Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Life in the Balance

My companion has a son who will be twenty years old on the 22nd of this month. Just to give you a better idea of who he is and what he has meant to me, I refer you to something I wrote about him four years ago called The Boy Who Wasn't There. I confess that I have never liked him, but at the moment - the most crucial moment in his life - I feel intensely sorry for him.

I had been anxious for him to leave my house until last August, when, after pulling the latest in a very long line of stupid stunts (like breaking into my house when I wasn't there), I told him to start looking for another place to live. I expected that it would take him weeks and perhaps months to accomplish the task. Imagine my surprise when he moved out the very next day, pouring forth as he did so what must've been a reservoir of pent-up resentment toward me. The only thing that bothered me about it was that it broke his mother's heart.

I am poor by any standard you care to apply - including my living for seven years in a backward province of a very poor country and having to support four people on a miniscule pension. I knew from the beginning that the woman I was living with had four children. Her ex-husband, and father of three of her children, had been last seen more than a year before I met her. Because there is no divorce law in the Philippines and because, by my own reckoning, at least half of the population is poor, many of them are never legally married. This has the unfortunate side-effect of absolving deadbeat dads of any legal responsibility to support their abandoned families. It is just one more of the disastrous effects of Roman Catholicism on the poor.

When she and I decided to live together, she left her two oldest children in the resort town where we met, and with the two youngest, a boy and a girl, we came to live on a tiny island where her sister's family was living. The boy was twelve when we got here and the four of us settled into a life that has been a constant struggle with severely straightened circumstances - the everyday life of poor Filipinos.

Since he moved out of my house last August, the boy was contacted by a cousin who has been living in Germany for several years. This cousin had previously offered to pay for the boy's college tuition, once he graduates high school (he is now in the eighth grade). Within a few months of leaving my house, however, I learned that his cousin had told him to acquire a passport and that he was going to come to the Philippines in March of this year, take him to the German embassy in Manila and sponsor a student visa for him. I took this extraordinary news at face value and told his mother that it was my kicking him out of my house that made it all happen. (She doesn't quite see it this way, and I can understand why.)

It is now July. The boy lives in a boarding house not far from my house. His mother still cooks meals for him and does his laundry, so I see him every day. He has been relying on an allowance that his cousin sends him every month. He got his NBI (the Filipino FBI) clearance and his passport after several visits to Tacloban and many delays.

When the cousin failed to show up in March as promised, he told the boy that he would wait for the results of the ALS test (Alternate Learning System - a Philippine version of the GED) for which the boy sat last December - before coming here. The condition was, of course, that the boy passed the test and got a high school diploma. Already hopping mad at the boy's cousin, I watched and waited, knowing that the boy's anticipation must've been overwhelming. On the day the results were published, the Philippine Department of Education website was so inundated with visitors that it crashed. The boy, however, managed to see the list. His name wasn't on it. When he arrived at my house later in the day, the look on his face betrayed the enormity of his disappointment. I asked him if the list was a publication of all the test results, whether the candidates passed or not. I guessed that there must've been some mistake, but when I managed to see the list myself, I saw that it was a list of the "passers" only. He had failed the test. 

I didn't see the boy for a few days, and wondered what he was going through. Having the wind knocked out of one's sails at such an age is terrible. The same thing happened to me, when, in 1978, I applied to a university in Ireland. I was sent a notice by the school that my application was "pending" and that I would be notified of the final decision. After waiting six months without a notification, I phoned the school long distance from South Carolina. In an sympathetic voice, the woman I spoke to told me that my application had been denied. Without realizing this goal, this dream of attending school in Ireland, I half-heartedly returned to college in Colorado for another two years, and eventually dropped out without taking a degree.

For the boy, going to Germany is like divine intervention. He would have opportunities in Germany, innumerable ones. Here in the Philippines, he would have very few. His best hope, were his chances of going to Germany to be lost, would be for him to get some kind of medical or engineering degree and apply for work somewhere overseas. Eleven million Filipinos are OFWs - Overseas Filipino Workers. Most of them are women - housemaids or nurses, spread all over the world. Most of the men work in construction in the Middle East, and often find themselves in precarious positions as the "Arab Spring" revolts have spread across the region. Thousands have had to be evacuated from Libya, Syria, and other countries embroiled in conflict. They suffer sometimes unspeakable abuse at the hands of their employers, who apparently regard them as less than human.

Needless to say, I am quite angry at his cousin for breaking his promise of getting the boy a visa. I am told that the cousin, who works as a graphic designer, is having problems with his boss and is looking for another place to live. He told the boy that he was coming to the Philippines this month. If he does, I want to have a talk with him. I want to tell him what I've witnessed from the boy for the six years he lived with me, how he went back to school - to the 2nd grade - at the age of fourteen, twice the age of his classmates. I would tell him what the boy told me, that the other kids in his class always asked him why he is there. He tells them that he has to get his education, regardless of his age. He swallows his pride every day that he goes to school. By now, he has swallowed enough pride to sink a hundred Titanics.

He has also kept himself aloof from his fellows, from the boys and girls his own age. He had a girlfriend once, but she left the province a few years ago. He was even in love once, but for reasons I can only imagine, the girl rebuffed him. He sat in my living room one day and told me in tears that his heart was broken. He's a handsome kid. I can take a little credit, I think, for the fact that he has grown up in my house hale and hearty, as has his little sister. It is my intention, my determined ambition, to get the girl out of this benighted country, along with her mother, before she turns eighteen. It's the least I can do for the ones I have come to love.

I wish I could help the boy, but I am in no position to do so. I wanted to get him out of my house precisely because I couldn't take care of him any more. Despite this, I continue to feed him three times a day. He still depends on his mother for some things. I made a joke to her that, after he goes to Germany, she will get a package from him once a week containing his laundry.

He knows how hopeless his life would be if he had no other choice but to stay in the Philippines. The young people here seem to live foreshortened, doomed lives. And they always seem to make the same mistakes. Their fates seem to be aligned for them from birth - the same fate that their parents suffered - to meet a girl, experiment with intimacy (what little intimacy they can find in these overcrowded islands), get her pregnant inadvertently, or as inadvertently as the complete absence of contraceptive choices allows, and be forced to provide for her and her child. By the time they're 21, their lives are as good as over.

The boy sees this happening around him, and he knows the finality of such a fate. It happened, after all, to his older brother and sister, who live a few hundred miles from here. Unlike him, neither of them has an education. Their horizons are drawn in on them. Looking to their futures, they know that there isn't much more for them to look forward to. They will look for happiness in small increments, taking each day, each one of them like every other, one at a time. A long time ago I noticed a difference between myself and these poor people: why does it take so little to make them happy and so very much to keep me from being unhappy?

I wish with all my heart that the boy can go to Germany. He's done everything right. He deserves it. 

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