“Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made better.” – Ecclesiastes 7:3 (KJV)
On October 17th, my brother tried sili ice cream. It was made with a little red chili pepper, exclusively grown in the Bicol region, and supposedly the hottest of its kind. My brother and I joined our paternal relatives to eat ice cream at the 1st Colonial Grill in Pacific Mall (locally known as Guisano). There were other flavors, such as salabat (ginger), malunggay (leaf), and pili (a tree nut that only grows in Bicol). My cousins recommended the one made of sili, choosing three different levels. My brother tried Level I, which tasted like a creamy Tabasco sauce. “My taste buds haven’t registered the combination of spicy and cold,” he said, shaking his head and squinting his eyes as the ice cream settled in his mouth.
While everyone conversed and ate, my brother and I scanned the menu for other food items. All the dishes were Bicol delicacies, and we thought it would be interesting to bring our parents here for dinner the next day. They would have loved to revisit their hometown favorites, and it would have been a nice change from eating at Graceland (another local restaurant in Bicol).
The next day, my family and I went to visit my mom’s father in Camalig. Tito Enteng’s house was the same as always, except for the annex that was recently added to the side of the house. The annex was equipped with a small kitchen, two bathrooms, two salas, and a bedroom. Tita Fe stayed there whenever she came back home from Riyadh. On the first level of the annex, Lolo Magno took naps on a bed by the window. Two caretakers tended to him whenever he awoke.
My cousins and their kids were there in the house. We all stayed in one of the rooms and talked while the kids went in and out of the room, playing with toys and shying away from their American auntie. My brother came in, unwrapping the banana leaf of a suman (sticky rice). He had asked me to take a picture of him eating it. He then explained to our cousins about his solo trip to Banaue, where the rice terraces were located. He told them about the large backpack he bought from Eastern Mountain Sport in SoHo, the rations of Quest bars that would replace his meals, the offline map of the region he was going to explore, and the list of lodgings he booked rooms in, with addresses and phone numbers. He had said that he would email the information to me and my parents, but I didn’t recall him doing that.
We rode back to our hotel in Legaspi that night. I felt exhausted from socializing with relatives (albeit speaking little Tagalog). On our way back, my brother nudged me to convince our parents to have dinner at Colonial Grill. Part of me just wanted to sleep at the hotel, but another part of me said that I should push for it. Ultimately, fatigue got the best of me. But I made a mental note to opt for lunch there the next day.
We had two separate rooms at the hotel. My brother had a room on the fifth floor, while my parents had a room on the third floor. It wasn’t supposed to be arranged that way; we were all supposed to stay in one room together and use a rollaway bed for my brother. But the hotel managed to screw up our reservation, and so things were arranged this way. Initially I was going to room with my brother on the fifth floor, but I was bothered by his constant coughing, a reaction to the change of weather in the Philippines. He didn’t like to use air conditioning because he hated artificial cold air, which gave me more incentive to not stay in the room with him. When I told my brother that I decided to stay with Mom and Dad in their room, he was okay with that. He also said that if they got into another one of their arguments, I could come to his room and hang out with him. He knew that situations where Mom and Dad argued over something minor made me uncomfortable. Our system of taking care of each other, when things went awry, was to stick together and watch a movie or go out somewhere for a while.
That night, I took a shower while my mom and brother went out to buy dinner at Graceland. After I finished, my mom had already returned and gave me Filipino spaghetti in a small cardboard box. I ate the spaghetti and the last of the Bingo sandwich cookies that my brother and I bought from LCC (another mall that was within walking distance from the hotel). The cookies were delicious; unlike Oreos, these actually tasted like chocolate.
I sent a text to my brother: can u save me some bingo cookies for me pls? salamats
He replied: there’s still plenty
I decided to his room upstairs and get my batch of the cookies. As I reached for the hotel key card by the TV, I told Mom where I was going. She was resting in bed at that point. In a tired voice, she said that my brother was going to the gym before eating dinner, so he might not be in his room at the moment. She also told me to stay because my dad went out to buy bottled water from LCC, and she didn’t want to be left alone. In my mind, I felt like disobeying my mother and going upstairs anyway to check if my brother was in his room. But I relented to staying with my mom. I decided to kill time by playing games on my iPad. Eventually, sleep came over me, so I washed up and went to bed.
The next morning, on October 19th, I couldn’t get up. It usually takes me a while to get up from sleeping for so long. But this time was different: the comforter felt like it weighed 2 tons, my arms felt heavier, and my body felt like it was restrained to the mattress. There was also a sick feeling in my stomach, the kind where you ate something bad the previous night. But I knew it wasn’t the spaghetti, which I have had multiple times before and it never gave me problems thereafter. It took a lot of willpower, but I was able to move and get ready. My brother was going to be downstairs, waiting in the hotel café for breakfast. He was always the first one there, since our parents take a while to get ready.
Strangely, I took my time to get ready. I do not usually take the time to wash my face in the morning, since I always shower and pamper the night before. But I decided to wash my face that morning to feel refreshed. The sick feeling remained in my stomach, but nothing happened when I used the toilet. Perhaps it was just my mind prodding me to eat something and try again later.
As my parents and I were getting ready, there was a knock on the door. It couldn’t have been my brother; he never visited our room in the mornings. We would always meet downstairs in the hotel café. My mother and I slowly approached the door and opened it. It was one of the hotel staff, carrying a dark green canvas stretcher in his hand. He said something in a rushed voice and pointed in the direction of where the elevator was located. I did not know what he said, since he spoke Tagalog or Bicol, but the urgency in his voice made me fear that it had something to do with my brother. But in my mind, I was hoping that he was mistaking us for another hotel guest. My mother, on the other hand, was alarmed by his words. We rushed out of the room and followed the staff member. We went to the elevator, where there was another hotel staff carrying a walkie-talkie in his hand, but my mom told me to follow them while she went back to the room to get my dad.
We arrived at the fifth floor. The two hotel staff members rushed out of the elevator and turned right at the hallway, where my brother’s room was at the end. I followed after them. I barely entered the corridor when I saw my brother, lying on the floor, just outside the closed door of another hotel room. He wore only black shorts, his hotel slippers pushed off to the side, and a small puddle of liquid by his head. His right foot was placed ajar at the bottom of the door. It looked like he was resting from exerting himself during an exercise. But his belly and chest did not rise from heavy breathing. He was still.
The sick feeling in my stomach became painful, punching me inside. I wrapped my arm around my waist and slid down to the floor, leaning against the wall on my left side. I covered my mouth with the palm of my free hand. I watched as five or six of the hotel staff haul my brother onto the stretcher and carry him towards the stairs by the elevator. As they made their way past me, I noticed a man in a white T-shirt and blue shorts standing outside another hotel door. He was watching the scene and shaking his head. Was he a curious bystander or someone my brother tried to call for help? Seeing my brother lying on the floor unconscious, I thought maybe someone had mugged him and stole his clothes and wallet. Why are you just standing there? I thought as I looked at the man. Why didn’t you do anything? But there was nothing he could do.
I managed to stand up and followed the staff to the stairs. At that moment, the elevator doors opened and my mom came out. She saw my brother on the stretcher and began wailing. She called out to my brother, asking him what was wrong. She yelled at the staff to cover my brother, to give him some decency. “COVER HIM PLEASE! HE NEEDS A COVER!” My mom turned to me and ordered me to bring my brother a towel.
I ran back to the hallway and stopped at the spot where my brother lay. Upon closer inspection of the small puddle of liquid, I noticed the diluted red color like spilled Kool-Aid. In front of the hotel door was my brother’s hotel key card: 514. I picked it up and ran to his room at the end of the hallway. The door was wide open. Did the hotel staff kick it open? There was no sign of force, from what I could tell. The room was dark inside. As I entered, I was struck by the sudden humidity of the room. It was warmer than the hallway, which was strange; the hallways always felt unbearably warmer than the hotel rooms because there were no air conditioners installed. I thought I was walking into a sauna, and I feared that was why my brother left the room, because it felt like an oven that was cooling down after use.
I slid the key card into the slot on the wall that turned the power on in the room. On the bed were my brother’s pants; he was getting ready to go downstairs for breakfast. I went into the bathroom and grabbed two towels from the rack. I took the card out of the slot and closed the door, making sure the “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the door.
Across from my brother’s room was a dark, narrow corridor, where an Exit sign glowed red. When we checked into the hotel a few days earlier, my brother took a picture of the corridor and joked about Elisa Lim. I told him not to make jokes like that because stories about haunted hotels scared me. He posted the picture online and joked about feeling a presence in that corridor. Whether he was joking or being serious, I did not feel comfortable about him acknowledging such things casually.
I rushed to the stairs, where the hotel staff carried the stretcher down to the third floor. They had to take the stairs that wound around the elevator, which was a huge hassle. They were struggling to get through the narrow space because my brother had a heavyset build and the elevator was too small to accommodate the stretcher. My mother followed behind them, crying for my brother. I handed her the towels, but she pushed them back to me. I saw that there was already a towel covering my brother. As the staff reached another flight of stairs that led to the second floor, I ran to my parents’ room, where my dad was the only one left inside. I told him about what happened, and he rushed out of the room. I went inside to grab my bag and the key card, then hurried down to the main lobby. I ran outside to the front of the building, where the staff tried to put the stretcher into the hotel van. The driver was trying to be careful with bringing my brother into the van, head first. My mother yelled at them, “WHY IS NO ONE CALLING AN AMBULANCE?!” The guard by the door rushed indoors to call for an ambulance, but then some of the staff members hailed down a passing jeepney. A green and yellow jeepney slowed down and backed up a bit as the hotel staff carried the stretcher out of the van and hustled to the back of the jeepney. My parents followed them.
As I stood there, watching the scene and carrying the towels, I began to fear for my brother’s life. At this rate, he might not make it because everyone did not know what to do. Eveything was delayed by an inconvenience or a negligent move. Why didn’t anyone stop to think and call an ambulance? Why did it take so long for them to go down the stairs? Then a little voice in my head told me to move. I walked towards the jeepney as the hotel staff brought the stretcher into the back. After they made sure it was secure, they began to walk away and the jeepney began to move. I started to run after the jeepney; the hotel staff noticed me running and tried to yell at the driver to slow down. But it kept going, almost to the end of the street. I ran as fast as I could, clutching the towels like a newborn child wrapped in them. The hotel van driver was in the back, along with my parents. He saw me running and reached out his hand for me. I grabbed his hand, and he pulled me into the jeepney, when I hit my head against the metal plating of the doorway. My parents saw me and asked if I was okay before turning their attention back to my brother on the floor. I barely felt any pain on my head; I was more focused on my brother, whose eyes were red and barely opened. His cheeks were puffy and his skin turning blue; he was lacking oxygen. I sat next to my mother as she held my brother’s hand to her chest, begging him to stay with us. Looking at my brother’s face, I imagined he had a cross between a hangover and an allergic reaction. In my mind, I thought, “You’ll be fine, Kuya, you’ll be fine.”
The jeepney gained speed, the wind rushing through the open windows and into the vehicle. We heard two ambulances drive past us, and my mother muttered something like, “Putang ina, you’re too late!” The jeepney came to a sudden halt, in front of the hospital. The hotel van driver came out and yelled for help. A few of the hospital staff trotted out with a rollaway stretcher as we all came out of the jeepney. They carefully took out the stretcher and transferred my brother onto the rollaway. My mom yelled, “THE OXYGEN! GIVE HIM THE OXYGEN!” At those words, I became scared because, at that moment, I could not tell if my mother was acting on maternal instinct or medical professionalism. My mother has been a registered nurse for more than thirty years, the same amount of time she has been a parent. It was hard to tell who she was, in this situation, as she prompted another hospital aide to put the oxygen mask on my brother.
Everyone rushed inside the hospital and into the emergency room. I followed behind and stood by the doorway. My mother entered the E.R. with the team. My dad stood just outside the door, looking on with a worried/shocked look on his face. A young woman with long threadlike hair waved at me from the registration desk. I came over to her, and she started speaking to me in Tagalog. She was pointing at some papers in front of her. I could not understand what she was saying, but I knew she wanted me to fill out forms. But she got the idea that I could not speak Tagalog, from my confusion and delay in response, so she switched to English. I filled out the forms and gave information about my brother. Who would have thought that I would become my brother’s proxy…
After that, I sat down on a cushioned bench by a winding staircase and an elevator. The towels on my lap, I faced the door of the E.R. and watched the movement of people through the frosted glass. The lighting was dim in the crowded, narrow waiting area. The front doors were made of glass and held wide open, exposing the outside air into the room. Why would they set up the place like this, if dust from the dirt road outside could enter the antiseptic rooms?
A chaplain sat next to me and asked me questions in Tagalog. All I could manage to say, in the same language, was “si kuya ko.” The chaplain must have noticed the hesitancy in my speech, so he spoke in English. He wanted to know about my brother. I told him that my brother had a congenital heart condition.
My brother was born blue. My parents used to say how worried they were to see him in that color, afraid that he might die. After being resuscitated, my brother was able to breathe. Unfortunately, the doctors found out that he was born with a heart murmur. My parents decided that they would seek cardiac treatment outside of the Philippines, since the medical equipment for an open-heart surgery was insufficient here. So my mom was able to obtain a work visa and move to the United States. She was employed at Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan and lived in the dorms there. My father and brother joined her in the States, a couple of years later, and they moved into an apartment in Queens. My mother then transferred to Columbia Presbyterian, where my brother had two open-heart surgeries. Since then, he was able to live a healthy life.
But to end up back in a Philippine hospital, for similar reasons, there was room for doubt. Maybe they didn’t have the proper equipment to revive my brother. Did the staff even know what to do? I observed the people around me, in the waiting area. A couple of people in scrubs pranced in through the front doors and clocked in, near the E.R. door, for their day shift. A mix of guards and relatives of other patients stood around, quietly observing the hectic scene in the emergency room. My dad went inside, then came back out, demanding for a doctor. “Where is the doctor?! Does he know there is an emergency?!”
To witness my parents cursing at people (even though they said to never utter vulgar language) was a daunting experience. But to watch my parents frantically screaming and crying for help was to have my heart impaled by a wooden stake. I watched as my mother trotted out of the E.R. and sat down next to me. She continued to cry and buried her face in the towels on my lap. I tried to calm her down, but she kept wailing and rocking herself, eventually getting up and walking back into the E.R. She repeated this routine twice until finally settling in the E.R., to watch doctors and nurses doing all they could to bring back oxygen into my brother’s lungs.
I texted Tita Fe and Tita Rose, my dad’s sister, and told them what happened. They would meet us at the hospital. We were all planning to visit an island resort that day. We even hired a van to take us there. But I had to make sure that they knew what was going on. They needed to come and help us through this, to make sure everything would be okay. But I decided not to cancel the van because I had high hopes that my brother was going to be fit enough to go and take pictures of the resort and make posts on Facebook about how much fun he was having. He had to be okay.
I kept thinking to myself, and to my brother, You’ll be fine Kuya. You have to go to Banaue. You bought all that stuff to go backpacking. You gave up lunch for weeks so you could save money for your trip. You have to make this trip! I refused to accept that something was wrong, why it was taking a long time for the medical staff to do their job. Waiting for a response from my aunts, waiting for the doctors to come out of the E.R. and give the all clear, waiting for my parents to sigh relief that my brother was okay, I kept thinking, You have to respawn, Kuya. There is no Sith heaven.
My brother loved to play computer games. Ever since my parents bought him a computer years ago, he had been hooked on single player and multiplayer games. Recently, he subscribed to Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) based in the Star Wars universe. His online characters were part of the Sith Order—the opposite of the Jedi Knights. Think of it as a bipartisan government: one party (the Jedi) believes in selfless acts for the good of mankind, whereas the other party (the Sith) believes in emotions as the driving force to gain power. The Sith are not purely evil; although both Jedi and Sith want similar ends, their means to accomplish their goals are different. My brother admired the Sith because he believed their ideology was more practical: it was easier to think and act on the self rather than try to think and act for others, since everyone else has different views and interests.
In the game, my brother would go on missions with other subscribers. There would be challenges that required fighting against other characters on one team, and my brother was always the leader of his team (since he had the highest level in the game). Whenever the opposing side attacked his team, his characters would get axed. But his characters could return to the fight by performing an action called “respawn”—that meant coming “back to life” and returning to the action. This can be done multiple times until the challenge is complete and a winner is declared.
My brother was obsessed with SWTOR and the Star Wars expanded universe. He would make references about the game in everyday life, such as “going on missions” to the city, or “wearing his Sith robes” while backpacking in Banaue, as if to reenact the scenarios in his game. (He even asked me if he should pack his Sith robes for the trip–“Really, Kuya? Are you serious?”) I remember asking him once if there was a Sith version of an afterlife, since their philosophy sounded more like a religion. However, I do not remember what my brother said on the subject. But I would like to think that Sith had some type of belief system that kept them focused on accomplishing their life goals.
Returning my thoughts to real-time, I saw my dad sit down on the winding stairwell behind me. I maneuvered myself to face him and offer him a towel. He kept muttering for my brother to stay with us. Tears did not fall from his eyes, but the way he spoke was full of devastation. We all probably have an image of our fathers as strong alpha males. But in times when their own child is struggling for breath, that image is pushed aside so that their humanity is shown. At that moment, my father had the image of a worried parent.
It seemed like hours had passed, and there was no word of my brother’s status. My father got up from the stairwell and walked into the emergency room. I was left alone. I hugged the towels closer to my chest, begging my brother to get up and be okay. Eventually, one of the nurses opened the door and motioned for me to come inside. I walked into the room and found my parents standing by my brother’s bedside. They said nothing. My dad held onto my mother, whose shoulders were slumped forward. She was the kind of woman who had a strong, proud posture. To see her that way worried me.
The doctors and nurses were packing up their equipment. In my mind, my brother was breathing again and the doctors did their job. But then I checked the screen of the heart monitor near the door. The top line was flat while the bottom two lines showed erratic wavelengths. I thought maybe they had detached the wires, which explained why the lines looked that way. But it was not until my mother turned around, tears on her face, and said to me, “Your brother died.”
Frozen. The way I stood. The way he lay on the rollaway stretcher. My father held onto my mother as they watched over their son. I moved closer and saw his body covered with a white linen sheet. Only his head was exposed, eyes slightly closed and puffy. Skin blue. His hands were placed on his abdomen under the sheet. I placed my hand over his and felt the cold emanating through the fabric. Rigor mortis. There is only a body.
Two halves of my mind: This has to be a joke, stop kidding, Kuya, versus This is real, this is actually happening. The sound of my mother’s whimpering. The heaviness of my father’s heart, as he looked at my brother’s face. The nurses pulling the curtains around us. Show over. It was just the four of us enclosed in fabric. I kept my hand on my brother’s knuckles, hoping to transfer heat through my palm so that he wouldn’t feel cold.
Second later, my aunts and uncles entered through the curtain. My mother’s siblings, my father’s sister, all looking at my brother. The grief redistributed to everyone in the room. One of my aunts shook in frustration and disbelief, and Tita Fe told her to stop. Tito Enteng removed his hat and muttered my brother’s name, as if gently prodding him to wake up from sleeping. There was an internal argument within me that refused to accept what happened and accept that this was the reality. Seeing my relatives, in their state of shock, affirmed the latter.
They rolled the stretcher out of the E.R. and down the hallway. We followed them to the end of hallway, exiting the back of the building and onto a dirt road of makeshift houses. The people in white scrubs took the stretcher down the dirt road and up a gray concrete ramp that led into a small concrete room. It looked more like a jail cell: three dark gray concrete walls, black iron bars on the doorway, a slanted metal roof above, a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and a canvas cot on the side of the wall, where the people in white scrubs placed my brother’s body.
We all stood inside that room. I crouched down next to my brother’s body. One of my aunt’s led us in a prayer, asking for my brother’s soul to be carried into Heaven. Then my mother began to freak out, saying that she saw him move. She frantically reached for my brother and tried to shake him, but a few of us pulled her away. My aunt continued the prayer. After that, my parents and relatives left the room. I stayed behind, speaking to my brother. I won’t tell you what I said to him, because my brother and I had vowed to keep certain things between us, as a cardinal rule for siblings. But I will say that I made promises to him and that I will do my best to carry them out. It will take a long time, but I will keep those promises.
After a few moments, I left the small room and joined my relatives. I looked back at the room, trying to push away the thought of my brother’s body lying inside a jail-cell-looking place. It was a horrible thought that crossed my mind because my brother never did anything wrong to end up in a place like that. He would never do anything to land himself behind bars. But to see him in that concrete room fueled rage, against the hotel staff, against the ambulance, against the medical team, for not doing anything to help my brother. And he is the one that ends up in that room.
I asked my brother once about a Sith afterlife. “Is there a version of Heaven for Sith lords?” Sadly I cannot remember if he said there was or not. But there is the Force—think of it as a “higher power” that connects all living beings, and only a special few are more in-tuned with it. Those special few have the ability to use the Force to manipulate gravity and objects, sometimes people’s psyche.
My brother explained to me the Code of the Sith:
Peace is a lie. There is only Passion.
Through Passion, I gain Strength.
Through Strength, I gain Power.
Through Power, I gain Victory.
Through Victory, my chains will be broken.
The Force shall free me.
He regarded the Sith Code as the way of life and tried to live up to the code. Through his hobbies in computer games, LEGO, science fiction and fantasy worlds, cuisine, world history, Philippine culture, and family dynamics, he showed his passion for life. By focusing on those aspects, he became strong. His heart condition never kept him from performing activities; he wanted to exert himself, prove that he was not weak. No one would have suspected that he had a scar on his chest from two open-heart surgeries. To know that he had strength in his abilities gave him power, and that was how he broke away from the chains.
Whatever dark Force came over him that led to his downfall, it could not take away the impact he had on the people who loved and cared for him. The Force transferred to all of us. Most of all, he gave me his strength. As an older sibling, he pushed me to do better. He listened to me complain about how other people mistreated me because they believed to be far more superior than I was. To have a defeated mentality like mine was something he would not accept. He did not believe his sister was weak. He taught me to be strong, to find my passion in life and focus on that. That way, I will gain my power. He wanted his padawan to be victorious.
Whatever dark Force came over him, a light Force set him free.
May the Force be with you, Kuya.