Face to Face With Death

Having a face-to-face encounter with a dying person is really heart-breaking.

Two days after my phone conversation with my aunt who informed me that my other aunt was dying, I traveled almost seven hours on a bus to visit my dying aunt.

Upon arrival, I rushed immediately to the ICU. As I was walking through the dark entrance, I remembered that the last time I saw her was almost a year ago. And so our last conversation. What happened? Why was I disconnected for so long?

At our first eye contact, my lovely aunt greeted me with a smile. Her face lighted up a bit. I could see the joy in her eyes somewhat overpowered the suffering that couldn’t be hidden in her face. Joy and suffering seemed to come hand-in-hand in that moment as if they were best of friends — inseparable. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know how to react. Should I cry? Should I smile? Would it be okay to show my pain?  Should I be happy? Should I ask, “How are you?” I Didn’t know.

For a few seconds, I was stunned, literally unable to move. She was less than one arm away from me, but I didn’t reach for her. With all my communication skill, I couldn’t speak. Tears wanted so badly to escape my eyes, but didn’t flow. Then she took the first move. She reached for me.

Unexpectedly, my dying aunt, still smiling, lying helplessly on her ICU bed, gently lifted her right arm and rendered me a military salute. That, I never anticipated.

In military practice, you cannot lower your arm when saluting an officer until that officer lowers his arm after acknowledging your salute. Only then, you can lower your arm and carry on.

Adding to my surprise, my dearest aunt — with all those hoses attached to her nose and throat, and with all those other medical gadgets wrapped to her wrist and clipped to her index finger — didn’t lower her saluting arm. she waited for me to respond…militarily.

At that moment, my other aunt, the one who called me two days earlier, jerked me back to reality by saying, “Hey Arnold, she’s saluting you! Respond! Salute back!” Then instantly I returned to myself. At last I was able to salute her back as an acknowledgement. After lowering my arm, she lowered hers, all according to how it must be done in the military.

I stayed with her in almost an hour, feeling helpless, inadequate, stupid, hopeless, and most of all feeling the pain — all the pain and suffering— she’s going through.

What I saw in there was a very strong and capable sharp mind trapped in a very weak, incapable, permanently damaged body. In my assessment, I could say that despite her condition, she still had the sharpest mind among us all in that room at the moment. She knew the time. She can even count hours and minutes. She remembers, for she knew I had a military background, she even insisted to follow the correct protocol in saluting. I was amazed!

After the saluting moment, she opened her mouth which was already half open because of the tube attached to it. Without audible sound, she uttered a word I instantly recognized by reading her lips. She said, “your mama?” She was asking me where’s my mom. She knew that my mom (her eldest sister) lives in Thailand, and she was asking me  through gesture if my mom is coming home. I quickly and enthusiastically answered that part. With confidence, I said, “Yes. She’s coming today. She will arrive at the airport in six hours time, and I will get her there and bring her to you here.”

Then she lifted her right hand again and gestured the thumb’s up sign. She smiled again while nodding.

I didn’t expect either what happened next. She turned her head to my other aunt, and signaled that she needed a paper and a pen. Then she looked at me as if instructing me to pay attention to what she’s going to write. I did not dare to resist or contradict. As she stroked the first letter, I fixed my eyes to the paper. I saw “W” and then “e” and then “l”

With all her remaining strength, in a very slow motion, she completed her message. It read:

Sister, Welcome back to the Philippines! I love you!

Then she attached her signature, looked at me and threw me a very sweet smile. That smile melted me instantly. My tears began to flow.

For me, it was a very humbling experience. I felt stupid and lousy. I couldn’t respond appropriately on the first few seconds of our encounter, I didn’t know what words to say, I didn’t know what emotion to feel and how to express it. Or whether I should express it or not. I didn’t know how to move or act. Everything for me was awkward, confusing, hurting!

Watching my dearest aunt on her face-to-face encounter with death made me think how short life is and how much and how far we divert from the most important matters in life. On her last moments, everything that mattered to my aunt was her precious relationships. All her academic achievements, previous prestige, her titles and other possessions faded in thin air as if they were not important at all. Everything that’s important on her dying hours were her precious relationships — her family, her best friends.

After that encounter, I went outside the hospital to grasp for fresh air, I went to the nearby mall to buy some food I could stock. I watched people around me — those people at the streets, at the mall, at the stores, even those people at the hospital. I asked myself, what am I busy right now in my life? Do these things that preoccupy my heart and mind right now will still preoccupy me on my death bed when my time comes? Or like my dear aunt, will they vanish in thin air too, like a non-important item ready to be dislodged in the trash anytime?

I sensed a misalignment — a very profound one. Many people I worked with, and that includes me, live their lives (our lives) accumulating things and experiences that I think wouldn’t even matter when the time comes. Many of us preoccupy our daily life with activities that will not make sense on our deathbed.

My dear aunt, on her last days, didn’t even remember she was a beauty queen during her time. She didn’t mention any of her possessions, or how much money she left on the bank. She did not boast about her brilliant ideas and her incoming projects. No, during those days, her last days, her focus was her loved ones, she wrote repeatedly the names of her family, one by one on papers. She wrote repeatedly the words “I love you!” both in English and in our local dialect.

I didn’t sense a feeling of regret from her. I didn’t see bitterness either. The nurse even told me, “I admire your aunt! She’s very patient — very slow to complain and that she never got angry when in pain. Unlike many patients who complain non-stop about their pain and become angry to the nurses, to the doctors, even to God.”

Fast forwarding my life to that moment, to my last days, I ask myself, will I ever feel regret? Will I look back on the years that passed and say, “I should not have lived my life that way.”

All her life, she has been a great inspiration to me…yes up to the very last days of her consciousness. I think her face-to-face moment with death awakened in me the spirit of renewal, the desire to filter life on a daily basis, removing non-essentials, focusing only on what matters most in life, forgetting those things that will not make sense on my death bed when my time comes. She left me an impact that will last until my last breath. For as long as I live, she lives in my heart too.

Acid Test

Life has a way to test us like gold.

Yesterday morning, I woke up in a bright lovely morning. Despite my lack of sleep for several days now, and despite my exhausted muscles, I greeted the morning sunlight with a wide smile, ready to face the day with enthusiasm.

To express that childlike delight, I searched my portable hard drive for a photo of a smiling baby. Then I opened the AdobeSpark website to make a Spark Post. I put the following words over the photo:

Happiness is a choice we choose everyday.

After staring at my work for a few moments, scrutinizing my simple design, I then happily posted it in MyDay of my messenger. I was hoping that I can make some of my friends smile  — just spreading the positive vibes of having a light heart in the morning.

One minute later, my phone rang. My auntie was on the other side of the line. Then she dropped the bomb: her sister’s condition at the ICU has gotten hopeless. My other auntie might die within 24 hours. Suddenly I heard the ticking of the clock.

As we talked, tears began to form drops at the corners of my eyes. Memories of my dying auntie flashed one by one, persistently interrupting our conversation. After the phone talk, I went to my room and allowed my tears to flow freely into my cheek as I still reminisce those moments I had with my dying auntie. My happy moments started to dissolve in a tiny dose of a sad new.

Who was she, by the way? Why was I so affected?

I was raised by five sisters, my mom and her sisters. In my last post, The Beast In Me, I shared the story of my other auntie, the one who nailed the idea in my brain that I am perpetually ugly, and that no one — NOT ONE GIRL IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD — would ever get to like me. So I grew up as a shy adult believing that notion as an irrefutable scientifically-proven fact.

On the other hand, I have another auntie who has become closest to my heart. She became my closest friend among my mother’s four sisters. I was seven years old when she acquired a medical condition that made her sickly for the rest of her life. She became very weak physically, but to be honest, she has become — for a very long time — my idol in terms of mental strength. Her mind compensated a great deal for her lack of physical strength. She’s sharp in reasoning and has an amazing memory. In the family, I grew up hearing everyone calling her “walking encyclopedia.”

Many doctors have already predicted that she won’t last long. Well all of them were wrong. Different specialists, from different highly respected hospitals have already given up on her. But maybe because of her strong mind, she remained intact despite the prolonged physical suffering. She has become the source of emotional strength for so many people. She just doesn’t know how much she has become an inspiration to many.

Strangely enough she has also been great in timing. I have many close friends, many of them are really bad in timing: they send me wrong messages, using wrong words, in wrong moments of my life. One friend asked me money in times of my financial crisis. Of course I couldn’t help her. Another friend bombarded me with complaints in times of my inner struggles. But this aunt — my closest aunt, never fails to amaze me in her timing. We live from different parts of the country and seldom communicate. But somehow, her mind is connected to mine. She would send me encouraging words in my lowest times; she would ask me for an all-night-conversation during the time when I also needed someone to talk to; she would give me some jokes in times of my loneliness. She didn’t know that those interactions with her were just the ones I needed most at that time.

Now, all those memories flashed back to my mind during my phone conversation. Then deep inside me, I was praying, “I don’t want her to die. No, not yet.”

After the phone call, I went to my room and cried. Then I remembered the message I just posted in my messenger.  I asked myself, How can I choose to be happy now? Then the inner dialogue began. My mind played a tug-of-war on its own.

Part of me justifies that its okay to be not happy in times like these. That it’s a normal emotion and is part of human life.

The other half part of me insists that if i’m going to be affected by a negative news, then I’m not living up with what I’ve just posted in Messenger — I’m not choosing to be happy.

The Test

When I was a boy, I asked my dad why he dips a golden jewelry into a liquid before he buys it. He’s simple answer was “To make sure it’s a real gold.”

Later, I learned that the liquid was an acid that can dissolve different metals and alloy, except gold. That’s why they use it to test if a jewelry is pure gold or not before they buy it.

Maybe acid testing was invented by alchemists a long time ago. Maybe until now modern chemists do it still. I don’t care. But it reminds me that life has a natural way of testing the gold in all of us in subtle ways we normally ignore: I just posted that happiness is something I choose everyday, then suddenly I was put in a day where I won’t naturally choose it. I was being tested. Just a small dose of sadness started to dissolve that happiness in my face. Is my happiness not pure?

One time I claimed that one of my strengths is patience.  Then what followed was a series of life situations that really challenged my patience so hard I started to question whether patience is really one of my strengths.

As a Christian, I always declare that grace and forgiveness is at the center of my belief. And that declaration is being constantly challenged by circumstances: by having enemies to forgive; by discovering that my friend is stabbing me behind my back; by dealing with people who accuse me wrongfully; by learning that the one I trust cannot truly be trusted; by colleagues who unreasonably envy me; by a friend who constantly fail me.

Life indeed is a natural acid test. It helps us become pure in our motives. It dissolves some pride and arrogance hidden in our hearts. It removes other impurities. As we are dipped into the acid test of life, we can be assured of one thing: when we emerge, we will emerge as a shining gold — pure, adaptive, resistant to rust, and most of all, full of value.


The Beast in Me

I have a confession to make.

I’m afraid of women. Specially when I am physically attracted to them. As to why I do, I just realized it two years ago when I was 41. After knowing this, a lady friend told me, “Bro, you have been deprived of many things for so long.” About those things I’ve been deprived of, that’s debatable. As for “so long,” I concur. 😁

People usually mistaken me as a confident man who have mastered himself. Well, in some degree, that’s true. Normally I am confident to face a woman (or anyone) if I am to talk to her about ideas, beliefs, values, or anything related to work. Or any other topic for that matter. But when I admire a woman, I become shy, too shy that all my self-confidence vanishes in the air.

And why is that?

Two years ago, through the help of two female friends, I discovered why. Here’s the summary: I grew up in a very tight family. Five young ladies took care of me during my youngest years: my mother and her four sisters. One of my aunts was very influential to me. Her words — her daily reassurance — became an irrefutable fact in my mind. Every day, she assured me that I was ugly. That no one would ever be attracted to me. That I would never have a girlfriend because no one would ever like me. That brainwashing process began before I was five years old.

She would tell me those words when she was combing my hair or fixing my school uniform or tying my shoes. She would say that again whenever I would attend a class Christmas party or acquaintance party or whenever she would take me to school or to the park. She would remind me again before I went to church for a Sunday service. Almost untiringly, she told me that many times every single day.

I didn’t even question her. I was too young to reason out or even to clarify. I just believed her with all my heart. Everyday it sank to me just a little bit deeper without me noticing it. As the years went by, the sound of her consistent voice gradually became truth to me.

When I reached high school, she would always ask me, “Do you think one of your classmates would have a crush on you? I doubt,  you’re ugly!” During college, she commented, “I’m sure you still don’t have a girlfriend. That face (pointing to my face) won’t ever have a girlfriend!”

Through the years she would relentlessly convey to me the same message over and over. She would just use different words, and structured the statements differently — sometimes in a form of authoritative declaration (You’re not handsome!); sometimes in a form of a compelling question (Would they even notice you?). Nevertheless, the message was the same: I am ugly. And no one would ever like me. Ever!

As I recall now, she was just teasing me like an older sister to a younger brother. But nevertheless, her joke became true to my heart.

Her words were injected in my mind without any resistance. They were like toxic fumes that I breathed daily, unawares. I never felt hatred or resentment to my aunt. I just stupidly believed her. Remember, I was just five years old. And I was ugly!

That’s why the Disney animation “The Beauty and the Beast” became my instant favorite the moment I watched it more than twenty five years ago. I have loved the movie for three reasons:

  • First, because I can relate fully with the feelings of the beast — knowing how ugly he is. I knew the fear, the assurance that I would always be rejected no matter what. I knew the pain of not having someone who would love me. I understood the loneliness.
  • Second, I knew how hot-tempered I was, just like the beast. I admit, that it wasn’t only my face that was ugly. My temper too.
  • Third, I still hope against hope that one day, someone would love me for all my ugliness! But of course I never expected that I would be transformed into a handsome prince one day. Hehe, that part, I was sure to be fantasy. Besides, I wasn’t cursed. There was no magic spell to break. I was simply dealing with my “ugly” reality. 😊

Few years ago I wrote the article Unlikely Protagonist. There, I mentioned that most of the time, when I watched movies, I fantasize myself as the protagonist. I can immediately relate to the star of the story, the good guy, the hero. There is one exception though: my favorite movie — The Beauty and the Beast. Only in that movie that I can relate fully with the antagonist, the bad guy, the ugly one. That’s why it’s my favorite!

Yesterday,  I watched it again. And I was laughing at myself. After all those years the movie can still touch me to my core. Honestly, I’m still the same shy person. But I’m not bitter.

What have I learned?

When my friend told me that I have been deprived… I knew that’s debatable. My aunt’s words took a different form in my heart. As a growing young boy, I naively accepted the fact that I’m ugly. So I didn’t attempt to court any lady. Instead, I satisfied myself to become “just a friend” to them. As a result, most of my closest friends since grade school up to now are women. I realized that if I became “just a friend,” I won’t get rejected. And true enough, I have never been rejected.

But if you are to ask me about sex, maybe that’s where I’ve been deprived of for a long time. All of my lady friends are really just friends. We never had sex, or had any romantic relationships. Comparing to other males out there who had too many sexual experiences, I cannot compete. But why should I? My friendship with those women are more meaningful to me than sexual relationships. I prefer a soulmate than a sexual playmate. Sex had become the last thing in my mind. Rather, I focused too much on trust, respect, encouragements, growth, and love!

Still I feel lucky, perhaps luckier than most men who had many sexual partners. In fact, I have male friends who envy me because most women trust me more than they trust them. I still remember in my grade school and high school days (during camping and other outdoor events) when my female classmates would prefer me to accompany them when they were to change their clothes over my male classmates who were volunteering themselves.

When it comes to sex, I admit I’m still afraid of women. I still don’t have that “macho” confidence many males have. I still see that ugly beast in me who will surely be rejected. I still feel that it’s impossible for a woman to like me or be attracted to me. Without doubt, the decades of brainwashing took a strong almost permanent effect on me. It really did sink in, so deep that it’s now difficult to uproot.

My aunt may have succeeded in exposing me to a toxic fume that I naively breathed without noticing. But without both of us knowing it, I have acquired other things — things that are more important than sex. Because of fear I learned to be gentle to women. My ugliness taught me to focus on building trust, respect, companionship, encouragement, deep care, and other virtues rather than sex.

Because of my childhood I have learned the meaning of platonic love — something many men don’t fully understand.

True Colors

Sometimes the true colors of nature are not visible to the eyes. Specially if those colors are hidden behind a beautifully displayed flower. But through a special lens, those hidden colors are revealed. They are exposed, and they become clear.

An old friend — who is not a friend anymore — often told me, “Don’t always believe what you see. Your eyes can be deceived. Most of the time, what is true is hidden behind the scenes; and what seems to be is not always the real thing.” That was thirteen years ago.

At first, I thought he was just sharing with me a favorite quote or saying that has caught his attention and never left. Six years later, I discovered something about him that was exactly what the quote was saying. I couldn’t believe it. I was his close friend for many years. Maybe his only friend. Apparently, what he showed me through those years, was just the surface — the very opposite of what he was underneath.

Since then I became more aware, always cautious that another reality maybe existing below the surface, that there may have tears behind the smiles, or a prejudiced heart is just coated with gentleness.

But what then? When some people encounter similar experiences, they learn to distrust others. Not me. What I learned instead was to be cautious. To be careful. To test the surface. To look for signs.

I also became aware that whenever the surface is not the same with what’s under, it’s not always intentional. Ever since, many people always mistaken me to be confident. Little do they know — in fact, only my closest friends know it— that I’m not that confident…that many times I’m struggling with my own selfsteem.

But that is not intentional. I am not pretending. That confidence is not an acting. And where it comes from, I do not know.

Sometimes the opposite of my old friend is also true. I have met people who at first were very intimidating and antagonistic only to surprise me later — during my lowest point when all those so called friends have left my side — that they are true friends. That I could count on them.

That’s how I came to appreciate those three photos. With only my naked eyes, those glamorous colorful backgrounds were not that beautiful. They were just blurry images. Unattractive. Unnoticeable. But through the camera lens, they were revealed beautifully — lovely and captivating.

Maybe because I expected it that way.

Just like in life, my attitude and expectations to people are the equivalent of my little camera lens. Although it may not be absolute, but most of the times, what I silently expect deep inside me are the ones that usually show up.

Maybe that’s how it works: I become distrustful of people and expect ugly things from them, then those expectations will later become reality.

The opposite may also be true: I expect beautiful things from people who don’t look promising at first, then they will surprise me later with beautiful colors — lovely and captivating.

And as a photographer chooses her lens, so I choose my attitude toward people. The choice is mine.

How about you, what do you expect today? What lens are you using?

Paradigm Shift: A Quick One

While reading Philip Yancey‘s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, this afternoon, a little boy, who was a total stranger to me, came unannounced and annoyingly disturbed my quiet world.

First, he touched my iPhone which was peacefully lying on the left side of my table. Then he began rummaging on my table in a surprising manner, like a warden conducting a surprise inspection to a suspicious inmate.

I was shocked.

Then, in a hurry, he walked in front of the table and moved my displays one by one, inspecting them like he did to my iPhone—lifting them up, turning them upside down, and NOT putting them back where they belonged. Maybe he was looking for something, drugs, electronic bugs, I didn’t know. He did it with full authority, serious face, and without a smile.

My shock shifted to anger.

As a boy, I was brought up by my militaristic father under heavy strokes of discipline. Almost every move I made are counted by the number, every motion needed precision. I had to behave or I would be punched in the head or slapped in my face. With that heavy upbringing, my initial reaction to the boy who rummaged my table and violated my tranquility, was of course, one of anger. I couldn’t take the idea that he would get away with that kind of misbehavior without being spanked or at least yelled at. I was screaming “That’s unfair!” inside my heart. There is a strong force inside me that makes me expect the same discipline to every child I encounter, even now that I’m an adult. Anything less would trigger my temper.

The child’s ugly demeanor, jerked me back more than thirty five years ago, on the time when I was still his age. And while in the process of reminiscing my painful childhood, he made another blow. He reached out to me and touched the wooden knife I was holding in my hand. Sometimes, as a mannerism, I would hold on something—any object—while reading a book. This time, I was holding (and playing with my hands) a knife replica made of soft wood while reading my book aloud.

No, he did not just touch it. He held it firmly trying to get it from me, out of my hand. And he did it very quickly (almost surprising me) as if anticipating my resistance. When I resisted, he quickly ran toward my left side and opened the drawer of my table—continuing his unbelievable surprise inspection! Now, my building-up anger, suddenly metamorphosed into a full-grown rage. I was about to stand up and shout at him with blazing eyes.

At that point, I saw her mother running toward us reprimanding him in a graceful manner. I couldn’t believe it! All those untoward behaviors just treated with grace? But her mother was as quick as her little boy. She said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, my son is autistic. He is super active, hyperactive actually. He’s just five years old, and couldn’t speak.”

Upon hearing what she said — autistic! — , I suddenly experienced a change of heart. My blazing rage, rapidly melted uncontrolled. My anger, suddenly turned into compassion, plus a little shame to myself for being too quick to judge. I experienced a PARADIGM SHIFT.

Not all paradigm shifts happen that quick. In fact, most “change of heart” happen in a gradual way, taking up many years to transform. Nevertheless, whether paradigm shift happens in a slow, gradual way or in a sweeping stroke like the one I experienced this afternoon, it is always a powerful force. Powerful enough to change our emotion, to change our behavior, to change our treatment to other people…to change our lives.

My encounter with that little autistic boy helped me connect with what I have been reading. The book The Jesus I Never Knew is about a major paradigm shift in how Philip perceived the Jesus he thought he knew. And his perception changed dramatically when he scrutinized the life of Jesus according the gospels.

Just like Philip to Jesus, my perception to the boy was that he’s a spoiled child who needs discipline, extra discipline. I was seeing him as a negative person, simply undesirable. Yet after hearing one word—autistic—I changed my lenses. Suddenly he was a cute little boy who needs love, extra love, unconditional love.

All of a sudden, the boys behavior is justified. They became unoffending, even adorable.

I have learned that sometimes, if I needed a different result in what I’m doing, I just need to change the way I look at things. Just like in photography, I just need to replace my macro lens with a wide-angled lens. So I will be able to see the big picture, including all the surrounding.

While I was unconsciously building up my anger to the little boy, I was using my macro lens, concentrating on the details of his behavior, his rapid movements, his not being polite to at least smile at me, his irritating curiosity. But when I changed my perception, I changed the lens of my mind with a wide-angled lens, thereby seeing the surroundings, seeing the difficulty and courage of her mother in taking care of her, seeing his inability to connect meaningfully with other people even with just a simple smile, seeing his fondness in concrete objects, understanding that he is not in control of his behaviors.

When I changed my paradigm, I changed my heart, my feelings followed, then my behavior almost automatically supported that new paradigm.

Now, 2017 is coming in a few days. I am asking myself, what behaviors do I need to change for the better? What paradigm should I start shifting?

Actions in the Air

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just a few hours ago, this afternoon, I was relaxing under the shade of a tree when a bunch of Maya birds ransacked playfully the left-over food of my puppy. So I quickly grabbed my camera, covered my head with a brown scarf and position myself about four meters away from them. Out of more than 50 shots, I only captured 6 actions in the air. The photos are not as good as you may expect, but at least I liked them.