A Requiem for friend


(Editor’s Note: This piece was delivered by the author at the Necrological Service, FEU University Chapel, 8 June 2005 and was later published by the Philippine Star, Lifestyle, Arts and Culture, Monday June 13, 2005.)

Jess and I were best friends for 56 years.

The requisite heavenly bodies must have been in perfect alignment that July day in 1949 when he and I were thrown in each other’s company at the FEU Boys’ High School on the first day of Mr. Iluminado Gabay’s freshman class in Literature and Composition. He was 14, a certified city boy from just around the corner from the school on Morayta St. I was a year younger, fresh from the small town of Bongabon, Oriental Mindoro (still with palay in my hair, as the late, lamented Rita Estrada would have said). We didn’t know it then, of course, but it was the beginning of a lifelong beautiful friendship.

How do people become friends? It is one of life’s mysteries, certainly one of the loveliest. I have no wish to fathom it. I’m content to know and to be grateful that I have been singularly and oh so abundantly blessed with the gift of a best friend. I know not how or why I deserved it, but 56 years of loving, laughing (occasionally crying), evergreen friendship, is certainly something to stun and humble one with the hugeness of the gift.

Jess graduated valedictorian of the class of 1953, then earned the Bachelor of Arts degree (summa cum laude) four years later from the FEU. He subsequently went to Stanford and Columbia, where he took courses in the Humanities. He gorged on opera at The Met. He bathed in the Aegean, gazed up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He wrote distinctive short stories, in lyrical, lapidary prose. He taught English and Literature to a legion of students in a teaching career spanning nearly half a century, earning in the process the gratitude, respect, and affection – nay, love – of the discerning among them. He wrote superlative reviews of concerts, plays and recitals. All these things he did, but to me he was first, last, and always Jess, my best friend. The Jess who introduced me to the girl who became my wife (she was one of his students); who was best man at my wedding (even if only by proxy); who was godfather to my first son; who was at my side when my father breathed his last in hospital; who opened windows for me in literature and classical music.

Jess and I laughed a lot together. So much so that early on in our friendship, one of their household help remarked, “Manila na lahat ng tawa.” And the trigger for the laughter could be quite unpredictable. For instance, one late October day 10 years ago, I was in Manila on one of my balikbayan visits. A typhoon was howling through the city. Needing lunch, Jess and I braved the storm – pieces of corrugated iron were flying through the sky – and made our way from his apartment on C.M. Recto to the nearby KFC. While waiting for our order, I suddenly said, “Hey, Jess, wala tayong kanin.” He looked at me, then broke up, and, as almost always happened when one of us “got loose” (our private language for having a fit of uncontrollable laughter). I got loose, too. Picture it: there we were, two middle-aged men waiting for our chicken at a KFC counter, with only flimsy-looking glass windows between us and the very angry life-threatening storm outside, splitting our sides because one of us thought it was very funny that the other, a visiting Pinoy Aussie, worried that we didn’t have kanin for lunch.

Jess had an acute sense of beauty – in literature, the theater, the visual arts. But perhaps nothing nourished his aesthetic soul more than music. It was merciful then that though his first stroke eight years ago impaired his vision to the point where any serious reading was out of the question (“parang Picasso” was how he tried to describe how the world looked to his stroke-stricken eyes), his hearing was untouched, and listening to music he loved continued to be one of his principal pleasures. Distinguished sopranos Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were absolute favorites.

(That they are mine as well was one of  the many bonds between us. We both found the former’s rendition of Montsalvatge’s Cancion de Cuna and the latter’s version of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs ineffably beautiful and considered them beyond surpassing, now or ever.)

It is a privilege for me to say something about you, Jess, my best friend. Wherever you are now, I wish you peace, laughter, music, beauty. ©


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