I was only a year older than Pao. In our primary years, we were best friends-slash-cousins. Her mom would always recount stories of the little us smuggling little things under our blankets to play with when his Yaya was not looking. She would call us hooligans back then, innocent rebels sneaking in a slice of chocolate bar then deviously denying the crime with chocolate smudged on our teeth and outlined around our fingernails.
Our favorite game would be an indoor hide and seek.
“Isa…dalawa…tatlo…,” I would grab the blanket…, “apat…lima…anim,” and hug my knees to fit myself in, “pito…walo…siyam,” I would not dare make a sound…, “sampu!” Pao the seeker would look around the room, rolling his eyeballs. “Huli ka!” he shrieks, triumphantly tugging the blanket and exposing the hider. All afternoons are spent playing blanket hide-and-seek. Our room is the playground. We roll on the bed, snatch pillows and box stuffed animals. But sometimes we stay at our porch and watch our cousins chase each other around the chico and mango trees. On some occasions, I join their games too but then I would have to leave Pao on porch. I would ask him for approval and he would always return a nod.
They call it cee-pee or short for cerebral palsy. Her mom says that it was caused by the excess water on his head when he was born. When the water was removed, it caused the loss of his basic locomotor skills.
Imagine a bloated head being shrunk by a water-absorbing injection.
Like a Martian drinking Alice’s potion, he reduced to normal size.
On my observations, cee-pee is a multi-faceted condition. I remember seeing one on TV where a child constantly stammered but he could write his thoughts comprehensively. There was another one who could move his legs and feet with the help of metal braces wrapped around his legs. It was connected to a pair of leather shoes custom-fit for him. My cousin could only stand still with heavy-robotic like braces. His speech is clear and distinctive, although not fluent. But he cannot write. It was one of his biggest frustrations back then. He sneers at his therapist when he cannot get the letter “P” in his name right. He would always attempt to write his name every therapy session but goes home only with smudged hands and scarred heart.
Looking at my cousin, cerebral palsy disables a person to make basic movements, such as eating, walking, and writing. It takes over the tiniest muscle and vein. Pao has recurring muscle take-overs that his doctors refer to as paninigas or the sudden toughening of his muscles, unyielding to any movement. His face would twitch to the farthest angle his mouth would reach and fingers would clasp into a firm fist. In every occurrence, his strength is doubled, like that of a full-grown man. His Yaya would try to calm him by placing a spoon on his mouth with stern incantations of “Pao, relax lang. I-relax mo ‘yong katawan mo.” I sat along, bewitched by the scene. He was like a madman taken over by some brute force, forbidding him to move according to how he wants to.
This is an every day ceremony of calming spells, a spoon as its magic wand, and solidified potions of prescribed drugs. He was suddenly an altogether different person.
Pao has the same daily routine except for Saturdays. Saturdays are for therapies where I could also get to come with him to the hospital. The Children’s Hospital in Banawe, Manila pictures the carefree and grotesque innocence of childhood. The lobby blandly smells of infant milk, spilled chocolate, and fresh-from-the-fast-food fried chicken. Children and parents gravitate towards a franchise kiosk of Mister Donuts inside. Parents constantly walk in and out of the hospital hand-in-hand with their children plastered with warped smiles, red, soggy eyes and a band-aid taped on their arms.
The hospital walls display an amusing dolls-around-the-world collection owned by the Dra. Fe del Mundo, the hospital’s owner and incubator’s inventor. Were they once the hospital’s naughty children?
Before the therapy session, we would meet his pediatrician whose office is filled with stuffed animals, mascots of children’s medicines, and assorted candies. They started talking about things I can no longer understand. There was something about straightening Pao’s knees, adding names of medication like Valium which they say is a strong one, and having an exercise routine atop the large, transparent ball. I was excited about his every therapy because I get to play with him inside the therapy room. I make friends with the therapists inside whose uniforms are printed with animals and random cute forms.
The therapy room is the playground for special children like Pao. The ceiling corners are outlined with the alphabet as if they were in a regular classroom. I can distinguish an autistic from an ADHD patient from someone else who also has the same condition as him. It was a one-to-one therapy session. There is a therapist-special child pair in every corner of the room. One was teaching a child the proper handling of a pencil, the other instructs an autistic four-year old to return the wooden blocks to their container.
Pao’s session for the day includes an electric gel massage for his arms and legs. They say they are for relaxing the muscles. They attach soft peso-sized electric nodes to certain points in his body to monitor the flow of electricity being transmitted to him by a heavy and brown machine crammed with red, green, and yellow little blinking lights. The therapist would constantly twitch and turn the buttons until voltage adjustments are final.
The therapist spreads a bluish transparent gel into his arms and legs. A handy cylindrical apparatus connected to the machine would be used by the therapist to massage Pao’s muscles in a circular motion. From then the muscles limply surrender to the voltage applied. Occasional jolts yield faint surprise sounds from him but relief replaces fear in his eyes. I once tried these electric nodes on. Electric waves are like lumps running around the veins which give a soft and ticklish surprise.
It would normally take two to three hours to complete a session. By then, he would be done by lunchtime. Wheeling away from the therapy room, he bids his therapists goodbye with a perfectly controlled smile. His therapist would smile wearily in return but with understanding.
Years went by and Pao grew but his cee-pee still holds him back from many things. He grew a soft line of mustache and there were pimples niched on his forehead. His voice dropped low with occasional pitch breaks. He outgrew his wheelchair so they built him another one although his legs were practically the same, brown and bony from lack of use only that they are longer now. He still cannot stand but his leg braces were removed. I, on the other hand, grew tall enough to not fit a blanket. We spent less and less time playing. Our other cousins became occupied with school projects and I moved to a college in another province.
Whenever I get to go home on weekends, I still see him seated on the porch. He does not have weekly therapy schedules now because they said that his medicine would suffice. I would drop by for a moment to listen to his updates. His new yaya teases him with his crush. Pao would blush and twitch a little on his seat. “Ikaw ah,” I would say. After a few minutes of chat, I would say goodbye and he would return his nod with a mustached smile. I had to go and he could only stay.