Sunday, 22 January 2012



WE DROVE to this place up a hilly area south of Manila to visit my friend yesterday. 

We made a couple of wrong turns, but finally we found the place- a nondescript house cordoned off from the main street with wires and small bamboo poles placed close to each other , blocking the view of the outside from inside the house. 

It looked forbidding to the outsider, the whole façade carrying the message - back off! Well, we previously asked permission to visit, so we expected to be allowed to enter. And finally, after a number of unanswered doorbells, we were allowed inside the gate.

The house looked like any other bungalow. It was lunchtime, and so all the housemates were milling around the sala and dining room. He was called out by name, and when he emerged, there was unbelief in his eyes, upon seeing us. Apparently, he was not told of our visit so as not to upset him or make him lose sleep or frustrate him in case we cancelled.

He was his jolly self, incredulous even, that we got to know he was there. I gave him my pasalubong-siomai and siopao, and he eagerly halved one siopao, put the sauce inside the dough and ate with gusto. 

He was gracious, asked how our common friend and his wife who came with me, were doing. He asked me if we already had “babang luksa” for my mom. He asked if the moms of my companions were still alive. All, in all, a rather regular conversation among friends, with remembrances of things past.

After a while, he touched on his activities inside this house. His life here is regimented, he said. Everybody has to follow the day’s activities, rules of the house. Even the food is measured, you can only eat what is given to you. 

I imagined that it must be hard for him- the food thing, because this guy loves to eat…and snooze. He added that everybody has to sit and listen through lectures and/or seminars, and though he really feels sleepy, he just keeps himself in check. 

I told him in jest, why not do what Mr Bean did, he was so sleepy during a church service, he just slowly, slowly crumpled on the floor. I said, that way, they won’t have any choice but to pick you up and put you to bed, ha,ha. 

After our belly laughs, he continued: he could not engage anybody in long conversations, even in his room, he was not allowed to read books, or listen to music because these may trigger a “fit” (i.e. hallucinations); not allowed to write, because after the required activities that needed writing, the pens, pencils were taken back till the next session. 

I can understand the pens and pencils - these are pointed objects which could be used to harm oneself or others during a ‘fit”. 

It was a hard life, but the hardest, he said , was in the nearly two years he was there, he was not allowed to go home-to visit his ate, his nephews and nieces, and me. Your birthday is coming up, he said. 

Can you ask them if I can attend your birthday party?

And so, it was time to leave. He bid us goodbye, with the short and heartfelt “This is an early Christmas present!. Thank you for the visit.” 

It was already dark when we got home. I was tired, but quite satisfied that I was able to realize this long—planned visit. 

I was so sleepy. I usually go off to dreamland the moment my body touched my bed, but this time, many images crowded my mind: my friend, almost a senior citizen, following orders from people young enough to be his grandchildren; this simple, gentle, joyful, intelligent, compassionate and thoughtful person -being thwarted from experiencing t simple joys - writing, reading, listening to music or talking to someone about deeply felt things, living a terribly diminished life, if you can call it life at all. 

Twenty years ago, I answered his cry for help. I prevented him from taking his life.
Yesterday, when he asked me," can you ask them to let me attend your birthday party?", i knew he was really asking me if i can do something to help him claim his life back.

The image of the rising phoenix- a large but gentle bird which feeds on dewdrops, who after 500 years of living, dies but rises again from its ashes, quickly came to my mind. Would my friend ever rise from the ashes, and live again? 

Perhaps, if I tried hard enough – to get all those who love him come together and talk about what can be done to find the right mix of independence and control, to let him enjoy the pleasure of being able to do what he likes to do, but being able to prevent him from flying off the handle; if we all walk the extra mile for him, if we pray hard enough. Perhaps.

Finally the disquieting thoughts quietly left one by one, letting my mind rest. 

As sleep started to overcome me, my last thoughts were that of the sun surely rising tomorrow, and God in heaven , watching over all of us including my friend.

(Dr EMMA P Valencia, MD, is a Health Policy analyst, writer, poet and journalist, who shuttles between Manila and California. She once worked with Senator Eduardo J Angara to assist him on important health policy legislations.)

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