Donsol’s breathtaking sunset. Photo from Amer Amor
Fresh from 12 days of adventure, magic, and the kindness of friends and strangers in Palawan, one of your happy places, you came home to your first love, the land surrounded by the gentle whale sharks and of sunsets you never tire of watching. One of the best things about traveling, you wrote, is coming home, to which I wholeheartedly agree. But I knew it would probably not be long before you set off on another adventure. It just never occurred to me that it would be that kind of adventure, and probably your last.
We did not meet on the road. We met in college – we were classmates in one subject, and partners on its final project. You reminded me of a firecracker back then – bright, colorful, and loud (in a good way). You were funny, witty, and unafraid to speak your mind.
And, even then, your face would light up every time you talked about Donsol, the hometown you loved so much. Even though I braved prisons, rallies, and the like for article assignments, part of me was still a sheltered college kid then. Sorsogon seemed as foreign to me as another country. I had also not yet rediscovered my love for travel, but your enthusiasm then was enough to make me think: “One day.”
After college, we lost touch. Years later, we re-connected as travel bloggers. Every time I see your updates on your blog Juanderkid or Facebook, I am reminded of the magic I believe only travel can give. I also saw you with a new respect and admiration as I realized how passionate you were about serving our country: how dedicated you were teaching your students in UP Baguio not just the course content but also values, including Filipino values, how you would travel far and go to great lengths just to ensure that poor high school students in far-flung areas would have a fair shot at our alma mater, how you advocated for the protection of whale sharks in your hometown, and how you were so keen on volunteering and serving any way you can, especially after Yolanda (Haiyan).
I laughed at your occasional wit and biting, though never vicious, humor. My favorite and one your students seem to really remember is your low tolerance for the improper use of the word “touchdown.” Because, really, people can’t use it when they arrive in places like Baguio and Batangas, unless they have wheels attached to their feet, you pointed out.
But what drew me most to your words is your love – your love for people, for places, and for life. You indeed embody your last name, Amor (love), and, like poetry, your first name (Amer) sounds so much like love, too. It was this love that shone through in each piece of your writing, whether it was an update about your mother or students on Facebook or your adventures on your blog. It always did, even when you were dealing with one struggle or another. This is one of my many favorites among your heartfelt updates:
And the places you go to? You tell it like no one else does. It was your words and your passion, more than any of the countless photos I saw of Calaguas, which ultimately convinced me that I had to experience your happy beach. And, we were both heartbroken when we found the paradise we loved under threat of becoming another Boracay.
Juanderkid in Calaguas. Photo courtesy of Amer Amor
Each time I would begin to read anything you wrote, I knew it was going to be awesome. It was going to be special. Because it was YOU. You, who I felt in every word, no pretenses. You, who spoke unabashedly of your triumphs, dreams and fears, both to your friends and blog readers. You, who confessed to “[falling] in love – with everything and anything. Because it is not okay to delay love,” you said emphatically.
I loved what you said about not delaying love. Except I did not take it to heart.
You see, amid our chats and occasional text messages, there were opportunities for me to meet you, and I did not take them, thinking there would be another day, another time. Once, when I was in Baguio with what looked to me like a packed itinerary, I did not contact you, because I assumed you were not there, based on your Facebook update some days ago. I did not even text or call you to check, though. Another time, when you invited me to Donsol, I said “one of these days, surely.” I was all for going there to have my first encounter with the gentle giants, but once I had an unexpected and magical encounter in Moalboal, Cebu, the trip to Donsol somehow did not seem so urgent. And, as for Manila, I was noncommittal with our possible meet-up, thinking there would come a day we would both be in Manila and have free schedules.
Unfortunately, that “one day” would never come. When I heard about the motorcycle accident, I could not believe it; I even refused to believe it at first. Because, Amer, I had met few people as alive as you. If life means jumping from a 50-foot cliff into the ocean, you would be the first to jump – fearlessly, and with complete abandon. You lived fully, intensely, unapologetically. It was the kind of living that made others take notice, and even inspired some to follow suit (I know some of your friends and students did). It reminded me of life’s magic again during the moments I myself had forgotten. Even without having talked to you in person for a long time, I felt you could not be more alive or real to me. That was why I could not reconcile you and death.
He was just so full of life. Of all the times this cliché was used to describe someone who passed on, yours is the time I truly feel it.
Of all the painful words, this is the one that strikes like a physical blow: never.
Never again will I read your firsthand stories of life’s magic and blessings. Never again will I see how much you love your mother, your family, and your happiest places. Never again will I hear your sarcastic wit. Never will that meet-up we have been talking about push through. Never will I swim with the whale sharks or watch Donsol’s sunset with you. Never will our plan to travel and volunteer together materialize. Never will that “one day” I so believed in arrive.
That I did not take the time to meet you when I could is a regret that is unlikely to ever go away, but I realized I need not add to it. After news of your passing began to sink in, I wasted no time in writing what I call my “Amer list” – the people I’ve been wanting to meet or connect with but had been too “busy” to do so. I am starting to make progress on my list.
Despite the pain and regret, there are some things I can still take comfort on, and one of them is this: that I knew – know – you. It may not have been as much and as long as I wanted, but the little I know of you and what you shared with me are enough to make me feel grateful, special. As one of your former students said, you have a way of making people, even students who thought you have forgotten about them, feel special.
Almost two years ago, when you were sharing your piece about the passing of a fellow Bicolano you most admire, you wrote: “What does [death] tell us about life? That it is indeed fleeting. That we should always be grateful. That a life well-lived and well-served will be remembered long after we’re gone.”
You did it, Amer. No matter how brief your life was, it was “well-lived and well-served,” and will definitely be “remembered,” a fact people who love you will attest to. Even while you were alive, I had no doubt that you were much loved by the people around you. When you passed on, I confirmed all the more how you overwhelmingly touched the lives of your family, friends, and students.
Amer was one of a kind, said his college friend during one of the many memorial services for Amer.
A few days from now, your body will rest in the soil of the hometown you love so much, but your spirit and your memory will live on in all those who love you and all that you love. No, I will not say it in the past tense, because I know that when I finally get to look at your favorite Donsol sunset, I will feel your love for it; I will feel you in it.
Dying is often compared with coming home. That may be true, but for you I’d also like to think of death, or what comes after it, as the “next great adventure,” as J.M. Barrie said in “Peter Pan.” One of your last blog entries, in fact, is about the adventure of going over to the other side. You wrote about taking risks and gaining wisdom from a life change you were planning to make. What I did not expect was for you to go over to the other side this way. But if what waits after death is indeed a great adventure, I’m sure you would live it up as you did here on earth – fully and intensely.
So, Amer, Juanderkid, live out that great adventure! And, thank you for your adventures with all of us on this side. You will terribly be missed. You are terribly missed.
Photo courtesy of Amer Amor