She came in every Monday and Wednesday. Or Tuesday and Thursday. Perhaps it was Friday and Saturday. The details did not quite stick with me, but I knew that every now and then, she’d appear at our house. Of course, I had barely noticed, what with my constant flitting in and out of the door to go to school or run errands or hole up in my room. I barely realized it, but she was there.
Her name is Gina. She came in two mornings a week to help with laundry and clean up around the house. It was two years after we moved into our new home when she began working here. It was the beginning of 2015, and an incredibly hectic period of my life. I was preparing for college applications, writing mini-thesis papers, and training for my high school varsity. I was out of the house in the morning with a quick slice of toast in hand, and back home after the sun had gone down.
Throughout this time, she was always just there. Sometimes we would cross paths in the morning as I was leaving and she was coming in, and a quick hi was exchanged without much thought. I had so many things to do.
One morning, toward the end of our academic year, I got sick on a Tuesday. With a high fever and a runny nose, I resigned myself to stay in. No one else was when I woke up that morning – mom was doing errands, dad was at work, sister was in school – so I went downstairs to pour myself a cup of warm water.
Sitting at the dining table, I heard a voice “Wala kang pasok, Alex?”
It was Gina, checking up on me from the next room. I was surprised she had known my name, given our very sparse and very brief encounters. I went to the laundry room where she was working and said hi.
It was only on that morning – after three months of seeing her – that I really got to know the woman who so frequently visited my home. She told me all about her family. She was a mother of two kids – 12-year-old Jason and 3-year-old Angela. Angela loved to study. Jason just loved to play DoTA. Her husband, Eugene, was a carpenter who every now and then helped my dad work the house. She told me she was scared of our dog at first – but eventually had grown to like her.
I told Gina about my troubles, and she told me about hers. She mentioned about how she was worried her son did not want to go to school anymore. She told me that she was worried about her daughter, who insisted every morning that she’d be okay taking the tricycle home after school. She told me she missed the province, but that opportunity was better here.
I could not help but keep on listening. As sick and tired as I was, I felt the need to hear her story, to be there for her. I offered her words of comfort, she offered me tips on how to cure a sore throat.
That morning, I experienced her as face. It was in that moment that she asked me “Wala kang pasok?” that I truly saw her. I felt guilt for never reaching out beforehand. I convinced myself (with a hint of rationalization) that it was because I was simply too busy. Deep down, I realized that I was too absorbed in my own affairs that I neglected to give time and pay attention to those around me. The ethical command – the plea of this particular other – had gone right by head.
From that point on, instead being self-absorbed, I began to pay more attention to the people in my life. True to Levinas, I felt a responsibility for the other that I could not ignore. Whenever I saw Gina, either during our fleeting morning greetings or on the occasional stay-home day, I made sure to ask “kumusta?” and say goodbye with “ingat.” I made sure to ask if she had enough to eat – to offer something she could bring home to Angela and Jason. Whenever I baked a batch of cookies, there were some set aside for her. Up until now, she still comes in every Tuesday and Saturday. I make it a point to talk to her every chance I get.
That Tuesday morning, I experienced the other as face – as someone to take care of without expectation of reciprocity. No one deserves to simply be in the background.