Thursday, August 27, 2009

OFWs’ quest for healing

Father Robert Reyes, the so-called “running priest” who is now working with a human rights group in Hong Kong has come out with a collection of his reflections on his late younger brother Vincent who died of lung cancer in 2004 at the age of 47. A case has been filed against a giant tobacco company which must answer for the illness and death that cigarettes have caused and which Reyes is pursuing on behalf of his brother. But that is another story.

The book, “Vincent, Dying and Living” contains personal reflections, recollections as Robert accompanied his brother in battle. The last and third portion of the book is a collection of stories of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong whom Fr. Reyes had met and ministered to in their illness. He was present to a number of them in the last days of their lives. The stories were written by the OFWs themselves, some in Filipino.

He writes: “This book is a compilation of stories and reflections on various themes related to living and dying. First, it is about my personal experiences as a caregiver to a brother struggling through a life-threatening disease, as a son who also had to support aging parents through difficult times, a brother-in-law, and an uncle who had to begin understanding deep, delicate and unspoken issues…

“Second, it is about my journeying with persons, mostly struggling with cancer, who have shared their deepest thoughts and feelings about life. Third, it is about how I saw parallels between the journeys of the dying and my own journey that now constitutes a new and different spiritual outlook, rather uncharacteristic of my former aggressive and rather confrontational ways.”

In this book one could see another side of Fr. Reyes, a private, intimate side that provides contrast to his headline-grabbing public persona and advocacies. But the two sides could not really be separated. “Nine days after Vincent’s death,” Fr. Reyes writes, “I participated in the Philippine Cancer Society’s first ‘Relay for Life’…I led Team Vincent…in an all night run. A fitting theme was bannered on a tarpaulin streamer with Vincent’s picture and the words ‘Life spent together is a life well spent.’”

Through all the stories—his own and the stories of others—Fr. Reyes tries to find a unifying thread in the testimonies of both survivors and caregivers “as both confront the urgent and vital reality of death which has led them to a deeper and more fruitful appreciation of life.”

In Hong Kong, Fr. Reyes has shepherded a small community called Buhay Ka which stands for buo, bukas at laging handang umalalay sa kapwa (whole, open and always ready to be of service to others). These are mostly OFWs who are cancer survivors who also minister to one another and most especially to their fellow OFWs who are very ill.

“Those whose dying I have the sacred opportunity to witness showed and shared with me something that ought to prepare me when my time comes,” Fr. Reyes reflects. “Their dying does not end in the black nothingness of death. As their breaths seem to fade, something so delicately beautiful begins. As their breathing weakens and the air begins to thin out into a delicate whiff, a meeting, a blending, a union of soul and soul takes place. ‘Air’ that walked the earth and blessed it with its peculiar exuberance and color now meets its Source, its life. It has always breathed from and with this Source, and now it breathes constantly, deeply, completely, and infinitely.”

Many OFWs in Hong Kong, mostly domestic helpers (DH), remain in Hong Kong even after the diagnosis of cancer. It is because therapy is relatively cheap. One could avail of this as long as one is employed. If they go home to the Philippines, they think they would just be a burden to their families, so why not stay on? Some compassionate employers let their ailing DHs stay so that their visas will not be revoked. OFWs who must leave their jobs are taken care of by fellow OFWs who take turns in nursing them to health and even raise funds for them. It is love of neighbor at its best.

The stories are heart-rending but also inspiring. There was Armyn who had just come for the Philippines when she discovered she was pregnant and had breast cancer. She chose to carry the baby up to seven months before undergoing chemotherapy.

There was Carmen who had cancer of the cervix and had to undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy. There was musician Chito who suffered a stroke. Gemma, despite her breast cancer, had to go on working even after her surgery and while waiting for her replacement to arrive.

In 2007 Luzviminda learned she had leukemia. She had understanding employers who let her stay on but without a salary, just so her visa would don’t not be revoked.

Carmen did not get sick in Hong Kong but she ministered to the sick, among them, Lydia who had breast cancer. A different tragedy struck Carmen. She lost her son to a killer. “Before I left Davao, I went to see the murderer of my son. I asked him why killed my son. His answer was strange and infuriating. ‘I don’t know your son. I don’t know why I killed your son.’

“I now appreciate Lydia and others who are there to journey with me through my grief. I never expected to be on the receiving end. This time I cry and look for a shoulder to lean on…We are members of the human family which has to become a community of caring and compassion. OFWs in Hong Kong become better persons when they learn to think and care for others. It is life-giving.”

The book is available at Popular Bookstore on T. Morato, QC.