Kain na! Tito Rene says. Tagalog for we eat now. The accent falls on the na; it is sharp, like a clap. I am well-trained; I hear kain na and I head out to the patio with my wife and my mother-in-law. Tita Josie finishes loading the bowls and serving dishes. The Majong players pause their games. We sit down across three tables; we prepare our plates.
Lola Teny gestures to me with her spoon. He eats chicken feet?
He eats anything, my wife says.
Lola Teny nods her approval.
Here in Bulacan, the province north of Manila where my wife’s family lives, I eat whatever is put in front of me. I eat tilapia and bangus and longanisa and chicken feet and the list goes on and on. I use the fork to stab or shovel, as I am accustomed. The spoon I use to scoop, but also to cut. No knives. Following Tito Rene’s lead, I use my fingers to pluck cubes of oxtail from my soup. As I suck on the bones, Stan Lee, who is ten, grins at me across the table.
Almost none of the meat or fish is de-boned. And everything is served with rice, so I am constantly on guard, plucking the bones from between my lips and setting them on the side of my plate, away from the rice. The tiny bones from a chicken foot are the most potentially hazardous; they are roughly half an inch long and they make me think of bits of graphite from the thick blue pencils I learned to write with as a child. Just big enough to clog my windpipe. The very smallest bones, from the spines of the fish, I do sometimes swallow by accident. This is unavoidable.
I was in the Philippines one other time. We came two years ago with my father-in-law’s remains. My mother-in-law carried them in a maroon canvas bag that looked like something I would pack lunch in for a picnic. The officers at the airport in Japan wanted to put it/him through the x-ray scanner. They made my mother-in-law unzip the bag.
After dinner, Stan Lee leads me around the back of Tito Rene’s house. I duck beneath mango and bamboo trees, peering out across the lush green of a rice field. Withered cows dot the grass like faded gray billboards. As we walk, Stan Lee teaches me Tagalog words. Some of the words are things we see. Buklaklak, he says, is flower. Ibon is bird. Others come from a place I don’t know; he looks up and seems to pluck them out of the humid air between us. Nasusunog, Stan Lee says, means burning. Sugat is wound. Maganda is beautiful. I type the words into a note on my iPhone. The note is automatically saved.
Like his wife’s family, my father-in-law loved that I was a good eater. Sometimes I think this was the only reason he agreed to let me marry his daughter: I wasn’t afraid of anything he would feed me. When my wife and I were dating and he was healthy, he used to make soups and stews at his house in Michigan, and after I finished spooning up the unknown meats, the strange consistencies and flavors, he would tell me what I had just eaten: tripe, tongue, blood.
When we’re not eating, I run. Stan Lee bikes along, his tires scrawling lazily back and forth on the road ahead of me. Sometimes people call out to me. Hey man! What’s up, dude? My wife says they’re practicing their English on me. Daring each other to talk to the tall, hulking white man with the neon green tennis shoes, the likes of which they have never seen running through their province.
Kumusta ka, I say to them, practicing my meager Tagalog right back. How are you? They do not answer. If they make any response, it is to laugh.
They like you, Stan Lee calls over his shoulder. They are asking do you want to play basketball. He grins. He swerves to avoid a dog.
I had forgotten about the dogs. Malnourished and teeming with flies, they lie in the road and barely move when the motorcycles and jeepneys are bearing down. None of them weigh more than thirty pounds. I keep seeing a brown dog with yellow eyes, its ribs protruding as if it swallowed a maraca. I see this dog everywhere.
Stan Lee and I pass another hut with fish and vegetables laid out beneath a copper awning. A man sitting on a motorcycle stares at me. Hey, Casper! he says. You afraid of the dark?
The last time I went on a long run through Bulacan was during our visit two years ago, and I returned to Tito Rene’s feeling overheated. I had a headache. I drank a lot of water and sat in the air conditioned living room, watching the Filipino news channel, the steady stream of commercials featuring the boxer/congressman Manny Pacquiao. The headache morphed into a full body ache. The nausea gave way to diarrhea. I tried to sleep in the thin bed in the guest room. I shivered and shook and ran to the bathroom every five minutes.
We weren’t allowed to flush the toilet paper because the pipes in the province couldn’t handle it, and I remember feeling embarrassed because I had filled the small wastebasket to the brim with soiled tissue. I couldn’t stop going; it was as if my body was trying to turn itself inside out. When one of the cousins finally drove me to the hospital in Manila, it felt like he was going 100 miles an hour over a dirtbike course. Hold on, my wife kept saying. We’re almost there.
One of my earliest memories of my father-in-law is watching him eat chicken feet at Li Wah in downtown Cleveland. It was at once brutal and beautiful, the way he used his teeth and his lips and his fingertips to get the scant meet off the bones, the sweet red sauce like a kiss on his cheek. He told me I could eat the cartilage, but to be careful of the bones. Six years later, when the lymphoma was almost finished carving the blood cells from his bone marrow, he would tell me what his mother once told him: that when you no longer want to eat, that’s when you die.
After they checked me into the ER and drew my blood, the doctor, a long-haired, overweight Filipino who looked like someone I used to smoke weed with in college, said, Your platelet count is very low. There’s a chance you might have dengue fever.
What’s that? I asked.
You don’t know what dengue is?
The doctor looked at me. How long have you been in the Philippines?
A week? I exchanged glances with my wife.
Not even, my wife said.
The doctor shook his head. Really? And you still don’t know what dengue is?
No, I replied, annoyed now with the doctor’s condescending tone. Buddy, I said. We’re from Ohio. Enlighten us.
The doctor shook his head again, then told me about dengue: how it comes from a virus carried by mosquitoes, how it causes severe fever, headache, and muscle and joint pains, and therefore is also known as breakbone fever.
Because it feels like your bones are going to break, he said.
I nodded, thinking of my run from earlier, the path I took between the rice fields. The dead frogs pancaked on the road. The cow shit. The flies.
When it’s bad, he explained, it makes your platelets drop to a dangerously low level, and then you may need a blood transfusion.
I nodded again, let out a deep breath. My wife squeezed my hand. A machine beeped. If there were other people in the ER, behind the half-drawn curtain, I was not aware of them.
We’ll see. The doctor looked at his clipboard. When he spoke again, his voice was flat, robotic. He might as well have been observing the weather. You know, he said. The thing about dengue is, it’s a killer.
One of my final memories of my father-in-law is watching Super Bowl XLIV with him. We were in the living room of his house in Grand Blanc. He was in his hospital bed. I was on the couch. He wanted the Colts to win. I was for the Saints.
The Colts had a decent first half, but he missed most of it because he fell asleep. By halftime, he and I were alone. My wife asked me to watch him so she could go upstairs and talk to her mom, who was in desperate need of some rest.
Ma, he suddenly called out. Ma! His eyes were closed so he didn’t know that his wife was no longer in the room. My pare! he said.
What is it? I stood up and went to his side. What do you need? He opened his eyes wide, looking at me like he’d never seen me before.
Pare, he said, wincing. Tiny black hairs, like metal shavings, speckled the dome of his head.
What? I don’t understand.
Where’s Jen? he asked.
She’s upstairs. What do you need? Are you hungry? I asked, even though I knew it was doubtful. He had been eating less and less over the past few weeks. His once Buddha-like belly was now a concave bowl. He was wasting away.
He shook his head. Pee pee. His face scrunched again. I have to go pee.
Okay, I said. Okay, I told myself. I took a deep breath and I looked around for the plastic urine jar. I couldn’t find it. He shouted again. Where was that damn thing? Finally I found it on the floor next to the bed. I went to pull back the sheet and was about to move the urine jar to the business end of my father-in-law’s genitalia when he gave me that same look from before, the blank who-the-hell-are-you look.
No, he said.
I took my hand off the sheet. No?
You sure? You don’t have to go?
No. It’s okay, he said, then appeared to fall back asleep.
Ten minutes later, he shouted again. Ah! Pee! he said. Pee pee! I grabbed the urine jar and opened up his hospital gown. With my thumb and forefinger, I placed his penis just inside the plastic lip of the jar. It was like guiding a small bird into a cup.
This wasn’t the first time I had helped a grown man take a piss. I worked for a short time with the Summit Country Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and while I was there, I had my hands between the legs of men of all shapes and sizes. But this was different. This was a man I did whiskey shots with after dancing to a soul band at a dive bar in Boston. A man who shook with laughter when I ate the prized eye of a fish at his request. A man who, especially after he got sick, had started calling me his son.
Warm urine trickled into the container. His face didn’t relax. When he finished, I wiped him off with a tissue, emptied the dark yellow urine into the toilet, and washed my hands for a very long time.
I sat back down as the second half of the Super Bowl was about to start. We’re on a new level now, aren’t we buddy? I said. He didn’t say anything. He barely made a sound for the entire rest of the game.
They moved me to Infectious Diseases. Nurses came in the middle of the night and stuck needles into the pick line taped to the back of my hand. The rush of antibiotics made my palm swell and throb. I kept getting sick. My wife held my hand and helped me drag my IV pole to the bathroom. She ordered pancet and sinagong from the cafeteria downstairs and ate it on the tiny couch across from my bed. I couldn’t eat. The hurricane in my stomach was still spinning. Other nurses came and drew blood. My platelet count dropped. It kept dropping.
The Saints won the Super Bowl. As quarterback Drew Brees smiled for the camera and said he was going to Disney World, my father-in-law soiled himself and spiked another fever, falling further away from the man he once was, a man who used to have the luxury of giving a damn about the outcome of a football game. My wife and her mother came back downstairs and we all three struggled to lift him out of the bed and into a chair. His legs were so tiny, his thighs barely wider than soup cans, and yet he felt heavy, difficult to move because he was slick with sweat. I held him upright in the chair. My mother-in-law stripped the sheets and cleaned the bed. My wife called the on-call oncology doctor, who told us to call an ambulance and head to the emergency room right away.
On the way to the cemetery, I look down from Tito Rene’s car and see a large crowd gathered in a bowl-shaped yard. It’s a cockfight. A legal one, our cousin says. They’re legal when someone dies; some of the money from the fight goes to help the family with the burial. It makes me queasy and yet also excited: the birds awkwardly stabbing, the shirtless men sitting on the hill, yelling. My father-in-law, I think, didn’t get a cockfight. He should have. He would have liked that. Not so much the violence, but the ceremony. The crowd, the party.
The cemetery is hot and quiet. The tomb is above ground and partially open to the elements. It is surrounded on three sides by wrought iron bars and covered by a corrugated metal roof. The floor is white tile. Three coffin casings butt up against a thin plaster wall. They have no lids or hinges that I can see. When we were here two years before, I didn’t notice this. Now I imagine hospital beds that have been dipped into molten wood and sealed forever.
At the head of one, behind one of three small glass doors, are my father-in-law’s remains. Stan Lee sprinkles tiny flowers. My wife lights tea candles. Her face, like her mother’s, betrays no emotion. One of the cousins starts to pray the Hail Mary. I mumble along, drawing the empty words up from memory. It doesn’t register that there are bodies mere feet away from me, right there, behind the chipping wood. Even though I look right at the urn and say it in my head—How are you, my friend?—the fact of my father-in-law’s ashes does not strike me then. It isn’t until I return home, when I’m looking at a picture I snapped on my phone, a shot of the whole family silently watching, that I understand the death that was and is there in that quiet place.
I was in the hospital for four days. My fever broke. My platelet count started to go back up. My body stopped trying to turn itself inside out. My appetite returned. Within three days of leaving the hospital, I was back on Tito Rene’s patio, drinking beer and eating barbecued pig intestines.
My father-in-law died of stage four negative T-cell lymphoma in February of 2010 in Grand Blanc, Michigan. He was given three months to live. He lasted nine. He once described his chemotherapy to me by comparing it to ant killer being sprayed inside his veins. It’s like a crackling in there, he said.
It goes without saying that my suffering was nothing compared to his, but I’ll say it anyway. My suffering was nothing compared to his. I got bit by a mosquito and developed a treatable viral infection. My father-in-law got bit by nothing and developed an incurable cancer.
Listen to me. My father-in-law this, my father-in-law that. This is nonfiction. Why can’t I bring myself to use his name here?
I suppose it’s because I think he deserves more than this. More than this writing. Which, I’m afraid, is just a dramatic oversimplification. One more thing that won’t bring him back to life.
The day before we return home, I run. One last time, by myself. Further than before. Past the basketball yard and down the thin road that cuts between the rice fields. I dodge the dead frogs and the cow shit, breathing through my nose so as not to inhale the flies. The sky is a tremendous gray-blue, and as I pass by a woman ankle-deep in the muck of the rice field, her fierce eyes cast up like she’s waiting for the Flood, I wonder: when I die, where will my body go? It could be buried in a cemetery near my parents’ house in Munroe Falls, Ohio, where it would decompose under the feet of children on field trips, kids who lay papers over graves and make pencil sketches per their teacher’s instructions, kids who eat slices of pizza for lunch. Or, my body could be burned and packaged and flown to the Philippines. My wife and I have discussed this. As ash, I too could come to rest behind one of those empty glass doors. I imagine myself in that humid tomb with my father-in-law, my wife’s remains between his and mine. I breathe in and out through my mouth. I pick up the pace.
I asked my wife once about the dengue fever incident. We were in our kitchen in Cincinnati and I asked her if she was scared. Sure I was scared, she said. I thought you were going to fucking die in the Philippines. Which meant your mom was going to be pissed.
I laughed. Then I watched as her smile faded.
But when your platelets were so low, she said. I mean… I had just been through all that with my dad. She trailed off.
My wife doesn’t cry about her father’s death very often. It happens at unpredictable times, and when it does, I hold her against me until long after it has stopped.
Now she simply glared at me. Of course I was scared, she said. But I wasn’t going to let you see that. What good would that have done?
Kain na, one last time. It is our final dinner before heading to the airport, and Lola Teny has brought chicken feet for me. The six o’clock sun is shining through the mango trees, directly in my eyes. Everyone is talking except for my wife and I. My mother-in-law is laughing. She is happy here, and I am afraid for her to return to the empty house in Michigan where she watches television alone.
I let the conversation in Tagalog wash over me, unable to pick out any of the words Stan Lee told me to enter into my phone. Because I do not want to put in the work required to learn it well, I will remain a stranger to this language. But not to this food.
Now, I am completely focused on the chicken feet. My wife watches as I eat them slowly and methodically. For my father-in-law, I savor the skin, the meager meat between the three knuckles. I lick the sweet garlicky sauce from my fingers. And I am careful, as always, not to swallow the tiny bones.