‘What keeps you going?’

The eldest of my granddaughters, Julia, whose early childhood exploits filled quite a few of my columns many years ago, surprised me with a question over lunch the other day. “Lolo, what keeps you going?” I was at a loss for words. It’s one of those questions that could be understood in any number of ways. “What exactly do you mean?” I shot back, hoping for some context.

“It’s for a paper I have to write,” she replied, in effect asking if I could be one of her informants. Now 20, she is in her junior year at UP Diliman where she’s doing a course on family life and child development. She sounded desperate as she explained the amount of homework she has had to submit to fulfill the requirements of her courses this semester, all of which had been reconfigured by the pandemic. “You mean: ‘How am I coping with quarantine restrictions?’” I asked. “Partly yes,” she clarified, “but it can be broader than that.” What keeps me going? “Sorry, Jules, you’ll have to ask someone else. It’s too personal; I have not really thought about it.” In my mind, I pondered some of the possible qualifiers of that question for a person in my situation—as an elderly person, as a retiree, and finally as a husband who has just lost his wife of 50 years.

The truth is, I have asked myself the same question every single day since Karina’s death. I don’t think I have succeeded in formulating a clear and adequate answer that I can hold as a guide to getting me through the time that remains. For this reason, I was convinced that I would not be a good model of pandemic resilience. Indeed, I have learned not to dwell too much on my inner thoughts and feelings, preferring, as Thich Nhat Hanh advises, the simpler joys of conscious breathing and regular walking.

The reason for all this, to put it plainly, is that I think I lost my bearings when my wife died. Amid the fog of grief, I’ve been trying to regain them since. W.H. Auden said it more precisely in the poem “Funeral Blues”: “[S]he was my North, my South, my East and West,/ My working week and my Sunday rest,/ My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.” So, for me, the question first of all has been, “how do you find your way home,” rather than “what keeps you going.” Breathing and walking have been a good starting point because they serve as a reminder that, even as you find yourself thrown into a world that is certain to outlast you, you’re still alive.

It helped that I’ve been a birdwatcher for sometime now. I go back to familiar sites where I first encountered my feathered friends. Some, or, more accurately, their descendants, are still there. Then there are the seasonal visitors; they seem more at ease now that there are fewer people intruding into their environs. I am grateful for the privilege of continuing to live on the UP campus, one of the few remaining patches of green in the whole metropolis. Here, I’ve been able to leave my house and walk around the deserted tree-lined streets of the campus as soon as the strictest lockdown was lifted.

I have, for now, given up planning what to do next. I had all kinds of projects lined up when I retired from full-time teaching—some lectures I thought I could rewrite and put together as a book, another volume on Philippine modernity, and maybe a series of personal memoirs, or a compilation of my personal essays, etc. I also thought of finally putting some order to my personal library, reserving a special shelf for new books I have bought but have not found time to read. Outside of these, I had resolved to do more unhurried traveling with Karina, to visit some of our old friends in Southeast Asia. I also thought of going on long rides, alone or with my motorcycle buddies, here and abroad.

The pandemic abruptly overturned all these plans. But, even before that, with my wife’s health rapidly declining at the beginning of 2019, I had basically set aside doing anything else as our trips to the hospital became more frequent.

Luckily, in 2017, we made a determined effort to embark on a trip abroad accompanied by all our children and grandchildren—a road trip through California that culminated in Lake Tahoe. That proved to be a great achievement for a family whose members were coming from different parts of the world. Karina passed on barely two years later.

The only other time we got to travel again as one family was in September 2019, four months after Karina’s death, when I received an award in Fukuoka, Japan. It was a bittersweet moment. My children brought with them a framed picture of their mother, and one of the grandchildren would hold it for the camera each time we posed for a family photo. She was there, and wasn’t there.

Where your life is headed is usually a question parents ask of their children when they are young, expecting them to have a clear vision of their desired future. In retrospect, I think this kind of anticipation ignores the many accidents and complex contingencies to which our brief lives are subject. It also deprives them of the openness and freedom they need to explore life’s countless possibilities. I’d say—first let them live, then perhaps they’d know where they’re going.

Having reached the final leg of our journey, we, in our evening years, uncannily find ourselves in the same spot, asking not so much what keeps us going as where we are, and how we might find our way home to the selves we have become, in acceptance and gratitude.

Happy New Year, in spite of everything!