Her world came crashing down today, you might say, literally.
Milly’s head was aching. Her face wore a tight mask of dried up tears. She was sitting in her parents’ sala, in the home the family moved into a few years after the war. If these living room walls could speak, she thought, they would recall many moments of her carefree adolescence when the future held so much promise. These walls would recall that, in this same room, a boy once courted a girl.
Milly felt a tightness in her throat. The pain, within seconds, squeezed her heart and pumped itself into every nerve in her body. She closed her eyes and exhaled. She listened to the sounds around her: the murmuring conversation of her parents in the dining room, the movement of servants in the kitchen, the patter of children’s feet upon the hardwood floor.
She opened her eyes and blinked away tears that threatened to blur her vision. Her surroundings looked normal, but felt surreal. It was as if she was not actually experiencing the moment, but was watching everything unfold from a distance, in slow motion.
Ignie ran past her, holding a small airplane. She called her son over, but her voice seemed to come from someone else. The boy stood at her knees and let her caress his beautiful face. Touching him grounded her and gave her a sense of presence. He looked more like her, Milly thought, but he also had traces of his father. At six years old, he already seemed to exhibit his father’s deep calm and innate, serene joy. As she looked at her son under the weight of their present reality, she could not understand how his innocence could remain so uninterrupted. Nevertheless, it gave her relief. As she let him run back to play with her youngest brother, she made a vow to always keep Ignie close, to always keep him safe. She felt so grateful for the gift of his life, but beneath that quietly simmered a mixture of regret and guilt.
As her sisters chatted around her, Milly’s thoughts drifted to that morning, still in disbelief of the events that brought her to this exact moment.
She recalled the details, determined to burn them into her memory: Roming bent down, scribbling on a piece of paper her tugon. She told him to add 10 kilos of roasted chestnuts and 15 kilos of Batangas meat to the list of items she had requested earlier. She looked over her husband’s shoulder just as he wrote “submarine” under an already long list of toys beneath Ignie’s name, a list that included a “machine gun with wooden bullets.”
“Tama na ina.” That’s enough, Milly had told him, shaking her head. Ignie had more toys than he could deal with.
“It’s for Christmas,” Roming sheepishly insisted. The holiday was only a few weeks away.
Milly recalled how he neatly folded the shopping list and tucked it into his brown wallet. She remembered the scent of his cologne as they kissed. The tenderness in his voice as he told Ignie to be a good boy. Roming’s smile before he got into his pickup truck; his excitement for the day ahead was obvious in the childlike giddiness that his grown body could not conceal. The sudden rattle of his truck as it came to life, his wave goodbye. As he pulled away, Milly noted the beautiful, clear blue sky and pushed her usual apprehensions aside.
Roming loved flying. His Piper Cub was his passion. Milly worried on days when he and his flying buddies took off on their planes to island hop. But she acknowledged that having a private plane did have its perks. She, Ignie and Roming could fly as often as they wanted between their home in Negros and Iloilo, where her parents and siblings still lived. Sometimes, Ignie needed to pee during the flight so she would help him urinate out the window, grateful he was a boy. She hoped Roming was right when he said that the pee evaporated before hitting the ground… or a person.
The trip to the air show at Clark Airfield that morning was initially planned as a family affair. Milly got irritated when Roming changed their plans at the last minute, but she begrudgingly complied. She was looking forward to doing some shopping.
After Roming left, Milly immersed herself in unpacking and organizing their fourth home in six years. It was not easy, but she always found such nesting activity to be rewarding. An hour or two passed in the blink of an eye.
Almost as suddenly came a phone call. There had been an accident. A buhawi, a tornado, came out of nowhere. A single-engine plane and its three passengers crashed in Aklan.
Milly couldn’t remember how she had gotten herself and Ignie on a Negros Navigation ferry to Iloilo. But by noon, she was home in Jaro where she collapsed into her Papa’s and Mama’s arms. As her brother Junior set out for Aklan with a military team to investigate, Milly spiraled into a black hole of delirium.
“I don’t care if he is missing a limb, an arm, a leg,” she begged the santos on the altar. “I need him back alive. Jesus, please, help me! Please Virgin Mary, please, bring him back alive!” Milly cried hysterically. She knew what she was asking the heavens for was impossible to give. But she owed it to herself, to her son, to Roming, to ask for a miracle. Just one miracle and she will ask for nothing more. Milly’s sisters, who all looked up to their eldest as their rock, helplessly watched Milly descend into madness. They cried and held her, praying that she could pull through this and come back.
Milly rubbed her knees absentmindedly. They were bruised from kneeling before the altar all afternoon. Family and close friends had been coming by throughout the evening to be supportive. Nanay Polon, her great grandmother came out of the kitchen to check on her. Snippets of conversation floated by but Milly barely listened. “He wasn’t the one flying,” someone explained. “They were flying in Danny Lacson’s plane.”
“Who was on the plane?”
“Roming, Danny and Boy Mapa.”
“They crashed in a rice field.”
The same conversations repeated over and over with each new visitor that arrived. Milly, however, had drifted to a place inside where her mind raced in circles. This was a bad dream. This was a joke. Why did this happen? Drowning herself in the river was not an option — she had Ignie, and she had to be strong for him. But how could she do this on her own without a man? How could she raise a son without a father? Her family loved her. She would never be alone. She would be supported. But still, how could she do this without Roming? How could she possibly live without him? How could she not touch him, hear him, talk to him? How could he not come home to her? This could not actually be happening.
Then suddenly, a familiar sound broke her daze. The distinct rattle of a truck coming to a stop in front of the house, right outside the gate. Milly suddenly sat up and thought, “could it be?” For what seemed like the first time on this December day, she woke up to the present moment and instinctively looked around. And she saw him. Roming was standing at the threshold to the sala from the dining room. His expression neutral, as if simply to check on her. “Roming!” Milly shrieked and bolted towards him. Roming crossed the sala but when Milly reached the threshold, he was gone.
“Manang!” her sisters yelled after her.
“Roming,” Milly cried as she sank to the floor surrounded by her family. “He was here,” she said between sobs.
“He was here.”