Saturday, November 13, 2010

Family Matters

I got an email from my uncle recently. Seven long years after completely disappearing from the face of the earth, he suddenly pops up on Facebook, to the delight of my mother and the rest of my extended family. In 2003, whilst studying for a doctorate in San Francisco, my uncle was robbed point blank by a gang of thieves, taking with them all his documentation-- passports, green card, and all-- thus leaving him, legally, without any identity.

I've never gotten to know my Uncle as well as I would have liked, even if all my aunts, even today, liken me to a spitting image of him. Walking into his room in my grandmother's house, where he stays wherever he's home, I would often scan his bookshelves for reading material.  His bookshelves were really my first  exposure to high culture and science. When I was younger and still planned on becoming a scientist or a doctor, I would leaf through his hundreds of volumes of 'Scientific American', 'Nature', and 'National Geographic' for fun. They sat, arranged according to date, at the bottom of a huge mahogany shelf in his room; the upper tiers were reserved for volumes on the arts and the humanities. I still vividly recall sifting through some of the most beautiful books I had ever seen in that room; he was a voracious reader who made me look like an inconceivably pretentious amateur. He had books on Greek and Latin grammar, Egyptology, philosophy, and a good selection of theology books, among others. I would be lying if I said I didn't have some of those books with me at the moment. His love for books was matched only by  his love for music. He  had a whole shelf built onto a wall, some 10ft tall by 12ft wide, full of records which he had collected from the 70s and the 80s. My mom tells me that he would often visit a local radio station that played only classical music, to ask for recommendations as well as buy any old records that the station was willing to sell.

At the same time, my uncle was probably one of the saddest people I've met, a fact which I've only come to realize recently. My late maternal grandfather was a strict disciplinarian who lived and suffered through the war. He was also a man, unfortunately, who was prone to violent acts, and who had a verbally abusive streak. I've always suspected my uncle might be gay; it was obvious from the way he walked and the way he talked that there was something different about him. My grandfather saw this as well, and he would often beat my uncle for this. My mother recalled to me one time, tears in her eyes, how my grandfather would throw ice cold water at my uncle every morning before dawn to get him to wake up. The abuse did not end there; he would also beat him black and blue at times, in front of my aunts and my other uncle. This cycle went on for years, even well into my uncle's college days, until he finally had  enough, and moved in with a few friends.

It is always disheartening to hear of such anger and sadness in one's family. When I was younger, maybe 14 or 15 years old, I held my family sacred and blemish free. We might not be too wealthy but we made up for it by dint of moral superiority. But with age comes the destruction of naivete and the inevitable realization that one is stuck with drunkards, sycophants,  the hopeless, the dreamless, the wayward, the agnostic, the irresponsible, the fiscally irresponsible, the arrogant, the belligerent, and, at times, just plain assholes.  In the same way, the Church is also a  collection of misfits with histories just as long and as scandalous at times. Maybe the family is still sacred, but not by dint of being a spotless image of Heaven above, but because it contains, at once, the familiar and the otherworldly. I can choose to love these misfits, my fellow sinners, and perhaps that is what makes the difference.

Twenty three years after my grandfather's death, I am reminded of the fact that it was my uncle-- the same who had been the object of his cruel maltreatment-- who, in the end, had him buried. Grandpa was laid out in a plot of land in one of Metro Manila's most beautiful cemeteries, all paid for by my uncle. Today, I realize that I still have a lot of unresolved issues; I am lustful, I am proud, but most of all, I have a tendency to despair. I can only pray that I would have the same strength and moral fortitude to love, forgive, and maybe even forget, everything wrong that has been done to me, at the very end.

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