Wednesday, August 15, 2007

the eyes of a father

It was like the old times. My high school friend and I chatted animatedly about politics and business. Our conversation swung from being highly contemplative to mildly perky. He related his experiences when he supervised the construction of mobile phone towers in war-torn Mindanao (Southern Philippines), how the rebels in the boondocks demanded that his team of civil engineers pay revolutionary taxes to be allowed to continue their construction; how they were forced to hire gun-wielding rebels as workers; and how one of them actually discovered a murdered man on the site. There was even one instance when one of his colleagues, also an engineer who spoke Bisaya (local dialect widely spoken in Mindanao), overheard two armed boys talking:

“Can you shoot the guy working on top of that tower?”

“And what would I get if I did that?”

“I'll give you a pack of cigarettes”

The engineer, horrified at what he had heard, spoke to them in their own dialect and offered them one pack of Marlboro each in exchange for his colleague's life. The boys, fortunately, readily agreed and left.

I said he was lucky he didn't perish there. He had tried to blend in, he said. He had worn shorts and faded shirts at work so as not to attract undue attention to himself. That was just a minor inconvenience he had endured so that he could return in one piece to his wife and hyper-active little daughter in Manila.

We proceeded to speak about the economy, corruption in government (sorry for being redundant), businesses we could put up, and the unimplemented law that requires the demolition of buildings older than thirty years. He spoke in a quiet voice, still with his familiar lisp. He was more articulate than he had ever been. Despite his lack of sleep, his mind was still clear. Such conversations are best accompanied by clinks of beer bottles and punctuated by crisp laughter. This time, however, I was merely gulping water from a transparent plastic cup and he sipping coffee, our smiles were dry and somber for we were seated in front of the tiny coffin of his four-month old son. Wreaths of flowers, two mass cards, and an inflated Dalmatian dog swamped the white, gold-trimmed coffin, making it look grotesquely puny in their midst.

“Look at his eyes,” he said, pointing to a large picture of the boy on top of the coffin. “Those are the only parts of his body that weren't punctured by tubes at the hospital.” The boy's eyes stared back at us in all their innocence. They were big and bright but they didn't sparkle with dreams yet. They never had the chance to.

This was the only time I sort of missed my friend's corny jokes, for which he had been infamous way back in high school. We used to pull our collars up to our foreheads to conceal our faces, in mock shame over his horribly corny retorts. We even coined the adjective “belty” in his honor. This was in reference to the Circum Pacific Belt, the string of underwater trenches and volcanoes in Asia, which we were studying in geography class at that time. He undoubtedly oozed with the corniest lava there was.

“The doctors told us that 85 percent of those who have this condition survive. My son was part of the 15 percent who didn't. He put up a good fight, though. I knew he did.” He stared blankly at the coffin, a faint, sad smile twisted on his lips. I didn't really want to speak about his boy as I knew that he had told the story to every visitor at the wake ten million times already. It's hard enough to go through the experience once, it's horrible to relive it repeatedly in a narrative. But he didn't stop talking so I silently listened, my eyes involuntarily drawn to the ribbons pinned on the coffin's lid. There is consolation in giving shape to grief through words.

“We did some research on the net regarding his condition,” he continued. “In a way, we were prepared for whatever would happen. I'm not sure if our own research scared us more or prepared us further. All we knew was that we didn't want to give up. We won't just sit around and watch him slip away like that.”

He was unusually calm and composed, enunciating every word with clarity. Would that I have the same fortitude to face sorrow. It wasn't helpless resignation that I saw in his eyes. It was brave acceptance. The kind that one sees in the eyes of a soldier who knows he is about to die and yet pushes on, valiantly. A lost cause is only arrived at by cowards.

“At least my son won't experience how grim this world is.” After having spoken about the government, brain drain, and unemployment, we both agreed that the boy had died blissfully unaware of how ugly the world is. But he would also be regrettably incognizant of how his father stood by his side every single step of his painfully short life; how he clasped his tiny hands and whispered prayers into his ears; how he marveled at his (the boy's) bright eyes in those rare moments when he actually opened them at the hospital.

I was wrong. This was not like the old times. This was something else.



At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

lucid and heatbreaking.

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Rey said...

Losing a child is just unimaginable for me. I am a father too and I feel the man's pain.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger rebel_heart said...

heartachingly beautiful . i am so sorry for your loss . *hugs*

At 7:14 PM, Anonymous tutubi said...

such a dreadful place
just wish those people learn to live peacefully so development and progress will begin

At 1:06 AM, Blogger Abaniko said...

That's sad. At least the boy didn't suffer long. My thoughts are with the family, especially the dad.

At 2:38 AM, Blogger Jigs said...

I've always heard the line, a parent should never have to bury their child. It's really a sad thing to comprehend.

I admire your friend for his great courage and deep love for his son. I've rarely seen the same brave acceptance that you found in your friend because it's never easy to admit to something. It's much easier to deny.

My condolences to your friend and his family.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger aryo said...

Ahh, death. It's supposed to be one of the few constants in life, but it doesn't fail to tear our hearts. I guess one never really gets to prepare enough for eternal loss.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Sidney said...

Very sad. I am not sure I would survive the death of my son.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger slim whale said...

michael -- heartbreaking indeed. but he was so strong and I admire him for it.

rey -- i think this is every parent's worst nightmare

rebel heart -- his loss. seeing how strong he had been, i think it would be easy for him to move on. i hope.

tutubi -- i'm starting to think that peace is merely a utopian ideal. or maybe i'm just being pessimistic

abaniko -- yeah, that's also what I thought. if he lived, there's a possibility that he would be in a coma for life.

jigs -- exactly, it's never easy to admit to something, or in this case, to accept the inevitable without feeling cheated by fate.

aryo -- will talking about it more often help us prepare for it more? or is even the subject of death too horrible to be the discussed?

sidney -- me too, i don't think i would survive that.

At 10:13 PM, Anonymous bingskee said...

i can almost feel the pain..

At 5:50 AM, Blogger daniel palma tayona said...

how you wrote about the loss of friend is so beautiful and ironically sad. i suppose i speak for those who read your words when i say thank you for sharing them. however, and you have to forgive me on this, what struck me most is the "inconsequentiality" (i can't find a word for now so i invent one) of life as exemplified in the short conversation of the two armed boys. it made me wonder. it made me ponder...

oh well, thank you.

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Jap said...

hi slim. you're right. this is something else. we grow old and face the realities of life, both happy/sad and sweet/bitter.

i always ask myself if I'm ready to become an adult, after reading this i may have found my answer...nobody's ready. it'll just hit you and your coming-of-age story begins.

At 1:43 AM, Blogger slim whale said...

bingskee -- ...and that is not always a good feeling

daniel palma tayona -- yes, i agree. life, is indeed, inconsequential. it only finds its purpose in the hearts of those who love you. i'm sorry i had to share something so painful...

thanks so much for dropping by

jap -- wow, didn't realize that too, until you told me. thanks. i couldn't agree more. death has a way of banging us on the head and making us realize that, hey, this is life, live it while you still can.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger ie said...

how do i detach myself from this post? gawd. it's sinking deeper and deeper into me.

At 7:53 AM, Blogger slim whale said...

ie -- don't ask me, i haven't detached myself from it yet. :(


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