I learned of the word “grave” one acrid November. I was young then, though I could not remember my exact age. It was always the little complexities that I had found much disinterest in those days when you are a child who does not understand why the little barrows with headstones were not to be stepped on without utmost care.
My father had stopped me when I had gone traipsing across stone plaques in a game of hopscotch. He grabbed my hand and dragged me back to a tomb with two stone slabs, names I could not recognize, elegantly carved onto their surfaces. I could only read one word, “Zalameda,” because it was my last name. He told me, “This is your Lolo, and this is your Inang. It is All Saints’ Day, and we have to pay our respects. This is their grave.”
I looked at him confused, because I did not recognize these people he had spoken of. As a young child with no comprehension of the possibility of someone existing if I had never seen them with my two eyes, I sealed my lips shut instead of spurting out my ignorant thought: Why care?
My relatives were placing bags of salted peanuts on the grave. Right below, on the other headstone, my father gently laid a packet of chicharon. He told me it was my Inang’s favorite thing to eat. He said, “If you can’t find it, just bring strawberry ice cream. It’s her favorite.” I imagined the birds flying in once we were gone, and pecking our offerings until naught was left.
When I grew up, my questions remained unanswered. The little inklings of time brought us beyond the ocean to Singapore, where lights shone, stranded in the sea. We had begun to do this ritual every November 1st at my father’s behest, right outside the apartment we stayed in.
We brought out exactly two candles and lit them with an old lighter. Then my father would bring out those same offerings he always took out in the Philippines. I watched him closely and internally remarked that he seemed grave. Yet I realized that thought had a fallacy: this reality turning pallid in our eyes when we see the shadows trailing behind. For below that was an emotion I couldn’t comprehend, a mixture of fondness and grief. I thought to myself that I would never want to beat that expression, because it looked painful. I did think, however, that it was strangely beautiful, though I could not grasp why.
Years passed, like a gurgling creek where bends would slow its progress, and thinning shores would expedite its rapids. Some days, I would notice a new candle placed on the cement corridor. My dad would tell me, “This is for my friend. She passed away from cancer recently, and was just my age.” I felt a pang in my heart then, a kind of remorse for someone I never really knew. When my dad lit that candle, I stared at it a little longer and wondered if that minuscule regret would disappear when I walked through the corridor the next morning after the candle had burnt out.
I thought about this frustration in the year 2022 as I sat on a tiny plastic chair in front of those graves once again. My father was an ocean away, and I had chosen to visit the cemetery out of my own will. This was something that would have confused the previous me. Having pestered my Tita to help me buy that set of things my father always brought with him each November, I had gotten a few things wrong. The peanuts were not salted, but spicy because it was out of stock, and the ice cream was a watermelon popsicle in cartoonish colors because I could not find the items my Inang loved.
These little inconsistencies irked me when I would have previously not paid these perceived insignificances any mind. As I sat there staring at the marble headstones that were a little grayer than I remembered, I realized that the expression my father had that day was more than a graven burden from the dead, but a signifier of remembrance. It was a broader concept the childish me would never comprehend until this very moment: “sonder,” in the awareness of the awareness of others.
I remembered that acrid November in burning heat, when I was taught the word “grave” by my father after he pulled me away from playing hopscotch across the headstones.
I had a beautiful epiphany this November. The marble stone inscribed with the names of people I had never met revealed that the fact that they existed mattered. In the stories they had left behind, I was reminded on All Saints’ Day that they had achieved what no being other than humanity could: eternity.
Regina Sara Zalameda, 18, is a biracial student currently enrolled in Southville International Schools and Colleges’ humanities stream.
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