It was the least expected event to happen in our family. Mother and Father had thought my eldest sister would start getting a better life after a long hurdle of going to the court, giving testimonies, and presenting pieces of evidence in front of Judge Gomez to convince him that Ate Estella’s marriage with Marco was null and void, and that, on her part, she had suffered physical abuse and emotional stress after her husband had become a drug addict and a total wreck.
Ate Stella was a nurse. She chose to become one after too much prodding from Mother who was also a nurse herself who held a position in the Philippine Nurses Association. In the family, Mother was the stronger figure compared to Papa who was always quiet, speaking only when it seemed Mother was unreasonable. Papa trusted Mother to make decisions. When Mother declared that we were not allowed to have a relationship while still we were still in school, nobody had the heart to refute it. It was an argument that had been decided long before we heard the other side of the story.
On my part, I tried hard not to violate Mother’s decree by not entertaining suitors and by always being in the company of my girl friends. Kuya Harvey, who I thought had the most difficult time, also did his best not to break that mandate. You see, Kuya Harvey was a natural heartthrob. Girls came to him even if he did not initiate anything to attract them. But with Mother prying on each of his affairs, the girls eventually learned to resist his charm.
It was different with Ate Stella. Although Mother was very strict with her, monitoring her every now and then, she had learned to find a way to gain Mother’s trust by devoting most of her time to her studies. In short, she excelled, topping the Dean’s List in their college. This assured Mother that her eldest was not distracted by anybody or by any emotional rush that most young adults go through. What Mother missed out on was that someone or something was inspiring Ate Estella. While Mother prepared food in the kitchen, Ate Stella and I would stay in our shared bedroom, pretending to be studying. But in truth, she was reading to me the love letters of Marco while trying to resist her ecstasy from Marco’s lyricism by fighting back her chuckles.
A few months after Ate Stella’s graduation and on the day before she was supposed to take the Nursing Licensure Exam, Kuya Harvey and I were surprised by an uproar in the kitchen. We thought Mother was scolding Yaya for doing badly again in the cooking. But when we came out of our rooms, we saw Mama beating Ate Stella.
“How could you do this to us?” Mama screamed, pointing her finger to Ate when she noticed us watching the whole scene.
“He’s going to marry me,” Ate answered.
“Marry? How will he feed you?”
“We love each other. That’s more important.”
“Love cannot feed you and your child!”
Mother began to sob. She rushed out of the kitchen and went to their room. It was the first time I saw her cry. Papa was very quiet the whole time. He had remained calm, maybe deep in thought.
The following day, Mother woke up as if nothing happened. Ate, on the other hand, had also awakened early because she needed to be in the examination room before seven. I found out later on that Ate took the exam in a separate room through Mother’s request. This was always possible because of Mother’s position as secretary of the PNA. The request was made in order to keep Ate Estella away from everybody else’s eyes. Mother was afraid the other examinees would see the welts on Ate Stella’s arms. Despite what Ate Estella went through, she ended up in the top ten, landing fourth place when the results came out.
Before Ate’s swelling belly became obvious, Marco and his parents came to the house. It was then decided that Ate and Marco would have a civil wedding. Mama and Papa made sure their eldest had a good life despite the shame she had caused the family. They withdrew money from their savings and helped Ate and Marco build a house. They then lived in their newly built house located at the poblacion where Ate was also taken in as a nurse in the municipal hospital. Again, Mother had to pull out some strings to make sure Ate had work.
On weekends, Ate Stella would visit us, bringing Baby Nico with her. Mama would prepare special lunch for the family, maybe to show that she had learned to accept the reality. Papa, on the other hand, was more than glad to have another boy in the family. Kuya Harvey had remained a bachelor, maybe because until now he took to heart Mother’s decree. However, I heard a rumor that Kuya was not the marriageable type. Rumors around town said he went out with men. But I learned to keep this secret from our parents. I didn’t want to become the whistleblower.
One Friday night, a year after their wedding, Ate Stella came home crying.
“That bastard!” It was the first time I heard Father said something against Marco.
“Don’t go back anymore. You stay here,” Mother commanded.
“I never lifted a finger to hurt any of my children. I will kill him if he dare show himself in my house,” Father said.
It turned out that Ate Stella kept to herself her problems about Marco. While she appeared happy every time she came to the house on weekends, we learned later that she had been agonizing over the fact that Marco had become addicted to drugs. Ate Stella caught him when she found a small cellophane packet with sugary white powder in it. Then he eventually became violent, hurting her whenever she would confront him about his vice.
It was all Mother’s idea. To put an end to everything, she suggested that my sister file an annulment case. It took two years, exhausting almost all the savings of Mother and Father. During the whole duration of the case, Ate Stella and Baby Nico stayed with us. When the verdict came, our family was very happy, Mother most especially.
Meanwhile, without our knowledge, Marco had been imploring Ate Stella to come back to him, sending her letters that showed how miserable he was without Ate and Baby Nico in his life. Sometimes, he would wait for Ate Stella at the gate of the municipal hospital where Ate worked, or sometimes he would send her flowers with a special card, bearing a letter that showed his lyrical prowess.
One Sunday, two days after Ate Estella’s wedding was annulled, we all awoke to the silence of Ate Estella’s and Baby Nico’s room. Excited to play with Baby Nico, who by then was almost three years old already, Kuya Harvey and I opened their room and found no one inside. The aparador was empty. Ate Stella left a note, saying thank you to all of us, especially to Mother and Father. At the bottom of the letter, we read: P.S. Don’t worry about us. Baby Nico is excited to see his father again. We will be safe.
Jayson Parba teaches literature at the English Department of Capitol University, Cagayan de Oro City. He was a fellow at the Davao Writers Workshop.