On Pilipino Time For as long as I’ve known her, my mother has only ever had one friend, my Ninong Boying. They weren’t related by blood but “some things were thicker”, “mas makapal kaysa sa dugo”, they would say at any of my mentioning of why they had never been anything more. It was a relationship I had to grow up to understand. When I asked the question as a child, blood was something to look away from. Now a nurse in my thirties, it was something that demanded gloves, wipes, and my immediate and full attention. Their bond was more or less like treating a wound, and it was too late to pick at it now. They were too old not to know better. Then the day came when I was processing patients for Dr. Kwon and his name came up on her morning docket. I had to read his name twice to make sure it was him. It was not uncommon to find Filipinos with the first name Boying or the last name Santos, but his middle name, Dori, was unique. Boying Dori Santos, it was him. My first reaction was to call my mother, but patient confidentiality forbade me from texting her then and there. After the initial shock, I proceeded to weigh the actual level of concern. Dr. Kwon was a family practice physician. Most if not all her appointments were annual routine check- ups that ended in a handshake and/or a lollipop. Of the ones that weren’t, a reason for the visit would be noted before the actual meeting. I checked the box in the database for notes about his appointment, and I was relieved to find it blank. My Ninong Boying must have just switched doctors, I speculated. No cause for concern, I thought. An hour later, I opened the door to the waiting room and found him reading a Highlights from 1987 with a large family of anthropomorphic rabbits having a party on the cover. Dr. Kwon’s waiting room was filled with them. Heaps crowded the coffee tables and outnumbered the medical pamphlets on their racks. They dated as far back to when she first started her practice. A legacy in themselves. I called his full name and he tossed the withered publication on his seat and zoomed to the door before he even recognized me. He was in his blue uniform shirt from Hobby Lobby, black and grey striped shorts, and a pair of slip-on checkered Vans. He looked up at me, his transition lenses dulling the brown of his eyes, and his mouth scrunched inward, showing his age. “Aye, Ryan!” He squeezed my bicep to which I instinctually flexed. “This is where you are nursing?” I took his other hand and bent over to bring it to my forehead to mano, the Filipino sign of respect, but he snatched it away before we could make a connection. “Nak, not in pront of the puti.” He whispered, always pronouncing his “f”s as “p”s and twitching his lip toward poor Mr. Lintel, the only “white person” he could’ve been talking about, who had been in every other week regarding his hemorrhoids. I watched Mr. Lintel stand up and sit down, oblivious to anything else but his own pain, and shook my head. “Uncle,” I whispered, already ushering him inside, the automatic door closing after us, “no one cares. They have their own problems.” “It’s no problema. Kasi, I have my kababayan, my countryman!” He trumpeted and tapped my shoulder while I corralled him on the scale and jotted down his weight. “Two-hundred and ten pounds.” “Talaga? Can’t you shave off a pew?” The image of myself slouching in my seat at church flashed at the word “pew” before I realized what he meant. “Sorry, uncle.” I said and pulled the headpiece down on the stadiometer to determine his height. “Five-foot, eight-inches.” “Ay, Salamat. Thank God. Getting pat didn’t make me shorter!” I shook the image of someone patting him down like a nail, the earth beneath him giving way before he was nothing but a head and shoulders. I brought him over to the cubicle I shared with another nurse and collected his temperature and blood pressure. Ninety-one degrees, 30/90, both normal. “Aray! That’s very tight, anak.” He pouted, rubbing his arm as I undid the strap from the machine. He was always a little childish. Despite being twice my age, he still had the habit of puffing his cheeks when he was upset, of reacting to immediate concerns and ignoring the rest. “The hard part is over now, uncle. I’ll lead you to your room after I type my findings up for the doctor.” “Galing-galing. You’re very propessional, Joseph Montenegro.” He said, reading my name plaque on my desk. No one in my family ever called me Joseph. With them, I was always JJ. Where the nickname came from, no one knew. “How are you feeling uncle? Any reason for your visit?” It was a customary phrase I uttered with every patient, but having someone I knew, let alone cared about, be the direct recipient of it now added a noticeable shakiness in my voice. “Nothing. Just work. They want to know if this old guy can still lift pive-pound picture prames.” He groaned. He had worked in the frames section of Hobby Lobby for over fifteen years. Before then, he was the manager of an ill-begotten Kmart. I typed in “patient in need of a physical” into the info box for Dr. Kwon and told him we could provide the necessary paperwork for his HR after he was cleared, going through the motions and assuring myself, more than him, that everything was going to be fine. However, later, as Dr. Kwon evaluated him behind closed doors, the orders for several labs and a referral to an oncologist showed up on his digital file before they even finished. I proceeded with contacting the appropriate offices and scheduling the appointments for my Ninong Boying as if he were any other patient, but the anxiety began to creep up on me and, by the time Dr. Kwon was asking me in-person to make the calls, I was still frozen in front of my screen, my uncle sitting back in the chair next to me, unchanged, as childish and as clueless as ever. “Do I have to get my blood taken, anak? Can’t I spit or umihi sa cup?” “What happened, uncle? What did she find? It says you need to see an oncologist.” “Oh, you know. I mentioned some guy at work my age had a big stomach. It hurt and it was not the stomach but the prostate. His doctor told him everyone dies of prostate cancer. I told Dr. Kwon and she said he wasn’t wrong. My stomach is round. That’s enough. But this is just in case. Magpahinga, relax, anak. You look more worried than I am.” I set up his labs with our in-house tech same-day and asked his preferred times for his oncology appointment before calling their department. While I was on the phone, my Ninong Boying watched me like a proud parent watches his child play sports. He and my mother raised me my entire life, so he had the right. But, like an athlete, I needed my full concentration to do my job well. I turned my back to him and curled up as if waiting for a pitch. I gripped the phone, anxious of what might be thrown our way. A week after his appointment, there was a small gathering at my Ninong Boying’s apartment—an officers’ bi-weekly meeting for their Filipino Association which was just an excuse for them to play cards. By then, my personal diagnosis had evolved from practical to far-reaching. Initially, I had deduced that the most obvious cancers he might have were mouth, throat, or lung cancer on account of his forty-year smoking habit. The prospect of such a thing was simply inevitable. However, the more I thought about the day he was seen, the more possibilities arose. His fast movement from his seat to the door could have been symptoms of lymphoma, his sour musk, a terminal stage of melanoma. The possible outcomes took its toll on me so much that I did something I didn’t usually do and invited myself to their meeting. As to not alarm my mother that anything might have been wrong, I told her I was simply interested in joining their game of pusoy, to which she welcomed me and my money without hesitation. Gambling with family wasn’t gambling at all, she often mentioned, because you weren’t losing anything. It was like the right hand passing it to the left, both from the same body, the same pocket. “Maramig kamay sa isang katawan.” Many hands to one body. I arrived at my Ninong Boying’s apartment an hour early which was really two hours early on account of Filipino time. My mother and Ninong Boying both hated the term. They felt that the expectation that Filipinos were always late detracted from their real merit and hard work. Because of that, they raised me by their philosophy that if you were on time, you were late, and, if you were early, you were on time. Yet, despite a life-time of this conditioning, rapping at his door at a time far from the Filipino kind, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just missed him, like he was already far beyond my reach. And when his door chain rattled and his voice came through the door, I felt like I was merely greeting his ghost. “JJ! Ano ginagawa mo? What are you doing here?” I composed myself. Nothing had happened yet. Nothing had been determined. Everything was still conjecture. “I’m just here to get in on your game.” “Laro? You ask your mom?” I let myself in and sat at the counter looking into his kitchen. On the stove, Filipino sweet potatoes were boiling in a pot. I folded my hands and took in a pungent whiff of their honeyed earthiness, the homeliness of a fellow bachelor’s abode. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.” “Just so she knows. I hope you brought a lot of money.” He snorted while locking his door, unable to hide his unearned overconfidence. My Ninong Boying was so bad at gambling he made it look like he enjoyed losing, but nothing could have been further from the truth. My Ninong Boying hated to lose. He made his way to the sweet potato and lifted the lid, his glasses fogging over in the steam. He dipped a wooden spoon in and stirred the pot before nudging one to check how much it would give, how much it still resisted. “Ay sarap. Patapos na. The kamote is almost pinished.” “Sounds good.” I said, lightly drumming my hands on the counter. “Add a little sugar and putang-ina perfect!” “Sounds great.” “Great lang? It’s pantastic! Your paborite porever!” He said and returned the top, the fog slowly dissipating as he went to the fridge. “Beer?” “Pantastico!” I humored him. He laughed and grabbed two Corona Lites from the fridge. “Ayun! Pantastique!” By the time he had cut a lime and mashed a wedge into each bottle, his eyes were completely clear. He handed me one and we toasted to Jose Rizal. My Ninong Boying and I didn’t believe in God, but the closest we had ever been to prayer was toasting to the dead revolutionaries. Sometimes in was Gandhi. Other times, Stalin, Zapata, Castro, and Malcolm X. Once, it was Britney Spears. We took our swigs for them, the dull bite of our beers lifting off our tongues and fading up into the ether. My mother still believed us practicing Catholics, but how could we be? A toast didn’t mean anything to someone who had nothing to lose. Hidden behind his old Pioneer speakers, there were dents I made when I was seven. Deep notches bit into the door frame to his bathroom where he monitored my height until I was seventeen. Feint imprints of cigarette butts dotted the patio from years of watching his back smoke. If I had poured my hand in between the cool tweed wedges of his couch, I would have found ancient cornels of popcorn from many childhood movie nights. Looking around his apartment, listening to the kamote whistle, I realized my Ninong Boying had very little but a lot to lose. At the very least, I thought, a person like that shouldn’t be alone, and I couldn’t help but make notations in my head and include myself in the suggested measures he should take. We should listen to the doctors. We should do the chemo. We should take the operation. We should do whatever it took to fight, whatever it took to win. Then, somewhere between our wheelchair ride out of the ICU and the paperwork to close the bill, my Ninong Boying pinched the back of my right arm, above my elbow. I jolted, my back buzzing from the sudden jerk more than from where he had nipped me. “Anak, you were somewhere else.” “Sorry, uncle.” I said and quickly took another sip of my drink. I had held it for so long my hand was numb, the beer lukewarm. “A girl?” He winked. “No.” “Susmariosep.” He straightened his posture in the seat beside me. “A boy?” He blinked. “No.” He nodded and took a quick sip before talking again. “Ip not that, then what?” “Are you doing all right uncle? Did—did they find anything?” I stammered, watching his face carefully for any tell, anything that would give what he had away. But my Ninong Boying simply returned his usual wry smile, the kind I couldn’t tell what hid behind. “Anak, I’ll be pine. I’m strong. I’m invincible. It will pass!” He said, not denying he wasn’t alright, not denying he did have cancer. “I don’t think that’s how it works.” Not consoled by his words in the least. I thought of pine trees just then, how the older they were, the quicker they burned. My uncle coolly drank his beer, strutting as if cancer were a medal of honor or a trophy he had won. He swiveled what he had left, the green peel spinning in the middle of its vortex. “Exactly, it’s tem-po-rar-ry. Why worry about what will go away in time, anak?” “Are you doing something for it?” “Op course!” “Will you really be all right?” “Didn’t I tell you, na naman?” “What is it? What’s wrong with you?” “Nothing I can’t handle. Don’t wore-ry!” “Why won’t you tell me?” “Ay, stop, tapos na. Knowing won’t make it better. I know already.” “I’d feel better if you told me. If you told mom.” He winced at my mention of my mother and, out of respect, I stopped and waited for him to fill whatever silence was growing between us. “Tapos na. Stop.” He repeated, finishing his beer. “Tapos-na-naman., Tapos-na-naman.” He sang and laughed. “You remember that song? Your mother used to sing for you all the time when you were little.” I tried to remember it beyond my memories of learning how to drive behind the wheel of his car, the times he complemented my drawings of squiggly airplanes and stick people I associated with the real things. “Vaguely. It means ‘It’s over again’?” He clapped to each syllable as he sang the song again. “Your mom sang it that way because you heard it like that. Tapos-na-naman, you would sing when it was really ‘Pasko-na-naman’ you were listening to! It’s Christmas again, talaga!” I remembered the song, followed by the array of lights behind young tired eyes, behind an amalgamation of several Filpino morning masses throughout my youth. “Why did she keep singing it to me that way?” My uncle got up and turned off the burner to the kamote. The whistling died, and, when he lifted the lid, he was engulfed in a fleeting, sweet-smelling puff of steam. “Kasi it made you happy.” He retrieved a plate and a pair of tongs and picked out the sweet potato, shaking them off before piling them on the dish. He put them before me with a small saucer of sugar, but they were still too hot to peel them. “You ever wonder what it would’ve been like if you were with my mother?” I said to pass the time before they cooled. It was hardly the first time I had asked either of them the same question. Life was short if not for trying. “Some things are thicker than blood.” He replied like so many times before, with a smile and eyes that saw and hid all the possibilities. “But you need us!” I pleaded, “Now, more than ever.” “And I have you, anak. I’m not lonely, I promise.” He said, emphasizing the “p” again as if it wasn’t supposed to be there. Even before I knew him, he had already been resigned to the commiseration of hellos and goodbyes and all the murkiness of waiting in between. It was when he was the most alive. “Only lonely people do lonely things like die. I will not die.” He said, reaching out, “I will live porever.”
-- E. P. Tuazon is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. They have work in several publications, just released their newest novella called The Cussing Cat Clock (HASH Journal 2022), and recently were chosen by ZZ Packer as the winner of the 2022 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction for an upcoming book with Red Hen Press (2024). They are currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club at the Open Book, Canyon Country.