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The truth is that I didn’t remember him until I saw him dead. His name was Junelito S. Villondo, but friends called him Juni for short. Nearly every day for a year, Juni came to our house in Punta Bilaras one of the dozens of workers charged with making it home. His particular specialty; stainless welding and metalwork. Last week, our engineer mentioned in passing that Juni had called in sick. Yesterday we went to his funeral.
What happened in the interval, unfortunately, is an all-too-common story in the Philippines. What could happen afterward, tragically, is even more common.
According to his wife, Juni came home one night complaining of back pains and fever. The next day he was having trouble breathing, so they rushed him to the hospital where doctors made a grim discovery: seething with pneumonia, Juni’s lungs were almost entirely filled with water. An emergency surgery could possibly have saved his life, but the family didn’t have that kind of money. So, in a desperate last-ditch effort to keep him breathing, doctors performed a tracheostomy, inserting a tube deep into his windpipe. Writhing in agony, Juni ripped it out and a few hours later was dead. In addition to his wife, he leaves a 12-year-old daughter, eight-year-old son and a baby on the way. He was 36, and their only means of support.
Sitting at the funeral parlor next to his open casket, Juni’s family described his early life. It had been difficult, they said, involving lots of drugs and gang violence. His formal education had stopped after third grade. And yet, somehow, he managed to beat the odds by learning a trade, perfecting his craft and finding work that paid enough to support a family.
My only clear memory of Juni, in fact, is watching him install the metal bars encircling one of the balconies in our master bedroom upstairs. I remember being impressed with his attention to detail; the slow, methodical way in which he performed the task one step at a time, never hurrying, never doubting his own judgment, his dark penetrating eyes focused entirely on the object of his labor – only that, nothing less and nothing more. Wow, I remember thinking, with workers like this we’re in very good hands.
The funeral was typically Filipino; in one room sat the widow and children, along with assorted relatives, holding a vigil next to Juni’s remains. Like widows everywhere, she occasionally smiled fondly at a visitor’s recollection of her late husband. Then crumpled in tears over his corpse as the reality of what had happened hit home. In an adjacent room, spilling into the yard outside, a crowd of friends and co-workers, many familiar to me, sat drinking beer and holding court. And I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a family of which I now was an integral part.
So what will happen to Juni’s wife and children without his support? In this culture of poverty, sadly, that remains an open question. One possible outcome; that a relative will step in to take his place. Ivy and I would certainly favor that. In the meantime, the rest of the family will do what we can. And when I sit on that balcony, I’ll think of the man.