Our busy lives as exiles are marked by simple joys we keep on recalling to ourselves.
Each recollection would always put a smile on our lips even when we are alone, at work or by ourselves.
Like this morning, I remember the story of the missus about the youngest, the daughter who was just a year old when I left to find us something, just something better, in another land.
I remember that in the mid 80's, I have planned to migrate to Australia, to find out something better there for us all.
But the first two children were too young then, one three years old, the other just turned one. And those were the difficult and distressing days of People Power I, the first ever revolution, bloodless and peaceful and filled with promise but did not deliver.
The missus and I thought and thought hard.
Maybe this is not the right time, she told me.
When is the best time? I insisted. We cannot keep on living like this, this sense of owing so much rent money right after you have just paid the rent to the landlord that has nothing to do day-in and day-out except to wait for your rent money.
We were younger then, and not much courage and daring for resources to go on exile.
And we had lesser of experience in life to try out something new, something newer, something less familiar.
We could have pushed it through, this plan of going away to find something more novel, something more decent other than what the country offered.
I was a young instructor in a university then, a university run by mendicant religious who never knew the meaning of mendicancy that many of the faculty knew too well.
This was why we teachers were forced to call a strike when we found out that some of the tuition money that should have been used to augment our petty wages was going to some other pockets other than the flattened ones we have got, we who had to put in so much of our mind to help educate the young who were to become leaders of the land.
This is not the point of the story though.
The point is that we called it off, this going away, this leaving the homeland to live somewhere else.
We had our reasons, legit, parental, social and all those hodge-podge of reasons we had to invent to justify our cowardice of trying it out: the children were too young they would not understand why they had no relatives around them, we would be lost in the big city of Melbourne or in the wilds of Perth, we did not have enough of the finances to make the journey.
We were living on an instructor's salary then, part of which was being taken, without us teachers knowing, by the priests who should have given us all what we teachers deserved.
So we made a pact, the missus and I: let us make do with what we have. We can go on living with decency and self-respect if we only try.
The missus said: I will be able to help you out once the children get to be a bit bigger and older. We can afford a househelp and I can go back to teach. You can go on with your masters. Life will be a bit better.
She was always like that, the missus. She saw light even in the dark.
She saw joy even in the most sorrowful of life's mysteries.
You call that the weight that balanced you when you were young and you did not know the meaning of limitation, of finitude, of mortality, of patience.
So for many years, this going away had to be postponed until one day, some twenty years after, I talked it out with the missus and the grown-up children, minus the lastborn who had just celebrated her fist birthday with the Jollibee mascot and family.
I said, I have to go. I will find us something. Something better.
The children were going to college and the prospect of sending them to the better schools was getting dimmer and dimmer.
I was on an associate professor's salary in a state university that had more of pride than pesos, more history of national service (read: servitude) than history of helping out its professors improve a bit their economic lives.
I simply got tired reading xeroxed new books, the latest books on my area of expertise and field of interest. I wanted the real stuff for scholarly security, a kind of security blanket academics ought to have.
The thousand or so clothing allowance we get every June at the beginning of classes did not go to buying clothes that would make me a bit decent-looking but would be rushed to pay off a xerox-money debt at the shopping center.
I have connived with a xerox operator and he would give me a generous term to pay my debt for all the books that I wanted xeoxed because I just could not afford the original. Talk about intellectual property rights here. And I was not alone at the state university doing that.
I needed to buy the books I needed to read but I could not afford to shell out two thousand pesos, the equivalent of rice money for two months, to buy a book from the United States where knowledge is produced by the multiple, as if in the country, there was not any knowledge being produced over here.
And so I left, leaving the one year old with the promise of coming back and getting them so we could all live together again as one happy family. Such a dream has kept us connected, vowing to each other that with God's help, we shall overcome all the odds and for certain, we will find something, something better, in another land.
The email kept us company, as a result.
We made it a point that above all things, the telephone and the email are a constant in our daily lives.
As a consequence, the telephone and internet bills are far more than the grocery bills.
But we took the bills as one of those inevitable expenses, making sure that these bills are paid regularly so we would have a way to talk and talk and write and write.
These acts became--they still are--part and parcel of our ceremony of survival as a family.
The missus, as always, is on the guard for the things that we can do without. Food, definitely, is not one of them.
But the youngest has been taking the same milk formula since she was three and now she is four.
One time, the missus bought another milk from another company, hoping against hope that the young daughter
would like it.
Once she was home, she had all those maternal delight to show her 'ambong'--the pasalubong--to the daughter, now four.
What is that, mama?
Your new milk.
What new milk?
I bought one. I make one for you, you like?
Now I am making it.
Here is it.
The girl got the milk, tried the milk bottle, and right after threw it away in tantrum. Mabaho, ang baho!
So the milk had to be exiled. Fast.
We were back to the same milk formula and we were back to counting the thousands of pesos that we would have to allot for that milk formula every month.
The firstborn was working on his thesis at this time and the cost of supporting two children in college, one away and living on his own, and the other in a tech college, was enormous.
And now, today, there is a twist to this story.
One day, just recently, the missus emailed to me:
Mama, kailan mo ako ibibilhan ng Nido?
Kailan mo gusto?
Gusto ko ng Nido.
Bukas, gusto mo?
Opo. Nido ha?
Wala kang nabiling Nido?
Wala pa e. Walang Nido. Birchtree, gusto mo? Yun ang iniinom namin noon. Ako, si kuya, si ate.
Ayokong Birchtree! Kasi, mama, four na ako. Hindi na ako three, di ba?
O sige, Birch Four ang bibilhin ko. Masarap yun. Yung ang gatas namin noon, di ba sabi ko na sa iyo? Kaya tingnan mo.
O sige, pero Birch Four ha. Kasi, para sa four yun.
End of story.
Exilic life is happier when we get details like these everyday.
I have yet to receive the email about that next episode to the Birch Four story.
A. S. Agcaoili
June 6, 2006