The daughter of St. Claire
ANTIPOLO CITY, Philippines – The first miscarriage happened far from home. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She was bleeding in the bathroom when she discovered there was a child, and that the child was gone. The doctors told her later she had been 3 months along.
Federico told her it would be all right. The miscarriage hurt both of them, but not for very long. They were young and hopeful and very much in love. They had gotten married in spite of their parents, or maybe because of them. Her parents were angry; his were shocked. There was no need for marriage, not yet, with both of them students and neither of them with jobs. Both of them quit college to work, Federico only 30 units short of graduation. They were the children of comfortable families, and they were on their own, and food was scarce.
Sometimes they would fight. Sometimes she would cry. But there were no regrets. It was the beginning, and the world was waiting.
She took care the second time she found herself pregnant. The doctor said she had hypertension, and recommended bed rest. She miscarried again, after two months.
They wanted a baby, badly. It seemed they had always been ready.
The third pregnancy lasted only a month.
The fourth made it all the way to seven before Elenita bled and the baby came out dead.
That was when they decided to dance.
The idea came from Elenita’s mother.
There was a place, she said, where prayers are answered. The municipality is called Obando, in the province of Bulacan, where every year a crowd of devotees dance in prayer to St. Claire. Young women pray for husbands, young men for wives, while men and women dance for life to bloom in infertile wombs.
Elenita believed. Federico believed because she did.
Federico did not want to dance. He was a quiet man, a shy man, and he was terrified by the thought of turning and twirling surrounded by hundreds of watching eyes. He schooled his mind and readied his body. He comforted himself with the thought that walking would be enough. One foot in front of another, just one unremarkable man in a throng of leaping men and women. It was enough to be beside Elenita, to be part of the procession, to pray, the way a man prays.
The march began with an effigy of the sainted Claire. The crowds shoved into the street. Federico heard the music, pumping in his head, pounding under his skin, and then suddenly the man who was afraid to dance found himself spinning, hands to sky, feet tapping out a rumba on a street crowded with a thousand prayers.
Three months later, Elenita was pregnant.
They named the baby Niño Floyd.
After the birth, Elenita was told she couldn’t see the baby. Niño was brought to another hospital. The doctors said he had a congenital heart disease. They said he had a 50-50 chance of survival.
Every day, Federico would go from his wife’s recovery room to another city where machines monitored his son's heart. It was a full 15 days before Niño Floyd was brought home.
It was a difficult year. Every day, they were afraid their only child would be taken away.
They tried, very hard. Hunted down his medication. Watched his every breath. A cold, a small cough, a hiccup, and they would bundle him back to the hospital.
They tried, very hard, but Niño Floyd did not live to his second birthday.
The doctor said having more children would be dangerous. That it might happen again.
The sixth time Elenita found herself pregnant was the first time she wasn’t glad.
She took a jeep to her sister’s, over a rutted road. She wanted the baby gone, before she could fall in love with it, before it was taken away. The jeep staggered.
Elenita held on. So did the baby.
This time they were afraid. Elenita refused to take her medication. She suffered through the hypertension. She was afraid the medicine would hurt her child.
Federico watched over his wife. Fresh milk in the morning. Fresh orange juice in the afternoon. Bed rest, and a bible in the mornings.
When the baby was born, the doctors listened to her heart. Normal, they said.
Check again, she asked, heart in her throat.
Normal, said the doctors.
They put the baby on Elenita’s shoulder, a fat, round-faced, red-cheeked darling. They named her Fjel, for Federico and Elenita, with the J added to make her special.
That year, they went back to Obando, and every year after, dancing in thanks, sometimes with small Fjel in her mother’s arms.
They told their daughter she was a gift from St. Claire. Her father put her on a school bus every morning, her mother was there when Fjel came home. She read books about flying unicorns and magic wands in a room with purple curtains and walls painted a sunny yellow.
It was a small family, a unit of three. They sang Beatles songs in the car. They drove to the mall for ice cream popsicles. And there was love, always love, for the girl with the glasses and the big, big eyes. For Federico, love meant standing outside a bookstore at the break of dawn before work, waiting for the doors to open so Fjel could discover how Harry Potter defeated He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. For Elenita, love meant holding her child as Fjel wept over sad movies and small heartbreaks. It meant understanding that sometimes, loving meant letting even princesses grow up.
It was when Fjel was in her late twenties the family discovered Elenita was ill.
Fjel was afraid. Her father was afraid. They pulled together, held hands, hoped and prayed.
It was then that Elenita began worrying about death. She was not afraid for herself, but for her baby and the life Fjel would live after her mother was gone. Elenita wanted Fjel happy. She wanted her daughter to have a husband, children, to find the safety and comfort of the life Elenita fought to have.
And because it was what Elenita wanted, and because it was the sort of man he was, Federico Maranan drove to municipality of Obando and knelt before the patron of love and fertility. His prayer was not for a child, but for his own child to find a husband to love. His wife was too weak to join him, and so he stood alone, in he crowd, his wife leaning at the edge of the crowd.
Federico heard the music, pumping in his head, pounding under his skin, and then the man who had more to fear than dancing in a crowd found himself spinning, hands to sky, feet tapping out a rumba on a street with a prayer on his lips. He danced as he danced almost three decades years before, danced for the daughter he hoped would find love the way they once did.
Fjel met JR at work. She was a trainer at a call center. He was in her class. His shirt was unbuttoned to his chest, his Mohawk a caterpillar crawling over his skull. Always he was there, dimple at the corner of his mouth, shoulders broad under his sleeves. She ignored him, but he stayed, a blinking green light at the corner of her eye.
A long time after, JR sent Fjel a message. He sat at home, fingers poised over the keyboard, nervous, waiting for the next reply, then the next. Finally he asked her to see a movie. She said yes. He was late to the theater. He couldn’t decide what to wear, maybe the white shirt, maybe the blue.
He played her songs on his guitar, he told her stories, they talked, for hours. When he kissed her, she cried, then she laughed, and that was it.
He met her parents, and they were happy. There was talk of marriage, of a future. Fjel’s father had retired, her mother was recuperating at home. All was well, until JR got a phone call from Fjel, and went running to the hospital. He held her while she wept, like a little girl. The doctors told her that her mother was dying. They said Elenita had months to live.
Fjel borrowed money for the hospital bills, took loans from her company, accepted help from friends. Her father mortgaged his pension. There were months in the hospital, and a debt of almost half a million. Elenita lay in bed. She said she wanted to die. She didn’t want to be a burden, said it was too much weight for her baby to carry.
Fjel was angry. She was fighting, she said, she needed her mother to fight as well.
In the city of Antipolo, down a quiet road in a quiet village, there is a small house where a family lives.
There is an old man, in his mid-sixties, his hair still black, his frame gaunt, who sweeps the floor and cooks the meals and stops to run his hand over his wife’s hair. There is a young woman, inside a bedroom with yellow walls and purple curtains, a girl whose mind revolves around the monthly check and the cost of providing for the small family. Sometimes there is a young man, guitar in hand, his Mohawk gone, the dimple winking, who comes to press the old man’s palm against his forehead.
There is another room in the house, where the shadows are darker and the air is cooler. Elenita sits by the window. She has refused chemotherapy. She has refused the expensive surgery. She smiles and tells her stories and sometimes weeps when she thinks there is no one looking.
The doctors tell her she has a month left to live. She believes they are wrong. She prays for more time, time to watch her daughter married, time to carry a newborn baby the same way she carried her gift from St. Claire.
She wishes she could dance, one more time. - With research by Nico Bagsic/Rappler.com