6:02 AM

Our Hatinggabi!

Posted by Prosy Delacruz

Our Hatinggabi!

“ Learning to recognize the sweetness of spirit in the midst of your body’s other sensations is like learning to recognize the sound of violins in a symphony orchestra: One moment you may not be able to pick them out from the other sounds, but once you do, you’ll probably wonder how you overlooked them all along. “ Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks

I noticed his face in a small café. From ten seats afar, enticing me to meet and greet him. Wearing glasses, an irregular hair top, mimicking the peaks of the mountains. Not an afro, not quite a mohawk, but center peaks rising high, sustained by hair gel. His smile brightly lit his face.

The communication space was crowded, a give and take of shared laughter from young folks, eager to break bread with him. He was holding court as if a king, but perhaps a young prince, who carefully listened and shared himself.

He was fondly cherished: a loving son, a good kuya, a caring grandson, a jolly cousin, an obedient nephew, a wonderful friend and a handsome boy.

In church, he was a towering pillar of goodwill and goodness, welcoming new members. He was someone folks leaned on, who challenged them to be their better angels, to discard their ego, (he called it “ false pride “), to carefully select words that won’t hurt -- a sweetness and a gentleness beyond his age.

His name was Joff Froi Tecson Fernandez, barely eighteen when he died of dengue fever. Death took him too soon, midpoint in college, and he dreamt of an apprenticeship in hotel and restaurant management abroad.

A month before he died, Joff texted his best friend, Camille. It conveyed his heartfelt love for her, giving her five wishes for the future and a message: “ I will be there in spirit always. “ Did he know his days were numbered? Or did he simply live each day to the fullest?

His Tito Empe, a screenwriter, communicated these words so intensely. He felt grief and the desire to honor Joff: “ Hindi naming bibilangin ang galos sa aming pusong iniwan ng iyong pagpanaw. Bagkus bubuhayin naming ang iyong alaala sa pamamagitan ng maingat na pagtahak sa bakas ng yapak na iyong iniwan. “ (We will not count the wounded streaks in our hearts caused by your passing. Instead, we will keep alive your memory by carefully following the footprints that you left. )


His mom spontaneously embraced him. So did his dad. And his younger brother, Jeff, sought his daily guidance and his counsel.

I was not alone, even his cousins warmly gravitated towards him. While playing video games with Regine, their sock-clad feet touched, swung back and forth. From time to time, they called out their video game scores and laughed.

Holding one’s hands, holding one’s feet, warm hugs, broad smiles, these public displays of affection are normal for Joff.

Once, I went to a shoe store with Joff holding my hands. I felt like bonding with him, seemingly urgent. Why the urgency of this now, only my heart knew.

I asked him to pick out a pair of sneakers. I pointed to an expensive Nike, with elevated support for the arch and back heel, with platinum and gray stripes. He declined.

“ Tita P, those shoes are not allowed in our school, “ he politely said.

I was surprised, since the craze in LA consists of orange blackberry, the pink sleeve I-Mac, the Burberry clutch wallet and Nike Air shoes.

Next was an Adidas. The price was steep -- over a hundred dollars (Php4,800, compared to a worker’s minimum wage of Php382 ). This morning, I met a construction worker who got those wages. To get to his job, he commutes an hour and a half each way, waking up at dawn to report before 7am, taking two rides, from a bus and a jeepney.

“Tita, really,these shoes are not allowed “, with an inflected tone for emphasis. I realized how distant I have become as an American, saturated daily with things, commodities, and ads aplenty.

While we searched for the right pair, we talked about relationships -- even leadership. He asked me about my views.

“ How does one lead in a relationship, Tita,?”a question I have never encountered before, even from the wisest of wise friends that I have dealt with.

“ Just like your mom and dad. How do you see them do it? ”

“ Well, Tita, they speak kindly to each other. My dad makes her laugh. He notices what she wears and cooks. He enjoys her cooking and declares it. They share, including how they feel for folks and for each other on a fairly regular basis. “

“ It's like holding a pigeon in your hand, Joff. Hold it too close, you choke off the neck, hold it too loose, it flies off. So, how do you suppose they hold the pigeon as a loving couple? “

Joff understood the metaphor. He learned quickly, “ Tita, they hold the pigeon cradled by the palm of a hand. It is not too close that Jeff and I would feel we are not trusted. It is not too loose as they know what we do daily, our friends, and what we do with our friends. They allow us to go to parties and play ball, even concerts. They pick us up afterwards, even at midnight, even if my dad is tired from a trip to the province. Sometimes, it is 2am, and they are still happy to see us."

After trying more pairs, he chose a plain, non-brand pair. “ Swak na swak! “

His lit eyes convinced me that he wanted this. He smiled, and with interminable thank you's, we got back to our lunch table.

Seeing the package in Joff's hand, his mother’s eyes communicated disapproval. Joff waited, sat down, his previously joyful eyes, now concerned.

Sensing a conflict about to emerge -- Annie’s values of living within her means, not wanting to impose on relatives and my value of sharing what I have, I spoke from my heart:

“ Pinsan, hindi ko naman nabigyan si Joff since he was little. Payagan mo naman ako kahit konti. We could have bought an expensive pair. He insisted on this reasonably-priced one.“

I apologized. “ Sorry, I made a mistake, I should have made my intentions transparent and negotiated for your consent. Instead, I opted for a surprise. ”

Annie smiled. We reverted back to a more vigorous sharing of stories. Social harmony, temporarily interrupted, was now restored.

Secretly, I wished every child was in this environment, one filled with laughter, simplicity, connected loving-kindness, and delicious, healthy, homemade food, prepared by Annie.

It was difficult to ignore Joff’s presence then, and in his death, collective memories linger--of his goodness and of his young brilliance, not to be forgotten by close to a thousand folks who attended his service.

He may not be Michael Jackson, but he certainly was our shining star in the basketball court, with his family and relatives and his friends in church and school.

Joff may have died too young, but each day, each moment, he surrounded folks with love, as much as he was surrounded by theirs.

I was at his family’s home, gazing at his photos, at the comforting words stitched in a needlepoint: “ The Lord is My Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.“ His ashes are contained in an urn, enshrined inside a glass cabinet.

Joff is memorialized, and collectively remembered as one who personified midnight, ushering us from night to dawn. He gave joy to others for 6,570 days of his 18 years of life.


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