The Runt of the Litter

      The year I was born, a Miss Philippines contestant by the name of Gemma Teresa Cruz won the Miss International crown.  My Mom was going to name me after her, but she figured everyone else would name their girls the same, so she decided to call me Emma Teresita instead.  I never did like the name Emma because it did not have the glamour of a Vanessa or the perkiness of a Stephanie.  Nevertheless, I always wrote my full name on my schoolwork: Emma Teresita Fernandez Balberan.  I wore my name like a badge of honor because it was my Mom’s name, only with Emma before it.

      Of course, I do not have recollections of myself as a baby, but I’ve heard stories about me losing my hair and having scabs on my head due to an allergic reaction to the milk formula I was drinking at that time.  Achi Joy told me that the sight of me scared her away and she would only peek at me from behind a door keeping her distance. They had tried different formulas but nothing agreed with me.  One time, out of desperation, my Mom handed me ice-cold Bear Brand milk in a bottle.  I loved it, and they soon noticed a marked improvement in my condition.  From then on, I was a Bear-Brand baby, and they said that every time they handed me my bottle, I would first test it by holding it against my chest, and if it wasn’t cold enough, I would throw it away.  Some prima donna!

      When I was baptized, one of my godmothers was Beatriz Durano, the wife of Papa Amon.  Papa Amon struck me as a mild-mannered, kindly old man.  It was always a treat to visit him in Danao, because he kept a thick wad of bills in his pocket, and he would hand out to us kids 10 to 20-peso bills, sometimes more on our birthdays or special occasions.  I’ve always suspected that he was very rich, but I did not know how rich or how powerful until I was older.  It was only later that I found out that my Papa Amon was the Ramon Durano of Danao, Cebu, the man who practically owned Danao.  He was a powerful political figure who had his own private army and his own gun-making factory.  With his money and his goons, he heavily influenced politics in Cebu.

      I recall when I was a little girl, my Mom kept saying that someday, she was going to make me a Princess of Pilar or Princess of Danao like my Achi Ichuk.  The thought always filled me with dread, and I would always worry and ask, “What if the people won’t stay to watch me crowned?”  My Mom would always laughingly tell me that she would have Durano’s goons guard the exits with their Armalite rifles, if that’s what it took to keep people from leaving the auditorium.  I never really understood the reference to “Durano’s goons” back then until I heard the real story behind the kindly old man I called my Papa Amon.

      One of my earlier recollections is of my Dad lifting me up and spinning me across the room with my arms stretched out before me, squealing with delight.  I loved the sensation of being suspended in midair, looking down at the world below and feeling like I could fly.  I don’t exactly know what happened between then and now, because I grew up to be a certified scaredy-cat, afraid of heights, flying, roller coasters, elevators, and yes, even slides.  They convinced me to ride an octopus once, and after the ride, I threw up a day’s worth of pigging out, and my sisters left me alone after that.  I dreaded those old-fashioned elevators which made so much noise and rocked on a Richter scale of seven before arriving on the desired floor.  I refused my first nursing assignment to the U.S. because it was supposed to be in New York.  It wasn’t the mean streets of N.Y. that scared me but the thought of all the elevators in those skyscrapers!  I also went up once on a giant wave slide, but when I looked down below, I chickened out, and I endured the snickering looks of the brave souls I passed on my way back down the ladder.  Imagine me then on my first 22-hour plus plane trip from the Philippines to the U.S.

      My senses were on full emergency alert as soon as I stepped on that plane.  I prayed that someone would just knock me out cold and wake me up as soon as we touched ground.  No such luck.  I agonized over every movement, from the takeoff to the landing and every lurch in between.  I think I almost ripped the fabric off my seat in anticipation of a sudden jolt.  It did no help that there was this guy seated two aisles across from me who was just hooting with laughter at my discomfiture.  I was way past caring though.  He could well have been Mel Gibson, he still wouldn’t get me to straighten up in my chair and wipe that miserable look off my face.  When the flight was mercifully over, I couldn’t wait to tell a fellow passenger how awful it was.  I stopped in mid-sentence when I heard someone remark that it was the smoothest flight she had ever been on.  The thought of that rough flight with the air pockets and turbulence stopped me cold.

      Another vivid memory I have is of that time my Dad came home late, I was daydreaming on the sofa, and as soon as I heard his key turn, I closed my eyes, opened my mouth slightly and snored softly as if in deep sleep. My Dad picked me up and carried me up the stairs and settled me down carefully in my bed.  As soon as he left the room, I burst of laughing, unable to believe that I could fool my Dad.  The next night, I tried it again.  Again, he picked me up and carried my upstairs, but as he was getting ready to tuck me into bed, I couldn’t control myself any longer and I collapsed in giggles.  My dad wasn’t too happy about my tricking him, but he good-naturedly accepted it.  I was smart enough not to do it again.

       Another incident I cannot forget was the time I was in the beach with my family.  I was little and I couldn’t swim, so I was just content to sit in the middle of this huge salvavida while my older brother and sisters swam near me.  My Achi Joy swam underneath the salvavida, but she surfaced too close and overturned the salvavida with me on it.  I didn’t understand what was happening, only that one minute, I was breathing in the sea breeze, and the next, I was breathing in the seawater.  I remember staring out underwater at these flailing legs and feeling like a fish minus the gills.  The next thing I knew, somebody had pulled me out.  I was coughing out an ocean of water, and my eyes stung from having kept them open under the sea for so long.

      Years later, I worked at his place where the patients were kids who were near-drowning victims.  They were rescued before they could die, but not soon enough.  They lay comatose with tracheostomies and G-tubes and O2 tubings, monitored by apnea machines and needing frequent suctioning and turning.  Their appearance was almost perfect except for the blank stares in their eyes, the open mouths and the contractures on their extremities. 

      It is on moments like these when you are just thankful to be alive, to be able to breathe in and out on your own, eat the foods you crave, and spit out whatever phlegm you have percolating in your throat.  Moments like these remind me of a proverb that goes, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet.”

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