Personal Essay “Return”

My essay “Return” is now published at Big Bridge Magazine Issue #18. Here is the link:

http://bigbridge.org/BB18/fiction/Tina_Cabrera.html

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The Former Things Have Passed Away: ‘Baptism & Conversion’

THE CUTEST, SMARTEST LITTLE SISTER EVER
I stood on the assembly hall stage, rocking back and forth, side to side like a rocking horse.
And now we have little Sister Cabrera who will recite the first thirty-nine books of the Bible, all from memory.
Rocking had always made me feel better.
Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers…
Deuteronomy Joshua Judges Ruth…
When not on stage, I had the habit of rocking back and forth, sometimes side to side, sometimes back and forth.
First Samuel Second Samuel…
First Kings Second Kings…
First Chronicles second Chronicles…
On my bed while reading a book…
Ezra Nehemiah Esther…
Job Psalms Proverbs…
E-ccle-sias-tes…(gasp!)
Song of Solomon Isaiah Jeremiah…
At the dinner table…
La-men-ta-tions
Ezekiel Daniel Hosea
Joel Amos Obadiah
Jonah Micah Na-hum…
At my desk at school…
Ha-ba-kkuk…(emphasis on “kkuk,” giggles from audience at mispronunciation)
Zephaniah Haggai…
Zechariah Malachi…
Rocking made everything better.
Wow Sister Cabrera, that’s marvelous.
Do you want me to do the Greek Scriptures too?
I must have been six or seven years old. I had a couple of teeth missing in the front, and in between a series of names I licked the empty spaces in my gums. It tasted like blood.
I liked to rock. I liked doing Oompa Loompa with Dyna too in the bedroom with pink-painted walls that we shared. It was my idea and though she was three years older than me, she followed. We’d say, “Oompa Loompa” and then bounce our faces on the beds and giggle. Before this, we’d pull down our pants and panties, quickly rub our butts on the same beds, and pull them back up before anybody could catch us. It was our secret little dirty game.
Brother Elder patted me on the head after my recitation, and said to Mama and Papa, “She’s the smartest little sister we have in Otay Mesa Congregation.” They nodded and smiled. They agreed.

YOU’RE AN ELDER-ETTE
By the time I was six years old, I could recite all 66 books of the Bible by heart. I raised my hand to answer questions in discussions at both the weekly Book Study and Watchtower study. I read my answers to questions straight from the book, such as The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, for example, or from the issue of the Watchtower being covered that Sunday. Ten years later, my answers had graduated to maturity. I would answer at the very least once per Sunday meeting, but usually more than once. If I didn’t it was either because I wasn’t feeling well or was unprepared. If I didn’t for just one meeting, I felt a sense of guilt, and un-spiritual.
My answers reflected thorough personal study and research. Not only did I highlight the answers in the Watchtower ahead of time, but I also looked up every unquoted scripture, wrote notes in the margins, and then elaborated extensively on how the scripture fit into the paragraph. Sometimes I would even write out the answer to a question in full sentences on a separate sheet of paper. But with practice, there was no longer any need for that. I could answer impromptu, straight into the microphone with intelligent erudition. Here is an example:
Question, as phrased directly from the Watchtower: “Why is Jehovah determined to destroy this system of things?”
Answer, as quoted directly from the Watchtower: “Because Jehovah truly loves those who serve him, he will wipe out all those who cause them distress. (Psalm 37:9-11, 29)”
My extended, well-researched answer: “Well, we are all familiar with King David’s words at Psalm 37:9-11, that the evildoers will be cut off, and that only those hoping in Jehovah – the meek – will possess the earth. If we ponder upon this more closely, Jehovah only helps those who have faith in him, truly love him, such as King David. The context here was that wicked ones and evildoers surrounded David, and so Jehovah took revenge upon such ones for David’s sake, because they were causing him great distress. Likewise, he will do the same for his present-day people and wipe out such ones who cause them distress, those evildoers around us who make up this wicked system of things. (Note: Quotes taken from The Watchtower-September 1, 1997 issue, pg. 22, par. 18.)
By the time I was a young adult, I no longer read directly from the publications. I used my thinking processes and was proud of the results.
Brother Elder often said, “Why Tina, you could be an elder-ette!”
APRIL 16, 1983
Today was and will be the most memorable in my whole life. I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah. I also realized that many of my brothers and sisters are so loving. Dyna gave me a card with the congratulations of many brothers and sisters. Della gave me a perfume, and Mama gave me a comb and mirror case. I didn’t expect it! I was so nervous. But yet I feel good because I belong to Jehovah God now, and will serve him the rest of my life. May I never forget this day and never forget that I belong to him now. This is truly a memorable day!
The day of my baptism, Jay – the Filipino boy I had had a crush on when I was eight years old and he was twelve – said, “So, you’re getting baptized,” scratching the back of his neck, and his eyebrows raised like a question mark. Today I was fourteen and he was eighteen.
“Yeah.”
“Really? Why?”
When I was eight and he was twelve, he knew I had a crush on him. One of my older sisters had spilled the beans to his older sister. Word got back to me that he said I was too skinny. I laughed and said, “So is he.” I was indeed skinny, rail thin so that the kids at school called me toothpick and Olive Oil. He was tall and skinny too, but while I had smooth, unblemished fair skin, taking after my mom’s Spanish heritage, he had dark, scaly dry skin. I had large eyes while he had small ones. He wasn’t good looking, but he was funny and made me laugh and I liked him. The day of my baptism I didn’t like Jay anymore. Still, when he asked me why I was getting baptized, his question bothered me and made me feel exposed. I blushed. I felt like I did the day I wrote a little love note to him.
I had planned to give him the note at the Kingdom Hall, but held it facing forward by accident so that one of the brothers looked down at me and smiled. I held the little folded letter in my hand with the words exposed, “To Jay,” written in red marker ink on the envelope. I smiled shyly, but said nothing, and then I blushed; the brother’s eyes had infiltrated my secret. And his teasing smile jolted me into realization of what I was about to do – expose my inner feelings to Jay, a part of myself that rightfully belonged only to me.
Jay’s simple question, “Why?” probed into the secret between Jehovah and myself, feelings I couldn’t quite express into words, and which were no one else’s business. I was about to give myself over to Jehovah to do with me as he pleased. And here I was about to make this agreement public.
I shrugged my shoulders at Jay, and he walked away.
The baptismal candidates were seated in the first two rows of the middle section of the Escondido Assembly Hall, with the four-foot pool to the left of the stage, built specifically for baptisms. There were about fifteen of us, echoing our answers in unison to the two baptismal questions asked by the elder through the microphone on the stage.
Question #1: Have you repented of your sins and turned around, recognizing yourself before Jehovah God as a condemned sinner who needs salvation, and have you acknowledged to him that this salvation proceeds from him, the Father
through his son Jesus Christ?
Yes!
Question #2: On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for salvation,
have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to God to do his will henceforth as
he reveals it to you through Jesus Christ and through the Bible under the
enlightening power of the holy spirit?
Yes!
I think these were the questions. Or this:
On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, have you repented of your sins and
dedicated yourself to Jehovah to do his will?
Yes!
Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one of
Jehovah’s Witnesses in association with God’s spirit-directed organization?
Yes!
We were asked two questions that we had to answer aloud to complete our dedication. I understood that I was officially becoming a Jehovah’s Witness even though I had always felt like one since I could remember, and that this organization I belonged to was the only one directed and guided by Jehovah God – the only one with the Truth.
After answering in the affirmative, we sang the song, “Dedicated to Jehovah.” While the audience sang the last of four verses, we were directed to the back door next to the stage, which led to the changing rooms. The males were escorted into one changing room and females into another.
The carpeted room was narrow and the lighting dim, with one bathroom. There were a couple of electrical outlets to plug in our blow dryers or curling irons. There were about five small changing rooms set to one side, like fitting rooms in a department store, each with a swinging door and hook to keep it shut. Two sisters were assigned to assist us. They asked if any of us needed help, and then knocked to check when we were done. I nervously changed into my green bathing suit, a green two-toned number, and then pulled my Arizona Sonora t-shirt over that. I shivered in the air-conditioned room, and then fell into the line of about four females and several males in the tiled corridor, which was even dimmer in its dull orange light. A brother stood near the entrance of the pool with a clipboard.
Name please?
Tina V. Cabrera.
Age?
Fourteen.
Have you ever in the past been baptized in symbol of your dedication as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The purpose of this question was to identify anyone who was getting re-baptized.
Some did because of having been disfellowshipped at some time in the past.
No.
As I stepped into the shallow, tiled pool, I looked around at the faces surrounding the rod-iron gate. I spotted Mama waving at me through the crowd, Mandel looking awkward in his red and yellow shirt, bowl haircut, and yanking at her hand. I searched for my best friend Della, but could not spot her. Everyone else became a blur as the brother carrying out the baptisms rested his hand on my back. I took a deep breath and pinched my nose with my right hand, and held onto him with my left. He immersed me in the warm water completely, and before he even lifted me back up, I could hear loud clapping and applause. As I stepped out of the water, I was handed my towel, and as I dried off my face, I paused on the steps, turned to the crowd and was blinded by the snaps of cameras. The older sister said, “Congratulations sister.” Thank you I said, as I wrapped the towel around my body and headed back to the changing room.
I smelled chlorine. Wet hair-spay dripping from my coarse hair. My eyes burned, and I shivered and hugged myself back in my private little changing room. I sat for a few moments on the small wooden bench, wrapped in my towel. It was not a beginning really, but a continuation of what I had already been for as long as I could remember. And yet I felt as if something profound had just happened, the clapping still resounding in my ears. The flashes. The moment was imprinted on Polaroids and negatives. I would record my thoughts in my diary when I went home. There would be no turning back.

5/5/88 (POEM TO JEHOVAH)
Jehovah, Sovereign Lord,
my confidence in my youth;
Almighty God above,
my strength in my young days.
When my heart is vexed,
you show me a way;
Inexperienced though I am,
your word makes me wise.
Your word of truth,
how my soul delights;
Upon you I wait,
to refresh my hunger.
At times I doubt,
through my weakened flesh;
A lack of faith,
in my treacherous heart.
Why do you show me mercy?
when it’s not deserved?
You let me live,
though I’m worthy of death
because you draw close,
to those who draw close to you;
You see that my desire –
I desire to please you.
Your name is like a river,
a calming to my soul;
It flows continually
in abundant peace
What shall I repay to you,
for all your benefits to me?
How can I reward you,
with what you’ve rewarded me?
I will try to be wise,
to make your heart rejoice;
Your word I will apply
that you may be praised.
I will use my youth,
in the wisest course;
An example I will become
to your faithful ones.
Guide me please,
in the path of life;
May I decide,
to depend on you.
My anxieties subdue,
with the doing of your will;
Fill my spirit,
with the joy of serving you.

The Former Things Have Passed Away: The Dream

The Dream

The water is murky, brownish-red, thick, and I’m floating. Moving forward. Not swimming. No effort. They’re here too. I can feel them. She’s just a faceless head floating beside me – hair flowing. There and not there. He’s there too. Water ship on the surface, gray battleship life sized, one on each side. Now I’m above, maybe on the bow or floating above it, overlooking the water below. And he’s there. I shout, My mother, save her, she’s still in there! There are sharks, two or three surrounding her. Can’t see her. Get her Mandel, I scream. I push him in.

* * *

This un-laundered gym towel and this spring bouquet on special from Von’s for $8.99 ought to do. You always loved the bargains and the coupons. Besides, flowers are only a symbol. Those two or three pink roses they gave me from your bouquet that lay on the coffin. I hung them upside-down to dry, on a metal hanger held in place by a rubber band. Then I placed the hanger on the knob of your dresser in the bedroom, the one that sits next to your closet. I know I did for sure. But then they disappeared. That’s right, I checked a couple of days later, and they were gone. No one slept in there (Papa sleeps in his office), and I know Papa vacuumed when all our relatives were gone. So I asked him if he had seen them and he said no. At first I didn’t believe him. How could they just disappear? I looked behind the dresser, around the bed, underneath the bed, in the closet. No flowers. I asked Papa again, if he was sure he hadn’t seen them, that maybe he vacuumed them up by accident. But that can’t be – you can’t vacuum up something that big. I never even found the hanger. This all made me feel very strange. Papa implied that maybe you were sending us some kind of message. Yes, he believes in signs. In fact, months after you died, he spotted your wallet on the floor of his office, and couldn’t explain how it got there. He said right above it were the Charles Taze Russell writings, all those old Watchtower Society books you accumulated. He said the wallet was always kept inside the desk with all your credit cards and pictures. The desk that opens downward like a drawbridge and is tightly shut. He kept the wallet in there, secure. He thought your wallet on the floor was a sign for him to read those Russell books, so he could discover for himself, intimately, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He used to hate the name, the Witnesses. And now he’s reading those books. Imagine, after all those brutal arguments, he’s beginning to build some respect for it. It’s almost as if we’ve switched places.

A special place to remember. I remember.

The Former Things Have Passed Away Installment 5: The Morphine

Here I am. And here it is, the same not-so-green patch of grass where Papa prepares his tools. Oh how I can’t wait to see your mother again. All these years later and he’s forgotten the dogma, the rules and regulations. Neither will they marry nor be given in marriage.

Mama, do you know Papa wants to be buried right on top of you? Not because there aren’t any more plots left, or because of the expense of a whole new plot – because he wants to be near you again. You should see him almost every day, usually at dinnertime. Oh how I miss your mother. It’s such a long wait, but I’ll see her again. If I make it there. I’ve got to make it there. Where is there? Those days when you got very ill, you said to me – just between you and me, “Papa’s a good husband. I hope Jehovah will consider that.” You meant consider him worthy of everlasting life, in the paradise, here on earth. Despite the fact that he didn’t serve Jehovah, and according to all indications never would. He bathed you, changed your beddings and diapers. Prepared your last little meal of a scrambled egg, even though you could no longer swallow. Rubbed your feet. And you finally believed Jehovah would bend the rules.

The Morphine

Papa says he wants to make it up to Mama. He says this almost every day. What does he mean? He says he feels guilty for things like…how she didn’t really want that many children, but he loves children, so they kept having more until there were six, the first and second only a year a part, and how she put up with his idiosyncrasies when no other woman would do the same. He says he will make it up to her someday in the future when all things are right under God and Christ.

So there was the morphine.

He held the pump in his right hand, sitting on the miserable metal chair beside her hospital bed. The doctor had instructed: Whenever she moans or whenever it seems the pain is unbearable, squeeze the pump quickly several times, and the moaning will stop. The morphine will stop the pain.

Whimper – halt – whimper – halt

The overgrown cancer pressing hard on her organs.

Exhale. Lips quivering. Whimper.

Papa’s hand clenching the pump in his fist.

The hand of the Lord is not too short to save

And with each quick, strong squeeze – power, control.

This all surpassing power is from God and not us.

Agony resounding. Muted.

Each time he squeezes, his arm twitches.

He squeezes shut his eyes.

Sighs with momentary relief

that this magical concoction, cocktail of medicine

(though he never believed in any of it)

Everything that does not come from faith is sin.

would drown out the reflexes of this hollow body.

No more pain Papa. No more pain.

* * *

Here I am, and here you are, at an establishment run by the Catholic Church. How ironic Mama, considering you hated the Catholic Church and anything connected to it. You used to cross out pictures of priests in TV Guide. You even crossed out the picture of the Pope with either a red or black marker – with a big fat X. How bitter you were over being put in the Catholic orphanage by Grand-Mama, even though you and Auntie Pat weren’t orphans. I was shocked when you told me that because – why would she do that? Was it because your step-dad was an abusive alcoholic and she wanted to protect you? Or did she just not care? And strange things happened in that orphanage with the nuns. They stole your belongings. I remember, you said that one of the nuns liked to touch one of the well-developed teenage girls. Whatever the case, I didn’t like it when you crossed out those priests in TV guide, especially the picture from The Thorn Birds. That was just Richard Chamberlain dressed as a priest! I don’t care about priests one way or the other, but I hated how you lumped them all together as Satan’s pawns, the way the Society demonized them in the Watchtower magazines. Mandel hated it too, and called you a fanatic. I’m sorry. I have a feeling that even if you knew he called you that, you wouldn’t hate him for it; he was your baby, your favorite, I know it.

Mandel, he came in after the phone rang and I had fallen to the floor. He said, “That’s what we wanted, remember? We agreed we didn’t want to see her continue that way.” In that comatose state. It was true. When your face had fallen, it was as if you were no longer Mama. Your head seemed to have shrunk – your skin smooth and gray, eyes sunken and teeth slipping out from your gums. Sometimes, your pupils peeped out, but lackluster, dull and dark, as if a misty layer blanketed them, blocking their vision of the outside world and its life. I was frightened by your appearance, I’m sorry.

When the change first appeared, it was just Papa and I awake. Mandel was asleep on the recliner separated by a glass wall from the main room. It was our shift and I confess – I was frightened. I think I said something like “I’m scared,” and Papa got offended. He said, “Don’t say that about your mother. She’s beautiful, just as she’s always been.” I felt guilty and desperate at the same time. I had never seen death like this, and – in your face? You know I’ve always been told I look like you. A friend once told me that the reason it’s so hard to accept the death of a parent is because when a parent dies you realize how closer you are to death yourself. That sounds selfish, but I think it’s partly true. I didn’t see your last breath, just your form leading to it.

I should have been there. Should have seen it. I still obsess about how it appeared. Was it one final, long lasting exhale? Or was it a sudden quick inhale, long pause, expanding of the chest, then a slow stream of air through the lips like the slow hiss of air released from a balloon? I can’t help but imagine it sometimes. I struggle to recapture your face, somewhere between the living and the dying one. I’ve mastered the dying one – even the rhythm of your breathing, the rattling of the chest. I recycle the images, each fragment, over and over until they flow together to recreate the dying you – I can’t tear my eyes away despite the fright and quiet panic. I remember. I can’t forget.

Those two days, Sunday and Monday often replay like one continuous reel in my head – no pauses. Other times, a scene will flash in my head unexpectedly, and I can’t tell where in time it belongs. Here’s one:

A panoramic image, through a glass window. It’s Mandel, kneeling next to your hospital bed. I can’t detect the expression of his eyes because those wide-rimmed black-framed glasses overwhelm them. But he’s clasping your hand with his, tight. First, your lips are moving. Now his. His eyebrows are rising and furrowing. I can imagine the exchange between you:

Mandel, you mean everything to me. You’re my baby.

—————-

Please try to return to Jehovah. I love you so much.

Please understand Mama, I’m searching, in my own way.

Just please – try your best.

I fill in the gaps only because I did something I should have never done. One night when Mandel came to visit, he left one of his journals on the living room table. I couldn’t resist picking it up and flipping through it. Then I did something terrible – I read that part…what you said to him while you lay on the hospital bed, your last exchange of words. And you said it – you are my everything. Was I part of that everything? I know you loved me too, even though I don’t remember you ever saying it . Not even to me right before you died. You know, at the hospital I asked Mandel to tell me the gist of what you said. He did. Leaving the “everything” part out. Only saying that you wanted him to return to Jehovah. It’s okay.

Now I’m thinking that maybe Mandel was standing next to the bed rather than kneeling. I know he was clenching your hand. It’s one or the other; either he was kneeling or standing. Probably kneeling, like in prayer position? I think he knew it was his last chance to say goodbye, so he must have been kneeling, even though he doesn’t pray. When I caught a glimpse through the glass window, I remember feeling relieved that he had that last chance with you. How I wish I could have heard the exact words. How I wish I could have had one last chance with you.

Here’s another one:

Me and Mandel standing in the small room adjacent to the ICU. It’s dark. It must be close to evening, and I think this happened sometime after the last scene. We’re standing, facing each other.

Mandel: I never told you this before, but you are my best friend.

Me: (pause) I amMandel: Yes, you’ve always been there to listen to me.

Me: Thank you Mandel. (I reach out to hug him. It’s hard to swallow and my eyes are welling up.)

Installment 4: Mount Megiddo

Mount Megiddo

“There will come a time when I will leave.” Papa shook his right fist in the air. He didn’t strike anything or anyone with it, not even the counter top in the kitchen, where he and Mama stood, she by the sink washing the dishes quietly and he leaning on the stool that he then shoved under the counter top. Mama was calm now, letting the water from the faucet stream onto the dishes endlessly, rather than dunking the dishes in plugged-up rinse water as she normally did. After she had accused him of being overfriendly with a female member of his church. An older married woman, who had left a message on Papa’s answering machine over the weekend and which Mama listened to without Papa’s consent. She had erased the message and attacked Papa verbally just minutes earlier – accusing him of something indecent.

“Why did she need to ask for a ride to your meeting? She has her own husband, she could ask him.” Mama’s argument then turned into cruel accusation, “What does she really want from you? That witch!” Papa was at a loss of words at first, following her from his office into the kitchen, passing my room on the way. I leaned out of my doorway and watched down the hallway. His bottled-up anger took the form of defensive words.

“All these years I’ve been loyal to you and now you want to accuse me of adultery? Is that what you want? Maybe I should go ahead and just do it then!”

I thought I heard Mama sniffling, but couldn’t see because her back was turned at the sink. Back rounded, shoulders bent. So then their religious differences ran deeper, into a place I could not reach.

There will come a time when I will have to leave.

Papa would say this when things got heated between Mama and him, whether of religious significance or not.

“Mark my words.”

He would sometimes add these three additional words for emphasis, just in case we weren’t really listening. Whatever the exact syntax, the gist remained the same.

Sometimes he directed the threat towards Mama alone, and sometimes towards me and Mandel too when we were all present. You would think the repetition would cause the threat to lose power – simply become empty words. But the more he said it, the closer it seemed to fulfillment. It’s going to happen any day now – just keep pushing.

There was a sense of secrecy, of mystery to this threat. Not in the “why” of it, but in the where and how. We were aware he was devoted to the Worldwide Church of God, and deeply loyal to its leader Herbert W. Armstrong. He mocked the Witnesses for believing that Armageddon would be the War of the Great Day of God the Almighty – an event, not a place; the time when the wicked would be destroyed. In mocking them he was obviously mocking us. For him and his church, Armageddon was a place, not an event, a place they would migrate to at the end of all things. We knew this because he expressed it aloud in his arguments with Mama. His threat was tied to this Armageddon.

Megiddo, Mount Megiddo somewhere in the Middle East. I’d imagine the end of the world. Not the End, but the ends of the earth where Papa would be forevermore unreachable. Hovering together with his fellow believers within some kind of cave or shed, while a physical battle between East and West took place around them. The hand of God would protect them. Them – not us.

He wouldn’t leave us by separating from Mama or divorcing her. He had always made it clear that divorce was not an option, “Divorce is worse than death!” He would depart because the force of some mysterious hand would make it inevitable. Therefore, it would not be equivalent to abandonment. Just the same, it would be abandonment, no matter the cause. The more heated their differences became, the more frequent the threat: There will come a time when I will have to leave.

It was late at night, very late I remember, and I was holed up in my room with the door shut. I can’t recall the exact words. “Lies, lies,” perhaps, and “of Satan.” Regardless, they raged a holy a cappella duet, out of tune with each other.

I was sure it had finally reached the breaking point when the cops would at any moment pound on the door and arrest both of them on suspicion of violence. Surely the neighbors could hear Papa’s thunderous shouts – like some possessed madman on the pulpit, his voice pounding through the walls, and Mama’s competing, haunting wails.

I hugged my pillow over my head, until a sudden silence made my heart drop.

I uncovered my ears to the sound of sobbing, the pounding of feet, and the screech of a kitchen drawer sliding open. Another pair of feet running and Papa shouting, “No Mama, stop!” I ran out of my room into the kitchen and saw it: Mama with the knife in her hand. Papa paused a few inches away from her as she waved it in the air – for a moment I thought it was made of plastic – but it wasn’t. It was the largest one, the one she used to chop potatoes and meat, the sharp one with the loose handle so that often the blade nearly slipped out of place. Her face pale and soggy with tears, strands of her hair sticking to her cheeks. With one hand she brought the knife near her heart, and with the other she held onto the wooden drawers, the knives sifting and clanging. She swayed like she was going to faint.

“That’s it, I’m going to end it all now!” she cried. Papa shook and sobbed – his

glasses, usually glued to his face – absent. His small eyes slit so that his pupils disappeared. He approached Mama slowly and she loosened her grip. She wasn’t going to hurt him. She could never do that. He pulled the knife out of her hands.

I didn’t even see Mandel come in, but there he stood, a teenager now, looming large. I crouched on the floor, not far from Papa and Mama. Mandel pounded his fist on the kitchen table with all his force, flipped his head to one side. “If this is what religion does!” He wasn’t crying, but his eye was twitching, and his mouth was wrenched in anger.

Papa laid the knife in the sink, and Mama was now slouched on the tile, weeping. He bent down to sit next to her and then cradled her in his arms.

At the sight of this, I thought perhaps, that Papa would leave just then, not for Armageddon.

Several years before, there had been a peaceful look of resignation on his face. I crossed their room into the kitchen, and they were still lying in bed. Mama waved me over with a look of glee on her face. She had her arm around Papa. “Good news – Papa has decided to get baptized.” He was smiling too. He had been studying the dark blue book, the book that everyone who studied with Jehovah’s Witnesses first started with, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, with one of the elders for some time now, and even attending meetings and assemblies.

He had even commended Auntie Pat for having changed her ways – she no longer wore mini-skirts or heavy makeup. In fact, she was the one who convinced Mama to study. Before this, Papa and Mama were both ‘casual’ Catholics, going to church rarely until they didn’t go at all. When Mama found the Truth, she never let go.

But by the time I decided to get baptized, Papa hadn’t. Rather, his attitude towards the Witnesses had become bitter. There was a mystery surrounding the real reason behind his loss of interest. He had expressed interest in other religions such as the Quakers and the Seventh Day Adventists. He’d go to the library to do some “research” which was unusual since he had never checked out books before. Then he found the Worldwide Church of God with its belief that God is a ‘family’ and would reproduce himself into human beings, who would then also become gods. He started to strictly observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, which

meant no TV watching, no listening to music, no anything but sitting and reading the Bible. And when he found out I was getting baptized at age 14, he mocked my decision. “Where in the Bible does it say you have to answer some manmade questions in order to get baptized?” It was true that before getting baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,

you had to answer a slew of questions from the olive green book, Organized to

Accomplish Our Ministry. That was how the elders decided whether you were ready to get baptized or not. Papa had gone as far as to go through those questions too. The rumor in our house was that the elders told him they didn’t think he was ready for baptism. Papa never admitted whether this was what led him astray, perhaps because his pride wouldn’t allow him.

I didn’t dare ask Papa to clarify why he left the Witnesses or why he didn’t go through with baptism; it was enough to know the religion made him cringe and to hear him mock Jehovah and mock our beliefs. But in my imagination, I played with the idea of him being ready for baptism, standing in the same assembly hall where I had gotten baptized, ready to join the rest of the family in the joy of our faith.

Question 1: Have you repented of your sins and turned around, recognizing yourself before Jehovah God as a condemned sinner who needs salvation, and have you acknowledged to him that this salvation proceeds from him the Father, through his Son Jesus Christ?

Papa: (pulling at his wide, baby-blue tie) No I don’t!

Question 1: Again, have you repented…

Papa: Repentance is between you and God the Father alone!

(Audience gasping in horror)

I am not a condemned sinner!

And what is more, this one you call Jehovah (waving fist in the air), that is a manmade name! The only true God is God the Father who begot his only begotten son…

Question 2: On the basis of this faith in God and in his provision for salvation, have you dedicated yourself unreservedly to God to do his will henceforth as he reveals it to you through Jesus Christ and through the Bible under the enlightening power of the holy spirit?

Papa: (rushing the stage towards Brother Elder) First you call him Jehovah, then you say God – make up your mind! Who are you to ask me about something personal between me and God the Father? This religion, this religion is of Satan!

Me and Mama and Mandel – we were of Satan.

And yet…the way he cradled Mama in his arms like a baby when she nearly cut herself. How he pleaded with her not to, and would have let her strike him rather than see her wield it on herself.

* * *

Installment 3: Marriage and the Resurrection

MARRIAGE AND THE RESURRECTION

Papa’s dark skin was oily, and he scooted his oversized square-framed glasses higher on the bridge of his flat nose, to keep them from sliding down. He had this peculiar habit of blowing air from his lower lip to keep his glasses from fogging. I watched him do this as we sat there, him lecturing me, and I remembered him playfully and gently pinching my arm when I was really little saying, “Ing-ing, ing-ing-ing hurt.” He had another little saying meant just for me: “To pretend?” This was in reference to his favorite singer, Nat King Cole, and to the song, The Great Pretender. “You don’t believe me that there’s such a song,” he’d tease. And then he’d sing, “Pretending, la la la la la la la,” because he had forgotten the words. Even now, trying to convince me that we Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrong, he struggled with his words.
I was fifteen years old and Mandel was six. Our older siblings – Cynthia, Eric, Jeanette and Dyna, were all married off. Mama continued to take Mandel and myself to the Kingdom Hall meetings regularly, despite the fact that Papa had stopped studying and didn’t go to the meetings any more. He was now attending the meetings of the Worldwide Church of God. The differences in their religious views set them at odds.
“When I was pregnant with Mandel, I promised him to Jehovah,” I heard Mama say during one of their battles.
“To Jehovah. Your Jehovah!” Papa shouted back.
“Yes, so he belongs with me.”
“But he’s my son too, and so I have the right to take him with me too!”
Mandel, the youngest, and Mama’s treasure, had become some kind of sacred object.
And so Papa did take him to his Saturday meeting once or twice. Mandel never mentioned what those meetings were like, but he dressed as he did for the Kingdom Hall, with his little suit and tie. Mama complained to the elders that she wanted Mandel to be a Witness and didn’t want Papa interfering. The elders told her that Papa, as the head of the household, had every right as she did to take him to his own religious meetings and so advised her to step back. Mandel went with him only a couple of times and then threw tantrums that he didn’t want to go anymore. Papa acquiesced. He never asked me to go with him to his meetings most likely because I was a teenager now and a baptized Jehovah’s Witness. But he did insist on studying the Bible with both Mandel and me. He studied with us separately, shutting the patio sliding door so that Mama couldn’t eavesdrop.
“Read these words carefully, baby: For in the resurrection neither do men marry nor are women given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven.”
He had his Bible, the King James Version on hand and I had mine – the New World Translation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He quoted this verse, Matthew 22:30, straight from my own translation. It was almost a year since I had been baptized at 14 years old, but I felt like a little girl again. What exactly was his point in quoting this verse about the resurrection and marriage? That the Witnesses were wrong about the nature of the resurrection, just as they were wrong about God’s name being Jehovah or that God’s people no longer needed to observe the Sabbath. “But you can’t just read that one verse to prove your point,” I said.
“Fine then,” he continued, “let’s return to the context of what Jesus was saying. Look earlier at what the Sadducees were trying to do to him – they were trying to test him and prove him wrong.” He read each verse slowly, from Matthew chapter 22, verse 23 to 33. He read emphatically and slowly, at a pace that irritated me because my mind worked much faster. But I could see his point – the Sadducees, Jesus’ worst enemies, tried to trap Jesus with a question they thought he could not answer.
The question had to do with this scenario: A Jewish man dies without having any children. The Jewish custom of the time was for the man’s surviving brother to take his widow as wife to raise offspring for the dead man – in the dead man’s name. But what if this brother also dies without children? Then the next brother does the same thing – takes the same widow and seeks to produce offspring. There are seven brothers total, and the same thing happens with each one. Each one dies without producing offspring with the widow. In the resurrection, which one will be the widow’s husband? For they were all married to her.
I was familiar with this question through the Watchtower publications. And I knew what point Papa was trying to make because it was a point I myself had stumbled over before. But I asked him his motive anyway, because it was the next natural question to be asked.
“Papa, what are you trying to prove?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything. The scriptures speak for themselves. Notice what Jesus himself says: You are mistaken, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He read this verse with particular intent – slowly and carefully; Jehovah’s Witnesses were mistaken and knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God – of God, not Jehovah. “And again, he says, for in the resurrection neither do men marry nor are women given in marriage, BUT ARE AS ANGELS IN HEAVEN.”
“So you’re trying to say that…”
“No, I’m not trying to say anything, the scriptures speak for themselves.”
“Okay, it says neither men nor women will marry in the resurrection because they will be like angels in heaven – meaning spirits, right? In other words, not resurrected as human beings like the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, right?”
“You said it, girl.”
I looked up at the patio window above the couch we were sitting on, separating us from the kitchen. I was sure Mama was sneaking around to eavesdrop. But I didn’t see her – just the reflection of the kitchen light, and the sound of pots and pans clanging in the sink. I smelled the rice steaming, and the strong vinegary odor of the adobo told me that lunchtime was approaching. Soon we’d be sitting at the oval-shaped dining table that had shrunk since the others had moved away. Mama had removed the middle section and attached the remaining wooden boards together so that the table – rather than seating eight – now seated four. We faithfully had our meals together and were not allowed to eat our meals in front of the TV in the living room, or in our bedrooms.
I wondered if Mama could hear anything through the crack in the window, which she had taped up instead of getting repaired. That crack and that tape were tacky and made our house look cheap, even though they both demanded a clean and orderly house: Papa the clean one and Mama the neat one. But no one cared about this window.
“Are you still listening?” Papa asked, noticing my distraction.
“Yes. Yes I am, but I’m tired now Papa and I’m hungry, and I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I answered in irritation, rubbing my eyes. I needed time alone, to read these verses again carefully, to think them through. I always needed time alone to think, and there was never enough of it.
“Okay baby, that’s all for today then.” He was content at signs of my confusion. There was still hope.
Neither will they marry nor be given in marriage, but will be as angels in heaven.
Maybe they simply won’t want to get married, period. Like the angels who don’t marry. They don’t need to. They don’t want to. But why not? Jehovah doesn’t allow sex without marriage, so…but maybe when they live forever on earth as perfect human beings, their needs will be different than their needs of this time, this world. Death dissolves the marriage ties. And so even when the dead are raised up in Paradise, the fact remains, death will have ended their marriage contract. So when it says they won’t marry, it means they won’t marry the same person they were married to before Armageddon! That must be it!
I’m so confused.
I approached the oldest, wisest looking elder in the congregation.
“I have a Bible question that is really bothering me. Do you have some time to go over it with me?” He was a jolly looking, gray-haired man in his 70’s, with a wrinkled forehead and a heavy paunch, and had been a Witness for decades. Of course he was willing to sit and listen for a few minutes, in the back room of the Kingdom Hall. He wore a dark blue suit, and I wore my matching blouse and skirt outfit – buttons running down the back of the blouse, with a high collar in front, fitted down to the waist and then flaring out with a fringe. It gave my rail-thin body some shape, with the pencil skirt gliding down to just past my knees. I wore black pumps to go with the black stripes that ran down the gray/blue outfit. He wore no cologne that I could sense, but I could smell my own Liz Claiborne perfume doused on my neck, wrists and on my clothes. This mixed with my newly shampooed hair. I rubbed the bottom of my nose with my finger as I flipped open my mini-sized leather bound maroon Bible, the thin, gold dusted pages still sticking together.
I showed him the verse in question.
“Well it’s simple really. Those who will be resurrected will be like the angels in the sense that they will be perfect as the angels are perfect. Further, in this perfect condition, they will not marry the person or persons they were married to before the Great Tribulation, because death ends all marriage ties.”
I was right!
He then directed me to look in the Watchtower Index under “Questions from Readers,” reassuring me that there were definitely questions on this specific verse. He was right. One of the Watchtower readers had asked about whether or not she could hope to be reunited in marriage to her husband who had passed away in the Paradise. Researching more closely, I found the answers to this question had changed over the years. But the most recent answer from the Faithful and Discreet Slave was that no, she would not be married to him; as difficult as it was to imagine, everything would be okay in Paradise because everyone and everything would be just perfect.
Besides, with everyone perfect and living forever, the earth would become overpopulated if men and women were to continue marrying and having children!
I thanked the elder for his help, and he smiled at me his warm, jolly smile as he tightened the dark blue suit coat he struggled to button. His belly wouldn’t allow it.
I took my answer to Papa on our next study session, and this time he didn’t take out his Bible or ask me to take out mine. “Brainwashed,” was all he could say.
I was satisfied with this explanation; however, in the back of my mind, the question lingered – how would it be in an earthly paradise without men and women being given in marriage? The Bible does not allow sex without marriage…could Paradise be paradise without it?

The Former Things Have Passed Away/Installment #2: “The Holy Guardian Angel”

THE HOLY GUARDIAN ANGEL
(Word-for-Word Transcription: Interview of Manuel/Manny by his daughter Tina)
Tina: Can you tell me about your experience when you were young, during the war?
Papa: Well, I must have been…ten or eleven…closer to ten, ten and a half I’d say.
Because this was in 1944, 45 during the Second World War. The bombings, the
American bombings, in the different islands were going on, and this is one of
the causes of why those high voltage electrical wires are dangling. And so as
uh, a little boy, and those quite a few little boys my age, we kind of daring each
other. Like for example a kid would say, “I dare you to do this, I dare you to
do that.” And so…the daring went, I don’t know what the word to use…went
crazy I guess, if that’s the right word. So that the kids were daring each other –
who touches the live wire.
Tina: Mmhmm…Where was it?
Papa: It was electrical wire. Philippine’s voltage is 220.
Tina: I mean, in Cebu?
Papa: Yeah the island of Cebu…
Tina: You don’t remember where exactly?
Papa: Well, this is close to where I’m at…
Tina: Where? Your home?
Papa: Yeah, probably, oh about a mile or two away from my home.
Tina: Okay.
Papa: And so I don’t know what came into me. I was dared and I said, “Yeah, I will
touch it.”
Tina: You don’t remember who dared you? Just one of the kids?
Papa: One of the kids. Some were dead wires, some were live wires.
Tina: And this was…
Papa: This was, you have to take a chance…
Tina: Oh, you didn’t know which one it was…
Papa: Exactly.
Tina: Mmhmm…
Papa: In fact my cousin, he’s more than a brother to me, he’s the one who always
protects me, you know. Anybody kind of pick on me. His name is Wilfredo
Valencia. That’s his real name.
Tina: Wilfredo Valencia?
Papa: Yeah, but we call him Pedo.
Tina: What?
Papa: Pedo.
Tina: Pedo. How old was he?
Papa: Oh, he’s about a year or two older than me. Maybe a little more. But anyways,
he says, “No, don’t do that!” I said, naah, I’ll prove it to them you know, that I
can do it. And so the first wire that I touched, nothing happens, you see. I don’t
know exactly…after that, the second or third wire I guess, and boy, you know, I
didn’t remember anything.
Tina: What do you remember?
Papa: I remembered that…I…
Tina: You touched it?
Papa: Yeah, I remember that I touched it and I…I was really electrocuted. My cousin
don’t know what to do. And so, this is what I’m saying…it is a miracle how I
managed to let go of that…220 volts man, that’s a lot of voltage. But anyhow, I…after that, after I let go of it. I was able to let go of it. My cousin was telling me I was screaming. I screamed, but I don’t remember it either. And so, that’s about it.
Tina: But did you ever have any reactions after that, like your body? Did it…
Papa: No, not nothing really. It was so long ago, I don’t really know what happened
after that. In fact, when we got home, he told my mom and my dad. I was
scolded. “You’re so stupid, why did you do that?” What else do you want to
know?
Tina: So you take it…it was like a miracle?
Papa: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s a miracle to me. Going back, rethink every
now and then. I recall, it was a miracle. How could I manage? That’s why I
told you, the holy guardian angel was really watching over me, that’s all I can
think of. And that’s not the only time that happens to me, electrical thing. I was
working for somebody too. I don’t know if you want me to discuss this to you
also.
Tina: If you want to, yeah.
Papa: Yeah. This must have been like, I was a teenager. And I…this was after the war of course. I was working part time with my uncle. He works like a junkyard,
taking old things and, parts of a vehicle and all that. One time I was drilling
something with electrical drill. And again, I was careless I guess. I didn’t
realize that if you step on water, that would really, you know…
Tina: Oh (giggling)
Papa: (laughing) I was in the water drilling, and I couldn’t let go of the electrical drill.
I want to say something, but I couldn’t scream for help.
But somehow I managed to let go of that.
Tina: Hmmm…
Papa: It’s not as bad as the one when I was a little boy.
Tina: (jokingly) Do you think that kind of explains your insanity? The two experiences?
Papa: (laughing)
Tina: You’re done?
Papa: Yeah. What else you wanna know?
* * *
Square, rectangular, narrow, wide – these gravestones pretty much look the same to me. I chose the blue-green shade for hers, a border of black, white and gray marble. The first time I visited with Papa I knocked on the slab while he was busy trimming the grass. I thought it would be hard like cement, but instead it felt light and sounded hollow. And then I watched as Papa sprayed the old t-shirt with WD-40, wiped the surface of the marker in circular motions, and then around the edges with great care, applying heavy pressure to make sure to shine and polish it just right. He handed me the flowers in the grocery bag, the spring bouquet on sale from Vons, which he had appointed me to choose. My job was to cut the stems, arrange the flowers in the removable vase and make sure to feed the water with flower food. When the flowers were arranged neatly, Papa got up from his squatting position, stood on the newly trimmed grass, admiring his work. Breathing heavily and nudging his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he said, “Okay Mama, all done for now.” Without turning to me, still staring at the gravestone, he said, “Those words you chose baby – they’re beautiful. My, how I can’t wait to see your mother again. I know I’ll see her again.” Baby – his nickname for me after all these years. I’m still his Baby. Out of all six of us children, I was chosen to create the epitaph. After careful thought, this is what I came up with: In our hearts forever, the resurrection we await.
I meant it when I wrote it. But can anything remain in the heart forever?

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