Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A lingering Lenten memory of an unlikely hero

HE was Albert Einstein’s namesake. Admittedly, I thought he was no less a hero than the genius whose name he bore. But to anybody who was somebody in my hometown Albert was a nobody. I would have been deeply honored had he been someone I knew. But when I did meet him it was too late. He was already in a coffin, waiting to be buried.
            It all started when I came home to the rectory from two Sunday Masses and two sick calls. I just wanted to take a nap and forget the world for a while. But I heard some gentle knocking on my door. I wanted to say, “Please leave me alone for a while. I have to get some rest.” But I found myself dragging my feet to the door. It was then that I saw this lady who behaved rather strangely.
            She left her slippers at the bottom of the rectory stairs. I realized it was a gesture of courtesy. Simple barrio courtesy. “It’s just about Albert, Padre,” she said. “Please allow us to bury him today. We couldn’t afford to have him embalmed for the nine-day wake (as is the local custom). Neighbors contributed pieces of wood and slab for his coffin. Please, Padre. We only have two hundred pesos. May we have a Mass for him, please?”
            “Of course,” I said. Actually I just wanted to get back to my siesta. “Bring him at two o’ clock this afternoon.” Then she haltingly started to tell a story that woke me up the rest of the day.
            Albert was her fourteen-year-old nephew from Barangay San Mateo. He was the eldest of five children. His father, a rice farmer, didn’t come up with much in this year’s harvest. And while his mother also does other jobs, such as washing laundry and selling vegetables, the family income was not enough. So he did what he thought best. He stopped schooling and got himself a job in a local bakery. He ended up mostly by the firewood-fed oven. It was tough and the heat could sometimes be unbearable. But he couldn’t and wouldn’t complain. He was glad he could work and help the family. But his body was not superman’s. Recently he ran a fever and felt weak. He asked to be excused. But his employer threatened to dismiss him if he missed work, especially that it was two or three days before the month’s end. Albert naturally didn’t want to lose his job and decided to go on working. He made it to payday. He brought all his money home and having given it to his mother, said: “Now I just want to rest and sleep…”
            Albert never woke up again.
            As I presided over his funeral I was both angry and depressed. “How could any human being threaten someone not even qualified yet to work to fire him just because he was sick?” But other deeper questions were raging in my mind. How could a young man with such obvious love for his family, a young man with such promise fall into a fate as cruel as Albert’s? How could his parents be powerless to even consider seeking for justice? I searched the faces of Albert’s mother and father. I saw in them anything but protest. Both have now accepted Albert’s fate as inevitable. Both now eyed me with profound gratitude for refusing their two hundred pesos but nonetheless giving Albert a sung funeral Mass. “It’s the least I could do, Albert,” I said under my breath. “What I did is nothing compared to what you did.” Never have I felt more depressed over a funeral of someone I was not related to.
            But I found myself continuing my homily. “Albert expresses, oh yes, Albert continues the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. And we are all witnesses to this. The world, let alone his country, has no idea that he did. But we do. God does. And it’s all that matters. Albert has made it clearer to us what the sacrifice we celebrate during Lent is all about. May his sacrifice bear fruit in a better life for his family the way the sacrifice of Jesus brought us a sharing in the life of God.”

            I glanced at the faces of Albert’s brothers and sisters. They appeared calm and taking my words in. But one thing bothered me. Their eyes also seemed to say to me: “Father, we know Lent. When do we know Easter?”

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