“The Book Of Life And Death”
Ever since I left the Philippines to try my luck overseas, I’ve been lugging around a series of mismatched, plastic-covered photo albums and scrapbooks I call Marybelle’s Book of Life and Death. It’s a series. When I start a new album, I tape a ribbon to the center page, splitting the photo book into two chapters: Life and Death. I fill the pages of each album with snapshots of those who have just taken their first breath and those who have taken their last.
Without my mother’s help back home in Manila, my collection would be incomplete. For years, when someone in my family was born or died, my mother would grab the elbow of the photographer and say, “Remember copies for Marybelle.” Then she’d wrap the photos in plastic and mail them to wherever I was working—Lebanon or Saudi or Hong Kong.
Last year, my fellow Overseas Filipino Workers, the government called us new heroes, bagong bayani, poured the equivalent of over $33 billion, up 4 percent from the previous year, into our home country from all over Asia, Africa, and the Americas. We work on water—cruise and cargo ships; on land—nurses and nannies; underground—oil and mining; and in the air—constructing buildings and highway flyovers.
We are described as human capital stock, but I am very much human.
International mail takes forever, and I move around so much that sometimes the newborn is celebrating their one-year birthday or the newly dead is marking their first anniversary by the time the photos find me. But that was before smartphones and unlimited data. These days, my mother shares the images herself, sometimes taking pictures of someone else’s pictures, transmitting them instantly so that I can be sharply aware in real time of what I’ve missed. I print the photos in the few remaining places one can do this, pharmacies and copy shops. It’s convenient, but I don’t have the same feeling as when I would receive a thick envelope from the Philippines, the coarse, mustard-yellow paper still infused with the very odor of home. I’d hold it to my cheek, remembering the warmth of my mother’s skin. I felt loved, and remembering this love is how I survive without the company of the most important people to me.