SHE is 91 going on 92. She lives in a rundown nipa hut just across San Roque chapel in Sitio Nabiyawan. You would be utterly mistaken if you think her hut’s conditions reveal hers. Of course, she is not in the best physical state. Every day of her life since she was rendered unable to walk she sits on a meter-and-a-half long and a foot-wide bench by her window. It’s there that she recites her daily rosaries, reads her novenas, some still of Spanish vintage, and talks to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren (if they happen to be around) of God and of right living. She is the most senior woman I know in Nabiyawan (‘oldest’ is a word that, in my considered judgment, would not describe with justice the grace with which she carries her age and character).
I marvel at her energy, sharp wit and prayerfulness. Two of her grandchildren live with her and take care of her. There’s no visible bed nor bedroom in the house, only a bare floor of bamboo and wood, a curtain to create instant privacy, a mat and an altar at a corner. The bathroom is somewhere outside the house and I was debating with myself how she, with only two boys with her, could stay as clean, dignified and composed as she is when I give her communion, what with the boys’ obvious dutifulness to their lola often intermingling with their normal playfulness and nonchalance.
Remember the smell that ordinarily greets you when you enter a bed-ridden senior citizen’s place? Lola Goria has none of that. “And, Father,” her grandchild told me, “she still does the sewing and with her bare eyes still gets the thread into the needle’s eye like she is twenty-three.”
If she were in America, Europe or the affluent countries (as some Filipino senior citizens are when they are lucky enough to have children there), she would be in a nursing home or in some state-run institution for people her age and condition. But here in poor Nabiyawan she stays in the same old nipa hut, with two grandchildren and relatives taking turns taking care of her and she, in turn, keeping a role only she or people like her can provide: a source of prayerful guidance and example for the young.
I remember meeting some very elderly Filipinos in nursing homes in Long Island, New York and San Diego, California. I recall, too, how well-cared for they were and how organized, clinical and proper their daily routines. Their children, grandchildren and friends would visit them regularly and just as regularly go back to their lives, leaving them to professional care-givers. Quite a few of them are terribly lonely and miss their families; still others don’t even remember they have families at all.
Then I look at Lola Goria, her grandchildren and her relatives, and how they would pray rosaries together or, in silence, let her pray her novenas and listen to her as she tries to correct misbehaviors or instruct them how to cook the priest’s merienda (you are right, this is something I just imagined, as the merienda is already cooked when I get there). I am positively certain my friends in Long Island and California would shake their heads and express how sorry they are for Lola Goria.
And I would tell them: Who is to say Lola Goria is in a sorrier state than if she were in a nursing home or in a government-run institution for the elderly? Would she be happier than she is now?
Can anyone who is constantly in touch with God and the saints be in a sorry state?
In the final analysis, our weakness (poverty, family ties) is also our strength.