Lo! Here Am I

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.”

-G.M. Hopkins

Although someday in the years to come we may at last plumb the depths of the seas and scour the vast stellar spheres, I doubt that man shall ever fully fathom the mysterious inner workings of his own heart.

What preternatural force or impulse was it that moved Jan S. to finally heed his granduncle’s message on the phone and pay him a visit?

Consider that I speak of the same man that’d now just woken up with a piercing hangover headache, his skullwalls imploding — the same post-debauch sensation he’d been experiencing almost every late morning for more than a month now, ever since he’d been kicked out by his wife and estranged by his three kids for a short-lived affair with some exotic femme he’d met during one of his travel trips abroad for work (the work as aspiring company manager from which for the same drinking habit he’d not long ago been terminated) — he convinced he’d failed as father and husband not because of the affair in itself but because he’d been caught, this not being the only extramarital fling he’d been engaged in in the past nor the most piquant — he convinced that affair was not the word to use but rather outlet, because he felt he never ceased loving his wife nor children nor did he ever cease to find in them a lack affection, only that the feeble flesh to which he was confined clamored for such constant consolations, he believing himself to be but thrall to the headlong course of his whimsical glands — this perhaps explaining the fact that as he now got out of the bed to shower and get dressed for the visit to his granduncle he found beside him a loudly sleeping and not at all attractive woman whose face let alone name he could not remember.

“You’re leaving?” she said when she’d woken up.

He looked at her through the bathroom mirror as he shaved his three-week old stubble. She’d sat up covering herself with the bedsheets. Under the dim light which passed through the yet drawn curtains of the apartment she looked with her unmade hair and smeared makeup like some formidable gorgon who under full visibility would evince a lethal countenance.

“Yeah,” he said.

“And my payment?”

He stopped shaving and turned to her. “Payment?”

“My payment. What, you thought I did that for free? I’m no lover of yours.”

“What? … Oh. Right. I see. Yes.”

“Why are you making that face at me?”

“What? Oh. It’s just my hangover.”

“Well pay up.”

“Right. How much did you say was it?”

There was nothing new in the contents of the message his granduncle had sent him. No hint whatsoever that anything was wrong. It was true they hadn’t seen each other in six years — this during Jan’s wedding of which the granduncle was celebrant even though he’d already been ninety-seven years old at the time, not just because he was the only priest in the family but because since Jan’s boyhood the granduncle had played the role of spiritual father, which has in many cases shown to form bonds more intimate than natural fatherhood (as was the case here). It was true that his granduncle had been sending him the same message almost every month during those six years — gud am jan this is ur uncle fr carlos was just wondering if you would like to come and make a visit bec havent seen you in a while. let me know. But Jan had ignored those texts — not consciously, not because of any ill-will towards his venerable and holy granduncle, but because of the inherent languor of human nature and its shortsighted proclivity to procrastinate.

So what exactly was it that moved him — entrapped in a drinking habit and fully acquainted now with the uttermost reaches of human sorrow — to at last get out of the selfmade chrysalis of gloom of his rented Makati apartment and bear the three-hour bus ride through hellish Manila weekday traffic to his granduncle’s parochial residence in some farflung corner of Laguna? Perhaps even Jan himself, even with the matured vantage point of retrospection that comes with the passage of years, will never be able to answer.

When he rang the bell the parish assistant opened the door for him.

“Good morning,” Jan said. “I’m here to see Fr. Carlos.”

The parish assistant frowned. “Fr. Carlos can’t see anyone today.”

“What?”

“He’s very sick. Very, very sick.”

“Sorry but I don’t understand.”

“Ah. You’re not from here, are you. Father’s been bedridden for almost two years. And what can you expect? He’s a hundred-and-three years, strong man as Fr. Carlos is. We all have to give in sometime.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “They say he can go anytime now. If you ask me the man is going straight to heaven. A saint on earth … I guess the best you can do now is pray that he remember you when he enters the heavenly kingdom. He’ll be a most powerful intercessor.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sorry?”

“I just got a text from him asking me to come.”

“A text?”

“Yeah. Here.”

The assistant squinted at the phone screen. “You’re Jan?” the assistant said.

“Yes. ”

“I sent you that message. And the other ones too.”

“What? You?”

“Well. Father Carlos had asked me to send them. Ever since he’d been too weak to write them out himself. I always said to him there was no use since Jan never replied — ”

“Sorry about that. I got caught up with work.”

“ — maybe because he’d changed his number. But no, Fr. Carlos said, just keep sending it. I know he’ll reply eventually, he said. Huh. I guess you should never doubt the persistent prayer of a holy priest. The faith of a mustard seed, the power to move mountains. May God vouchsafe that we may be even a little as holy as Fr. Carlos.”

“Can I come in to see him then?”

“Of course. Come. I’ll lead you to him. But … you might not like what you see. Remember, the spirit of the Lord dwells within the weak and the humble. Anyway, come. I’m sure it will give him consolation to see you at last.”

They went past the living room — barely furnished but clean and dignified — and entered into a poorly lit corridor. A faint stale smell of incense and old skin. Walls decked with portraits of popes past and present, Petrine successors, whose hands wielded the keys to the kingdom. Pious pictures of praying saints, lambent eyes filled with supernatural ecstasy raised to the heavens. Clasped hands wrapped in beads. Forever entranced in a perpetual litany, ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis. A painting of the Virgin and the Godchild in her arms, skin and features painted with an earthy palette and round instead of angular lines and a basis more pious than historical to portray them as Filipinos. Would the perfect Man have chosen to assume the Filipino race?

The assistant spoke to him in a hushed and urgent tone as he led him. “Before Fr. Carlos has even gone to his permanent home in heaven the people are already experiencing miracles. The parishioners are talking all about it.”

“Miracles?” said Jan. “What kind of miracles?”

“One woman told me herself that she’d been found with a malignant stomach tumor and had decided to pray — yes, pray — to Fr. Carlos. Guess what. When she returned to the doctor, it was gone. No trace left, as if nothing ever happened. Just like that. Even the doctors couldn’t explain it.

“There’s another case of a jeepney driver who did the same — pray to Fr. Carlos — so that he could earn some extra money to buy his daughter a present for her birthday. And what do you know, the good Lord deigned to grant this man’s pious petitions — in all his trips during that day all the seats of his jeepney were full. Even during his nightshift up to 2 am. You heard right. 2 am. A jeepney full at 2 am. I tell you, it’s just like the miraculous catch of fish. It’s our very Lord and Savior acting through his instrument Fr. Carlos.”

“I’d want to believe it.”

The parish assistant stopped at a door and placed his hand on the doorknob. He whispered now, barely audible: “Believe it, Jan. I think if there’s one thing the Filipino people need today it’s a saint in their midst. Now more than ever we need the healing presence of more Christs among us.”

He opened the door.

A musty room, the warm dense humus smell that accompanies all aged and dying. As though the flesh at last yearned and clamored for its overdue end, the resulting emanation an aroma that precedes and heralds the imminent decomposition. The parish priest and two old nuns stood by the bed and looked up to see who this new visitor was, their lips parted as they’d been reciting a prayer.

The parish priest looked at Jan and then at the parish assistant. “Willy,” the parish priest said. “I don’t think it’s most prudent to bring in a visitor at these final hours.”

“It’s Jan. His grandnephew.”

A thin voice, barely perceivable, yet firm: “Jan?” The parish priest and the nuns turned back to the figure lying on the bed. The voice spoke again, “Is that you Jan?”

“Yes. It’s me.”

“Let me see you.”

The parish priest and the nuns made room between them as Jan drew towards the bed. His granduncle who’d maintained his saintly dignity and composure even at ninety-six when he’d wedded Jan was now after two years of lying in bed reduced and atrophied to some sad brittle vestige of a man. His eyelids slowly blinking, his cheeks sunken in. The thin and faint outlines of bone under the bedsheets. The pitiful visage of the dead. It’s funny what Time does to Man — Time that creates and gives and crowns and glories is the same that disgraces and destroys.

“Jan,” Fr. Carlos said, a faint smile forming on his lips. “Quite a late reply, I should say.”

“Sorry about that, uncle.”

Fr. Carlos turned his gaze to the parish priest. “Please. Let he and I be alone.”

“But Father,” said the parish priest. “You need to rest.”

“Isn’t death but eternal rest? Please, let my grandnephew and I spend a few moments alone. We haven’t talked in a while.”

Before leaving the room the parish priest handed Jan a thumbworn leatherbound copy of the Jerusalem Bible. “Here,” he whispered. “We read this to him when it becomes too painful for him to talk. The words of Scripture have a calming effect on him.”

“How have you been?” Fr. Carlos said, as soon as he and Jan were alone.

“I guess I can’t complain, seeing how you’re doing.”

“I’d say I’m doing alright.” He winked at Jan. “Grab a chair. Here, sit by me. How’s Melissa?”

“She’s alright. I think.”

“You think?”

“Haven’t seen her in a month. She kicked me out of the house.”

“Kicked you out?”

“Yeah.”

“For good?”

“Let’s talk about something else.”

“No. Let’s talk about this. How long’s it been since the wedding? Eight years?”
“Six.”

“Six?”

“Yeah yeah.”

“You know how long I’ve been a priest? Eighty years. Eighty. Not a bad number, wouldn’t you say?”

“I get it. I get it. What is six compared to eighty. Right.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to give you a homily now. Ah!”

The priest’s face crumpled and gave a quick, violent gasp. He untensed and moaned softly in pain. Jan made to stand up from his chair. “Can I get you something, Father?” he said.

“No, no. Please, sit. There’s not much anyone can do now.”

“Maybe I could read you something from the Bible.”

Fr. Carlos sighed. “No need, Jan,” he said. “No need.” He closed his eyes. No movement save the labored breathing. Jan thought he’d fallen asleep, but soon he spoke again.

“Eighty years,” he said. “It’s been too long, my God. Too long.”

“Father?”

The priest turned his eyes to Jan. They were wet with tears. “My son,” he said, “I am filled with so much doubt. Why has my Lord left me in such despair, such pain? He could have taken me sooner, but I did not complain. Why must He treat those who most love Him in such manner?”

He reached out a withered and trembling arm to the bedside drawer. His hand lingered on a small metal crucifix, caressing it. He drew his arm back into the blanket. “I ask myself now,” he said. “Can we really say that Christ has accompanied us in our sufferings? That Christ, as he sweated blood in the garden and later hung from the cross, indeed suffered? It’s true. He was truly man. But at the same time he was truly God. He suffered the scourging of his flesh, the nails piercing his palms and feet. Yes. But all that time he knew it was part of the plan of his Father. He knew with the all-knowing mind of the divine that his Father would save him, that he would resurrect. He’d already said it to his disciples. And if such were the case he could never have known the darkness of despair, the agony of the man wanting in faith. Alone in such darkness my God has left me. After eighty years of serving Him, eighty years of doing all for Him. And now I find myself at the threshold of death, unable to say one sincere act of love to my God.”

“Father,” said Jan. “Please, don’t say that. Everyone speaks of your holiness — ”

“My holiness? And have they eyes to read the bitter words stamped in my heart?”

His granduncle shut his eyes and started to moan in pain again, strings of saliva stretch across his mouth agape, wet teeth glimmering. “Mary,” he whispered. “My Mother. Where is your consoling?” He started to weep. “They’ve left me,” he said in between sobs, tears streaming down his cheeks. “My loves, they’ve left me.”

Jan stood up and took the Bible. He flipped through the pages in search of some passage that could give his granduncle some consolation, his eyes rushing through those divine words printed on the crisp brown pages like some zealous baptized neophyte inspired by the Spirit. At last he came upon a passage from the Old Testament he thought would serve. As he opened his lips to begin to read his granduncle groaned in agony again, his back arched stiffly, his head pressed against the pillow and his hands contorted at his sides. “Enough,” he said, a delicate whisper choked with tears. “My God. This is enough. This is enough. Oh if you let me see you I have a bone to pick with you.”

At once his back slackened and he exhaled and stopped moving.

Jan ran out of the room and called out to them. “Help,” he said. “Get a doctor.” But there no longer was any need

The parish priest and the two nuns sat in the living room with Jan as the body was dressed for the wake. One of the nuns was sobbing into a handkerchief. The other placed a hand on her back to comfort her.

“Be at peace, Sister Rosario,” said the parish priest. “We’ve gained in Fr. Carlos a most powerful ally beside our Lord. Surely at this moment he listens to our prayers now.”

“Oh,” said the other nun. “I just know we’ll be hearing of many more miracles soon.” She turned to Jan. “What was it like, his final moments here on earth? What were the last words on his lips?”

The three of them all faced Jan now — even Sister Rosario, who had looked up from her weeping, her pious eyes still wet and swollen.

Jan cleared his throat. “He said … He said …”

“What is it?” said Sister Rosario. Those three consecrated religious bodies bent toward him, eyes glittering in exultant expectation.

“He said, ‘Lo, here am I my Lord, for you have called me.’”

The three of them reclined back. A blissful blessed smile irradiated the wet face of Sister Rosario. The other nun crossed herself feverishly and triumphantly. The priest raised his eyes to the heavens, as though communing with his new intercessor.

“Oh Father Carlos,” the priest said, shaking his head and chuckling, a single tear rolling down his cheek. “You couldn’t have picked a better verse. The first book of Samuel. Oh the mysterious grace of God does work such marvels.”

Jan took the last evening bus back to Makati. It was an unairconditioned bus but he did not mind. He felt tired. Before leaving he’d promised the parish priest that he’d come back for his granduncle’s funeral but now he started to think twice. He thought with a hollow misery that they’d make him recount that future saint’s holy last words yet again.

As he settled on his chair at the backmost aisle and watched the other passengers fill the dim-lit bus — greasy carpenters and plumbers, secretaries, young working mothers, callcenter agents, sots, burned-out medical students, fratmen, pariahs, cigarette and porkrind vendors, derelicts — it occurred to him that perhaps just as no saint was assured salvation even up to his final breath, likewise no sinner was assured damnation. It was no ecstatic epiphany, no infused pneumatic illumination, but it was enough to calm him with a subtle yet palpable peace, such that he fell asleep as soon as the bus had started to move, a faint smile traced on his lips. It would be a long ride home.

Aspiring novelist. Frustrated theologian.