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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Friday, September 15, 2006

entry arrow4:56 PM | A Goodbye for Chris

A few days before my friend Christopher Abella passed away more than a week ago, I swear I saw him driving by my apartment along Aldecoa Drive in his motorcycle, clad in his usual white T-shirt and jeans, heading for the city.

He had already rounded the bend at the corner of Tubod, and it was too late for me to call out. "There goes Chris," I remember telling myself as he whisked by. He was more than a shadow of his former self, even thinner than the last time I saw him. Some would even say "ravaged," and not without an ounce of regret and pity, especially from those who knew Chris to be the very embodiment of health and boundless energy.

A few of us friends know him to be a peerless guidance counselor in Silliman University, someone who actually took time to get down to the level of any young student's experience and offer something that was both brotherly comfort and insight without the usual psychobabble bullshit. He was a favorite among students, and for many of them, he was "Kuya Chris." There are those of us who know him to be Paui, the perfect companion to feasts and gabfests. Some of us also know him to be Mayen's husband. I knew Mayen from long ago. Mayen taught me how to ballroom dance in high school; Chris marrying her made him an instant friend.



The first time I knew Chris, it was to witness his star turn as Bernardo in a local production of West Side Story. He was one of the scarce shining lights in that musical, at once able to turn the gruff character of Maria's protective older brother into somebody we could sympathize with. Why? Because Chris's Bernardo was so earthy, so lovable, so reachable, so funny and irreverent, even with all that tough exterior -- and when he sang and danced, by God he seemed real.

I wrote glowingly of Chris's performance in that play many years ago, reserving for him a reprieve from what had been -- I admit it now -- a very bitchy review. When he sought me out after that wretched article was published, it was to thank me for "the kind words," and just like that -- as what usually happens between the best of people -- there was an instant bond, a friendly chemistry at work. We would not see each other too often even if we lived in the same tiny city, but every time we met in some corner or other -- most famously in the culinary comforts of Chicco's in Why Not whose array of steaks and cold cuts we both loved to bits -- it was with instant camaraderie, as if we were already old friends.

It was heartbreaking then when, a few years ago, his body started to give up on him. The ultimate diagnosis is quite complicated to explain. I was walking home one day when he passed by me in his eternal motorcycle, stopping quickly to say hello, and proceeded to enlighten me with the medical details, most of which is lost in my mind in the way things seemed to become more complicated by the day.

He grew thinner and thinner, wasting away, it seemed. It is a measure of how much Chris was well-loved by friends when so many pitched in to help raise money for his mounting medical bills. That it was a long struggle is a testament of how much Chris and his family have persevered, and how much friends stayed around to ease, little by little, whatever burden that came. During those rare times when we had time to talk, Chris would tell me that sometimes he felt like giving up, but that there was always God by his side, coming around with a sudden blessing -- a monetary gift, for example, for the much-needed dialysis for the week. It was a day-to-day struggle.

To his credit, however, even during those trying times, Chris always seemed to radiate a thirst for life. Even when his cheeks lost their usual roundness and became sallow, Chris still smiled and cracked joked and insisted on living out the last of his days in mirth, perhaps only for our benefit, so that we would not worry too much. But even then. It was a grand effort.

That week, when I last saw him alive, the sighting felt sad. "There goes Chris," I said, and felt a sudden darkness descending.

"Impossible," his widow Mayen told me when I finally visited his wake at Eterna a few days later. I had received a text message from Oyen Alcantara, informing us in grave tones of Chris's passing. Mayen continued, "He had been bedridden for a few months na. He could not possibly get out and drive around the city in his motorcycle!"

"But I did see him drive by my place in Tubod!" I insisted. I knew for sure seeing Chris drive by in a motorcycle in a white T-shirt was not some trick of air, a funereal mirage. Could not possibly be my careless imagination.

"Impossible," Mayen said, softly this time.

Somebody then told me that sometimes some people get visitations of souls right around the time of death. "Maybe Chris was trying to tell you something," Mark, who was with me, said.

"But tell me what?"

Mayen suddenly said, "Wait--," and went to an adjoining room from where the wake was being held, and came back bringing in a blue hard-cover Merit record book. "Here you go," she said. "This is Chris's notebook, something he wrote in most days after his initial diagnosis. Somebody was looking for this, but we couldn't find it. I found it again right before you came." It made me shiver receiving that notebook from Mayen's hands.

I slowly scanned the pages, and felt the tremendous but silent power of beholding the words of a friend who was now gone. His words -- sometimes scribbled in careful penmanship in blue or black ink, and sometimes hurriedly scratched in as if borne out of sheer agony -- jumped out of the pages.

Chris called the whole thing Paui's Winning Over Kidney Failure Notebook. In the beginning pages, his handwriting is sure and certain -- optimistic. "Hello!" Chris wrote. "My name is Christopher Luague Abella. What is my life? What is my life all about? What does my life consist of? What is life to me? What are my goals? Those are basically my guiding questions -- thoughts for my introduction of this personal notebook..."

In that upbeat beginning, he wrote a little bit about his family, particularly about growing up with his Lolo Pedring and Lola Layding, and then a little bit about his teenage years in Dumaguete. "To me, life is living with loving people," he wrote. "Life is loving work to provide basic needs to family... Life is music. Life is living and loving God. Life is when I found my one true love. Life to me is Mayen and my family Zachary and Xyla..."

There are quotes from the comedian George Carlin at the end pages, scribbled in pencil. There are some agonizing expressions of self-doubts. "My illness is a hopeless battle," he wrote on another page. Then there are the blank pages, the spaces in between -- and in places, there are many pages scissored away, as if the contents are contraband -- perhaps the unvarnished ragings of a man on the verge. But there are also the carefully rendered recipes for fried cheese, shrimp toast, Oriental short rib barbecue, sesame tofu salad, and "kiddie party" spaghetti. "That's Chris," Mayen said, laughing a little. Then there is a short list of saints -- St. Judiel, patron saint for the heart, St. Gabriel for clear mind, St. Michal for the sick, St. Raphael for problems, St. Uriel for justice...

And there it was, on one of the last pages. My name among the jumble of words in frenetic handwriting. Of all friends he knew, it was my name he remembered and wrote down: "We are living on borrowed times...," Chris wrote. "I let go of that line too many times with prophetic zest. I have said that statement to my doctors. I have shared that statement to my family and friends. 'Galvanizing,' an honest reply from Ian Casocot."

"He meant for you to read this," Mayen said. "Maybe that's why you saw him."

I realized then how powerful words could be. It was akin to life. Only a few feet from us, there was Chris's coffin, sealed shut because Mayen wanted everybody to remember Chris the way he was in health and in life: a little rotund and always zany. And yet, in this notebook, he was very much alive. Reading his words aloud, I could almost hear his voice, as if he still floated about, trying to tell us that everything was okay.

"I'll write about him," I told Mayen.

I might have said that, but thinking about it now, I'd rather end this post with Chris having the final say. From his notebook, in those last few pages of unwieldy penmanship, he wrote: "Upon knowing that I had end stage renal failure, a disease that is life-threatening, I cried and bargained with God. I felt like a helpless child for the first time in my adult life. I cried upon hearing my kids over the phone saying that they missed me. I cried like a child when my six-year old boy offered his kidneys to me.

"Am I afraid of death? If this question was posed to me [when I was a child], my answer would have been 'no.' Simply because Jesus loves me and will always be with me, and will protect me, and I will go to heaven with him.... 'Yes, I am afraid of death,' would be my puberty-aged reply. I don't know what it is. I think it is painful. I still want to enjoy my new bicycle and my Atari games. I want to live life with my parents and my crush... And God is a loving God. 'Yes and no' -- that would be my teenage-angst-driven, cynical reply. Yes... I want to know more about life, I want to know who I am and what I would become with all the intricacies of this drama called life. I want to live life to the fullest. I want to marry my girlfriend, if I have the money. And no... who is not dying among us? Death! I don't care.

"What about my present self? 'No. I am not afraid of death.' But that does not necessarily mean that dying is easy to accept. We go through a process to finally accept it. I am not afraid of death simply because Jesus made a promise to take care of me, to love me until eternity. I have lived my life with loving people... my kids, my wife, my friends, my Lola and my Lola...

"How about you? Are you afraid of death?"

And the notebook ends there.

Goodbye, Chris, my friend -- fearless even in the eternal.

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