SHORT STORY | Pasalubong

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Sweat beaded on her forehead as she walked through the slums of Guadalupe, both hands weighted down with luggage. She had almost forgotten the putrid smell of rotten tomatoes, fishes, and trash along the wet market. Two years had passed since she last came home. A few more minutes and she will be home again.

When she reached their home, her family greeted her at the gate. Her siblings helped her with her luggage while the children reached for her hand to mano. They have grown so much. Louisa patted their heads, and they squealed running inside. She knew they’re excited more about the pasalubong. Her parents and siblings took turns in hugging and kissing her.

She’s home.

Coming back from the dazzling life of Europe, it was humbling for her to see the place where she began her dreams. A small house made of cement, with faint paint of cyan color that failed to fill every hole in the wall, and two galvanized iron sheets put together as a roof. By the time she sat down on the sofa, the news flashed on the big screen: “Metro Manila Faces Lockdown During NCOV Crisis.”

Panic in the form of murmurs and questions flooded the house. Her family were telling her that she should be tested for NCOV. Some of them were asking if she was feeling sick.

All these were forgotten after the implementation of the lockdown.

The closing of the malls, restaurants, parks, and schools were received negatively by the neighborhood. It greatly affected their livelihood resulting in the loss of jobs, including her siblings. The longing for spending time with her family had been granted, but the hunger in the streets of Guadalupe became rampant. All the money she earned from working as a nurse was used to pay off their mortgage. After a month of quarantine, Louisa’s pasalubongs became the remaining food packs in their grocery. Each pack of biscuits were taken one by one by hungry mouths. 

“We are sorry, Ate, if we cannot help you out in this time of crisis.” Jenny, one of her sisters, wept in front of her.

 “The vehicles for commuting are unavailable, and Ortigas is too far for me to walk. I wish I could do anything to help.” Her brother Kal sighed as he glanced at the children.

Louisa saw her mother kneeling in front of the old Sto. Niṅo statue, her head bowed, tears falling down her face. Her mother and father were too old to be worrying about the crisis, she thought. Her nieces and nephews slumped on the sofa, their usual animated movements gone, their heads bowed, hungry. Louisa doesn’t mind the quiet or boredom. Seeing her family’s laughter die down and smiles fade away breaks her heart.

The long weeks of waiting for the news, the death rate of the Filipinos, the fear in the eyes of the children and in the eyes of her aging father and mother brought a tremendous ache in her heart.

Another news flash on the TV screen which said, “Healthcare Workers Decreased in Number as Five Died Today,” brought more pain. Before she turned off the television, the news reported that they needed volunteers. 

Someone knocked on their door, shouting, “Aling Lisa! Manong Efren! Is anybody there?” Louisa walked to the door, only to be outrun by her brother, Kal.

“What is it, Aling Teresa?” he greeted their neighbor.

Aling Teresa held the hand of Kal’s, social distancing forgotten, as she gave him a bag of goods. “I’ve heard from several neighbors you haven’t eaten properly for days.”

“Thank you,” Kal replied. He invited the woman inside.

Louisa led Aling Teresa to their sala while Kal bring the groceries to the kitchen.

“You know my daughter, Jessica, right?,” Aling Teresa asked Louisa. Louisa nodded in response. “She is a registered nurse in Taguig.” 

Aling Teresa, does the hospital of your daughter need more nurses?”

“That’s what I was about to tell you, Louisa! My daughter needs your help. The hospital is offering to pay for volunteers to help.” 

Louisa’s feeling of helplessness disappeared. She might have left London as a registered nurse, but anywhere she went, she was still a nurse at heart.

“I want to help them out. When can I start?”

“Jessica mentioned that they’re looking for volunteers who can start immediately. If you go there, maybe you can begin today?”

Louisa nodded eagerly.

“Great! Don’t forget to bring your documents with you,” she said before bidding them goodbye.

When Aling Teresa was gone, Louisa’s mother and father approached her. Their eyes were filled with worry. Her mother’s eyes became watery.

Louisa hugged them both. “I have to do something. I need to help. Not just for other people, but for us too.”

Her mother cradled her hand. “May God protect you from harm. God bless you, my daughter.” Her father, silent as always, but Louisa was certain that he was only composing himself to appear strong for the family.

“Thank you for everything, Nay, Tay.”

“We are the ones who should thank you for your sacrifices, Anak.” Her mother said with a hint of fatigue.

Her father is not a religious man. He reached for Louisa’s hand and placed a rosary on it. “You might need this.” Hint of tears brimmed in his eyes as he untangled his hand to hers.

She saw her old uniform laid out on the bed. It was the pair she wore on her on-the-job training. Her mother must have laid it out while she was in the bathroom. Her brother drove her to the hospital in their beat-up owner-type jeep.

When they reached the hospital, Louisa saw people lining up the entrance of the hospital. They were in various states of agony. Some were heaving, the children were crying, and others were seating weakly admitting defeat.

Jessica greeted her at the entrance and handed her a face mask. “Put this on, it’s not safe for us to enter the hospital without it.” Louisa nodded her head. Someone inside hurried them along, so Jessica and Louisa scurried their way within the white halls of the hospital. The wail of the patients, and the instant rushing of calls from the doctors and other nurses stressed her out. Few minutes more past and the halls have been flocked by more patients.

Later that night, the hospital service dropped her off at home. She entered through the back door and went straight to the bathroom. There’s a sanitation procedure in the hospital but one can never be too sure.

Jessica thought, “when I came here for work; before, I always think of the sum of money that I could get…” Jessica continued, “but when I see the eyes of these people who cannot be with their loved ones, when you know that their life is somehow depended on your hands, that’s the time you realized, it is not just a job that you seek anymore, but a vocation.”

Louisa went to her room and locked herself in.

In the following days, that became her routine. She tried to isolate herself from her family, afraid that they might get sick because of her. They limited their interaction but they’re always there.

Every day, her brother would drive her to work. Each night, she would come home to find dinner waiting for her. A change of clothes is laid out on a stool by the bathroom. And every day, she would see a pack of biscuit in her lunch pack. Louisa would pick it up and smile.

The biscuit is part of her pasalubong back from London, but for her family, her coming home is the best pasalubong of all.

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