The woman has apparently just risen from her wheelchair and her companions seem to be urging her to take a few steps forward. But ever so gently: You feel love pervading the tight little scene as you walk past it on this Sunday afternoon at the UP Oval late In January, when the sun’s rays slant through gaps in the canopy of trees preparatory to its setting, the amihan administering a soothing touch.
Of such vignettes are late Sunday afternoons made on this estimated 2.2-kilometer stretch of land on campus on which converge runners, walkers, lovers, besties, whole families, along with couples bearing their toddlers or fur babies, gray-haired folks on a constitutional, stroke survivors and their caregivers… You blend in from a side street after parking the car somewhere far. You go with the flow, but keep alert against photobombing those recording their steps or their thrill at being back in the university (you’ll recognize balikbayan anywhere), and, as in the scene just past—a woman apparently recovering from illness, likely a stroke, her husband and two sons anxious for her to walk on her own steam again, her nurse pushing the wheelchair out of her path—are mindful not to stare and intrude into their moment between the Engineering building and the Beta Way.
Still you mentally wade into their privacy as you walk away from them and hit your stride. You wonder about their circumstances: perhaps a worry-free past upended by present realities and a future made uncertain by health issues. You realize she is not a young woman wearing a loose dress and a brace on her left leg, and neither as youthful is the man who appears to be her husband. Therefore, you surmise, keen on arranging details coherently in your mind’s eye, the two boys barely into their teens are their grandsons, by their body language bewildered by an early signal of mortality in a loved one, and determined to reset.
You recall another apparent stroke survivor, by his crew cut and his bearing possibly a military man, walking arm in arm with a woman dressed in scrubs, a backpack slung on her right shoulder. You saw them often in 2023—once observed them in the parking area, with him getting into the driver’s seat of his car (a bright note in the scenario, you thought, indicating that he had not entirely lost control of his mobility)—but not yet in this new year. You beam up a thought of hope: that the Sunday walk has merely lost its urgency and been stricken off his to-do list.
But not everything is a cause for concern in this Sunday ritual. Good old “Pop-Pop” (your code for the stocky elderly gentleman who makes a regular appearance walking briskly on the center line) is now grumpily coming at you on counterflow. Children testing newly discovered footing are underfoot, their tickled parents capturing their progress on vid. Other kids no longer wobbly are sallying forth on tiny bikes; a boy maybe only four years old makes like a future Evel Knievel (not that their young parents even know of that long-ago daredevil who constantly challenged gravity).
The runners—male, female, non-binary—are admirable whether whizzing by or modestly jogging, quickly receding from view as you, distracted, note the stalls offering chichiria near the UP Theater. The patrons are many, from their behavior quite appreciative; two men who stopped to check out the merch resume their fast walk bearing their loot: fishballs drenched in spicy sauce.
You muse on the contradictions offered by the ubiquity of junk comestibles in a supposed wellness routine but are careful not to gawk at the gleefully munching crowd. Careful, too, to avert your eyes from strolling couples whose clasped hands and mingled auras announce their happiness at being present each to each in the here and now—the object of songwriters at every time and place: “I’ve never been in love before/ I thought my heart was safe/ I thought I knew the score/ But this is wine/ That’s all too strange and strong/ I’m full of foolish song/ And out my song must pour…” You give them proper distance. As you give respectful leeway to a slow-moving old lady and her nurse as you turn the corner, throw a backward glance at Plaridel Hall, and head toward Admin, where the Oblation is decked out in a not-immediately-comprehensible protest artwork and thronged by visitors in various stages of photo ops.
Marshals stand at strategic points. They block adult bikers unaware (or maybe not) that like motor vehicles they are banned from the Oval on weekends and, with an outstretched arm, direct the parties to the next available turn from the area. Or, on patrol on motorbikes, they track down dog walkers and point them and their wards to the sidewalks. (You did not know this, and now make a mental note that all fur babies, whether Fifi the French poodle or Rambo the Great Dane, may enjoy the afternoon on their designated route.) These, or at least the incidents you have witnessed, are no big deals, resolved quietly and courteously, minus the spectacle attendant to bigwig recalcitrants on public roads.
The sun is fading as you pass the Faculty Center. From the looks of it, the building is almost fully rebuilt from the ruins to which it was brought by a Task Force Alpha fire on April 1, 2016. But for each and everyone forced to endure it, the collective loss is doubtless still inconceivable in its immensity.
You quicken your pace past Palma Hall’s famed AS Steps, which are besieged by trippers who will shortly flood IG with their memories. While sidestepping the merrymakers and measuring your breath—inhale calm, exhale (hah!) anxiety; repeat—you espy someone with the build, the stance, and the tilt of the head of an old flame. Oh, man, you address the indifferent Universe, not now, not when it’s uncertain if he, like yourself, is still crazy after all these years. You hurry past BA, trot past Educ and toward Vinzons’ in an effort to put a bit of distance between you and the scene of an early crime, when your idea of resolving a problem was to take angry flight.
Meanwhile, the sunken garden is in the throes of a soccer match, and families are encamped on the elevated areas with food, drink and loud music.
It’s said that a salutary way to engage in walking is to literally disengage: to empty your mind of all thoughts and focus only on your breathing, the necessity of it, the rhythm of inhaling through the nose, filling the lungs with air, holding till a certain count, and then exhaling gradually through the pursed mouth. Easy this Sunday afternoon, having quickly recovered from a flustered moment, you think you are getting better at concentrating on breathing and unfocusing your gaze. But past the Law building and off the Main Library you recognize the woman’s husband holding her leg brace and walking toward you on counterflow with one of his boys, apparently homeward bound; he looks unhappy. Somewhere behind him, dodging clumps of runners, walkers, snackers and slackers, bobbing in and out of your vision through a man’s treasure of balloons on sale, the woman advances seated on the wheelchair pushed by her nurse. Her grandson walks alongside, holding her hand.
Suddenly exhausted, you decide to call it a day. What was it Bernard Malamud said? “Tomorrow the world is not the same as today, though God listens with the same ear.”