My last memory of my cousin Carlota would be serendipitous. The word serendipitous is associated with
happiness, and it was a happy occasion to discover by chance that while aboard a bamboo raft on the
Buhatan river cruise, the raft sailing beside us would have an old school tape recorder that played, of all things, Astrud Gilberto singing “Girl from Ipanema”.
Carlota – or Honey, as everyone calls her in the family – was a public prosecutor. That river cruise was the last time we were together. Two months later she would die of cancer.
On our raft were two uncles, two aunts, cousins, a nephew and two nieces. Aboard the other raft were a cousin and her family, and an aunt. The reason why many of them were here was to attend a family meeting, and also, it had been my grandmother’s death anniversary.
It seems inappropriate to be linking a happy occasion with two tragic ones, but that river cruise would always remind me of the things that Honey and I had in common, and one of them was music. While both of us are hardly the singing type unlike most of my aunts and uncles, Honey and I both like bossa nova, although I have more passion for it than she did.
We were sailing home on a leisurely clip, the sun had sunk, and as one river bend folded away, another would open, like a curtain. We would meander, as though in a dance, the mangroves growing strong on the river banks, big lizards scurrying along Acacia branches, the water dark and impenetrable. Here and
there, herons staring back at us, proud of their long necks and wondering of the shortness – and absence – of ours. For some reason this memory in my mind plays like a movie, and though there was a guide who had begun to sing kundiman and my uncle Lester had started singing along, the sound of birds cawing in the distance are clearer to me. In my memory there had been more sunlight than moon, and then, out of nowhere, another raft sailed closely by, slowly in my mind, and then I distinctly heard
Astrud Gilberto singing of a girl who was tall and tan and young and lovely, walking along a beach.
Honey and I looked across each other and smiled, because I know she knew how serendipitous it was, to hear bossa nova, a musical genre that has been buried and forgotten as a relic of a magical time long gone.
If we compared our cd collection, we would probably have almost the same artists on it, except that she would have Duran Durans and the like.
That river cruise isn’t over in my mind. I think of it and sit as still as I did on that afternoon, waiting for night to fall and the fireflies to mate and light up. Honey had been mostly silent, secretly enduring the horrific pain, hiding her abnormally swelling stomach. I am astounded at her courage, the almost superhuman way she bore the discomfort. She could have stayed home instead. We had been to the farm before the cruise, had walked part of the way. She had never seen a doctor yet, which is why she had not been diagnosed. She had finally been prevailed upon to seek medical intervention two months after this, and by then it had been much too late.
My memory of Honey on the river cruise would be my last. But it would always remind me of her and
how we enjoy Astrud, food, her sinaing na tulingan, her unique sense of humor, things that other people find hard to appreciate but we do.
It would also always remind me that the strongest people can bear hardship silently, a virtue that my cousin Carlota had learned instinctively and easily.
I sometimes think that family who have gone ahead retire to San Isidro, where they gather and play pranks on each other. And there, I like to think, my cousin Carlota is now. Taking charge of the kitchen and finally making a success of tinapa.