June 9, 2020
Leaning my back on the chair, I stared at the assignments I ought to do for my volunteering. A heavy sigh escaped through my cracked lips. Involving myself in five different organizations for the sake of not losing my last brink of sanity during quarantine may have been… not the wisest choice I made. My nights consisted of playing for god-knows how many hours of League of Legends and drifting into dawn as I bellowed at 3 am in the morning through Discord. Then, the next morning — or hours, really — I would head straight to online work.
Forgetting to hydrate? Check. Drinking sodas and filling my room with spoiled food? Check. Is my room becoming unlivable? Check.
As I forced myself to revert my concentration back to a work project, my phone lit up — vibrating incessantly against the table.
Who could be calling me at 2 PM in the afternoon? Annoyed, I turned to the phone.
The caller was Dad.
How odd. My father, a night shift nurse who’s sleep schedule is far worse than mine, would be dead asleep in his condo around this time of the day. Not to mention, his days (nights?) seem to be arduously long as the novel coronavirus swept through his hospital and as he aided COVID-19 patients.
I shrugged off the feeling of confusion. Instead, it was replaced with anticipation and a hint of excitement at the prospect of my father calling to hang out with me. My parents were not together — yet, his apartment building was right across my mother’s. I can simply cross the street to see him. Was he going to hang out with me today?
“Good evening – ah, good afternoon Dad, what’s up?” I put the phone under my ear.
“Good afternoon, Zee, come down in five minutes. I have your sticky rice,” he said.
My mind short-circuited. Sticky rice? In five minutes? Ah, I remembered now. A few days ago, I complained to him about how terrible microwavable sticky rice was as I tried to make suman malagkit. A Filipino dessert made of sticky rice and condiments. When I made my failed suman, it was pathetically soaked in coconut milk that I renamed it as “drowning suman”. Even my mom refused to try it, as she wanted to try the perfected version — not whatever that was.
At first, I smiled at the thought of my Da going out of his way for me. Then, I frowned and replied, “Right now?”
“Yes, get down in five minutes,” his demanding tone meant that he was already waiting downstairs.
I grumbled an ‘okay’ and ended the call. I threw on a pink hoodie and leggings — hoping it would look presentable for a quick jog to the side of my apartment building. As I scrambled to put my shoes on and grab my keys, I noticed that my keys were not hanging on the wall near my apartment door. I cussed as my phone vibrated once again.
“Zee? Go down now.”
“Uh, Dad, can you wait for like… a second? Looking for my keys.”
Da clicked his tongue but patiently waited for a good two minutes as I dug through piles and piles of clothes, food, and paper on my bedroom floor.
“Hurry up, Zee, I’m tired,” I heard the grumpiness of his voice through the line. A warning that he might as well not give me the sticky rice. Still, my keys were nowhere to be found — just like all things that get lost in my room. I asked if I could just come by and pick up the rice later at his house — to which he flatly refused. Pouting, I figured it was due to him planning to sleep throughout the day as he was strangely up at this time. He normally sleeps throughout the morning and afternoon. Surely, he broke his average day.
My phone rang again.
“Give me a second,” I too was getting aggravated.
“Give me a second? A second is now two minutes?” He asked in disbelief. At that point, my annoyance tipped as the pressure of being rushed squeezed in.
Snapping as I dug through the pockets of one of my shorts, “Da, do you know what hyperbolic phrases are? Like, can you understand what that means? I’m exaggerating and I don’t mean a second.”
“Hyperbolic phrases, ah, what’s that?”
“Haha, I love you.”
He laughed as he said those three words. Of course, upon knowing he has worked me up for nothing, I ended the call abruptly without saying those three words back. He loved teasing his also-sleep-deprived daughter.
When I fished out the keys, I clutched them on my chest then ran for the door. I called him again saying I was on my way down. The Miami heat and humidity greeted me as I exited the door. The sun’s glaring gaze made me regret wearing a hoodie. Cussing again, I speed walked my way through the curbside of my apartment building through the stairs and ramp. As the familiar green gate greeted me, I caught a glimpse of his black Lexus parked and my Da’s white tank top. I hurriedly pressed the gate key and pushed the heavy green door.
Da rolled down his window as soon as I neared his right front door. I grinned widely at him as I reached over the front seat and grabbed the ‘Sweet Rice’.
“Heh, sticky rice, thanks Da,” I hugged the bag and he nodded.
As I turned to my heel, my Dad called out to me. I paused slightly.
“Give me some of your product, Zee. Not rice, but suman.”
A bellowed laughter erupted from my chest at these words. How encouraging. How brave that he dared to try my drowning suman.
“Haha, okay Dad! Thank you. See you Dad,” I happily shouted and shook my head. On my way back to the apartment, I practically skipped and took a picture of the bag of sticky rice. I saw my Da and got a bag of sticky rice, moments I coveted to see in this depressing lockdown.
June 10, 2020
Around 12 am
Talking to online friends during the summer sure was fun. They unknowingly steal your healthy sleep schedule — augmenting it to their time zones. As I played a match of League of Legends, my phone vibrated on my lap. I glanced down from the character I played in the game and my eyes widened incredulously.
A missed call from an unknown number from Miami. At the top of this notification was a text sent from this number.
‘Hi Zeean, this is Tita Ching. Can I call you?’
Today, technically yesterday, Da gave me a bag of sticky rice out of nowhere. Now, his sister — my aunt — was calling me at 12 AM? An aunt I have not spoken to in three years or so. Da never likes to participate in his family gatherings — he does not even take me to my grandparents from time to time. Though, a week ago, he compared me to this aunt and told me to take it as a compliment.
I excused myself from my friends online. Instead of calling Tita Ching, my instinct told me to directly call Da. He would be awake at this time, assuming he slept throughout the day. I rang his phone two times, but to no avail, he did not answer. Perhaps he was asleep? Having no choice and sensing the peculiarity of the call, I pressed on my aunt’s number.
“Hello? Good evening Tita,” I greeted.
“Zeean? Hi Zeean. The hospital called and your Dad is in the E.R.”
My heart stopped beating for a second. Yet, I remained calm. My dad mentioned that he has gone to the E.R due to blood pressure — maybe this was one of those moments.
“Really? Is he okay?” My voice wavered.
“We do not know yet. But can you come to the E.R right now? Your Lolo and I are coming — Tita Bang as well.”
My grandfather, my aunt, and my great-aunt. The three of them were on their way to the emergency room for Da? That was quite an entourage. When I questioned if he was alright, she insisted that I should go to the hospital with my mother. A plethora of questions rushed in my head — warning signals — at my aunt’s lack of details. As Tita Ching asked if I saw him today, I explained to her how he dropped off the suman and how he indicated he was tired. When the call ended, I still could not pry details from her.
My father was not answering, so I shakily dialed for my half brother — ‘best brother’ as his contact name.
“Koy? Da’s in the E.R,” I attempted to keep my voice steady. Pins and needles crept through the pit of my stomach as the gravity of the situation sinks in. My brother’s calm deep voice soothed me as he said there was no news yet. However, his mother received the news. Minutes passed as I stayed in line with my brother, Francis, and our common friend, Manny.
“He had a cardiac arrest,” Francis finally relayed to me.
June 10, 2020
~ 1:30 AM
My body screamed as I tapped my right foot against the car floor. The N-95 mask tightly pressed against my tear-stained cheeks — a dull ache that could not compare to my nerves.
The streets were dead empty as my mother drove the car to the hospital. As we weaved through the road, memories of my father flashed through my mind like a stack of polaroid dropped on the floor. From his big smile that revealed crooked teeth to him sighing at my terrible driving, the thought of such memories coming to a halt weighted down my already heavy heart.
Dread gnawed its way to my chest, eating away the last crumbs of hope as the car pulled up to a smaller road that led to a gate. The surroundings were all too familiar to me as this hospital was where my father worked and my mother’s hospital was not too far off. Both of my parents were nurses. A masked security guard walked on the sidewalk and my Ma rolled down the window. She asked if the gate ahead of us led to the emergency room entrance. He replied with a yes and told us to drive up.
Dread, dread, dread. All I knew was dread when I saw the figures of my two aunts and my grandfather all masked.
Dread, dread, dread as my ma parked next to my aunt’s CR-V and as my feet met the ground.
I forced myself to face my father’s family. Shoving my hands inside the hoodie, I spoke up.
“I-is Da okay?” I croaked out. A gentle hand laid on my left arm.
Dread, dread, dread.
“Your father was playing basketball. He suddenly had a cardiac arrest but he was found on the bench.”
Dread, dread, dread.
“The security guard found him and called the first responders.”
Dread, dread, dread.
“They tried to resuscitate him for twenty minutes.”
Dread, dread, dread.
“But, there was no pulse,” my dad’s sister trailed off.
Give me some of your product, Zee. Not rice, but suman.
“No, that’s my da. He’s gone. My da is gone!” I clenched my fist as the angry streams of tears ran through my cheeks. As I cried out, my saliva filled the airtight mask on my face.
How could that he be gone so fast, so fleeting? One moment I see his tan face with his thick-rimmed glasses then the next he’s gone. How could he be a minute away and I failed to foresee this loss? He was so close, playing on the basketball court on his apartment building that I sometimes could see from my own building on the thirtieth floor. He was so close to me. I was so close to him. Yet, why did it seem like I was thousands of miles away?
I had told him that I could come later on and pick up the sticky rice at his house instead — around the same time he would be playing basketball. I could have, should have.
But I did not. My father was gone. Just like that. So fast.
“Zeean, the emergency room is letting us see his body,” Tita Ching gestured to herself, my grandfather, and me.
I felt like a hollow shell, a failure nodding to her aunt. The failure who could not have thought twice to insist was going to see her father on his deathbed. I vowed to myself to check up on him from time-to-time, as I did not want the tragedy of my aunt and uncle from the Philippines to happen again. Two sudden deaths of the people that have colored my life pretty as a child were more than enough. Two regrets of not connecting to those people before I even had a chance to say goodbye.
They say that the third time’s a charm. But the slight difference between my father and those two other relatives was that I had successfully kept in touch with him.
The wrenched shell took a tentative step towards the hospital.
I had lost another one, again.
June 10, 2020
~ 2:30 AM
Hospitals were once a place I admired and secretly wanted to explore in. The sterile smell, doctors in white lab coats and nurses in blue scrubs… I adored it all. However, as I tapped my feet against the floor as I waited in a room with my grandfather and aunt, I abhorred being in the hospital.
Before letting us see my father’s body, we were told to wait until the emergency room was ready.
I kept myself straying away from thoughts of joining my dad’s fate by talking to my brother on the phone. As I stared at the pristine, clean floors of the hospital, a lady opened the room and nodded. She was the worker who allowed us to go inside the E.R.
Was I ready? Ready to see him?
Maybe I was.
My body felt heavy as I stood up from the maroon couch. I could feel Tita Ching squeezing my arms as we trudged our way to the halls. We followed the lady and as she opened the white door, a protective curtain also greeted us as we entered.
She moved the blue curtain. Then, another woman went inside — pulling down the white blanket from a figure.
I was not ready.
A tube was placed inside his mouth and his eyes were closed. The ventilator screen black as it had nobody to keep alive.
His pale lips were cracked. Light red spots of bloodstain next to his hands.
“Da, da, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating like a mantra. I could not hear anything else. I lowered my head as I kept apologizing to his lifeless body that used to be filled with laughter and endless teasing. My eyes raked over him, getting a good look at him before he was gone again.
He looked peaceful, without his glasses, as if sleeping. He would complain every time I woke him up. But now, my loud cries — begging him to forgive me — can no longer wake him up.
“Give me some of your product, Zee. Not rice, but suman.”
He will no longer be able to taste it.
People I have not spoken to in years called and gave their condolences. In bed, as I laid down next to my mom, I was empty.
The words could not bring him back.
I breathed in and out, calming myself. His family came to his apartment building to view the CCTV footage of his death. I could not even bear to see his body, let alone watch his death. I rushed out of the office and went outside. Without thinking much of it, I hum my father’s favorite song. Ewan.
“Mahal kita, mahal kita, hindi ito bola,” I softly sang. I stared at the direction of his basketball court, hoping he could hear the song.
June 11, 2020
A butterfly, with its wings spread open, laid on the concrete floor. Upon looking closer, the edges of its wings were sapphire in color and its body was bright orange. An Atala butterfly. The afternoon wind hummed softly and the trees swayed as my heart thrummed.
“Ma, the butterfly is dead,” I said as my mother held back my arm to prevent me from stepping on it. The pretty little thing did not move when I inched closer to the steps. The body revealed its underside and, indeed, it lay there motionless. Alone. Vulnerable. Lifeless.
My mother, my friend, and I could not help but appreciate the sheer beauty of this fallen butterfly. A tragically beautiful sight to marvel at. You can never admire alive butterflies like this close. As soon as you look, it’s almost as if they are gone — as if you’ll never get a chance to look at them again. The only thing that’s left is the soundless beat of their paperlike wings. Then they’re gone. You’ll never see the same butterfly you chased ever again.
What does it take to catch a butterfly and protect it from falling?
How I wish I could call out to my father and demand an answer.
The sunlight gleamed through the leaves as I perched my arms over it. I smiled. Black, sapphire, and orange wings — many of them — fluttered all around the trees.
A thought slipped inside my mind.
“They look… like basketballs,” I humored.
Two butterflies chased each other.
But, as I look back, my father is like that butterfly — and its wings reminded of him. My father, as fleeting and as fast as these Atala butterflies go, passed doing his true passion. Basketball. It was only his passing that I could truly appreciate his essence and our memories together.
As the summer breeze gust over me, I think to myself:
Zeean Firmeza is a student from School For Advanced Studies and an avid advocate for children and her peers. She has won an Honorable Mention from Scholastic Writing Competition in 2018, published in a school literary magazine, and a staff writer for The Peahce Project: Celebrating Asian-American identity through media. For our generation and the next.