I was three years old when I became aware of my condition. I cannot recall how I was rushed to the hospital, but I do remember waking up in a cold white room with a crucifix staring down at me. I lifted my right hand and noticed a transparent tube injected at the back of my palm and right through my veins. Since then, I have been rushed to the hospital countless times; each one a nightmare both for myself and my parents.
Asthma is a lung condition that affects the eyes, ears, nose, throat, and stomach. It causes the lining of the airways to become swollen and inflamed. Extra mucus begins to clog the nose and the muscles of the airways tighten, causing less air to pass in and out. A number of allergens like pollen, dust mites, cigarette smoke, dander, and stress can trigger an asthmatic reaction. Even changes in weather could also cause asthma attacks. Usually when my nose starts to itch, chances are, it’ll rain soon after. Some people are born with this condition and others just develop asthma when they are exposed to the different kinds of allergens. In my case, I have asthma because my father also had it when he was young.
Breathing was never as easy for me as it is for other people. Breathing reminded me of my weakness. It also made me worry about when the next attack would strike and leave me wheezing for air. I always felt like a vacuum cleaner that had something stuck in its tube. It was always a struggle.
I got by through the many steroid injections, check-ups, inhaling medicinal liquids, and the many summer classes that my mother enrolled me in. I was enrolled in various dance lessons—Jazz, Ballet, Hawaiian—because my doctor claimed that physical activities were good for my lungs. I also had piano, guitar, and voice lessons. As if these weren’t enough, my mother also enrolled my sister and me in a Milo swimming clinic.
Among all the summer classes I have taken, my favorites were the dance lessons because I often had to change into different outfits. For ballet I would have to wear pointe shoes, tights, leotards, and a tutu, while in Hawaiian we had to use pom-poms and wear grass skirts made out of plastic straws of my favorite color.
Ballet made me conscious of how I moved my body. Each ballet posture that was taught to us helped me to control and correct my manner of breathing. Unlike any other physical activities, ballet lessens the possibility of exercise-induced asthma. I didn’t really have to worry when I danced ballet because the movements were not that tiring. My only problem with it was I didn’t have so many friends in the class. They seemed to hate me because I often got praised by my ballet instructors.
My ballet teacher was even more impressed when she saw me showing off my split to my classmates during our water break. I think I was a show-off because I never got the attention from my parents. They were always busy traveling around the country because of work.
Whenever I went to my dance classes, I would become jealous of my classmates whose parents were there to fetch them. I always came with my yaya, Ate Tess. The ballet studio was located inside the building of Lawaan Theater. Whenever we arrived there, she would always cover my eyes with her handkerchief so I wouldn’t see the posters that hung on the walls. But I always saw right through the cloth. I remember seeing a poster of a woman who was sandwiched by two muscular men. She touched the cheek of the guy on her left while she looked at the other guy in her right. The two men looked at the woman in a red bikini with lust burning in their eyes.
I have always wondered how a dance studio for little boys and girls could be found inside the building of a theater showing sex-themed movies. The abandoned Lawaan Theater still stands on C.M. Recto Street (formerly Claveria Street). My mother told me that it used to be one of the beautiful theaters in Davao City along with Odeon, and Eagle Cinema. She used to watch movies there with her friends in her college days. She also said that those cinemas had “twin-bill” promos which gave them the chance to watch two movies by paying the price of one movie ticket. But as soon as new malls like Victoria Plaza, Gaisano Mall, and JS Ilustre were built, Lawaan just became known as the cinema for “bold” movies. I can still smell the wooden paneled floors of the ballet studio whenever I try to recall memories from that place. It is like the smell of an old box that had been long hidden under a bed— the scent of the vintage years of Lawaan Theater, which is now left unnoticed by passersby, with the once famous sign “Relax… And See A Movie,” faded.
Every summer class ends with a recital. Recital is when we showcase the skills and talents that we have learned for the months we have practiced. It’s like a production. Recital days were always both a happy and sad day for me. I was a stage child without a stage parent, though I had a stage yaya, Ate Tess, who came with me to my classes, practices, and recitals. I understood how Nanay and Tatay both had to be somewhere else because of their jobs, but whenever I performed in shows, I would still get so excited, hoping that they’d be there. When I was finally onstage, I always looked for my parents’ faces in the audience, and was saddened when I couldn’t find them. I thought their absence would not affect me, but it did. My classmate’s parents would bring cameras and video cameras to record our recital, but I had only my own memory to record those rare moments.
I was lucky to have Ate Tess take care of me when I was young. I always wanted her beside me wherever I went. I wanted her there when I brushed my teeth before I went to sleep and when I ate my meals. Nanay once told me that when they were planning to transfer from Mandaluyong to Davao, Ate Tess had resigned from her job as my nanny. After a week she came back and told Nanay that she couldn’t bear to leave me. Nanay was more than happy to accept her once more and so she came with us to Davao. We treated Ate Tess like family. I know that I owe her a great deal. She played a big part in making me the person I am today. On nights when I couldn’t breathe, she was there to prepare my nebulizer and stay with me all night just to make sure I would have a good night’s sleep. I never wanted her to leave, but things can’t stay the same forever.
My family dropped off Ate Tess at Sasa Wharf to bid her farewell. She had decided to go home to Bacolod and have a family of her own. I was silent during the entire trip to the wharf. I was preparing not to cry. I was so confident that I wouldn’t shed a tear, but when she started towards the gangplank, I was hoping that she would change her mind like she had done before; but she didn’t. I gripped the rails separating us from the ship; and with my head spinning with panic, I shouted as loudly as I could, “Ate Tess!” She looked back and waved at me again. I began shaking the gate while tears fell uncontrollably from my eyes. Breathe… Breathe… Breathe, I reminded myself. I didn’t care about the people looking at me. I only stopped when Tatay carried me into his arms and I buried my face in his chest.
The first time I performed on stage without Ate Tess was when I first joined a singing contest in my fifth grade. In celebration of “Linggo ng Makabayan,” our school held an OPM singing contest for the fifth graders. There were thirteen contestants—one representative from each section. My teacher chose me to represent our class. When I got home from school, I was so excited to tell my parents that I was one of the contestants for the singing contest. I told them to clear their schedule on October 21, 2005 so they could come and watch me sing. They promised that they would come. And so with that promise, I practiced my song, “Nandito Ako” by Lea Salonga. I would ask my sister to listen to me and help me reach the high notes. When the big day came, there were no Nanay and Tatay to see me sing. It was a good thing that my sister, teacher, and classmates were there with full support. I sang the song with all my heart, which earned me the second prize. After that contest, I decided never to join any singing contests nor enrol in summer classes again.
Trust. How do we do it? Why do we trust people even when we know they’re bound to back out or leave us hanging? My own definition of trust is when a bird lays her eggs in another bird’s nest—in other words, to rely on uncertainty. One person who makes it look so difficult to trust people is my best friend, Daphne. I thought I was the only kid that had had her heart broken by her parents. When I met Daphne, my crumpled heart was nothing compared to hers, which was broken like a vase thrown on the floor, and glued together again—only to have it smashed into pieces once more.
I first met Daphne when we became neighbors. We used to live in an apartment compound near the airport. We lived in Door One while Daphne lived in Door Two. I was always enthusiastic to meet new neighbors because that usually meant new friends. Every afternoon, we would ride our bikes to the taxiing area and wait for the airplanes to land on the runway. Then we would climb up the guava tree my Tatay had planted for me and play monkey bars.
One time when we were making mud pies in front of their house, I saw a tall man at their window, embracing Daphne’s mother from behind. The man was white, about six-feet tall, and spoke French. It was Daphne’s stepfather. He filled the lost figure of her father by giving her things that she wanted, singing her to sleep, and being there for her whenever she needed help. She almost forgot that he was her stepfather because he filled the void in her heart created by her biological father. But just as she had placed all her trust on him, he left and flew back to France and never came back.
People often think that I have a perfect family. I guess it’s because they see that the members of the family are intact. But is this wholeness enough for us to be considered a perfect family? If I had all the complete ingredients to make a cake, will it necessarily turn out to be a perfect cake? We may appear perfect, but when one looks at each of us closely, we all share a feeling of brokenness.
One morning, after a round of inhaling Ventolin nebules, I watched my mom as she dressed up for a meeting. She seemed so anxious while she was applying some makeup so I decided to lighten the mood by asking,
“Nay, do you love me?” I asked with a giggle.
“How about Ate?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you love Tatay?”
With that asked, my mother stopped applying lipstick and replied,
“I’ve fallen out of love with him, anak.”
If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have asked her that question so I wouldn’t have to know the truth at that young age. Truth does not always set a person free. Some truths imprison people the moment it’s dropped on you like a bomb and you can’t move a single muscle. I was in fifth grade when my mother admitted the truth. I thought that incident was the worst that could happen; but no.
I like being fetched by my parents from school instead of going home in the school bus because I don’t get to be with my parents all the time. One afternoon, I received a text message from my mother telling me that she was going to fetch me at school. I eagerly waited for her at the gate and when I caught a glimpse of a red Kia Pride, I gathered my things and said goodbye to my classmates who were also waiting for their parents. As I stepped inside the car I kissed my mother’s cheek and began telling her about my wonderful day in school. I told her about the jokes that my teachers said in class, the fun activities that we did in a science experiment, and my acceptance in the glee club. As I was babbling, I noticed that Nanay was silent throughout it all. I knew that something was wrong because my mother usually had a lot to say whenever I told her about my day. When we approached a red light, she asked me:
“Anak, is it ok with you if I live in another apartment? And on Saturdays or Sundays you can come and visit me and maybe stay there for some days.”
I didn’t answer. I was frozen in my seat. I started to feel my bronchi constrict. I wasn’t sure if I was having another asthma attack, but I felt suffocated inside the car. I rolled the window down to take in some fresh air. Why do people have a knack for asking questions when they clearly know what the answer to their questions are? Of course I did not like the idea. Who would want their parents to live in separate apartments?
As I grew older, my asthma attacks were not as frequent. Despite the immunity I had developed to certain allergens, it doesn’t mean that I can never have an asthma attack again. Because, as my doctor reminded me, “You always carry your asthma with you. It’s just waiting for a trigger. And as you grow older, it will come back for you, less frequent, but it will be powerful when it attacks.”
Years have passed after the “almost break-up” incident between my parents, but there’s still one truth that I don’t know about. Up to this day, I still don’t know what reasons led them to drift apart from each other. This truth is shared by my parents and my sister, but not me. I don’t know when the next bomb will strike me, maybe tomorrow, or maybe never.
At home, my allergens have become the small things that my family and I argue about. And because we don’t talk about our problems, we just keep them inside us, dormant and waiting for them to be set off. We are just waiting for the perfect moment for them to develop into a full-blown asthma attack—when all the truths that we keep become irrepressible, like wheezing sounds progressing into gasps for air until there is only one thing left to be done—nebulize and reduce the issues to a fine spray.
Bianca Beatrice Adle is a Creative Writing student at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She has been a Fellow to the Davao Writers Workshop.