Monday, December 10, 2007

Finding Strength in the Season of Hope

I consider myself lucky to have been in the company of the bravest bunch of people one can ever meet in her lifetime. And this group of people I am referring to, they are not trained to develop courage the way soldiers are. Compared to stunt performers, they are not paid to defy certain laws of nature. And unlike thrill seekers, they do not cheat death just for the so-called rush.

They are brave because they are in a predicament that forces them to be brave. They fight because losing for them is not an option. Everyday, they do their best to defeat the challenges nature’s glitch has in store for them. They cheat death because as far as they are concerned, staying alive is the better choice.

To top it all, they are kids. Kids who happen to be sick. Kids who happen to have cancer.

I wish I could say that there are only a few of them but the turn out of sick children during last December 7th’s Christmas party at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, sponsored by Project: Brave Kids, proves that they are far from being a handful. And the faces I saw in the said party, they are only a portion of ailing children from one department of one hospital here in our country. The more disturbing fact is that there are plenty more of those kids out there.

It used to be that these children and their special cases are something that would pinch my heart for a minute or so. I would feel sorry for them but it will only last until I flip to the next page of the newspaper I’m reading or until I click to another channel that shows something lighter than a bald, sick kid asking people for help.

Everything changed six years ago when my youngest brother became one of them—when at the age of seven, Nichi, my brother, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).

Sick children ceased being statistics or mere pictures to me. Sick children became a reality that hit me, as well as the rest of my family, so hard it seems impossible to recover from its blow.

But Nichi, just like his friends, was brave. Probably the bravest. I never expected he had it in him to fight but his disease made a warrior out of him. He would offer the doctors his hand, his back and even his pelvis for the injection of chemo drugs, intrathecal, and bone marrow aspirations. He’d try to forget about the tortures of his regular medical procedures by focusing on his immediate incentives: a McDonalds meal, an order (or two) of a Chowking Chao Fan with soup, a KFC meal, or a sisig at Dencio’s.

Nichi had a way of looking at a glass as if it were always half full. Amidst all his treatments, he always remained positive that his sacrifices, enduring the pain of one needle after another puncturing his young skin, will be rewarded. He never lost his sense of humor, not even his “star qualities.” He continued singing and dancing as if nothing was wrong with him. He never stopped dreaming and building ambitions for a future he never doubted will be deprived of him.

Of course, Nichi had his low moments. Sometimes he cried but he didn’t let feeling sorry for himself rule him. He knew when to admit that he was afraid which just made him several times braver. At one point, he lost his left eye’s vision, yet it didn’t stop him from winning drawing contests. He did worry about his good eye, but I remember him telling me, “OK na rin lang na mawala yung isa kong mata. At least, hindi ko na kailangang mag-alala parati.” [It’s ok if I lose my good eye. At least, I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.]

Despite religiously following his doctors’ orders, Nichi’s body found its limits. Early this year, his trying-hard-to-be-healthy body started to deteriorate. This happened a few months after he lost his left eye’s vision. Armed with his strong will, Nichi did everything he can to remain in control of his body. Although he could hardly hold a Magic Sing microphone, he still tried hitting the notes while lying down because that was who he was, a performer who just wanted to sing. Even if his motor skills were betraying him, he did his best to press the keys of his green PS2 control pad because that was who he was, a child who just wanted to play.

Eventually, his body’s weakness hindered him from doing all that he loved to do, prompting him to cry and say, “Wala nang adventure ang buhay ko. Parati na lang ako tulog-gising, tulog-gising.” [My life lacks adventure. All I do is sleep and wake up, then sleep and wake up.] He was in tears because ultimately, who he was was a 13-year-old boy who wanted to live.

Perhaps, that was the most painful part in letting Nichi go. We all knew that given a choice, Nichi would rather keep on fighting. After all, he had all the reasons to live. But what had to happen was beyond any of us. And on the night of July 24th of this year, my youngest brother, the bravest person I know, let out his final breath in the presence of the people who loved him most.

Until his final hour, Nichi was aware of what was happening to him and he knew that it wasn’t long before the inevitable comes after him. My dad mustered the courage to tell Nichi, “Kapag pagod ka na, pwede ka nang sumama kay Papa Jesus.” [You can go with Papa Jesus anytime you feel that you’re tired.] Nichi topped Dad’s courage by nodding.

Nichi died peacefully. He didn’t struggle. He didn’t show any signs of fear. And his lifeless body was decorated with a smile on its face.

This year’s Christmas Eve will mark the 5th month of Nichi’s death. I’m afraid that it will be our saddest Christmas of all.

It is in this light that I insisted that my family and I be part of the Christmas party for children like our Nichi. So that the bereaved sister, brother, mother and father in us will still feel the beauty of Christmas. So that after losing what little strength we have in our grief, we can draw ounces of courage from children who, the same as Nichi, really have no room for fear in their lives.

Nichi, with his short life span, has become my family’s source of strength. Now that he is no longer around, we are all somehow lost. But being in the company of sick kids who probably are the bravest bunch of people one can ever meet in her lifetime, my family’s broken pieces have partly been healed, maybe not as a group, but just the same, we each needed the strength those kids radiated. We needed to be infected by their bravery if only for us to hope that, despite everything all will be well some time soon.

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