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Bye, Aga

"Overheard from the street, as I was having coffee: "Ang aga-aga, lasing ka na naman, Aga!" - me, on Facebook, in September 2017.

Some time after posting that, I got to know Aga more. He wasn't simply a drunk; he had a mental condition made manageable by medication.

Off his meds, he would have violent outbursts and he drank more. But when he was stable, he'd sweep the area outside our house, which was always a mess because of foot and vehicle traffic. He still drank.

Perhaps he was an alcoholic because of his mental illness. Or could it be the other way around?

The tricycle drivers knew him and sometimes gave him money. Our helper Jean gave him food regularly, partly because he helped her when the garbage truck came but mostly because she is a good person. She didn't want to give him money because he would use it to buy alcohol.

Once, he asked for a pamasko, a Christmas gift. A shirt, he said. After that, my brother Nolan always had something for him.

Aga always had a smile for me every morning as I left for work, and he always greeted me when I arrived in the evening.

Once, I saw him say hello to a little boy walking to the public school with a parent. They knew him, perhaps too well, because the parent had a wary look. But the child smiled happily at him and Aga handed him a twenty-peso bill. The parent protested, tried to give back the money, but Aga insisted.

He couldn't afford such generosity, was my thought. But he did anyway.

Once, I also saw Aga fighting with a jeepney driver. His hand was wrapped in a cloth that was red with fresh blood and he was shouting threats, pacing in front of our house in the area beside the guard house.

People who knew him told the driver to stop because Aga wasn't in his right mind. Someone came and took him home.

Jean told me the next day that he was okay.

Aga lived with family in the community near our house. I don't know if he was ever married or had children, but his siblings cared for him and fed him and left him alone only when they could.

Part of that care entailed bringing him to the National Center for Mental Health in Mandaluyong for his regular medication. Turok, Jean called it, an injection.

In the last few months, Aga hadn't been given his regular dose of meds. They were turned away by the NCMH because of the pandemic. "Iwas COVID daw," Jean said.

There had been an outbreak in the NCMH, and the hospital had struggled to cope.

And besides, how could his siblings bring in Aga from Las PiƱas? There was no public transportation. And perhaps, for them, no work and no pay.

They had to lock him in his room when he started turning violent again. He still drank when he could, but then he stopped eating. Then he fell ill.

Last Monday, I overheard the guards talking about a dead body being picked up. "Kukunin na yung patay," I thought I heard. I strained to listen but heard nothing more.

Aga died that day.

Dream: Almost a love story

I dreamt that I needed to buy a new phone battery because my current one already felt like half an orange. I took it out and got ready to go to the mall, mask and all. I placed my now-dead phone and the battery inside a resealable plastic bag, and then put it in a leather bag with my leather wallet. Then I got on a bus.

Suddenly, I was in San Francisco, as if the bus had entered a portal and exited in the US. We were about to arrive at the bus stop. The bus paused, and a girl hurriedly stepped out. Then the bus moved again--slowly driving down a dozen or so huge steps that led to the water.

This was a usual stop in San Francisco, I gathered. I dropped my leather bag through the window on the third step. I signaled to a woman watching the bus to please get my bag. She picked it up and gave me a thumbs up sign.

The final stop was submerged in knee-deep water. I waded back to where the woman was to get my bag. We made small talk and it turned out she was with a group of family and friends planning a trip to Manila the following week because they needed to get in touch with a Russian man. Among them was the man's best friend from his childhood: Tony Shahloub, dressed as Monk, now single.

I asked about their friendship, and he told me that his Russian friend had saved his life. There was something like a gang war in their teens, and some other fights. The Russian friend was also funny, and that helped shape Tony's brand of comedy.

I was actually treated to a Stand by Me type of flashback in sepia. Like a dream within a dream.

When I said goodbye to the group, Tony grabbed my hand gently and asked if he could look me up in Manila. He said he found me nice and charming, and would I want to perhaps join him as he went around. He had a feeling about me, he said. "Can you meet me somewhere?" he asked, both confident and shy.

I considered his age (66) but realized that I had hung on to every word he said and that talking to him was the most fascinating thing that had ever happened to me. He was funny and witty and he made my mind come alive with interest. I could love him, I thought.

I said I would give him my number, but we both didn't have phones. He handed me a Pilot tech pen and an old glossy receipt. If you love pens like me, you know that those two don't go well together! I couldn't seem to write my correct number. I have a lot of 8s but when I wrote them down, they either looked like 6s or 9s.

I told Tony I had some paper in my bag and took out a pad of 1/4 sheets of paper. But then the tech pen wouldn't work. And I misspelled my name. He talked as I tried to write, each attempt with increasing panic. He told me how his Russian friend had ended up in Manila, and how he was now ill and alone and wanted to see him.

They hadn't been in touch for years, so there was a lot of catching up to do. I found an old pen in my bag and started writing with it: my full name and phone number. I attempted a hundred times, I think, but didn't get it right. When finally I was able to write it down, our conversation had become so engrossing I forgot to hand it over.

And suddenly, I was back in Manila. In Southmall, where people weren't wearing masks and I had to go through a crowd to get my phone battery. I still held in my hand the piece of paper for Tony. But I seemed to have traveled not just in place but also in time. It was a week later, and Tony had arrived in Manila.

There was a radio playing loudly an interview with him: It was his first time to visit, he was saying, and now he understood why his Russian friend had stayed. "There is magic in this place," he said, "and it makes me feel more alive than I have ever felt." He was sad he had to leave.

I looked at the piece of paper in my hand and kicked myself mentally for not remembering to give it to him. How could he find me now? He wasn't that big of a celebrity here that he would be easy to stalk. He was back in San Francisco when I finally got in touch with him.

"I'll come back to visit you," he said. But we didn't say when.

'Something beautiful is going to happen'

Something beautiful is going to happen, the priest said at mass yesterday. And like Peter, he added, you will say, 'It is good that we are here.'

The priest then told everyone: Hang on; these are sad times, but something beautiful is going to happen. 

I wanted to cry. And I may have a little. 

I didn't know that the readings during Lent are designed to lead one to conversion in preparation for Easter. I don't know what I thought of how the readings are organized for the year. I probably never thought of it at all. 

But reading after reading, since Ash Wednesday mass, and now I think I feel a hand reaching out for mine.

***

Truth be told, I am not yet at the point where I go to mass and say, "It is good that I am here." Sometimes I still feel doubt and boredom and even annoyance. These days, I've also felt some resistance.

But I did say I'll do my best to observe Lent, so I still went to mass and still prayed for things. And then, not knowing what else to say, I just said to God, "Help me; I'm sorry."

A couple of weeks more to go. I'm hanging on. I'd like to believe that something beautiful is going to happen at the end of this.