I became a grown-up at 16. When I was supposed to be just hanging out with my friends and not worrying about anything but school and crushes, I was looking for ways to pay the rent, the bills, and put food on the table.
It wasn't always like that, though. I had a relatively normal and happy childhood. My sister and I used to love dressing up our collection of Barbie dolls. On weekends, my dad almost always took my mom, my sister, and me to the movies or to a fast food restaurant. My family was really close.
The highlight of my life at home was my library. It isn't like what you might be thinking. It was just three shelves in my corner of the room I shared with my sister. The shelves were crammed full with all the fantasy, sci-fi, and suspense books I loved. That corner was my sanctuary, the place I would retreat to from the noise and chaos of the world outside.
I often found myself there after my mom died of breast cancer on my sister's eighth birthday. I was 11. It shattered us and very nearly destroyed my dad. But he held us closer than ever, and the three of us managed to survive.
Someone-anyone-should have warned us that that was just the tip of the iceberg. Then, I would have been more prepared for the other obstacle that was going to be hurled at us.
I was a high school senior and was in school finishing a math exam when my dad had an accident. He was about to cross the street, stepping off the curb behind a parked van when a speeding car lost control and slammed into the van, pinning my dad between the two cars. The impact crushed his legs, and the doctors had no choice but to amputate both at mid-thigh.
My dad stayed in the hospital for three weeks. He would've stayed longer because his doctor wanted him confined for at least a month for therapy, but we couldn't afford it anymore even if my uncle helped with the hospital bills. His help was a big relief because we had little savings left to tide us over until my dad could find another job. He lost his old one as a cameraman because the company couldn't wait for him to get better.
It wasn't that easy for my dad to find another job, though. Especially since he was in a wheel chair. And he wasn't that young, either. Employers would just look at his legs and ask about the accident. "Always the accident," my dad would moan at night when my sister and I were home from school.
A month had passed since my dad got home from the hospital. He still hadn't found a job, and our money was running out. I knew because when my dad had the accident, he told me to handle our money. I kept my growing worries to myself because I didn't want to alarm my dad or my sister. As far as they knew, our money was still enough to keep us afloat for two months, at least. There was actually still enough for about two weeks-not two months. That would cover our food, my dad's medicine, and our transportation fare to and from school. After two weeks though, rent was due, the water and electricity bills would come, and my sister had a field trip to Laguna for which she had to pay P500. I knew I had to do something.
I tried selling my watch and bracelet to pawnshops for extra cash, but no one wanted to buy them because they were of inferior quality, they told me. I tried to borrow money from each of our neighbors, but everyone seemed to be on a tight budget like we were. My uncle also had no extra cash because his wife had just given birth. I offered to do my classmates' homework for P10 per subject. It worked, but it still wasn't enough.
Of course, I didn't tell my dad any of this. He wouldn't have heard, anyway, because he'd become depressed and had isolated himself. He kept sending my sister to buy lotto tickets for him, hoping we'd become instant millionaires. It didn't seem fair that I was burdened with the task of having to be strong for our family. That was my dad's job. But I had no choice.
I was worried all the time that even reading my books in my tiny library didn't seem to be helping. And I was heartbroken when I realized I could make money from my books. I can't believe I even begged the lady at the second-hand bookstore to buy my books. She told me they only bought books by the bulk. Mine barely filled up a box. Finally, though, she bought them for P200. That bought about two-and-a-half days' worth of meals.
My sister saw my empty library and our empty kitchen cabinet and realized how hard-up we were. She told our dad, and that sent him into another phase of despair. I wanted to shake him and make him see he wasn't helping at all, but I thought I was just being selfish. It wasn't his fault he was in a wheelchair. Through it all, I barraged heaven with prayers.
Although I'd managed to ask our landlady for an extension on the rent, I still had to earn. I decided to quit school and look for work. My sister wanted to work as well, but I didn't let her. I knew how important education was.
I told so many lies the week I was looking for work. My dad thought I was still going to school because I left the house in the morning and returned home in the afternoon in my school uniform. I told interviewers I was 18 and tried to look the part with makeup I borrowed from our neighbor. I told my school principal I had to take care of my dad so I had to stop studying. I didn't want to let go of my scholarship (especially since I was graduating in four months), but was too proud to ask help from my school or charitable institutions.
It was only when I was looking for a job that I understood what I'd been reading in the newspaper about the increasing unemployment rate in Manila. I tried applying as a waitress, a salesgirl, a janitress, and everything else I could think of. But always, there weren't any openings, or I was competing for the spot with hundreds of other applicants. And if there were potential employers, they pulled back when they learned I wasn't even in college yet.
I'd go home from my job hunt dead-tired, with my self-confidence dragging on the ground. I didn't have enough money even for bus fare so I had to walk long distances. But I knew I had to put up a brave front for my family. All three of us had already silently acknowledged that our survival hung on my efforts. It was so frustrating and so frightening at the same time. My friends, noticing how irritable I had become, stopped coming by to hang out every weekend, as they used to do. It was just as well. I had no food or juice to serve them, anyway.
Finally, when we were four months behind in rent and utilities, when we were just living off hand-outs from kind neighbors and our parish church, I was given my chance. One of our neighbors told me about an opening in a new Internet café in our area. Though I didn't bother lying about my age anymore, the owners gave me the job of manning the place when they weren't around. I was supposed to be a part-time employee, but I begged them for a full-time job. After a while, they agreed. Only then did I tell my dad everything. I think that shook him from his trance. He slowly went back to being the father I desperately needed him to be.
I've been working for a year and a half now. And although I'm thankful for the income, I also resent the reason for my having to earn the income in the first place. I envy my friends who are already in college. I want to be as carefree as they are. I long to be able to afford to buy back my books and rebuild my library. I so wish to erase everything that had happened the past two years.
But then again, I look at myself and see how having to provide for my family has changed me. When before, I would carelessly buy a novel even if I had just bought one the day before, I now think a great deal before I spend for luxuries. I used to be too proud to ask for help. Now, I don't hesitate to ask for it when I know I can't do it alone. The kindness of other people can be overwhelming. So is the power of prayer. Right now, we're saving up to put up a small sari-sari store for my father to manage. And next year, I'm going back to school. I can't wait to be a kid again.
*name has been changed