My Grandfather

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Esperanza Paz C. del Casal


Boys playing beneath the coconut tree
Photo Credit: Jeremy del Rosario

When a person dies, what is most remembered about him? The way he spoke? His peculiar little quirks? The manner of his death? My grandfather died in his home, attended by his daughter and the two in-house caretakers she hired. He died unable to walk, barely able to move, and his mind already halfway into the netherworld. I never personally saw him in this condition. My last memory of him is as a thin, small body in a coffin I would never have thought he could fit in. He looked peaceful, yes, but in life he was larger. He would never have fit in that coffin when he was alive.

In life he was loud, and when he really warmed up to a subject, his speech raced with his thoughts so that words would run together and sentences had no end. He loved to eat, and he loved to wander through his neighborhood on foot. He could be a disciplinarian when the need arose, but I remember him laughing easily, a witty comment ready on his lips.

These are the things that I can recall when I think of him. Of course, there are also things that I don’t know, things I could never comprehend about him and the life that he’d known. When I was a child I used to think that I knew him quite well. I knew that if he cooked at all he only ever cooked one thing, and it was one of his favorite things to eat. I knew that tennis was his favorite sport, and he would come home from playing on the courts and rub garlic on the strings of his racket. I knew that my grandmother had a sharp tongue, but his could be sharper. I knew that he found me funny and can remember saying things as a child that used to make him laugh, and the more serious I was about the things I said, the harder he laughed. I knew that my acting like a tomboy while still in diapers delighted him and that to him my chubbiness while in his and my grandmother’s care was a sign of his wealth.

I realize that most of these memories aren’t necessarily the same ones others have of him. We are, after all, viewed in different ways by different people, and after my parents, siblings, and I emigrated to the U.S. we only occasionally had contact with either of my grandparents. In other words, there is a gap in what I know about my grandfather, about who he really was as a person. So I listened hard while we were in the Philippines for his funeral to what my father had to say about my grandfather’s past.

He was born September 15, 1931, somewhere in the mountains of the island of Cebu in the Philippines. When he was about eleven, World War II was being waged by the Japanese right there in the neighborhoods where he played with his friends. I’ve wondered what that means exactly. What does it mean when war is being waged at your doorstep? From recent images of wars taking place around the world, I’ve realized two things that would most impact an eleven-year-old boy: lack of food and restricted movement. According to my father, whose sources remain unclear, the Japanese would raid towns and villages. They discovered when and where the weekly markets were held and disrupted them, sometimes in search of the Filipino guerrilla militia, sometimes to ensure that Filipinos didn’t congregate too often in large groups. Standard precautions undertaken by an efficient occupying force would ensure that the chances of a local rebellion were minimized. My grandfather ran around a few of these markets with his best friend with the type of freedom one can only associate with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

There was always a warning before the Japanese arrived, and I can see it almost as a game for my grandfather and his friend to sneak away just in the nick of time. Did they hear the screams as they ran through the coconut groves? Probably. Did they know what those screams signified? I can imagine them telling each other tales of people’s throats being slit, women being stabbed, babies being thrown in the air and skewered on bayonets. These are the atrocities my father described to me to illustrate my grandfather’s experience of war, recounted to him by other old men who saw it themselves.

As the months rolled by, the Japanese became more acclimated to the heat and the land, and one day they arrived at a market quite unexpectedly. I prefer to think of my grandfather yelling to his friend and immediately taking off for the trees, dodging the Japs that were suddenly everywhere and trusting that his friend was right behind him. I prefer to think that it was only when he acquired the relative safety of a grove that he realized that his friend wasn’t with him after all. I prefer this sequence of events than the alternative in which he sees with his own eyes his best friend’s stomach being ripped open with a bayonet.

I imagine him crouching among the vegetation, trembling at the screams, feeling like he should go back and yet almost faint with the thought that he should himself be killed. I see him waiting as long as he dared, glimpsing other people rushing away to safety. Someone must have seen him and urged him to go home.

“What are you still doing here?” a man would have said.

My grandfather would have recognized him as one of the locals vaguely associated with the Filipino militia. He would have stared at him blankly, not sure how to explain. My friend, he wanted to say, I don’t know what to do. He’s still over there. I don’t know where he is.

He was trembling. The urge to pee was overwhelming. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his bare feet slid a little on his rubber flip-flops as he shifted nervously.

The man looked behind him. Vegetation was being roughly disturbed. “Run!” he whispered urgently to my grandfather.

My grandfather froze, his eyes widening.

The man grabbed his arm and shook him violently. “Run!” he whispered again. “To your grandmother’s house. Don’t go to your mother’s!” He shoved him hard.

My grandfather stumbled, but suddenly his legs remembered how to move. They were shaky at first, but momentum steadied them eventually.

As he bolted through the trees, adrenaline pumping through his veins, his mind cleared. Avoid the roads, he thought to himself. It was not unheard of for the Japs to delay the arrival of some of their troops, and sometimes they came by a different route. Avoid all roads. He was heading down towards the sea, towards the town where his grandmother lived. It would have taken him more than a day by foot if he followed the roads, but he kept himself among the trees and the shrubs. The terrain became harder to travel through, became more unfamiliar as the sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon. His limbs were shaking again, but now it was less from fear than from exhaustion. His stomach growled in protest, and his muscles ached as he climbed and slid down one difficult slope after another.

Only the unavoidable dimness of night convinced him to stop. He sat against a coconut tree, his mind running again but now more slowly. Various scenarios played out before his unseeing eyes regarding his friend’s demise, for in retrospect he was sure that they had both started running as soon as he yelled, and he had never before out-run him.

He started crying then, in the full, unhindered way that most children do. When he had no more tears to shed, he paid closer attention to his growling stomach. Ignoring his aching limbs, he got up and climbed the tree he had been leaning against. At the top, he shook the laden limb as hard as he could until some coconuts fell, and when he got back down on the ground he looked for a sharp rock to help peel away the thick green fibrous coating that protected the brittle brown shell. When he got to it, he cracked open the brown shell and hungrily drank the milk and juices. Next, he broke the shell into smaller pieces and ate the coconut meat by scraping it off with his teeth. He went through a second coconut before the need to sleep overtook him.

At dawn, the sound of roosters crowing roused him, and he wondered as he lay awake whether or not he should abandon the idea of going to his grandmother’s and instead go back to his mother. But perhaps that man he met yesterday was trying to tell him that his mother had herself gone to his grandmother’s. The guerrillas were probably staging something and had warned others to stay away.

My grandfather moved less hurriedly that second day. He heard the sounds of people in their everyday activities but avoided them except to borrow a heavy knife to cut down a bunch of bananas. The mangoes he plucked right out of the trees. By afternoon, he decided that he could probably cover more ground at night. The heat of day was tiring him, and all he wanted to do was find some shade and sleep. Besides, there was even less likelihood of encountering any Japs at night. He didn’t keep track of how long it took him to get to his grandmother’s town. When he reached its outskirts, he felt like he had traveled for ages, and suddenly he didn’t want to be among other people. He didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. Not yet anyway. So he holed up in the wilderness for a few more nights, unable to sleep, barely eating. What troubled him most was the sense of guilt that had evolved and grown within him in his solitude. What could I have done to save my best friend, he kept asking himself. The knowledge that he never went back for him gnawed at his guts, and yet he knew that to have done so would have meant sharing in his fate.

He grew tired of his own company eventually, grew tired of mulling over the same thoughts. His guilt dissolved inside and was no longer a heavy, alien lump which demanded all his energy to carry. It had become tiny little crystals that spread throughout his body and were absorbed in his blood. It was a part of him now. When he looked out at the world, he was looking at an image focused by the experience of losing a friend and not having done anything to stop it.

And what he noticed was that the world continued as before. Nothing had changed. His reticence then seemed absurd. Others could blame him if they wished, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Life continued.

He made his way down to his grandmother’s house and knocked at her door. Her face registered surprise; her hand automatically clutched at her heart. He had been missing for so long that they thought he had died. And yet, there he stood, thinner than when she last saw him, more haggard and silent.

She fed him, made up a bed for him, and glossed over his reluctance to speak by telling him the latest war news. As he slept, she sent word to his mother that he was alive but needed to rest. To that end, she let him sleep well past noon the next day. Food was on the ready for his consumption. And most of all, she asked him nothing. Not one question passed her lips, though she had to wonder where he had been all this time, what he saw, what he knew. He merely looked at her with his big, almond-shaped eyes. No smile in them now, no mischief. She recognized in them the same quietly observant blankness that he wore when he was a toddler learning about the world around him, and that convinced her that he needed to stay in the relative safety of her house rather than in the unpredictable battleground that the mountains were becoming.

His mother sent word back not long after. She would insist on seeing him to gauge for herself how he was, so against his grandmother’s own judgment, she brought him back to his village shortly after his arrival at her doorstep. As his grandmother had predicted, his mother took one look at him and said firmly, “You’ll stay with your grandma.”

On the road back to the seaside town, a group of men overtook them. They were just returning from digging up the latest mass grave left by the Japanese after their market day visit.

“We finally got around to the one they left some days ago,” one of them related after exchanging greetings. “Can barely recognize any of the corpses now.”

My grandfather’s grandmother shifted uneasily and glanced at him.

“Hey, didn’t I see you at that market with your friend?” the same man said to my grandfather. “Your friend was killed, wasn’t he?”

At that, his grandmother sputtered in indignation. “You callous fool!” she cried. “He’s just a child!”

And so ensued a small commotion on the roadside as his mother tried to calm his grandmother, the accused man tried to justify himself, and the other men either supported the accused or tried to extricate their group completely.

“What about the other boy’s family?” the man finally asked. “Don’t they deserve some comfort?

His grandmother sputtered some more. What did her grandson have to do with the other boy’s death?

“He could help out, you know. You don’t have to shelter him; he already sees war every day.”

“You leave him be!” his grandmother said, her finger pointed threateningly at the man.

“All he has to do is identify the body.”

“Come, that’s enough,” the others interposed.

“Everyone’s doing their part. He has to do his. His friend’s family deserves this one act of kindness from him.”

“If they want their boy’s body, they can very well identify it themselves,” his grandmother snapped.

“It’ll be in even worse condition by the time we get them to the site,” he persisted.

“You shameful man,” his mother said in wonder. “Why are you trying so hard to expose my son to more violence? Can’t you just let it drop, and apologize to an old woman simply trying to protect a child?”

“He has to grow up some time. Just like the rest of us!” He grunted as his friends hauled him away.

My grandfather’s mother and grandmother hurried him along, but he couldn’t un-hear what had been said. The idea of duty kept whirling through his head, and before long he decided that he had to find his friend’s body. He had left him there; it was only right that he should be the one to bring him back to his family.

His mother and grandmother eventually capitulated to his wish, delivered as it was with the quiet stubbornness that they knew would spell outright defiance if they tried to forbid his going. When they got to the grave site, however, they realized that the horrid man they had encountered had either lied or was more ignorant of the situation than they thought, for there looking through the rows of bodies were the dead boy’s parents.

The two adults glanced at each other and sighed with relief. My grandfather didn’t need to be subjected to the gruesome sight ahead of them after all.

Without a word, he ran from them, and before they could grab him he was at the side of his best friend’s mother.

“That’s him,” she whispered to no one in particular, tears streaming down her gaunt face.

But it didn’t look like him at all. And the smell was horrendous. My grandfather covered his nose and mouth with his shirt and continued to stare down at the remains of what was clearly a boy with his abdominal cavity ripped open. What remained of his clothes did look familiar, but everything else was completely alien. My grandfather kept staring, searching for something recognizable in the decomposing pile of organic matter. Those who knew him and saw him that day would wonder that he didn’t cry at all.

He took that last image of his friend home with him, but he never could reconcile it with the memory he had of him as a living person. That corpse wasn’t his friend, he decided. His friend was gone. His spirit had moved on, and my grandfather knew that he would have to move on as well.

I could never, in my right mind, claim that my grandfather was the only person to have known tragedy during that war in that particular part of the world. What is of interest to me is that he evolved from the boy who experienced tragic loss and guilt to the man I remember—a man whose character never hinted at tragedy. He did not become a beggar or a thief. He didn’t sink into insanity. He wasn’t hardened by his past. He was fortunate.

None of my family got up to say anything at his funeral. I, for one, am not comfortable with speaking in public, but I do want to share his memory. And this is the only way I can comfortably do just that. My grandmother would cringe at this insistence on dwelling on one of the less cheerful aspects of his life (“We danced often” was the only thing she would say about her own experience of the war, insisting that she hardly ever left the cave where her family hid in the mountains). But dwelling on one of the most influential experiences of his life—despite how uncomfortably sad it makes me feel—is, I think, the best way to honor his memory because it illustrates more vividly than any eulogy just how resilient and pragmatic an individual he was.
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Esperanza is a paper-pusher by day, an avid novel reader by night, and a would-be writer when she can spare the time. Email: esper.del[at]gmail.com