The only sound that resonated in one of the crowded rooms inside the lonely mansion at Lugay-Lugay Street was her loud, ragged, and pained breathing. It was 9:45 in the evening, the night after Christmas in 2007. Families, relatives, and friends, rushed from different distant cities and countries to Cotabato City to be with her in her final moments. The golden silk curtains were drawn, the air-conditioning unit was turned off, all the lights were switched on—brightly illuminating every inch of every face, and of everything—in the house, and the white narra door that was always locked was now left wide open for the people to enter and see her in such a heart-breaking state.
She was lying on a hospital bed bought by her eleven children, six sons and five daughters. IV needles were injected on her bruised right hand. She was wearing an oxygen mask that did nothing but to amplify her agonized gasping for air. Her black, thinning hair was tied into a messy knot. Here caramel skin was too big and too loose for her now thin body. As I sat silently in a corner, my back against the whiteness of the walls, she looked very small and shriveled as a leaf that had fallen from the mango tree her firstborn son had planted in her garden.
The hushed sobbing of the crowd. The soft rustling of clothes being smoothed down and brushed. The anxious patting of the bare and naked feet, as the people in the room shifted their weight—left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. The holding of breaths. The passing of time. Her breathing slowly fading away. Silence. Her youngest daughter’s horrified wail followed by her youngest son’s urgent warning, “Stop it, stop it. Do not cry.” Her husband’s nervous laugh as he tried to crawl out of the room. These were the sounds that pulsed in the room as my heart thumped heavily in my chest.
One by one, the people left the room to privately mourn. Some went out to smoke. Some went home. Some went to the kitchen to drink a glass of water. Some made calls for the preparation of the funeral the next day. Only a few remained to gently touch her face. Only a few remained to remove all the pins that left purple stains on her hands and skin. Only a few remained to smoothen out the tangles of her hair. Only a few remained to blanket her hair with a white face towel to let her finally sleep.
I went with her grandchildren to one of the rooms in the house. It was the room of her son in Japan, Bapa Pe, which was unoccupied, unused, and almost empty the year round except for casual visits from relatives who would sleep there a night or two from the farm. On the floor, a blanket was spread out by one of the silent boys, her fourth grandchild Hassan. There, they lay motionless, wide-eyed, and speechless. A knock came from the door. Hannan, a sweet-faced girl, got up and opened it. The person who entered was one of the deceased’s older daughters, Babo Babai, a thin woman in her trimester. She lay down beside her nephews and nieces and asked, “Did you know what her illness was?” No one from the group answered.
She calmly offered her answer. “Cancer.”
“What type?” I asked.
“What is that?” It was Hassan who asked.
“It is the type that attacks a person’s large intestine.”
“Stage?” Dia, the deceased’s first grandchild, asked.
Their questioning about their grandmother’s illness lasted for an hour. That night they learned the depressing truth about their grandmother’s condition and struggles. Stage 4 colon cancer had no cure; it was one of the types of cancer without the tell-tale signs and symptoms like the unusual yellowing of the skin, weight loss, and weakness. The chemotherapy sessions their late grandmother took only worsened her condition.
“But I thought chemotherapy killed cancer cells,” Hassan protested, hard-voiced and confused.
“It does, but the healthy cells also die in the process for because they too are exposed to the drug that prevents the cancer cells from dividing uncontrollably.”
Babo Babai also told them about the attempt of removing the malignant tumors in the deceased’s large intestine by means of surgery. But that too proved not helpful in saving her mother’s life. The tumors cannot be surgically removed because they grew too close to each other and on the most sensitive part of the large intestine.
That night, no one slept. All were anxious for the funeral next day. In Islam, a dead body should be buried within twenty-four hours after the soul has left the body. Otherwise, the burial would be considered as haram. But there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if the dead body still needs to be travelled from one place to another because the mourning family requests so, then the funeral can take place after the body’s arrival where it would be buried.
At the deceased’s lawyer son’s house, I stayed with her grandchildren privately mourning her death. Hannan retreated to her side of the room that she shared with her two silent brothers. Her part of the room and her brothers’ were separated by a patterned pink curtain. Hussayn, the oldest of the trio, climbed to the top bunk of the double deck while Hassan, Dia and I sat on the lower bunk.
I noticed that Dia was tightly hugging a pillow, refusing not to cry. Hassan was lying on his side, facing the white wall—the paint was beginning to peel off.
“Why don’t you just cry?” I asked her.
“I do not want Ina to suffer as she swims across the Sea of Sorrow towards heaven,” she replied. Her lips trembled with her efforts of not giving in to anguish.
“Why don’t you just cry?” I asked again.
“The more tears I shed, the deeper the Sea of Sorrow she needs to cross become.”
I had nothing to reply so I just stared at her in awe.
“I do not want her to suffer by crying.”
It was the first time I saw a person so torn between what she really feels and what she has to feel.
Before the body must be safely and securely locked underground, it must be first cleansed and purified from all of the earthly pleasures it has experienced and witnessed on Earth before facing the Almighty, a sacred rule that every believer must follow and be granted upon death.
For her cleansing, she was carried from her bedroom to the makeshift cleansing place—the kitchen where every window and door was closed and veiled away from everyone except for those who would be part of the cleansing ritual. I was fortunate to be part of that small crew.
In the kitchen, all of the furniture was removed and in place were three layers of spread-out white cloths—wide sheets of cotton dusted with floral-scented powder and sprinkled with the perfume the dead used to wear. It was musty and sweet and tangy and it tickled my nose. Underneath all of the layers of cloth and cotton and powder and perfume, there were three long strands of thin strings—one on the top part, one in the middle part, and one for the bottom of the white sheet. These strings would be used later to tie the sheets into a bundle.
There was a small, old lady who would bathe her. She was wrinkled and her sunburnt coffee skin clung to her bones. Her bony hands and toes were as crooked as her posture. As customary, there was no table. The deceased’s body was to be laid down on Dia’s, Babo Babai’s, and my extended legs. As the old lady poured lukewarm water to bathe the body, she recited verses from the Holy Qur’an. She shampooed and soaped ever so tenderly that I wanted to shake the life back into Ina Bili.
After she was finished being bathed, a blue bath towel was draped over her body. Everyone who wished to bid her farewell were called and sent into the kitchen. I sat there, wet and itching, watching how one must say goodbye to a dear mother, grandmother, aunt, cousin, friend, and daughter. How each message was desperately conveyed through a whisper, but most of time, would soon end up being sobbed or muffled into a cry, a kiss, a touch, a look. These are simplest gestures of saying goodbye.
Her face was serene and smooth as the old lady performed the final ghusl for her. The ghusl was the cleansing ritual performed on the body by means of ablution. She then was towel-dried and was gently placed at the center of the white cloth and was neatly wrapped in the layers of powder, perfume, cotton, and cloth. She was tucked away in her little white cocoon where no one could taint her now pure yet lifeless body. She was almost prepared and ready for her journey to the afterlife.
An orange Crosswind brought her to the farm where she was born and raised by her Sultan father and her farmer’s daughter mother. We arrived at noon, traveling with family, relatives, and friends. There was still time to offer a final prayer for her. After the duhur, the noon prayer, we drove over to the meadow that expanded to the open horizon. There were the sun, the clouds, the breeze, and the birds. Everything was set for the funeral ceremony. Her cocooned body that was blanketed in another cloth—a wide black prayer rug with a golden print of the Kaaba—was carried down into the hole where, inside, another narrower hole was dug on the left side where I was standing.
She was unwrapped of the black prayer rug and was carefully laid down on the dirt floor of her dirt room. Three men worked to angle her body to face the dirt wall. Her cocoon was then untied. The last layer of the white cloth that she way wrapped in was securely pinned to the dirt wall by thin, tipped strips of durable wood about three inches long. Three mud balls were placed at her nape: at the small of her back and at her ankles to prevent her body from rolling over, perpetually preserving her gaze and position to the direction of the Kaaba. Then coconut lumber was angled to lock her away from the world above. As the men were filling her grave with loose soil, an imam led a prayer among the red-eyed people who had gathered, around where she was buried. There were also curious, dirty, snot-faced children who joined in the prayer as they watched the funeral took place.
When the hole was filled, a single lumber that was carved into the shape of the domes of the masjid was forked on top of the grave, above where the head of the deceased was supposed to be. The imam then poured water from a golden metal kettle to where her head was and again recited a verse from the Holy Qur’an.
I asked Babo Babai what the pouring of the water was for.
“It is for the dead to know that she is dead,” she said.
“The dead may appear dead to you, to us, but the truth is, they are only sleeping. Heart beating ever so faintly that it seems she has no pulse. Her heart is still there, her heart is still beating. Her soul is only sleeping.”
As the funeral ended and the crowd thinned, I was crouching near her grave, wrestling with myself if I should play a song for her from the flute I brought with me or cry just like how Dia cried to her mother when she learned it was alright to cry for the dead. She was told that the dead would not suffer and drown from the tears of those who were mourning. Or should I just dig her up again because she was not really dead, but only sleeping.
At that moment, I was almost certain about two things. That, one, she would have felt lonely waking up in her dirt bed inside her dirt room. After all, she cannot be kept company by the memories of the dead. And that, two, I would never come to love the beauty that was brought by the sadness of a funeral.
Zakiyyah Sinarimbo is a fourth year student of the Creative Writing program of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. This essay was first published in the book, Rays of the Invisible Light: Collected Works of Young Moro Writers, last September 2015, edited by Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan II.