Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Hospicio de San Jose de Barili

We are really thankful that we were able to go on duty at the Hospicio de San Jose. It was truly a learning experience for all of us. We learned a lot from our conversations with the beneficiaries – from talking to them and listening to their stories and from serving them. It's too bad we only stayed there for a week. We would have learned more if we stayed for two weeks. But then, our stay there was hard on the wallet. Also, we would've become more attached to our patients – saying goodbye would've become more difficult. More tears would've been shed, not just by the students but also by the beneficiaries.

Just like lola Margarita. She's not my patient, but I love sitting beside her and talking to her. I love to listen to her old Tagalog songs. I don't even know the title of those songs. When I asked her about them, she gave me the names of the artists who sang them. I did not recognize a single name. I suppose they were famous during Lola Margarita's time. She sings because she has no other use for her time. I mean, apart from eating, going to the bathroom, and sleeping, she has no other use for her time, so she sings, and if there's someone beside her willing to listen, she talks. She related to me her story, of how she had so many 'apos', her siblings' children, and how she loved them so much and took care of them. I asked her if she ever married and she said no, because she was too busy taking care of her 'apos'. I asked her where they are now, she told me they're somewhere in Baguio. Did they know that she's here in Barili? She looked at me with uncertainty in her eyes then said no.

When I bade farewell to lola Margarita on our last day, I couldn't forget her reaction. She broke down and cried like a child. She said that it's so difficult that we had to leave her again. By "we" she probably meant her student nurses. She expressed to me how hard it is to be there, how endless the days were for her, just sitting at her cot all day with nothing else to do and no one to talk to, no one to share her concerns with. She was also very much frustrated (to the point of becoming irate) with her neighbor, Lola Agatona, who was always angry at her and at everybody else, who always threw curses and threats. She says she couldn't sleep sometimes because of her. All she could do to get back at her enraged neighbor was to taunt her with her songs.

I was actually assigned to lolo Basilio, lola Arsenia, and lola Leona. Lolo Basilio was in the infirmary. He couldn’t talk very well and his body was so stooped that his back was “humplike”. He doesn’t talk unless you talk to him first, and his voice is barely audible. When you ask him a question he always answers with another question. He seems to get confused at times, like when you tell him that it’s time to take a bath or take a walk he always asks you, “Para asa man na?” or “Ngano man?” or “Dili na makadaut?” But he still remembers who he is, and where he came from. He’s from Negros and he was a farmer. He often forgets, though, that he’s in Barili, at the Hospicio. Lola Leona is from Cebu. Her children died some years ago. She admitted herself in the Hospicio because she couldn’t take care of herself very well where she lived, and neither can her relatives. Who can blame her? Life outside, if you are hard up financially, is hard, so you can’t really rely on relatives for your welfare. She said she only ate one meal a day where she lived. In the Hospicio, she said, things are better because at least you can eat three meals a day, plus snacks. You have a bed, a roof over your head, and you have people your age you can talk to. But, she admits, she still feels lonely sometimes. It’s different when you have your family with you, she told me. She also cried during our culminating activity. I gave her a flower and placed her hand to my forehead as a sign of respect, and kissed her cheek. She cried because she was reminded of her sons.

One remark she made during one of our conversations really struck me: “Bati kaayo ang kinabuhi.” Life for her was always hard since she was little, and now that she’s old, she still has no respite from life’s pains. Lola Arsenia’s story is more or less the same. She, too, doesn’t have any relatives anymore. They have all died; those that remained had probably forgotten her.

There were also other tragic stories like those of lola Dulce and lolo Elly. Lola Dulce was once very rich, but she lost it all, and now she’s alone in the Hospicio. Lolo Elly was an engineer in an international ship. He had three houses and five cars! His monthly earnings were that big. But one tragedy followed another. He had a stroke, lost his job, lost his wife, and then, too, his son. So he sold all his houses and all his cars. He has nothing left. His only treasures now are his books. He keeps them in his closet. He showed them to me once. Most of them are war novels. He loves war novels. And each book was given as a gift to him by his previous student nurses. He was so happy when he showed to me each of the notes that the students wrote for him in the books. They were very heart-warming. On our last day, I gave him a copy of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

I remember one lolo who was very talkative. I forgot his name, though. But he is a man overflowing with knowledge and ideas. In a span of a few minutes, he was able to talk to me about different kinds of musical instruments, chemical products, business ideas, riddles or “tigmo-tigmo” as a superior form of entertainment than singing, and Catholic apologetics. There’s nothing wrong with him at all, it’s just that he is so full of ideas and knowledge but he has no one to discuss these topics with. He is like a fragile dam ready to burst into a torrent of ideas at the slightest invitation. You can spend one whole day with him and he will probably not run out of things to say to you. What he needs is someone who is willing and has the patience and stamina to listen to him.

Each beneficiary have their own stories to tell, but all stories have something in common: they’re in the Hospicio because no one can or is willing to take care of them. Either their significant others have already gone over to the next life or they’re still alive but have already forgotten, or chose to forget, them. But is it so bad to be in the Hospicio? I mean, life is relatively good there. There’s food, shelter, and clothing, all for free. They can barely get three decent meals a day outside. They should feel very blessed! Indeed, they do feel blessed and fortunate that they have a place like the Hospicio to answer all their physiologic needs. Beyond the physiologic needs, though, lies the more complex and abstract needs of love and companionship, and they are not easily met. Sure, the lolos and lolas have each other, but it’s truly different when the people that you have around you, the people that you sleep with every night, the people that you see when you wake up in the morning and whom you take breakfast, lunch and dinner with, are your family members.

It’s good that each week or every two weeks the beneficiaries see new faces. The student nurses really help a lot. The Hospicio can become a very dreary and lonely place, especially for people who are at the latter phase of this cycle called life. The students bring vitality and variety to their day to day life. It’s also beneficial on the part of the students. In addition to contributing to their knowledge about and exposure to geriatrics, it also gives them a chance to glimpse the reality of life – that all of us must grow old one day. We need to be prepared for that day. In the meantime, we must live our lives as best as we can, loving as best as we can. We must apply our whole selves to what is good and beautiful while we still can.

The structures of the Hospicio are really admirable. Some people found it creepy because of its age, which dates back to the 1920s, but there’s something beautiful about structures with historic value, things that have graced the course of time. There’s plenty of archaic stuff in the Hospicio. The design of the buildings and structures themselves are archaic. The style is circa 19th century. The Capiz shells on the windows are very lovely. One can easily imagine a Maria Clara gazing outside the window listening to her suitor’s ‘harana’. Inside the houses and buildings, the space is wide and the ceiling is far above your head. Nineteenth-century houses are magnificent works of art! You should also see the old house in the Villa, a property which I guess the Cui family is also part-owner. That one is more beautiful.

Beside the kitchen, you will see a very ancient-looking weighing scale. We wonder if it is still being used today.

We hope that the Hospicio de San Jose will continue in its mission to serve the indigent, invalid and abandoned elders for many, many more decades to come. Don Pedro and Dona Benigna must really be proud of what they have started.

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