WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Goodbye unsaid

DAVAO CITY (09 June) — Until early yesterday afternoon, I had last seen young Jason one fine evening two summers back, rocking the MTS Tent. Later that night, I saw him and Jeff clowning around doing an impromptu choreographed routine as the Side A band invited the audience to get up and dance. I had tried to shadow their dance steps and failed miserably. They laughed. They were just two boys out for the night and having a lark.

Jason and Jeff were members of the testosteronic 3rd Special Forces Battalion band that fronted for Side A that night. My daughter Liane was a guest performer for the front act. She didn’t want to initially. She’s never heard of Side A. She thought the band was for old people like her dad and me. I made her belt it out anyway.

It was part of helping her recover from the debilitating effects of having had human hostility directed at her for three long years by queen bees in her high school class. It did not help that the adults in her school were not very vigilant nor supportive. It did not help that she had a mother who spent almost all of her waking moments at that time helping soldiers recover from combat and operational stress.

It did not help that Liane thought her assertive mother would think less of her for finding it difficult and not having the tools to overcome hate directed at her. Or worse, for her mother to think that she somehow deserved such treatment. Today, of course, she knows better, but two summers back, by the time I earned my PhD, my daughter was a nervous wreck.

There is no reprieve from a mother’s guilt. I would gladly give back my PhD degree if I could only turn back time and really be there for Liane when she needed me. No amount of rationalization could keep me from putting a failing grade on the score card that mattered most. But I have never been one to self-flagellate for long when there is something I need to do. Fortunately for me, Liane still trusted me and, at the end of that summer, she chose to enroll in psychology. I take that as my daughter forgiving me for being blind to her experience of combat stress.

How could I have known? She wasn’t a soldier. She was just a high school kid and I really thought that that high school I sent her to would take good care of her. And then I remember how kids can be mean and vicious, and adults like me are often blinded by our hankering for the world as it should be. How do you teach a 16-year-old not to be bothered by hounding text messages that say: “I am prettier, funnier, more successful, much loved, and more popular than you. You ought to be jealous.”

Ah, queen bees. Their words betray the object of their discontent with themselves. It’s called projection.

Jason and Jeff and the other soldiers in the band helped my daughter see that there are kind people out there who cared about her comfort at rehearsals, who cheered her ability to get on the beat and hit the notes right, who backed her up to sing in front of hundreds of people, and who cleared her way so she could get to the bathroom as fast as she could the minute she got down that stage. They showed her that the world was bigger than the campus ruled by queen bees who cornered their victims in the restroom, jostled cafeteria trays to soil their clothes, and got on Facebook to bat ideas around for how better and more to publicly humiliate others. They taught her to trust again that someone’s got her back.

I wonder where those girls are now. Well, wherever they are, they must miss the little pond. And maybe they’ll keep looking over their shoulder because they know the back is where they would bury their knives. Queen bees think others think the same way they do.

Liane wonders why I never ran the queen bees down. I tell her it’s because the young and stupid are allowed a time to be young and stupid. Oh, okay. I did call up their mothers. But that’s only because the school did not do so, and besides it was summer. The kids weren’t in school anymore. They were just moving up to the age when the Pangilinan bill couldn’t save them. It would be fair to warn the stupid for when they wouldn’t have the excuse of youth.

Yeah, Liane doesn’t like fair on this account. But really, just because they’re ill-mannered doesn’t mean it’s a club she’d want to join. Say goodbye.

Liane still calls the boys in the band her kuya soldiers.

Yesterday, I arrived back at the office to find Liane there. I sat her down on the sofa and told her I had been to see Jason. He had a bullet in him. Jason and Jeff and the 3rd SF Band had received orders to go to Basilan on loan to the 4th Infantry Division. They were set to wow Basilenos with their rip-roaring, foot-tapping performance, as only these soldier boys can. Heck, these boys joined the Army so they could play in the band.

But a soldier is a soldier first. The plane to Zamboanga hadn’t been scheduled yet to get them nearer to where they were going. There was call to provide road security in support of the anti-illegal logging drive in Laak. They boys in the band were sent and they got ambushed. Two dead. Jeff among them.

Jason was luckier. He’s alive. Thirty-one hours later, I found him recuperating in that room where two summers back I used to visit another young boy from Laak. They called him Ka Jinggoy. He had Special Forces blood in him and the transfusion had saved his life.

“Last touch,” Jason said to me, referring to the Fates that sent him down on his back and wishing for home. Jeff refuses to go away, he told me.

It’s okay, I said. He wasn’t just another soldier. He was your friend. He’ll go soon. If he doesn’t, let me know.

I left Jason grappling with the trouble of goodbye unsaid. Jason grew up today, and yes, I could see – heck, I could feel – it was a lot of pain.

I held my daughter and later, I fed her pandesal. She stayed until it was again time for class.

(Gail Ilagan is the current Editor of Tambara, the Ateneo de Davao University Research Journal)

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