In my more than a year of stay since I was diagnosed, Sundays at home are usually predictable. Most of the time we are five in the house: me, my parents, and my 2 cousins – both in their senior college years. My two other siblings are in Cebu City.
I would wake up at around 7 or 8 o’clock while my parents have already gone to a Sunday morning mass 30 minutes earlier. I would find my male cousin sitting in the living room, as way of taking charge of the sari-sari store (mini convenient store). Originally the porch/ mini veranda of our house but turned into a dwelling place for the family business. Meanwhile, my female cousin would be in the kitchen preparing breakfast and ingredients for nilat-ang baka (beef stew) that we traditionally have for lunch every Sunday.
But this time, she was not in the kitchen and no one was preparing breakfast. She was doing her laundry earlier this morning and has just started to hang them at our payag (mini hut). So instead, I did the cooking myself. Glad that I can now do something worthwhile for them without taking much energy from me- after all breakfast is something I love to prepare for my family. When my parents arrived, the tortang talong (eggplant omelet) was already ready while the inon-onan na isda (sour broth fish) is already in simmer.
I had to ask my cousin Louie to get me fresh eggs for the tortang talong from the hen who has been laying her eggs for the past days just in our front lawn. I was cautious about getting eggs from our sari-sari store supply since there were only few left and we might run out for customers. Mama is very particular about competing with the customers over these commodities. Most of the time, we get our grocery supply from the same place our customers buy theirs too- our sari-sari store- from laundry soap to Milo to coffee to toothpaste to sugar and salt and spices. We have to master consuming them economically, although many times we fail.
After breakfast, Mama asked me to pick some vegetables to be used for the nilat-ang baka at the rooftop garden. After she told me what vegetables to pick: string beans, lemon grass, mustard greens, and alugbati – all fresh and organic – I gathered some more strength before heading upstairs. Picking vegetables in our garden is something that I find very relaxing, if not therapeutic. I not only enjoy the task, I get to smell a much cooler and fresher air and enjoy the sky all to myself.
Up here, I have a view of the sea with the tall coconut trees, over and past the tin rooftops of houses made of light materials occupying the shore instead. Behind me, is the view of the mountain – green and lush – past the tall, three- storey house that is somehow blocking my view. Far from perfect, but everything working in glory to give rejuvenation to anyone who needed it.
This small rooftop garden is not as picturesque as you think it is. Most of the time, Mama uses recycled materials as pots – old sacks, plastic containers or buckets or tins, or plastic foil of milk or other products. There are bottle cases of Coca-cola and Pepsi used to hold these ‘pots’. Mama has always been into recycling materials, she says it is her way of helping reduce waste. “At least I did my part”, she told me sometime when we talked about recycling.
While picking the vegetables, I thought to myself how grateful we are for having these produce at home. There’s actually more that you can find here, mostly greens, each one in scant number – native tomatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant, green onions, kangkong (water cress), okra, lime, pepper, chili, basil, moringa, and many others – herbs, ornamentals, and flowers such as roses and aloe vera.
Our food supply doesn’t mainly come from here, but Mama’s vegetables have given us the freshest source of nutrients by far, something a cancer patient like me is very grateful of. As a cancer patient and survivor, it is highly crucial for me to maintain a healthy and organic diet. Sometimes I think my survival greatly depended on these kinds of foods.
More than a year ago, Mama told Papa that she would turn the 3rd floor rooftop into a garden. I was just newly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia then. The renovation of these annex building where the rooftop is was just about to end- mainly because the carpenters left the work without prior notice and partly because we had to save money for my treatment. Mama would stick to the former, insisting that the main carpenter just “went off” making his partner do the same. It was only logical for me to feel guilty about it.
This small annex building was just newly painted then. Each floor with a single room, it was planned to be for rent. It used to be the one- room bodega (storage room) just in the right side of our house, facing south. Although majority of the work was done, especially the second floor where Mama instead said I would be staying while having my treatment, the room in the first floor was a bit far from over.
The third floor, now the rooftop, was intentionally left open. It was already beyond my parents’ budget, but promising to themselves that they would still develop it, sometime in the future, sometime – a typical Filipino family dream set aside for the moment. Now this small building arising from our house looks nothing more like an annex room in the first floor, a rental room in the second, and an open rooftop with vegetation.
Nevertheless, my parents had to make something out of this unfinished work. A few months later, a guy came looking for a room for rent. Although Mama told him that the room in the second floor was still unfinished and it wasn’t for rent, the guy actually insisted, saying the place would work for him. I told Mama I am just okay with our current room – our childhood room that I share with my siblings – and that maybe it is a great timing to rent the place because we needed help with money anyways. After a few weeks, the room was settled for living.
Aside from morning picks, many times in a week I climb up here watching the afternoon sky with my dog or sometimes trying to find out whether I have a green thumb like Mama. Sometimes I would watch her tend the plants, as I sit from a distance, laying my head in the back of a chair. When I was having my intense chemo last year, climbing up here was a bit tiresome for me. I was too anemic. I couldn’t tell you exactly how good it feels to be up here feeling ‘normal’.
Sometimes, I just go around, watering, touching the leaves while singing songs I am not even sure of the lyrics. I did most of my thinking here when my room was just too suffocating for my thoughts, when the sadness was too much. Whenever I am up here, I gain a sense of freedom and normalcy. Sitting in a chair facing the sea, I whisper to myself, “This is perfect.”
I have seen a lot of things happen to these plants, from the moment they were sowed, to the time they grew to bloom and bear fruits, ready for consumption. I have seen this unfinished rooftop transform into a garden.
Few days after being sown, it is clear that most of the plants are, in a way, struggling- like someone trying to fit in a society or like me, fighting for my life.
As they were growing, I’ve seen some of them got hampered and was starting to look like they were about to die. Like someone who got discouraged with the obstacles of life. Some grew faster and healthier, while others continue to grow anyway but didn’t provide any good, quality produce. I can’t help but be amazed every time I see a plant recover. I knew it took a lot of courage to do so. Very few of them died.
Most of the time, these plants depended on us to be healthy- constant watering, nourishing. I find myself comparing my life to them, of how I needed to be with my family to survive cancer. For a long time, I felt pathetic about myself. I am a young adult who should be able to take care of my own. But seeing these plants reminded me that we all need help.
It’s hard not to notice another factor that affected their growth so much – the weather. In the Philippines, we basically have two seasons- wet and dry. When it’s dry season, the sun is always out and it rarely rains. The soil is dry, and some plants even appear to be drier, so we have to water them everyday, or else they will cease.
When it’s wet and rainy, the plants are lush and healthy. But since there is only little sun exposure, they are somehow expected to bloom less flowers and bore less fruits later on. As tenders, we are also to adapt to these changing conditions. We need to prepare ourselves for what qualities of produce they are expected to provide us.
There’s this famous saying that Kuya Kim Atienza, a weather forecaster in one of the news channel, keeps on saying every time he ends his report- “Ang buhay ay weather weather lang”, which basically means life simply goes with the weather or that life is simply seasonal. When I battled with cancer, I couldn’t agree more to that.
Much of our life experiences and conditions are directly proportional to whatever season of life we go through. Just like these plants, I had to be affected by the kind of season I am in. I found myself in a season of sickness – cancer. A harsh kind of season that took so much from me, from us. It was hard not to be withered. More than adapt, I had to fight to be able to continue growing, or else I would also cease.
I needed others to help me survive. Often times I looked ‘hampered’, as if I was not going to make it, but against all odds, for some particular reason I still don’t grasp, I am still here, on the way to full recovery. Looking at life as seasonal has helped me discover many truths about survival. Some pieces that, I hope, I can use for some more imminent seasonal changes that are coming my way.
In this kind of season, perspective is everything.