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Tiyo Boboy — Uncle Boboy — died a month ago at my wife’s family home in Cebu, a sliver of a Philippine island just over 600 miles north of the equator. His kinamatyan — Cebuano for “wake” — is not the first that my wife has missed since emigrating to Maine to be with me nine years ago. She has lost Tiya Grace and Tiya Rito, too.

In the days following Tiyo’s death, my wife Facebooks continuously with her family. When work schedules and time zones allow, she joins the nightly recitation of the novena sa kalag — “prayer for the soul” — with relatives and friends gathered in front of Tiyo Boboy’s coffin.

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In the Filipino Catholic tradition, the dead are commemorated with nine days of prayer, but no kinamatyan can be sustained by prayer alone, and Tiyo Boboy’s is no exception. Mahjong games — illegal at other times — follow prayer. Conversations turn pointedly away from anything morbid. A videoke machine sits under the tambis tree for anyone moved to sing, and few there on Patrocinio de Maria Street are not.

A kinamatyan is equal parts lamentation, laughter, and song.

The author's wife's late uncle, Henry Getubig, whom they called Tiyo Boboy, in Olongapo City, Cebu.
The author's wife's late uncle, Henry Getubig, whom they called Tiyo Boboy, in Olongapo City, Cebu. Courtesy of the author

Despite being a decade younger than I am, my wife is considerably more conversant with death. While it’s clear that the Catholic rituals provide an efficient outlet for people’s grief, the most essential feature of the kinamatyan seems to be her very large family itself — and their ties to the broader community. Much like the mangrove swamp that cushions the coast from a typhoon’s storm surges, the infinite number of interactions, the web of stable relationships, make it impossible for any one loss to upend lives.

On the morning of the ninth day, Tiyo’s body is carried out of the upstairs sala and down the rickety stairs. But before he is transported toward a final mass at the church, the pallbearers lift his coffin high to allow family members to pass under it. The practice is believed to ease the passage of family members through the rest of their lives and to prevent other immediate deaths.

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My wife’s younger half-sister, Daryang, has asked us for help with a eulogy, and my wife, in turn, relays the request to me, without pushiness but in that subtly persuasive Filipino way such that I cannot possibly say no. She knows I have a knack and is not about to squander a good resource.

I had visited with Tiyo only once, more than six years ago, when, with our then-year-old daughter, my wife and I spent the month of June squatting at her cousin’s place on the beach overlooking the Bohol Sea. It was 95 degrees nearly every day and even proximity to the water offered little relief. At times, when the heat and the constant social demands of my wife’s large extended family got the better of me, I would sit quietly with a book and will the smooth coolness of the ground-floor tiles to seep into the soles of my feet.

But I was foolish to think I might get away with skipping even a single family meal. Tiyo Boboy would show up on his bicycle calling my name, bags of hot food suspended on the handlebars. In spite of his generosity, I could not stop myself from wanting to be alone.

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I protest mildly to my wife that I know nothing of Henry Getubig, of Tiyo. That I’m not qualified to write anything about the man. That his eulogy should be written properly, in Cebuano. She makes a show of understanding, but when she walks away, I can see that I have no choice.

I begin writing the eulogy as I begin writing anything, with a few exploratory words to locate pitch and feel, and soon, a paragraph takes shape in which I talk about my inadequacy to sing our uncle’s praises. But before long, I am surprised by a sudden squall of feeling and am convulsed at the edge of my bed, blowing my nose piteously into my daughter’s pajama pants.

The owner of the pants hears me and wanders in to ask if she can be of help, but I am fully in the grip of this now, and only finishing the eulogy will bring relief. Daryang will be reading my eulogy in a few hours. I keep going.

In the early morning, I am woken by a sound like steady, gentle rain — it is my wife, politely sobbing next to me. She is watching her relatives escort Tiyo Boboy down the nave of the historic coral fortress church for the final mass. Tiyo Gideon, on the soprano sax, plays Kenny G’s theme from “Dying Young,” scattering sparrows to the vaulted ceiling.

Now it comes to me. The squall that raked over me can’t have just been about Tiyo, though I was fond of him. Surely it was also, in equal measure, unexpurgated grief for my own brother, lost to us nearly a quarter century ago. Our small family had none of the infrastructure that my wife’s family has in spades. Unanchored by any network of support, we drifted, unmoored and separate, for years. We had no chance to duck our heads under the body of my brother — to break cleanly free of him — as my wife’s family does with Tiyo.

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Yet Tiyo Boboy is not finished with me. On the eve of the anniversary of my brother’s death, Tiyo appears once again at my door, with his gentle smile, calling my name and reassuring me that, not to worry, the eulogy was just right. Now I too can join my Filipino family and break free.

Durin Chappe is a carpenter and writer in Sullivan, Maine.