They say home is where the heart is. But when I think about home, I think about places I cannot go back to. Home is love and love is grief. People ask me where I’m from and I do not know which branch of my roots to say: Yes, I’m staying in Los Baños now. No, I grew up in San Pedro. Oh, but our family is from Tuguegarao.
Most of the time, I feel like that’s all I am: a ball of overgrown roots. Digging and growing my way blindly through a place until the soil is familiar ground and then uprooting myself before I could plant myself there.
Pacita is connected to everybody everywhere. The tricycles and jeepneys in every village and neighboring town in and of San Pedro, and transportation from Calamba to Taft, all have a direct route to Pacita Square or Labasan as we call it. It’s a fitting name for neighborhoods that are a dizzying mishmash of side streets and shortcuts. Growing up here, I’ve had so many strangers ask me for directions, and each time I am embarrassed to say I couldn’t help them. I navigate by feel; my feet and my heart can lead me with my eyes closed. It’s the product of instinct, memories, a culmination of every mundane second.
And therein lies the problem. Navigating by memory is an unearthing of grief each time. To get to Macaria Avenue, for example, I would trace my steps back to the house we rented as a child. When the flood of “Milenyo” came, the children were passed over the heads of adults toward the third floor of the house next door. As the wind banged at the windows, it was me, my siblings, and the two kids our age living next door who huddled together.
I could name a hundred more: point you to the direction of the best tea shop in town, a short walk away from my best friend’s house, where I came to grieve the day after I attended her wake. Show you where to find the nearest hospital, where the nurse knows me so well and my long record is a constant reminder of my limitations. The mall where I laughed and pored over textbooks and future dreams with people I no longer talk to. The tunnel I used to think was a portal to Mars and is now an inconvenient traffic bottleneck. The private school my parents spent every overtime paycheck on, the one that never let the Catholic guilt leave my mind in peace.
When I think about Tuguegarao, I think about farms and my favorite food, about summer days that bring me joy and warmth and the good things in life. I think about my grandparents’ house and the long road trip spent watching the cities and towns slowly give way to mountains and fields.
My Lolo and Lola kept a small lot behind the house and filled it with farm animals, corn stalks, a papaya tree, and a star apple tree. I would have scrambled eggs that were so rich, sweet, and flavorful when cooked you’d mistake them for custard. And native hens that were butchered and cleaned by my Lolo himself yielded broth that was deeply golden and yellow, its flavor unmatched — perfect for tinola.
A few years ago, Lolo suffered a stroke that left his mind addled and half his body paralyzed. While he was in the hospital, Lola passed away from a brain aneurysm. Soon after, our provincial home was renovated to suit my Lolo’s needs. And because there was no one around anymore for its upkeep, the farm animals were given away and neglect overcame the rest of it.
I’ve made regular visits to Tuguegarao every school break since then. I eat at our spot at the dining table without the pair of them and sit outside on the porch alone in the evenings now. But I’ve only been to the backyard farm only once. I can’t bring myself to go there anymore, seeing its dilapidated state. It’s a reminder of wasted years and empty spaces, of constant change that is impossible to catch up with, of a childhood that is over.
Los Baños was different, because the moment I set foot on it, it was like kismet. I do not know anything about this place and it knows nothing about me, but we are connected.
“I want to know you,” I said that day. “I want to belong here.”
And I truly did. Because for some strange reason, I never felt like it asked anything from me—except me and my attention. I could face my hopes and dreams and failures without shame or hesitation. And I thought I could grow roots here. For the first time, I did not want to run away.
But now I am uprooted, now I do not know what awaits me there. Under this regime, are the dreams I held in those walls still intact? Would I still be able to sleep soundly in my dorm someday? Do I have to watch friends die? Will somebody seek to cut off my tongue again?
We spread our roots over every soil we come to touch, because even when they are tainted by loss, violence, and fear, those things are inseparable from love. Seeking a place that is free from pain is an impossibility I’ve had to accept in the hopes that, someday, I’ll stop running. Someday, I will finally plant myself somewhere.