By Nathaniel T. Dela Cruz

Sepanx: Separation Anxiety

I miss home.

When the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was put in place to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus, my family and I were still in Sitio Milagrosa, in Brgy. Palayan, Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro. We had come for a week-long vacation to celebrate my 41st birthday.

We had two days to leave and return to Manila before the lockdown. Alarmed by the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to stay in the province because it is safer here. 

I don’t think the lockdown will last for longer than a month, I smugly predicted.

Four months later, I found myself filling out a form requesting the Pinamalayan Municipal Social Welfare and Development Office for financial assistance via the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). My family and I are officially on the list of Locally Stranded Individuals (LSI).

It sounds dire, but in truth, my family and I are safe, comfortable, and happy – conditions that you don’t normally associate with the word ‘stranded’. We are in an extended stay in our ‘summer home’, so to speak. 

But no, we are not rich. We don’t have a separate house and lot purely for rest and recreation. I consider Mindoro as my second home because I spent my summers here when I was a young boy, and I was well-taken care of by my maternal relatives. 

I would return to Malabon in early June in time for the start of classes – a young boy unashamed of his glistening sun-kissed skin the color of burnt longganisa who talks like a proper Mindoreño – it’s sinulbot, not minatamis na saging.

But when I grew older, the visits became shorter – three days instead of a full week, once a year. The chance to have long, care-free summers reminiscent of my boyhood years was the first luxury that employment took away from me, and, as an adult, I have to live with that.

Now, unencumbered with worries of limited vacation time since I am in-between jobs and focused on being a full-time hands-on father, staying in Mindoro for longer than what we originally planned was an option for my work-at-home wife and me.  

After all, Mindoro has become something more than just a summer destination – my parents, my elder sister and my younger brother and their spouses and children all live here now. Mindoro is now a second home to us. They’ve made sure my wife, my son, and I remain comfortable vacationers here, not stranded individuals. We were given a room to ourselves – my father’s private home office. We feel safe, secured, and never hungry. To say that we are always well-fed with delicious home-cooked meals is an understatement, and the way our old clothes now hug our body very snugly is testimony to that. 

My son Kalis spends his afternoon playing with his cousins in the yard. I watch him run around chasing his Kuya Nico and Ate Zephyr, backdropped by the stunning view of unspoiled nature in its splendor – a parade of white puffy clouds sail across the clear blue sky, traversing the mountain ranges that stretch across the horizon; close by is a yellow-orange sunset, soon to give way to a starry night. Here on this island, the world looks pure and clean, as if untouched by the viral menace, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I couldn’t imagine a better display of hospitality. I can’t think of a safer shelter for my family. 

I am happy, but I amanxious too. 

As the days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, I think about our home in Malabon more often, wondering when we are going to be allowed to go home, and in the early days of the ECQ, there was no definite answer to this question. There is still only uncertainty. It caused me anxiety and made me feel miserable. I tried my best not to dwell on it.

Our house is part of our family. I’ve always believed that. Our presence in the spaces where we breathe and radiate and live our everyday lives is the reason why a house has a soul. It is attached to us, and that is why when we are away from home, there is a strong feeling of yearning that you cannot easily dismiss with reason, however valid or sensible it is. When we are away for too long we can sense the soul of the empty house slowly wither. 

I think this is why it feels sad to be away for too long. Sometimes, this aching feeling is so strong it is almost a physical pain. I often find myself thinking about our house in Malabon at night when everything has turned quiet and evening has lulled everyone to sleep. It is when the yearning is strongest. 

I miss sleeping in our room. I miss how the house smells of food after I’ve cooked. I miss the afternoons when I water the plants. I miss the liberating feeling borne of doing mundane chores like the laundry and following my organized system of hanging clothes to dry. I miss absentmindedly walking towards the window to stare outside, looking at nothing in particular. I miss the quiet nights and how the house gently breathes, lulling us into sleep. I miss moving around the space where we – my wife and I – daydream, make plans, speak intimately, imagine, laugh, talk about the events of the day, binge watch TV shows, do our routine tasks, and live the difficult yet rewarding experience of raising a wonderful, playful little boy.

I think about how we ask our neighbors to look after the house while we are away. Paki silip silip naman nung bahay namin ha (Please look after our house). We ask this from those we trust to do good in the task of making sure no one trespasses or loots or vandalizes our house, but it is only now that I realize that there is a deeper and oftentimes unspoken unrealized truth: we don’t want our house to feel that it is being abandoned while we are away, and we try to make sure the house keeps its human connections alive. 

I believe the house can sense when the neighbors are looking over to check. I believe the house can feel the presence of someone who enters it, someone who turns on the light or opens the window to let the sun and the air in, and it is during these moments that the soul of the house is rejuvenated, sensing that its human companions will return, and soon. We ask this task of people we trust to do good on their promise knowing that if this is done, the soul of the house never decays or shrivels or dies while we are gone.

When my parents and siblings still lived in our Malabon house, I remember how my mother, as soon as we’d arrived home, would greet the house as soon as the door opened.

“Hello, house!” She’d exclaim with genuine enthusiasm, even if she was tired and exhausted from the trip. 

It is our way of reattaching the unseen nerves that connect us to the house, nerves that were severed when we left, so that we’ll be in sync again, in tune with one another, aware of one another, including those who share this space with us – yes, and there are a couple of them. 

I call them The Unseen.

The Borrower has a penchant for hiding personal objects made of metal, particularly those you seldom use. My silver ring, my stainless steel chain wallet – these items have disappeared before just when I was about to use them. I will frantically search every nook and cranny inside the house and turn everything over but I won’t be able to find it. 

But when I stop searching and just ask for it back, it’ll reappear somewhere where you can easily see it, as soon as this prankster has returned it.

I gave The Phantom of the Stairs such a name for obvious reasons: one can hear footsteps by the stairs even when no one is walking. Friends who visited me have heard of it many times, which is why they now refuse to set foot inside the house again, if I am not there and it is after dark, at least.

I should be scared but I’ve long accepted the fact that I share this house with them. 

Instead of feeling frightened, it gives me comfort, particularly now that we are not at home; at least I know that our house is not without company.

I am somewhat amused, thinking about imaginary friends at 41, but it has helped ease the anxiety away, replaced by hopeful optimism. I retire for the night. 

Sleep reminds me I am one day closer to returning home.

Nathaniel Toriano Dela Cruz is a 42-year-old writer from the Philippines who writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry in Filipino and English. His work is inspired by his boyhood and every day experiences. He is currently working as a full-time freelance copywriter. Likes drinking and daydreaming; dislikes closed spaces and anxiety attacks. Husband and father.

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