Surviving the “Kangkong Days” (Dedicated to my brother Alex, on his birthday)

It’s my brother’s 22nd birthday today, and it also just so happens that I was “rummaging” through old book drafts when I found this piece that brought me back to a challenging, but important, period in our lives.

This might hardly be the best birthday gift for my brother, but I dedicate this to him because he was one of my inspirations during these trying years. He was always a good boy–he never complained about what we had or didn’t have, and he always did what he could to help. Now that he’s all grown-up and taking care of my mom, I’m seeing how much more responsible he has become, and I can’t help but be even prouder of him.

I wish I had more time to write about more than just our “Kangkong Days”–about changing someone’s diapers or singing him to sleep? (Hahaha! Peace, bro!)–but for now, I’m sharing this as a testament of love, generosity, and the true family spirit. And I share this with the prayer that my brother be truly, truly blessed because of who he is and what he has made the family because of his presence in our lives.

Bro, ’till our next “date” 🙂 I love you!

__ 

Written in 2008

People laugh when they hear my mom telling stories of our “Kangkong Days,” but those years were no laughing matter at all.

In July 2003, I decided to leave a stable job in a non-profit consulting firm to be a full-time freelance writer. I was no longer happy being employed, and I felt unable to maximize my gifts. It was a risky move, but I figured then that my being a workaholic would allow me to earn more than any company could afford to pay me at that time.

As my writing career was taking off, however, my mom’s flying and teaching career was crashing. She was already in her 50s then and had very few opportunities outside the aviation industry–she couldn’t find anything that either needed her skills or paid her decently enough to make the job worthwhile.

So the burden of paying for the bills fell on me. Just-starting-out-as-a-writer, little ol’ me. And because we didn’t have a house of our own, the bills included rent—aside from the usual utilities, groceries, allowances, and so on. And, oh, my brother’s tuition in a private Catholic high school. It was more than overwhelming, to say the least, and we tried to cope by cutting back on expense items that we once took for granted. We had to let go of our helper; we had to stop taking cabs and start taking jeepneys to wherever we needed to go; we even had to prioritize my Internet phone cards over food and groceries. (“Ate needs the Internet to make money,” Mom reasoned.) We didn’t need to just simplify our lives—we had to really crunch the numbers and pinch every little penny (or centavo) that came our way.

During one particular mealtime, when we still had our helper, Manang Rose, with us, I asked her to cook me something simple but healthy and tasty. The only vegetables she had in stock then was a bunch of kangkong (water spinach) and carrots. So she chopped the carrots a la julienne, steamed them with the kangkong, added a bit of salt and pepper, and served it to us with pride. We were surprised by how good and filling that meal was—and the best part was that all the ingredients cost only a total of P20. Twenty bucks!!! I felt as if our money problems were partially solved. Good ol’ Manang Rose! So, from that time on, I mandated that we would have kangkong and carrots for as long as our stomachs could possibly take it. Gladly, everyone agreed—and Mom even lost fifteen pounds and started looking younger and healthier a few months later.

But the “Kangkong Days” were about more than just eating cheap vegetables. They were about working together as a team and making joint sacrifices so that more urgent and important matters could be prioritized. When we finally had to let Manang Rose go, Mom took on the role of “housemom” for the first time in her life and did all the chores herself. My brother, Alex, and I would feel embarrassed whenever we had to ask her to iron some of our clothes (Mom, ironing clothes? We didn’t even realize that she knew how!), but we had no other choice. I felt bad whenever Mom would have to get up to make me a meal or wash my used dishes, but she reasoned that since I was working very hard—and I had to work very hard to make ends meet—she had to spare me from all the house work. (And she insisted that I couldn’t get my hands wet since I was working at the computer for most of the day.) Since she didn’t have a job or any training contracts then, Mom figured that her contribution to the household was to do all our chores.

Alex’s contribution, on the other hand, was to be our little errand boy. I felt guilty whenever I had to ask my model-esque brother to ride a jeep to pick up one of my checks, but I needed to stay glued to the computer and free of administrative tasks, and he liked going around anyway. It really hurt me to expose my “baby” brother to all the risks of commuting in Manila, but he assured me that he didn’t resent me for it. Besides, he reasoned, I was paying for his tuition so the least he could do was to be my personal messenger.

As for me, I spent those days logging in twelve, sixteen, twenty hours of work daily so that I could take on more projects, finish them earlier, and earn more than enough money to pay for all the bills. I stopped going out with friends and spent all of my waking hours glued to the computer. I started feeling resentful, I couldn’t deny it, but I also felt a bit of pride knowing that I was able to support our family on my freelance work. I was happy to prove that one could be a writer and not starve.

When Alex graduated from high school in 2006, he insisted that I be the one to accompany him onstage when he got his medal. I was filled with guilt the day he told Mom about it (and after seeing the look on Mom’s face), but he told me, “Ate, you paid for my tuition for half of my high school life. I wouldn’t be graduating without you.”

And as he got up onstage that day to receive his award and shake hands with the school’s administrators, I looked up at Mom and beamed. My brother’s medal wasn’t just his accomplishment; it was ours. It was clear, concrete proof that a family could face the toughest challenges, be subjected to trials that could tear them apart if they let it, and come out of it stronger and closer than ever. Our “Kangkong Days” may now be over, but we will forever remember what it took to get us out of them… and what else it will take to never, ever go down that road again.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. catwoman says:

    welcome back, nines 🙂

  2. kriztalladen says:

    aww… how inspiring! happy birthday to your brother! 🙂

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