They dubbed him Pao because they said his round cheeks made him resemble a siopao bun.
The nickname soon stuck for the baby christened Bryan Jay Agustin. Some called him Pao-Pao.
“He was very energetic. A joyful kid. And he wasn’t a crybaby,” said his mother, 24-year-old Sarra Joy Naco. “Everyone around here was fond of him because he hardly cried.”
But a few months short of his second birthday, Pao will no longer brighten mornings in this clump of houses at A. Palon Street in Barangay 70, Caloocan City.
His loved ones still wonder why this baby had to die, killed for seemingly no reason. How did no one see it coming?
Pao had been missing for at least seven hours on July 4. His grandmother Josie, who the baby lived with, searched all around, so did the neighbors. Yet they only found his body before midnight at a canal opening, in a corner a meter in front of Josie’s house.
Who could have done it? A CCTV camera gazed at the narrow alley leading from the house to the street. Yet no one was seen leaving with a bag or package that could contain the kid.
During the search, they asked his aunt, 23-year-old Maria Ruth Mariano, if she saw Pao. She was in the house the whole day. But she denied seeing him.
Later after the body was found, a neighbor said she saw Ruth come out of the house under darkness and dump a mass of clothing into the narrow canal beside a neighbor’s house.
Confronted, Ruth finally confessed she had killed Pao.
“I was using illegal drugs and he was getting on my nerves,” she said in Filipino at the police station later.
Ruth said she was about to take a bath then. She lived at the house with Pao’s grandmother and grandfather, Ruth’s husband and her two children.
Pao’s crying had irked her, she claimed. But no one else was around then to take care of him while she was in the bathroom.
“So I took him upstairs, rolled scotch tape around his head, wrapped him in clothes and locked him in the cabinet,” she said, breaking into tears.
She also told police she heard voices telling her to do it.
Ruth only opened the cabinet later that night, after she already told those looking for Pao that she didn’t know where he was.
Seeing Pao was no longer breathing, Ruth said she freaked out and took him out of the house.
Ruth kept crying at the police station as she recounted her side of the story.
“Even if I show regret, even if I want to ask forgiveness from his mother, I know it won’t replace the life that was gone,” she said.
Sarra, Pao’s mom, only got to see him in the morgue. She lived in a different house. Pao’s father was in jail.
She could not accept her sister-in-law Ruth’s reasons.
“How could Ruth say Pao was crying when he hardly did?” Sarra asked. “I can’t forgive her for what she did to him.”
Turns out, it was not a one-time thing.
One of the teenagers who babysat Pao said Ruth had long been mistreating the kid.
“She would choke him, slap him on the face, or pull at his hair,” said the teenager, who asked to have his identity hidden. “She would whisper words that sounded demonic to him, even curse at him.”
Another time, the teenager said, Ruth removed a metal bar which held Pao’s cradle. The baby fell and suffered a lump.
The teen said Ruth had been jealous of the attention her in-laws were giving to Pao compared to her own children. The suspect meanwhile admitted she had a quarrel with Sarra.
Sarra said she heard the abuse had been going on, but just waited to see it for herself.
She also confirmed their fight with her sister-in-law, but clarified Ruth had nothing to be concerned over.
“What my child had her children also had,” Sarra said. “She had no right to hurt a child that was not even hers.”
Police see in the case a moral of the evils of drug abuse.
In a media interview regarding the incident, the Caloocan police chief reminded the public not to hide drug dependents in their families and to instead get them help.
But the incident also reveals the consequences of letting other kinds of abuse go unchecked.
The teenager who saw Ruth mistreat Pao a number of times said he hesitated to speak up or report it to others because he was afraid of what Ruth might do.
Only now, he regrets not doing so if it could have prevented a death.
Before dawn the day after Pao was found dead, Domingo, an old man who lived at the house beside Pao’s grandparents woke up and went straight to the kid’s casket at a room in front of their houses.
“Sorry, Pao,” he said as he sobbed over the coffin. His wife looked on silently.
Domingo’s family also babysat Pao when there was no one at the grandparents’ house.
On the glass at the rear end of the coffin sat a pair of small blue slippers. Domingo had added straps to them so that Pao could wear them without falling off his feet.
Inside, Pao wore a barong tagalog and slacks. His feet were bare except for blue-and-red printed socks.
Loved ones could not hold back tears for the kid who hardly cried and could no longer do so.
“It’s difficult for me now. I already lost a child before, now I lost another,” Sarra said of her youngest.
“I miss you Pao, I won’t have anyone’s cheeks to pinch,” his former babysitter said.
“Wherever you are, I hope you’ll be okay and no one will ever hurt you again.”