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Culture

A teacher writes about losing a student in the time of Covid

Wala na sya Teacher Jaton, wala na siya. 
Jaton Zulueta | Apr 06 2021

Nasa heaven na si Michelle,” Richelle said. Michelle was Richelle’s eldest daughter. She died last week at 11 years old. 

What struck me about our phone conversation was how calm Richelle was. Such a huge difference from how she was texting back hours earlier, all in big capital letters. WALA NA SIYA TEACHER JATON, WALA NA SIYA.

I read there wasn’t a name invented for parents who lose their children. You’re an orphan if your parents die, but what happens when one of your children die? What do we call Richelle now?

I found out that Michelle was sick a day before she died. The family didn’t ask for a fundraising, they asked for prayers. Richelle posted a picture of Michelle on Facebook, smiling from ear to ear. “Si ate lumalakas,” the caption said. “Pray for us.” What happened within that day was hazy. It wasn’t clear how the virus affected her lungs so quickly. It wasn’t clear if they got proper medical care. 

From what we know, it took some time for her to get admitted. Michelle had a particularly tough time, then she got better, then she had a horrible evening, then that was that.

I’m not sure if there is a name for what happens when you take a photo of your child smiling, then you announce to a group of people that she’s getting better, only to message them after 24 hours that your daughter had passed. What do you call that experience of your whole life falling apart after an hour? Cruel just doesn’t cut it. 

I don’t remember Richelle to be a particularly religious person. But she kept repeating to me during our phone conversation things a priest would say when someone dies. “He’s in better hands now.” “Na kay God na siya.” “Let’s pray for her soul.” Richelle said everything in the flattest monotone. Maybe it’s because she had repeated this story countless times before. 

Maybe it takes too much energy to keep matching the level of grief you receive at wakes. I’ve seen that blank stare. Heard the familiar words many times in the last year—the eldest daughter, only sixteen, asking for prayers for her dead mother; the elderly father calling for us to do one more rosary for his deceased son; a woman newly widowed, reading a passage off the Bible to her husband of 20 years.

What’s the word for when you’re struggling to collect all the memories of someone who died? I think about Michelle in grade 1, all bright-eyed, screaming and dancing and running around the classroom. I think of Michelle in grade 2, carefully holding her mother who was 9 months pregnant into a jeepney. I think of her in grade 3 and 4, always ready to help with a big smile: she was always sweeping, always carrying something for a teacher, always within hearing distance whenever we needed something. 

I want more memories. I’m embarrassed these are all I have. 

I run a learning center. A non-profit organization that offers free after-school learning assistance to public school kids. If kids are having trouble keeping up with the lessons in real school, we offer added tutoring. 

The worst thing about my current role in the organization is that I teach so rarely. I handle things that need to be done. How I wish I could just teach. I wish we had better conversations. I wish we had more meaningful moments. Michelle was in my life, but only in the periphery, and now that she’s gone, from the fringes she’s now in the center of my thoughts. 

On the phone, I listen in a bit harder, and can hear someone crying in the background while I talk to Richelle. “Ba’t ganun? Michelle, Michelle, Michelle,” a mourner cries out. I can imagine Richelle reaching for the mourner’s hands while the latter puts her hands on Richelle’s. I can imagine her nodding at the mourner, reassuring her that everything will be okay while she talks to me, telling me God has better plans for us.

I feel completely useless realizing that Richelle has her hands full, and that my call was getting in the way of the services. I tell her goodbye and remind her she can talk to me for anything, that I’ll always answer the call. But I’m sure Richelle will never call me. Even if we did speak, I'm not sure we could ever find the words.

 

[The author is the founder of the AHA! Learning Center and a Ten Outstanding Young Men awardee.]