I stared at the bus that’s supposed to bring me more than 350 kilometers up north, I was worried. Worried that my ADHD would make me get off the bus half way through the ride. I couldn’t drive since I just came from the same region less than 36 hours ago, and I had no one with me.
But I knew you were waiting. As you have been looking for me last June.
7-11. I forced myself to stop at the store to have some bland hazelnut coffee. I was nervous, afraid – to see you. I finally had the courage to call one of the yellow tricycles nearby and go to your place. The ride seemed longer than the 10 hour trip going there from Manila. The first right turn was a narrow cemented road but when I saw the arc labelling your barangay, I thought you were like 4, 5 houses away since your house number is 8. But I was wrong. The narrow road went on and on. The driver turned left to an even narrower road. A dirt road. The first thing I thought of was how the heck was I gonna get out of the place. A few more minutes, we stopped at a place with a tarp out front. Your face was on the tarp. I sighed, “I am here”.
Your grandmother greeted me, your mom was seated. Staring at you. Not a single word. She looked at me, extended her hand and lightly squeezed mine. I walked over to you. Your coffin. Pictures of your happy moments were all over the wall. Pictures that I remembered you by. I closed my eyes for 1-2-3 seconds and I looked at you. I almost turned around and shouted, this is not him.
Year 2014. You were late. I had been waiting for hours and had rendered counseling duty at the RITM satellite clinic in Malate. I cannot forget that day because that day, I had four clients who tested reactive in the clinic, and I had to do consecutive counselings. You were going to give me your PWD application, your I.D. pictures, your confirmatory letter. You finally texted. I went out, smoked and stood by the door and waited for you, again. Then from afar, a man around my height, lean, dark was walking towards the clinic. I puffed and I told myself, “HOT guy”. I gazed the other way looking for you, waiting for you. Then from behind, a voice called out, “Dad!!!”. I turned around, the HOT guy just called me DAD. The hot guy was you. “pfft….!” There goes my fantasy. LOLS. We chatted, you were speaking Ilocano from time to time. It was a brief chat. Your big bright smile impressed me, you were light to be with, your smile can readily brighten up anyone. You had to leave for somewhere and I had to go back in for my counseling duty. Over the next three years, we would keep in touch, meet for coffee from time to time, text—and as always, your smile—Your smile.
He tapped me from behind as I stared at you in disbelief. Your last pics on facebook last May were the actual you I met 3 years ago. Your brother whispered from behind, “kuya…” I turned to him and he was starting to cry. I asked your brother to go with me outside and talk. And I needed to smoke. A lot.
There were a million and one questions in my mind. Your brother told me everything. He answered what I needed to ask. He told me you only had your ARV for a month and you stopped. He told me you were depressed with how your networking colleagues have been successful and you weren’t. He told me how you last visited them during the holy week and the family went swimming, and that you were, as always, perky and “normal”. He told me that mid-June, you came back and was confined at the nearest treatment hub. He told me you were looking for me to help the family decide if it were better for you to seek treatment in the province or in Manila. He told me you decided to go home 3-4 weeks after confinement so you can “rest better”. He told me that last Monday you were having difficulty breathing, Tuesday you were having difficulty swallowing, Saturday you were gone. It was one of the longest two hours of my life. Despite the many “he told me” moments, there was one question left unanswered – Why didn’t you come to me?
I got home after a gruesome 12 hour bus trip. My back ached. My head empty. My heart in pain. Still.
At least four people had told me I had no control over someone’s decision. That one’s health is one’s personal responsibility. The thing is YOU are one of my personal responsibilities. And I felt I failed. I failed to ask how your treatment was. All the convos were hellos and work and laughters. I failed. At least three people said you gave the fight up. I had to rationalize. No!
You fought your own way. The way you fought no one can judge. You fought differently. You chose to fight the way you did and now you are resting. I may have failed, but you won your fight. I have to tell myself that you won your battle. In your own way.
Still, I’m proud of you. I am sorry I wasn’t there, I am sorry I was too busy with the programmatic aspects of my work, and I am sorry I wasn’t there. It pains me, deeply, that you have gone away for good.
But your smile—they will always bring me sweetest memories of you.
Thank you for being a part of my life. Ben.