By Ma. Elena Catajan
ONE cannot say how one is going to go up or down Boliney, a town high up in the mountains of Abra.
One is never certain what day or what time the lone jeepney will arrive or leave.
Speed is irrelevant. One is not even sure if the destination will ever be reached.
Within the patched up walls of the creaking, bouncing, swaying jeepney, the passengers are held together by one thought: the desire to live. With ravines to the right, and a hard rock wall to the left, there is no other way to go but forward.
Sometimes, though, it is necessary to back up a little to get over the really rough parts.
The view is magnificent, but there are times when closing one’s eyes is the only way to still the frantic beating of the heart.
One is faced with the reality of one’s helplessness and with this, all of one’s fears. The whole ride becomes one act of surrender.
I have met people who have to surrender to the fact that they will never get anywhere else but where they are, for the rest of their lives.
The patients at the Orthopaedic hospital in Manila will never be able to climb any mountain, nor swim in any river, nor see the green trees and the fresh air of the mountains, gifts which the Tinguians in Abra themselves hardly notice, bent as they are all day over their rice fields.
They, too, may spend the rest of their lives staring at a future as dull and impoverished as the stained ceilings of the spinal ward.
There was Lira who was shot by accident in a grocery hold-up, and was paralyzed from the neck down. Rage consumed her waking hours and our daily conversations.
Then there was Tony, moaning loudly for the nurse because he needed the catheter.
I ignored him at first, because everyone else was silent, all 50 or so perpetually motionless patients staring at the ceilings, and a few loyal mothers or wives come to comb the hair, brush the teeth, wipe the face, feed or bathe their charges.
I ran to the nurse in anger, and she looked at me, the occasional visitor to this, her daily fare. She explained that it must wait for medical reasons.
Soon, Tony was calling for his wife, and the patients in the neighboring beds hastened to tell him she had gone to buy some ice.
But we all knew she was standing outside the entrance to the hospital, waiting for some man to approach her and offer her a handsome deal.
Afterwards, she could go with him to a motel and come back with enough money to pay for her husband’s operation which, maybe, hopefully, would make him stand and walk again.
Tess, whose husband and two kids were killed in the road accident that left her paralyzed, called to me saying, “Could you make me a cup of noodles? And make one for Tony and Lira, too.”
Soon there was a chorus of “Me, too’s.” I prepared the noodles and we had a noodle party.
Bent over the rice fields or lying on their backs all day long, the only foreseeable future for both the patients and the Tinguians is their next meal. Their only desire is to live.
Stripped of any trappings, life takes on its purest form.
With life reduced to the everyday, there is nothing but hope for another day, and faith in its coming.
Helpless against suffering, yet helpless against the force of God’s life in them, their stories are also mine, yours. The road to Boliney never ends.