Serendipity has always been one of my favorite words and it came alive for me in time for All Soul’s Day.
It is the story of “finding” someone I had lost 33 years ago and putting closure to a childhood grief experience I thought I had long buried and forgotten.
In Kindergarten in the early 70s, I had a best friend at Maryknoll (now Miriam College) named Lala de las Alas. We hit it off immediately, from the first day of school and were like two peas in a pod. Lala was bright, very pretty, a funny girl with many stories to tell. Unfortunately, our friendship was rudely interrupted in 1973 when she had to stop school to leave for the United States to seek treatment for a kidney disease.
After a year or so, Lala resumed school but was held back because of her illness. I had then moved onto Grade Five. We tried to pick up from where we left off, but you know how it is with children. I missed Lala and I would feel bad whenever I would see her on campus, her appearance had changed and she seemed tired, perhaps because of the steroids that her young body had to take. But her smile was still there. The few times that we were able to chat after she returned from treatment were precious but few and far between.
It was a warm August day in 1975 when the news was delivered over the P.A. system by one of the Maryknoll sisters. “We would like to request the school community to pray for the eternal repose of the soul of Lala de las Alas who joined our Heavenly Father yesterday…” and then it all became a blur as I broke down and cried. All I remember of that day was my uncontrollable sobbing and how I ran to the bathroom to compose myself. In the afternoon, when I returned home from school I requested my parents to take me to Lala’s wake. Perhaps because my parents did not know any better (child psychologists were not readily accessible in 1975) I was not allowed to attend her wake at the Santo Domingo Church. “It’s better for you to remember her alive…” my father said.
And so it was that I was not able to say good-bye to a much-loved friend who was gone too soon.
In the ensuing years, although I had tried to block the memory of that first significant loss, I had always considered Lala’s death to be my first major experience of grief. While doing research last year for a book on grief, I remembered Lala’s mother who had lost Lala in the 1970s long before grief support was available in the Philippines. I wondered how she was and had so many questions that I wanted to ask her. I embarked on a search for Dra. Carmen de las Alas that unfortunately ended nowhere
In March this year, I was asked to edit the book “Age of Confidence” a project of the Maryknoll College High School Class of 1984. A collection of 40 stories from Maryknollers of different generations, it wasn’t an easy project to do and one that was fraught with moments of great frustration but for some reason I was very much drawn to it. I suggested to the book coordinators to include the names of their deceased classmates in the books dedication. When I received the final lay-out, my hair stood. There, in the introduction page, was her name – “In memory of Ma. Estela de las Alas” She was the reason after all, why I had been tasked to edit the book. The Maryknoll High School Batch of 1984 would have been her batch had she lived to graduate from high school.
Then again, I bumped into a wall. Because she died so young, they hardly had any memories of her. However, there was a new link that I had perhaps blocked off but was reminded because of my association to the Batch of ’84 — Lala had a younger sister named Melanie and she was part of Batch ’84 too. Unfortunately, Melanie had moved to Assumption for high school and no one knew where she was now.
Fast forward to August this year, the hospital I work for hired a new Medical Marketing Director who looked vaguely familiar to me, like someone I used to see as a child. You know how it is when some of the people from your past have faces that hardly change? I noticed that she too would sometimes look at me in a funny way, I would catch her staring at me from the corner of my eye. Finally, one afternoon, during a colleague’s birthday merienda, Dr. Ditas Gonzalez, the new manager, asked me if I had gone to Maryknoll for grade school. I quickly replied yes, andu understood why she had looked so familiar, so I asked her if she did too. She replied in the affirmative and said that she was a part of the class of 1980 but that she had moved to Assumption for high school. A lightbulb suddenly went on in my head… “Wait a minute, I just did a book on your high school batch… Do you know Melanie de las Alas?” I asked her, my chest pounding like crazy, I could hear the thump-thump in my ears. She paused for a moment and replied, “Of course, she’s my best friend…”
Suddenly the floodgates of my childhood swung open and in that moment I thought I was going to faint. So in the next hour, Ditas gave me an update on the why, how’s and whereabouts of Melanie. I was saddened to hear about their mother’s loss but was stunned when I realized that Dra. delas Alas had died during the month when I had been frantically searching for her last year. However I was so happy to have finally found a direct link to Melanie at long last!
A few days later, Ditas hands me over Melanie’s email address and I stare at it for a couple of weeks — hemming and hawing, agonizing over what I would say to her. Finally, a few days before my birthday last month, I wrote her a very long email. To my great joy she replied the following day. We had both been thinking about each other through the years, “In my mind you will always be ten,” she said. In my mind, I told her, she would always be Lala’s baby sister. How the years had changed us both, how the grief experiences we had as children reverberated all the way throughout our adult lives. What a precious gift it has been for me to find Lala again after 33 years through her sister, Melanie.
The photographs you see here were sent to me by Melanie only a few days ago and the poem is the last one Lala had written the evening before she died on August 25, 1975. God’s ways are truly mysterious and sometimes it takes many decades before we find closure on certain things and events in our lives. Today I remember Lala with special fondness and though I have now been able to bid her good-bye, I am grateful for the new friendship I have forged with her sister. In Melanie I have found and retrieved a cherished part of my childhood, and in me, parts of her sister have come alive once more. Our re-connecting has not been just serendipitous one, but a Divinely orchestrated gift from above.
November 2, 2008, Philippine Daily Inquirer