The Invisible Woman

A version of this essay first appeared in the December 2016 issue of 2nd Opinion magazine.

Ate Belle died yesterday. She was 62. Or 63.

I’m not sure. My mom said that her birth wasn’t properly recorded.
I only found out about this when I told Ate Belle we were going to Singapore once she retired, as a gift.

“She can’t,” my mom told me. “She doesn’t have a birth certificate.”
When you’re poor nobody cares about when you’re born. Or when you die.

Ate Belle was born on January 15, the same birthdate as my mom’s.

My mom was born to Enrique Aguilar and Emedita Delera. The Aguilar family was renowned in Masbate, where my mother grew up. My maternal grandfather was a Quisumbing as well. We were related to a national scientist, a judge, and numerous other “respectable” people. You know the lot—people who had titles appended to their names, those whose faces you put in frames.

We love telling these things because, aside from good conversation, where we come from and who we’re related to allows us to assert our importance in society—that we are rightful heirs and deserving beneficiaries of the privilege we gratuitously enjoy.

Unlike my mom, Bella Araña was born to unambitious parents whose names not a lot of people know.

Ate Belle’s daughter, Baby, said that they had parcels of land in the province which were sold when Ate Belle was young. This meant that she had to quit school by Grade 2, and start working. She worked as househelp for a family friend.

Ate Belle then married a cheating drunkard. They had ten children. The man eventually left her for another woman.

It almost drove Ate Belle crazy. She wanted to kill herself and her children then. A friend though persuaded her not to, and told her to stop being so proud. “You still have your family. Leave your children to them.”

That’s what she did. She sold what possessions they had—pots, pans, some furniture—and begged her family to take care of her children.

She packed her bags and left for Cebu.

Sometime 1991, just after my mother gave birth to my younger brother Enrico, Ate Belle came to our home to take over our other help, Ate Norma. We had then just moved to a new house in the suburbs somewhere in Las Piñas.

My mom instructed us to call her ate–a funny thing, when I think about it, since she was older than my mom. But I guess it didn’t matter that Ate Belle practically did all the things a mom would do: you could only have one mom. The rest are assigned to a lesser status: Titas. Yayas. Ates.

Unlike my mom, Ate Belle could not pay for someone to be an ate to her children. She couldn’t afford to have someone spoil her children, like she did with us.

That’s exactly what she did: spoil us rotten.

She lied just to protect us. I recall when we were kids, whenever our mom would make us squat as punishment for doing something wrong, she’d tell us the moment our mother wasn’t looking so we could rest our sore legs.

The times I hated the food my mom asked her to prepare us for lunch or dinner, I’d ask Ate Belle to open the cans of corned beef and luncheon meat we stored in our cupboard. She always made sure I had what I wanted to eat. Even when I turned vegetarian, she took on the task of learning how to make meatless dishes for me.

(She had one specialty she promised to teach me how to prepare but never got to: tokwa’t tausi—her delicious, meat-free version of tokwa’t baboy.)

She would wake up even past midnight just to open the gate whenever we’d come home late from hanging out or partying.

But no amount of love turned us into her children. No amount of love legally turned her into family.

When I was younger, seven or eight if my memory serves me right, she scolded me for something I did. I don’t recall what exactly it was, but I sharply remember telling her something that I regret saying until now:

Katulong ka lang.

It was hurtful. It was mean. It intended to create the most pain on someone who dedicated her whole life loving strangers as if they were her own children.

It was a painful place, where she had been in. When she would answer the phone and the other person would ask who she was, she would pause for a while then say, Ako yung kasambahay nila dito. She knew the ins and outs of running the household, but that was much about it. It did not give her the authority to make any decisions for us.

Ate Belle’s life had been defined by duties that constricted her.

Her choice to stand the higher moral ground within her limits had perhaps been her greatest weakness, at moments.

When her husband came crawling back sick and dying, she welcomed him along with his mistress’s children. She said it was love that bound her.

Perhaps that was true. Or perhaps it was her fulfilling the role that her upbringing expected of virtuous women.

She was a wife. As a wife, she had to take care of her husband. Even if, despite dutifully performing her role as a wife, she would still not get the rewards it entailed. She would later on discover, as her daughter Baby would recount, that she wasn’t the beneficiary of his SSS plan.
(It was the mistress.)

At her last moments, she quietly accepted that she, a poor woman, had no right to demand.

She chose not to demand when they put her at the hallway at Masbate Provincial Hospital, in full sight of passersby, exposed to the heavy rain that hit the province the week she died.

She chose not to demand when the nurses let her cancerous wound fester and ooze with blood and pus—covered by a cheap diaper that served as a makeshift dressing so her bodily fluids did not leak.

She chose not to demand when the doctor treated her like a nobody, undeserving of the utmost care that the sick and dying needed.

Maybe this recounting of her life might make everyone think that she had been a victim of circumstance.

From one point of view, it could be true. Maybe she had learned to accept her helplessness. Up until her last breath, she would always say: Magtiwala tayo sa Ginoo.

She trusted that a higher power was at work, and would eventually tip the scales in her favor.

Because it was the most she could do: to hope.

When all your life you’ve been told that the most respectable thing is to accept—and that is all that you can do in a world that has been stacked up against you, because it pummels you into submission should you refuse to learn your place—you eventually succumb.

To the world, Ate Belle was an invisible woman—of little value, irrelevant. She came in and came out of this world largely unknown. But to me she was the greatest. The weight of her love still crushes me even in her absence.

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