Essay / Non-Fiction

Less than an Hour

Time Check: 12:10pm

I arrived too early at the North Gate of the House of Representatives.  I have an interview at 1:30pm but I was afraid I might get lost or I might be late because I’ve never been to Congress. So I decided to check the location of my interview in the north wing. Entering the building was smooth in spite of the standard security measures: metal detectors, physical inspection and inquiry from the guards. But since it was already lunch break, the guards gave me two options: to wait in the lobby or to go out and eat. I chose to stay.

While the employees seemed to be excited, several pair of eyes, glinting with disappointment, were watching them. For the employees, lunch break means temporary freedom: a chance to catch-up with the latest office gossip, interesting affairs and other stuff. But for those eyes, lunch time is what they dreaded the most. Lunch time means dead time.

I went to the visitors’ area in the lobby where the owners of those eyes were sitting. The lobby was huge but only a small portion was allotted for the visitors. The rest was just blank space.

There were at least 10 people waiting with me. They all have the same tired eyes, there’s no light reflecting on them, just deep, dark irises trying to focus that were hoping for some miracles that they knew would never happen.  I sat in the corner, opened my copy of Shutter Island, and pretended I was reading to observe them.  Some of them were trying to sleep, but I know they couldn’t. Some of them were re-reading the documents that they have, re-checking if they were complete, re-reading them again for the nth time. Some had companions who they talk with. While some, chose to talk to total strangers. And that was when I met Sir*.

Time Check: 12:19pm

I never got his first name. His first question was what time was it. I looked at my watch, then checked my phone, and gave him the time. He nodded in response. I realized he wasn’t really interested to know the time, but he was actually trying to open a conversation. But my short and almost inaudible answer gave him the wrong signal: that I was not interested to talk.

Time Check: 12: 22

I was still pretending to read my book because I was trying to listen to the conversations around me. Then, Sir spoke again.

“Softdrinks? Naku iho, diyan madadale ang kidneys mo.”

He was pointing the bottle of Sprite between my legs. Carbonated drinks are my addiction, I barely manage to go on a day without drinking one. I tried to stop and control it, but just like severe addiction, it kept on having a relapse.

Now I know that Sir was trying to open a conversation. So I replied, “Oo nga po eh, kinakabahan na nga po ako kasi uso pa naman ang kidney problems.”

That sparked our conversation about kidneys, and to my surprise, the government. It was really weird to talk about corruptions, misuse of funds, inefficient government systems and services in a prime government institution.

Sir was suffering from a severe kidney problem**. He needs at least Php 1,500 a day for his medications. He also needs consistent dialysis to avoid further complications. That’s why, with his wife, they go to different congressmen, senators and other government offices to ask for support.

“Saulado na namin ang proseso. Halos araw-araw ganito na ginagawa namin.”

The Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office is one of the primary choices when it comes to financial subsidies on medical concerns. But he said that aside from the tedious process they only provided him with a week’s worth of medications, and only after two months that they could ask for help again.

That’s why they always go to congressmen and senators almost every other day to ask for assistance. Since the process is very long, even though they already received some assistance, they have to file for request again for the coming days. This is the vicious cycle of their lives: go to government, follow tedious and strict protocols, wait in long lines. It is difficult but it is also their only way to survive.

While his wife were arranging their documents with several lines and dog ears due to numerous times of photocopy and presentation, he recounted how frustrating the process was at first. But soon they realized, they were the ones in need so they should be the ones to be patient. For them, when you are the one asking, you cannot complain and expect help.

Their white plastic case full of scratches and slowly turning to a dirty shade of yellow was their most prized possession. “Kunin na nila lahat, pati asawa ko, wag lang tong mga papeles namin. Kasi isang document lang ang hindi mo mapasa, di uusad request mo, babalik-balikan mo pa.”

I was surprised that there was no hint of bitterness in his voice. He was thankful enough to accept the system as normal, although it is the very system that makes it difficult for them to get the assistance they need. Although he acknowledged that indeed corruption and misuse of public funds were rampant in the government, he was already thankful that those alligators in power still left some money for the needy to be used.

Time Check: 12:44

Some employees were already returning to the building and I saw Sir just looked at them with relief. While he was distracted, I took the opportunity to ask him about their children.

Apparently, they just don’t want to be a dead weight for their children. Since they could still travel and move around, it was okay for them to do this every day. Their children already have families so they didn’t want to contribute with the problems that they face.

I was really trying myself not to be emotional. I never got to know my grandfathers*** very closely. I only had vague memories of my mother’s father**** and my father’s father was just not into children. Before, I had this idea that grandfather’s job was to make sure that their grandchildren were having a good time. They should retire from work and instead, be assisted by their own children. But in their case, they were trying to be responsible parents up until their old age. They just don’t want to mess it up for their kids.

Time Check: 12:56

The people in the lobby started to fix their things. Employees were rushing back to their own offices. Excited murmurs filled the lobby.

“O sige, mauna na kami. Mahirap na mahuli sa pila.”

Sir and his wife***** rushed to the visitor’s registration area along with the people waiting in the lobby. In less than an hour, I learned about his life, his family and his condition. In less than an hour, I realized that my problems in coping with the independent lifestyle are far easier than surviving in a hostile world. They were used to being treated like leeches and extremely needy people but they just don’t care.

While some of us are rushing to have the latest gadget, branded clothes, expensive food, they are rushing to have a bit of help. While we are ranting about any imaginable thing possible, they are patiently sucking up their situation and just hoping that the process be speeded up even a little.

Time Check: 1:17

I waited for the crowd in the registration area to finish before I decided to go there. I couldn’t see Sir anymore. I just realized, we talked even without knowing each other’s name. For Sir, I am just a stranger he met in a day. For several years of doing this routine, it became his habit to talk to other people because it is the only meaningful thing that could be done while waiting. And tomorrow, someone would hear again his story. Someone would be learning a life lesson from him again.

In less than an hour, I realized I have so many things to thank for, and I shouldn’t lose hope because I have the opportunities while others were struggling to find theirs.

Time Check: 1:23

Before I went to the room I was supposed to go, I went to the Comfort Room first. I looked myself at the mirror and saw a garbage can. I suddenly thought I should start a healthy lifestyle by throwing my soda and promising to not drink softdrinks again so I won’t end up having the same kidney situation in the years to come.

I went out of the CR fast. Holding my soda bottle tight, I promised to stop drinking softdrinks soon, but not today.

*- not his real name.
**- I wasn’t able to ask what is his specific kidney problem because he kept on referring to it as “sakit sa bato.”
***- from both sides.
****- I was named after him. 🙂
*****- she never talked to me through out my conversation with Sir.

 

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