By Erwin Cabucos
Theresa pulls the duvet up to her neck, turns to one side, and tightens the embrace of her arms about her bolster beside her, revelling in the warmth of her bed. She wonders if she'd tucked Wayne in properly last night. It would be a disaster if she hadn't. Being dependent on medication, he could get sick quickly. She could kill him now, really, if she wanted to
The irrigation water above the carrot and bean fields is flying in all directions, and the gum trees around the farm are doing a samba in the forceful wind. She frowns, thinking it an odd decision to water the field in a windy day and in the morning at that. Wayne wouldn't have done it, and she plans to ask Greg, the newly hired farm manager, about it later. But, for now, she enjoys the rainbow reflections from the sun rays which shine across the red earth of the fields towards the gum trees on the hillside, then onwards to the granite outcrops in the distance. She marvels at the breathtaking view from her bedroom window near the border of Queensland and New South Wales.
Back home, in the Philippines, the yodelling of the roving vendors would have woken her up by now, summoning her to get up and buy some hot pandesal or tasty taho, the delicious soy bean curd in ginger juice that she loved so much. She never had a body pillow then a comfort she mourns because it could so easily have been done by sewing a simple pocket of cloth and stuffing it with the cotton fluff from the pods of the kapok tree from her backyard. Why didn't she think of it when she was growing up? The cotton would only be blown away by the wind only to land across the rice fields. Good for the rice, supposedly an organic fertiliser, but as far as she is concerned, regretfully wasted all because of the pervading perception that comfortable things are unattainable; beyond one's reach, like a body pillow, an unconventional pillow, can only be bought expensively from a mall. She had to work hard for that sort of thing. Her parents were only rice farmers. Used to the prevalent hardship, her people resign themselves to the thought that nothing in life should be easy. When you're poor, your life should always be hard perhaps the villainous conditioning of the mentality of poverty. "But there are ways around," she murmurs. "Just have to learn to welcome it, make do with what you've got and persist." She turns to her other side and curls her legs. "Persist."
She remembers the cows and goats she nursed back home an after-school job which helped pay for her studies. She started with one cow, watching it graze all day in the unused fields of her town. It matured and produced calves, some of which she got to keep over time. The calves and the kids grew up and bred and multiplied before her eyes while she made vlogs about medicinal plants from the highlands. To her mother's pleasant surprise, Theresa enrolled at the nearby university, took up agribusiness, graduated, and found a job as a farm assistant overseas, in an Australian farmland.
As her plane descended over Brisbane, she savoured the sweetness of a rock melon slice on her breakfast tray, nodding as the woman sitting next to her explained proudly that it was Australian produce, guaranteed fresh and beautiful. "Good luck with everything," the woman ventured. "I hope your Australian Filipino life will be all good from here on in." Theresa smiled. Sana nga mag dilang anghel ka, I hope your hopeful words will happen.
She worked in Wayne's farm, first as a packer of fresh produce then as his personal assistant. Since his wife died, he had found doing domestic roles challenging while looking after the demands of farming. The shift from packing carrots and beans to washing clothes, folding sheets, cooking dinner and cleaning his house wasn't hard for her, especially being close to him, finding him handsome and shy, just the sort of guy she was attracted to. Each time she came near him to give him his cup of tea, arranged his clothes, turned his lights as they went to their own bedrooms, were moment of bliss for her, triggering an indescribable sensation in her body, even though they really hadn't touched each other yet. He looked more handsome, up close, and when he placed his palm on her shoulder one night to thank her of her good deeds around the house, Theresa didn't hide the electrifying goose bumps that overcame her body. She stared at him as she switched off the lights in his room while he touched her. She didn't resist when he pulled her towards him and perched her fingers on his back as he planted a soft, warm kiss on her lips while his palm cupped her chin. "I love you too" was her reply to his deep and raspy proposal. The poor and ordinary lady from Licab, Nueva Ecija, didn't take long to find a home and love among the peaceful and scented sways of Eucalypt trees.
Outside, the howling wind still unsettles, the crops bent as if combed by the master painter of the big canvas, but Theresa focuses on the clear blue sky in its vivid and steady spectacle that foregrounds the vista of her morning. She breathes and feels the soothing warmth before going back to her normal routine, with Wayne and his needs, challenging but a part of the normalcy of her world, because she loves him.
Not all things are red and rosy, and Theresa knows that. Wherever she goes, she adjusts, not even shaken by the doctor's announcement that most of Wayne's motor functions were debilitated by the stroke. It broke her, but it never killed her.
Wayne was easy to love: good-looking, thoughtful and generous, not only for his willingness to help when she needed to send money home for a sick Filipino relative, but also for his consideration that she would be pleasured first before he'd release in her. Theresa did not remember any night she had not been made happy. The way he made love to her was perfect, she thought. She exults in delight even at the thought of it. Wayne moans from the next room. He must have just woken up.
Theresa finds herself panting. She allows her breathing to calm down, before she gets up for her day: filling his syringe with medication, enticing him to take his tablets, reading to him aloud, feeding him, greeting him even though he doesn't respond, looking after him all day to make sure he's safe. She sighs and brings the duvet down to her waist, letting the cool air in.
It's a vocation, she declares to herself as she rises from the bed. A kookaburra clings onto a tree branch outside her window. Theresa pinches the crucifix at the end of the rosary beads which hang on her wall. She closes her eyes. "Oh God, I'm offering you this day. Give me strength," she whispers. "In sickness and in health." She recalls the day when they got married in St Mary's in Warwick. She takes a deep breath and peeps through the door left ajar next to hers.
"Good morning, sweetheart, how are you today?" It's her usual morning greeting, the initial sound pronounced with gusto that mellows towards the end. She draws the curtain of his window. "How was your sleep, my love?" She doesn't modify each day's greeting as the doctor advised her to keep things familiar so Wayne will recognise the normality, in order to ameliorate his anxiety. It doesn't make sense to her, but somehow, she feels, this time, it doesn't help to contradict. If only she had known how to perform CPR when Wayne fell on her as they made love that night. He would not have had severe brain damage now. The minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive were critical, but there's no point blaming herself now. The rehabilitation therapy and love are now more important than anything, and, if they are lucky, the doctor believes, Wayne will regain 50 per cent of what he had.
She climbs onto his bed and plants her feet to either side of her husband. Taking his wrists, she breathes in deeply and hauls him to a sitting position, slipping two pillows between him and the head of the bed. Saliva runs down his neck and his bulging stomach escapes the elastic of his pyjamas. His expressionless face is fixed to the light that floods in from the window. Her presence seems to calm him and make him feel secure as she paces back and forth across the room, wiping his face and taking out fresh clothes from the cupboard, testing the cold and the hot water in the shower, and placing toothpaste on his electric toothbrush. But she is resolved that the best thing she could possibly do to help improve her husband's condition is to keep eye contact between her and him. She hopes eye contact will re-activate Wayne's reflexes and movements as well as re-ignite her waning feelings for him, and to prove that she's not just a carer.
Eight years were great, but longer would have been better. Their plan to have children did not eventuate as they were always busy trying to get on top of their financial situation despite the onslaught of droughts, the rising cost of farm overheads, and the complexities of marketing. And now, of course, his illness has put an end to hopes of them having children.
She sits next to him so he can wrap his hands around her, and then she gets up so she can walk him to the shower. The weight that Wayne has gained almost makes them tip over. She bites her lips. She shouldn't give up. "Alright, mate," she says. "Let's try one more time. One, two three." She stands up, wanting to believe that her help, by any physical means, is more helpful for his recovery than that of any machine, but the heaviness drags her down.
She shakes her head, coming to terms with the reality that he is not ready for this yet and she simply can't do it. She puts him back in bed and rests her hands on her waist. Her eyes well with tears. It's hard. I can easily clamp his neck with my fingers and push my thumbs into his throat until he can no longer breathe, and his eyes will go wide, and all these things will be over. All these bed sores, the suffocating urine smell of his room, the lifeless look, will come down to nothing. When one is dead, one is nothing. But what am I if I abandon him? What am I if I stop caring for him?
She wipes away her tears and puts Wayne on the lifter, and she moves him to the bathroom. As Wayne sits on the commode chair, motionless under the pouring water, she realises how utterly dependent he is on her, the man she married eight years ago is now glued to her like a turtle shell to its body.
Suddenly, he moves. His face looks away from the water. She covers her gaping mouth and pinches her chin as she lowers herself and breaks into heaving sobs. "You can move your face! You can now move your fucking face, Wayne." She wipes his face and brings him closer to hers. "You used to sit there like a stunned mullet, but now, you can swivel your fucking neck. That's incredible, Darling. You're amazing!" She embraces him and clings to him before bursting out in a mix of tears and laughter. "You're getting better, sweetheart."
After he is dressed, Theresa wheels him to their living room. The Radio National's Country Living programme is on. The Minister for Agriculture is predicting steady sales "if not, an increase in demand for fresh produce due to lockdowns from the coronavirus. People should still eat and perhaps shop more as they cook more at home. Many are inclined to eat fresh produce for healthier options, aiming to increase their immunity from eating fresh produce."
Theresa notices Wayne's eyes blink as he sits in the wheelchair, staring at the tractor in the fields. His hand is flexing, as if he wants to lift it. "You're really getting better, sweetheart," she mutters. "Thank God."
Theresa gets it: He probably wants to summon Greg to the house. Yet, her dismay at Wayne's lawyer for not thinking of her first to manage the farm still lingers in her mind. She would have wanted to do it and she is confident she could have done it successfully. She could at least have been asked, out of respect.
She puts away the mugs and magazines that are left on the coffee table, and draws the curtains to let in more light. Really, she is allowing her thoughts to settle. She sighs. Is it because she is a woman and seen as weak and unable to run a farm? She looks down the hill to the spinning windmill. She places her hands on her hips, walks back to Wayne, who is now leaning slightly towards her. Anyway, she thinks, showing care and concern for her husband in his most challenging time is more noble and worthwhile than managing a farm. Health is wealth, she says to herself.
She decides the quickest way to summon Greg is via her mobile phone. She shows Wayne the text she's sent, and his face breaks into a smile. "You can now smile, too! Bloody hell!" she yells. Theresa kisses him on the lips. "You're right, sweetheart. I know what you want." His fingers wriggle and Theresa's eyes go wide. "Wow, you are amazing! What happened to you today?"
He tries to reach for her hand, and she places her palm on his. Struggling, he lifts their hands towards the direction of his heart. His face contorts again and his eyes well up.
She hugs him and closes her eyes.
"Wait," Greg booms from the steps. "Both arrested for disobeying the social distancing rules."
She smiles: "Why do you water in the morning, and when it's windy?"
"Because the source locks down from midday." He opens his palms in the air. "Coronavirus timetable."
"Not that windy, is it?" He gives a forced smile. Greg puts his Akubra hat on the coffee table. Looking at Wayne, he says: "How are ya, mate?"
Wayne looks at Greg sternly.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021