The heat blurred my vision as the sweat trickled down in a steady stream all over my body. December was here. It brought with it beach days, school holidays, and A/C on blast. Fun. It also meant heat exhaustion and passing out on a fortnightly basis. Not so fun.
December also brought about a heavy, all-consuming wave of depression. ‘December Depression’ if you will. As an immigrant in this country, I had never been home. Because I moved here at such a young age, Philippines had never been home either. Just a distant, forgotten dream. Oftentimes, I found myself wondering what it would be like to speak my language again without the cages of the English pronunciation and my weakened synapses. I wondered what it would be like to laugh and play with my cousins. Did they remember me? If they did, was I still one of them? Was I ever? All these suffocating thoughts swirled around sticking to every crevice of my insecurity.
I wasn’t a fool. Australia had an amazing education system, free healthcare, lower crime rates, welfare, less corruption in government which is always a nice little bonus. They’re all complex advancements in our world, but how many can spell a simple four-letter word? ‘Home’ is not difficult. Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be. Joy is found no matter the complexities of society so long as there is a ‘home’ to speak of.
It was not only joy I yearned for, but the right to grieve. Over the past 12 years, one auntie, and two uncles have passed away. When I come back, they won’t be there to bless me. They won’t be there to laugh and dance to old Christmas music. They won’t get to watch another Pacquiao match nor will they ever celebrate their children's graduations. Bitter tears poured into my mouth as we watched the Skype call glitch and cut off my auntie’s funeral procession. Blurry faces and broken voices (whether by their sobs or the glitch I don’t know) which I could not even begin to distinguish were all we were subjected to. My grief was not from their deaths and the implications of it but by the fact that out of everyone, I had no right to cry. 12 years I had spent away from them. I was not theirs and they were not mine to mourn. That’s all.
Peeling the clothes from my skin, I changed for the fifth time that day. Mariah Carey’s voice blasted from the living room and a collective groan rose up from my brothers’ rooms. I chuckled softly underneath my breath. Christmas was here, led by the blazing path of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’.
That year, the party was held at my aunt’s place on the 21st. Nanay’s birthday had unofficially been decided as the most convenient of days to hold a party and the most meaningful. As the matriarch who sacrificed so much to raise her five children who all went on to have families of their own and who, dare I say, are all moderately successful, she is a well-respected member of our little (huge) family – and rightfully so.
We were the first to arrive. My sister greeted us, and we went off by ourselves. Slowly, the rest of the family meandered in through the front door, almost as if they forgot the reason why they came out in the first place. Watching them left a bitter taste in my mouth.
As the night went on and the afternoon sun faded beyond the horizon, dinner was revealed. A golden, crispy lechon was surrounded by mountains of rice and vegetable dishes while kinilaw and salad bowls sat on either end. I imagined a king pig guarded by its salad loyal guards and sat next to it was its rice wife. Mouths watered at the sight.
Before we could begin to finally taste what we’d all been waiting for, a voice rose up above the chatter.
My auntie pushed through the crowd, eyes shining in a mischievous glint. Nanay followed behind her, her lips stretched into a wide grin, half struggling to escape my aunt’s all too familiar inescapable clutches (I was a victim to her many ‘fashion shows’ as a child).
“What do we say to Mama before we eat?” she said, crossing her arms in mock disappointment. We all shared confused glances before simultaneously shouting out our answers.
“Happy Birthday Nay!”
An abrupt silence followed the clashing cheers before an uproar of bubbling, shameless laughter shook the building.
The cheers and clinks of glasses drowned all sense of hearing as a small grin wormed its way on my face. My eyes scanned each of their faces, humming at their genuine joy. Arms, laden with full wine glasses, extended to the sky as they rocked their chairs precariously in excitement. Children danced and their parents laughed. My brothers held a drinking competition and for once my grandpa stopped grumbling and joined in on the festivities. Uncle Peter and Papa monopolised the karaoke and sung, albeit off-key, to the melody of Mamma Mia. All their eyes radiated the same warmth of the summer heat of both Gold Coast and Butuan, and shone the brightness of the sun itself. For the first time, I believed that perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter what my identity, my skin colour, or what the language I speak is; so long as there are people who shine like a guiding lighthouse, regardless of the rockiness of the sea, home will always be in sight.
Though we were all separated by a vast ocean, family is family and family is home.
My heart still hurt, still ached for something that might’ve been, but I finally realised that it was here all along.