MARTIN VILLANUEVA
He'd Rather Be Relevant
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“Lemme ask you something… Has there ever been a dying old lady who eventually lost her life in a landslide?”  Just a casual opening question he throws out there.

“Has a robber ever shot a man with tuberculosis in the house he broke into?”  The first question has yet to fully register before he lets that one out.

“How come you never hear of a cancer patient that dies in a car crash?”

He’s establishing his tone—feeling you out, testing where he can go and how he can get there.  It’s these sorts of odd-ball statements that need some getting used to when getting to know M.  While settling in, trying to develop a comfort, a trust, in the presence of unfamiliar individuals, M becomes this strange guy who seemingly loves to question life’s peculiarities.  And just when you’re about to question him, question where he’s going with everything, he levels you with a stunner:

“Do you think that there’s an authority, a spiritual force…I don’t know…a maintainer of order, maybe, that exists in this world that negates a potential death of a certain kind, given the victim is already going to die because of something else?”

Silence.

The quietness is merited, in a way.  It’s an interesting question.

So that’s what he was driving at…
A dying lady losing her life in a landslide… A man with tuberculosis shot in a break-in…

You look at this guy, this twenty-year-old college kid with a smirk on his face—there’s a lot going on in that head.  And he’s looking to share.

“I believe such an authority exists, man.”  Strong, mature conviction…despite the out-of-placed “man” in the end.  “Hell, if someone has cancer, he should be happy ‘cuz at least for the time it takes to get well, probably nothing could kill him except for the cancer.”

Hmmm…

Quite a relief…isn’t it?

Under this philosophical assumption, it’s true: if a person is diagnosed with cancer, the only thing he has to worry about is cancer.  Which is not to say that there’s nothing to worry about.  Even for us who don’t know much about the disease, we can at least agree that it’s a serious thing to deal with.

M knew nothing about cancer before he was diagnosed.  He was too busy dealing with his regular teenage life.  M grew up with his middle-class family in the suburbs of Parañaque.  Part of his growing up was actually spent abroad, where his father was assigned by a multinational company.  Having been around the world, growing up with kids from different cultures, M was exposed to the different ways people around the world lived life.

“I remember going to school with a kid from Papua New Guinea.  Can you imagine that?  Papua New Guinea!”  It’s as if he’s the first to discover the country.  “I was forced to learn where some of these places were on the map ‘cuz I went to school with the kids of those countries’ ambassadors.”

His accent is heavy but familiar to the local ear.  Not quite American, but not so Filipino either.  In fact, the tone goes back and forth from both extremes.

Below a map of the Philippines in M’s room is a bookshelf with names like Joaquin, Murakami, Kipling, Yuson, Fitzgerald, Camus, and Zafra.  Next to the wooden blinds that cover the windows is a photo print of Lennon’s profile.  In an adjacent wall, prints of Gandhi and Ali look on.

Ignorance was something circumstances forced out of M’s system.  He learned to be open to different ways because few shared the same ways with him growing up.

Being an active kid, basketball was his sport of choice, true to his Filipino roots.  Rounds of golf with his father took up his weekends.  He tried all sorts of sports.  “The only sport I sucked at was soccer, man,” he claims.  “Must be the Pinoy in me.”

M was an above average student.  He was a relatively quiet kid, though, preferring a reserved profile as opposed to the popularity most his peers aspired for.

“One teacher, an Indian, once complained that I didn’t speak up much in class.  But when I spoke up, didn’t I make sense?  Weren’t my answers correct?  Teacher couldn’t say anything.”  There’s a not-so-hidden arrogance in him.  “Enough said.  Stop complaining.”  Pause.  “I like to pick my spots.”

Moving to a new campus for his freshman year of high school in Manila was tough on M—introversion perhaps being a hindrance to a fast settling-in.  But it was the kind of thing most thirteen-year-olds were dealing with, struggling through those awkward adolescent years.  The pains of social acceptance were lost to the joys of things M was good at.  Basketball played its role.  While he walked the hallways of his new school almost trying to be invisible, M walked the courts with a swagger.  Basketball became a social crutch.  There was joy because of the game.  For the most part, there was much joy in his life, period.

All that would be taken away…at least for a while.

The reasons why people get cancer vary.  At times, it may be appropriate for the victim to blame his ancestry.  Other times, the cancer is earned through years of hard work, persistence, and stubbornness (hint, hint to you smokers).  And then there are those who become winners of a lottery that no one really wants to win.  Non-believers of bad luck might want to think it over.

M was a winner of that lottery.

Towards the end of the first quarter of his freshman year, M suffered what was initially diagnosed as pulled ligaments due to a slip on the basketball court.  After three weeks of having his left leg in a cast, a follow-up x-ray hinted a horrifying reality.  On the x-ray plate, there appeared to be a haze—a fuzzy area right above M’s left knee.  An MRI and a biopsy confirmed that it was a tumor.

M had bone cancer.

“I remember the doctor sitting me and my family down.  He didn’t even concretely say the C-word…he gave us this clinical term for it.  It was only a few days later…I don’t even know how it came up…but the C-word was just blurted out by someone.”

Eye contact is something M never got used to.  Sometimes, it’s like he’s not even talking to anyone.  He’s just speaking.  He’s in front of you…alone with himself.

“Then when you hear yourself say the word for the first time…cancer…and you realize that this word is associated to you… Damn, man.”  Pause.  “Then you realize how fucked up life can get for you in a hurry.”  There’s bitterness in his tone.  There’s suppressed baggage there that he has yet to completely sort through.

He was the first in his family to get cancer.  Doctors said his brand of cancer was the type that merely happened to people; little semblances of causes are known.  To think that the tumor was a result of the basketball injury had no scientific backing.  But its diagnosis coinciding with the injury was nothing short of miraculous.  The basketball injury got M to the doctor.  Otherwise, who knows if the cancer would’ve been diagnosed at all?

It was the least expected thing.  As a psychologist reasoned with M and his family, it was ludicrous to think that this was inflicted by God.  “Why would God do such a thing?” he challenged.  In trying to find answers to unanswerable questions, faiths were tested, frustrations often prevailing.

“Then people started giving me the ‘you’re the chosen one’ crap.”  Clearly, he’s never bought into that idea. “I don’t know…just too vague for me.”  M starts to rub the back of his scalp causing the hair above his neck to stick out a bit.  It’s a gesture he does a lot, as if massaging the thoughts that still bother him.

Life consists of episodes of chance, and M got the wrong end of the deal.  “You still don’t believe in bad luck?”  It’s rhetorical.  “But whatever, man.  I was sick.  Just had to do what I had to do to get better.”

There was no time to hesitate.  Limb salvage surgery was scheduled after a few cycles of chemotherapy.  More cycles were to follow the surgery.  Time table saw a process involving months which was subject to numerous changes.  M and his family had to be prepared whether they liked it or not.

Chemotherapy is systematic in that scheduled cycles of treatment are prescribed by the doctor.  “In short, hindi siya one-time big time.”  M recalls various interns struggling to find suitable veins in both his hands to insert IV tubes.  By the third or fourth cycle of chemo, the largest veins on both M’s hands were that of an old man.  They were worn out from having been punctured by so many needles every month.  The veins were shriveled from having such powerful drugs flow through them.  By the third or fourth cycle, it was a try-and-try-again situation for the interns.  The initial veins of choice almost always rejected the needles, causing blood to momentarily clot into small visible lumps on M’s hand.

He grimaces.  He remembers.

Excruciating pain.

“Sometimes I felt like a dummy for these young interns. 
Parang pang-practice lang ako!

At times, they had no choice but to look for veins on M’s feet.  Managing to find the right veins for the IV tubes were part of a host of small victories during the battle—victories that would only lead to bigger obstacles.

M leans against the back of the white monobloc chair by his desk.  He starts tapping his right foot against the wooden floor.

His oncologist, M recalls, was quite a character.  “The guy was nuts, man.  He’d take this motorcycle around to all the hospitals where he had patients…and he would proudly park the thing right by the entrance of the hospital, right by where nuns would be waiting for God-knows-what.”  He chuckles.  “And the guy was just so fucking loud…he would announce himself before entering the room.  And he’d have these strong colognes on…
e may kahalong pawis na yan…I thought the hospital smell was bad enough.”  But he has much respect for the doctor.  “You gotta hand it to the guy, though…he knew his shit...”  Pause.  “I guess I’m living proof of that, right?”

Chemotherapy has many side effects, all of which M would rather not relive.  “It’s constantly like the morning after an
inuman but without the fun the night before.”  He starts to fiddle with the key-chain-slash-bottle-opener that sits on his desk—a birthday gift from a friend.  “You can forget about eating, man.  Everything I ate I threw up.  Even when I didn’t eat anything, I’d throw up.”

Losing his hair (a common side effect of chemo) was a pretty big deal for M, as well.  Having always worn his hair on the longer side, and having spent hundreds of pesos on stuff like gel, M dreaded the moment when a barber was called to come to his family’s house to shave off all his hair before they started to fall off.  M spent the first day of baldness at home wearing a bandana.  When going out, he traded in his bandana for his growing collection of baseball caps.

“But eventually, the baldness grew on me…pun intended.”

In his favorite plain grey t-shirt and faded denims, M digresses, “Looks…vanity…it’s all bullshit in the end.  I admit I was vain…I guess I still
am.”  Across the room from where he sits are a mirror and a built-in dresser.  Two bottles each of deodorant, cologne, and hair wax sit next to a comb.  “When I was under chemo, being bald bugged me.  But aside from that, cancer ate up my knee which left me with a limp…a limp I’ll have for the rest of my life.”  Subconsciously, his left leg twitches.  “But when you’re dealing with that shit…something that could take away your life and has taken the lives of so many like you…you just gotta ask yourself, ‘so what?’”

He gives the hair at the back of his scalp a tug.

“Just survive, man.  Just survive.”

In between cycles of chemo, M was rushed to the emergency room at least three times.  “I would wake up shivering.  I had fevers of upwards of forty-degrees.  My fingers and toes…they would cramp-up because of a lack of potassium.”  He mimics his experience with his fingers.  His eyes are squinting.  He starts to slowly rub the back of his scalp, again.  “I couldn’t even walk myself to the car to be driven to the emergency room.”  M’s family would have him sit on a monobloc chair, while their houseboy would carry him on the chair to the car.  “Chemo takes a lot out of you.”

After two or three nights stabilizing in the hospital, medicines being administered by his doctors, fluids being pumped into him through more IV tubes, M would be released enabling him to rest at home.

“But after a week or so, I’d have to go back to the hospital for another round of chemo.”  Pause.  “That was my life for an entire year.”  Bitterness can’t be suppressed.  “That was my life when everyone else my age was having late nights out, having fun, testing their parents’ patience… I was stuck in hospital rooms where nurses would wake me up during the few times I could actually get to sleep just to check my blood pressure!”

This was when M changed, alone with his thoughts on a hospital bed for many nights.  He would imagine how different life would be after chemo, while the upset stomach, the constant dizziness, the aches, the pains reminded him that he was still a long ways off. 

Sometimes, there was disbelief over the whole situation.  “I just didn’t think I deserved all of it…that’s how I thought, at times—“  He cuts himself short.  Maybe he still thinks that way, but he won’t admit it.  “But whatever…I mean…my prognosis was good so I just tried to do what the doctors told me…tried not to let all the thoughts overwhelm me.”  The thoughts are still there, though.

“Just fucking survive, man.  No choice.  Just fucking survive.”

It’s his battle cry.

Today, M can call himself a survivor.  He and his family have scrapped their way through a tremendous battle—but there’s a catch.  After treatment, a patient may be clinically healed, but it marks only the beginning of a lifelong war.  Essentially, a survivor is living on borrowed time.  A survivor is much more likely to get the disease again as compared to those who have yet to deal with it.  But many go on not having to deal with the disease for the rest of their lives.

It becomes a game of chance again.  But history’s not on the survivor’s side.

“Lance Armstrong…cancer survivor.  He’s got this Livestrong Campaign now with the yellow bracelets and stuff…”  M tries to restrain the connection he feels, but there’s undoubtedly a connection there—a feeling of brotherhood between two who have never met, but who are both a part of the fraternity of survivors.  But M’s careful not to associate himself with superstars.  He’s not a superstar.  He doesn’t want to be.  Ali and Gandhi continue to look on from the opposite wall.

“Maybe there’s a reason why he (Armstrong) had to win all those Tour de France titles in a row.”  What?  “Maybe he had to get them out of the way just in case he’s gotta deal with cancer again in the future.”

Silence.

M can say things that leave those around him with an awkward feeling.  He senses it from others; he loves it.  It’s all part of the game he’s playing, trying to test the limits of others with the frankness, at times the trivialness, in which he discusses the seriousness of cancer.  He casually drops tidbits of dark humor here and there.  He’s setting you up—preparing you to dive into his world.  He doesn’t allow sympathy towards him creep into the conversation.  He tries to challenge not with a melodramatic wisdom of a survivor, rather with his intellect.  Sometimes, the statements fall flat.  He doesn’t care.

“I’m lucky.  No doubt about it.  Just as easily as I’ve asked ‘why me’ when I got cancer, I could easily ask the same question about my survival.”  There’s a change in his voice.  It’s lower, and almost a whisper.  Inside, he knows he doesn’t want to sound dramatic, but he takes his next few reflections seriously.  In between A Death in the Family, Sin, and The Plague, there is no room for Chicken Soup for any soul in his bookshelf.

M leans forward, little eye contact—he’s almost staring at the ground.  He rubs the back of his scalp, and then looks up at grey walls.  Again, little eye contact.  He’s talking…to those who’ll listen.  But he’s speaking to himself.

“Some people make it…some don’t.”  Pause.  “
Why? Who determines that?  It’s beyond just the seriousness of the disease.”  Others with worse situations than him survive, as well, while others with less serious ailments don’t make it at all.  That’s the reality—he thinks about it a lot.  “You start to question things, man…you can’t help but question.  Doesn’t mean I’m not thankful...”  Undoubtedly he is thankful.  “Just makes you think… I don’t know much about stuff like fate but on the practical side of things, I’ve seen my hospital bills…they’re pretty damn high…I survived ‘cuz my family can shoulder those bills.  I hate sounding like some advocate or anything, but how the hell are most families supposed to deal with this shit?”

With this sudden shift comes a dent in the cool front he tries to keep up.  He disguises the sentiment with the profanity, with rational facts.  It doesn’t always work, though.  You can see it.

“I don’t know, man…you start questioning the situation in so many fucking angles that your whole view of everything…of
any situation…becomes convoluted.  It’s like I’m always looking at things from too many angles…as if looking for…for reasons…for explanations to things that are beyond anything we can comprehend.  Then I realized that there are just so many things beyond us…beyond our power...and that irritated me.”

He voices these musings with a measured, understated intensity.  He has a strong handle on concepts, as well as an understanding of himself, the verbalization of which he has mastered in the form of a smart rant stained with slang and profanity that come out partly because of vanity, but often just out of emotion.  He tries—maybe too hard, at times—to strike a balance between appearing beyond his age in thought, and still
being his age. It’s a controlled way of letting it all hang out.

“You think and think…you reflect, reflect, and reflect some more…the harder you look, the more baffling life becomes.”  He’s thinking as he speaks—searching for answers but getting nothing in return.  “But then you just stop and realize that man can only control what he can control.”  And just when you thought he was letting up, “But that’s what makes it even
more confusing…all the bullshit that goes on in the world is a result of man!”

He shifts slightly in his chair.  “Two factors have been at the center of all conflict to this day.”  He counts them off with his fingers.  “Beliefs.”  One.  “And money.”  Two.  “You think fighting cancer is any different?”

Patients with an extreme devotion to God abhor treatment, for they claim it to be a resistance to the will of a higher power.  For those people, M holds the greatest pity, for they fail to see treatment as possibly one of God’s tools.

“When you deal with people like that, it’s not hard to figure out what their real problem is.  Their rationalizations…the stupid excuses based on religion…it reflects a deeper sentiment of
secular proportions.  They’re choosing what they want to believe instead of dealing with the reality…religion becomes a noble scapegoat.”

Pause. 

“They’re in denial.”  Denial.  He knows the word well.

Feeling invincible sila. People don’t suspect that shit like cancer can happen to them.  I didn’t.  I felt like I didn’t do anything to warrant such a thing.  But that was the problem…you can’t think that way.  The point is that stuff happens to people…many things are beyond us.  But often the time it takes for people to question why certain things happen…or sometimes the time spent trying to convince yourself that nothing’s wrong…it all delays actually getting help to fix the problem.  It’s amazing how the biggest challenge for many is just admitting that they’re sick.  Just admit it and get help!  Not having that urgency baffles me.  Do you really wanna die?”

Urgency or a lack there of: a one-way ticket to regret.

“All of our biggest problems can really be solved when we try to be the complete opposite of politicians.”  It’s a strange metaphor.  “So if you have cancer, you don’t have time to sit around reveling, lobbying, talking, and above all, hesitating…take action immediately, man.  Cancer can be beaten.  Don’t just stand around like those fucking distinguished men and women up there…
do something!”

There’s obvious detest when speaking of politics.  There’s a genuine resentment towards those who he feels are often the biggest culprits of a stagnated society.  “They’re killers of the disadvantaged,” M claims.  In digression, something M does a lot, the extent of his intellect plays loud and clear, as well as the brashness of his convictions.  Existential talk crosses over to social realism.

M’s cancer is an anomaly.  It’s virtually unpreventable, and if it weren’t for M’s freak basketball injury, it would’ve gone undetected.  “But once it was detected, my family and I took immediate action, searching for the best doctors, exploring the best and most suitable methods of treatment, and using the financial resources that we had to exhaust the best medical resources available.  No hesitation, no pity-party.”

Note: financial resources that
they had…  He’s going somewhere with this.

“Quite frankly, without my middle-class family and the kind financial support from middle-class family friends, I would just be another statistic…another victim succumbed to more than just a disease…”

More than just a disease…

“I bet a lot of those victims that didn’t make it had less serious cancers than I did.”  There might be some guilt there that he tries to fight with mature reasoning.  But there’s undeniable angst.  “But they were financially incapable of fighting…they couldn’t
afford to live.” 

It becomes obvious that the second factor—money—is something M feels strongly about.

Chemotherapy, or any treatment for that matter, is a privilege in this country.  One cycle of chemotherapy can set you back P15,000.  And that’s just the drugs; it doesn’t account for the supplementary medicine needed to keep the side effects—detrimental or otherwise—at bay.  Add to them the hospitalization cost and professional fees of doctors.  And all these are only good for one cycle.  As chemotherapy is a systematic treatment, its effectiveness is dependent on a scheduled program of succeeding cycles.

“Now how can Juan De La Cruz afford such treatment when he is struggling to pay next month’s rent?”  He’s got a point.  “And don’t get me started on the plight of all the best nurses and doctors from our country...”  A fair warning.  Opinions he has a plenty.  Often, it’s hard to stay on topic.  He’ll touch on everything.

The Pediatric Cancer Ward of the Philippine General Hospital along Taft, where most of M’s doctors were trained, and where most of them practice today (aside from their private practices in the hospitals of the more affluent), is a disturbing reality.  All these children, invaded at a young age, are left defenseless.  For most of them, traditional beliefs, an over reliance on the divine, poverty, and a lack of awareness and initiative, has made the ward their last resort.

While in the ward, these patients live on false hopes—waiting for generous donors to sponsor their treatment until they pull through.  At the very least, donations can aid in one cycle of chemotherapy.  But without the succeeding cycles, the effect of the drug and the merit of the donations are lost.  To add insult to injury, the patient is subjected to the hellish side effects of chemotherapy.  And for what?  Nothing. 

“Mamamatay na nga ang bata, binugbog mo pa.”

It’s like there’s a silent echo in the room.

Mamamatay na nga ang bata, binugbog mo pa…

M admits that he doesn’t have the solutions to the problems, nor is he claiming the initiative of solving the problems himself.  “I’m just a cocky twenty-year old student,” M claims.  “But here are just some ideas thrown out there…maybe the prioritization of importing low-cost cancer medicines…or maybe having money go into the country’s health care system as opposed to the pockets of politicians...”

Maybe.

“It’s not my job to solve these problems…nor do I want such a job.  But sometimes I just can’t shut-up about the bullshit I see.”  He continues, “I bring up the socio-economic issues of battling disease because I’ve experienced the paradox, man…I’ve experienced the better end of the deal while I’ve seen patients suffer the consequences of being on the wrong end.  I’m familiar with the schizophrenic feeling of thankfulness and guilt for surviving a monstrosity that many Filipinos are left defenseless against ‘cuz they simply can’t afford the weapons…”

Pause.

“I
know that feeling.”

M is a cancer survivor—one of many in the Philippines who are lucky to have resources to be able to call themselves so.  And as many are left with hopelessness amidst their harsh medical circumstances, M struggles to fight hopelessness as he lives on and witnesses such social and economical diseases.  And yet, he hesitates to claim some form of a cure.  All he can concretely offer is the truth behind fighting cancer.

“Chemotherapy’s hell-on-earth, but you have to go through it if you have cancer.  It’s a necessary evil…like a right of passage into the fraternity of survivors.  Sure, some don’t pull through…but unlike other frats, a hesitation to join doesn’t spare you from becoming a victim.”

As M puts it, inevitably, approaching the process must be all about an attitude, a mindset—one with the determined intention of surviving, with splashes of good humor and self-deprecation to make the grim days a little more bearable.

“Cancer beats you the minute thoughts of death overpower your desire to live. You have to fight negativity…try to laugh things off as much as possible…but you can’t treat the thing as a joke either...”

He rehearses his next line in his head before saying it.  “There’s undoubtedly going to be thoughts that will creep into your mind…thoughts that challenge the very things you believe in...”  A portrait of the Laughing Christ hangs on the wall next to the red door of the room.  “You gotta deal with those…introspection’s a good thing.”

Introspection’s a good thing…

“From the social side of things, as chemotherapy defeats cancer cells at the expense of others, treating one cancer patient in this country comes at the expense of another.  And this is really a microcosm of the entire medical care system in the country…no…check that…a microcosm of the
entire country.”

Microcosm of the ENTIRE country…

“I was once accused of being a Marxist by my sociology professor.”  M chuckles.  “In my defense, I don’t see
everything as a conflict of economic proportions…I do go to this country’s premiere school for the rich, right?  Go ‘Teneo!”  He says this in a sarcastic, self-deprecating tone, which lowers to seriousness for a final conclusion.  “But I still can’t be convinced that the problem of medical care is not one of money.”

True.

What is a right has become a privilege.  Those who live on are those who can afford to live on.  “I’ve said many things before that would make others question me, but this injustice is not right.”  M hesitates.  He knows he has just said something that makes him sound like some sort of authoritative political figure.  He hates that.  “It’s
bullshit.”  Just an added line of profanity to rough up the “campaign statement” while driving home the point even more.

Many survivors are quietly content taking the blessings of a second chance and living subdued lives.  They speak of cancer as having set their priorities in order as they perhaps give that extra kiss everyday to their husbands, hug their kids just a little tighter, and smile to their neighbors just a little bit more.  The “peace” they live in often evolves into almost nonexistent lives.  “In their quietness, they lose their relevance in the world.”

Then there are other survivors whose lives have seemingly been taken over by the inner-light of some imagined spirit.  Such survivors are the most open about celebrating their surviving.  “Cancer is spoken of during their dinners, at the salon, while watching their kids’ soccer games...”  Such are the people that end up organizing charities and fund-raising activities for the cause, while handing out prayer cards and inspirational leaflets to anyone under the sun.  Noble these acts are.  For a lot of them, the ultimate sign of gratitude is consuming their lives with the disease even more.  “It’s like they’re subconsciously trying to live up to labels bestowed upon them…labels like
inspiration.”  He doesn’t like the word.

“I’m a part of neither group, man.  Truth be told, I
hate talking about this…many don’t believe me when I say this but it’s true.  People look at you differently after you tell them stuff like this…they put that inspiration label on you and that’s a load of crap!”

The source of the arrogance begins to peer through.  M continues:

“To let surviving define me is to let cancer win.  To be so open and so
preachy does two things…one…it negates my growth as a person having gone through it ‘cuz it’s like I’m advertising it out of vanity.  That’s not growth…that’s immaturity.”

Gandhi continues to look on from the opposite wall.

“Secondly…it’s as if to say that I was a bad-ass human being before having gone through it…that’s bullshit.  Sure, I’ve grown because of cancer but I wasn’t a bad person before…I’ve gained a lot from it but it doesn’t mean I was inadequate before I got sick…  I don’t know…call it youthful pride or ignorance but I refuse to accept that.”

Ali raises his hands in victory.

“Does that make any sense?”

It does.

While surviving cancer has made others more meek and humble, and has made others more celebratory and charismatic, it has made M…well…angrier.  Anger sounds like a strong word but it seems like the most fitting one for him.  He goes about this new stage of his life with a chip on his shoulder, from many things personal, but also from being more aware of how lucky he is and, most especially, how unfair having that luck can be.

On the red door to the left of the Laughing Christ, there’s a picture from an old copy of Life Magazine.  It’s a shot of three African American kids being hosed down in a scuffle during the Civil Rights Movement.  It reminds M of how the world works.

People speak of change in M.  M thinks he’s just more himself now, more attuned to his thoughts, and more aware of who he is.  Basketball, something that consumed him before, his crutch, was never mentioned again.  He didn’t need it anymore.  He didn’t let go of his crutch, he denied its existence.  He’s beyond that now.

“I hate talking about my survival…I think it trivializes the profundity of the experience. If anything, surviving...and surviving with the relative ease in which I did…it’s made me more open to seeing the fucked up world around me and where I fit in.”

There it is.

This twenty-year-old limps with something to prove to others, and more importantly, to himself.  With every stride being a reminder that he is lucky, he is also wary of the fact that he lives with the threat of an old enemy’s return.  Pride tells him that he doesn’t want to be an inspiration—a mere story to which people look upon to sit there and feel good. 

He’d rather be relevant.

On borrowed time, he’s off to prove to himself that he can be more than a person with an interesting year of his life to tell people about.  He’d rather be one that has translated the past into a fruitful, productive life—a life with many things accomplished, but most especially, a life lived fully with integrity.

“One way of looking at it…it’s a fight to make cancer a mere subtext in my life story.  But it’s really a fight for not fucking up my life…it’s a fight for maximizing this chance I’ve got.”  He then challenges, “And it’s a fight that’s generally lacking in us.  When times are tough, we like to dwell and complain.  When life’s good, we sit around and do nothing, while we wait for survival stories to make us feel good…to
offset the guilt, maybe, from spreading gossip for fun.”  He allows those statements to marinate a bit.  He hopes that what was said has provoked something in those around.

“It’s hard to see the big picture when you’re life’s not on the line.”  It’s the lyrics to one of his favorite songs.  “I can’t see the big picture…but I kinda have an idea about how it works.  And it doesn’t just make me wanna wait around…it makes me wanna
do more.  That’s how I feel after everything.”

After battling cancer, this is M’s new fight.  And it’s a fight he finds essential for everyone.

While continuing the fight, M tries to find peace in cultivating personal inclinations.  CDs ranging from Coldplay to OPM bands like Bamboo and Sandwich to Jay-Z’s Blueprint album are stacked on top of his stereo.  Books overflow a shelf while old issues of Esquire, Matanglawin, and the Inquirer lie on the
banig by his bed.  His desk is cluttered with drafts of essays and stories, hinting of his aspirations.

He pursues his interest while being with the family who does not completely understand him but who has remained with him ever since.  He tries to surround himself with good-hearted people with ambition—those who remind him of the fight they share.

It’s a fight for relevance as individuals in this country…and in this world.

M has a point with his original philosophical point of view.  Maybe there is an authority, a spiritual force, a maintainer of order in this world that negates a potential death of a certain kind, given the victim is already going to die because of something else.  Unfortunately, man and his selfish, unjust institutions give rise to more and more ways to override this force to bring about death for the already dying, while taking away the fight in others.

“Aba, kung ako yung cancer patient na nakahiga sa cancer ward ng PGH, may gana pa ba akong mabuhay sa ganitong mundo?” Such brash statements are reminders of M’s age.  He’s still young, still learning.  And for many, maybe he’s a little too bitter for someone who’s still in college.  But M stands behind his strong sentiments.

Battling cancer was a gut-check to M’s consciousness—an existential exercise.  “When you survive something like cancer, and go through something like chemo…you start to question stuff like purpose and place, and all that shit self-help authors make millions off of.”

This questioning leads one to being more conscious of the life around him, which in this country—in this
world—inevitably leads to frustration.  There’s frustration because of injustices, poverty, vanity, greed, and neglect—especially from those who are equipped to do the most.

“All I know is that I’m not any better than people who
haven’t survived something like cancer…I ain’t shit…there’s gotta be more to my life than that.”

There’s a spirit being advocated here—a spirit M tries to display in his brashness.  It’s a spirit that says
fuck being special, fuck being inspirational…we’re all just individuals like everyone else who should do something substantial with our lives.

“Inspiration can come from a mere story…but what inspires
me are people who live fruitful lives and do so honestly.  They do something with what they have…they take care of their families…and they respect others.  They make noise when injustices are seen…they advocate the things that are for the greater good of their countrymen…but they also know that the biggest injustice is when they fail in their own lives.  These people are determined to be relevant…and they fight to remain so.  These people I admire, but most importantly, their spirit rubs off on me in my life, in my fight.”

There are many faces looking on in this room.  The Laughing Christ maintains his jolliness.  Lennon is contemplative, and so is Gandhi.  Ali celebrates another victory.  The three young black kids are still struggling—drenched but fighting on.  M’s face is reflected on the mirror, so is the Philippine map above the bookshelf.

On a small table by the computer lies a small clock.  It’s ticking away.



This essay won Third Prize in the 2006 Palanca Awards


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