The Legend’s Daughter
By Pearlsha Abubakar
There are stories about people who are legend: larger-than-life individuals who are able to write, with the force of their genius and character, a chapter or so of a nation’s history. Historians and novelists turn them into canon; students read about them; people celebrate their memory with films and TV documentaries. They are mythic. They live forever.
But what about the stories of people that these legends leave behind?
For many years now, the story of my friend M has fascinated me. She is the child of one such legend, an activist poet killed during the Martial Law regime in the 1970s, may Allah bless his soul.
M is probably one of the last true bohemians left in the world. I say “true” because she’s not like me who’s trying to live out some novel that I’d read when I was a little girl. To borrow the words of writer Michael Cunningham, M lives a life “as potent as literature itself.”
Ever since I first met her more than a decade ago, M has always looked like a muse. She has an arresting face — high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes that jump at you whenever she makes a point. She always grows her hair long — these days it’s shoulder-length — and dresses up or down, depending on her mood. On some days, perhaps on her way to an art exhibit or a gig, she would channel the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with a loud, frilly dress, faux-pas jewelry and braided hair; but on most days she just wears a shirt and jeans, albeit paired with some quirky piece — perhaps turquoise-colored socks and kung-fu shoes; perhaps a necklace with some exotic crystal pendant meant to balance the energy she had for the day. There’s always a conversation piece on her person, always something to notice and appreciate.
But she isn’t gregarious — she’s not the type to walk up to you and introduce herself. She wears her loud clothes rather quietly. But it’s hard not to notice her.
She’s just strikingly beautiful.
The men are awestruck when they learn that she is the legend’s daughter, the legend who wrote beautiful poems, whose name urban guerrillas use as code and paint on walls to this day. “You kill me,” one of the men who loved her once told her.
I am writing about her not only because she is beautiful and she “kills me” too; I have been blessed to know her story like nobody else does. And her story, in a way, is my own story’s perimeter.
There is something that needs to be said for the way M didn’t seek out her life like some people do. She didn’t go to Africa or some CNN-friendly location to live out her adventure. She remains in the Philippines, and she remains hopeful about this nation, eventhough it was this nation that took away her father all those years ago.
She is quite extraordinary. She doesn’t have a job and lives on reading people’s palms and painting t-shirts and baking cookies and doing odd projects here and there to tide her over.
I don’t have her kind of courage.
I met her two decades ago, at work. She used to have a regular job like most of us mortals. In fact, she held down this copywriting job for ten years and she was good at it, until the company went down and had to let go some employees. M was one of the first to go. She actually felt relieved when she was let go.
I was instantly drawn to her because she was kind. She had the kind of kindness that didn’t have an agenda. She was just naturally helpful and curious.
As officemates, we would have rose tea every morning at the cafeteria. She would tell me stories. She would give me printouts of her favorite poems and scribble some of her thoughts in the margins. She didn’t tell me about her father until years later. I learned that she was the legend’s daughter from our other friends.
This Is Not A Eulogy
No, I am not going to make you weep. I am not going to lead you on with an account of how beautiful a person M is just so you could feel an extra-strong punch towards the end of the essay, when I drop the bomb. My friend does not die at the end of this essay. My friend is still very much alive. She is sucking the marrow out of life as we speak.
She was a Light Bulb, Lit
How we gravitated naturally. We talked about music. She was always wearing black, but she wasn’t goth or dark or anything. Her eyes were wild, and they would widen whenever she stressed a point.
She studied in a good school. In an exclusive Catholic school. Some relatives who were well off had taken kindly to her orphaned family and supported her schooling.
She has very few memories about her father, because she was just three or four years old when he died. But these memories anchor her narrative. When her father was around, which wasn’t very often even then, he was totally devoted to her. He would hold her close. M remembers his touch, the way he felt.
In a way, M was so similar to and yet so different from another legend’s daughter. The royal daughter, Kris Aquino, had difficulty finding the right man, had difficulties all over, period.
But Kris Aquino is lucky. She and her family are powerful and wealthy.
This is not the case with M. She and her family are neither powerful nor wealthy. She eats the alugbati and malunggay plants that grow wild in their backyard. She has had to take on odd jobs here and there when she lost her regular job to pay the bills. Good thing that her grandmother has an old house where M and her family live. But even that house needs repairs.
However, there’s something about M’s poverty. Something Christ-like. She is very dignified about it. She doesn’t beg. What she does is make herself useful somehow. But her idea of what’s useful and important is so different from mine.
She could write, and do some A/B roll linear video editing, but other than that, M did not learn any other skill that the modern world finds useful. She just wasn’t interested in participating in the modern world. She could have been a writer, she could have focused and earned a decent living. But she found it hard.
My husband, a filmmaker, once had a project that required a freelance producer on board. We got M to write and produce a short plug. It took her forever to do and she didn’t have a sense of urgency about it. Her heart lay somewhere else.
This was the heart that she would lay bare to me each time we talked. I got to know this heart very well.
She lives in a very different paradigm, a paradigm shaped in the fringes, with the image of her legendary father looming over it. I am trying to see if that paradigm is still relevant in this world. It is important to me to know this.
But I am writing about her, after all. She stands for something important in my life, our life. She is the yardstick that will define my own purpose in my life. I want to define myself by her because I want to know what I ran away from.
What if my own father had been a legend and lost to us early? What if I had upped and lived with a man who wanted to be a legend too so many years ago? I would probably have had her kind of life.
But would I have been able to bear it?
The Legend’s Wife
All M told me about her mother was that she was a bohemian too, that she was beautiful. She wore short skirts and was a writer too and hung out at Café Los Indios Bravos and Grey November.
But this was the 70s. Everybody was in a rebellious mood. There were x-rated movies being shown in public theaters. Everybody wanted free love and got it.
And when M’s father died, she changed. She smoked a lot, and lost her teeth. And stayed indoors most of the time, taking on an office job until her retirement.
How could one remarry when one had a legend for a husband? How does one ever step out of the shadow of a legend?
I Never Tire of Looking at Her
Do you believe that your name defines you somehow? M had a strange name. Her father’s surname meant something like “digging” in Spanish. And dug he did, lived life, was the embodiment of freedom.
I saw photos of M’s father. His passionate intensity was evident even in photos. He was gaunt-faced, with deep-set eyes and full lips, crowned by jet-black hair. His thin yet wiry frame conveyed litheness and physical power. Well, the photos I saw were all in black and white, so I would always look at M to imagine him in color.
I never tired of looking at M.
M’s Soulmate and the Lost Art of Loving Too Much
M had her very first boyfriend at age 28. I was worried that whatever heartbreak she would suffer with this man would affect her very strongly, because at age 28 you’re pretty mature and you know what you want. Women could laugh about the boyfriends they had at 16 or 21; they could say they were young and didn’t know any better. Having a boyfriend at age 28 and not having it work out would be devastating for M. And M wanted this man so badly.
I met this man. He was the one who told her: “You kill me.” He was at first a kind man. An artist who played in a rock band. He was deep, M said. He understood her because he read and understood her father’s poetry.
But the relationship didn’t work out. I remember the nights M would stay at our house and we would talk forever about this man. He did drugs, but M understood people who had vices, who had the darkness for company. She would join him; she was his partner in the darkness. But still, he left her and married someone else.
When this man broke M’s heart, I no longer wanted to look closely and appreciate his “darkness.” He can stay there forever for all I care, that talentless piece of shit! As far as I was concerned, he was just this so-so artist with a drug problem.
But M continued to look at him more closely, even “feeling” him from a distance, even praying for him and talking to him in the ether and wishing him well.
What a lucky piece of metamphetamine-flecked turd that man was.
One can go crazy from looking too closely, from reading too much, from loving too much. Many years ago, I was just this kind of woman, until I stopped. I realized that if a person didn’t call or write back, it was because s/he didn’t want to call or write back, period. If a person didn’t love you anymore, s/he didn’t love you anymore. That was it. Truth, no filter.
After having this epiphany, I saw my writing change. I acquired a taste for short and muscular sentences. I used less and less adjectives. Words like “fortuity” and “serendipity” ceased to be philosophy and turned into mere tongue twisters for me. I finally grew up, thank Allah!
But having M as my friend reminds me of the woman I once was.
Now I choose the people I want to read more closely. M is one of only two.
The other one is myself.
M and Me
Once I lamented to a friend, a poet, about my not having the time to write. “I am so busy having a family!” I told him. But I wanted so much to write. I wanted to have it all.
He said: “Of all people, you are probably the most qualified to write. Because you’re living the grand narrative. You’re a wife, a mother. You have the greatest of stories to tell.”
But right now, all I am interested in is M.
Kundera was right. Life is elsewhere.
How beautiful it is that one can create worlds with just words. And sear that world in someone’s imagination.
M’s father did that. He once wrote about people being homeless, and still have the whole world as their home. And when someone creates this home for you, fully formed in his imagination, why bother to get out of it? You can just crawl right in and stay under the shade of his word-trees forever.
M always tells me she tries her best. “I’m trying to get a job, be a part of the rat race. But I guess the Universe doesn’t want me to.”
Sometimes, I smile and think she’s such a New Age girl. Some days I’m annoyed and think she’s stubborn and lazy. But every day, I think of the story of the legend. I think of the mountains, the lush canopy of green, and M’s father being dragged by his assassins across the face of this mountain, and his blood transforming the soil into fertile ground, and I can’t help but love M again.
Friends who have “real” jobs are astonished when I tell them about M, about how she makes a living reading people’s palms and painting shirts and baking cookies and healing people. And how I am always a ready patron, ever willing to support and donate to her cause, and that they should too, because if they only knew how exquisite a person she was…
One of them has bought her shirt. Another one has made an appointment for a tarot card reading.
I will do anything and everything for anybody who holds my imagination captive. I will do anything and everything for the precious few who live inside my poetic memory.
I wouldn’t do so if I see M wallowing in luxury even just once. But she lives so simply. The only luxury she enjoys is time. She takes her time. She is always late for appointments, but when she tells you why she is late, you will just sigh, shake your head, and then, break into a smile.
Now I Understand My Own Father
My father is a great man himself. He is building low-cost housing and empowering those in our poor countryside to earn a decent living. He has poured all his life savings into doing these, which has been a constant source of frustration for my long-suffering mother, who simply wants to retire and take a long vacation in the US.
On most days, he would tell me why without me ever asking. He says he is doing everything for God.
But one day I wrote something in a newspaper that became a source of embarrassment for him. He didn’t get mad at me or anything. He was just frowning.
“Our name is very important. You have to take care of my name. I am trying to build something that will last.”
Then he went on to explain why wealthy people build monuments with their names on it. He explained why he wanted to build a school. My father was interested in a different kind of currency, the kind that will keep his descendants alive for many centuries to come.
Of course, it wasn’t money.
Already I have seen it happen to me. Sometimes, I will drop my father’s name in a conversation with someone who knows him and that person becomes more accommodating, kinder. He offers refreshments. He makes himself available. I am embarrassed by the overload of generosity.
M’s father was very wise. He probably knew this was a far better currency than money. But also — he probably wasn’t even thinking about currency. He was looking way too far ahead, into the future.
I am embarrassed to admit that if M’s story hadn’t been as compelling, I don’t think I would be in her life for long. She would just be another artist among hundreds, and I only have so much time to be so captivated as to be animated. There would be no mythology to put her in context, no framework to appreciate her by.
The artwork that doesn’t have frames eventually becomes part of the wall, and becomes the wall. It doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t catch the fire of someone’s attention.
I am only human. I need frames. And M’s story provides me those.
The Mysterious Spark
There are people who do good things. A lot of people in the world, actually. But of the few that ever get beached on the shore of my attention, only a handful are ever brought into my life, in the flesh. The rest are just names, just words not yet made flesh.
Why did I get to know M? Why did we meet? And why did I become so interested in her? I didn’t ask for the extra-long heartbeat. It just happened, and now I am writing this.
Perhaps it’s still suffering and death that moves me so. It’s still the image of blood, of Christ. Or to be Filipino about it, Hermano Pule being shot to death by our colonizers and cut up into pieces in Majayjay. Or Jikiri of Sulu, his mouth sewn shut, running toward armed guards with his sword of honor as his only weapon.
Did they know that being a legend would pay bigtime? Does Rizal know he has a province named after him? And a cult in Quezon?
But perhaps there are hierarchies to consider too. What your death achieves is tantamount to the degree of your legend’s greatness.
Right now, however, I am not interested in degrees. Just the aftermath of a legend-making. And just the case of someone close to me. Someone who came into my life naturally, without me seeking her out. M is a strange shell that ebbed into my shore, and now I have picked her out and looking at her more closely.
M is gentle with my children. She buys them clothes. It helps that my son’s birthday falls on the same date as her first boyfriend’s. She always remembers.
She is in her forties now. She wants to have children. But there’s no man yet in the horizon.
Since she is beautiful and intelligent, M has never had a shortage of prospects. But then, she is like mythic Psyche; every man wants her, but settles for another and leaves her, sometimes literally, to meet her fate in the mountains.
“It’s going to be hard.” I said. “You have a father issue.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
She’s funny and she does know some pop culture too. About how actresses Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry had their children late in life. But they had fertility treatments, I said.
Well, she has her own fertility treatment going on, she says. She would meditate and focus on her womb. And visualize her ovaries bearing fruit. And actually feeling it, feeling her chakras and solar plexus come alive with a tingling sensation.
“The forties is the new twenties,” she smiled, and I agreed.
The Anonymity, The Humility
However, M didn’t take to the mountains, like her father before him. Bearing arms would only perpetuate the cycle of violence, she says. While she feels that she is an honorary part of the movement on account of her father’s legacy, she has carefully stayed in the fringes, critical yet gentle with the people who carry on that legacy in her father’s fashion.
Instead, she meditates. She spends her days visualizing an image of a peaceful world. She imagines people having abundance, having food, smiling. She sends healing energy to the earth, to the forests. In a way, she is not unlike the Pink Sisters spending their days in prayer in a convent, creating the peace in an energetical way. She would go to meditating sessions, mostly facilitated by Buddhist and Zen teachers in peace centers, to create a better world. These are places where like-minded people would meet to hear a speaker talk about spirituality, and a box would be passed on for donations.
I agree with M’s ways. I agree that she doesn’t go to rallies and organize meetings and participate in fund-raising activities. I don’t believe for a second that the people who do so are doing it for others. They are doing it for themselves, even if they don’t stand to gain some monetary profit from it.
I like it that M is anonymous about helping others. And that she does it by herself. And that the rewards of what she does are known only to herself (and sometimes, me). I like the anonymity, the humility of it all.
Besides, her father had already done so much for our country. In a way, her father, the legend, has absolved M from doing much else.
A Never-ending Story
Why am I writing about M?
Maybe because I want to remind myself that instead of looking at other countries’ legends, I should start looking more closely at our own.
But I like the poetic version better. Here goes (and I hope I still have it in me to look too closely — to read too much):
In an alternate universe somewhere, you and I are the ones with legendary fathers communing with oppressed peasants in the mountains. You and I are the ones being sheltered in numerous homes when our fathers die for our country. You and I are the ones living lives as potent as literature itself. And M will be the woman living the grand narrative of wife and mother, who will open her home to us, who will tell her friends that you and I are beautiful souls that need to be cherished, and who will write about us and make legends of us in our own right.
And thus, the law of thermodynamics is fulfilled, that energy is neither created nor destroyed, that Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive, and therefore both sides of Joni Mitchell’s song are ours and there’s no need to worry, we are all carpe diem-ing in this world and all tribes are ours.
I love you, Mescaline!
(And that is a real name, friends. Do not have me EJK’d.)
22 December 2010
Revised 21 September 2016