In this story, Brillantes confronts the most important questions of our lives as Christians: Does God exist? If so, what is the nature of God? I remember Tim telling me that Brillantes succeeds in telling a compelling story because he never preaches or subverts. That he allows the reader to experience, rather than solve, the problem of God’s presence or absence.
The story is deceptively simple: An aging medical doctor and his young son are called in the middle of the night to minister to a poor family whose newborn baby has a terminal case of tetanus. The journey towards the family’s home, however, seems to take on a different level when it also becomes a spiritual journey, most especially for Dr. Lazaro, whose beliefs about and disbelief in God, faith, love, and time seem to haunt him with a pressurized intensity – and all because he sees a wide chasm between him and Ben, his son, in terms of how they see life: He has lost so much faith in God and life, while Ben – intent on becoming a priest – seems so infuriatingly fresh and positive.
He has also lost his faith because he has been a witness to countless, seemingly random deaths: There is a patient with cancer, whose racking pain even morphine can’t assuage anymore; there is the baby who is now dying from tetanus; but most of all, there was his eldest son who, we later learn, committed suicide. From the latter, the Lazaro family “died” to each other as well. It made the doctor focus mechanically on his job, just to forget the pain, and his wife became more immersed in religion than in family.
For Dr. Lazaro, what kind of God would allow pain? What kind of God would kill a baby? What kind of God would take away a son? Is there really a God? (Many of the students invariably answer that perhaps God allowed this to happen to test their faith. I happen to believe this as well, but I pose for them another gray area: “That may be true, but tell that to a dying man in excruciating pain, or to a father who has tragically lost his child. Sir, you are in pain because God is testing your faith. Seems cruel, isn’t it?”)
These questions are compounded by the images and symbols that are replete throughout the story – that of loss, distance, emptiness, and dark ominousness: “a view of the stars,” “the country darkness,” “the lights on the distant highway at the edge of town,” a “humming of wires, as though darkness had added to the distance between the house in town and the station beyond the summer fields,” “the long journey to Nambalan,” “the sleeping town, the desolate streets, the plaza empty in the moonlight.”
And being the quintessential formalist narrative, the story contains several symbolism understood best through close-reading.
There is, for one, the realization that Dr. Lazaro represents a kind of living dead. Besides the zombie characteristic invoked in the first paragraph, his name easily evokes the Biblical “dead man brought to life”: Lazarus. There are also the parallels of the baby and Dr. Lazaro – that while the baby has actual tetanus, Dr. Lazarus, on the other hand, has tetanus of the soul: “It was as though indifference were an infection that had entered his blood; it was everywhere in his body.”
He needs new life, we soon realize, and he needs to be resurrected from the dead. In a sense, his journey to Nambalan with his son becomes a journey in a quest for redemption – he has to save the body, to save an idea of himself and his place in the world.
But there is also that other metaphor: of God as a futile God. As a doctor, Dr. Lazaro heals, which is very God-like, if you think about it. In one scene, Esteban, the baby’s bewildered father, calls the doctor over the phone, like the prayer of a desperate man to God. The distance between Esteban and Dr. Lazaro, through the humming of the phone wires and the resulting bad connection, is a good metaphor for the distance between God and man. Can we call God? What if there is a busy signal? the story seems to say. But finally, Dr. Lazaro cannot heal the sick baby, who eventually dies –and we are left with this unsettling question: What does this say about the Great Healer?
And yet, by the end of the story, it is spirituality that saves. As the defeated Dr. Lazaro leaves the dead baby on the mat, he sees his son Ben, the hopeful priest-to-be, go to the baby’s side and give it the final sacrament of Extreme Unction. And he finally sees his darkness, and his son’s saving light.
Dr. Lazaro’s epiphany also becomes ours, but his quickly ends with abortive fear. In what is one of the most famous endings in Philippine literature.
“Like love, there was only so much time.”