WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Remembering a good man. By Gail Ilagan

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (October 11, 2010) — Friday, hubby and I headed north to Cagayan de Oro City where at 4:00 pm I was slated to launch my book War Wounded at Xavier University. Bands of construction crew littered the Bukidnon highway, and it was almost 3:00 pm when we hit Puerto in CDO.

We promptly got lost. Anybody who’s been to CDO knows how crazy the traffic is in this old port town. To make matters worse, the skies opened up with a vengeance just as the vendors were setting up to close some streets for night market.

Somehow, we made it to the venue where Jony Berjes, the energetic XU Press Manager, was probably having kittens thinking we were still trapped in the maze of unfamiliar city streets. I have to hand it to Jony. I have never seen a book launch like what he put together for War Wounded. Actually, the scale of it gave me cold feet! Jony orchestrated that with the help XU’s Joey Jegonia, Balay Mindanaw’s Belle Hernandez, The Asia Foundation and my publisher- ADDU-RPO.

The minute I walked through the door, Joey pulled me into an alcove and got to work on my mug. Some friends from Balay Mindanaw helpfully produced makeup kits upon Belle’s emergency call.

I swear Jony, Joey and Belle were the best fairy godmothers a writer launching a book could ask for. The buffet table was groaning. They had enough to feed an army – which was probably right with the sea of fatigue uniforms that I could see through the doorway ebbing and flowing in the next room. It was not the time to have a panic attack – which is what the un-made up wonder gets when she registers that her face would not do just yet.

Breathe.

My mind blanked out. To my extreme mortification, I don’t think I remembered to acknowledge Jony, Belle and Joey for their devotion to the cause of launching my book at any time I was up there addressing the audience. Mea culpa.

Joey was redoing my face while assaulting me with a litany of instructions. My fairy godmothers had located the Paler family. They were here. She said they had a bouquet for me for them, for me, from me, for Jake… What? Oh, Lord.

I had so wanted to meet the Palers since June. I can’t count any more the number of people I’ve badgered to connect me to them. And now, they’re in the next room.

What my fairy godmothers had prepared was an occasion for the military, peacebuilding NGOs and HR rights advocacy groups, media and academics from CDO, Davao City, Iligan City and Bukidnon to discuss convergence for academic research on Mindanao matters. They had the charming Mark Labuntog hosting the program.

MindaNews’ Bob Timonera was there all the way from Iligan. So was CMU’s Tess Taganahan from Musuan. Ompong Rodil made it from whatever he was doing in Malaybalay. His sweet wife Bebot came from home, having decided to meet him halfway at my event.

Ermin Pimentel, the Assistant to the VP for Research and Social Outreach of XU, and Riza Baldovino of the ADDU-RPO introduced the audience to the research and community engagement thrusts of the Ateneo schools in Mindanao.

10ID’s chief of staff Colonel Lysander Suerte gave the context of my combat stress research at his division, detailing for the listeners how we negotiated the convergence for generating knowledge that would serve the AFP’s needs while at the same time pushing the frontiers of applied psychology here where we need it. Dodoy – as I call him – also shared his woes in fitting in a civilian and her research agenda into the operations of the most heavily engaged combat division of the Philippine Army.

Ariel C. Hernandez of the Balay Mindanaw Group of NGOs reviewed the book. Last week, Ayi had called to tell me “Makahilak man ning libro mo, Gail.” In his talk, he sought to excuse the discomfort reading my book would cause to the reader by impressing how and why these stories need to be told.

Soon, Joey was introducing me. Fairy godmother that she is, she got me scared again with the massive build up. Getting up there on my third podium for the week, I saw a sea of expectant faces turned my way. Aw, Joey-girl- you know I have stage fright. Haah.

I decided to ditch the speech I had prepared. I figured Ermin, Riza, Dodoy and Ayi gave enough of the context to why this book came to be. Instead, I launched into an impromptu talk about the work that I do – how the pursuit of my academic credentials had largely been shaped by what ADDU needed on its teaching staff; how I try to assert the values I grew up with in choosing my areas of research and community engagement; and how I had been blessed to find support from family, institutions and colleagues for my unconventional concerns.

Especially for the work that culminated in the publication of War Wounded, it seemed like all the brick walls I came up against were merely temporary. Obviously, the groundswell of support had yet to fade. There was, for example, Lieutenant General Ding Ferrer of the Eastern Mindanao Command who would still endure the six hours’ road trip to get to the launch and give the closing remarks. He was about to brave the six-hour trip back to base after the occasion.

I talked about the pitfalls of working with traumatized populations. You see, empathy is a two-edged sword. While it allows the mental health professional to fully apprehend how someone experiences trauma, it also erodes one’s psychological defenses. Healers often find themselves bearing the psychic wounds of the people they heal.

I never wanted to be a clinician, but my mentor Orange Lozada was convinced five years ago that I would make a good one. I do realize now that that my capacity for empathy makes me an effective psychologist. Negotiating the tightrope is still an iffy proposition sometimes. Orange says it is a journey. I take it knowing that she guides me still.

It was while doing research at 10ID that I came to know of Joseph Jake Paler. We lost him ten years ago in the battle for Camp Abubakar in Central Mindanao. The AFP posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Conduct Star for, of course, his distinguished conduct in that battle.

Paler’s death was especially traumatic for Ben, one of the soldiers who served under him. In chapters 3 and 4 of my book, I detail how narrative therapy helped Ben through his long-delayed grieving process. Today, Ben still feels sad over Jake’s death, but the emotions do not overwhelm him as much any more.

Jake was a member of the 1992 XU BS Psychology class. That book launch was indeed a fitting occasion to bring home the memory of this war hero here to this community that had taught him “…to pay the price to be man for God and country, to prepare for sacrifice; not to heed the wounds…” A truly worthy son indeed of XU was he.

With Jake’s parents – Col. Jose C. Paler (Ret.) and retired HS principal Angela M. Paler – there before me, I finally had the chance to speak from the heart. I said,

Your son Jake was a good man. You lost him in the prime of his life, and that must have been very, very hard for you. May you however be comforted to know that he remains to be well-remembered; that the good that was in Jake will always have the power to touch the rest of us – even those who never knew him in life – and that he continues to be an inspiration to his brothers-in-arms. We can never thank you enough for raising him to be a God-fearing, responsible and patriotic citizen of this land.

“Jake Paler was the foremost reason why I had to write this book. When we hear of a man who fights for us to the last drop of his blood, who looks death in the eye and comforts the living with the license for them to carry on without him, we have to stop and pay homage. True heroism deserves to be recognized and honored. War Wounded is for Jake Paler and for every Filipino soldier who would die so that others may live.”

I did not mean to cry at my book launch. I did not mean for the words spoken from my heart to make those in attendance go teary-eyed. But on certain occasions, it is right for us a community to remember and grieve so that together we find the resolve to carry on and live for what the brave among us have died for.

And as Col. Paler accepted my flowers with a solemn handshake, Mrs. Paler held me close, as much to console as to be consoled. She shakily told me that, “I don’t know why but you make me feel that Jake is here right now. Thank you.”  (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says).

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