We go through life remembering people who have made an impact and embedded great influences in us before they are gone.
I met Kuya Ben (Kuya means older brother) a month after I arrived in Thailand through a co-teacher. The first time I saw him, from afar, he looked much shorter, but I was drawn to the friendliest and the warmest smile.
He told me that he was the oldest teacher under the Chulalongkorn University Nonthaburi Project, but his energy and enthusiasm about life were abundant. In soft-spoken words, he told stories about his students showing passion and care for all of them, especially the "unwanted" ones.
He was affiliated with a different religious denomination, but he believed that in the act of kindness and charity, this did not matter. I could still recall his broken Thai while playing with the kids during our English outreach classes every Saturday afternoon. He made them laugh so much so that the children could remember our names and our lessons. He said, learning the language follows after the students know that you like them. This wisdom was magnified later. When I took up some master education subjects, I could tell which teacher I had learned the most from.
My bond with Kuya Ben continued outside church outreach. He asked me to accompany him to his Sunday Art classes. He bought me art sets in a bulky plastic case. I was happy to tag along and help out the kids with my basic color knowledge. Later, I discovered that he instigated an art show for the new art enthusiasts in the Philippine Embassy. Just like how he mounted the children's artwork on every tree on the final day of the class. He also put ribbons and awards. The kids were proud and bubbly about their works, there were six of them. I mused over Kuya Ben as he chatted with the parents. He had a way to make one feel bigger and more important.
Kuya Ben impressed me most in many ways. He was the most nurturing person and a teacher I have ever met. When I told him that I like writing, he said, I should try. Trying out is a journey to discover things about oneself. It should not be hard if you take the courage to do so. These words become a mantra whenever I am adamant about trying new things. His way of feeding one's imagination to nobler learning was infectious. It was then that I started writing.
Despite his positivity and busy hands, he longed to be with his family. Over fried fish and boiled vegetables for dinner, he recounted stories about his home life. I have seen those eyes misted over before, but this time he wiped them out with his hands. He would like to enjoy his remaining years with his wife and now a grown-up daughter. His decision to go home was quicker than I thought.
We had our last dinner in one of those makeshift restaurants that come alive only at night along Thailand sidewalks. The buzzing sound of cars and passers-by made me listen hard as to what he had said. Lost in his thoughts and blank gaze, he told me that life is short. The past should not hold me back from life and its kindness. I could hardly swallow. He understands that matters of the heart are difficult, yet he knows the right words to say. In my silence, he had given me the books “Little Book of Essay” and “How to Write Freelance”. I could keep it as long as I write, he said.
I reconnected with Kuya Ben and his wife a couple of times in the Philippines.
The first time was when I brought for him some Thai-made classroom decorations and dragon fruits which his wife likes the most. On my next flight home, he met my youngest sister for the first time, yet bonded with her like old best friends while waiting for me at the airport. It was late at night, but he made sure that we were safe on our bus journey to Baguio.
After a day he had joined us and the rest of the group for our medical mission conducted in Nueva Viscaya. Our correspondence trickled in the days to come. Sometimes I would follow his whereabouts through his Facebook posts. He was almost 70 years old, but not a thing held him back. He did part time teaching, taught art classes, organized community activities and raised funds for projects for the young people. The onset and disturbing effects of the pandemic made me turn away from social media for a while.
One day, I found out he died of COVID-19. I took it casually; I bottled up my sadness as I mourned for the lost loved ones of my friends too.
I asked Phil if I could write again on Ajarn.com after a long absence. That is to fulfil a promise to Kuya Ben. I feel that writing again for him would emancipate some regret thoughts I have. I meant to write or call him, but I didn't.