In search of solace

‘You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.’

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I STARED at it for about five minutes yesterday at one in the morning. An untitled painting that measures roughly 4 feet by 3, it was displayed on a private hospital’s wall on the third floor with a maelstrom of kaleidoscopic koi of divergent sizes swimming around an imaginary cylinder clockwise under a dark blue water. The artwork was strangely cut into half vertically and was hanging slightly slanted 15 degrees to the right. The others which boasted abstract flashes of colors and astronomic designs stationed at different sections of the corridor were not presented the same way. I was absorbed and drawn by it; its peculiarity intrigued me.

I was all alone, wide awake, sitting on a brown, foamy bench outside the capacious visitors’ room, where my mom was sleeping, just ten feet away from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). The breeze was frigid; it was raining outside. I was waiting for the doctor to come out of the ICU to check for an update on one of my brothers’ condition. He had a mild stroke while sharing a meal with his own family in their house in Cavite City, south of Manila. Coincidentally, I was on a three-day vacation leave for my birthday. But how would you celebrate your birthday knowing that your family is amid a crisis?

 “Kuya Jun Jun is in the hospital” my youngest brother Ronnel said. 

“Why?” I uttered. “What happened?”

“High blood, probably” he said. “He had seizure.” In a heartbeat, my mother and I swiftly stuffed our bags with clothes and toiletries like soldiers about to engage in a daring hunt in a deserted forest. 

It must be very serious, I said to myself.

“To a hospital in General Trias, Cavite” I told the first cab driver who halted outside our small, white gate when he inquired where we’re headed at around ten on a Sunday evening. “Please, it’s an emergency, sir.”

“I’m not going south” he answered. And just like that with one of the side windows still half-open, he hastily left.

A huge weight of our exasperation and distress vanished when the next cab driver accepted our pleas. He had brought us to a terminal in Pasay City where we instantly found a bus that took us to our destination.

While travelling, thoughts came rushing on my mind like bolts of lightning in a stormy sky: it’s kuya Jun Jun and our memories together. Yes, our late-night conversations about religion, spirituality, wisdom, mysteries, science and technology, work. His brilliance and depth on a range of topics is impeccable. Tears abruptly rolled down my face. My mother did not witness it. 

When we arrived at the hospital, my mother and I were met with stories on what had transpired earlier that day. Plates flying in the air. Chicken tinola splattering all over. Convulsion. Lips turning black. Eyes moving involuntarily. Wailing children. Panic. Chaos.

But Emergency Rooms, ICUs, Dialysis Centers, and others put everything in perspective. In those moments that you’re encapsulated by impenetrable brick structures painted white all over, everything boils down to that quiet conversation between you and God. The rest of the universe becomes irrelevant: traffic and scandals on EDSA, inflation, MRT woes, #MeToo, possibilities with the person you admire most, child abuse, fake news, typhoons, President Duterte, war on drugs, Facebook and Instagram, poverty, corruption, politics, education, South West Monsoon, career aspirations, a taxicab’s plate number. You forget about them like transitory slides in your memory not to invalidate their value but to solve and face what’s urgent. Maybe, it’s the brain’s natural response in emergency situations. 

You’ve probably been there before. You asked why and wondered why it all happened. Yes, why it had to be you or your family.

You know all the answers to these inquiries by heart, but still, there’s a strange, ineluctable sensation when you’re amid it all – existing, breathing, and convincing yourself to be brave in the challenge given to you. You’re reminded that this life is just a fleeting illusion; that you’re a humble traveler; and that this may come to an end in a snap. Today, you’re a towering figure of physique and fitness; tomorrow could be a different story. It’s not promised.

You hope. You say your prayer without anybody noticing. You reach out to a higher being in spite of all your flaws, faults, and shortcomings, Because the situation is beyond the grasp of your hands, of your humanity, of everyone who knows you.

Then, you pause. You can see the minute, fine details. Paths become clearer. Because you believe that everything happens for a reason. You try to make sense of the test you’re faced with. With the waves of life arriving from every direction, it’s facile to forget the essence of one’s existence. Sometimes, in order for us to be reawakened and to reevaluate our decisions, our steps, and our mindset, inexplicable events have to transpire. And right there, in the mist of confusion, doubts, and tears, is where we can only genuinely ruminate what we’re made of.

In the hit thriller movie, A Quiet Place, a family must live life in silence while hiding from sightless extraterrestrial creatures with hypersensitive hearing, indestructible armored skin and attack anything that makes noise. In parallel to the reality, there are monsters in life that we have to deal with whether we like them or not. We have no idea how they look like, their form, or how they would affect us, but to survive and get through them, we have to stick with our principles and with our loved ones as a unit with trust, courage, and faith. 

In the end, after I had convinced myself to stand in front of the painting and equably fixed it in its place, the doctor informed me that kuya was no longer in the critical state. I expeditiously thanked God for his help and mercy. Then, I took a second look at the painting and discovered that there was a total of twenty-eight kaleidoscopic koi swimming around the imaginary cylinder. To my astonishment, it’s the same number of years I just turned to carry across my name on a frigid morning on my birthday. A coincidence? I refuse to think so. For me, it’s an incalculable gift sent from heaven.

In my grief, I found solace.

Dear Kuya Manny: Please retire at 60

‘Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.’

Dear Kuya Manny,

In a true Filipino fashion, can I call you ‘Kuya’ since I’ve always seen you as an older brother? How are you? How are the bruises? I hope you’re recovering well.

I learned that you had another bout when my sister’s husband called and inquired about its result while we’re having lunch last Sunday.

“Have you watched the fight?” my sister asked while holding her smartphone. “Who won?”

“What fight?” I responded.

“The Pacquiao fight” she replied. “You don’t know?”

I paused for a moment not just because of cluelessness but also because every little reason why I stopped caring about any news about you all came back to me. The horror you single-handedly inflicted into my consciousness three years ago saw the light of the tunnel again. Piece by piece. Detail by detail. Pound for pound.

May 3, 2015. Sunday. “The Fight of the Century.” It’s you versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. SM Megamall Cinema 3. Pay per view. 2 tickets. I was sitting next to my younger brother Ronnel. The 12-round match has ended. Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced the winner. Cheers were replaced by sighs. Nobody wanted to leave the theater. We were shocked. “Is that it?” the old man sitting across me shouted in exasperation. We waited for the climax of the movie pictured mentally by hundreds of millions of fans all over the world: Mayweather, the nemesis – blank-faced, defeated on the canvas after being hit by you in a barrage of uppercuts and right hooks. It never happened.

No, it’s not that we lost that made it unforgettable. It’s the difficult truth hidden behind the curtain that consumed me. You made me despise boxing. The sport died for me on that day.

During a post-fight interview, you revealed that you had entered that fight with a pre-existing shoulder injury and then further injured that area during the fourth round of the contest. When I heard this, my heart wanted to explode. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I have been deceived with my two eyes wide open by you, the same man who had told in his pre-fight interview: “Don’t get nervous… I’m the one fighting, so relax.”

I watched every possible discussion that one can view online because of the hype everyone has poured for that momentous event. Boxing greats, analysts, and even superstars from other sports became involved and gave their take on who would emerge victorious. It was billed as the modern era’s Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali contest. But nobody saw it coming – the lie of the century.

Kuya, it was the first time in my entire life that I decided to buy tickets and watch a fight of yours on pay per view. I had watched all your previous fights on tv and on Youtube. To me and probably just like the million others around the world, it was an attempt to be part of history; to be able to tell myself decades later, if God will permit, that I was there with you in every blow, in every jab, in every hook. It was my humble way of supporting you. But again, I was wrong. You and your camp had a different view the entire time. The world expected a clash of titans with no injury report divulged to the public. Everyone assumed that you were at 100% or almost at the peak of your strength and so tickets have been sold out.

Kuya Manny, a few days after your Mayweather fight, I tried to convince myself that you had hidden the truth for the fight to not be postponed because the other camp might use it a reason to back out. I understand that you had been luring Mayweather for the fight to be realized for so many years. Is that more important than your integrity, reputation and dignity as a man? And just like that, you moved on from one fight to another as if nothing happened.

Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.

But who am I compared to your greatness? Why should I hold a grudge to you after everything that you’ve done? Is it too hard to forgive another human being and forget all the heartaches?

Whenever I see you in the news or whenever your name surfaces in my conversations with my colleagues and friends, I remember how you made me feel. You brought another exceptional dimension to the word “Filipino” in the international stage. You’re “The Filipino Pride” and “The People’s Champ” and you’ve shown the world what we’re made of.

Yours is a beautiful rags-to-riches story: a mighty warrior who became affluent because of his grit, passion, persistence, and determination. As a storyteller, I fell in love with it. Is it too much to ask for a story book ending in your part?

In his final NBA game, your good friend Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant astoundingly scored 60 points on 22 of 50 shooting against Utah Jazz in 2016. A number of spectators were standing and jumping in the Staples Center arena out of excitement. The mood was festive. Hollywood A-listers were in attendance. He was blessed with an epic ending which is rare for sports legends in history. He retired a winner. After bagging your 60th career win, you have the power to retire a champion.

At 2:43 of the 7th round, you convincingly showed the world what’s left in your tank after defeating the much younger Argentine boxer Lucas Matthysse by TKO and earned the WBA Welterweight title.

But just like a younger brother to his kuya, I hope you retire now from boxing and enjoy more time with your family and loved ones. I’m worried that you might seriously get hurt on your next fight and bid goodbye to the sport you’re passionate about because your mind and body have given up on you. I’m concerned about how your wife Jinkee, your kids, and mommy Dionisia would react if they’ll see you in an unspeakable state. You have nothing else to prove.

Also, please reach out to the LGBTQ+ community and all of those you have offended before. Embrace them with open arms and patiently search for the common ground for us to move forward. I believe you have the heart to spark a real change to the sufferings of our fellowmen. I pray that your health will be at its summit to battle against the more valuable, salient, and pressing issues and challenges that we face as a people in the future. Because your loss is our loss and your win is our win.

Finally, I hope you lend your ears this time.

Sincerely yours,

Ben

(Various versions of this piece appeared on The Sports Column, Read Boxing, Boxing Insider, and United States Sports Academy’s The Sport Digest in July, 2018.)