The coffin in the living room

THE WIDOW. Lilibeth Natividad stands watch over her husband's coffin. 9 June 2013.

THE WIDOW. Lilibeth Natividad stands watch over her husband's coffin. 9 June 2013.

BULACAN, Phillippines - The coffin is in the living room. The room is small, eleven feet by six, just deep enough for the coffin to stand flush against the wall, and wide enough to crowd half a dozen mourners and one sleeping cat.

The widow comes in from the outhouse bathroom. Her name is Lilibeth. Her hair is wet, there is a towel over her shoulder. She smiles at the visitors, and says she is looking for Hope.

The priest reads from the Bible. Holy water is shaken over the body of Sallymar Natividad. The air smells of sweat and smoke and chicken boiling in vinegar.

Hope is outside, crouched on the street with four other boys, staring intently at the spider crawling over the tip of his finger. Someone calls out his name. He runs into the house, slips past the crowd and their paper plates of rice and chicken.

His mother is sitting beside the coffin. There is a package on her lap. She rips away the cellophane, shakes off the cardboard, cuts the tag off the crisp white T-shirt with a knife from the kitchen. The red shirt comes off, the new shirt is pulled on.

Lilibeth runs a hand over her Hope’s rumpled hair. She says she must smile and keep calm, because she is pregnant, and the baby is due in two months.

Sallymar is dead, and he is leaving home for the last time.

***

Sallymar’s brother Bong is standing alone on the road, past the yard, under the tent sent by the local congressman. He is 34 years old, a skinny man in a white and green Rough Rider polo. There was a phone call, he says, Abenson’s was on the line, saying there had been an accident.

He didn’t know his brother was dead until four in the morning of the next day, June 1.

Sallymar Natividad died at 8:10 in the evening of May 31, exactly two weeks ago, died because the outer wall of Unit 501 of Serendra 2 Building B went flying outward just when Sallymar was driving down 22nd Avenue in an Abenson’s van.

Bong does not remember the last thing his brother told him, even if he remembers when they last spoke. It was May 1, a full month ago.

“Now we’ll never finish that conversation.”

The living room empties, to let in the pallbearers. The door is too narrow for the coffin. Someone looks for a hammer.

Lilibeth watches through the window as a neighbor in a baseball cap pounds away at the already broken concrete frame. An inch, two inches, three, the chunks flying out to land on the mud outside. Now the lid is closed, now the coffin is lifted, now it is angled, pushed, reversed.

***

Imelda is 37, the second in the family. She and Sallymar are close, she says. He sent her money, even when she had a husband of her own. She says he would cook on his days off, the same way he did when they were growing up.

On June 1, at six in the morning, she got a call from her younger brother Bong. He said Sallymar was dead. He said he was in the funeral parlor, in Pasay. She didn’t believe him, until a cousin bought a newspaper at 9 in the morning and she saw a picture of the crushed truck her brother used to drive.

He wanted his children to graduate, she says. He wanted to finish building his house. He painted it himself, the week before he died.

Imelda says they always talked about their mother. He wanted her treated well. Their mother was not in her right mind, says Imelda, not since she fell and hit her head the year before. Now she sits and laughs softly. Sallymar’s mother Ursulita does not remember very much. Her daughter says she has the mind of a young child. Ursulita asks about Sallymar, but she does not understand the answer.

Ursulita Natividad does not know her son is dead. She sees the coffin of her firstborn son, and thinks it is her brother, or father, or cousin. Her children tell her he is dead, sometimes they think she understands. They tell her about the explosion. She would nod, but she is not very interested. Sometimes she cries. They are not sure why. 

***

On the day he is buried, his wife Lilibeth finally weeps. They are not the quiet tears that the video cameras aired on national television, but wracking, painful sobs that erupt while she hangs on to his coffin. Her neighbors tell her to step away. They tell her not to let her tears fall on the coffin. They say it is bad luck.

Imelda stands before her brother. She says she will not let him down. She promises they will take care of their mother, all of them who are left behind. She thanks him, thanks him again and again. 

Ursulita stands before the coffin. She rubs at the tears on the glass lid. She does not cry. She tilts her head, looks at her dead firstborn. She says his name. She rubs at the coffin a long time.

The mourners walk to the waiting jeeps. Hope is watching his 14-year-old sister Ivy, who stays standing by her father’s grave.  She leaves only when the gravediggers have filled the gaping hole.

Later she sits on the grass. She says she misses her father. She says she worries about her mother, she says Lilibeth only pretends to be fine. She will go back to school, because there is nothing better to do. She says Hope still does not understand, but she will be there when he does.

Lilibeth says she has no plans. She will clean the house her husband painted, and wait for what comes next. It is Father’s Day today, and Sallymar is dead. - Rappler