People smile differently these days. Don’t you think? We smile as if we’ve been through the unthinkable… because we have.
For the past year, it seemed unreal to go about daily routines as the world battled an invisible illness. We’d try to be our optimum selves, celebrating another day of life, hyper-aware of our proximity to death. We were reminded that we may not all share the same struggles, but we’re all struggling just the same.
I ponder all this as I listen to Ben Baquilod over our virtual catch-up. Kuya Ben was two years my senior in Diliman, well-known for his stellar work ethic and altruism. I treaded lightly, careful not to ask about the elephants in the room. In the course of four months, Ben had lost his only brother, tended to his mother’s illness, and helped his sister recover from COVID-19. Yet here he was, nine months after his brother’s death, beaming at me with unmistakable warmth.
People smile differently these days. I wonder if Ben thinks so, too.
It was April 17 when Lawrence complained to his family about a headache. “We thought it was just a typical one. He took meds and fell asleep.” Ben recalls, “That night, we couldn’t wake him up… We rushed him to the hospital... The doctor told us that his chance of surviving was slim, and that we should be prepared for the worst.”
At 4:11 a.m. the next day, the worst did happen.
“The death certificate says that the immediate cause was herniation syndrome, antecedent cause was intracranial hemorrhage, and underlying cause was probably secondary to ruptured aneurysm.” So many syllables. None would be enough justification for Lawrence being gone at 21.
Ben found himself wailing in despair on the hospital floor; as were the rest of his family, four sisters and parents who had outlived their bunso. Since Lawrence’s passing occurred during the COVID outbreak, safety restrictions applied. “Everything happened so fast... We were robbed of the traditional way of mourning.”
The misfortune didn’t end there. In June, Ben’s mother fell ill. “She had no appetite to eat, didn’t want to get out of bed.” The family did their best to cope and keep her healthy despite lingering worries. Soon after, Ben’s older sister tested positive for COVID-19. Despite the precautions and being indoors, she was still infected, though asymptomatic.
“As humans we also get beaten-up.” Ben started having physical symptoms like “non-stop pounding in my chest, squeezing sensations all over the body, incessant sweating, and insomnia… Grabe yung lugmok, di ko ma-explain. I lost the will to live.”
Even from the pixels on my screen, Ben’s pain was palpable. I felt it in the way his brows furrowed while recounting tragedy, the way his eyes lit up as he spoke the world of his brother. Once, he paused briefly, swallowing the lump in his throat. I never knew silence could be so loud.
But Ben didn’t deflect from the pain of his past. If anything, he honors the journey for where it has brought him in the present. Mustering a smile, he goes on to share the “hows” of his healing.
Befriending the range of emotions
“When I treat my emotions like enemies, they really become my enemies, so I decided to treat them as friends.” There are friends we greet with open arms, emotions like Contentment or Joy. On the other hand, there are those we’d wish would visit us less. Anguish. Longing. Grief.
Ben now accepts the fact that his less-favored “friends” will visit often, but he replaced his aversion with an openness, a willingness to discover how these emotions help him find deeper meaning in life. After all, his grief is not a sign of weakness but of enduring affection.
There are friends we greet with open arms, emotions like Contentment or Joy. On the other hand, there are those we’d wish would visit us less. Anguish. Longing. Grief.
We offer words of assurance and patient understanding towards friends in need. Ben asserts we must do the same for ourselves. For a while he was tormented by guilt-ridden questions: “What if I checked up on Lawrence earlier? Did he die knowing how much I love him?” He knew he’d never hear his brother’s answers but he also knew Lawrence enough to trust that their bunso would want them all to find peace, to live happily.
Ben is allowing himself to feel positive emotions. Yes, he can still share memes, binge shows, and laugh boisterously. While he can know pleasantries again, he also allows himself leeway to relapse. Ben asserts: “We can feel grief and gratitude at the same time.”
Ben started meditating more religiously to overcome his anxiety and develop mindfulness. The heightened focus enabled Ben to be more present, not just for himself but for others, too.
He re-meets the world with a magnified appreciation for the beauty in the mundane. He relishes in the “distinct scent of a book’s pages, in talking to his jade plant, in hearing the soul of every beat… dancing alone shamelessly to Watermelon Sugar High!”
Becoming Ben anew
Ben claims to have killed off “ego-driven goals.” “My identity has become small, and my goals in life have become wide and universal. I am simply this person who values self-expression and helping people in need.”
After tending to his family, he rejoined the workforce but this time with Alagang Kapatid Foundation Inc., TV5’s corporate social responsibility arm focusing on humanitarian aid. His eyes glimmered as he shared that he just got back from Bicol where they facilitated relief operations.
Ben also launched his blog, Ben Unboxed, aiming to create a safe space for self-awareness. “Matagal ko nang gustong mag-blog, pero natatakot ako. What if people aren’t interested in what I have to say since I don’t ride on the hype of trendy topics? Then I realized, I write for myself. If it helps someone else that’s a bonus.”
Within a week of its launch, Ben’s debut article, a tribute to Lawrence and the family’s journey to healing, reached over 2,424 people from as far as Canada and Europe. He serves a reformed goal of simply pursuing good character: “I want to be a better person than who I was before he left. It’s the only way to honor him.”
I used to think people smiled differently these days. I still do. But I’ve also learned to view smiles a different way.
Ben is becoming his best and happiest even after surviving the worst. His proactive outlook towards growth demonstrates our remarkable capacity for recovery.
While we can’t fully know the extent of what others have been through, contemplating the universality of human experiences — the travails to triumphs and navigating what’s in between — is a gesture of empathy in itself.
Ben is becoming his best and happiest even after surviving the worst. His proactive outlook towards growth demonstrates our remarkable capacity for recovery. The person who knows hurt also knows healing and sometimes the two reconcile in the shared space of a smile. To me, each grin is now an ode to hope, a silent prayer for solidarity, for the very strength we continuously unearth and share.
Banner and thumbanail photo art by Cid Gonzales