this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on june 7, 2001.

First, I lost Michael. Then Stephen. I kept asking myself: Doesn’t anything good happen in this world anymore?

Michael was my best friend. And Stephen-well, he was my everything, my greatest treasure for he was my father. When he died, I felt that I lost everything. But still, I managed to smile because of the masks I wore every day. It wasn’t difficult pretending that I was moving on when I was with a lot of people. But when night fell and all I had were my thoughts to keep me company, the painful memories of the past, the guilt feelings, the anger and more would wage war against my sanity until the first streaks of daylight came.

Nobody knew these inner battles that I had to fight every day. There was no time to run, no one to turn to, nowhere to hide, no escape. These battles often left me emotionally drained, breathless and gasping for air-and for peace of mind. Eventually, it wore me down so much that I felt the time had come for me to say goodbye.

Then I met Daniel. I was on the beach for what would supposedly be my last taste of the salty water when I first saw him. For the last time, I wanted to feel the soft breeze gently caressing my face. For the last time, I pondered my bitter past and troubled present, not anymore wondering if there would still be a future.

I didn’t realize how melancholic I’d become until I saw a large teardrop making quite an impression on the sand. I raised my head and there he was, right in front of me, a boy about 7 years old and severely malnourished. His clothes, or what was left of them, were torn, and his bones were straining to stick out of his skin.

He came up to me and smiled. He stared at me intently, his bewildered brown eyes asking a million questions, none of which I could answer.

Ashamed of having been seen crying, I looked away and ran, leaving a wide-eyed little boy and a trail of footprints in the sand.

I went to work in corporate attire and makeup for the last time. It seemed rather odd, but somehow I couldn’t forget the boy I had seen on the beach. The way he looked tugged at my heart. And his eyes…there was something in those eyes, an untold story perhaps, or a pain that could not be much different from mine. It was strange, but suddenly I felt a strong urge to see him, to uncover that which “lies beneath,” and maybe to rediscover my own self.

The beach looked deserted that afternoon. There were no children around and no peals of laughter, just the music of seawater touching the shore. I went from one hut to the other, asking if there lived a little boy of about 7. I described him in detail, but they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them either. The old folks spoke a different language.

Frustrated, I turned to go and promised myself that I would go back there the following day. I totally forgot that tomorrows were not supposed to be a part of my plans anymore.

It rained the following day, and the wind brought a certain chill right down to my spine. But it didn’t stop me from driving back to the beach. When I got out of the car, I saw him walking from a distance.

“Hey!” I cried out to him, but he couldn’t hear me. I ran to catch up with him. “Hey,” I said again, shivering in the cold.

He was wearing the same ragged clothes he had the previous day. He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. He must have thought I was crazy. Then, he smiled that same toothless smile that captured my heart. “Oh, it’s you, the lady at the beach,” he said.

This time, I smiled back. There were no masks, no walls, nothing. I simply smiled back. It felt good. Really good. I hadn’t smiled like that in what seemed like a very long time.

Daniel was orphaned since birth. He lived with his mother’s alcoholic sister, who constantly beat him up and left him no food. Sometimes, he said, he wished she would never come home. She wasn’t of much use when she was there, anyway. If she wasn’t screaming, she was sleeping or beating the hell out of him. But he had nowhere else to go. “Aunt Stella,” as he called her, was the only relative he knew.

Daniel never gave up hoping that one day he would see the world the way it was created to be. He wanted to travel. And fly. And build bridges and big houses. He was sick and tired of selling fish at four in the morning, but for now, that was all he could do to earn money for his dreams.

Daniel was hungry for life. One could simply see it in his eyes, or sense it when he talked. He had known suffering from the moment he was born, but he never wallowed in self-pity. He embraced his sufferings, believing that someday he would be free.

My daily walks with Daniel on the beach made me realize how self-centered I had been. My pain seemed like a pod compared with his.

I learned a very important lesson from Daniel: There is no way to undo the past, but we can weave the future into a masterpiece.

Now I know that God indeed loves me. He wouldn’t have sent me an angel if He didn’t.

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