The earliest writer I have ever known was my Uncle Andy. My mother, Nanay, was also a writer but I have no memory of seeing her writing even now in my later years. It was always my uncle. The earliest stories I wrote include Uncle Andy who had the habit of writing daily, surrendering himself to the business of an old, smallish typewriter throughout odd hours of the day. If he didn’t work with the typewriter, he wrote on a small clothbound ledger, worn down over the years, always by a window, the practice of which I attest, in my own literary pursuits, to be much too distracting. Even in his old age, tall and lean as he always has been, Uncle Andy can be found standing by windows or out on the balcony, looking out into the sun like a cat. On rainy days, he always chooses to stay outside, catching a cold or Nanay’s ire, and often both when she fails to find the one umbrella we have in the house.
I would eventually ‘inherit’ the typewriter; or rather, claim it as my inheritance. I could not have asked for his permission because he does not talk anymore; it is well over five years since he has last spoken after suffering a stroke which paralyzed half his body, the resulting silence of which my relatives have simply dismissed as either arthritis or solitude. Uncle Andy is entirely mute except for the few grunts he uses to communicate “hello, how was your day,” “please help me shave my face,” “I am going to bed, good night,” and “would you care to eat dinner with me.” This is an improvement from the years when he would be screaming into the afternoon the gibberish that we have heard as either “Mic mic” (in reference to Nanay’s theorized ringing in his ears similar to microphone feedback) or “Mai-mai” (a grand-niece of his). Recently, he has added crude hand signals which are conveyed through his one good hand. With incontinence, colic, narcolepsy, and the inability to bathe himself, he is closer now to being a child than he has ever been in his life.
I have had the typewriter repaired. I did not consider repainting it, the rust made it look more authentic and it maintained shades of plush olive green in the places where his hands never rested. The small bell that indicated the end of the line is beyond restoration; there would always be a need to monitor the words as they come out, necessitating the habit of looking up every few seconds or risk hitting the edge of the paper and thereafter rewriting the entire page out of the need for perfection. Much like everyone who begins developing the skill of typing, when I was around eleven years old, most of my attention was focused on pressing the right buttons. Years since, I have learned to type with my eyes closed, with regard for neither the paper nor the keys, focusing on the ideas, as one should. I could never do that on the typewriter: the first five letters were QWERTZ, there was no key for the number 1 and you had to use a capitalized letter I instead, semicolons were typed using a colon, a backspace, and a comma, and it had many more similar little absurdities that were commonplace at the time of its manufacturing, much like Uncle Andy.
Typewritten font is beautiful; portions of what I write, I re-type through the typewriter, keeping them piled in the corners of my room. This mode of organization is a habit Uncle Andy and I share although he was the more meticulous one. While I have never read any of his work, I remember seeing stacks of paper, baked by age to a perfect brown, in the secret spaces of his bedroom among the hair-thin spiders. I do not know if they were stories, essays, or simply the random thoughts one gets from windowsills or balconies.
When Typhoon Frank submerged the ancestral house in 2008, he barricaded himself in his room as the flood waters rose to his waist. My father and brothers had to break the door down and carry him on his back while the old man violently thrashed as if to scream put me down – let me get my work. Since then, all memory of his life lay in an outworn wallet. Nothing there is of any economic value except for a time when my aunts abroad used to regularly visit, and they would leave their spare change with him. Whenever bills for electricity or water came, we would discover out-of-circulation ten-peso bills and a few polished centavos, similarly large and easily mistakable for five-peso coins, by the one phone we have in the house. Through the years, my aunts have come home fewer and fewer times and the wallet has since been emptied. Its only valued remains are merely sentimental because he has kept every single identification card he has ever had: as a police officer, a service boy at a local gas station, his driver’s license from when he still had black hair, and there is a picture that has long since faded, cracked and brown, that I will never know about.
Uncle Andy has fallen danger to several illnesses but somehow survives without any modern medication through a stubbornness that likewise caused him to fall from a ladder on the insistence he change his own light bulb and break his ankle at the age of seventy. Decades earlier, it was the same stoicism or hubris that allowed him to survive a rebel-terrorist ambush that fatefully condemned him to lifelong heartache. Following the departure of his long-time girlfriend, Uncle Andy was relieved of police duty sometime in his early- or mid-30’s due to the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which was nonexistent at the time). He has since spent the rest of his decades at home with the intention to recuperate – which is something my grandfather, Lolo Iko, a World War 2 veteran, could not possibly condone at the time. As I grow older, more stories of my late grandfather resurface and I suppose it’s just now that people have begun feeling comfortable talking about him. My grandfather used to beat Uncle Andy with blunt weapons, spat on him, screamed at him for each slight, and humiliated him every single day of his life. I suppose Lolo Iko saw the PTSD as weakness and seeing his eldest son sprawling on the floor, crying, bleeding, not fighting back despite his physique and police training was all the more intolerable. Maybe the old man wanted to be hit back, I think it had something to do with masculinity or a twisted sense of honor. Neither my grandmother, Lola Lea, nor the rest of Uncle Andy’s seven siblings did anything to stop it. At one time, Uncle Francisco II (named after my grandfather) and his wife even pinned Uncle Andy to the table and threatened to break his head open with a hammer if he didn’t confess to stealing their sweet papaya. They eventually moved away some time in the early 2000’s, leaving my Uncle Andy in peace – but all I remember otherwise from this moment was a longing for my cousins who were my only playmates apart from the old man.
I imagine if Uncle Andy had fought back, his life would have gone differently – but then again, if he did, he wouldn’t be Uncle Andy. When Lolo Iko died in 1997, I remember Uncle Andy standing over his coffin, crying in silence, no one else around him. He was reading something from a piece of paper, folded several times over, which he took out from his shirt pocket, the symbolism of which I was not capable of understanding at six years old. I do not know if Uncle Andy and Lolo Iko were able to reconcile their differences in the end. When asked about it at the time, my Uncle Andy said to Nanay: “It was all done in anger; he did not mean any of it.”
After the burial, Lola Lea went to Houston, Texas to live with my Aunt Alanna; I wouldn’t see her again until some years before her death when she moved back to the Philippines because the latter had developed the early signs of scoliosis after years of service as a nurse. Aunt Leona went back to Switzerland, Aunt Heidi returned to the convent, Aunt Gloria and Uncle Francisco II to their families, while Nanay looked after the ancestral house and Uncle Andy.
Uncle Andy would move into the room in which the old man slept. Lolo Iko and Lola Lea slept in separate rooms because of his midnight panic attacks when he relived stabbing nameless Japanese boys through the heart – and would mistake his wife for their mothers when he woke up, either crying for forgiveness or still enraged. By Nanay’s discretion, we had Lolo Iko’s room rebuilt for Uncle Andy, tearing down the dividing wall to reunite the husband’s and wife’s room and accommodate a much larger space in the corner of the old house. Uncle Andy has since slept in the same spot my grandfather did, initially on a bed he had built himself from spare wood before Nanay bought a broken hospital bed and had it renovated for him to use sometime in the early 2000’s. For his safety, the makeshift bed has long been condemned as firewood, secretly responsible for a hot, nameless summer dinner because Uncle Andy is overly sentimental and would have kept it until it exploded into sawdust under the full 50kg weight of his body. This was how it is for the rest of the house. Everything decays; several times we have had its walls rebuilt, asking for money from my aunts abroad who are bankers and nurses. There are snakes under the floor tiles, there are rats in the pipes, in the bathrooms are young frogs that feed the centipedes, geckos hunt roaches in the upholstered furniture, and there are termites everywhere that shit rust instead of dust because rust does not multiply this quickly in a wooden house without some fantastic explanation – and still Uncle Andy refuses to leave. My aunts lobby Swiss francs and US dollars to pay for his expenses, much of which go to the maintenance of the house and to pest exterminators. When Uncle Andy finally passes, my aunt said she’d think about the house.
One afternoon when we were home alone, I bring the typewriter to him with the intention of asking for his blessing but more so perhaps to have him say something through it. I show him that it really is working now – that, after all, it is rightfully his – and I wait as the fingers on his good hand reach for the keys. He begins typing with one finger, then two, then three and none of it makes the slightest sense. He grunts, he pushes it back towards me, and he smiles through a set of old (but complete) brown teeth.
In times of famine and struggle, the ancient Japanese had a tradition they called Ubasute: the Abandonment of the Elderly. Old people who could no longer work were carried to the tops of mountains and left to die. Elderly women were usually the first victims, hence the literal translation: ‘abandoning an old woman.’ They were carried on their sons’ backs, breaking twigs and branches along the way, and dropping these behind them to form a trail which sons could follow home. One story went that a villager had refused the emperor’s orders upon realizing how much he loved his mother. Throughout the winter, he kept her hidden under the floorboards where she whispered instructions concerning decisions in the household. Seeing as to how well the family was doing, their neighbors asked for advice and the old woman answered through her son. The two would end up saving the entire village from famine.
I think about my uncle whenever I remember that story. I watch movies that celebrate old age and wisdom, I call them beautiful and suggest these to friends. I play the guitar to Neil Young’s Old Man as Uncle Andy takes a nap on the chair, watching his bony frame melt like candle wax, occasionally bubbling to life to accommodate a coughing fit. I listen to the stories of love and labor that my father’s cirrhosis-afflicted workers confess at the end of the day halfway through a song, the same songs sung only by drunk men or men in the process of getting drunk. But there was no wisdom to be found in Uncle Andy. To my family, he was the representation of failure, a lack of willpower, and disincentive. Uncle Andy was a burden whose greatest achievement was simply being born to a family that took care of him in his old age. Free, instantaneous pension by birthright, they called it. The people who do talk to him during the reunions take pictures with him, upload it to social media to inform my aunts abroad. When the next Balikbayan Box arrives, they have new shoes, new perfumes, acne for a month from the new chocolate, and new designer makeup with which to cover that acne. The cycle repeats itself next year every Easter Sunday or New Year’s as photodocumentary proof of a trophy kill. All in all, I do not think Uncle Andy minds because any goodness done by the Devil is still God’s work.
At one point, however, Uncle Andy was the Devil. At the very least, he became the bogeyman for the children in the clan. Nanay would say: “If you ever need motivation for success, just look around and see everything you dislike. Do you want to grow up to be your Uncle Andy?”
I know she did not mean it. When she saw us raising our voices against him, joining our older cousins in ridiculing the way he walked or talked, she was the first one who always stepped in. Please understand your uncle has been Nanay’s mantra for tolerance, patience, and compassion for the old man.
One day, all in anger, I finally respond: “But what is to understand? He hasn’t done anything in his life. If we took care of pigs instead, we could at least slaughter them for the table.”
“You will know what it is like. You will also be like that when you are old and then you will understand.”
“Nanay, I will have done something with my life by then.”
My relatives call him a coward to his face and in many other different ways, they imitate his only means of communicating, feign their hellos to shake his arthritic hand and see who could make him grimace through his smile. In the midst of it all, all the old man does is smile – it is either he does not care, he cares too much to say or do anything, or he is simply deaf, and his hands can no longer feel pain. The last theory normalizes the practice of shouting at him and stuffing his unkempt hands into jacket pockets, justifies it all at the end of the day, and Nanay would make efforts to disprove this by calling to him from across the living room or stroking his hand to call his attention, only to be greeted by a small grin that could mean so many things from a writer like sudden quietude at sunrise or the often unmanned windows during the rain.
It is in the rarity of his speech and I suppose his being a writer that compels us to double the value of everything he says, to routinely dissect each of his words for multiple interpretations like Holy Scripture or fine literature. The same went for all his actions which were open to meanings beyond common sense and he has always been difficult because of it. With one hand at the age of seventy-two, he carried five-gallons of drinking water only to have it slip, breaking the container to form freshwater puddles that murdered a colony of ants and from which the dogs drank. This has happened at least half a dozen times until my father ordered my brothers to keep him distracted while we unloaded the water because the mere sight of it compelled Uncle Andy to help. He checked the rice box each and every day; the moment it runs low, it sends him into a panic attack, unleashing a noise barrage of shouting and tipping things over, like a cat does in its leisure. Corel plates and fine china he insisted on washing himself were broken but he was luckily never cut. He was later given a plastic plate which he drummed with a metal spoon in a hoeing motion each time he ate to ensure every grain of rice was eaten. I offered a plastic spoon to preserve some solitude while eating but Nanay rebuked me saying it was too degrading at that point, even by this family’s standards. Uncle Andy checked the bottom of his plate for shreds of food that he may have missed. He only eats at a specific location on the table, insisting that he draw his own chair (a 15-kg piece of solid mahogany), causing an uproar due to the uneven floor tiles. For dessert, he ate leftovers set aside for the dogs. His coughs send him into spasms, once vomiting green phlegm on the dining table and he has since made an effort to retch on the floor instead. He had at one time wandered off for several hours and was later found at the district plaza, simply sitting there and enjoying the sunset as my brother filed a missing persons report in the police station less than 30-meters away. Locking the gate was a means of keeping him in and keeping others out as he had on several occasions invited strangers into the house, once prompting my father to evict them at gunpoint. When the gates had been chained, he allowed children to scale the fence and later encouraged them to climb the giant mango tree to pluck its fruits; Nanay feared a lawsuit and the walls have since been crowned with barbed wire and broken glass that the typhoons eventually washed away. One time, he swabbed the house with a dirty mop and it reeked of dog urine until Nanay came home and sprayed Downy all over. He closes the large narra doors by throwing them shut because his gnarled hand cannot grip the knob. He insists on opening the screen doors himself, even for the cats, putting his paralyzed hand to your chest as a gesture saying please wait as he rushed limping to the door to open it for you. On Sunday afternoons, he simply waited by the door until anyone came but cats mostly nap the longest during this time.
The sudden panic attacks, the emotional blankness, and his uncompromising adherence to routines were all futile means of introducing some level of control over his otherwise uncontrollable life. It necessitated the hiring of caretakers to look after him; teenage girls from the rural areas up north whom he would call by different names: one he referred to as Dorothy, while another was Brit, which Nanay assumes is after Dorothy Gale and Britney Spears, respectively. The girls eventually eloped with a freighter driver and a security guard (against Nanay’s advice) and have since lived the rest of their lives undergoing the same domestic abuse (that Nanay warned them about). Other caretakers physically hurt him; Nanay kicked them out them following her own private investigations and she would not tell us why they left until years later when their faces and real names have been forgotten. When Dorothy and Brit do happen to visit, sunburnt and sickly thin, they would give Uncle Andy a kiss which is easily enough to make the old man cry and laugh at the same time. When my father declared bankruptcy a few years ago and we could no longer afford the caretakers for Uncle Andy, my family thought about putting him in a geriatric home but my aunts abroad wouldn’t hear any of it: “God must love him if He has kept him alive for this long.”
Most nights, I continue writing my novel on the typewriter. The protagonist, Kapitan Ilderan Recuerdo, is closely based on my Uncle Andy were he able to speak: “If I die, I am convinced that neither heaven nor hell would want me. I am going to live forever. But if I do not die, then that makes for something different altogether. I am hallowed because I am damned.” It is through Kapitan Ilderan Reucerdo’s adventures that I am able to understand my Uncle Andy. These stories have made their way into my novel and, through fiction, Kapitan Ilderan Recuerdo murders his own father and brother in self-defense, has a family and a son named Alexander, and becomes a beloved politician following a decorated career in the military.
I heard him speak for the last time a few years ago when I was taking him for a haircut. He points at a parked car, saying: Su-zu-ki. I didn’t think much about it then but that was the first time he said anything coherent in over half a decade. I told Nanay about the incident when we got home and she told me she heard him one afternoon ago, staring out into the siesta-inducing heat, singing The Beatles’ Nowhere Man:
He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
Aunt Leona has recently been diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma, Aunt Alanna has a metal rod that serves to alleviate her severe scoliosis, Uncle Francisco II is still an asshole, and Nanay has just reached 60 years old but because the eldest Aunt Felicidad, who still frequented the same night clubs from five decades ago, was simply too headstrong for death, at my Aunt Gloria’s wake, my drunk cousins asked, “who do you think is going to die next?”
“I don’t know,” I tell them.
“I bet it will be your Uncle Andy.”
“I don’t know.”
I remember Suzuki, the typewriter, the doors always being open, and I remember the smiles. I suppose the smiles have always meant: “thank you for noticing me; it means much to me.” If you look at it that way, I do not think Uncle Andy will die that easily. It would go against everything that he has ever suffered in silence or ignored with compassion. I expect he will live for twenty years more which is enough time for me to eventually apologize.