One of the things that you learn in the life of Foreign Service is goodbyes. You make a lot of them because it is of course a given as your life is basically moving around from one place to another. It is never easy but you get the hang of it, and part of the trick is the belief that you will eventually one day, in the near or far future, see each other again.
But goodbyes of the permanent kind are impossible to get over, especially one that happens so abruptly that you don’t get to say it at all.
A couple of days ago, I received news that an older cousin of mine passed away via a terrible accident. His dad and my dad are first cousins, but most important of all, we grew up together in the same neighbourhood. I only have one younger brother and so technically, my Kuya (the Tagalog term for a respected older male) Kuya Kulet was like the older brother. He was a constant in my life to my teenage years, and now I struggle to come to terms that he is gone.
As a little girl I have lots of memories that included him, Kuya Kulet as we have always called him. Kulet in the vernacular means naughty, from stories of his parents, our uncles and aunties, he was, as they said a rambunctious kid. But because he was older, I never really got to see that side of him, because in the hierarchy of kids he outranked me, and so he is entitled to some reverence, respect, and obedience. And so his name to me was more of an endearment.
His presence in my life was special in a sense that he took responsibility for me, and he even made it official one afternoon while we were playing with his older sister, I remembered they wanted to make teams so Ate (the female version of the word Kuya) chose to be in-charge of another set of cousins while Kuya Kulet became in-charge of me and my brother.
And for some reason that memory stuck to me because he sorta stuck to it. Whenever we played games, he often pick me on his team, even though I wasn’t the best at running or at anything. It became automatic that it felt weird if I was not on his side. And because he was older, taller, wiser, faster, he would always be the leader, call the plays, and sets up how things went down.
I remember he got so into WWE particularly The Ultimate Warrior, and he would organize pretend Royal Rumbles among us cousins, delegating roles for each us. I was to be Mr. IRS the guy who brought a briefcase around. And Kuya would of course come in his face fainted with the Warrior mask, his skinny arms and legs, adorned with colourful straw strings, just like his idol.
We went to the same high school but he had already graduated by the time I was there, but I remembered him explaining that the reason prom night was banned forever was because his batch contributed to the spike of the population rate on the night of the last one ever held in our school.
He was a big fan of Basketball, and I will always remember the sound of him and Ate watching Purefoods games with their dad. They would react to great shots and bad calls so loudly I would jump startled at their shouts from next door.
My favourite are of course our Christmas Eves together where all of us would spend December 24, playing games in front of our house, exchanging presents, and when we became old enough to drink spend the night singing karaoke until the sun came up.
He taught me how to properly pour beer in a glass so it won’t foam up and spill out my glass, he says the trick was in the tilting of the glass. I can’t help but cry at the memory of him making fun of how I just keep using the ice to dilute the alcohol saying I was cheating them out of getting drunk with that trick. I wasn’t really, I just really wanted to lessen its bitter taste.
There are also memories of Kuya in trying times, as kids I will always remember walking past their house and saw him being scolded by our grandma for quitting being an altar boy at church. Or like the day his dad died and found him silently crying outside their door. I remember his face how he was trying to keep it together when his daughter needed surgery as a baby. Or the night our whole compound caught fire, how he tried to brave the fire and try and save some of our stuff.
I remember him the next day after the fire, laughing about it
Life happened and so we all went our separate ways making our own families. Kuya married his long-time girlfriend, and became the proud father of three kids. I am testament of what a great father he was, because for some serendipitous turn of events, we both found each other abroad in Oman.
Me as you know as a trailing spouse, and him like many Filipinos making the ultimate sacrifice to live away from his family and find work in another country. We only saw each other a few of times in Muscat as I was doing my thing as a Diplowife and him working in a pastry shop. But once in a while I would drive to their store and he would treat me to brunch, or I would pick him up to my house where he would do laundry in my washer.
And it was there when we got some chance to talk some more, and he would tell me about his kids, how they are, what he would like for them, his worries, his work, and how he wanted to help our other cousins find work like him to help them support their families. I used to think those times a funny coincidence, how the two of us ended up in the same place out of all the places we could’ve been, but now I will think of those as precious memories with the older, adult versions of each other. My time with Kuya Kulet.
I still don’t know how to come to terms with his passing, to be honest I still can’t quite believe he is really gone. The last time I saw him, I helped him ship some of his stuff in Muscat few days before he flew back to Manila. It was a happy parting as I too was getting ready to leave a couple of months later, so I was sure I was going to see him again. Never did it occur to me that was the last time…
Ed Sheeran’s song keeps ringing in my head right now, the only thing I could tell myself to understand why this happy, fun, older brother/cousin, friend, father, and all around good person had to be taken from us.
“Maybe you were needed up there, but we’re still unaware as why…”
Ma miss kita Kuya Kulet, salamat sa lahat…