Abr 6, 2004

Yesterday I spoke to Karlweis about keeping a diary. He said it was good to get into the habit of reckoning up with yourself, but that one never confronts oneself with the truth, there's always an element of coquetry about it. Sadly, i must admit that he's right. In these pages I have often lied and glossed over many of my faults. forgive me, I'm only human...

Alma Mahler-Werfel
Diary entry
April 7, 1899

Don Bosco

Now, this is no reference to the saint or the alma mater. Rather, I wrote this as a code for a Spanish priest I knew back in High School. The saint was never anything more to me than busts, faded tableaux, biographies, and perpetually resurrected sermon character. I found it queer that in life, he was always up and running with the boys. You'd think I'd have him forever playing soccer in my mind or something. Despite the characterizations of able storytellers of pen and tongue, he remains a still statue in my mind. On one hand, he had a boy with a hammer, on the other, one with a book. They are forever locked in undecipherable silence - bronze and Italian.

The flesh and blood priest I came to know as Don Bosco comes to mind now at the junction of several roads. First, Pastor Louis spoke from the earlier entry. Next, old acquaintances from high school (it remains awkward to call them friends yet, no doubt, there was a past path and also that fork that could be traversed) making their web presence felt through Friendster. The Holy Week must be noted or blamed. It's always about pilgrimages. Then, also, old readings on liminality and this new one by Maureen Perkins called The Reform of Time. I also went over annd shelved the Humanities I syllabus that focused on memory and history. Then too, I just developed allergies from the dust of old journals. Other roads meet in this junction of course. Not all can be mentioned. One or two of the paths - I am confident - you walk.

I leafed through college journals and several entries struck chords that I thought never existed. Somewhere among these notes and strings, I wrote down someone as Don Bosco. I remember him: the father. He never did play soccer or basketball. He was too old for that. Nevertheless, this Bosco had an active smile and a small voice. His face was a play of pink and very thin white hair and a brown mottley of freckles. His lips were quite thin and pale. The eyes seem to me very light brown now; I don't remember ever looking at them straight. I seldom look people straight in the eye, then or now.

The voice spoke fragile, sometimes unintelligible English. It was such as small voice. Still, it sounded so active and dynamic, like breath. I feel foolish calling it small. The voice, in many ways, gave me the world in the things I understood. In those mumblings where I thought I made out the whisper of infinity. A voice it was, soft, kind, inviting - and I seldom made out a word. If God spoke to me, I thought then, this would be his voice.

Of course, the lot of us then had at least two faces of God, the wrathful pillar of fire, sea-dividing face of pestilences and angels of death. Yes, the torn curtains and burning bush never actually revealed us that face; we still always believed we'd die if we saw it. The priests also wanted us to believe a merciful God: an omniscient, senile old man with the flowing white hair and beard of ancient patriarchs. Children learn to forget the first, old testament face and the booming voice that came with it. We unfolded severa centerfolds and emptied cases of bottles without hearing the voice. Or maybe we drowned it with our own feeble laughs. Surely though, we were left with the anxiety of its absence.

The other voice remained, the old man that got weaker and weaker as we grew in strength and vice. When we were younger, we imagined it speaking to us in that vertigo between waking and dreaming. Examinations. I remember not having the benefit of cellphones or alarm clocks. Mothers and fathers could not be relied upon to serve the purpose. Dawn - yes - the mornings after the nights when we prayed for the eternal repose of grandfathers and asked them, in return, to wake us up at three in the morning.

Away from the pillows and under the steady sun, this Don Bosco had that voice of God and our grandfathers. I had two grandfathers, one of legend, the other of disease. One taught me, in his absence, how to live. The other, how to die. Likewise, I had two images of the old priest. One was a robust old man who was God except for the flowing white hair. His face was always neatly shaven too. This was the man I'd write down as Don Bosco in my journals. This was the priest none spoke ill off, not even the worst of us. Later in life, when I'd know of other religions and maths (some of deeper violets and others of fainter yellows), I'd write him down as the flower of Catholics. We exchanged stories; he knew several magic tricks too. I poured the anxieties of a grader, and later, a freshman to him. He was the confessor of the lesser Salesian priests. Still, I could never get myself to have him hear my confession. He felt too benign. I'd rather tell him stories.

The other image of him - the later one - had hollow cheeks, deeper eyes, and less of the healthy stomach. The old man's voice faltered now; it grew smaller. I understood it less; it seemed less infinite. Or maybe I wasn't listening closely enough? He spoke of the past still, of Spain and Cebu. However, he spoke of tomorrows more and God's Happy Kingdom. I remembered having faith then, knowing it. Or maybe I clung to it. That is how it usually seemed to me later. Ah, but he didn't run out of surprises! He printed his last book, a thin volume. See, he had extensive knowledge of several languages and had much fun with etymologies. In that book, he worked on the meaning of names. The more resolute of us bought their copies, had them signed, and asked about their names. I say now that I had too much to do then. I borrowed and re-borrowed the then exciting Communist Manifesto along with a volume on backmasking with the face of Anton La Vey somewhere near the Hotel California article. At home, I read Plato. From a distance, I saw the wind blow against the side of his cassock, revealing the outline of his ribs. I took my lunch on the far side of the campus.

I say now that I had much to do then. That wasn't what I told myself that October day when we held the Mass in his honor. He died of some disease I forgot or chose to forget. Save for the Salesians, no one knew until that Mass. They already took his remains to Cebu where he first made contact with the Philippines; he wished to be buried there. Somebody made a blown-up portrait of him - was it the art teacher or the senior who painted better? His face - curiously - took the place at the altar where the old Don Bosco portrait was. His portrait reflected the first image, the healthier one. I recall how that Mass was vertigo. None of the images in the altar made sense, not even the priests or sacristans with their hosts and incense. Neither the book nor the cross revealed anything. Even his acrylic face on the altar felt so foreign. In memory of his second image (the one they chose not to depict), I vowed never to bring myself beneath other oils or crosses.

The priest had much to say to me, I know. He didn't even get to tell me the meaning of my name. Or I failed to ask for it. Even his red book (or was it maroon?) has long been out of print. I sometimes dream that all the copies - signed or not - vanished when he died. In later entries, I wrote conversations that I never did and never will share. Many times, and now more seriously than ever, I contemplate burning them. Some of these dialogues, bless me, may have never happened, or they did happen but entirely differently. They occurred, you see, in that unintelligible voice where I thought (but I could never be sure) I understood him. I petrify him here, now in ecriture, as Don Bosco; I dare not write his true name. Someday, I may forget it.