Stories Need To Be Told...
...lest they dissolve into oblivion.
There are moments that need to be captured and made eternal simply because there is a wealth of emotions and spirituality in them. Painting a picture with words is one of the ways to immortalize these for people who were not there and for the future generation.
This is my contribution....
Sunday, February 28, 2010
I had just done the Saturday afternoon show and I was anxious to finally start my weekend. It had been a gruelling week, what with half of the staff sick with one thing or another. Then the intercom buzzes and I am told someone is waiting for me at the lobby. Immediate disappointment. Who can it be? It can’t be good.
I see a man, in faded jeans, a t shirt that I was sure used to be white, but is now almost grey. He wore a tattered baseball cap, the color of which I cannot distinguish anymore. His rubber slippers were of the same kind but of different colors and of different ages, telling me, they were half and half of once used to be two pairs. His head was bowed and he held a small plastic bag. His skin was of coarse burnt chocolate, veins stood out his arms and I was almost sure his hands were heavily calloused.
The sight of him could be intimidating if you judge the mere appearance. But he looked up and immediately, I saw the pain in his eyes. My trepidation evaporated and my weekend plans faded into non importance. This man needed help.
The guard by the door signalled to him that it was I whom he was looking for. The man stood up and muttered something as he made some awkward gesture which I was not sure if he wanted to shake my hand or bow before me. He looked so lost.
I greeted and I asked him to sit back down as I sat myself down opposite him. I asked why he was looking for me. He reached into his pocket and pulled out remnants of what used to be a man’s wallet. It was empty, save for a faded picture and a piece of tattered and torn piece of paper. He hesitantly hands me the piece of paper, telling me he is a convict, discharged three days ago and the piece of paper was his discharge slip. He served nine years for killing a man – a cop. He digs out the picture and tells me it was his family. The name on the paper identified him as Adolfo.
This is his story.
Adolfo was 43 years old when I met him. I was 21. He comes from the province and he came to Manila 12 years ago in the hopes that he can make a better living here for himself and his young family, only to realize that life here is not what he thought it would be. Being raised with the principle of hard work, he persisted and finally ended up selling young coconuts (its meat and water), or buko, loaded up onto a wooden cart. For a while, it worked. It supported their food and the small shanty they rented.
Needless to say, it was no picnic-to constantly be exposed to the elements, pushing a big heavy cart, earning virtually mere coins. But he was happy. They were simple folks with simple wants and simple joys. Until the dark face of evil touched their lives in the form of a corrupt cop. He began charging Adolfo a toll fee so he can continue to peddle his coconuts without harassment. At first, he acquiesced. Even if it meant even more belt tightening, even more zeal to sell more, to earn more, pushing himself harder.
So this went on for a time, becoming a part of the routine. He started not to feel the sting of the extortion anymore. But then, two of three children fall sick, the rains come, lowering the demand for thirst quenching coconut water, making it harder to move around, most times finding himself drenched and cold.
He begged the cop to give him a break. He told him he would make it up another time, just that today, he needed whatever little he earned, for his two sick children. Plus he needed to get more coconuts so he can sell and continue earning tomorrow. This face of evil had no heart. He forces the man to give up his hard-earned money, threatening him with his service pistol.
Adolfo saw the gun. It flashed in front of his eyes just as the image of his two sick children, with his young wife beside them, replayed over and over in his head. His world seemed to topple on top of him. Everything went dark. Very dark.
When the darkness faded and lightness made its way back into Adolfo’s consciousness, he realizes the bolo (big knife used for agriculture) was dripping with blood, the cop, on the ground, lifeless. His breathing was calm. But his hearbeat sounded like thunder inside his chest. He realized right there and then, his life was about to end.
Killing a man is grave. Killing a man, who WAS a COP, was a death sentence, even before you go to trial. As he was arrested, he was beaten short of an inch of his life. His arraignment was postponed several times because the cops were hiding the fact that he was virtually paralyzed from all the beating he had gotten. When we healed enough to make it to court, the judge asked why he was in the state that he was in. His own lawyer told the judge he was beaten in jail. A lie, coming from his supposed defense attorney.
Position in society does afford some people expediency. He was sentenced 12-20 years. He said he never met with his lawyer so he never knew how he was defended.
He was rewarded for good behaviour so instead of the minimum 12 years, he was released only after nine. All he had in prison was a small battery operated transistor radio, and that was when he met me, on the air. He took note of the office address and kept it with him for 1 year. Immediately after he was released, he started walking and asking for directions as he crossed the metropolis via Highway 54 (now EDSA), from Muntinlupa to Quezon City.
Three days after he was released, he now sits in front of me.
I was young and not quite equipped yet to respond with immediacy to scenarios like this and I thank the heavens for somehow poking me back to reality and making me realize, this man ‘walked’ all the way here. He probably didn’t know where my station was, or he probably didn’t have any money. Probably both. I ask him whether he had eaten. He said he was ok. I asked when was the last time he ate. He said the night before. It was nearly 6 in the evening.
I sprung into action. Producing food and a drink. And when I handed it to him, he took it and began eating. Saying he was hungry would have been an understatement.
As he ate, I look at the piece of paper in my hands and I realize, this is the only proof this man had that he was released. By sheer bad luck and bad prison system, he may be picked up reported and his records may show only his sentence, making him an escapee of sorts because he had only served 9 of the minimum 12 in his sentence. So I excused myself and went to the office to make copies of the tattered paper.
When I came back, he had finished his food and he was sitting up and I could tell he was more alert now. I handed him his release paper plus two other copies. I held on to one. I told him, if ever something happens, if he loses his copies, that he is to contact me, because I was keeping another copy. I told him I was going to be a witness for him.
In an almost silent voice, he said “I knew I could count on you.”
This prompted me to ask, “Why me?” I was nowhere near any fame or fortune and the network I worked for certainly wasn’t the biggest or the strongest. He said he was surfing through the stations and he heard my voice. He said I was reporting from a calamity from Pampanga during the aftermath of the Pinatubo eruption. He said my voice kept breaking as I narrated how many people were devastated. He said, it was then he knew, I had heart and that I can actually care.
This made me start to cry but I wanted him to continue. I wanted him to tell me why he had come to me and how I can help him.
He told me, he hasn’t seen or heard anything from his family for eight years now. He said the first year, they came and visited him. But times were hard. The visits became fewer and farther in between. Then it completely stopped. Someone told him that his family went back to the province. He wants to follow them there. He had no means, no money, no nothing. He doesn’t even have any identification on him save for his release papers and he said he dared not use that for fear of being refused to board a ship or a bus.
After hearing this, I went back inside, consulted with my superior, made some phone calls. I then made a round on the skeletal force (it was Saturday) that was on duty, explained everything and asked for donations.
When I came back, I had the pledge of a big shipping company for a free ticket, P1,200 for Adolfo and some clothes. What he had in his plastic bag was all the possession he had in the world. A couple of t shirts, a couple of underwear and torn and tattered shorts, very much like what he was wearing. I gave him my duty jacket (I wasn’t supposed to because it was official issue and only for organic personnel, but I didn’t care for petty sanctions at that point), and a thin blanket that the staff uses for overnight duty.
I signed for the vehicle and the driver that was to take him to the shipping company’s office and gave him the letter, authenticating him as the person we had asked assistance for. They are also going to let him use their facilities for him to clean up and sleep at, because he sails for the province at noon the next day. The shipping company was also kind enough to assure us, they are going to take care of him, feed him and assist him all the way.
I hand him the money. He looks at me and he had tears in his eyes. He told me that it had been years and he doesn’t know how his family will accept him, if they will accept him or if he can even find them. He said his wife may have taken a new partner and he had been steeling himself for it. He said if that were the case, he will not hold it against her, and he will probably just let things be the way they are. He said he doesn’t know what the future holds for an ex-convict like him and that he is trying to take things one at a time. First, he has to let his family know he has gotten out. He has to know they are ok. The rest will follow.
As he stared at my business card, he looks up and seeks and engages my eyes. He asks, if ever there is nothing for him in the province, if he can come and serve ME instead.
I told him, he can come back to me and I promise to find some kind of work for him. I told him to just contact me.
Once again, he does that awkward movement that could have been a clumsy attempt at a handshake or a hug. This time, I didn’t have to think twice. I solved the dilemna and opened my arms for a hug. This big bulk of hardened man, a killer, collapsed in a sobbing heap. All his unspoken thoughts and feelings pouring out in the form of tears. He knew I understood, and that was all he needed. To reconnect. For someone to believe in him as a human. For someone to look at him as man, not a criminal.
Then he left.
Five months later, I get mail. It said he found his family and he found his wife still waiting for him. His children are still with them and has missed him so much. They have a small patch of land they now till and a few chickens and goats. He said life was good again.
At the end of the letter, he wrote...
“Maraming-maraming salamat po sa inyo, Mam.”
I said to myself, “No, thank YOU Adolfo, for renewing my sense of hope, for giving back the belief that there can still be happy endings, that I can still believe in the human spirit and the goodness each and everyone of us have inside us. Thank you.”
at 9:45 PM
Each woman, once she chooses to be wife, takes on a new challenge to shape a new chapter in her life. Needless to say, a part of her ceases to exist on her own, and instead start to compliment that of another person - her husband.
Stories have been written about ordinary women, who met extra ordinary challenges in their lives as wives. First ladies, Lady politicians, Astronauts, Engineers, Mothers of Quintuplets, Army Wives.
Allow me to tell the story of one army wife I met.
The meet up was in Cubao. As I sat there, waiting for her arrival, engaged in a lively chat with a friend, a part of my mind wondered how the meeting is going to be, this, for several reasons. First, she does not know me. Even in ordinary circumstances, she has every right to question my motives. Two, her husband is incarcerated. He is an army colonel, implicated in a failed coup four years ago. Due to this, she has been harassed, accosted, questioned and subjected to tortures I can only begin to imagine. Three, she has to be on the defensive, it's an absolute necessity for survival, for herself, her kids and her husband.
It was noisy at the coffee shop. Rambunctious teenagers were at their peak, because it was Friday and the place was literally jumping. And then I saw her.
Pale pink shirt, cargo pants, black bag, hair pulled clear of her face which was devoid of make up, except maybe, a thin coat of lipstick, and her teeth in braces. She greets my friend who is a very good friend to her and an ally to her husband. There was a brief introduction, she sits down and she starts talking. Small talk. How they have not seen each other for a while, how this and that person is, sometimes even talking in what I suspect was code or 'private speak'. She virtually ignored me.
For some reason, I didn't mind. I didn't feel awkward. I just waited.
Eventually, the talk drifted to a certain colonel, now running for office and the skirmish that happened between him and her husband, and the truth about how and why it happened. The facts revealed were shocking I couldn't keep to myself any longer and I started expressing my disgust and shock. This was when she started to acknowledge my presence. It was smooth sailing from there because the conversation flowed when I asked questions based on some of the things that I knew about the incident. It drifted to other related topics and the conversation started to become even more comfortable.
Between myself and the common friend, laughter and comical comments are inevitabilities. We find ways to laugh at even the most mundane things, as well as the darkest topics. That is no surprise. What the surprise that night was, that the Army Wife can out-laugh both my friend and myself, combined.
It was a warm sensation at the pit of my stomach to know this about her-that she has not lost humor and zest for laughter. Oh and she has quite a laugh. Her face lights up, her whole being comes alive and she laughs without care. Pure mirth.
My friend (who I think has one of the best instincts I know-she knows the perfect timing), finally hands the army wife the 'gift' from friends from afar. She murmurs a thank you, barely heard and I nod it off, not wanting her to feel embarassed. I murmured that I will tell the friends from afar.
My friend's mobile phone rang and I took the opportunity to say we should get something to drink lest we get kicked out of the place for occupying seats and she readily obliges me. As we stood in line to get our orders, she takes me by the waist and whispers, "thank you, ha?" I smiled and repeated what I had said earlier about carrying the message over to the givers. I also took this chance to ask if she would mind 'other' gifts, specially for her three daughters. Previously loved dolls and what not. Her response was quick and that was why it was easy to see it was from her heart. She said yes, yes of course, her daughters could use them....Pride and humility, in the face of trials. Admirable.
We order drinks and we go back to the table and from then on, it felt like all three of us were old friends.
More conversations, more laughter, more tears, anger, indignation, helplessness... friendship.
Then it was time to say adieau.
As we walk towards my car, more laughter about the craziest of things, then back to the grimness of her present reality. She says she is dropping by one of the still-open fast foods to buy her girls pasalubong. And it made me happy knowing the girls will be smiling and this Army Wife-Mom will be happy as she hands her pasalubong to her children. At one point she repeats her thank you, and I respond with the same response- I will tell our friends from afar...
We finally find my car and I drop them off near a fastfood chain, we say our goodbyes... with lightness in our steps and before she closed the door of the car... she said again.. "Thank you... Ingat..."
I drove off, feeling like my angel was happy with me. Feeling like my angels from afar will be happy too as soon as I tell them this story.
I come home, kiss my sleeping kids goodnight, marvel at how blessed I am and whispered a silent prayer of hope and wish.
"If ever You give me challenges in my life that will try my strength and resolve...make me like the women I have had the pleasure of being with tonight. Give me the same brand of strength You gave them, the same virtuosity, so that my kids, my husband and most of all You, would be proud of me and how I live my life through it. Bless them and mothers and wives like them. Bless the angels from afar that made this possible. Amen."
at 11:31 AM
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
My Grandmother came from a small village in a small town, in a small country in southeast asia. Born in 1922, she was raised in a way where everything is simple. I would think her life was made unique only by circumstances and not by her own doing. For one, her mother was 50, when she was born. The only child from a second marriage, she had three elder half siblings from her mother’s first marriage. The age gap was so wide that her siblings were old enough to be her parents, and so she ended up playing and growing up with her nephews and nieces.
She was a young wife when World War II happened and she learned very quickly to cope with the chaos, as her dashing young husband went off to fight with the Allied Forces. At the height of war, her mother died and she gave birth to her first child, a son. Fending for a living with a young baby was hard; she did all kinds of things; cooking, buying and selling merchandise, cultivating a small garden then peddling the produce, almost anything. One of my favourite stories about her was how she would sing for the Japanese Soldiers so they would let her pass through the checkpoints, with her merchandise.
Grandma was pregnant with their second child (my mother) when my grandfather was captured and imprisoned in a Japanese Garrison a few months before the war ended. My Grandfather was eventually freed, and life seemed to hold a promise for normalcy once again. But war left a ravaged country and times were hard. My earliest recollection of my Grandmother always puts her at some task. She was never really still. Always working and struggling to survive. She gave birth to four more children (another son and three more daughters). I was introduced to the phrase ‘turning night into day’ through her. Times were hard and they were poor. They had no property, the whole family floated around from one place to another, barely scraping by.
Through all these, my Grandmother didn’t change. The war, the possibility of being widowed, the hard times, giving birth six times – it didn’t poison her. I was her first grandchild and I remember her smile when my parents would bring me to her for a visit, or when she would come by our house from a day-long peddling of local delicacies. Her smile seemed to hide any tiredness, any woes from the day. She had this unique way of kissing. It was like a kiss-sniff, as only someone who deeply cares can do.
As time passed, I grew up, things happened, I saw less and less of my Grandmother. She fell one day and shattered her pelvic bones. The doctors didn’t recommend surgery anymore because she was old and not in the best of health. She was perpetually in pain. She never walked again.
We reconnected again in the last year of her life, a few months after my Grandfather passed away. By some twist of fate, I had to be there for her, because I was her eldest grandchild. And so, twice a week, I went to visit her. I’d endure the same stories over and over, while she endured the way I teased her. We shared jokes and sometimes she honoured me by telling me her heart’s unfulfilled secret wishes. Ironic enough I really began to know my Grandmother during her last days. I began craving her smile and I would do stuff just to squeeze one out of her. And one day while we were sharing a pack of crackers, and a good joke, I finally realized it. She may have been an old sick woman, but her smile was still that of the shy village girl from another time.
She grew sicker and weaker, and one morning, the dreaded call came, my Aunt Sonia wanted me to come immediately. The moment I stepped through the door, I knew, her time was indeed near. My Aunt, still trying to coax her into consciousness announced my arrival. My grandmother struggled to open her heavy eyelids, looked at me... and smiled. That same smile. Pure. Joy. Unpolluted. Untouched by the horrors and hardships of the world and of her life. Unaffected by her pains. Her last smile. And it was directed to me. She died a couple of hours later, surrounded by those who loved her the most.
In her last moments, she taught me a life lesson I will never forget. Happiness cannot be taken away , not without your consent. In the direst of circumstances, a smile can still give joy and hope. That a smile is a sincere ‘thank you’, without words, an ‘I love you’, in the absence of a tight hug. Her last smile, a smile she smiled for me, was all these things and more, and although I don’t think she was lucid enough to see me smiling back, I am certain she knew that I was.
at 8:51 PM
The sun was out and the atmosphere at the camp was ...peaceful. As we traversed the road where the Court Martial hearing was to be held, there was a tug at the heart as I saw a sprinkling of men and women in uniform. These are the men and women who would take up arms to defend you and I, should a threat be present – both foreign and domestic. These are the men and women who would lay down their lives so that you and I could live ours to the fullest. And then we arrive at our destination.
It was a wide compound, serene, grasses, trees, mini rolling hills. I could still smell the scent of morning for it was barely 9 am. After some rudimentary tasks of registering with the guards, etcetera, we proceeded to the back area of the one storey structure. There, the soldiers were.
Lounging about between two gazebos, in their complete camouflage uniform, proudly bearing the military division they belong to, and their names. Each one was jovial, warm in their greeting, albeit bearing an inquiring stance, as to who I am. Introductions were made and every other handshake was different. I was told early in life by a wise woman, for me to mind my handshakes because it is the first definition of who a person is, upon introduction. The best handshake, I was told, was the kind that was firm and unhurried. Confident. Well the handshakes of the soldiers were some of the most confident handshakes I have ever experienced. All of them, looked me straight in the eye as they said, ‘Good Morning, Ma’am.” None of them asked why I was there. They were far too disciplined to be as intrusive as that. But I knew they were going to slyly listen to me, if and when I chose to talk. They will know me through their own unobtrusive efforts.
Since the soldiers were detained in separate camps, they came in batches. Whenever a group would arrive, I detected a sense of quiet excitement among those that were already present. I realize then, moments like these are the only moments they get to be together again, in brotherhood. Moments like these are the only moments they are among those that understand them deeply. A few hours, and then they are yanked apart again. For four years, this has been the routine. It was amazing, how, simply by observing them, one can tell the mutual respect they had for one another. The military is notorious for the competitive rivalry between its divisions – the army, the navy, the air force. Well in that backyard, the only rivalry I saw was that of the best nature. Jokes and bantering, very much like what you would see between blood brothers.
After a little while, food arrived. Not a lot – pansit and chopped roasted chicken, and a big bottle or two of Coke. Now you have to understand, these are grown men. Some of the most well built men in uniform I have ever seen. But they helped themselves to the food in modesty- making sure there was enough for everyone. Even for me, a stranger who has her freedom and can eat as much pansit as she wants, whenever she wants. Selfishness is not something that belonged in that atmosphere. Chivalry was very much alive. No sooner than I find myself standing that I find myself being offered a chair, or a soldier’s seat being given up for me. Just because I am a lady, and they, the gentlemen.
More soldiers came. I read their names patched on to their breasts and unconsciously tried to remember as many as I could. There were salutes. Even in detention, rank is respected. Within this level of officers, rank is earned-the hard way, the only way.
There were bursts of laughter from time to time, letting me know that they were making the most of their time together to enjoy each other. Once again, I am struck by a thought. These soldiers, when they are on a mission, one of which they don’t know if they are coming out of-alive, when they are away from their wives and children, they are all the family they have. And I understand them just a little bit more. Their guards assigned them, were respecting their space. And for that, I was thankful.
Pictures were shared with one another. A soldier’s chickens he is trying to nurture and grow, a symbol of his desire to live a simple life. Revelations laid out on the table. A soldier is apparently already a grandfather. Guffaws. Loud pronouncements. Laughter. A solider performs a ‘magic trick’. The others try to figure it out. Life seems to be good. Nothing to give way to a tumultuous past and present event. Until someone from the one-storey building calls out and says, it was time to go inside. Court Martial was about to begin.
The movements were precise, obedient... in military terms – snappy. Within moments, everyone was inside. The lawyers positioned themselves on either side of the Court Martial Panel. On the left side, the prosecution. On the right side, the defense.
I turn my head towards the ‘holding area’. Scaffolding of sorts made to coral the soldiers towards the back. The soldiers were behind these make shift bars. Seated. Back straight. Chin up. Chest out. They knew I was leaving. I lifted a hand and waved weakly, some of them waved back. My heart cracked. It was murmuring to me as I walked out. They didn’t belong in the holding area. They didn’t belong in the detention cells.
They have sworn to a duty and in the performance of that duty did they end up here. Four years. Four years they can never get back. Four years they will never have again with their family.
Before, during, and even after the four years, they will still continue to bear the consequences of the actions they have chosen to take. But this morning, I see no trace of regret. Not a drop.
at 7:03 PM