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In my life: young stories

 

Aedan Pio Malvar

Of all the opportunities that writing for Philippines Graphic has brought me, it is the chance to interview people that I cherish the most.

No, I do not mean persons of stature and consequence. Rather, I refer to ordinary folk like you and me. People who make up the infinitesimal fabric of common living that unfurls with every morning and rests at the close of day.

They are the men, women, and children whose lives reverberate with the will to live, their voices booming; their laughter unafraid.

Life is a well of happiness and heartache and the children I have interviewed wear life’s varying shades with crushing vulnerability. More than once, they have made me swallow tears of awe and sympathy.

CHILD PRODIGY

There is Aedan Pio Pascual Malvar, a painting prodigy whose young and fragile body is slowly being devastated by a viciously deadly and rare type of cancer that grows grape-like tumors inside his skull, at the base of his brain.

Pio is the grandson of Teresa, an elementary classmate of mine. I first met him when he turned four, a year after the three-feet-seven-inches-tall tyke was diagnosed with chordoma.

His mother Gem and his grandmother Teresa said Pio is like an old soul in a kid’s frame. It was Pio who comforted them, every time the boy’s small, young body gave way.

“Mommy, my eyes are okay. I can see two of you sometimes, but they are okay now,” Pio said when he was three.

Expressed Gem: “As much as possible I avoid crying or showing him that I am stressed because he can sense it and when he does he won’t tell me if he is not feeling good because he does not like it when people worry about him.”

“I don’t need help! I’m okay!” Pio would shout, while banging his head on a pillow or the bed.

Doctors said that some patients suffering from chordoma can be cured with appropriate treatment.

For Pio, treatment translates to a whopping P11 million (US$206,635) proton beam therapy (PBT), a medical procedure that uses a beam to blast the hard to reach tumors in Pio’s brainstem.

Other chordoma patients, however, only live for a decade or more.

“I am not going to die. I want to be an adult already,” Pio, now seven years old, said. “I will be a teenager at 10 and have a girlfriend and be an adult at 20. Jesus, please give me a long life. Please let me be an adult. Please make me strong and healthy. Please give mommy money. Please give me food. Please make me a good boy. Thank you for everything.”

COIN DIVER

On assignment to write a special report on Tacloban and Samar, one year after the aftermath of Yolanda, I chanced upon this boy while waiting for our RoRo to leave for Samar from Matnog town in Sorsogon province.

Matnog Port  glows with the silver and gold sheen of Philippine coins for its boy divers.

“Even a peso would do, ma’m! Just for lunch money (when I go to school). I wasn’t among those (children) you gave coins to earlier,” cajoled Jansen Hebiga, 13, while hanging by the steel railings of the M/V Reina Emperatriz.

Standing less than five feet tall, Hebiga is lean and wiry, probably weighing less than a hundred pounds, with not an ounce of fat from cheek to foot.

He is persistent, his nasal voice blending well with a sometimes sulking, suddenly smiling face. And then the voice shifts to cajoling again, all the time his head doing the occasional nod as he says again: “Please, Ma’m, even a peso. Throw a peso and I will jump overboard to get it.”

It has been like this ever since Hebiga turned seven, on days when he is free from school. He would walk the four-minute, 290-meter distance to Matnog Ferry Terminal from his family’s thatched hut in Brgy. Tablac.

The Hebiga family totals five children, with Jansen as the eldest.

“I earn P70 a day, diving for coins. I use it to cover school expenses and for helping augment family meal expenses,” he said in the vernacular.

The sea is a deep, crystal blue of small waves, its points glinting in the sun like a million silver-gray arrow points.

“Throw it, Ma’m, I’ll dive for it. A peso would do. Even a peso is okay,” Hebiga repeatedly said.

One last time, a boy dives after 10 one-peso coins thrown from the M/V Emperatriz. It is Hebiga, hurling his body into the waiting seawaters from a height of 100 feet. It is only nine in the morning.

SUGARCANE CUTTER

I met this girl at a press conference exposing the ills of child labor. Dressed in the bright red and yellow weave of her tribe, her story cuts the way the sharp edges of sugarcane leaves can slit one’s skin.

It is 2015. In Bukidnon, inside a large sugarcane plantation in Brgy. San Nicolas, a 14-year-old girl is sharpening her sundang (bolo knife) to cut sugarcane leaves.

Geraldine “Pitang” Aboy, knows that the sundang needs to be razor sharp so she can work fast; fast enough to earn the P120 she and other child workers will each make after a 15-hour work shift.

During those hours, they will slash-and-burn sugarcane leaves, and help in preparing the land for the next planting season.

Pitang is a Manobo-Pulangion. Her tribe used to own land in Bukidnon, until they lost it to land grabbers.

“My father became a farm worker and my mother began accepting sewing work at home. My brother, the eldest, has polio. And so it is up to me to join my father in being a sakada (sugarcane worker).”

The last 10 years have been the hardest for the Aboy family. There were countless times when they ate only rice and only once a day. “I came to the plantation at 4 in the morning, before sunrise, and went home at 7 p.m. when the sun had set. My body ached and the hunger shook my insides.”

In 2010, when she reached fourth grade, Pitang stopped schooling. “Even if the tuition is free, there is no money to pay for school projects,” she explained.

And yet, for all her hardship, Pitang dares to dream of a better life for herself and her kin. “I want to study to become a teacher so I can help my people. And I want to be singer. You see, our neighbor, Roel Maglangit, won in Pilipinas Got Talent. I want to join it too,” she said.

It is in children that reality strikes the hardest. And yet, it is the children who weave the brightest dreams.

 

 

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