The author of this story is a friend of mine. I "met" him when I asked for a copy of "A Damaged Culture" and the rest is history. He writes for the American Chronicle and his profile there reads
Based in Manila, for a Filipino, has mastery of the English language that's unprecedented. Freelance, a one-man band as writer, editor, desktop publisher, blogger, copywriter. At 71, writes faster, fuller, and funnier than at 61, or 51, or 41. A super writer, Dr Antonio C Oposa calls him. He's unbelievable; he's real.
To me, he's a very interesting person who can sometimes infuriate and sometimes elucidate, but always with an eloquence that is lost to people from our generation. The image link below goes to a picture he referred to in this piece. Perhaps, after reading this, you can check it out. This is a narrative about himself, which he briefly summarizes within the text. It is a journal entry. It is his confession in his own words. If you enjoy this story--as I hope you will--you might want to visit his blog.
'There Is No Greater Agony' by Mazelle (flickr.com/)
Copyright March 2007.
Published in ‘My Reuter Almanac’ (myreuteralmanac.wordpress.com/). May be reproduced without permission as long as credit is given.
18 March 2007 – The pastoral text / cellphone SMS of Fr Reuter is this: In agony, our Lord looked up at the silent sky and said: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ When you feel abandoned, remember Our Lord was lonely, too.
So have I.
Fr James B Reuter, SJ: Your message has become a private revelation to me; thanks! A new lesson for old me. I am The Boy Who Broke His Own Heart.
Mazelle’s photo I fell in love with the moment I saw it, because the image struck in me a tortured chord (metaphorically speaking), the truth I see in that long caption: ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ This is a photograph that is also a painting, where the content is not found in the scene but in the impact – because it’s incomplete with details, you have to complete it in your mind. My story is about completing.
With this story of my life, I bear witness to that, my own agony arising from a failure to believe in others – that is, to share in trust; and a failure to believe in God – that is, to share in total confidence and to abide completely in hope. Mazelle’s image brings me back to those bug-eyed, blemished years that I bid farewell to when finally I was able to give up my reason and submitted to faith. A long day’s journey into right.
In this my journey of a thousand miles, you will see that I lost my way – in fact, I almost lost me.
‘When you feel abandoned, remember Our Lord was lonely, too.’ I’m 67 and counting (my blessings), and that thought never occurred to me in my many lonely years, in all those discouraging decades (3 of them) after I was kicked out of the University of the Philippines (UP) in the early 1960s – labeled Extreme Delinquent for a semester’s string of grades for 5 subjects (don’t ask) that went this way: 5, 5, 5, 4, 4, where 5 was Failed, 4 was Conditional. I had failed hard, too hard. I had fallen in love hard, too hard. I was so busy attending to my heart I didn’t have time attending to my studies.
Not long after that I broke my own heart – I broke up with my sweetheart, my first love – the girl who had a boyfriend who had been Extremed (that would be me) – saying goodbye to all that when I felt I a poor Ilocano was being discriminated against by the Tagalogs, the son of a tiller of the soil from Central Luzon, Philippines. I made my affair of hearts also an affair of tribes, and the tribes had always been ill-at-ease with each other. Adding salt to injury, to be Extremed at that time was to be shoved to the fire and brimstone. You became the talk of the (small) town. When bad things happen, you notice they come in twos. When good things happen, you notice they come in only singly, or once in a blue moon. When the discrimination hit me in full face in the midst of dancing during a fiesta celebration one late May – I was insulted, no matter how subtly – I saw red; my face felt so hot I had to splash my face with ice-cold water a few times. I did not realize it then, but that was the beginning of a slow burn, and the log was me.
I didn’t know my mind was having problems with me until one morning I woke up blabbing about something that disturbed the neighborhood in the farming village of Sanchez in the sleepy town of Asingan in Pangasinan. I was blabbering that my brother Emilio was either dead or dying. I was so sure of it. He was abroad then and death was his farthest thought (he’s very much alive today, living in Sanchez in a new nice house with his new wife, Norma). I was sleeping at the house of my Auntie Simeona at that time – I wasn’t that big, I wasn’t that brave, but they needed a male companion at night (it’s a long story) – and somebody called my parents and they called for my namesake Dr Francisco Sapigao, who gave me medicine to drink. They all do, don’t they, the doctors give you orders to follow and medicine to drink. He didn’t tell me that something was wrong with me.
That incident was soon forgotten; even I forgot about it, until it happened again, I must have blabbered the same things, and Dr Sapigao came again and did the same thing. You can’t do a good thing once too many. Still he didn’t tell me that there was something wrong with me.
Something was wrong with me. I began to really get worried. I hadn’t known I had been worrying myself to death about having lost face – a bright boy from the village kicked out of the State College, 1st Honorable Mention in high school, the pride of his parents, one of young hopes of the village – and having lost the love of my life. Life to me had become extra-special – extra-breakable as drinking glass. Handle with care.
I had always been a special child, and perhaps as a result of that, an especially sensitive boy. When I was very small, my uncle Florentino took me on a carabao ride; while the three of us were crossing the river, somehow I slipped from my uncle’s grasp and nearly drowned – he couldn’t find me in the murky water almost too long. I was too young I don’t remember the incident, but my mind does – until now, I’m a little afraid of drowning in the water in the river, or sea, or swimming pool.
I don’t remember the years, but I remember a few times waking up to find crying faces around me, they having given me up for dead – I had stopped breathing! I believe they call that apnea. (Even today, day or night, sometimes I wake up out of breath.) I was my Mother’s Son also because of another inborn physical disability – clue: I can’t lift heavy objects – and I got exempted from ROTC because of that.
This time, what I had was more than apnea. I was drowning in my own unknown fears and hurts. I was now sleeping in fits and starts. I began seeing the number 13 in any combination of digits I saw on any printed matter, on walls, on buses, everywhere. I would add them digit by digit and see if they came up to the number 13. I equated 13 vaguely with evil, vaguely death, vaguely insanity. I would watch a movie and my heart would pound so hard I had to go out and not finish it. I couldn’t look at people and feel comforted. I could joke to comfort someone just in case, but no one could comfort me; in any case, I don’t remember if anybody tried. I think they thought there was nothing the matter with me, except a few quirks in behavior (it’s not easy to understand a loner) – or they pretended there was nothing wrong with me so that I would get better on my own accord.
I wasn’t pretending. I knew I wasn’t getting better – I was getting worse. I was still as bright, as intelligent as I was before, but I felt I was losing this war of wits between me and my own mind.
In between each battle of wits, I was acting rationally. I stopped pursuing my BS Agriculture, major in Ag Education, at UP Los Baños and applied for a teaching job at the public school in my hometown, Asingan High. To meet a requirement, I took the Pangasinan Provincial Exam for teachers and placed a tantalizingly close #2, the #1 being a lady graduate of UP Diliman (Elementary Education), who got 90.6% and I got 90.5%. (I got the figure right; I never got her name.) With such credential, while Mr Cruz, the Principal of Asingan High objected to hiring me because I did not have a few of the required papers, like I could not show a diploma – I did not have one because I was not yet a graduate, which information I did not submit – he could not refuse to take me in as a teacher because I had proven that intellectually, I was that good. Thank God for government exams.
Mentally, I was that bad – and getting badder. I could no longer enjoy any quiet moment even while I was alone, and I couldn’t have happy thoughts to soothe my wounded self. I began to read books about healing the mind. I remember one that probably saved my sanity – while I have forgotten the title or the author, I have not forgotten that it taught me the crucial lesson that the only way to conquer your demons is to confront your demons. So every time I began to think I was losing my mind, I thought about losing my mind and tried not to be afraid of that. That helped me greatly. That crazy thought helped me not to become crazy.
Amidst the turmoil in my mind, I was teaching, would you believe? A BS Agriculture would-be graduate now teaching Trigonometry, Algebra, Social Science, World History. And I taught well; I know I did. I know because my students loved me, boys and girls, especially the bright ones. I probably was a role model for them too. Like I knew how not to embarrass in front of the class a boy who was trying to embarrass me – invariably, I would tell him, ‘You’re right; on the other hand ...’ and the whole class would all smile. And I was still a bachelor at that time, not bad-looking either. I would have been crazy to tell them I was fighting my own demons – I didn’t think anybody could help, and I was a loner anyway, and even in my confused state, I confided to no one.
I had a bicycle and I used that to the max, visiting the girls at their homes, one girl at a time, kilometers away from my parents’ home. The girls, bless their souls, welcomed me with open arms, figuratively speaking, their parents too, and I slept in their houses one after the other, each time a special guest. Did the parents think I was courting their girl? Did each girl think I was courting her? I don’t know. I was very friendly with all of them, and I treated them all as my girlfriends, with my full attention even if there wasn’t any gift-giving or letter-handing at all. I knew the girls felt they were pretty special to me – because in fact they were. I treated them that way, demons or no demons in my mind. All of them (the girls). They must have known I wasn’t going to take advantage of their innocence, because I never entertained such thoughts. I have always loved girls. I have always felt at ease with girls. Before high school and even during high school, my playmates were mostly girls. All those girls saved me from ruining my own life in all those moments I was with them. Thank God for girls.
Then I almost lost my private war of wits. One late afternoon I was going home on bicycle with my good friend Federico when I felt my head was getting bigger and my heart was bursting. I felt it was my day of reckoning. It was now either Win or Lose. I insisted that my friend accompany me back to the town proper and I would have to see Dr Vitug, who I knew was the only one who could save me, as I had read his certificate on the wall of his office testifying to some training in psychiatry or a related field. Thank God for friends, thank God for certificates on walls, thank God for doctors trained in psychiatry. When we reached the clinic, I looked at Dr Vitug and he knew. He asked me about what I was feeling, what I was thinking. I told him I was feeling very bad, I thought I was dying … I hesitated a few seconds before I admitted I thought I was going insane. I was going mad.
Dr Vitug asked some more questions and I answered them as best as I could – I don’t remember the questions, I don’t remember the answers I gave – many details I have forgotten, as I’m trying to recall from more than 40 years. But I must have told him, with some sadness if not bitterness, about my debacle at UP, about my first love lost, about my being a loner and things like that. Dr Vitug was helping me purge the demons out of me. The best way to defeat your demons is to confront them. Dr Vitug helped me talk myself out of my misery – for the moment, for one shining moment. Win or Lose? It was a Draw.
The good doctor gave me some pills, I was too afraid to read the name on the label but they were tranquilizers I’m sure, and he told me to take one when I’m not feeling alright and before I go to bed in the evening, to be sure to have a good night’s sleep. I took the doctor’s advice to heart; I had no reason not to have faith in him. That was the first day. The next day, my reason took over. In the next evening, I told myself that if I kept following the doctor’s order, I would never get rid of the tranquilizer, or the doctor. So I vowed not to take one as late in the night as I could so that my body would not become addicted to the downer. In a few days, I had the upper hand; I didn’t have to take the medicine anymore. A battle of wits won.
There would be many battles of wits yet that had to be won. I still wasn’t me, all of me, all of my old vibrant me. I was still a subdued, troubled me. In any case, what was important was that I was surviving. Somehow I was keeping my wits about me.
One lonely summer, a lively, lovely girl walked into my life, Baby A, taking up Midwifery. She came to Asingan, to the village Cabalitian next to our own Sanchez as part of a summer camp from Manila. The moment I saw her, I fell in love with her – my heart had a pleasant ache – and she fell in love with me. It was clear to see it was love at first sight. It was also love at first touch – that first night, when their group invited us villagers to join in the impromptu rigodon dance with multiple couples, I was one of the first volunteers and when our hands touched – electricity! She became my bright sunshine in those cloudy days. I remember her with gladness; the villagers still remember her with fondness.
Later when I told her the story of my mental life, that I had a nervous breakdown, she said no, I didn’t. It didn’t look to her like a nervous breakdown and she was sure about it. I think that her assertion and quiet behavior helped calm my nerves. Eventually I lost her because of me, in the pursuit of my self, but I have never lost her in my mind, and have not forgotten that moment when she said, in effect, that I was all right such as I was. You can’t have too much reassurance.
With some kindly souls, I finally graduated from UP in 1965 and attended the graduation ceremonies in the summer of 1966 in UP Diliman where First Lady Imelda Marcos was more honored in attention than President Ferdinand E Marcos. I thought he was a great President, I thought she was a lovely lady. Some things were going to be great. ‘This nation can be great again!’ I invited neither my father nor my mother to share the pleasure of my graduation, but my only sister Brillita attended. My first girlfriend attended and congratulated me, but I had fallen out of love with her and she knew it. She felt it. I had by that time written my very long, winding lost-love letter to her. I had rather peculiarly enjoyed typing that manuscript of many, many pages, pouring my heart out, and then cutting the stories to pieces and pasting the pieces where they did not belong before, so that they made new, humorous or amazing stories and they reflected my state of mind. I have always been funny when I want to, sometimes even when I don’t intend to. At that time, I was laughing outside and crying inside.
Years later, she returned that masterpiece (I must say I enjoyed reading it myself after I got it back), but I decided to burn all her letters (and much later that lost-love letter, I’m not sure), the more to purge her out of my system. I opened the envelopes one by one, drew out their contents and threw the pieces one by one into the small fire I had set one night at the foot of the stairs at the Velasco Dorm near the campus. I was trying to cleanse my soul.
The concept of soul was not foreign to me. I was a devoted Roman Catholic during my high school years, where we had a Religion class every week held right inside the Catholic Church in the town proper. We attended Mass every Sunday and sang along with the choir; up to now, I know some of the Latin said at mass. We luxuriated in the weekly contest of who would get the perfect score in the quiz after the class, with Ms Remedios Lopez as our teacher-catechist, and she would give the winner a reward of a rosary, a prayer book or some religious thing or other that we were proud to possess. Oh, I won a few times. It’s all good memory.
From the late-1960s through the 1970s and the 1980s, the battles of wits were drawn; you win some, you lose some. There were many days of bright sunshine, and nights of darkness – you don’t know how dark the night is until you’re truly lonely. While not confiding to anyone, I refused to give up in all those years. With some prayer and some persistence, through the 1990s, the battles slowly began to be won in favor of me, the sunshine days getting longer and the dark nights getting shorter. But I didn’t have any idea how when I would finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Tonight, the album Gregorian Chant IV is playing by the Santi & Baby Obiens’ desktop PC in Quezon City as I write these lines (first draft) in the evening of 18 March 2007 – I’m here on a book project Baby O and I are doing. I uploaded (copied) into the hard disk this afternoon more than 2 GB of mp3, wav, wma, mid files, including songs by Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Jennifer Paige, Charlotte Church (the next one I have selected to play) and The Corrs.
A Gregorian chant is a ‘plainsong chant of the Roman Catholic Church’ (thefreedictionary.com/). The album reminds me that in 01 January 1991, my wife and I attended a Roman Catholic Marriage Encounter (ME) weekend seminar in Tagaytay City sponsored by Bukás Loób sa Díyos (BLD) Covenant Community Los Baños District. When a couple invite you to attend an ME, they know your cross is heavy, you have problems. I was the cross, the problem.
Many years before the ME, I had become an agnostic. And years before that, I remember earnestly praying on one unhappy occasion of my birthday (17 September) in our church in Asingan for God to rid me of my troubled thoughts, to make me whole again – and no, God never answered my prayer the way I wanted him to. I waited and waited and waited. After several years of waiting for God’s answer, when I realized it was not coming, I told myself if there is no God, why the hell should I worry? If there is a God, I’m trying to do well to others anyway, so why should I worry anyway? I would be all right. If there’s a God, he wouldn’t mind.
Before you can attend an ME, you have to show a marriage certificate from church. Amparo and I were never married in church before this – we were married by Judge Leonides Perlez (Amparo remembers the name, I don’t) in Bay, Laguna 18 March 1967 – and since I felt my marriage was breaking up, thanks to me, this was my last straw, so I consented to get married in Catholic rites at the San Antonio de Padua Parish Church along Lopez Avenue in Los Baños in 28 December 1990, a day Filipinos call Niños Inocentes; it was our own Innocents’ Day. (The young ones Herod had ordered massacred are considered the first martyrs of the Catholic Church.) Innocent? That was after some 40 years outside the church: A sinner is always welcome home, even if he is only somewhat repentant.
The ME was a most unforgettable experience to me, and I cried a lot. The whole class of couples cried rivers. Not the me but the ME saved my marriage, I have no doubt about that. A little later came the Family Encounter (FE), and the FE saved my family, I am sure. Don’t look at me. I was hardly contributing my fair share. I didn’t know how. (My joke: The trouble with being a parent is that when you learn to be good, it’s too late.) And even if I knew how, I was barely in a position to contribute. I was still busy struggling with my inner turmoil and I wasn’t sharing it with anyone. Still, BLD prayer meetings and Bible readings were more or less happy occasions to share insights into the real worlds, the inner and the outer, and I felt my self beginning to find its more pleasant being.
Sometime in 1995, I’m not sure of the year, but I’m sure of what happened: I was walking home one early evening along the short and narrow road called Dangka in Mayondon in Los Baños when I had the urge to look up at the heavens. I saw stars as I expected, but an unexpected and sudden thought came to me, a surprising inner voice telling me, in these words more or less: ‘Ang yabang mo. Ni isang maliit na bituin na ganito di mo magawa.’ ‘You are so conceited. And yet you cannot make even one little star like this.’ Something washed over my whole body and I shivered a little. I was alone. I wasn’t talking to anyone, remember? That must have been God talking to me. Still: This was the answer to my prayer, a scolding? But I felt much reassured. God never ever did talk to me before.
Many months later, I decided to do what I had learned during one of those BLD events – cast all your troubles at the foot of the cross. Jesus, I’m throwing all my cares at the foot of your cross. You have to take care of them now for me because now I know I can’t handle them. Please help me! My prayer was not in those exact words but God knew what I wanted to say. My reason had been getting in the way of my faith. I had been intellectualizing everything. So now I was ready to give up reason in favor of faith.
Still it was not going to be easy. I had been given to debate every little point I heard anyone make. I had always been a wide reader and my head was full of bits and pieces of information and I knew all the bad habits of people who would like to win a discussion or debate: declare a non-sequitur, argue ad hominem (getting personal, not reasonable), bring it to a ridiculous level, call people names, beat around the bus – if you can’t beat around the bush. I didn’t practice any of that, but I would vehemently point out such when it came to my notice, and nobody likes to be told he’s arguing badly. It will take a miracle for a logical mind to believe fully in a God who cares.
Sometime in the late 1990s, when for our BLD Living Word / Bible couples sharing, we were members of a group that included Del Gabriel whose husband Bernard was very sick, I chanced upon Proverbs 17: 22 that said (NAB): ‘A joyful heart is the health of the body.’ Reader’s Digest: ‘Laughter is the best medicine.’ Still, it took me years before I decided to be happy no matter what, whether there was or there wasn’t reason to be or not to be. In practical terms, I decided to pay attention to my family. While I didn’t tell my wife or any of our children (count them if you like), I began to enjoy every moment I spent with any of them: Jomar, Jay, Teresa, Cynthia, Dinggoy, Jennifer, Daphne, Neenah, Edwin, Ela. Tina was/is in Toronto, with her own 2 daughters with husband Cris Capati; she visited years ago when she was still without child and I was happy. Dida was/is in New York, with her own 2 daughters now with husband Karl Cerni; they visited the other year and I enjoyed being with Gabby, their firstborn. A big family is a problem, and so is a little family – not because of the number but because of the members, especially because of the parents. Guilty.
I didn’t get the miracle I suspect that my logical half-self wanted, that my believing half-self expected – not in a thousand days. But after those thousand days, I began to see that I was enjoying what I was doing and I truly was beginning to enjoy my family and my family was beginning to enjoy me back. What you sow is what you get. They were now welcome into my world where before they would be intruders, aliens in my many worlds: writing, editing, desktop publishing for people – not a few times paid only with compliments, sometimes paid only with silence. What you say is what you get. WYSIWYG. It almost cost me my sanity to learn that simple lesson? Yes. It is the simple lesson that is difficult to learn – it must be because it’s so simple it doesn’t sound like it’s true.
Quite a few years ago, one day I just knew God had fully answered my prayer of some 40 years and had healed me completely. I am truly glad. There was a first happy occasion when I noticed the beginning of the healing, and I texted Chaini about it. I don’t remember the year, but I remember our cat Cabo was still alive. I’m sure she (Chaini) remembers it, as I also told her about Cabo, The Cat Who Would Not Die – she fought fierce battles and would come home wounded, and she always recovered. Then one day, she stayed at home and would get in my way and I noticed that. The next day she left, and never returned – she will never die in my memory. Chaini I consider one of my many long-lost daughters (students, classmates & officemates), one of the girls I love for being themselves.
While I am not anywhere near perfect now, I feel complete and at peace with the imperfect world. Not to be able to abandon self is to submit to faith half-heartedly, not to abandon self to God completely. In one you are sure to be confronted with agony, in the other you can hope to be embraced by ecstasy. I would rather be embraced. With this story, I embrace you.