From two years ago


The day I told people that Jess Cruz passed away, their faces melted like the cheese from yesterday’s pizza while it was fed to the microwave. These people did not weep and wail and tear their hair. Nobody collapsed into a heap like soup cans at the supermarket. Being the real adults that they were, their nerves remained steeled and their backs were straight as uncooked spaghetti. Still, their expressions gave them away. It is the face of disappointment when hope is deferred and all expectation is dismantled. Remember your parents seeing your high school report card? That face.

We thought he was going to live forever.

This man was no soap bubble. When you were around him you knew you were with a Presence. He was a mountain. And when he would begin to smoke, he turned into a mountain during a kaingin. Moses as the Burning Bush.

To this day, people’s disbelief is as evident as ever. Has he really migrated to the greener pastures of the Loyola Memorial Park? Passed on to the Great Perhaps? Or is he in a café situated in some secret forest at the bottom of the ocean, and among the best of our species, just waiting for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to hand out invitations for the Final Judgment?

He lived his life with the intensity of a nightmare. He laughed at the movies to the point of tears. When he was moved by a piece of music or a scene from a play he cried like a giggling schoolboy. Strange fellow.

One of his favorite poems was “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. He loved the line that went, “I will drink life to the lees.”

But he did more than that. He ate the parsley from his dinner plate. And ours too, whenever we were out with him. Who eats parsley anyway?

The other day, my wife gave me a word befitting Jess Cruz: Apotheosis. It sounds as heavy as a load of molten boron. I had to look the word up. That’s what he will surely make you do. He had an appetite for words. He gobbled them down like that kid with the cookies from the Oreo commercial. His least favorite word was “viand.” “Dingbat” was a word he liked but he couldn’t seem to find a way to use it in his reviews.

As the poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino would say, he was “a lover of words and a worder of love.” If there is one thing that is so infectious in this world besides the common cold, its enthusiasm. Students couldn’t help but become what he wanted them to want to become. Soon language began to seep into their consciousness like gravy through a funnel.

In the previous year, UMPIL (Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas) conferred on him the Outstanding Educator in Literature award. He taught and wrote literature all his adult life. He taught his last class this summer. For the past 4 years he was telling his friends about his wanting to write fiction again, something he hasn’t done since his first major stroke. This summer he wrote that last piece of fiction down. And let me warn: it isn’t a glum complaint on the so-called futility of existence.

The reminder that he leaves us here is that prehistoric reptiles called dinosaurs stomped around the continents millions of years ago during the Mesozoic Era. We are, after all a small hiccup in time.

In his last days, he was marooned in the Intensive Care Unit of the UST Hospital. Sadistic-looking washing machines and vacuum cleaners, attached to his body through semi-transparent tubes, kept him barely breathing. Parts of him were partially paralyzed. The whole time he was in that bed, he was worried about not being able to use his right hand again.

He practically taught and wrote to death.

What he was here for, we’re not really sure. Unlike the sense of purpose and inevitability we’ve come to understand in fiction and drama, physical existence remains a tangled mess of desires, doubts and dandruff-free hair. We are in a world that is in “the brink of self-annihilation.” There is so much noise and so few trees. Students now cut their nails in class. All of God’s children have become brats.

As his student and his friend, my theory is that maybe by showing us the beauty of art and literature we won’t end up stabbing each other’s jugular veins with Pilot ballpoint pens.

Some people are quick to lionize him by comparing him to Yoda, that old sage from the Star Wars franchise. In the last Star Wars episode (which was probably the last movie he watched) Yoda, the wise reptilian puppet with the syntax problem, says, “I hope right you are.”

Jess Cruz as Yoda? Break me a f***king give.

Students, with their typically safe and sorry lives, come out of his classes knowing their minds were fully disabused and enlightened. Like all faithful disciples or most rape victims, his students will never see life quite the same way ever again.

This will be his legacy. He will be remembered long after our grandchildren will be old enough to steal money from our wallets. Jess Cruz touched people in a special way.

No, he was never a sexual offender. ©

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