Notes & Essays

Martial Law Baby

In "Leaving Baby," Earnest Mangulabnan Zabala writes about what it's like to grow up an orphan of Martial Law.
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Leaving Baby

 

I have always imagined it to be a unanimous decision: that moment when my activist parents decided to “give away” their baby daughter for safekeeping.

I imagine their shared glances as soon as they heard Martial Law declared on the radio; they must have immediately known what to do, as if the past year of rather idyllic life—her teaching at the local public high school, him tinkering around the house while looking over the newborn baby—was more of a respite from the struggle they had come to embrace head on.

All it must have took was one look. My mother must have hugged my nine-month old self; I see her gazing longingly at my sweet, innocent face. So many questions must have crossed her mind: When will I see her again? Will she remember us when the time comes? What if we don’t make it? Who will teach her how to blow her first birthday candle?

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Had I known that I would grow up without seeing them ever again, I would have willed myself to consciousness and defied the logic of biology. I would have memorized her face, captured the lullaby he always sang to me at night and find a way to imprint her on my skin. Had I known my family would end up waiting for that welcome knock that never came, I would have done so much more. Alas, what can a baby do except coo when quieted and cry when hungry and tired.

 

They knew as student activists themselves what was asked of them. After all, that was how they met and fell in love with each other—at a university march protesting the mounting injustices of Mr. Marcos. What Martial Law giveth, Martial Law taketh away, I often say. 

It must have been decided long ago—this inevitability. Maybe as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Maybe they fooled themselves for a while that it wouldn’t come to this—their young family torn asunder.

But they knew. They knew in their hearts what went on in the country. They had listened and helped organize their neighbors against those who sought to remove them from their land and livelihood. They knew as student activists themselves what was asked of them. After all, that was how they met and fell in love with each other—at a university march protesting the mounting injustices of Mr. Marcos. What Martial Law giveth, Martial Law taketh away, I often say.

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This I know to be the truth: My mother toyed with the idea of bringing me with them in hiding. But Tatay put his foot down. It would not be safe for the baby. It would not be safe for their underground group.

It took them a day to gather their meager belongings. The rest that couldn’t be packed for the baby or that they themselves could not carry were left behind to be divided among family.

From Bataan, it was a clandestine trip to Tarlac, Tarlac, where a favorite half-sister of his lived. They chose the time well, around dinnertime to avoid the stares of neighbors who always seemed to lurk nearby.

I know as a mother myself that my mother heart broke into tiny pieces when she finally handed me over. And that she probably wondered when she would be whole again. Maybe she wished briefly for a country that would let her stay and be a mother to her child. But she knew that her country needed her, needed them. That it was up to them to make sure that children like me would grow up in a just society.

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My father hugged his wife, sandwiching their oblivious baby girl. I see him letting go of a sob that emanated from the pit of his stomach. He would miss this small ball of joy that had been his constant source of happiness ever since he heard the news that they were expecting. All of 23 years old, he mustered all the courage he had learned from his father to bid her daughter goodbye.

I know that they never looked back, afraid that they would change their minds and stay. And while each step away from me seemed heavier than the last, they must have tentatively smiled at each other. They had hope in their hearts. One day, they thought, they would see me again: maybe in two years, maybe in ten. They would be victorious. For my sake, they would prevail.

This piece was originally published in the December 2016/ January 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made from the original.

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Earnest Mangulabnan Zabala
wife, mother, and activist.
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