We drive through the expanse of undeveloped space, mostly empty save a few mausoleums already built. I ride shotgun, as I always do. “God, look at that one,” I say, pointing out the gaudiest, most self-important offense to the Renaissance era (or maybe Baroque; I am bad at art history) that I have ever laid eyes on. It stands out in the darkness, it stands out among the small number of minimalist mausoleums (some almost brutalist in their minimalism; a simplicity that appeals to me) that are scattered around the memorial park.
Completely lit chandeliers, marble (maybe marble) pillars, gilded cherubs on every corner — ostentation at its most ostentatious, saying without needing the words that the dead who occupy it and the living who inevitably will join them likely consider themselves royalty, or similar. Surname etched in huge gold-engraved serif above the entrance, Greco-Roman. “Ah, I’m not surprised.”
I decided long ago that I never want to be buried. It’s something we discussed, often jokingly, around the Sacred Table on a few occasions: what we wanted our funerals to be like. (“Nobody’s allowed to be happy at my wake because I’m dead. Everybody needs to be fucking crying and miserable. I’m dead.“) In keeping with the sanctity of our Sacred Table, I will only tell you what I finally decided upon, which is partly a joke (although if there is any possibility of it becoming reality, then I take that back, please make it happen): I want something like a viking funeral.
I would like to be as beautifully decked out as Padmé Amidala laying in her funeral boat at the end of Revenge of the Sith, except not floating down a river, but out on the ocean somewhere. Without a flower crown. (My friend Karlo says I should be dressed in Dior couture, but that’s Karlo for you, and it would be a waste of a thing of beauty — and money. I’ve never been keen on designer goods. The only labeled things I own are a few purses and my mother’s Fendi shoes that are older than my youngest brother, which she bought because she was told Princess Diana owned the same pair. But I digress.) Then, I want a flaming arrow fired onto the boat (or my ideally still beautiful corpse, probably doused in kerosene), and I want to burn into the sea. Like Frigga in Thor: The Dark World, except I won’t fall out into the empty silence of space because the Earth is not flat.
I am not sure if there will be major environmental repercussions should this actually occur, and if there will be, then I suppose I’d like to just be cremated and have my ashes scattered into the ocean, which I love, or spread out in the soil beneath a strong tree that will hopefully get to live another century, but what I know for certain is that I do not want to be buried in a traditional manner. I do not want a tombstone with my name and dates of birth and death on it. I don’t want a quote of some sort beneath that basic information that says nothing about the person I was or the life I lived, but that’s probably because I would never be able to decide on a quote. None of that.
“It just takes up space,” I tell Joseph. (Because who else is in the driver’s seat but my best friend?) “If I’m already dead, then I don’t want to take up any more space that I won’t even need. How much bigger will the population become by then? How necessary will that space be for someone actually living? It seems…egotistical in a way. I don’t really feel the need to be remembered. If I’m going to be remembered, I’m going to be remembered in different ways, by the people who really matter, and you won’t need my rotting corpse in a box to do that. And if I’m forgotten, life’s life; someday, the Sun will become a black hole and none of this will have been for anything. So I’m just going to think about now.” I don’t know if the word for what I am is fatalistic, nihilistic, or something else entirely. I get the feeling my shrink might think I have taken the principle of being in the present just a tad too far.
I think of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
I think of the movie Troy — yes, the Brad Pitt one — where Achilles is told by his mother that, should he remain home, he will live a wonderful life, but will eventually be forgotten. Should he sail to Troy to fight with the Greeks, he will never see home again, but his story will become legend, and his name will survive the ages. We all know what he picked.
I steel myself for the evening as we come closer to where we are supposed to be. “Never married, never buried. That will be me, that will be my thing.”
Lately, as age has crept up on me, I’ve begun to worry that I may never fall in love. (I have loved, deeply, but feel as though I have never fallen in love, been in love, and there’s a difference. I’ve never known the kind of love that consumes; the kind you live and die for. The kind that you just know is right, even when things are going wrong. The One. I wonder sometimes if all the books have lied to me, but my friends say no.) The romantic in me despairs at the possibility. The pragmatist already has a long list of very logical reasons as to why a significant other is more of a complication than a necessity. (“Just give me a Eurasian grandchild,” my mother has implored in all seriousness at every possible occasion. I think it’s why they’re sending me to Berlin for three months.)
But I digress. Again.
Joseph and I, we finally arrive at our destination: the wake of a friend, who happens — happened, happened, God, I cannot bring myself to write it in the past tense — to be the love of another friend’s life. The pain of such a thing is unfathomable to me. The unfairness of it. I force myself to inhabit an emotional space I cannot quite describe: I try to stay still, I try to stay distant, I make myself pleasant, because I know myself too well. The part of me that is all heart is breaking for these people that I love so much, but to cry, to show that kind of emotion, would be the most selfish thing I could possibly do in a situation like this.
It is not my place. It is not my right. Not here. Not now.
At a wake, you come to comfort. You come to give support, or whatever the bereaved need from you. You come to pay your respects.
You come to remember.
You come to say goodbye.
We are still so young that I never quite know what to do at wakes. I have been to the occasional relative’s wake, where you air-kiss all your family members, find yourself a seat, and quietly observe the titas’ fascinating politics until you’ve been there long enough to leave.
The last wake I went to was for that of a friend and co-worker’s brother, someone I never actually knew. It turns out, they are my distant cousins. (Because this is the Philippines and everyone is related.) So I met their grandmother, the famous Tita Sylvia I’d heard so much about over the years, who asked after my grandmother, and then I was introduced to all my distant Boholana aunts, and it felt like the kind of wake I was accustomed to.
But I haven’t been to the funeral of a friend in a long time. Not since I was sixteen. Not since I broke school rules and left campus with my classmates to see her on the earliest possible day, then tried desperately not to cry while singing “I Will Be Here” for my father at his office birthday party that night. Tomorrow morning, when you wake up and the sun does not appear, I will be here. Not since my best friend ran from the podium halfway through her eulogy into an alcove, and I ran after her and held her as we cried together, then walked back to the podium so she could finish, her hand in mine, safe in each other. Me and Sarah, like always.
This, this was different.
I cannot say that his death was unexpected; he had been in the hospital since before Christmas, and suffered far too many medical complications already. My friend, his girlfriend, wrote that he had woken from his coma and told her about all the dreams he had had, and what dreams they were! What other dreams he might have dreamt but forgotten; a mind that gifted. When he fell comatose again, all our hearts fell with him.
I can’t even begin to explain what a massive loss Luis Katigbak’s passing is to Philippine literature, to the art of storytelling, to the written word. He was one of those writers I had admired since I was in high school, long before I’d met him — since before I even knew I wanted to write, to really write. I read as much of his writing as I could; in hindsight, more than I realized I did. Music articles, album reviews, various interviews, blog posts, Facebook status updates, Instagram captions (and comments), newspaper columns, magazine features, that stunning one-page comic collaboration with Arnold Arre called Stargazer that I still consider to be the best thing Young Star has ever published in its nearly two decades, and his stories, his stories, his beautiful, beautiful stories.
His latest book of short stories, Dear Distance, was the first book I managed to read from start to end in 2016, and this was a huge deal for me. The loss of motivation to do the things you normally love to do is one of the effects of clinical depression, and while I still bought books that interested me, what I couldn’t buy was the interest to actually read them. When Dear Distance fell into my hands, I opened it, and did not close it until I read the very last word. And I felt so grateful to Luis then, comatose for the second time and unaware that he had helped put back together an integral part of me that was broken, given me back something so valuable.
That all the other stories he would have written go with him into Lucien’s library breaks my heart, but more than the tales that will never be told, I mourn the man.
I barely knew him. But I knew from personal experience that he was kind, and gentle, and funny, and intimidating in a way because of his great talent but never intimidating as a person; always ready to help a fellow writer out, always one to root for you in an industry where everyone seems to be trying their damnedest to clamber over each other to make it to the top. (Though I came to realize later on, upon further reflection, that this is a quality other writers from his generation of writers seem to share — their generosity with their wisdom and experience; their lack of bullshit.)
Our photographer friend Tammy David used to kidnap us from the Summit Media office — me, my co-worker Cereb, Erwin Romulo (another driving force I owe much too much to), and Luis — and take us to the nearby Chatime at Pioneer Center to just hang out and talk over really fattening pearl milk tea. We had already nicknamed Erwin “Angry Bear” because that’s…Erwin. Luis, Luis was “Palanca Bear” because he had won so many. Erwin had a Palanca, too, but Luis had more, so Luis got to be “Palanca Bear.” And these two luminaries of Philippine publishing put up with our silliness and gave us the most valuable thing one person can give another: their time.
He was the kind of guy who would like everything I ever posted about comics (especially expressions of our mutual love for the second volume of Phonogram, called The Singles Club, which he already wrote about in the Philippine Star long before Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie made it huge with Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine), who chimed in on the joke when his girlfriend’s gay brother and I became “official” on Facebook (I briefly dated the straight brother; long story, but we’re all friends and it’s hilarious), who often posted pictures of their cat, which he named Skywise.
There were many others there that night, and the night before, and the night after, who knew him infinitely better than I ever did, and a part of me felt undeserving to mourn so much for someone I knew very little. And yet we cannot help how we feel, or who moves us, and in what ways. I cried for David Bowie for three straight hours. Who is to tell any of us that our mourning is meaningless, least of all ourselves, when these are people who have changed our lives?
Joe and I, we say our hellos to everyone we know. We’ve come late, on the second evening — most people we would have known had visited the previous night, and perhaps this is intentional on our part. I am not good at people. I don’t want to have to put The Face on when all I want to do is say my farewells to a great man and tell the wonderful woman who loved him that we would be there for her in any capacity she needed us to be.
“I think his family was surprised,” she tells us of the turnout. “I don’t think they were expecting that many people.” Or the kind of people who did turn up to say goodbye. “There were Eraserheads here, musicians, artists, I guess they didn’t realize how many people were affected by Luis, and it was great that they got to discover that side of him.”
There were pictures on the glass wall behind the pews, initially only a few of Luis and his family, but as the days passed, friends brought in photos of their own, creating a visual wall of joy, of memories, completing the story further, bit by bit.
And outside, seated at a table and snacking on Mentos, we tell stories, sweet stories, funny stories, about someone I wish I had the honor of getting to know better through means other than stories. Impossible now, but at least there are stories. Mick, clearly exhausted, leaves before we do with hugs and kisses. I cannot — do not — want to imagine what she must be going through, and the strength it must take to witness the world continuing on its axis, but forever changed in the most painful of ways.
I cannot find love, and sometimes it breaks my heart.
But here is someone who did, and to have to use the word had, to have to speak in the past tense henceforth, it’s a heartbreak I can’t fathom.
And I finally admit to myself that maybe part of the reason I can’t find love is because it actually terrifies me.
In the Philippines, and perhaps elsewhere, it is traditional to stop somewhere else before heading home after going to a wake. It is so that the spirit of the deceased doesn’t follow you home, though personally, if Luis wanted to channel his genius through me, I wouldn’t mind. But all the same, Joe and I “made pagpag” at the unlikeliest of places to go to after mourning a friend — TIME in Manila, a techno dance club.
We had earlier called in a favor from our friend Samantha, one of the DJs that night, and the DJ we really wanted to see. (Because she’s amazing.) Going to TIME wasn’t a sure thing, and yet there we were at the door, greeting the doorman (who I hope is getting more familiar with my face by now), getting stamped, and walking into flashing lights and heavy house.
Leah, Sam’s girlfriend, is the first person I see. It is — or was, but technically is — her birthday, and we all drink a tequila shot to celebrate the occasion. She flashes us her hand in excitement, and on the most important finger of all, finally, is a ring. “Zero point something lang yung carat ng diamond!” she jokes. “That’s why Sam’s playing so many gigs, so she can get me a bigger rock!” We all laugh, because we all know the truth: There is no rock big enough to represent how real the love between Leah and Sam is.
I met them (like I met most of the people currently in my life) at Today x Future, which Leah co-owns with her friend Sharon, who I lovingly refer to as “Mom.” I soon found out that she and Sam were together, and had been for quite a long time already. And over the next couple of years, as we became friends (family; these wonderful human beings are family to me and I thank them for that gift at every opportunity) and got to know each other better, I fell in love with them, with their relationship. With how much they loved each other and supported each other. With how perfectly they seemed to work in harmony, with how well they overcame obstacles or sorted out issues. With how adorably they expressed their affection for each other online and offline. With their banter and their sense of humor. With their comfort, their candor, their constancy. This, I would always tell myself. This is what a relationship should be like.
I love looking at Leah’s face when she watches Sam spin. I love the pride that lights up her entire being when some random person in the crowd comes up to the DJ booth to high five Sam, tell her how much they are enjoying her set, ask what her name is, or all of the above.
And as Sam drops another banger and the crowd cheers, I laugh as Leah points to her ring with so much joy. That’s my girl!
I stand right in front of the DJ booth, as I always do in every club in Manila where actual dancing happens. (It’s the easiest way to indicate to drunk men that you’re interested in the techno, not in being taken back to some dingy hotel for a quick fuck, because I’m not that kind of girl.) Leah is dancing next to me, and we smile at each other.
Sam told me a week or two before, at Future, that they were planning to go on a trip to New Zealand. They’d be leaving the same day I was leaving for Berlin, and we had a laugh at the coincidence of it. “We’re going to get married,” she said. I can’t remember if I screamed, but if I didn’t, it would be because only a few people knew at the time and I didn’t want to be the one to break the news. With the rings, though, there was no longer any need for secrecy.
“Is it wrong, Reg?” I hear Leah ask me on the floor.
“Is what wrong?” I reply, not understanding the context.
“Is it wrong that we’re wearing these rings?”
And I can’t believe I’m hearing this from one half of one of the best couples I know. Actually, I can’t believe that someone as wise and experienced and kind as Leah is asking an idiot like me such a serious question. But it’s one that I can answer in an instant, so I do. With all my heart and every last shred of my conviction, I tell her, “No. It is absolutely the rightest thing in the world. Marriage, marriage isn’t a ceremony, it isn’t two signatures on a piece of paper, it’s not legislation. It’s not some guy in a gown telling you that your union is official. Those are human inventions. Real marriage is here—” I say, pointing to my forehead, “—and here,” I say, pointing to my heart. “The commitment you two have to each other is one of the most inspiring things in the world to me. You are proof that love is real. As far as I’m concerned, you’re already married, and nobody deserves to wear those rings more than you two.”
It’s the strangest conversation to be having in a club, but then in my experience, many strange and important conversations in my life tend to happen in clubs.
We get back to dancing. We return to our usual nightlives, and our usual selves.
But that conversation lingers in my memory. It has flipped a switch in me that I didn’t know was there, and I am not quite sure what it has switched on.
I think maybe it’s faith. I think maybe it’s hope. I think maybe it’s trust.
I think maybe, finally, it’s the certainty that love is real. And it may be terrifying. And it may come with pain, as all things worth having do. And should I find it, or it find me, I may lose it, and it will break my heart, because I know my capacity for love: it doesn’t exist. I love without limits in a world of limits, and that is why I am scared.
But I also know now that love is greater than my fear, and when the time and the person are right, I’ll finally know this is true, and it will be worth it.
(Photograph: Bruce Weber, Love & Adios, 2000)