More than four years ago, I experienced something that awoke me to some bitter truths. I decided to help a homeless man and in that simple humanitarian act I was made aware of the different circumstances that complicate ones pure desire to help. When you’re young you are full of idealism. As you grow older you understand that the world is cruel and sometimes humanitarianism is not as you always hoped it would be.
Whenever I’m reminded of that experience, I always have mixed emotions of sadness, happiness, and resignation. I’m not sure if I did the right thing completely. I decided to have the story published because I wanted to let my feelings of guilt go away. It was so heavy for me to bear already and so I felt that by letting people know about it, maybe the burden of guilt would be shared.
Four years after that fateful night when I saw Nocur, here I am again haunted by all too familiar feelings. Now that I am a medical student and the ability to help is within reach, I am in a doubt. I look back on him and hope some answers would be shown to me.
By Venus Marie R. Rojas
I TOOK a picture of him once. He was staring straight into my camera while chewing on his dinner, consisting of rice and some viand, placed on a red plastic plate resting on his lap.
He was almost always there on that part of the road, so maybe that was why I didn’t quite notice him. And during the times I did, I usually didn’t give it much thought. He did not beg for alms. Neither did he create a fuss. He was just an old man sitting on the sidewalk. This was how I saw him before that fateful Sunday evening.
Now I remember that night very well. It happened in July last year, when each night brought strong winds and cold merciless rain. I recall being told by my roommate about a man she saw shivering along the road. I remember the plastic bag I carried, containing water, food, clothes and an umbrella. And most of all, I remember the sight that I saw.
I knew he was the old man on the sidewalk, but at the back of my mind I had my doubts. The man I used to see looked, well, normal. This one had wounds all over his face and one on his head. The area around his eyes was swollen and red, and the space where the eyes should have been had turned into slits. I doubted if he could have seen me.
The shock registered on my mind before his stench assailed my nose. I called out to him and he barely heard me.
That started a week of inexplicable and unforgettable happenings in my life. From that moment, my idealistic heart made a resolution to help him find shelter. I was full of hopes and plans. I was feeling radiant. I was happy to clothe him (literally, since I helped him put on the clothes). I gave him a pair of slippers and handed him food.
The following days, I gave him breakfast, lunch and dinner whenever I could, especially when I had breaks in my classes. I continued to give him clothes.
A lot of emotions rushed through me every time I went to see him. First, there was anxiety: Was he okay or not? Had he gone somewhere? Had he stayed in one place just like I told him?
There was also some kind of joy in knowing that I would be able to help him once more. But then I would also feel a bit ashamed when people stared at us (and what kind of stares they gave us: long, straight and questioning).
Every day I gave him food and he was full. But still he had no place to stay when the night came and the rain poured. I gave him clothes to wear, but the next day he would again look very dirty and get stinky. It couldn’t be helped; he slept on the sidewalk, for heaven’s sake!
One day I went to Asilo de San Vicente de Paul to ask if they would take him in temporarily. I was prepared to provide for his food if they accepted him. Unfortunately Asilo is for children. I was told to go to Hospicio de San Jose.
I was optimistic as my feet brought me to that haven by the Pasig River. I entered with a big smile and came out as though dark clouds hovered above me. What I got was a pitying smile, a sympathetic answer, and finally a “sorry.” But I could not blame them. There were a lot of things I didn’t know about charity homes and charity work, so I supposed I had no right to question them.
I went to the Department of Social Welfare and Development office near the Legarda station of the LRT. I was told Ermita wasn’t part of their area of coverage. They told me to go to RAC Manila near Central Station.
By that time, I was feeling like there was no point in telling my story all over again to listeners who would just ask if I was his relative and why I wanted to help him. But there in that small office in RAC Manila, a woman in her 40s suggested that I file a report with the barangay office.
After that, I was done talking. I dragged my feet past Central Station, past Unibersidad ng Manila, past SM Manila. I was walking with no particular destination in mind. I had never felt so frustrated and depressed in my entire life.
I had decided to go home when I saw a man scavenging a garbage can. The sight made me ask almost sarcastically, “Well, would I have to help you, too?”
I can still remember what the guard at Asilo asked me: “Bakit siya? Sa lahat ng pulubi na nakalinya sa harap ng inyong dormitory, bakit siya?” My instant irrational answer was, “Kasi!” Because…
I still don’t know why. Maybe it was just a coincidence. Maybe it might have been Divine Providence. I don’t know. But when the challenge came, I didn’t hesitate to take it on.
After my frustrating visits to the charity institutions, I was afraid that I would not be able to help him like I had resolved to do. I was afraid that I might just give him false hopes. I was ashamed to walk in front of him doing nothing since I had promised to find him a home.
I continued to visit him on the sidewalk and give him food, and then I would leave. He would send me off by saying, “Salamat po. Ingat po kayo.” He was frail and couldn’t walk without clinging to walls and railings.
I remember one Saturday when the cashier at Treats helped me give him a bath. I asked him, “O manong, kumusta naman po ang bagong ligo?” He smiled joyfully and said, “Ok po, refreshing!”
One Sunday, I took him to the Ospital ng Maynila. They gave him free medicines, but said there was nothing else they could do to help him.
That was the last time I saw him. The following week, I checked the corner where he usually sat but I could not find him. I asked the kuliglig drivers on Ma. Orosa Street, who knew me by then, where he had gone. Some said he had been taken to a hospital, while others said his relatives took him away.
Recently I learned from the same kuliglig drivers that he had died and had been buried at the Manila Cemetery. That was all they knew.
Whenever I think about him now, I feel sad. Sometimes I blame myself for giving up too easily, but then again I would tell myself it wasn’t my fault. My only consolation is that for once in my life I was able to experience the pure joy of helping someone. Though I lost him, he had opened my eyes to realities that lie in front of me but which I constantly ignore. He taught me that I have the capacity to care for others.
He also showed me that sometimes what other people need is a catalyst. They only need something or someone to show them what needs to be done and everything follows.
But he also left some questions unanswered, like: Whose fault is it really? What is to be done? How can we help them in the right way? Will the suffering ever stop?
I will continually search for the answers. And if along the way, I will see someone like him, I won’t hesitate to help. It might lead me to the answers I am looking for.
They called him Nocur. He told me he was Antonio Sison. I took a picture of him once. He was staring straight into my camera while chewing on his food. It consisted of rice with some viand, placed on a red plastic plate resting on his lap.
(Venus Marie R. Rojas, 18, is a BS Biology student at the University of the Philippines Manila.)