April 30, 2015

A Letter to Elise

Not only in these moments that I have pondered the possibility of writing a long overdue requiem for an old friend that had already gone to the netherworld, but also in many other instances before. Maybe I just hadn’t had the time before or maybe the time wasn’t just right. And so now I shall speak of him in the best of manners and as far as my remembrances of him could take.

Aziz Vernon Mustapha was closer to me as a brother than as a friend. I met him during our first years in Ateneo de Zamboanga, in a time and place that was etched in my mind like mildew on a rock. He was sweating so furiously one sunny afternoon when he appeared out of nowhere and suddenly sat beside me without any prelude in a Religion 101 class that we had both attended. He kept on scrubbing the area around the back of his neck with a handy towel and that made me a little uneasy. It was the first week of school that year and I panned around the entire length of the room for any familiar faces, as well as amiable countenances that I could be comfortable with, those that I could possibly associate with later on. I did not find one familiar soul and most of them looked grim and sordid. Anyone sitting for a Religion class in Adez has exactly nothing to be cheerful for and everything to grieve. The words coming out of the religion teacher’s mouth can border from the murderously boring towards the unforgivably commonplace. I am now a strong advocate of religion and I assure you that religion is not such a dreary subject to brood over. Do not get me wrong on this. It is just that when we were so young and adventurous then, the matters of faith took a major backseat from our thoughts and attention, and became farthest from the pyramid of our wants and desires.

I attempted at a conversation with Aziz by asking: “What’s that CD about?”

Aziz handed me the square object that he was holding tightly in his hands like a precious ancient artifact (he held it so tightly as I have observed then) and I found out for myself that it was a recording of live performances by the Filipino new wave band “The Dawn”.

I said: “I like their songs and Jett Pangan was sublime in ‘Enveloped Ideas’; or something to that effect.
Aziz nodded and never spoke a single word to me up to that moment. I had rescinded my forward engagements towards him because of his seeming nonchalance. Sheik Bagis, the religion teacher that was in front of us called my attention and told me to shut up and be attentive. I did not notice the classes were about to start that I felt a little sore from embarrassment for the first time ever. I am not kidding. I was such a diligent student for most of my high school years that until that moment, my attention inside a classroom had not been questioned and called for. I never minded this discomfort so much and began to keep quiet and pretended to listen to what the teacher was reading from a fading textbook. Sheik Bagis knew me fairly well since he had also been one of my teachers in high school. He proctored us in SRA. I am never sure now what the exact denotation of the acronym SRA but Standard Reading Activity seems to be the approximate term.

Later that week, I was sitting with my Tau Gamma fraternity brods in the bench near the Ateneo Chapel when John Suico, a classmate from high school walked towards my direction. I stood up to meet him and gave him a hug. He was with Aziz. It was so long ago that we have been together so I asked where he had been?

“I was in Davao” John said. “ Our family had some business there you know.” He continued.

“How about you? I heard you were in Silliman with Tony?” John asked me.

I narrated to him how I spent one whole year in Silliman but found some difficulties there that I had to come back again to Ateneo and take up accountancy. John explained to me that he had likewise met Aziz just recently. “Pics, this is Vernon”. Pics was my nickname while Vernon is the name John use to refer to Aziz. I said, “I know him. We’re in the same class in religion”.

John had apparently got to know about Aziz in the orientation seminar given that year for incoming freshmen and transferees. I forgot the orientation schedule that if I remember too well, I might have been flying kites that day somewhere in the vicinity of the rice field just adjacent to our neighborhood.

I had surmised then that Aziz was a man of few words when during our initial encounters, he seem to have not spoken to me even a single word. But later, as our friendship blossomed, he had become the most gregarious among the three of us.

One afternoon, on a break from that arduous Citizen Military Training we usually had in college, we were munching on fried bananas when John noticed something. “What’s that smell?” he asked and we all look around for the possible source of the unwelcome scent. “ I do not smell anything.” I answered back. “It’s your shoes Pics. Your socks are dirty”. I protested that observation from John and I said that it was only in his mind. But I must have been guilty that one afternoon for I remember not a few times did I resorted to wearing socks that wasn’t fully dried up. I was not a sock person back then when I was in college. Usually, whenever Sundays were near approaching, it was usually the night before that I usually remember that I had to wear socks for the CMT drills the following day. I had to scurry up and wash some socks that I almost always left dirty and unattended in some dark corner of our house. Bad habits that I had then you might say but in college, I never really wore those big and heavy shoes that called for the wearing of socks, like the way those humongous basketball rubber shoes many wore during those years when Michael Jordan was the god of many gangly youths. All my loafers then were topsiders and some look like kung-fu shoes. I like those kinds of shoes better since they were so windy and my feet felt breezy in them all the time and I never had to wear socks often. Besides, you won’t have to go through the usually lengthy ceremony of tying up laces that big shoes demand. You can just pick up those topsiders and slip them into your feet and up you go in a jiffy.
John and Aziz both laughed citing my smelly socks but I just disregarded them. As the three of us were heading downtown, after that afternoon’s CMT session, I uttered to them while my eyebrows were furrowed from deep thought, a suggestion that could make our associations more rewarding and productive. I said, “You know what, ‘Dirty Socks’ seems to be a good name for a band”. Right up to that moment, we were really dreaming of forming a rock band and we were so serious about it that we have made acquaintances with some Ateneans who were already playing in one. They both agreed to this band moniker but later on, we had to change it to “Dirty Sox” to make it sound spikier.

We had a friend named Stephen then and he was already in a band. In fact, he was the bandleader of a band that played heavy metal music by Metallica and Iron Maiden. That time, if a band could play “Enter Sandman” with silkiness and spontaneity, that band is popular as hell. Every time Stephen and his band mates were rehearsing in Stephen’s house, we would be present just watching them and learning the craft from a distance. We all knew how to play the guitar but we were not so refined in that field that we had to observe how others did it. I had to learn how to play drums myself because John had wanted so much to be the lead guitarist and Aziz coveted the role of the bass player like he was yearning for a woman. Being unassuming that I was then, I agreed to beat the drums for them even when I had no professional training whatsoever in that field. Aziz had good things to say about my voice though. According to him, my voice was both full and raspy and among the three of us, I had the finest voice. So I had asked both of them that perhaps I could be the lead singer. They both answered yes to this particular intimation. But I eventually asked them about how I could be the singer of the band when at the same time I had to be the drummer? John said almost in a whisper, “Pics, if Phil Collins could both play the drums and sing the lead vocals for Genesis, I can see no reason why you could not do it.” I did not know how to react at first to this particular opinion of John but to be sure I was elated with the comparison to Phil Collins so I agreed to be both the singer and the drummer. In my lone moments after that, I had felt so confused and challenged thinking what great trouble I had found myself agreeing to become both the drummer and the singer. I reckoned that it would demand from me too much exertion for having to do two tasks at the same time. Yet, I let pass those doubtfulness and decided for myself that from then on, I should face the challenge of becoming the Phil Collins of the Philippines.

When Stephen bandmates quitted on him one by one, we tried applying as his new band mates but he would not take any of us. He said our skill was still far from performance level. We said we could try harder in practice and play all the songs he want us to carry out but he would not let up. We were so disappointed with Stephen that we made jokes about him when he wasn’t around and laugh so hard on them. John said that at first Stephen had a complete band made of four individuals like U2. Then when a bandmate said quits, they became a trio like The Police. Then after another band mate left the band, they became a duo like Tears For Fears or Wham. Then Stephen became alone and became George Michael singing “Careless Whisper” like a cross-dresser in the middle of Plaza Pershing. We laughed so hard to this humorous crack at Stephen for being an inconsiderate fool, I mean friend. Even when all his band mates had quitted on him, he remains unwelcoming to our propositions of becoming his new bandmates.

I remember that I wasn’t only the singer and the drummer for “The Dirty Sox”, but I was also its main songwriter. Our first original composition was a song called “Sitting On My Backseat”. Part of the song’s lyrics goes this way on a D-G-C-G chord progression.

STANZA

D G C , G
Sitting on my back seat.

D G C, G
Playing with my yo-yo.

D G C, G
Waiting for the sundown.

D G C, G
Looking for a showdown.

CHORUS

F G C, G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G C,G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G C,G
Sitting on the back seat with the radio on.

F G D,G
And it feels like sunshine.

F G D,G
And it feels like moonshine.

Forgive the simplicity of the lyrics but that was how crude my writings back then, right about the time when I was still a college freshman. Aziz queried me about the meaning of the song’s lyrics and what the hell I was doing sitting on my backseat. He said that maybe I should change some wordings of the song to give it more sense. I refused to be edited and I said the person in the song is sitting in the backseat of a car listening to the radio and that he enjoyed that activity so much that it felt like a good sunshine on an ultra-cool afternoon for him—pure and simple. John on the other hand praised this eponymous composition of mine that he compared it to the Clash punk classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. It was so simple John added and the chord progression was so strong and very rock-oriented that according to him, the intro for the song “Sitting On My Backseat” reminded him of the fierce guitar in the intro part of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water”.

John, Aziz and I were never really able to fully form our band called “The Dirty Sox”. We did not have the right amount of money to buy ourselves a complete set of instruments. With some savings, we were able to acquire a second hand bass guitar but that was all what we have gotten then. Usually, we just end up popping out in some other band’s practice sessions and when that band was resting for a while, we hopped in and play some number, hoping to hone our skills all the more. Most of those who were already in a regular band were mostly acquaintances from high school that they are just real kind to allow us to just appear in their rehearsals and made use of their instruments while they take some brief recesses. It was sort of a trade-off. I was already a writer then for the Beacon Newsmagazine, the official publication of the Ateneo de Zamboanga and I had featured those bands in some articles, or made some mentions about them. Perhaps, they decided that they could make use of some music journalist hanging around their necks.

John was already back in Davao when finally, me and Aziz were already able to form a band with a complete set of musical instruments. We were already working in the same government agency by then, earning quite contently and being able to buy those costly musical apparatus. Except for the drum set which would have cost us a fortune if we have gotten them. One of our officemate turned out to be a hobbyist of drums and he had a drum set he kept at home although he wasn’t in any band at all.

But without John, the camaraderie was never the same and the magic of three or four people longing for each other’s musical support, the kind that band mates usually have, was not present at all. And besides, we could not pour so much of our time into the band since both me and Aziz held crucial positions in our office—positions that demanded more attention than we were willing to give. I was the legal assistant reviewing piles and piles of project applications, examining each time if each folder was complete in its legal requirements while he was the procuring officer that took care of the adequacy of supplies and materials.

Farouq, the designated drummer, always had some excuse tacked under his belt. He had to bring his kids to the mall every time whenever weekend came and Schulk, our supposedly other member playing rhythm guitar was a computer programmer that always had some clients calling him on his ever-ringing bulky Motorola. After a while, we stopped pursuing the dream of forming a band as newer realities set in like being married and having children, being so busy taking care of them when the night came. Aside from that, work in the office had become so demanding that soon our rehearsals became so infrequent until there was none at all.
When our employment contracts were ended by the agency we were working for, I went into dried fish business with some capital from Aziz but the endeavor never really took off until I decided to take the bar examinations for the first time. While, we were still in the agency, a few months before our work ended there, Aziz was rushed to the hospital one morning as he suddenly lost consciousness while he was preparing to go to work, and needed blood transfusion so direly that I had to assist his brother in finding the proper blood source. I received the call while I was doing some task in the office and without asking permission from my boss, I headed for the door. While I was in the tricycle on my way to the hospital, my mind whirled like a train, asking what perhaps was Aziz’s malady that he needed to have blood transfusion.

I found out later, as I arrived at the hospital panting and perspiration was all over me, that he needed to be operated on in order to take away the kidneys that had failed him. I saw how his feet become so bloated as he lay there in bed. He was conscious and he told me, “Pics, why of all people this has to happen to me? My son is still young. Take care of my son if the worst comes.” I consoled him that everything will be all right and that he should not speak words like that. I wanted to cry thinking how in his most difficult times, Aziz thought of nothing except his son Jakob, my godson.

For two years, Aziz had to go through a laborious process called dialysis and his medicines was too costly that his parents struggled to maintain them and he needed them in such great volume that the boxes in the back of their house were stacked so high towards the ceiling.

While he struggled through nearly three years of painful medication, I could not remember him cry or looked so grim even once, the way sick people do. He was even extra cheerful in some moments like nothing was wrong at all. Perhaps, he was just hiding from me the many fears that he had to struggle against or maybe he was just all too positive that someday, his discomfort would someday vanish like a smoke in the wind. So every now and then, we still go about like nothing happened and I was relieved to see him up and about again. We played guitars while sipping some warm coffee while at times we go downtown and watch people pass by while inside the mall and talked on almost everything there is to talk about and also about the friends we had, some that were present still and those who aren’t anymore. Aziz had a way with conversation that when I was with him, there was no moment when we ran out of something to say or mean. I am naturally an introspective individual that I usually do not speak much but Aziz could always find something to say or utter.
Then came a time when his phone calls to me became infrequent, and since I was also struggling with some of my life’s own hurdles then, like failing the bar, an unstable business, joblessness, and other similar concerns, my visit to him also became infrequent that the distance between each visit to him could go for an extended period of a month or two. In the last six months of Aziz in this material world, I have observed quite well how his health deteriorated so quickly that the last time I saw him, he had became reed thin and he was struggling to carry himself—he had to walk with a cane in hand.

That fateful night when Aziz mom informed me by phone that finally Aziz had finally succumb to the illness that had longed bothered him, I sat by the stairway and tried to absorb the news with all my mind’s might and resolve. It was near midnight already and all I could hear was the songs of crickets in the shadowy bushes nearby. I kept telling myself that it was the moment that I had feared and yet at the same time it was also the moment that I saw coming. I convinced myself that Aziz should be better situated there in the afterlife, in the loving arms of the Lord, than be here and suffer that highly debilitating and often-cruel disease.
The following afternoon, we buried the remains of my friend in a seaside cemetery over a brimming sun that slowly descended on the horizon. The sky was clear and cloudless that day. I had seen the sky clearly that one fateful day and the sea was calm as a windless night. I had reckoned that it was a beautiful day for him to go away. I heard his father pronounced to the Lord his own pleadings as Aziz was gradually laid down to the ground. “That is my son, my Lord! That is my son that is being buried there!” Aziz’s father was saying those words as tears rolled down from his swollen eyes. I was not able to hold back some my own tears that I had to wipe them to look like I had not cried at all.

You could say that I had prepared myself for his passing that when his passing finally came, I had not been overtaken by so much grief and sorrow. But once, a few weeks after his death, while I was strumming a song titled “A Letter To Elise”, I wasn’t able to hold back tears that just flowed from my eyes automatically like a river that was dammed for too long and finally let gone by the opening of floodgates, as the song reminded me of him and I cried like a child and cried so hard that I wished he was still alive and walking like the man that I knew him to be and be there to receive my calls whenever I dial his numbers. But he wasn’t there already.

Aziz was more than a friend to me in more ways than one. When we were together, there was never a dull moment. We could just stroll along the side streets of downtown Zamboanga and sipped some cappuccino in a nearby donut store and our afternoon easily becomes delightful and full of joy. We usually talk about music and our favorite TV show “Friends” and we would laugh so hard recalling the many antics of Joey, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Peevee and Rachel. At other times, we just strum along an acoustic guitar and sang the song of our lives even in moments when the strings were not fine-tuned and our voices could not hit the nicer notes.

As I turn back time and reminisce the days that we both had, I am continually reminded of one of his favorite songs from his favorite band “The Cure” entitled “A Letter To Elise” and the song goes:

And every time I try I try to pick it up like falling sand.
As fast as I pick it up, it runs away through my clutching hands.
And there is nothing else I can really do.
There’s nothing else I can really do, at all….

It is not that there was nothing else I could do for him or could have done for him. It is only that I had to be brave for him in many times in the past so that he could be brave for his own self. I never really knew if he needed my urging for him to face courageously his own challenges while he suffered through that malady but in my mind, he had always appeared stronger than what could be expected from a person in his situation. I always thought that I should have visited him more during his last remaining days but I wasn’t there at his side as much as I would like to. And now I continually pray for him and plead to the Lord that his soul be taken into the great harbor of salvation. I believe that when the time comes, Aziz will be alive again in the company of angels and the Almighty who is in Heaven.

(A post from 2003)

April 09, 2015

The Commander & I

Yesterday, we celebrated Yuri’s second birthday at the old but still chic Country Chicken Restaurant near the famous Pasonanca Park. The place hosted a-many events for our family primarily because it gave us the best deal we could ever get in town; affordability, the food is great and the place is just so wide that parents could just leave their kids running around without having to worry about passing cars or unworldly strangers prowling around. We had a grand time and the party was lively enough even though it was on a strictly family and close friends basis. I’ll put some pictures here in the coming days if they come soon.

As it was always it had seemed, like mostly what happens, like in the years that passed, Yuri’s birthday was celebrated not on the very day he was born due to scheduling factors. If the day falls on a working day, we have to move it to a weekend date in order that the invited guests may be able come. So much fuzz ain’t it? Ha.ha.ha. I would laugh at myself thinking that in the generation of my kids, this sort of events took us into a lot concerns like the place where to celebrate, how much to spend, and who’s to invite and who’s to come. When I was a kid, our aunts or older cousins would just bake us some chiffon cake (at times without icings anymore) and some Chinese pansit and family-size Coca-Colas and then we neighborhood kids would just troop down to the table, and munch like we never eaten for the longest days. “Take a shower!” said my older cousin Minda as I head home from a torrid afternoon playing session, “ and eat” she would continue, “it’s your birthday today”. Without further adieu and introduction, we just sang happy birthdays and blew candles and ate cakes without icings on them and then we go back to playing like nothing happened. In some birthdays then, when person like Aunt Minda were gone, (she is now in Seattle working as a nurse), and nobody really cared whose birthday is it anyway, I just collect all my friends into our backyard and announce to them that it was my birthday and since it was my birthday, I am giving them one cheese curls one by one. Some would jump would glee while some of ‘em complain what a cheapskate I was. “It’s your birthday and all we get is this cheese curls?” I just said something like (my memory now a little feint) all of you are lucky because it is my favorite cheese curls (the one with a mouse posing as a cowboy and a gun on the package) and usually I informed them, I just kept them to myself in our bedroom and eat them alone. Now shut up all of you and let’s continue to cook the maya bird we just slingered earlier. They taste just like chickens, these birds, you know. When we were lucky in some days, we would cook a dove felled from a neighbor’s birdcages.

We would fish also in nearby ponds and tried to cook our catch in those younger days. The first time we cooked a Martiniko, the taste was just so bad that we puked it out. Despite knowing that we could exactly do nothing with our catch except to stare at it until it dies inside tin cans that we used as makeshift aquariums, we still continue to fish. I bet that’s why fishing is such a major pastime for grown up men in the States because it was just a lot of fun fishing. American men love to fish although most of ‘em need not fish no more to have food on their table.

So in the afternoons, we spend hours after hours sitting by the pond, talking of dreams when we grow up, and of rocketships and satellites in the sky, and aliens and kapres, and boats, while we wait for some fish to pull on our baits. Boats seem to be the favorite topic back then, although I ain’t particular why this was so. Perhaps as kids, we all want to sail into the unknown and see if the people and kids at the other side of the world looks and talks like us or dress like we do and have the same kind of food in their tummies. We had a neighborly friend named Dodong. He was not a regular in our group because of a very strict and recluse of a father. He was kinda weird and stupid that when his around, some of my friends would do some tricks on him when like one day a friend named Michael taught him how to use the sling by pointing it the other way around. And so a fairly size stone struck his forehead and he cried of course, running to his father. I was so worried about that particular incident happened so way back in the past that I could not forget it even up to know. One of the reasons why it stuck in my head is perhaps not mainly because of how tragic it was but it was more to the amazing discovery then of how stupid some kids like Dodong was. At first, I was just relaxing a bit and assume that Dodong was just playing dumb and would not really slinger himself on the face with the sling pointing at himself. But he did for goodness sake. He just pulled the rubber and hit himself. I got scared and felt a little guilty as a conspirator that I could not look him in the eye for days and years to come.

One particular memory is still about the hapless and clueless Dodong. One day he just got brave enough to escape in the afternoon when he thought his daddy wasn’t around the whole afternoon. So he came with us to go fish in a nearby pond. But alas, his father arrived home and immediately came looking for him. He said he was just fishing but his father said what could he do with the fish he caught? His daddy just went nuts and asked for our day’s catch—a milk can full of Martinikos. And for fear, we just gave the whole of them fish to Dodong’s Dad. We got worried about what might happened to our friend and as kids we always like to see some spanking of some other kids. But I believe that day that we were just concerned over Dodong so we followed him and his dad without getting noticed. From a place unknown to Dodong and his father, we sneak and see for ourselves if he would get the major spanking that we foresaw. But he didn’t. What happened was queer enough that it was for the books. Dodong’s father cooked the whole batch of the highly insipid Martinikos in just plain boiling water outside their yard, as if he knew that we were watching them and was warning as of dire consequences. And then he made Dodong eat all the boiled fish. Jesus, it was so achingly awful to see Dodong gobbled all the fish while his tears was running down from his eyes like a flood. Dodong did not play with us ever again even when he did grow up into a young man. By the way, Michael is now in Los Angeles as an emigrant. He sent pictures the last time and we could not believe he drives a red car that looked like a Lamborghini—but I believe he got it from some second hand store.

Back to the present. And so Tony, Russell and Sheva were with me yesterday with their kids celebrating Yuri’s grand day out. We made some discussion on the formation of our organization and when Evelyn finally sat down on our table, we mulled over the possibility of tapping resources from the health sector like doctors and nurses willing to assist us in medical missions in the future. Already, even while our constitution and by-laws are yet to be instituted, we had invites from TESDA for a livelihood seminar in Basilan. And by early January, we are heading to Sibuco for a reconnoitering activity, introducing ourselves to our pilot area and see for ourselves the geographical, societal, and economical make up of the locality. (See the proposed logo for PPRO below)

Some active juices came rushing from my head as Tony narrated the coming itineraries for it reminded of days when I was the President of the student council in the Western Mindanao State University. It was sort of this kind of activities we pursued in those days. We travel and inspect places. We sat in many sessions of trainings and seminars. We met a lot of people. We create and initiate activities out of nothing. When I run for the presidency, my slogan was “ we can make things happen”, and although not much happening in my own term (in a year, the time is so short for a student regime), still my rendezvous as a student leader made me realize that with perseverance and a lot of talking to lots of people and going to a lot of places can make materialize anything that you have in mind. I remember this particular project that I had in school, a mural painting contest that I mulled over with a battalion commander of a Marines infantry based in Jolo at that time. He was so young and a friend of my law classmate Arlene Pelaez, already an attorney now. I went ahead with all the nitty-gritty works—scheduling, planning the opening and closing programs, approaching city councilors as guest speakers, soliciting for sponsorship funds for trophies and free paint, seeking permission from University President Eldigario Gonzales, (we had to negotiate for a particular schedule ‘no, I am not here at this date’, ‘oh, you must see the vice-president for something about this’, ‘ no program for this date, the gymnasium is in use’)—and everything came to place except that when the contest day came so nearly approaching, the said Marines battalion commander wasn’t around no more. He had insisted on providing the paint and the judges. So I got worried but did not stop at worrying. I went to the Southern Command camp where the Marines were based and was informed that the commander was in Jolo. I requested to have some contact with him. The few soldiers in their barracks lugging around like tired horses, said he was in the middle of combat embarking on a major assault on the Abu Sayyaf. I was disheartened and went home thinking, there would be no time to cover up for the task of looking for judges and sponsors for the paints, in so short a time remaining. So the next day, I went back to the barracks and insisted that I talked to the commander. I said there must be some way of communicating to him. You are the military; you must have all the gadgets. And surely enough they have the gadgets. So we called him on the kind of enormous phone kit that we see on some soldiers awkwardly lugging at their back when they are in the heat of battle. The phone was like no phone at all. It felt and sounded like a SMW radio receiver but it did work through crackling voices and interrupted conversation. As if there was a miracle, the commander said that he is heading to Zamboanga the soonest possible time after he asked permission from his higher-ups. And so the project pushed through in grand colors and it was the first time I spoke in front of TV as the ABS-CBN local news program gave a live on-sight interview of the commander and me. Now I remember that he wasn’t really a commander but I get use to call him that in the few days we were together and I forgot his name now. He could not have been a commander for he was so young and very young looking at that. He was then a lieutenant leading a unit of Marines. Maybe he was just an infantry leader. I just do not have the proper coinage for these military hierarchies as of this moment.

(A re-post from 2004)

Tuba