11 August 2009

Memories of a Classmate's Suicide

Artwork: Astrid's 13th Secret - Pieter Schoolwerth, date unknown

The year was 1992; the date was August 11th.

We were in the school chapel; not the little one on the second floor of the high school building but the main one whose cross then dominated the Alabang Hills skyline.

The day began grimly enough; the whole senior class turned out for the requiem Mass for Michael Hachiya of Section 45. Mike was supposed to be a batch ahead of us, but stopped school for a year to undergo dialysis. We all thought he was going to be okay; he had, after all, come back to school with our batch the previous June. Towards the end of July, however, he took a turn for the worse. And, sadly, that was that.

The day began grimly enough; but as if that weren't bad enough, a horror story began to be whispered amongst ourselves. The night before, one of the most well-liked guys in the batch shot himself in the head. At first, we all scoffed at the news. Fidel Castillo was a cheerful guy; what reason would there be for him to kill himself? But what we thought was a bad joke turned out to be the horrible truth when Fidel's coffin was wheeled into the chapel barely five minutes after we bade Mike goodbye for the last time.

The death of a young person by his or her own hand has long been the topic of many songs, poems, films, and television shows. My generation - specifically, my batch at Bene - knew this from watching Robert Sean Leonard's touching final scene in Dead Poets' Society, listening to Pearl Jam's Jeremy, and seeing Scott Scanlon play a tragic game of Russian roulette on Beverly Hills 90210. We just didn't think that such things were real, that it would never happen to us, to one of our own. Least of all Fidel, alas.

We were freshmen when he played the nefarious Mr. Smirnov in the school production of Anton Chekhov's The Boor - a role not normally given to freshman boys short of their thirteenth birthday. But it was a masterful performance, one that would not have been out of place in a professional theatre group. This would be followed by several prizewinning performances in various school plays from Delubyo to a deliciously comic turn as Tony in that perennial crowd-favorite A New Yorker in Tondo. He had a gift for mimicry and copied Mr. Ylarde, one of our favorite teachers, to the hilt one Teachers' Day to everyone's delight. I remember hearing our then-head of the English department say that Fidel had a future treading the proverbial boards.

He was a gentlemanly sort - rare even in those less debauched days. He'd carry girls' books and do the heavy lifting whenever necessary. He was always polite and I don't remember ever hearing him say anything harsh to me or to any other member of the fairer sex.

I remember him going in for COCC in our junior year, but also remember that he was never an officer. Rather he was a member of the militarily-oriented Spearhead Club. To us, this was unusual. Still, he definitely embodied the words "an officer and a gentleman".

I also remember a grim time in my freshman year when I stood at the balcony at the back of a third-floor classroom and wondered aloud what it would be like if I jumped and fell upon the spiky fence below. Fidel was there with JP Simbulan, one of our other classmates and a very good friend of his. They both told me that it wasn't worth it, that life was still worth it even if I felt that the world was too much with me and too soon. He was that sort of person.

Which is why we felt that it was impossible for him to kill himself.

Fidel has been gone for seventeen years, but most of us still don't know why he did it. Of course, there was a lot of gossip that came in the days following his death and even after he was buried - but does anyone know anything at all about the truth of what happened on the night of August tenth? A few do, but I'd rather not ask.

Currently being under treatment myself for bipolar disorder, I think I have a bit of an idea as to why.

I think Fidel felt that he was under a lot of pressure.

But pressure is something all high school seniors experience. It's the "make or break" year: there are colleges to apply to, courses to be considered. You're finally top dog after three years of being an underling - but now the faculty expects you to be on your best behavior, to be a good example for all the younger kids. You have terror-teachers issuing the grave threat "You will not graduate!"; and that's on top of one's parents' expectations that - somehow, some way - you'd come out of the ruckus shining and smelling of roses. You play-act the game of love with other inexperienced players, going into the game starry-eyed and coming out of it wondering if any of it was worth it.

We all felt the heat, but while it pushed many of us (myself included) to the brink of madness, we were pretty sure it wasn't going to kill us.

Or so we thought until Fidel killed himself.

I was thinking of Fidel today not only because we marked the seventeenth year of his passing yesterday, but because of the violent death of another batchmate's cousin the other day.

Not a suicide this time, but a murder.

Times like these, I drive myself half-mad trying to make sense of all the senselessness involved. Why them? Why that way? Always the eternal "why" that no one seems to ever have been able to answer. My mind shrinks from the violence of it all, the brutality that seems to have overcome any form of civilized behavior

Seventeen years on, my classmate's death still makes me sad. I wonder what he would have been like if he lived and went on to grow up with all the rest of us. What line of work would he have gone into? Would he be married now? Would he have kids? Would he have fulfilled Mrs. Grape's long-ago prophecy of him becoming a thespian, playing to audiences across the globe?

It grieves me to admit that, like those questions on why he chose to take his own life, those questions will remain unanswered.

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