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.

Waiting for and praying to Santa

‘In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith.’

WHEN I was little, there was one night my childhood friends and I have always waited for. Each year, on Christmas eve, we would hang a sock outside our windows before we go to sleep. I thought that if I’ll pray hard enough to Santa Claus, I would wake up on Christmas morning with my wishes and my dreams granted. And if I was good enough and if the hanging sock won’t be enough to contain all the candies and chocolates and toys that he’ll give out of his good heart, he would replace it with a magical bag with remarkable presents. It never happened. Worse, I thought that he was unfair.

After learning that one of my friends had received way better and more special gifts, such as Playstation and bicycle, than I did, I doubted his love and compassion. Shouldn’t he be considerate to everyone?

And then on the third year of patiently waiting to finally see him, to talk to him, and wondering why he made those decisions in the past, I discovered he doesn’t exist.

Covered in bedding, I stayed up until 3 AM. I stared outside the window in the lone room at the second floor of our house with my eyes partially open. It’s the 25th of December. And little by little my mother, who I thought was soundly sleeping next to me, moved closer to the window and slowly put something in the sock. In a cold Christmas morning, I have met my Santa. No, we did not talk and she did not notice me looking at her. I went to sleep and she embraced me.

This truth came to me as a surprise. But don’t we give Santa Claus, a portly, blithesome, white-bearded imaginary character – sometimes with spectacles – clothed with scarlet coat, too much credit?

Some of us tell our children that they should behave themselves if they want Santa to reward them with gifts on Christmas. While this motivates them to be more cautious and responsible about their actions, we lie to them. We make them believe on something that isn’t true, to a fictional man, who they thought has the capacity to know everything they did all year round to judge whether they are worthy or not. Why do we do this?

As a Catholic nation, we have been exposed to a culture copious with questionable teachings and traditions. From the true date of the birth of Jesus Christ to the manner by which we request saints to pray for our sins and transgressions, we’re deemed clueless. In a Catholic prayer titled Hail Mary, it said: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Again, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Doesn’t it mean that we ask Mary, the mother of the flesh of Jesus Christ, to pray for us? Isn’t there a disconnect between asking a dead person do something for the living? Can the saints help to alleviate our sins and intercede for us? Should we call on other names for us to be forgiven from the unrighteous acts we had committed?

Shielding kids from some truths they can’t process is one thing. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, of faith, and of God, it’s a deprivation of a valuable fact if we’re not going to teach them to directly offer their prayers and thanksgiving to the almighty Father in heaven and not to anybody else. In Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version), it says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Santa Claus with his sleigh lead by eight reindeers does not have the capacity to know what we’re doing but God does for His eyes are everywhere. In Proverbs 15:3 (NIV), it says: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”

If we’re to take God’s place for a moment, won’t we get jealous? Because instead of praising Him, the world, in vicious normalcy, replaced Him in the children’s young minds and hearts with an invented figure, a different name. Deuteronomy 5:7-9 (NIV) says: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”

Neither Paul nor Mary let another human being pray to them. The angels Gabriel and Michael also followed such principle in the Bible. How then can Santa hear our children’s prayers? Aren’t we observing centuries-old traditions for enjoyment, entertainment, and convenience even if we have no idea on their historical and factual background?

In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith. Gone are the days of being prisoners of the past. If we, the adults, the parents, and the grown-ups are not going to start this revolution deep within us and not stop ourselves from just following the flow without raising questions, who would?

And the recognition of that truth and path is going to be so much more significant to me than what any Santa can present whether he came down from a chimney or not on a cold December morning.

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)

A comeback story

Somewhere along the way you’ll get hurt.
Broken promises.
Failed relationships.
Frustrations from all angles.
To face these is inevitable.
But take heart.
What’s life if we get everything we want
and prayed for at the moment we
expected them to greet us?
Where’s excitement in not challenging
our limitations and weaknesses?
We’ve all questioned everything at one
point in our lives – our decisions,
our gifts, our value as a person.
But look at the one gazing at you from
the future – the stronger you.
You’ve gone through this before;
you can do it again.
Meaning breathes from tales of triumphs
and overcoming of odds.
Be a comeback story.

You

“With your presence, your warmth, I believe I can do great things; that I can reach my dreams with your help. I can’t imagine my existence without You.”

I CAN’T imagine life without You. I can’t imagine doing things just because I want to, or just because of my desires. I can’t imagine waking up each day without giving You thanks or remembering your goodness. With your presence, your warmth, I believe I can do great things; that I can reach my dreams with your help. I can’t imagine my existence without You.

Please talk to me every time, every second of my life. Please be patient with my shortcomings and mistakes. Please listen to my prayers, spoken or not. Please guide me always.

I hope to see You someday, to offer You everything that I have, my whole being. I hope to sing You songs and offer You thanksgiving in your paradise, in eternity.

I hope because you are God and I am not going to ask for anything else.

Dear Boy who’s named after Superman

Dear Boy who’s named after Superman,

From the moment
We laid our eyes on you
We imagined the great things
We’ll do together and we
Knew something was real:

You got us with your smile, Kent.

Every time we held you
Your warmth ruled us with
Pure, unpretentious love
A feeling that God has
Reserved for us.

You travelled with us, talked to us
In a language that at first we
Couldn’t understand
But the joy in between us
Bridged the gap.

We were given two years to enjoy
Each other’s company
It was a short time
We will surely miss you.

We’ll miss how you stare at us
How you tried to mimic how we speak
How you embraced us with
Your soft, tiny arms
How we held hands when
You had your first walk.

We’ll miss how an icing
Covered your face on
Your birthday and your
Dimples made our day.

We’ll miss your sincerity
Your voice, your peace
Your laughter in times of
Chaos and celebration.

We’ll remember you for all these
For the adventures that
We shared together.

And everyday we thank God
For meeting you
For witnessing your
Extraordinary journey.

You will always be our Superman
Our little boy with an imaginary
Cape made from heaven.

Love you always,
Your family