It seems odd to be writing today about the brief life and sudden death of a young man in Texas. After all, this is a day when most Filipinos would be preoccupied with visiting relatives, indulging in gut-busting meals, toting up the loot, and indulging in a semblance of endless mirth and joy.
But in many ways, thinking about the life of Benjamin Eelan Tecson Franco today, a day in which for Christians the birth and life of another young man is foremost on our minds, seems not only appropriate but also fitting.
I remember him mainly as a toddler at his grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary, running around in a chapel in Tagaytay clad only in diapers. The most remarkable thing about him was his shock of unruly curly hair, giving him the look of a very young Tarzan and lending an air of hilarity to an already joyous occasion.
The next time I would see him, Ben was already a young man. In the intervening years, he would have his hair trimmed to even the severe but trendy “buzz cut.” But when he visited the Philippines, taking a break from his college studies in Texas, Ben’s hair was back to its old waves falling down to his chin.
This youngest of the brood of three boys and one girl of Ed and Mita Franco had read about the severe flooding engendered by the habagat (monsoon) last August and at once called his mother in London to tell her he wanted to fly to the Philippines to help. Mita in turn called up her sister, (my sister-in-law) Coratec, who is general manager of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), and who perhaps at the time was desperate for every hand willing to help in the cleanup and rehabilitation of flood-affected areas.
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That is one thing I don’t “get” about Ben. People of goodwill here, I guess, would be willing to donate cash or goods, or even volunteer to pack relief goods and perhaps even distribute them to victims. But how many would be willing to wade into muddy waters and scoop up the collective filth of a community?
For that is the task that Ben assigned to himself, joining the rest of “Task Force Sendong” in clearing the waterways of Barangay Tumana in Quezon City and the shores of Manila Bay of garbage, detritus and what he inelegantly called sh-t.
Here is Ben “meditating” on this task: “Today’s mud was sh-t. Of all the things to mix with water, it is baby sh-t that far and away, coats, covers, and congeals with everything.
It is viscous enough to travel to every corner of the street. And you know it’s baby sh-t. Everyone knows. The diapers are a dead giveaway, but it’s also that it smells like baby sh-t. It’s almost like every other resident in the slums is an unseen baby whose only job is to produce sh-t.”
In the two weeks he was here, Ben spent most of his time reporting to the MMDA headquarters, taking part in briefings and joining his team in their place of assignment. Standing knee-deep in the city’s filth and sharing in the life of his teammates and the people they seek to help.
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“I did not know why I came, why I really wanted to help,” Ben wrote in his journals. “I was afraid of this unknown. I realize now it is to show how these people are living and coping with the typhoons and monsoons of everyday life.”
Working in the cleanup of Manila Bay, where a small island of garbage had formed near the Yacht Club, Ben struck up a conversation with a woman who lives in a lean-to nearby. She is desperately poor, told him about her sick child, but offered him a meal of rice and fried fish. He found it “heartbreaking,” noting that “such is the generosity I have seen in the Philippines, the hospitality.”
Finally, he asked himself: “What am I supposed to do? How can I truly help these people for good? To change their condition instead of just their day? Is it even possible?”
Ben went back to Dallas after his 2-week break, not yet sure of the answers but sure of only one thing: He would come back to the Philippines after graduation.
But it was not to be. Last Nov. 17, he was riding a motorcycle (without a helmet) when he was bumped from behind by a car. Thrown by the force of the collision, Ben died almost instantly when he hit the ground. He was only 23.
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Judging by the stories his friends told and his own letters, blogs and journals, there is no doubt in the minds of his parents and siblings that the visit to the Philippines changed Ben in ways that were difficult to measure but were palpable just the same.
This month, all five Francos returned to the Philippines to hold a memorial service for Ben and also, they said, to view for themselves the places he had visited and the people he had met, and to scatter some of his ashes atop a mountain he had climbed (on a bike) during his visit.
“We take comfort in his so many beautiful friends and family whom he touched and through whom he will live on forever. He found his peace and his passion in life. Something many of us strive for unendingly. I will miss him,” writes his father Ed.
But it is to Ben that I will give the final word: “What would Ben do?” he asked in his final journal entry. “He has always been there, waiting for me. It is a return. I journeyed to find out what I needed was at home all along. It was me I was looking for, the one I’d left to try and live in this world. I am the best self, reintegrated. Welcome home, Ben.”