By: Mihael Keehl
ith trembling hands, I return the pen back to the table after marking today’s date on the calendar. Today is Irene’s 67th birthday and it has been a tradition for us to go to this one scenic spot located at the outskirts of the city and celebrate her birthday there. What’s so special about this scenic spot is that there is an old Narra Tree that has stood long before we were even welcomed to this world. Up to this day I think, the tree continues to stand strong and sturdy while my bones and Irene’s slowly weakens.
I get my car keys and cup my pockets, checking if I have forgotten anything. I go straight to my car and start my drive towards the Narra Tree.
Since I have been going to this scenic location for over 40 or 50 years already, I have accustomed myself to only one route. Even though it isn’t the shortest, I still prefer going through this route because of one thing: the sampaguita being sold there. Regardless of the time, I always see street children roaming and selling sampaguita to car drivers when they stop – may it be because of the traffic or the red light halting them. Every time I come at this stop, children have never failed to knock at my car window and sell me their sampaguita. And maybe the reason why they keep doing that is because I always buy from them every time they knock on my window.
As I arrive at that stop, I slowly get my wallet from my back pocket while sticking my eyes to the road. I reach the stop and as if by cue, street children start emerging from the periphery and begin to knock on the windows of every new car that has stopped – my car one of them. One child with a dirt-smeared face and protruding bones knocks on my window. A bundle of sampaguita is laced around his left arm. I roll down my window and the kid looks at me with eyes almost melting, as if telepathically telling me to buy his share. I give him a smile as I grab some cash from my wallet and buy three of his bundles. The child says thank you, gives me a heart-warming smile and proceeds to the next car on halt. When the kid left, I hang two bundles around the middle mirror of my car while I place the last one on the passenger seat. This last bundle is for Irene and I’m planning to give it to her when we meet on that scenic spot
Ever since she was a young girl, Irene has always loved sampaguita flowers. Every day her parents would always buy her one bundle of sampaguita from their way home and give it to her. She always loved how they smell and how pretty she looked when they were hanging around her neck. She once said that the smell reminded her of the garden her grandparents used to steward and how she always felt calm and at peace whenever she visited there.
The traffic that has accumulated starts to evaporate and after a few seconds, engines start revving and my car is once again free to move. I continue my drive towards that scenic location with an old Narra Tree standing on it. With the image of that location imprinted in my head, I start to reminisce. I begin to remember what that special spot means to both Irene and me.
We were seven or eight – I don’t remember exactly; my memory has often eluded me – when we first saw that Narra Tree perched on the middle of the hill. Since our parents were good friends, they went on a hiking trip together and decided to tag us along. I can still remember what she was wearing that day; she was wearing a dress kissed by the colors of summer and a crown of sampaguita that magnified her purity and innocence. Being the curious kids that we were, we silently separated from our parents and decided to roam the place with our own brand of appreciation. But one way or another, caused by our carefree nature, we got lost. When it felt like we were only walking around in circles, Irene started to cry. Her sobs seemed to cause a chain reaction because a little after that, I began to break down in my own tears as well. With eyes raw from crying and cheeks glistening with tears, we continued to find our way out, screaming the names of our parents but hearing no replies. The sun was almost down and we were still lost in a place alien to us. We kept walking with our hands clasped together for support.
When our premature legs were starting to give up on us, Irene pointed at something in the distance. I traced her finger with my eyes and there I saw a lone Narra Tree standing out from a sea of grass. Moments after, everything seemed to go in synch. The once stale wind began to blow towards us, caressing our skins covered in sweat. The sun continued to set and at one moment, it bathed the Narra Tree with its orange lights that made the tree’s body glow. Somehow, we were compelled to go near the majestic beauty that was before us as if it were offering solace during this dreadful time. We sat down under the shadow of the tree and exhaled a sigh of relief. Irene and I felt instant rejuvenation. After a few minutes of sitting down, Irene stood up and began twirling with the hymns of the wind and her laughter. The orange rays of the setting sun became her spotlight, the sea of grass her stage, and I her audience. As I watched her spinning with a wide smile painted on her face, I found myself thinking, my god is she beautiful. Her smile caught me and at that very instant, I felt a heavy surge of euphoria rush through my veins. When she finally got tired of dancing, she sat down beside me. She began fumbling the samapguita crown perched upon her head and told me that today was her birthday. She kissed me on the cheek and rested her head on my shoulder. And for the entirety of that moment, the thought of us being lost managed to escape our minds.
The next thing I knew, I was in our car and Irene was no longer beside me. I later found out that my parents had found us in peaceful slumber under the Narra Tree with Irene still leaning on me. Since our parents were afraid that we could get lost again, they decided to end the trip and go home.
Since it was quite traumatic for us and our parents, they didn’t bring us along to any of their following trips, Irene and I weren’t able to return to that ethereal spot for exactly eight years. It was during the peak of our juvenile years when we returned to this scenic spot.
It was Irene’s birthday and we were months away from graduating high school. Since it was her special day, I thought that the best gift I could give her was something only I could give. With ideas storming my head, an old piece of memory came back to me. I thought of that special place with a Narra Tree surrounded by a sea of grass and the warm memories that came with it. And then I asked myself, what better gift could I possibly give than allowing her to re-experience a precious part of her childhood?
I drove her there using the same route I am using now and bought samapguitas along the way. When we had arrived at that spot, we stood under the Narra Tree and looked at it as if it were a familiar stranger. The longer we looked, the less strange the tree became and the more memories remembered. The sun was setting upon us and its orange lights bathed the Narra Tree, making it a majestic sight to behold. We stood before it, mesmerized. I turned to look at Irene still admiring the natural artwork before us. Her body seemed aflame as the colors of the setting sun danced playfully on her skin. And in that moment, I was more mesmerized with her than the tree before us. The very sight of her – her warm eyes, her rosy cheeks, her innocent smile – elated me in ways words couldn’t grasp. I found myself whispering to myself the same thought that was provoked by the same emotion eight years ago.
My god, is she beautiful.
It was meant to be a whisper, a private thought for no one else to listen, but she was able to hear it. She turned to me and as if by instinct, I grabbed her by the shoulder and looked at her warm eyes that danced like a flickering candle. And suddenly, the words came out of my lips like fluid, as if I were meant to say those words. She looked at me with an unperceivable gaze. Every place on the world stopped; only Irene and I actively existed. Her lips arced into a smile and spoke the words that perfectly complemented the words I had spoken. With emotions running high and infinite, we locked ourselves together with a sweet embrace. The colors that were once dancing with Irene danced with me as well as the lights of the setting sun dawned upon us, as if the whole universe was in favour of the very notion of what had just happened. I put the lace of sampaguita that I had bought earlier around her neck and kissed her on the forehead. And ever since, it became our tradition that every year during her birthday, we would always return to this special spot and celebrate it here.
Every year, Irene and I always experienced the same brand of magic that has befallen us during the day that I confessed my love for her. Every year, I would drive Irene towards that special spot, buy sampaguita flowers for her, and wait until the sunset dawned upon us. We did all these things every year in the same manner yet despite all that, it never felt as if it were a routine. The things we did every year never felt old. It felt as if in every year, there was something that distinguished one year from another – an element that makes one year special in a way different from the other years. And I couldn’t imagine a year where Irene and I wouldn’t get in a car, drive, buy bundles of sampaguita, and wait for the sunset. She was the opposite I was born with when this world was created and I knew it. That was why fifteen years after I first confessed my love for her, I went down on one knee and asked her to marry me. It almost felt as it were the same scenario fifteen years ago but in completely different circumstances. But it was not; for reasons unknown, it felt like a completely different event. The words flowed out my lips like fluid, she looked at me and once again we were the only one actively existing. And then her lips arced into an even wider smile and said the word that made the previous years relatively insignificant. And the next year made the previous years even more insignificant as Irene and I walked together as man and wife. We told each other our vows – promises that we weren’t keeping but promises that we were actively doing. The sun was setting and its warm lights danced on our skin, as if they were threads that bound our souls together. When everything seemed and felt so perfect, I lifted Irene’s veil and once again found myself whispering the same thought every time the sun’s blaze danced around us.
My god, is she beautiful.
I kissed her and the whole universe proclaimed us as man and wife.
The warm memories Irene and I have created and shared warmed me throughout my drive. Finally, I have arrived at the location where every highlight of my life has happened. I step out of the car and feel the outgoing rays of the setting sun touch my skin. The timing is perfect. I look at the Narra Tree bathed in the orange rays of the sunset in the same way that I have always looked at it for the past years. Under it is Irene, wearing the same beautiful dress kissed by the warm colors of summer and the same samapguita crown perched on her that highlighted her innocence back when we first discovered this spot. I shift my gaze from the tree to her. She is twirling with the hymns of the wind and the tunes of her own laughter. And once again, I whispered the same thought I always think whenever I see her. My god is she beautiful. She stops spinning and turns to me. She looks at me with her warm, blazing eyes that were full of life. Her lips arc into the same smile capable of injecting the heavy dose of euphoria I have always longed.
Seeing her again wearing that smile, I can never be happier than I am now. The only thing that can make me even happier in this seemingly perfect world is if she isn’t standing beside her very own tombstone.
When Irene reached sixty years old, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After hearing the dreadful news, I quit my job so that Irene could see me for the whole day and possibly not forget about me and what I was to her. But even a non-professional such as myself knew that I was only trying to circumvent the inevitable. As every new day passed, the disease slowly took over Irene. Fragments of her memory began to dissipate. It all started with failing her daily tasks, forgetting about important dates and schedules, spacing out while talking to her, and many more odd behaviors. As more days passed by, it even grew worse. She quickly became more irritable, she had trouble reading and writing, and she even got lost in her own home. And one night, my fear became an impending reality: she forgot my name. I looked into her eyes and they were looking at a complete stranger. The warm blaze in her eyes whenever she looked at me began to feel cold, the colors that were once sheltered in her eyes started to fade away, and the life brought about by the warmth and the colors started to wither. Despite all the daily reminders, she slowly began to forget everything about me and everything we had shared.
When the implications of her disease started to dawn upon me, it was then that I realized that it wasn’t Irene’s disease; it was mine. The disease made me nothing more than a stranger to my universe’s eyes and the very consciousness of that cruel reality damaged me in a way the disease couldn’t.
When she reached sixty-two, I had to put her on a medical facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease. I stayed with her every day in the hopes that a glimpse of memory would be revived but it was futile. I remained a stranger to her. When her sixty-third birthday came, I opted to bring her to the special location because that was where we always went during her birthday and maybe the consistency could bring back some memory.
Before I went to the facility housing her, I went to street where children were selling bundles of sampaguita. I thought that maybe if the sampaguita flowers were around her neck or perched on her head, she would remember her grandparent’s garden and how she always felt calm and relaxed whenever she went there. And maybe if she remembered all that, the others would follow – the time we separated from our parents and got lost, the time I confessed my love to her, our wedding day, me. I went to the facility and asked the caretakers if I could take Irene to that special location. Even though under normal circumstances they wouldn’t allow it, a certain compartment in their heart made them bend the rules. When the caretakers had groomed Irene, they presented her to me. She was wearing a yellow dress similar to the dress she wore during the time we got lost. The very sight of her made me whisper once again.
My god is she beautiful.
I took her hand but Irene withdrew it. The caretakers tried their best to explain who I was in her life but Irene wouldn’t listen. Irene only listened when I gave her the sampaguita I had bought earlier. She reluctantly took it, inhaled its aroma, and placed it around her neck. For a moment, I thought I saw the warm blaze in her eyes again but it quickly died. With the sampaguita laced around her neck, she finally agreed to go with me, the ‘man who gave her flowers that smell nice’. When we were already outside, I looked at the sampaguita hanging on her neck and how it endlessly amplified her beauty. I took a step closer and tried to touch the sampaguita.
When my finger was about to touch its petals, Irene slapped my hand away and began screaming. Her entire body trembled uncontrollably. When I tried to hold her, she pushed me away and her screams persisted. ‘Stay away from me!’, she kept screaming. With only fear fuelling her every move, she ran aimlessly to the streets to get away from me, a stranger. And as if it was just lightning that flashed on a dark night, it happened. Irene running, a red car screeching to a halt, and a loud thud, everything unfolded so fast my mind couldn’t keep up with it. A scream escaped my throat and as if by reflex, I ran and tried to save her, but it was all too late. The next image that flashed before my eyes was Irene, on her back, lying on her own puddle of blood. I held her and whispered silent prayers to any gods who were listening. I grabbed her hand and felt the life drain away from her fingertips. This couldn’t be, this couldn’t be, I kept repeating to myself. I screamed helpless, futile cries in the hopes that that would revitalize her. But nothing of the sort happened. Her hand only grew colder and her blood continued to ooze out her body.
Irene’s apparition slowly fades as my smile melts into tears.
The once colorful setting where Irene and I shared our lives together has become nothing more than a big puddle of black and white – a painful reminder of a love that once existed. I slowly walk towards her tombstone and kneel. With tears from an unforgotten pain streaming down my cheeks, I place the sampaguita on her grave together with four laces of withered sampaguita lying there. I wipe the tears with the back of my hand and greet her a happy birthday.BW