Thursday, July 05, 2007

La Pieta

"Why do the leaves fall?"

As a child of six or seven, I recall sitting under the shade of a lofty tree in my grandmother's garden, looking with delight at the numerous golden-hued leaves gently falling from their lofty perch, and gliding through the air with the care and ease of a child at play. I would smile whenever they hit the ground, but I also quietly wondered to myself if they were dead, of if they were ever afraid whilst they were falling. My parents worked for most of the day, so they hired a maid to take care of me. The maid would always be by my side, bored to tears at having to watch over me counting all the leaves that fell to the ground. I would always ask her for an answer, and she would always give me the same reply: they fall because God makes them fall, and that they were His gifts to me for just being alive.

We would also walk the entire length of the street for fun. I would always cover my eyes and ears when nearing the end of the street, because of the presence of a huge, festering sewer. To a child, it looked like the gaping jaws of Hell; now, whenever I see it, it looks small and unassuming. I did not have that many friends to play with: most of them were already 'big kids' and did not get off school until the afternoon. I, on the other hand, was still in the first grade, and we were dismissed the very minute the clock struck eleven in the morning. But I would always hear wailing and crying whenever I got home. It was not the melodramatic outpouring of grown ups, but the simple pleas and grunts of a child-- or so it seemed.

The sound, I soon found out, came from our next door neighbor. They were very good friends of my uncle, who used to hang out with Ronnie, who was the head of that family. They had known each other since the first grade, and that friendship would last until they had finally graduated from college. From the stories I heard, they were both athletes, and competed in a myriad of competitions, where they would always rank in the upper echelons. Strangely, despite spending a lot of time with my uncle, I did not really inherit his love of sport-- he excelled at everything he tried, from football to hockey to rugby to basketball, while I remain committed to at most, two.

The sound continued to bother me for some time: I earnestly thought there was an infestation of ghosts and monsters in that house, while my maid would just dismiss it with a wave of her hand. Nonsense, she said. But what if they were true? Then I would scare away the monsters and protect you from harm. This was her solemn vow, and I believed it. Eventually, on one of our afternoon walks, we saw a curious sight outside the house beside ours. There was a conglomeration of maids, all dressed in uniform, in the midst of which was an electric blue stroller, built more sturdily than any I had ever seen before, and bigger. A boy sat in the stroller; he was good-looking, with sharp mestizo features, bright gray eyes, and chestnut hair. But there was something wrong about the boy, something off about the way his tongue lolled lazily out of his mouth, how he could virtually not move at all, and how the maids would always look at him with pity and hopelessness.

The boy's name was Joshua, and he was suffering from a very severe case of cerebral palsy. He was already fifteen when I first saw him, but his actions suggested to me that he was about my age, despite the disparity in our sizes. I would often hear him talked about in our street: most were kind words of gentleness and compassion, whilst others were of a more venomous kind. A group of kids who had nothing to do would sometimes pelt him with grapes (this was the reason why he had so many maids looking after him); some bored housewives quietly snickered to themselves and said, 'Sayang abnormal, may itsura pa naman' (It's too bad he is abnormal, since he has been blessed with good genes). My own attitude to Joshua was that of wonder and excitement. I wasn't afraid to go near him, and my maid would often converse with his own, and join them in keeping an eye at the boy. Joshua, in turn, would look at me, and try his best to smile, despite the difficulties it involved.

Looking back at Joshua, I realize now how much I have been blessed. I myself suffered from seizures as a child: my parents tell me how, out of the blue, six days after my fourth month, I suddenly froze in my crib, and how they feared the worst for me. I was put on medication for six years, the bitter taste of phenobarbital clinging to the roof of my mouth and my tongue with surprising force. But none of that ultimately compared to Joshua's condition. There was a time before when I wondered why his parents still haven't given up on him, considering how the family was embroiled in scandal after scandal, all very private, but whispers of which were eventually bound to escape the confines of their home. They could have just confined him to an institution or sent him to live with their rich relatives in the fabled island of Negros, where he would be free to stroll the length and breadth of their farmlands away from the scrutiny of malicious eyes.

It is only now that I am starting to realize how much he has been a blessing to me. Indirectly or otherwise, I learned to be more thoughtful and compassionate, thanks to the mangled frame of Joshua's body. When drool poured from a corner in his mouth, his maids would scramble to wipe it away clean; when kids were taunting him, they would chase after them like a mother bear defending her cubs. And when old wives started to tell tales about him, his parents would tell him stories of knights and dragons, to which he would always respond with glee. His eyes would light up, and the faintest trace of motor skills would manifest themselves in a slight twitch of his arm, or a swagger of his leg, a cause of celebration for the entire household. For them, it was as it truly is: a miracle from God, no more, no less.

When I see Joshua, I am thankful for the many things God had given me which I would otherwise have taken for granted. I am thankful for my seizures, for giving me fresh eyes to see the world and its beauty, despite the ugliness many of us are wont to sow. I am thankful for my parents, for doing to best they can for me. I am thankful for my faithful maid, for always taking me on those afternoon strolls. These helped me realize that the world is far bigger than myself, and that it is far too beautiful to be marred by my problems. I am thankful for Joshua, for making me realize these things with exceptional clarity. They say that it is only in the small, the fragile and the broken that we begin to see God. In Joshua's case, his paralysis and loss of motor skills ultimately pointed me to God, a God that knows what it is to suffer and be ridiculed. It is this great mystery that lies at the bottom of the heart: where is God?

And I realize now what tremendous truth that answer always contained. He is in the leaves, He makes them fall, and He guides them and plays with them, and although they may be dead, they have been touched by God their Maker. In the broken frame of Joshua's body, I could see the hand of God, working through His 'defects' and keeping the people around him together. The leaves fall because God desires them to be a gift to His children, to make them see that there is still good in this world, despite the evil that men do and the darkness that surrounds it.

I have often wondered why people made a big deal about his features. Were he of more obvious Asian descent, would people still care? He is a child of God just as much as I am, and the kids who taunt him and the housewives who wag their heads in his presence. But now I see why there was such a big deal: it is because Joshua literally looked like our popular image of Jesus. Were he darker and had longer hair and a beard, he would look exactly like James Caviezel did in 'The Passion of the Christ'. This resemblance, though, does not rest on the purely superficial. Joshua's face, frozen in an expression if indecipherable agony and joy, resembles most the mute and grieving face of the Messiah, looking at us in pity from His perch on the cross.

The last time I saw Joshua was a few days after my seventh birthday in 1996. He was strolling with his maids again when I went outside to inspect the surroundings with my parents. I saw Joshua coming at us from a distance, and already I could see that his condition had gotten a lot worse than in the previous years. He could barely move anymore, and his communication, hampered as it was already, was now reduced to a babble of grunts and weird noises. I smiled at Joshua, and walked over to him. I picked up a leaf from the ground, freshly fallen from a withering branch above me, and placed it in his right hand. Then, for the first time in my life, and also the last, I saw Joshua smile-- not the pained, arthritic and suffering contortions as before, but a full-fledged smile that extended from ear to ear, his pearly white teeth glinting under the noonday sun. God had heard his prayers and bade the sun to stop.

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