Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Christmas Wish, the Christmas Promise

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago. It speaks of my experiences returning to Payatas Trese where I used to go for apostolate as a college student, an ACLCer. I share about how things change, and how things stay the same. But I also share about how one who goes to apostolate areas simply doesn't go on in life without being somehow formed or changed inside after such experiences.

Implicit in this essay is my hope that people continue trying to find God and themselves in going to apostolate areas. It's beautiful when you realize how much you actually grow because of the lives you encounter...

“Will you remember us?” the children asked in chorus. Our collective reply then was simple: “Of course we will. We will remember you. We will even return to visit!”

Now, many years later, I return to Payatas Trese--to promises that have not been kept--and ask a question to the same children, now a bit more grown up: “Do you remember me?”

Who takes note of these things anyway? Things change. People come and go. The RVM sisters who used to run the tiny makeshift chapel have moved on elsewhere. I still have a picture of the chapel then, where we would teach catechism and play with the children every weekend. Dilapidated and run down, it was a surprise for me to see it now beautifully reconstructed and painted, with tiles on the floor and a stained glass image of a resurrected Christ behind the altar. In fact, cobblestone paths now line Trese--where once simple dirt roads existed--leading to a Legoland of simple, yet colorful, bungalows: the work of Gawad Kalinga. Who would have thought things would turn out this way? No one really makes such expectations, it seems.

Lolo Lito, who had been around in Trese ever since the beginnings of the squatter relocation site, had recently died of a stroke. None of us who had once visited him every Saturday were there to see him off to his final resting place. You see, we did not know that it happened. In a way, perhaps no one really expects these things to really happen: that things do have their endings, even as endings abound in our daily lives; that almost as forgotten are the beginnings that mark renewal and rebirth.

The children recounted for me that even until his final days, Lolo Lito could still remember Jong… Yes, Jong, who had brought him a copy of the Saturday morning tabloid every week and who would then have biko and orange juice as a way of receiving thanks from the old man. Jong, as well as his brother, Jaypee--two generations of Ateneo CLCers--were lovingly kept in his heart. His home of salvaged wood and yero was their home, too. Many stories were shared in this place. Many laughs and sighs, too. Lolo Lito, who relished the past, brought these dear friends along with him into the present, even as the distance of many years separated them. Why that is so, I wonder. Perhaps because of thanksgiving and gratitude. True. But perhaps also because his heart could not forget.

Back then, I honestly thought that between husband and wife, Lola Lourdes would be the first to go. She always seemed to have had more health problems than Lolo Lito did. In fact, her blood pressure seemed to have shot up more easily. She was notorious for feeling real bad if we did not have some merienda during our visits to their humble dwelling. The biko would be brought out, as well as the orange juice. And on special days like the birthdays of her grandchildren, we could already expect some spaghetti to be served. This was a tradition that had been going on for many years.

Lola Lourdes, weaker with her age, has suffered much over the past decade. Nothing of her fiery hospitality seems ablaze as I visit her now. She does not recognize me. She cannot speak. RJ, her grandson, explains that she is simply too old and that her mind is not there anymore. I sit beside Lola Lourdes. I recall her generosity, and I take her hand. Her eyes betray the truth: she does not understand nor remember. I cannot expect her to. But my eyes cannot lie either: my own tears roll down my cheeks. My heart cannot forget.

Walking around Trese, I find that a school is now built behind the shack that used to be the RVM convent. The basketball court has finally been fenced off. The sari-sari stores seem to be in their old places, though there is now a distinguishable increase in the things they sell. Posters of F4 and the Sexbomb dancers--unheard of the last time I was here--haggle for space on walls and doors. In every other house, I see Christmas decorations hanging below door sills. Some children follow me as I walk about. I'm a relic to some of them who now vaguely recognize me. In their words, I'm the fat guy who once came and told them the others won't be able to come because of the exams. I take their word for it, I guess. They say I would have made a great Santa Claus back then.

Grace, now a teenager, recalls quite vividly, that it was Jong who played the role of Santa Claus, complete with a matching red costume and a beard of white cotton. Excitedly, she stamps her feet and tries to remember the past. She calls out to her brother, Nonoy, a boy of ten, who does not understand what her sister is so enthusiastic about. She waves her hands frantically and thinks out loud, describing a girl who always took care of him when she came to Trese.

“Ah! It's your Mama Kaye!” she says eagerly to her brother, as her brother responds with widening eyes and a broad smile. Yes, he remembers. And I remember, too, how Nonoy was the little boy who loved running about so much as he shouted all around the chapel where his playmates were grouped into games. This was the same Nonoy who liked being carried, especially by Kaye, and who would leave his mark by way of the dripping mucus from his nose. As I recall all these, Nonoy sniffs and says, “Ate Kaye.”

I begin to write the names of these kids who have accompanied me thus far. They spell out their names to me, after which they cannot help but share some anecdote from the past. I begin to see how powerful the experience of those Christmas parties were to these kids. Most of them either return to Jong's infamous Santa Claus impersonation, the food they ate during the party, or the gifts they received after playing games. As I continue to listen to their stories, I see a boy walk by. He wears a prosthetic where one of his legs should be. An arm is missing, while on the other limb, there are only two fingers that stick out where a hand should be.

“Ompoy,” I mutter to myself. Some of the kids hear me and call out to the boy, shouting out his name. He stops, visibly annoyed. I walk a few steps towards him and bend to his height. He looks at me quizzically. I look at him with wonder.Yes, this is Ompoy. But aside from being bigger, there seems to be a difference in him. Is this the same boy whom we gave extra gifts to out of pity during those Christmas parties in the past? Is this the boy whom his playmates used to literally push around and make fun of? Did he not cry so often that we took turns each Saturday to console him even when he seemed so restless? Where are the crutches he needed to support his frail body?

“Hello Ompoy. I still remember when you were smaller.” His face turns into a frown. Perhaps he does not wish to remember. He walks away to a group of boys in front of a sari-sari store. They give him space as he buys something from the counter. The boys are a bit bigger and circle around him. I take a step closer to discern what is going on. I smile as I realize that they are listening to his story, and are engrossed with what he is saying. Confidently, he raises his voice as he tries to mimic a character in his story.

“Kuya,” nudges Jennifer, another child who has been walking with me. “Ompoy is very popular around here. He's the chess champion of the district. No one in his age group can beat him. And also, he's really great with basketball.”

“Basketball? How could that be?” I ask.

“He runs very fast, even with one leg heavier than the other. He uses his elbows to control the ball. And he shoots very well, rarely missing the basket.”

I return my sights to Ompoy. Who would have thought things would turn out this way? To think some of us were afraid he would grow up feeling totally abandoned and abused by life. And now, look at him. He is so confident among his friends.

“I will remember this, Ompoy,” I think to myself. “Perhaps you cannot remember me. But I have not forgotten. My thanks to you. You have made my heart see more clearly today.”

Some children place my arms on their shoulders. They ask, “Kuya, come back and join us this Christmas. Even if just in the Christmas party. That will be your Christmas gift! Please! Please!”

There are no answers I can give. My promise is fulfilled as I draw my visit to Payatas Trese to a close. These children will forget. These children will remember. I, too, fall along the same boundaries. But perhaps I will return. That will be something to look forward to, especially as I relish memories I have made here today. Some people ask me what all this is for, this going back, this reliving, this returning to. Are these encounters with various people supposed to make a difference in the choices I make in the future? Am I supposed to be accountable to these people? Am I called to ask even more questions, perhaps leading to even more formative situations?

I give no answers. All I can say is that I have fulfilled my promise. What happens after that? I do not know. But let us see what follows.