This “enhanced community quarantine” is a palimpsest of the successive lockdowns I have had to live through in a now distant past. There were no plagues or pandemics that threatened community or country; it was only I who was sick and had to be isolated from everyone else. Stoically, I survived those three periods of disconcerting isolation which must have prepared me for this 4thone — the longest and most tedious.
The first one began when I was about 7 years old. I had whooping cough which my elders believed could be easily cured by early morning trips to Manila Bay for a breath of fresh sea air. In the evenings, before going to bed, my grandma would cover my chest with a pink poultice and wrap a towel around my body. It generated a soothing heat that subdued the cough and put me to sleep. As it turned out, the real problem was primary complex, a pediatric form of pulmonary tuberculosis. No one explained it me, but I would hear them talking about it. Mommy said I probably got it at those refugee camps where we were fed after the Battle for Manila. My grandpa, Dr. Guerrero, said I needed iron injections which he administered every afternoon at his clinic on the ground floor of the house. It was hideously painful. It paralyzed my buttocks which made it difficult to walk. Yet, like a budding martyr, I never once whimpered or cried. What hurt me deeply was being yanked from my grandma and from school.
No one explained that my illness was so contagious I had to be separated from my brother, cousins, and classmates and brought to my mother’s house in San Juan. Upon doctor’s orders, I had to stay in bed, my meals were served on a tray, but I never felt like eating, which apparently was a sure sign I had TB. I was force-fed six eggs a day and 3 glasses of milk. For some strange reason, my mother would crack two eggs in a glass of Coca-Cola so I could swallow them whole as I gulped the soft drink. She was probably looking for novel ways to serve the eggs, even if I never complained about having to eat six a day. As a result, I began to hate Coca-Cola and never developed an addiction for any kind of carbonated drink.
My school teacher would come to the house to give me lessons and leave work for me to do. Mommy bought me a lot of fascinating books, my stepfather gave me crayons and water colors, my grandparents brought a gold fish and a puppy to keep me company. I had a lot of dolls, but every night I cried myself to sleep because I missed my grandmother.
For my second quarantine, I was back at my grandparents’ house on Donada street, in Pasay. I was 11 years old and contracted chicken pox from cousins with whom I spent a few weeks in Baguio. By then, the children’s bedroom which my brother and I had shared when we were little was too small. One of the dining rooms on the second floor became my bedroom.
My grandma was in charge. She said it was about time I learned how to embroider; a refined art cultivated by the senoritas of her day. But she was also a practical woman; she taught me to embroider pillowcases which I used for quite a few years. She bought yards of percale in various pastel shades, drew native flowers on them with leaves and tendrils and taught me a variety of stitches. Looking back, it was a therapeutic activity she had devised to calm a restless pubescent grandchild. When my mother came to visit, I proudly showed her my work and to humor me, she would say she never learned to embroider. My grandfather bought me a secondhand type writer and I began to write random notes, thinking that I might someday become a writer like my mother.
My third quarantine was the most life-threatening. After a sudden shock of fame —I had won the Miss International title, the first Filipina to win a worldwide beauty contest — I was reduced to a helpless heap of humanity. Due to fatigue (there were so many invitations and public appearances), I contracted acute bronchitis and the doctor prescribed a venoclysis of vitamin B complex. A spot test was made on my left wrist, but the reaction was delayed and by the time I was obviously allergic, half of the dosage had already entered my veins.
My mother said the allergic reaction was so extreme she thought I was going to die. I will spare the reader the details of how I was coaxed back to health. But I shall never forget that during those three horrendous months, when everything around me was spinning, when I had coughing fits, when I would have hallucinations that the house was on fire, Tonypet Araneta insisted on visiting me, hoping to cheer me up. I told my mother to blindfold him because I did not want him to see me in that state. So, he obediently wore a blindfold, sat on the floor at the foot of my bed and would tell me riveting stories which took my mind off how badly I felt.
This is my 4th quarantine and even if COVID-19 has invaded our shores and homes, I remain healthy and fit. I am surrounded with books (many of which were preloved by Tonypet Araneta and his father) which tell me fascinating stories about critical periods of our history. As I read and write, I gaze at the Pasig river to see which way the tide flows. These days, the Pasig is so clear that the palm trees and vegetation along its shores are clearly reflected on the silvery blue water. My three rescued cats — Milonga Jarocho, and Merengue —habitually jump on my desk or on the window sills to keep me company. They look at me with sleepy eyes, glance at the birds that sweep across the windows, waiting for the sun to set. My grandson who has been living with me for a year now is quarantined in another flat because he was stranded in Palawan and has just returned on a sweeper flight Although I feel like giving him a loving lola hug, I have to wait and strictly keep distance like everyone else to prevent a 5th quarantine.