Concentric circles within circles. That is how my past appears before me. Each indelible event of my life ripples through my being—like tiny teardrops of emotions falling upon a clear, blue pond. For the memories that thrive within me are more than just recorded events: they make up the very essence of who I am. And of all the memories that come to life, during my quiet moments of reflection, one instance stands out from the rest. It occurred on a chilly autumn morning. I was in my early teens when it happened. I can see my younger self standing outside on my front yard with my family. Several of my family members wept softly as ambulance lights and sirens blared in the background. Many of my neighbours began to venture out of their houses; curiosity was written on their faces. They were fascinated by the spectacle occurring at my home. As I stood there in that moment, the cold causing clouds of steam to rise up from my mouth with each breath, I forced my mind to wander elsewhere. I could not stand to watch what was occurring before me, so I focused on the world around me instead. It was then that I noticed the absence of summer. Summer’s warm and nurturing glow had come and gone leaving behind a cold and desolate landscape. The trees were bare and tired, and there was a thick shade of gloominess that hung from the sky like a dark omen. My family still lived in our house on Spruce street. It was our first home in Canada. It was my boyhood home. So many memories reside in that house. So many sad and happy occasions resonating within me—like whispering echoes through time. Yet all those moments are lost to me now as I look back upon that day. It was the day the dogs howled. A day I shall never forget.
In the weeks leading up to that morning, my house was a rendezvous for family members and close friends. This opportunistic-situation gave rise to an ongoing fiesta. To this day, I can still hear the shuffling of mahjong tiles mixed in with bouts of laughter and karaoke. That was the sound and ambience that soothed me to sleep each night. And the food was definitely something to behold. My aunts (or titas) were renowned for their ability in the kitchen. Each day brought a new, and wonderful, Filipino culinary delight. Yet what I recollect most about that time was the sense of familiarity I felt. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how things use to be when we lived in the Philippines. I was very young, but I can still recall how difficult times were. The political climate was in constant turmoil. Food, possessions, and future prospects were in short supply. But through it all, we had each other. Our family and our community were our strengths. There was always a reason to celebrate and rejoice, no matter how badly things appeared, as long as we were together. Looking back, through rose-coloured glasses, I have come to realize that life just seemed simpler then, happier. Thus, the days leading up to that morning became a reunion. Many of the adults had not seen or spoken to each other in some time. Being together, enjoying each other’s company, rekindled the connection we once shared. In other words, it brought back our lost-sense of familia.
My great aunt (or Wowa as she was affectionately called) was the guest of honour in those past days of celebration. She, however, was unaware of our presence. She never spoke. All expressions and feelings left her face. Wowa spent a majority of her time sitting on her wheelchair. She would spend hours staring at a portrait of a man named Sanji, a saint my parents followed for a time. That old painting comes to mind as I look back. It was a striking likeness of Sanji painted by my tita Malou when she was an aspiring artist. Tita Malou captured Sanji’s eyes so perfectly. He had deep, piercing eyes. They were the kind of eyes that seem to stare straight into your soul.
I am told that my parents once took Wowa to their ashram when Sanji came to visit Canada. In a sea of faces, Sanji stopped before Wowa and held her in his arms. My Wowa wept as he held her in that long embrace. The tears they say were that of joy and relief. It was as though Sanji, through his saintly grace, had cleansed her of all her mortal sins. Although I wasn’t there when it happened, that image always springs to mind whenever I thought about her. In a strange way, I understand why Wowa was so fixated on that portrait. I believe Sanji gave her a moment of absolute clarity—when everything (life) just made sense.
I remember how my tita Mina never left Wowa’s side. She catered to Wowa’s every need. I would hear tita Mina speaking to Wowa in an upbeat tone as she mothered over her. But I felt the fear and sadness behind her words. All the adults felt the same way though none of them would admit to it. It was as though admitting that they were afraid would be accepting the inevitable. The adults of my family chose instead to put on an air of happiness whenever they were around Wowa. They would often laugh as they spoke about the past, retelling stories like an inside joke that only we shared. Many of the stories revolved around me, mostly as the butt of a joke, much to my dismay.
Back home in the Philippines, I was the object of my uncles’ endless pranks and ridicule. On one occasion, I remember waking up outside wearing a dress with pink ribbons in my hair. As a small boy, one can imagine my horror of waking up in such a state. My uncles waited patiently until I awoke. My shrieks of anguish only made them laugh louder. My Wowa would always swoop in to my rescue, shushing the jackals away. Wowa was my whole world; she was the one I always ran to. I was the last of her favourites, untouchable. I escaped many punishments beneath her skirt. Apparently, I was a real brat about it. It was the reason my uncles targeted me the way they did.
But Wowa’s undying devotion to our family developed long before I was her favourite. In her earlier years, Wowa was a school teacher by profession. Judging by her affinity towards children, I know it was a vocation she enjoyed very much. Then World War II broke out, and Japan invaded the Philippines. Wowa’s sister, my grandmother or Lola, became pregnant with my father during the occupation. With four young children already in tow, and my grandfather, or Lolo, imprisoned for being an officer in the Philippine army, it was a dire period in my family’s history. Wowa retired as a school teacher to be closer to her sister’s family. The struggles they were forced to endure during those harrowing times deepened Wowa’s devotion. Even after the war, Wowa remained committed to our family. Although she had many suitors during her time, she never married. When my Lola died of ovarian cancer, Wowa chose instead to fall in love with her sister’s family. It was a love affair that endured up until the very end.
We left our homeland to start a new life in Canada. Suddenly, our outlook on life changed. My once tight-knit family scattered to the four winds in search of opportunities—everyone except Wowa. She never did develop a taste for North America. The cold didn’t sit well with her. The food didn’t taste as good. The neighbourhood and people weren’t as friendly. Wowa often spoke about the old days. At times she would bribe me to sit with her as she spoke. She narrated her stories (about the war, our family’s history, and all the family members who had passed away) with such vivid clarity. Often, Wowa would get lost in her own tale and forget that I was even there. When reality finally took hold, she would smile and send me away to be alone with her thoughts. As I passed by her room, I would catch glimpses of her: staring out into space; smiling knowingly to herself; or sometimes even crying. Canada held no sway for Wowa. She was taken away from the only life she knew. Her heart and soul longed for the past. It is no wonder she spent most her time there.
Although she wasn’t as involved with our lives as she use to be, Wowa remained an integral part of our family, and I was still her favourite. The school teacher in her put me under her constant tutelage. My education included anything from school curriculum, proper etiquette, to our Filipino folklore—such as, “washing your face at night will make you go blind,” or “it’s bad luck not to turn your plate when someone leaves during a meal.” There was always a lesson to be learned when Wowa was around. Even now, I feel a certain sense of taboo whenever I violate one of Wowa’s precious rules.
I see now why those moments I spent with Wowa were so precious to her. I suppose I reminded her of not only a time when the two of us were inseparable, but also a time when my father and his siblings were young. She was the one they all turned to for guidance and support. Being in her late seventies and crippled with arthritis, she had outlived her usefulness as a family caregiver. Her wisdom and knowledge were all she had. She must have known that our family was falling apart by the seams, so she shared her stories and insight with anyone who was willing to listen. It was her way of trying to keep us all together by reminding us of the importance of family. That was Wowa’s nature, through and through: always giving; always thinking of others; and always putting everyone’s needs above her own.
Unfortunately, we were all too busy to listen, too wrapped-up in our lives. As time passed, Wowa spoke less and less, until the day came when she stopped speaking all together. Her silence created a rift within our family. We began to bicker over money problems and deep seeded resentments, issues that were never there before. That is why the stories my uncles told, about our former life in the Philippines, felt as though they came from another lifetime. The reminiscing, and even the mockery, drew us closer together, like we once were. We all secretly hoped that our gathering would wake Wowa from her reverie, but Wowa never did return to us.
My mother was the one who insisted that Wowa stayed with us in our home on Spruce. She sensed Wowa’s decline long before anyone else. My mother told me that it was Wowa who welcomed her into my father’s family when they married. She was 18 years old when she married my father. It must have been frightening for her to move away from her home and family to live in a house full of strangers. Wowa took my mother under her loving care and made her feel at home. My mother had never forgotten her act kindness. Which is why, in those final days, she made sure that Wowa was always surrounded by loved ones. She wanted Wowa to know that she was not alone. We were all there for her, as she always was for all of us.
The morning the Paramedics were called into our home was like a vintage Buster Keaton movie—a black and white, time-lapse photography of people bumbling around in a fast-pace-state of confusion. I stood outside huddled together with my family as they loaded Wowa into an ambulance. My uncle Fernando finally broke our stunned silence by storming into the house and uttering “the dogs are howling.” I remember how electrifying that statement was to my young ears. My uncle’s words flicked a switch in mind and another reality came into focus. Lurking beneath the screaming sirens and weeping family members, I heard the dogs, all of them. They were howling in unison as though they were wolves calling out into the deep, dark wilderness. The howls followed the ambulance as it drove down Spruce, a street I have known for most of my life. Until the ambulance could no longer be seen, but the doleful howls remained.
It was years later that I learned the meaning behind my uncle’s words. He was referring to an old Filipino belief that dogs can sense when someone is about to crossover into the afterlife. It is said that dogs howl to warn us that death is near. Upon further reflection, I know that what I heard that fateful morning was more than a warning. The symphony of howls from the neighbourhood dogs was a beautiful opus performed just for Wowa. It took us back to the old days when times were simple and happy. It was my Wowa’s farewell song that spoke of a life well lived, and a woman who fought with all she had to keep her sister’s family together. With her dying breath she did just that, for she was the one who brought us all together once more.
I often relive that morning, especially during that time of year when autumn’s touch chills me to my bones. It is a circle in time from my past that will forever encompass my future. It was the day the dogs howled. It was the day we lost our Wowa.