Faith, Love, Time and Dr. Lazaro


By: Gregorio Brillantes

From the upstairs veranda, Dr. Lazaro had a view of stars, the country darkness, the lights on the distant highway at the edge of town. The phonograph in the sala played Chopin – like a vast sorrow controlled, made familiar, he had wont to think. But as he sat there, his lean frame in the habitual slack repose took after supper, and stared at the plains of night that had evoked gentle images and even a kind of peace (in the end, sweet and invincible oblivion), Dr. Lazaro remembered nothing, his mind lay untouched by any conscious thought, he was scarcely aware of the April heat; the pattern of music fell around him and dissolved swiftly, uncomprehended. It was as though indifference were an infection that had entered his blood it was everywhere in his body. In the scattered light from the sala his angular face had a dusty, wasted quality, only his eyes contained life. He could have remained there all evening, unmoving, and buried, it is were, in a strange half-sleep, had his wife not come to tell him he was wanted on the phone.

Gradually his mind stirred, focused; as he rose from the chair he recognized the somber passage in the sonata that, curiosly, made him think of ancient monuments, faded stone walls, a greyness. The brain filed away an image; and arrangement of sounds released it… He switched off the phonograph, suppressed and impatient quiver in his throat as he reached for the phone: everyone had a claim on his time. He thought: Why not the younger ones for a change? He had spent a long day at the provincial hospital.

The man was calling from a service station outside the town – the station after the agricultural high school, and before the San Miguel bridge, the man added rather needlessly, in a voice that was frantic yet oddly subdued and courteous. Dr. Lazaro had heard it countless times, in the corridors of the hospitals, in waiting rooms: the perpetual awkward misery. He was Pedro Esteban, the brother of the doctor’s tenant in Nambalan, said the voice, trying to make itself less sudden remote.

But the connection was faulty, there was a humming in the wires, as though darkness had added to the distance between the house in the town and the gas station beyond the summer fields. Dr. Lazaro could barely catch the severed phrases. The man’s week-old child had a high fever, a bluish skin; its mouth would not open to suckle. They could not take the baby to the poblacion, they would not dare move it; its body turned rigid at the slightest touch. If the doctor would consent to come at so late an hour, Esteban would wait for him at the station. If the doctor would be so kind…

Tetanus of the newborn: that was elementary, and most likely it was so hopeless, a waste of time. Dr. Lazaro said yes, he would be there; he had committed himself to that answer, long ago; duty had taken the place of an exhausted compassion. The carelessness of the poor, the infected blankets, the toxin moving toward the heart: they were casual scribbled items in a clinical report. But outside the grilled windows, the night suddenly seemed alive and waiting. He had no choice left now but action: it was the only certitude – he sometimes reminded himself – even if it would prove futile, before, the descent into nothingness.

His wife looked up from her needles and twine, under the shaded lamp of the bedroom; she had finished the pullover for the grandchild in Bagiuo and had begun work, he noted, on another of those altar vestments for the parish church. Religion and her grandchild certainly kept her busy … She looked at him, into so much to inquire as to be spoken to: a large and placid woman.

“Shouldn’t have let the drive go home so early,” Dr. Lazaro said. “They had to wait till now to call … Child’s probably dead…”

“Ben can drive for you.”

“I hardly see that boy around the house. He seems to be on vacation both from home and in school.”

“He’s downstairs,” his wife said.

Dr. Lazaro put on fresh shirt, buttoned it with tense, abrupt motions, “I thought he’d gone out again… Who’s that girl he’s been seeing?…It’s not just warm, it’s hot. You should’ve stayed on in Baguio… There’s disease, suffering, death, because Adam ate the apple. They must have an answer to everything… “He paused at the door, as though for the echo of his words.

Mrs. Lazaro had resumed the knitting; in the circle of yellow light, her head bowed, she seemed absorbed in some contemplative prayer. But her silences had ceased to disturb him, like the plaster saints she kept in the room, in their cases of glass, or that air she wore of conspiracy, when she left with Ben for Mass in the mornings. Dr. Lazaro would ramble about miracle drugs, politics, music, the common sense of his unbelief; unrelated things strung together in a monologue; he posed questions, supplied with his own answers; and she would merely nod, with an occasional “Yes?” and “Is that so?” and something like a shadow of anxiety in her gaze.

He hurried down the curving stairs, under the votive lamps of the Sacred Heart. Ben lay sprawled on the sofa, in the front parlor; engrossed in a book, one leg propped against the back cushions. “Come along, we’re going somewhere,” Dr. Lazaro said, and went into the clinic for his medical bag. He added a vial of penstrep, an ampule of caffeine to the satchel’s content’s; rechecked the bag before closing it; the cutgut would last just one more patient. One can only cure, and know nothing beyond one’s work… There had been the man, today, in the hospital: the cancer pain no longer helped by the doses of morphine; the patients’s eyes flickering their despair in the eroded face. Dr. Lazaro brushed aside the stray vision as he strode out of the whitewashed room; he was back in his element, among syringes, steel instruments, quick decisions made without emotion, and it gave him a kind of blunt energy.

I’ll drive, Pa?” Ben followed him through the kitchen, where the maids were ironing the week’s wash, gossiping, and out to the yard shrouded in the dimness of the single bulb under the eaves. The boy push back the folding doors of the garage and slid behind the wheel.

“Somebody’s waiting at the gas station near San Miguel. You know the place?”

“Sure,” Ben said.

The engine sputtered briefly and stopped. “Battery’s weak,” Dr. Lazaro said. “Try it without the lights,” and smelled the gasoline overflow as the old Pontiac finally lurched around the house and through the trellised gate, its front sweeping over the dry dusty street.

But he’s all right, Dr. Lazaro thought as they swung smoothly into the main avenue of the town, past the church and the plaza, the kiosko bare for once in a season of fiestas, the lam-posts shining on the quiet square. They did not speak; he could sense his son’s concentration on the road, and he noted, with a tentative amusement, the intense way the boy sat behind the wheel, his eagerness to be of help. They passed the drab frame houses behind the marketplace, and the capitol building on its landscaped hill, the gears shifting easily as they went over the railroad tracks that crossed the asphalted street.

Then the road was pebbled and uneven, the car bucking slightly; and they were speeding between open fields, a succession of narrow wooden bridges breaking the crunching drive of the wheels. Dr. Lazaro gazed at the wide darkness around them, the shapes of trees and bushes hurling toward them and sliding away and he saw the stars, hard glinting points of light yards, black space, infinite distances; in the unmeasured universe, man’s life flared briefly and was gone, traceless in the void. He turned away from the emptiness. He said: “You seem to have had a lot of practice, Ben.”

“A lot of what, Pa?”

“The ways you drive. Very professional.”

In the glow of the dashboard lights, the boy’s face relaxed, smiled. “Tio Cesar let me use his car, in Manila. On special occasions.”

“No reckless driving now,” Dr. Lazaro said. “Some fellows think it’s smart. Gives them a thrill. Don’t be like that.”

“No, I won’t, Pa. I just like to drive and – and go place, that’s all.”

Dr. Lazaro watched the young face intent on the road, a cowlick over the forehead, the mall curve of the nose, his own face before he left to study in another country, a young student of full illusions, a lifetime ago; long before the loss of faith, God turning abstract, unknowable, and everywhere, it seemed to him, those senseless accidents of pain. He felt a need to define unspoken things, to come closer somehow to the last of his sons; one of these days, before the boy’s vacation was over, they might to on a picnic together, a trip to the farm; a special day for the two of them – father and son, as well as friends. In the two years Ben had been away in college, they had written a few brief, almost formal letters to each other: your money is on the way, these are the best years, make the most of them…

Time was moving toward them, was swirling around and rushing away and it seemed Dr. Lazaro could almost hear its hallow receding roar; and discovering his son’s profile against the flowing darkness, he had a thirst to speak. He could not find what it was he had meant to say.

The agricultural school buildings came up in the headlights and glided back into blurred shapes behind a fence.

“What was that book you were reading, Ben?”

“A biography,” the boy said.

“Statesman? Scientist maybe?”

It’s about a guy who became a monk.”

“That’s your summer reading?” Dr. Lazaro asked with a small laugh, half mockery, half affection. “You’re getting to be a regular saint, like your mother.”

“It’s an interesting book,” Ben said.

“I can imagine…” He dropped the bantering tone. “I suppose you’ll go on to medicine after your AB?”

“I don’t know yet, Pa.”

Tiny moth like blown bits of paper flew toward the windshield and funneled away above them. “You don’t have to be a country doctor like me, Ben. You could build up a good practice in the city. Specialized in cancer, maybe or neuro-surgery, and join a good hospital.” It was like trying to recall some rare happiness, in the car, in the shifting darkness.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Ben said. It’s a vocation, a great one. Being able to really help people, I mean.”

“You’ve done well in math, haven’t you?”

“Well enough, I guess,” Ben said.

Engineering is a fine course too, “ Dr. Lazaro said. “There’ll be lots of room for engineers. Planners and builders, they are what this country needs. Far too many lawyers and salesmen these days. Now if your brother –“ He closed his eyes, erasing the slashed wrists, part of the future dead in a boarding-house room, the landlady whimpering, “He was such a nice boy, doctor, your son…” Sorrow lay in ambush among the years.

“I have all summer to think about, “ Ben said.

“There’s no hurry,” Dr. Lazaro said. What was it he had wanted to say? Something about knowing each other, about sharing; no, it was not that at all…

The stations appeared as they coasted down the incline of a low hill, its fluorescent lights the only brightness on the plain before them, on the road that led farther into deeper darkness. A freight truck was taking on a load of gasoline as they drove up the concrete apron and came to a stop beside the station shed.

A short barefoot man in a patchwork shirt shuffled forward to meet them.
I am Esteban, doctor,” the man said, his voice faint and hoarse, almost inaudible, and he bowed slightly with a careful politeness. He stood blinking, looking up at the doctor, who had taken his bag and flashlight form the car.

In the windless space, Dr. Lazaro could hear Esteban’s labored breathing, the clank of the metal nozzle as the attendant replaced it in the pump. The men in the truck stared at them curiously.

Esteban said, pointing at the darkness beyond the road: “We will have to go through those fields, doctor, then cross the river,” The apology for yet one more imposition was a wounded look in his eyes. He added, in his subdued voice: “It’s not very far…” Ben had spoken to the attendants and was locking the car.

The truck rumbled and moved ponderously onto the road, its throb strong and then fading in the warm night stillness.

“Lead the way, “ Dr. Lazaro said, handing Esteban the flashlight.

They crossed the road, to a cleft in the embankment that bordered the fields, Dr. Lazaro was sweating now in the dry heat; following the swinging ball of the flashlight beam, sorrow wounded by the stifling night, he felt he was being dragged, helplessly, toward some huge and complicated error, a meaningless ceremony. Somewhere to his left rose a flapping of wings, a bird cried among unseen leaves: they walked swiftly, and there was only the sound of the silence, the constant whirl of crickets and the whisper of their feet on the path between the stubble fields.

With the boy close behind him, Dr. Lazaro followed Esteban down a clay slope to the slope and ripple of water in the darkness. The flashlight showed a banca drawn up at the river’s edge. Esteban wade waist-deep into the water, holding the boat steady as Dr. Lazaro and Ben stepped on the board. In the darkness, with the opposite bank like the far rise of an island, Dr. Lazaro had a moment’s tremor of fear as the boar slide out over the black water; below prowled the deadly currents; to drown her in the dephts of the night… But it took only a minute to cross the river. “We’re here doctor,” Esteban said, and they padded p a stretch of sand to a clump of trees; a dog started to bark, the shadows of a kerosene lamp wavered at a window.

Unsteady on a steep ladder, Dr. Lazaro entered the cave of Esteban’s hut. The single room contained the odors he often encountered but had remained alien to, stirring an impersonal disgust: the sourish decay, the smells of the unaired sick. An old man greeted him, lisping incoherently; a woman, the grandmother, sat crouched in a corner, beneath a famed print of the Mother of Perpetual Help; a boy, about ten, slept on, sprawled on a mat. Esteban’s wife, pale and thin, lay on the floor with the sick child beside her.

Motionless, its tiny blue-tinged face drawn way from its chest in a fixed wrinkled grimace, the infant seemed to be straining to express some terrible ancient wisdom.

Dr. Lazaro made a cursory check – skin dry, turning cold; breathing shallow; heartbeat
fast and irregular. And in that moment, only the child existed before him; only the child and his own mind probing now like a hard gleaming instrument. How strange that it should still live, his mind said as it considered the spark that persisted within the rigid and tortured body. He was alone with the child, his whole being focused on it, in those intense minutes shaped into a habit now by so many similar instances: his physician’s knowledge trying to keep the heart beating, to revive an ebbing life and somehow make it rise again.

Dr. Lazaro removed the blankets that bundled the child and injected a whole ampule to check the tonic spasms, the needle piercing neatly into the sparse flesh; he broke another ampule, with deft precise movements, and emptied the syringe, while the infant lay stiff as wood beneath his hands. He wiped off the sweat running into his eyes, then holding the rigid body with one hand, he tried to draw air into the faltering lungs, pressing and releasing the chest; but even as he worked to rescue the child, the bluish color of its face began to turn gray.

Dr. Lazaro rose from his crouch on the floor, a cramped ache in his shoulders, his mouth dry. The lamplight glistened on his pale hollow face as he confronted the room again, the stale heat, the poverty. Esteban met his gaze; all their eyes were upon him, Ben at the door, the old man, the woman in the corner, and Esteban’s wife, in the trembling shadows.

Esteban said: “Doctor..”

He shook his head, and replaced the syringe case in his bag, slowly and deliberately, and fastened the clasp. T Here was murmuring him, a rustle across the bamboo floor, and when he turned, Ben was kneeling beside the child. And he watched, with a tired detached surprise, as the boy poured water from a coconut shell on the infant’s brow. He caught the words half-whispered in the quietness: “.. in the name of the Father.. the Son… the Holy Ghost…”

The shadows flapped on the walls, the heart of the lamp quivering before it settled into a slender flame. By the river dogs were barking. Dr. Lazaro glanced at his watch; it was close to midnight. Ben stood over the child, the coconut shell in his hands, as though wandering what next to do with it, until he saw his father nod for them to go.

Doctor, tell us – “Esteban took a step forward.

“I did everything: Dr. Lazaro said. “It’s too late –“

He gestured vaguely, with a dull resentment; by some implicit relationship, he was also responsible, for the misery in the room, the hopelessness. “There’s nothing more I can do, Esteban, “ he said. He thought with a flick of anger: Soon the child will be out of it, you ought to be grateful. Esteban’s wife began to cry, a weak smothered gasping, and the old woman was comforting her, it is the will of God, my daughter…”

In the yard, Esteban pressed carefully folded bills into the doctor’s hand; the limp, tattered feel of the money was sort of the futile journey, “I know this is not enough, doctor,” Esteban said. “as you can see we are very poor… I shall bring you fruit, chickens, someday…”

A late moon had risen, edging over the tops of the trees, and in the faint wash of its light, Esteban guided them back to the boat. A glimmering rippled on the surface of the water as they paddled across,; the white moonlight spread in the sky, and a sudden wind sprang rain-like and was lost in the trees massed on the riverbank.

“I cannot thank you enough, doctor,” Esteban said. “You have been very kind to come this far, at this hour.” The trail is just over there, isn’t it?” He wanted to be rid of the man, to be away from the shy humble voice, the prolonged wretchedness.

I shall be grateful always, doctor,” Esteban said. “And to your son, too. God go with you.” He was a faceless voice withdrawing in the shadows, a cipher in the shabby crowds that came to town on market days.

“Let’s go, Ben” Dr. Lazaro said.

They took the path across the field; around them the moonlight had transformed the landscape, revealing a gentle, more familiar dimension, a luminous haze upon the trees stirring with a growing wind; and the heat of the night had passed, a coolness was falling from the deep sky. Unhurried, his pace no more than a casual stroll, Dr. Lazaro felt the oppression of the night begin to life from him, an emotionless calm returned to his mind. The sparrow does not fall without the Father’s leave he mused at the sky, but it falls just the same. But to what end are the sufferings of a child? The crickets chirped peacefully in the moon-pale darkness beneath the trees.

“You baptized the child, didn’t you, Ben?”

“Yes, Pa.” The boy kept in the step beside him.

He used to believe in it, too. The power of the Holy Spirit washing away original sin, the purified soul made heir of heaven. He could still remember fragments of his boyhood faith, as one might remember an improbable and long-discarded dream.

“Lay baptism, isn’t that the name for it?”

“Yes,” Ben said. I asked the father. The baby hadn’t been baptized.” He added as they came to the embankment that separated the field from the road: “They were waiting for it to get well.”

The station had closed, with only the canopy light and the blobed neon sign left burning. A steady wind was blowing now across the field, the moonlit plains.

He saw Ben stifle a yawn. I’ll drive,” Dr. Lazaro said.

His eyes were not what they used to be, and he drove leaning forward, his hands tight on the wheel. He began to sweat again, and the empty road and the lateness and the memory of Esteban and of the child dying before morning in the impoverished, lamplit room fused into tired melancholy. He started to think of his other son, one he had lost.

He said, seeking conversation, If other people carried on like you, Ben, the priests would be run out of business.”

The boy sat beside him, his face averted, not answering.

“Now, you’ll have an angel praying for you in heaven,” Dr. Lazaro said, teasing, trying to create an easy mood between them. “What if you hadn’t baptized the baby and it died? What would happen to it then?”

It won’t see God,” Ben said.

“But isn’t that unfair?” It was like riddle, trivial, but diverting. “Just because..”

“Maybe God has another remedy,” Ben said. “I don’t know. But the church says.”

He could sense the boy groping for the tremendous answers. “The Church teaches, the church says…. “ God: Christ: the communications of saints: Dr. Lazaro found himself wondering about the world of novenas and candles, where bread and wine became the flesh and blood of the Lord, and a woman bathed in light appeared before children, and mortal men spoke of eternal life; the visions of God, the body’s resurrection at the end of time. It was a country from which he was barred; no matter – the customs, the geography didn’t appeal to him. But in the car, suddenly, driving through the night, he was aware of an obscure disappointment, a subtle pressure around his heart, as though he had been deprived of a certain joy…

A bus roared around a hill toward, its lights blinding him, and he pulled to the side of the road, braking involuntarily as a billow of dust swept over the car. He had not closed the window on his side, and the flung dust poured in, the thick brittle powder almost choking him, making him cough, his eyes smarting, before he could shield his face with his hands. In the headlights, the dust sifted down and when the air was clear again, Dr. Lazaro, swallowing a taste of earth, of darkness, maneuvered the car back onto the road, his arms exhausted and numb. He drove the last half-mile to town in silence, his mind registering nothing but the frit of dust in his mouth and the empty road unwinding swiftly before him.

They reached the sleeping town, the desolate streets, the plaza empty in the moonlight, and the huddled shapes of houses, the old houses that Dr. Lazaro had always known. How many nights had he driven home like this through the quiet town, with a man’s life ended behind him, or a child crying newly risen from the womb; and a sense of constant motions, of change, of the days moving swiftly toward and immense revelation touched him once more, briefly, and still he could not find the words.. He turned the last corner, then steered the car down the graveled driveway to the garage, while Ben closed the gate. Dr. Lazaro sat there a moment, in the stillness, resting his eyes, conscious of the measured beating of his heart, and breathing a scent of dust that lingered on his clothes, his skin..Slowly he emerged from the car, locking it, and went around the tower of the water-tank to the frotyard where Ben stood waiting.

With unaccustomed tenderness he placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder was they turned toward the cement –walled house. They had gone on a trip; they had come home safely together. He felt closer to the boy than he had ever been in years.

“Sorry for keeping you up this late,” Dr. Lazaro said.

“It’s all right, Pa.”

Some night, huh, Ben? What you did back in that barrio” – there was just the slightest patronage in this one –“ your mother will love to hear about it.”

He shook the boy beside him gently. “Reverend Father Ben Lazaro.”

The impulse of certain humor – it was part of the comradeship. He chuckled drowsily: father Lazaro, what must I do to gain eternal life?”

As he slid the door open on the vault of darkness, the familiar depth of the house, it came to Dr. Lazaro faintly in the late night that for certain things, like love there was only so much time. But the glimmer was lost instantly, buried in the mist of indifference and sleep rising now in his brain.

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