Among The Stars

By Sr M. Elena Dioneda FMM

Death, when it comes, is always sobering, more so when it comes and takes the young.  When it comes knocking, we can’t help but ask at times, ‘How could God allow such a young person to die . . . a nineteen-year-old man full of potential, talents and gifts?’ Sister Elena asks this same question and finds an answer of sorts in the belief that something greater was in store for him . . .

Eric Raquel was one of the Kabataan ng Itanglew I knew some years ago. He was ‘Unso’ (bunso, the youngest of eight siblings) to his family; ‘Pare’, ‘Angel’, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Puto’ (bunso) to many of his closest friends. All the while he had been doing well in his studies as a second year Electrical Engineering student in Ramon Magsaysay Technological University in Iba, Zambales. The FAPP Scholarship Program supported his college education. He was a consistent honor student in his elementary and high school years. I could say that he was a promising figure in his field. So much so that his parents and siblings considered him a symbol of hope, one who could bring fame and success to the poor and struggling family. Eric’s knack for mathematics was complemented very much by his artistic ability. This ability he considered as something of a part-time endeavor only. He had captivated many with the paintings he made on cards, streamers and frames. Each one was unique, not a copy of another. He later on ventured into charcoal painting.  His first effort was a picture of his own mother, a birthday gift to her. It remains as a legacy to her.

 Eric was very generous in sharing his gifts with other aspiring artists he knew. He founded card-making groups, the earnings of which support the members’ transportation and other allowances for school. Posters and streamers were made for the many church activities and celebrations through his initiative and effort. Paintings were given as gifts to the bishop, the parish priest and the coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples Apostolate (IPA), Columban Father Donal O’Dea. All were fascinated with the way he depicted nature in his paintings. They did not believe that such were products of amateur hands.

Tanglaw ng Kabataan

I prefer to call him ‘Tanglaw Tala’. He was one of the six mga tanglaw (lights) – a leader of the youth group – who had shown exemplary leadership qualities. He was a bright light to the straying youth through his encouragement and advice. He admitted that he was into the folly of youth during his high school days, but the fun and adventure had left him with many  lessons. His reflections on the Word of God during the Sunday Communion Services were evidence of a spiritual person with a deep relationship with God. His favorite text: ‘Kung paanong sinugo ako ng Ama, gayon din naman, sinugo ko kayo’, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21). He considered this a personal call from the Lord. Like salt, he gave flavor to the life of the youth group of Itanglew – Kabataang Alay Kay Kristo (KAAKAY).

For two summers, Eric joined the youth who gave lessons in literacy to Aeta children and youth in Sitio Batea at the foot of Mount Pinatubo. Beforehand, he actively participated in the revision of the literacy modules which came from a school in Manila. He and the group who volunteered for this work revised the modules into Sambal, the language of the original inhabitants of Zambales. The finished products then became more relevant to the Aeta children and youth.

Among the Aeta children

Who would even think that that summer of 2002 would be his last time in Batea? For three weeks, together with five other young college scholars of IPA, he joined the FMMs in this apostolate. Eric gave most of his time and ability to the Aeta children.

More than just a group, the Kabataan ng Itanglew  became our partners in our mission to the indigenous peoples. They taught the children the basics of reading and writing in Sambal. Mind you, teaching was far from the formal school set-up. Sometimes classes were held under the trees, near streams or in any place where the children were comfortable. Eric patiently shared his time and teaching ability with these children. On one occasion he was seen by one of our Sisters crying as he was talking with his group of seven boys. He was encouraging them to go on, to continue studying and never to lose hope. He was also bidding them goodbye. They thought that Eric was simply going back to his studies in June. He still had May to spend in Batea. As Eric shared, he met all of the four objectives he had set before going to Batea. One of these was ‘Ngayon ko lang naintindihan kung ano ang misyon!’ ‘Only now do I understand what mission is!’ ‘Ang pagpunta pala sa Batea ay hindi lamang para magturo kundi upang maha-lin ang mga katutubo!’ ‘Going to Batea is not only to teach but also to love the people there!’ He really did love the Aeta!

Gone too soon

On 8 May  came Eric’s first attack of an illness; no one knew till ten days later. He struggled with all those seizures, convulsions and fainting. The disease was not diagnosed immediately. The family resorted to a faith healer and even the anito healing, but to no avail. He was really sick. After three days in a hospital in Olongapo City, Eric gave up his last breath leaving behind his family, friends and loved ones in a state of shock and grief. He died of TB Meningitis. Who would ever know that the headaches he was going through were already symptoms of this terrible disease leaving him out of his mind before his death.

Now we are left only with his memories. To the rest of the Tanglaw, he was a symbol of commitment to the youth. To his family, he was a symbol of hope gone. To us Sisters, he was one of a kind . . . a big loss.

As Father O’Dea said, ‘When God takes someone, it is not because of his talents and gifts. Only God knows why he took Eric so soon. Our memories of him show us that when you’re alive, you have to be generous in sharing your gifts with others, build up people, show love, care and compassion. For who knows if you’ll be gone tomorrow’.

Every time I look at the bright star on the horizon, I remember Tanglaw Tala. I know he loved to gaze at the stars because of their different colors. Now, his light is among them . . .

Sister Elena is now working in Algeria.

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