Had he lived
Last Sunday I was with my family at Viking’s, the eat-all-you-can place. Part of its popularity comes from the discount it offers to people who eat there during their birth month. This means that every now and then, the food servers will descend on a table and begin singing happy birthday.
The happy birthday rounds happened several times last Sunday when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by sadness. I think it was because one of the birthday celebrants was somewhat elderly, and he got me thinking about one of my cousins, whose birthday was on that exact day, Feb. 5.
I thought of how he would have turned 65 that day and what might have happened had he lived. He would probably be celebrating, too—with children and grandchildren. He had started college, taking business, so maybe he would have had some thriving business. Maybe, maybe not; life has too much of this “had he or she lived.”
Let’s call him Jun.
Jun and I grew up together, two of four children in our clan who were born in 1952, a dragon year. Among the Chinese, dragon children, especially males, are said to be the lucky ones, the ones who would go far in the world, and bring good fortune to the clan.
We had a large but closely knit clan on my mother’s side, which had endless family activities that included extended summer vacations together. One unforgettable summer, our clan joined with other families from school to herd together several dragon boys for the ritual, done in a clinic by a strange doctor who kept all the foreskins in bottles filled with formalin. Medical trophies I guess.
We also had summer vacations out of Manila. One summer we were in Claveria, Cagayan, in a motorboat crossing from an island to the mainland when the front of the boat suddenly collapsed, taking the motor with it.
Water rushed into the boat and my stepgrandmother, our Ama, shouted out in Minnan Chinese: “I’m old, I’m old, save the children, save the children.”
One uncle and two boatmen jumped into the sea and ferried the boat to the mainland. For years after that, at family reunions, we would recount the near-drowning incident, attributing it to the dragon children on board. We were too heavy, the elders said and, oh, how horrible it would have been if the clan’s precious dragon children had been wiped out in one fell swoop. Sometimes, we would joke that Ama actually wanted to shout, “Save the dragons, save the dragons.”
Jun and I were particularly close because we lived not too far from each other and went to the same school. After he moved to another institution for high school, we drifted apart, in part because of our schools but more because our interests were becoming so different. I was the introverted nerd, he was the sociable one into parties. He also had his own “combo,” what we call today a “band.” That was the Beatles era. His mother would complain about the “racket” in the house with his electric guitar and drums, but she would rationalize: Better the racket than having a child who would get “contaminated” by the outside world.
Communists and hippies
It was the late 1960s and parents were beginning to worry about student activists. My dyed-in-the-wool capitalist uncles were more direct, roaring out loud at our Sunday gatherings about those sanamagan communists in schools and in offices and factories.
Besides the “Red threat,” our elders fretted about drugs; everyone knew someone who had a drug problem. There was no shabu yet and people tended to favor downers: Some were mild like Valium (diazepam), pastel colored white, baby blue and light yellow and Madrax (ekis, if I remember right) were for those who could afford it. The poor used cough syrup, Benadryl mainly, actually an antihistamine that made you drowsy.
There was marijuana, too, and LSD, associated with the hippies and the paradox of getting high by copping out.
Our parents wouldn’t let us study in UP, painting a picture of disaster of degenerate sex-crazed hippy communists and what better proof of that than their staging the rock musical “Hair,” which featured frontal nudity.
I did get my way in the end enrolling in UP, promising to lead a sedate life in veterinary school where, my parents figured, I’d be too busy with dogs and cats. Jun remained in another university, halfway across town.
One day in September 1971, my mother told me she needed to break some bad news. Jun had died in the hospital from some kind of drug interaction. No one could explain it, but looking back now I have my suspicions.
I was aware Jun was fighting a drug problem, and that he was in and out of a drug rehab center. In a rare occasion we talked, he told me about how he hated the place. They shaved his hair—those were the days when we had shoulder-length hair—and tried to shame him into dropping drugs.
It seemed that some time in August he was able to escape; again, that’s the story but I am sure he was assisted. It still happens today in drug rehabs—parents regretting they sent their children into the center.
Then he ended up in the hospital—and the drug reaction which I wonder about. When you’re on drugs, especially sedatives, it’s easy to get all kinds of adverse drug reactions.
My parents kept the news from me, knowing I was going through my own problems. . . and also because Jun had died on my birthday. We both turned 19 that year.
I thought of Jun, and how little we’ve learned about responding to drug problems. Ferdinand Marcos had a Chinese drug dealer shot by musketry, but the drug syndicates continued to grow. Our rehab centers still use the methods from decades ago, a kind of boot camp and penitentiary where you’re stripped of your identity and told to get high on God, not drugs.
They work, sometimes. But inferior compared to home and community-based care where drug dependents have access to social support. It’s still not easy because the temptations are there, but the dependents are taught to be mindful of urges, temptations and cues (drinking, for example) and, most importantly, to take control of their lives.
No doubt, rehab is all the more difficult today with shabu, which puts your brain on overdrive and you turn paranoid and psychotic. But I still believe the solutions will come with families and communities working together.
I know because I’ve cared for other drug dependents, including my ex-partner. Rehab can work, without the shaming and fear tactics, without breaking people down.
Because I knew what Jun was like, quiet and reflective beneath the electric guitars and rock band, I believe he probably would have overcome his drug problem like many other young people in our time. I’d like to think he’d be helping other dependents, or at least supporting programs that provide more humane approaches to find a new life.
That Sunday, I thought I’d celebrate his birthday, too, and that the best way to remember him would be carrying on with caring for our families and those in need, as best as we can.