He slowly carted the hospital bed from his bedroom door down the dark hallway of his modest home as he passed by the spacious living room that he himself had renovated over time. The tiny wheels of the bed glided smoothly along the wooden floors that he meticulously polished to kill time and to take his mind off the heavy weight that he cradled in his heart.
It had been five years since Jay’s wife passed away. She would have turned 45 today had the menacing hands of death not taken her once vibrant life away … too soon and with very little warning.
June was the only woman in his life. The only person on Earth who could put him on his toes, the only human being who had the power to make him see the futility and absurdity of immersing himself further in the overwhelming pleasure of living the life of a young and over-indulgent bachelor in Houston.
She was only 26 when they met, a simple yet beautiful girl from a small province in the Philippines. She came to the US on a working visa, a classic example of a Filipina nurse trying it out in America in the hopes of landing a stable job in a big hospital and being able to financially support her parents and siblings back home.
Jay met June through his best friend Billy, a fellow Filipino who grew up with him in the same white bread and peanut butter and jelly neighborhood in the more upscale part of Houston. They hardly had Asian friends to grow up with but both were deeply connected with their Filipino roots as instilled by their traditional and patriotic parents who lived in the States to give their children a better future but who intended to go back home to retire once their children are grown and could stand on their own.
June was Billy’s cousin and she arrived just a few days ago from the Philippines. She was Billy’s parents’ favorite niece, an important family guest who planned to stay at their house for a month or two until she could afford her own apartment close to the hospital that she was supposed to work at. In honor of June’s successful entry to the US, Billy’s family traditionally threw a party for her. There she was welcomed to the land of infinite opportunity with open arms and through mouthfuls of Deviled Eggs, Blue Berry Cheesecake, Sticky Rice Cakes and Pancit Canton.
June was able to meet friends and neighbors and co-workers of Billy’s family and of course, Billy’s best friend …. the quite attractive yet shy and timid Jay.
When Billy introduced his cousin to Jay, the strangers politely shook hands but their slight hand and eye contact lingered a little too long … for Billy’s comfort.
Jay and Billy’s history as friends dated back many years ago … long before Tom Cruise made it big in Hollywood, way before Michael Jackson’s hair got caught on fire during the Pepsi commercial, long before Robert Van Winkle became known as Vanilla Ice . They were blood brothers who would take the bullet for the other.
Once they came home sporting scary looking mohawks dyed in orange and green, wearing baggy acid washed jeans and matching gigantic safety pins on their backpacks to the utter shock of their parents. They would have packed up that night to spend the rest of their adolescence in a boot camp set up by their grandparents in a remote island in the Philippines had Billy not bailed Jay out by explaining the importance of experiencing such a momentous yet fleeting event in their youth as part of that growing mysterious breed called Generation X … and of course, backing it up with their school test papers scribbled with A’s until their mothers’ eye sockets returned to their normal sizes.
Billy was more street smart and clever while Jay was more book smart and analytical. Together they relied on each other in waging their little and bigger battles in life.
However, when it came to June, Billy was very protective. He did not want any of his family to be hurt or taken advantage of by anybody, not even by his best friend. That’s just the way good old Billy was …. so when he introduced Jay to June, he told Jay that his cousin’s name was Helga and that she was a difficult person to deal with like an irritable spinster. He would easily brush her off and move on to the next one. Mission accomplished. End of story.
Or so he thought.
Within 3 months, Jay learned that June was not Helga and that she was not a difficult, irate spinster at all. They started dating despite Billy’s evident disapproval. In two years, June and Jay got married in the traditional Filipino way complete with Barong Tagalogs and the financially strategic money dance. Billy finally conceded and agreed to stand as his best friend’s Best Man during the long wedding ceremony as he professed his friendship and everlasting support for the couple and their future family and his utmost respect for the sacred matrimonial chord that bound them both.
Later on that night, Jay and June quietly sneaked out amidst the festivities and headed for the airport. They spent their honeymoon in Hawaii for two weeks enjoying each other, thankful for the gift of life and time to savor each other’s love in their corner of paradise, drunk in marital bliss.
In less than a year and a half, June gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. They named him Mark Kenneth not for any sentimental reason but because the names sounded beautiful. June liked Kenneth and Jay liked Mark so they named the baby both just to be fair. Also, it’s the farthest they can stay away from giving their child a name that started with J …. They didn’t want to be labeled Triple J when they go to parties or be victims of a tongue twisting joke to circle around in their closely knit family and neighborhood communities.
It turned out, while marriage’s effect on the couple was generally settling and calming, June and Jay would weather many storms over time.
Suddenly, June had fleeting spells of hormonal imbalance or so her husband thought. Jay believed his wife’s personality drastically changed due to childbirth. She became more irritable, protective of their child like a hawk in a hatching nest and less attentive to her increasingly needy spouse. She wanted everything in their lives to be perfect without considering her own and her husband’s physical and emotional limitations.
June had suddenly become more controlling for want of a perfect life with her perfect husband and perfect child. She worked hard at her job in the hospital, covering double shifts in most days and working harder yet when she got home from work.
The sweet, simple moments of togetherness that they used to enjoy as a couple became as rare as a box of blue Horlick’s malt candy tablets in a grocery store. Those were Jay’s favorites. Now, if he wanted some, he had to go online and wait for days to get the retro candy delivered to his doorstep … if he’s lucky enough to find some. They were usually out of stock, even repackaged under a different name. The strange parallelism of the state of the evasive candy to Jay’s equally evasive “happiness” made him more aggravated.
On the other hand, according to June, her husband was running like a rebel in his own castle brought about by childish and selfish causes.
Jay had surprisingly become unreliable, refusing to help June with menial house chores that he used to enjoy doing for and with her. He began to act like a spoiled brat who threw fits for not getting a red lollipop in a basket filled with nothing but yellow ones. He would intentionally forget to pick up what Jane specifically instructed him to get from the store only because she sounded like a tyrant that Jay was secretly scared of and not going by her ways was his way of reasserting his role in his kingdom or whatever it used to be.
Jay refused to accept the fact that the baby had taken his place in his wife’s heart because that was a horrific thought for a parent and the loving father that he knew he was … but sometimes, his boy-brain would never grow up. Blame it on the paternal society that he grew up in.
The husband was the head of the family in all aspects of family life. He tried to recite those words like a mantra but his mental voice faded out like in an overplayed record. He would always lose his battle with his mind as reason and tidbits of leftover wisdom from his previous phases of a much saner existence took control of his frail willpower.
For ten years, June and Jay had a rollercoaster relationship. As most married couples found out, marriage was a series of ups and downs, of shooting up to the heavens and plunging down the cliffs, of fighting and making up, of shouting and cooing, of joy and despair, of laughter and tears.
Only few people would battle through the maze of complexities to finally find the light to the path of unconditional love and compromise. Others would choose to give up and cut the marital chords that bind them together and cling on to the bittersweet calling of freedom and newfound relations.
At 38, Jay and June could very well had been victims of a medically recognized phenomenon called mid-life crisis. They exhibited common symptoms such as losing interest in their married lives, not being satisfied with what they had, being depressed for the state of their being, wanting more out of life with different people or things that would give them their own pre-conceived notions of happiness, losing grasp of their goals in life, holding on tightly to youth that was slowly fleeting, being adamant about finding themselves before insanity and the irrationalities that their creative minds were capable of concocting finally take over.
However, June and Jay were lucky. Despite the irresistible pull of pride and arrogance in their hearts, none of them gave up their marriage and their family. Kenneth who was already 10 at that time was the main glue that bound the couple together. His unsuspecting laughter and high pitched voice coming out of his skinny little frame were daggers that struck his parents whenever they thought of just throwing in the towel and calling it quits.
After surpassing their first ten turbulent years, Jay and June heaved a big sigh in unison and finally straightened up their hunched shoulders. It was time to move on and be the loving family that they all had started out to be. Together, the family of three began their crucial mental, emotional and spiritual spring cleaning. Their healing process commenced.
They became closer to each other, responsive to their needs as individuals and as a unified component, protecting their sacred turf so no foreign or alien force can break their way in to destroy everything that their family had built together. In the center of their lives was their God who would guide and strengthen their faith in life and in each other so none of them would again stray to that path of internal destruction.
Life was blissful again. Everyone was content … just like when June and Jay had first laid eyes on each other. If they could only bring back time and reconstruct those wasted years in their lives. It would have been sweeter. But there should be nothing to fret about. They would have another ten or twenty years to enjoy each other. Life was good.
Or so they thought.
One gloomy, rainy night, death had decided to stop by and knock just when the whole family was tending to their daily business unmindful of the sad reality that their door had been left unlocked.
June came home early from the hospital. She called her aunt and complained of a stomach ache and a mild headache. Jay was not at home. He was working as an engineer in a local firm and his team was doing an ocular inspection offsite. The loud sound of drilling and heavy utility machines drained any sound that may have come from Jay’s cellphone. June called several times but there was no response.
When Jay came home that night, June’s aunt was in the bathroom mopping the floor methodically with a wet Swiffer duster. The strong scent of the disinfectant surprisingly caused goose bumps on Jay’s mental faculties.
Something was not right.
He went to Kenneth’s room but the lights were all off. There was no activity except for the steady humming of his old PC. June’s aunt came out of the bathroom and told Jay that Billy came to pick up Kenneth for a basketball game and some fast food dinner and that June was resting in the bedroom.
June? Why was she in the bedroom? It was only seven o’clock. She was not supposed to be home until her shift ended at 11pm. Jay’s mind raced faster than his legs could take him to the master bedroom.
There lay sprawled on the bed in her pajamas was his frail looking wife, her face was pale and her hair was unsettlingly clumped in little curls. Her eyes were half closed. She had a water bottle in one hand and a white plastic bucket on the other.
Before Jay could manage a step to come closer to the bed, June opened her eyes and looked at Jay. Suddenly, she raised her little body and started throwing up on the plastic bucket … carefully positioning her hand so she would not miss her target and get her immaculate linens dirty.
Jay would have burst out laughing if it were a normal circumstance. He would have teased his wife for smoothing the bed linens still before running out of the house during a catastrophic earthquake to save her life.
But the situation was not normal.
Jay had never felt panicked in his entire life save for that long walk during their Church wedding …. He had never seen this woman of steel in a total state of disarray and helplessness. He reached for his phone and quickly dialed 911. As he spoke to the operator, he motioned for his aunt to help him prepare June for a long night stay in the nearby hospital.
The long night became long days and nights in the hospital. June was confined for a month. The doctors and hospital staff were round the clock in observing June’s condition and development.
Jay hauled his big luggage in the hospital suite where June stayed. Jay and Billy’s aunt rotated their shifts to watch over June when she slept and tended to her basic needs when she woke up.
Billy and his family took care of Kenneth, keeping his mind from thinking too much of his mommy and when she would finally come home to make his favorite milk shake and read his favorite Archie comic books with him before he went to bed. Jay was worried about Kenneth but his mind could only worry so much. He was growing increasingly worried about his wife.
Thank heavens for Billy. He took the job of father and mother to Kenneth as Jay painfully processed June’s deteriorating condition and the insanity of it all. He had never felt so helpless and useless. He could not save his wife. He could not see the light ahead of him yet he had to keep moving on for the sake of their son.
June was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her little body had already been generally taken over by the cancer cells. They had already partially destroyed her joints and were soon taking over her lungs and brain. She had only less than six months to live and was approved to be discharged out of the hospital with her family’s consent.
Jay decided to take June home a week later. He set up the hospital bed in their bedroom. He had a long talk with Kenneth who had no choice but to quickly grow up to be a little man, his father’s rock in the darkest hours of his parents’ life.
Kenneth was a strong minded little boy. He got it from his mother who instilled strength and responsibility in Kenneth’s young life to prepare him for life’s unexpected curve balls. Amidst his tears, Kenneth could not suppress a smile. His mom was a gift from God and she was probably really close to Him because she was able to predict this unfortunate landmark in their life and was able to prepare her two men for it.
For four months, Jay was holed up in the house to take care of his wife. He cooked for her, bathed her, watched over her and talked with her in the few moments of June’s wakefulness.
Together they reminisced about their rocky yet fulfilling relationship as man and wife, as parents to Kenneth, as best friends to each other.
Jay would tease June about those countless nights when she woke him up to kill a harmless spider stationed on the wall or the tiny lizard that Jay refused to dispatch to June’s utter terror and dismay.
June would normally have the last word during those kinds of conversations but since then, she would only nod her head and rest half of her fragile body on her husband’s back. She would finally squeeze Jay’s hand and fall into a restful sleep. Jay would watch over June for hours … constantly assuring himself that they were both blessed to have been given the chance to spend the most rewarding time of their lives with each other and marvel on the magic of their extraordinary love.
One cold night, four months after June came home from the hospital, as Jay fell asleep next to his wife’s bed, as Kenneth was warmly bundled up in his room, as the wind gently blew outside in sad anticipation, June passed away. She left her family and loved ones as quietly as an angel’s whisper and slipped into the next level of her peaceful existence.
Jay awoke with a jolt. Her wife’s monitor was buzzing steadily, the sound beeping like a constant … June? No. It couldn’t be. He had not said goodbye yet.
Jake scrambled out of the room and called June’s aunt. She ran to get Kenneth. Jay walked up to his wife. Suddenly she heaved out a quiet sigh which lasted for a few seconds and then it was over. June was gone.
Jay held her hands and cried without a sound. He thanked her for giving him the gift of her last breath in his presence. He felt her love. That was their goodbye. It would take years for him to find closure but it’s not as far-fetched as it was a minute ago. He closed his eyes. He could move on.
Jay kept the hospital bed for five years making it a fixture in his life to represent his infinite love for his wife.
On Kenneth’s seventeenth birthday, Jay decided to let go of the hospital bed and everything else that he kept from the last four months of June’s life with them. It was not a sign of disrespect to June but to honor the lives that she had left behind. He and Kenneth had to move on and continue the legacy and the battles that the woman in their lives had lived for.
Jay dragged the hospital bed and June’s hospital paraphernalia out in the front yard. A charity organization offered to pick them up for disposal. Jay gave one last lingering look not at June’s belongings but those of her captor’s.
Jay turned his back and walked back inside the house. He and Kenneth had to clean up and prepare for the Hauling Truck. It was time to move on to the next level of their still vibrant existence.
The whole time, a song was playing in Jay’s head.
“Fools spend their lives wasting time
while others struggle to thwart bad vibes
from taking over their precious days
basking in the wonders of just being
of the magic of love
of cherished memories
and delight in one’s
that sustains a treasure
we often take for granted
temporary and fleeting
like slippery sand that we can never grasp.”