a postscript on family

Manila, 12 August—Something strange happened to me over the weekend: I witnessed a family showdown. I know I don’t usually talk about my family, outside of my semi-regular introspection about our dead mother, but the events of last weekend were really so baffling that I have to write them down.

It begins with my mother’s youngest brother. A year younger than auntie, this uncle was more of an older brother figure to me, my sister and our cousin, back in the day. I was not even ten, and that made my cousin seven years old and my sister, six.

My mother’s house was everybody’s house, so that meant we constantly had our aunts and uncles over. This uncle used to drive us to and from school; sometimes in the mornings, he let me operate the stick shift of our terminally old Tamaraw whenever we drove through the then-relatively abandoned roads of our village. In the summers, we played Battle City on the Family Computer; in fact, he bought us all our video game consoles: A Sega first, then a PlayStation 2.

An engineer by profession, he was among those who worked on the first SM in our neighborhood. And then, like most Filipino engineers, he left us to work abroad in the mid-90s. From seeing him every day at home, I did not see him at all, except whenever he visited, maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

He’s not the first OFW in the family—my other aunt married a seafarer, and my father used to fly out often—so it wasn’t a big adjustment. It was the norm. People sought greener pastures all the time to provide for their families. Who do you think were named Inquirer’s Filipinos of the Year the year he first went abroad? That’s right: Overseas Filipino Workers.

I tell you about my uncle because he’s the only way I can introduce my cousin, his daughter, who is ten years younger than me. Sunday’s showdown occurred in a hotel corridor, just outside the restaurant where twenty of us—aunts, uncles, cousins, partners, nieces—were supposed to be sitting for dinner. There was news that my cousin was introducing her boyfriend of two years to the extended family.

And then there was Twitter.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually watched an actual confrontation spawned by tweets. Catty ones, sure, issued by my brother, who couldn’t care less about how he comes across. In truth, I’m a fan—every now and then, I find myself biting my tongue in self-censorship on several matters. Not my brother—he speaks his mind, regardless. Even when it’s against family.

As a matter of context, I suppose it bears mentioning that, like most families post-2016, our family has also strained under the weight of the polarizing and divisive results of the last national elections. My siblings and I have been more or less aligned in our political views—UP, LGBT, and middle-class, we have always denounced this administration’s wanton disregard for common decency and human rights, to name a few issues. Given this, I think it’s also fair to conclude that we are also against the rise of many authoritarian leaders all over the world, including and most especially in the US.

I mention this because this is the core of the showdown: Political differences on Twitter spilling over to real life, thereby ruining homecomings, reunions and otherwise majestic Chinese dinners.

It’s easy to say #FamilyFirst—that’s what I said when I assured my uncle earlier that when it comes down to it, my siblings and I know where to draw the line and recognize family to be the priority it is. But the truth is, it did come down to it, when they called my brother out of the restaurant and cornered him at the elevators, in what was an absolutely unnecessary dramatic stunt, and in that moment, I realized that it was not up to us to draw whatever lines.

There was no line; there was just this edge, to which he’d been roped toward despite sitting at the furthest corner of the table, in the interest of a little peace.

Also, I have proven once and for all that I truly am not made for conflict. For all my posturing, here’s what I did while my brother and cousin duked it out in front of Auntie and uncle: I stood there quietly, unable to parse the proper words required of me as the eldest of this brood.

I stood there quietly, unable to say anything, even as my cousin pointed a finger at my brother, raised her voice at him, asked him if he knew how rude he was being, told him that her friends were essentially monitoring his feed and sending her his tweets, and even asked him why he bothered to join the dinner, even as he tweeted his lack of interest in her recent life development.

I stood there quietly as Auntie tried to play referee, as she tried to diffuse the situation, as she parried my cousin’s blows and called her out for essentially wanting to kick my brother out of the dinner.

In the midst of all that, I said nothing. I said nothing. I said nothing.

My cousin walked out, boyfriend in tow, declaring she’s done. Uncle, so defeated, just walked them to their car. She’d been around maybe a couple of hours, so maybe it was really so intolerable, to be with this family. Maybe it’s hate; maybe it’s something much deeper, much more complicated. Something that’s enough, I hope, to justify walking out on a table full of elders, at the very least.

I was stunned stupid. I tried going back to the table to begin dinner; they’d already served everything, including the orange chicken my cousin had ordered. But I couldn’t eat. Instead, I found myself so angry, I was in tears.

Noticing that I was on the verge of a breakdown, C—yes, C was at this dinner! Because I also introduced her to the extended family! We did not need to cause a scene, despite being lesbians! What a world, right! anyway—C took my hand and led me to the bathroom. My chest was full of the stacked up words I hadn’t been able to say. I was mad and frustrated—that I hadn’t spoken up for my brother when he was being berated, that I hadn’t spoken up for Auntie when she was being talked over, that I hadn’t spoken up for everybody else who was disrespected that night when they up and left without so much as a proper goodbye.

I felt as if, as the oldest of us, her behavior was somewhat a reflection on my poor leadership or example. Oh man, I just thought, catching the sentiment. Maybe I am getting old. I mean, crying in the middle of an angry outburst? Old, definitely.

But really, come to think about it, what is there left to do?

We ended up finishing dinner and hanging out until close to midnight, drinking Johnny Walker and shooting the breeze drunkenly, post-event. We talked about what the elders like talking about when they’re drunk together: Being young together in the province and the attendant shenanigans—you know, the whole nine yards.

We video-called our cousin in Kansas as soon as he woke up, and told him and his wife all about the drama—all before breakfast in their timezone. In return, he told us about how our dead grandfather paid him a visit—perhaps to remind him that it was his birthday, a couple of days ago.

Repetitive reminiscences, overseas calls and ghost stories—though apart, these are just some of the things that have kept this family intact all these years.

Now, I don’t know what kind of family my cousin thinks she’s demonizing—her issues are hers to work through, and I still think it was grossly unfair for my brother to have been dragged into them and made into a scapegoat for whatever coping she is clearly not doing.

All I know is, from where I stand—on the back of three plus decades of building this family, taking its wins, absorbing its losses—I know where the lines are, and they are clearer than ever.

I’m writing this down because I need to remind myself that I have to do better by this family. And I swear to God, I will.