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  • By Diana G Mendoza

Birthday behind locked doors

Manila— I took the opportunity of the relaxed quarantine to visit the family of one of my siblings, the one who lives nearer to me, to share an advanced birthday lunch with them. I spent a few hours eating and chatting while their dog kept barking at me. It’s been more than five months since I last saw them. Usually we dine out on the birthday of any one in the family. The dog was a fragile puppy then, but now it has grown bigger and kept barking while I was talking – seemingly reminding me that I’m a stranger.

I brought succulents planted on cute little pots and a peppermint. I instructed them not to water them every day. I told them that indoor plants contribute to a nicer feel at home. I assumed that we siblings all have green thumbs so the plants will be in good hands.

Many things happened during the lockdown. My niece inventoried my books (most of the books on their shelves are mine). My nephew seemed comfortable with his work-from-home situation. Then I looked at my photo albums they stocked and marked in a box. I didn’t realize I have a lot. There were also albums of newspaper clippings of my articles from many years ago.

My quick look at the photo albums gave me a quick transport into the past. There were photos of me at the pyramids of Egypt, at a souk in Cairo, on a boat along the Suez Canal, in front of the tallest hotel in Dubai, walking the streets of Melbourne, in a drinking binge with journalism fellows in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on the foreground of castles of Edinburgh, in the costliest hotel in Taipei, on board an elephant in Chiang Mai, ringing temple bells in Chiang Rai, in many scenes in Bangkok.

I had photos with soldiers and fellow journalists on board a Navy gunship, on a white island beach, a waterfall, of me speaking at a seminar, in front of a volcano, in the middle of the street during the second people power revolt, and silhouetted on a Manila Bay sunset.

When I got home, I browsed through the photo albums again. I looked at them again the following day, a Monday, my birthday. The photos showed only some of the years of my life, but I looked at them with appreciation and disbelief. I had a great life, I told myself, and I can’t believe I’ve been through many places and many kinds of circumstances.

I treat my birthdays as my “me-time” occasion. I’m also not a birthday blowout, party person. I prefer to be alone or be with a handful of friends quietly. I schedule get-togethers with insistent friends only the next day. But this birthday was different, perhaps because I celebrated it while on lockdown. The birthday greetings from friends started the night before my birthday and until the day itself. They were mostly about encouragements to stay strong, to stay safe and not be lonely.

I’m not lonely. This quarantine birthday reminded me that I lost track of myself, that I complained about not being where I’m supposed to be, that the world is moving too fast it doesn’t give me answers.

Inside the box of photo albums were a stack of mass cards from my mother’s wake when she died 11 years ago. My siblings and I have yet to think about discarding them so we can help ourselves move on. Hers was probably a life that should have been lived longer, but she was gone. And I thought about a life that should be lived better. Mine.

I live by the day so I don’t know how to proceed. But I know what to take in. The images of myself, the prayer offerings for my mother’s eternal peace, and the barking dog that doesn’t recognize me reminded me not to be a stranger who lost track of herself.

Diana G. Mendoza is a longtime journalist based in Manila.

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