When I learned that my stepbrother Cesar died in General Luna, Quezon, I was shocked and extremely saddened. Above all, I was guilt-stricken, because weeks ago I received a request from him to buy his prescription drugs for tuberculosis. I failed to act on it quickly. I felt like banging my head on the wall. Cesar died without his medicines.
Cesar was my buddy from grade school to high school. In 1945, we moved from the province to Manila, to Oroquita Street near Spiritu Santo Church in the vicinity of the Avenida Rizal and Calle Tayuman.
Our boyhood years were full of adventures in the heart of Sta. Cruz, Manila. I remember our slingshot wars with the boys from Pritel at the Tondo boundary.
Cesar was a street-smart kid wise with the ways of earning easy money, and I followed his lead. On Sundays, we shined shoes and sold newspapers near the gate of Spiritu Santo Church. We also hawked Programa Karera and Dividendaso Nueva Era when there was a race at San Lazaro racetrack.
Cesar befriended the sentries to gain entry to San Lazaro, where he stumbled on a gimmick for quick and easy money. He simply stationed himself beside the teller’s window where winners encashed their winning stubs. There, Cesar would put on a hungry look and plead, “Balato naman po sir…”
At the day’s end Cesar’s pockets would bulge with the day’s take. He’d treat me to hopia and a bottle of Sarsi, or we’d see a movie in one of the surot-infested cinemas that lined up Avenida Rizal from Bombang Street all the way to Calle Malabon near the railroad crossing at Blumentritt.
Cesar was versatile. When Inay Aurea prodded him to hear Mass on Sundays, he did something better. He became an acolyte, serving Masses at Spiritu Santo church. His rewards? Fluffy egg omelettes and fat juicy German sausages (German priests ran the parish) for breakfast at the rectory’s kitchen. He even ended up landing a job at the Parish Kiosk as the soft-drink boy. He was quick with the bottle opener when servicing a big crowd.
After college, our career paths took opposite directions.
Cesar was sent by his father to settle in a their idle farm land in the far-flung town of General Luna in the Bondoc Peninsula. I, in turn, landed a glamorous job at an ad agency on Ayala Avenue in Makati.
I was puzzled by Cesar’s reverse migration from city to rural area, a move that meant a life of scarcity and hard physical work. Cesar was not meant for farm life. I pitied him.
I rarely saw him after he left to live the life of a farmer. I heard later he married a village girl named Beata, and was raising a family.
After a few years, he visited me in 1975 at home in Merville Park. He looked old and thin, wearing a faded shirt and baggy pants, barrio style. He looked around and marveled at my chalet-style house. I gave him a transistor radio for a present, and he was ecstatic. I suspected there was no electricity on the farm.
My other stepbrother Kuya Toti was an outcast. May ketong siya. He was stricken with leprosy since childhood. I didn’t see him at all when we lived in Liliw in 1944. He stayed hidden in his uncle’s farm in barrio Baanan, in a shack surrounded by root crops, lanzones and coconut trees.
I only learned of his existence in 1945, when Inay Aurea and my stepfather brought him for confinement at Tala Leprosarium in Novaliches. I never met him. All I knew was that his name was Toti or Kuya Toti, and he was 15 years old at that time.
I felt pity for him, so I wrote him letters occasionally. He was very appreciative of my gesture. “Mabuti ka pa at naalala mo ako, ’di tulad ng mga tunay na kapatid ko,” he wrote me back.
After several years at Tala leprosarium, Kuya Toti was transferred to Culion leper colony. After a few years his leprosy was declassified as the non-communicative type and he was set free. He decided to live in a village in General Luna. There he found a woman companion.
He visited Inay Aurea occasionally during Christmas time, and I would meet him there.
He usually sat still and silent near the doorway, head bowed, and never standing up to socialize. He always wore a faded long-sleeved shirt and baggy faded khaki pants.
His face was roundish, disfigured by reddish black skin inflammations. His ears looked grotesque due to small swollen nodes.
He spoke, a few words punctuated by long silence and blank stares.
It seemed silence was the better language that fit his life of shame and rejection. The only time he broke into a quick smile was when he saw me upon my arrival.
I found it difficult to converse with him. I was obsessed with the life of misery he had lived all his life. I pitied him a lot.
Inay Aurea would give him some money for his food and transportation. I also promised to send him money through the mail every month.
Then he would vanish as quickly as he came, to go back to a world unknown to us, to live his hidden life. It was a world he created for himself long ago, when he surrendered his whole being to shame and rejection.
Cesar and Kuya Toti died many years ago, but their memories haunt me.
The pity persisted, and it only goes away when I reject the problem of evil in this world.
I only find justice and love in the words of Jesus Christ, the savior of mankind. Then and only then will the sufferings of Cesar and Kuya Toti assume a miraculous meaning.
The teachings of Jesus Christ in his sermon on the mount ring loud and clear: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The beatitudes heal all wounds, and turn earthly miseries into eternal joys.
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