living minutes away from his three sons, three daughters and sixteen grandchildren. Meeting Delia makes me want to visit Papa Lamig, give him a hug, hold his hand, read him books and tell him about my day, though even as I think of it I know how silly it will be trying to shower love on a man seemingly so averse to affection.
“I like what you did to the place, Tito,” Dad says again.
Tito Sisi looks around. “I suppose I’ve maintained it well,” he says. “You tell your dad that, Ton. Let him know that I’m taking care of the place, even though he should be the one here. He’s the one that wanted it, after all. I never did.” But his voice lacks all his earlier, angrier conviction. Instead he sounds tired and, for the first time since we’ve started talking, old.
“You should call him, Tito, and tell him yourself,” Mom says.
“Maybe,” Tito Sisi says. “Maybe next time.”
I’m not sure if he means that he’ll talk to Papa Lamig the next time we visit or the next time he picks up the phone. The chances of either are slim, seeing as he lives in such a remote part of the world. We don’t question him any further, knowing “next time” is probably the closest Tito Sisi will ever get to talking to Papa Lamig again.
The boiling point came when the siblings demanded to split up and sell the Malikay family graveyard.
The car windows are black in the night, making it feel like we’re sitting in a small, self-contained world. “What was that all about?” Mason asks as we drive away from the Malikay house. “Tito Sisi and Papa Lamig don’t seem like they’re on the best of terms.”
I snort. “No, they don’t seem quite so friendly.”
Mom and Dad share a glance. Dad shrugs. “The Malikays weren’t always a well-off family,” Mom says, “but they were one of the first families to settle in Noveleta, and they built a small home and appropriated a small plot of land to bury their dead. Papa Lamig had to work hard. As the oldest of six kids, he paid his way through school and took care of his siblings, too. He managed to expand the Malikay empire, if that’s what you want to call it, and purchased a lot of property around Noveleta to invest and grow the family funds. His siblings began taking their new wealth for granted though, and assumed the land Papa Lamig bought was theirs to have and sell. A couple of siblings fell into debt and demanded ‘their piece’ of the land. In the end, all the land Papa Lamig purchased was sold and gambled away. The boiling point came when the siblings demanded to split up and sell the Malikay family graveyard.”
“That’s crazy,” Mason says. “If only a couple of siblings were causing trouble, why did Papa Lamig fall out with all of them?”
“They all feared Papa Lamig. He was their father figure,” Mom says. “So when the others saw him getting angry, they tried to talk his anger down. I suppose he felt ostracized by his siblings, on top of feeling used. He left the Philippines soon after, telling them they could have the family home to tear up as they saw fit. He never talked to his siblings again. I suppose Tito Sisi looked after the place in the end, though he sounds as bitter as Papa Lamig.”
“Does Papa Lamig know they kept the family house and graveyard?”
“Of course he knows they kept it, but it doesn’t change a thing. It happened over forty years ago, but Papa Lamig’s stubborn. How do you think he made it through school and took care of his siblings, too? He’s set in his ways.”
“It sounds like Tito Sisi wants to talk to him again,” I say.
“Papa Lamig wants to talk to him, too. He talks about the fight often enough, that’s for sure.”
“Maybe he talks about it so much because he’s still mad.”
“I used to think the same thing,” Dad says, “but I’m starting to realize that, as you get older, you forget about the things you don’t care about and only talk about the things you do. Papa Lamig probably rages about it all half a century later because it’s the only way he can be close to it in the end. How can you stop caring about blood?”
“They could always just call each other,” Mason says. “It’s not hard to get in touch these days.”
“Those two?” Dad laughs. “They’ll never talk again. Even if they’re on their deathbeds—which they both practically are—they will never talk again. Of that I am certain.”
“Silly old men,” Mom says flippantly, but no one says much after that.
We visit Papa Lamig when we return to Toronto, surrounding him on his recliner lift chair by the TV. Dad connects the camera to the television and we view photos of the Philippines in rapid succession. He slows down when we reach photos of the Malikay graveyard.
“We visited Tito Sisi, Daddy,” Dad says, raising his voice.
Papa Lamig grunts.
“He visits the graveyard every day and maintains it well. The house looks good too—just as I remember it.”
Papa Lamig grunts again, this time with exertion. The seat of his chair tilts upwards, making a grinding, mechanical noise. Dad moves to assist him, but his extended arm is ignored as Papa Lamig grabs his aluminum walker instead. We watch as he shuffles around a tottering pile of stacked boxes towards his bedroom. When Papa Lamig first moved into the small, assisted-living unit, his sons said they’d unpack everything eventually. But as time progressed the boxes remained, as though unpacking would be a waste of time when their repackaging was inevitable.
“Ay, your Papa Lamig,” Mom says to Mason and me, waving a hand at his retreat, “same as always.”
The rest of our visit passes uneventfully. We flip through 600 pictures together, though we’ve seen them all before, and get ready to go as soon as the viewing is done. Our visit lasts no more than half an hour.
“Well, that was time well spent,” Mason says.
Dad tiptoes to Papa Lamig’s room and returns shortly after. “He’s sleeping,” Dad says. “I doubt he wants to be disturbed.”
I remember Delia attending to Tito Sisi, her hand on his arm as he came to greet us. “Shouldn’t we at least say bye?” I ask.
“It’s fine. If he wants to be left alone, then we should leave him be,” Mom says.
I remember Tito Sisi smiling at Delia, his eyes bright as he introduced us to Delia. “I’ll be right back,” I say, and walk to Papa Lamig’s room.
I find Papa Lamig resting on his side under a thin white bed sheet. His eyes are open and directed towards a pile of suitcases tucked behind his bedroom door for lack of a better storage place. I can’t tell if he’s staring at the luggage in particular or if he’s dozed off looking into space.
“Bye, Papa Lamig,” I say from the doorway, waving a hand to catch his attention. “We’re going now.” His eyes flicker towards me before flickering away. He makes no movement otherwise. He may as well be sleeping.
I can’t help but think of the Malikay graveyard and family home, all of which belongs to him, none of which he’ll ever see again. I can’t help but think of Delia and Tito Sisi halfway around the world, of the life Tito Sisi lives that he said he didn’t want, and the life Papa Lamig has that he said he did.
I walk towards him and kiss his cheek. “I’ll see you next time,” I say. “Soon. I’ll visit more often. Wouldn’t that be nice?” If I’m expecting him to say something, he doesn’t. But his eyes flicker back towards mine, and meet and hold my gaze. “Yes,” I say with greater conviction. “I’ll visit more often. I’ll come back soon. I’ll see you next time,” I say again. And I mean it.