I woke up in the middle of the night as I felt someone was trying to shake the couch I had been sleeping. It could have been the three glasses of Coke that made my nerves awake and kicking. It could have been the bad news that haunted me in my sleep. Or it could have been Uncle Sam.
I looked around the living room. I saw the chair where he spent most of his naps. Whenever he slept on the chair, he stretched his legs and placed them on the table. As I remembered how Uncle Sam slept in the living room, I could not make my eyes shut and my body rest. I left the couch and continued thinking of Uncle Sam in my bedroom.
My family had always looked forward for Uncle Sam’s visit because he was a ‘balikbayan.’ If loosely translated, ‘balikbayan’ meant someone who lived abroad and came back to his country. When I was a little girl, ‘balikbayan’ meant chocolate and dollars. As I added another year in my life, ‘balikbayan’ meant having someone for a short time and not seeing him for a long time. From that last definition, indeed, he was a ‘balikbayan.’
Though my Uncle Sam had worked in America for almost all his life, he did not have lots of money as other Filipinos who worked as nurses and doctors in the States. He chose to be a minister in a small city in Kentucky. At the same time, he worked as an agent in US Chamber of Commerce to support his financial needs. He had lived all by himself in a mobile house. He rode his bike to town in the mornings and had his breakfast in McDonalds. We could have thought how lonesome it was to live in a land with no relatives, no wife, no children of his own but Uncle Sam had stayed in the United States for fifty years.
In all his vacations in the Philippines, he made sure he had something to give whenever he visited home. He always gave me money even if I never asked. He sent me greeting cards and inserted cash. Sometimes, he brought home a box filled with Kentucky key chains, souvenirs, pencil holder, toothbrush, tooth paste, mouth wash, music box or anything he could think of. He was one of most thoughtful men I had in my life because I had not known another man who would pack some goods in a ‘balikbayan’ box for his relatives.
He wrapped us with his bear hugs. He called me, “Ms. Belo” with his loud and commanding voice. As I grew up, I found my title name “Ms. Belo” special and endearing. He would spy on us with his tape recorder. I probably inherited Uncle Sam’s gene. We both liked to talk with the tape recorder and loved hearing our own voices. He also did not run out of jokes. He was very cheerful. His laughter was contagious. His smile was the kind of smile that I would want to see everyday. And even if he weren’t my uncle, I would still love him for the joy he shared. He had so much energy. Before I rose from my bed, he already had a sip of coffee and brought home bread for our breakfast. He liked to walk around. He was comfortable going to Tacloban’s downtown without our company. He traveled around the three big islands of the Philippines by bus though he could afford to ride a plane.
Last December, he came back to attend my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. He was recording his vacation through his tape recorder. He did not know that his tapes would soon serve as memorabilia. Our wedding photographer had been quite reluctant in taking pictures. I did not even have a solo picture. But, among my relatives, Uncle Sam was present in almost all my parents’ wedding pictures. He sang with his four brothers and his sister, “How Great Thou Art.” The song number left the audience with teary eyes. And today, people cry harder than before while watching their performance on video.
Last Sunday, he preached about the feeding of 5,000 people in Matthew 14:3. He showed two fish and five loaves of bread on the pulpit. The members of the church glued their eyes and ears to Uncle Sam and laughed when he cracked jokes in between his sermon. He shook hands and exchanged smiles with the brethren. We had our family lunch in a restaurant. He insisted on paying the bill. He could have thought that it was the last opportunity that he could treat us in a restaurant. At six o’clock, he attended the evening worship even if he was starting to feel ill. During the closing prayer, he was about to fall. By the end of our evening worship, his fever was raging.
The next day, he slept the whole day in the living room. Well, we thought he was sleeping. He could hardly walk. Somewhere near his right ankle hurt. My parents gave some remedies for arthritis. He was trying to make the most of his sleep that he pushed the glass on the table while he stretched his legs. When he was sleeping, I did not know what came into my mind but I checked how he was breathing. I knew it had nothing to do with his foot pain. I came near him. And I felt guilty of thinking the possibility, he might stop breathing. I was relieved when I saw his stomach moved up.
Two Bible students came in to interview Uncle Sam for class assignment. They came at the right time to get a piece of advice from Uncle Sam. They knew he was leaving for the States on the next day. They knew that it was their last chance to have an interview with Uncle Sam but they did not know it was the perfect time.
For the second time, my Uncle Sam gave all of us money. My nieces would soon have a new cell phone. I could afford to repair my personal camera while my parents and my brother were amazed at his extraordinary generosity. But we did not know we were going to spend it for his funeral.
We had our dinner in my brother’s house. We took two family pictures with Uncle Sam. During that time, a little voice whispered on my head to take more pictures of our dinner. Yet, I failed to do it.
He started his sleep in the chair. Then, he was kneeling while he was going to his bedroom. We offered help but he said he could manage. We guided his way till he reached his bedroom. Later on, he smiled and asked, “Hi Jacklyn, can you get me a glass of water?” I brought him a glass of water but he refused. He preferred a plastic cup because he might break it.
The following morning, my dad heard my Uncle Sam groaning in pain. He made attempts to put his foot on the table while he slept on the chair but he could not. He moved down to the chair. On the floor, he continued his sleep and extended his legs. My brother suggested that he should not fly to Manila but he said he could not postpone his trip to the US. Before he left our house, we prayed together for his trip. My dad wept as he prayed. If he knew what would happen next, he would not just cry but moan in his prayer. I kissed Uncle Sam goodbye on the cheek and he returned me a smile. And today, I’m glad i kissed Uncle Sam goodbye. On the airport, he was on wheel chair. His brother met him in Manila airport.
The next day, he was brought to the hospital because he could no longer bear the pain. He was in the Intensive Care Unit. The doctors found out that the pain on his foot was due to infection. His foot infection caused septicemia, blood poisoning. They gave him antibiotics to stop it from spreading in his body. His brother and his sister were with him. He said to his brother, “I haven’t slept for seven days.” On his death-bed, he carried a Bible with him and said to his younger sister, “I will see you again.” At around 6:30 in the morning, God called him back to his real home.
What happened was like a dream. He was here a few days ago and now he is gone. How come a man, who never had been in the hospital, had a fatal infection? It is hard to believe that he did not die with old age but he died with septicemia, which can be a disease for a twenty year old or an eighty year old. My family had a series of questions but the answer boils down that it was God’s will.
His life and his death became an inspiration to everyone. When news came out, testimonials for Uncle Sam flooded in Facebook. We heard story of a woman who once dreamed, as a girl to have Uncle Sam as the officiating minister in her wedding. Her dream came true and Uncle Sam even led the funeral service for her husband. We learned he taught kids in church. We saw the people he baptized and helped. Now, we know why Uncle Sam had second thoughts of retiring in the Philippines. He touched a lot of lives in the US. While American missionaries came here to share the gospel in the Philippines, a Filipino came there to preach the word of God. He was loved not only here, but across the globe.
I am going to sleep again in the living room. Even if it’s my imagination or not, I hope he will shake my couch and let him sleep in so that he can still be at home with us. But, I know he has a better home up there. A place where there are no bacteria, blood and tears.