True friends never part

BY GREG CASTILLA –

Author

Dateline Seattle: True Friends Never Part

Bicol Mail – June 9, 2022

There were eleven of us Jesuit novices who entered the Sacred Heart Novitiate (SHN) in Novaliches, Quezon City, in May of 1967. We all came from different educational and social backgrounds.

Despite our diversity, but because of our collective life, we soon discovered that it was easy to forge friendship with anyone. This was because it was in this way of life that we got to know and share our personal stories with our co-novices, be it in the basketball court or doing our daily walk in the afternoon or disporting ourselves in the swimming pool.

One of the novices I befriended among others was Tommy Achacoso.

I entered the novitiate with only my parents accompanying me. With Tommy, it was quite a send-off that he probably never forgot. He was like a superstar with a contingent of well-wishers. In addition to his parents, I remember he arrived at the novitiate with his classmates and friends in several cars.

More than fifty years later, Tommy would confirm in an article he wrote in 2021 that appeared in Companions! XJs Narratives, a book about the life stories of former Jesuits, that there were about thirty cars that joined the motorcade going to Novaliches.

Indeed, Tommy was special.

He was a Student Council President at the Ateneo de Manila Grade School and graduated salutatorian. He was a Boy Scout leader and a member of the Sanctuary Society, Brebeuf Club, Football Varsity, and of the lighting crew of stage productions.

When he visited the Ateneo high school campus as an incoming freshman before the start of the school year, he met Fr. Francis Dolan who asked him what his plans were in high school. His pithy response was: “Enjoy.”

Enjoy, he did in high school. He dated, partied, danced, got drunk a few times, learned how to smoke, stayed up late, drove his Chevy without a driver’s license, and even ran away from home once. Tommy reminded me of St. Ignatius de Loyola’s worldly life before his conversion.

In the novitiate, he was not the happy-go-lucky lad that he was in high school. But he remained uniquely special in the sense that he was friendly, sociable, easy to get along with, not a show-off, feisty when he played football or basketball, prayerful, and behaved like a typical person his age. In my mind, he would have been an ideal Jesuit in the mold of St. Ignatius.

The French have a proverb which states that people often meet their fate on the road they take to avoid it. But not with Tommy. He took the road less travelled by entering the novitiate. He did not run away from what he had thought was his calling. But it was not meant to be.

As St. Matthew writes in the Bible, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Similarly, as the Latin phrase says, “Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit” (Man proposes, but God disposes).

Tommy eventually left the novitiate after a few months. He was the first in our batch to leave. Although he confided to me that he was leaving, I was still emotionally distraught when it happened. I felt sad to see him go.

 As he was bidding us good bye, the novices were singing in unison “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to lift up his and our spirits.

I lost contact with Tommy when he left the novitiate. For almost 50 years, I never heard from him. But every time I hear the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” it harks back to that day when a friend left the novitiate to pursue a different path.

In one of his emails to me he wrote, “Every time I hear that song, tears still fill my eyes because the words became my marching song as I forced myself to be strong in facing what was uncertain future when I walked out of SHN.”

Tommy’s whereabouts had been a mystery to me until around 2017 when I got his email address somewhere. I vaguely remember how I got it, but that did not matter to me anymore. My excitement was oozing.

I immediately emailed Tommy. To my surprise, he responded with the same enthusiasm, longing, interest, and curiosity that I tried to communicate in my first email to him. What followed was a renewed relationship between two friends, separated for almost 50 years.

Through our email exchanges, I discovered the path that Tommy took when he left the novitiate in 1967. It was a path that he would probably have taken just the same had he been ordained a Jesuit priest. It was the same path that Pope Paul VI verbalized when he taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.”

When Martial law was declared in 1972, Tommy was a student at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York where he graduated. He got involved in the anti-Marcos movement by joining the National Association of Filipinos in the US (NAFUS), an opposition group in the East Coast. Later on, he worked at the Los Angeles office of the Manglapus-led Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP), an organization of exiled Filipinos whose main objective was the restoration of democracy in the Philippines.

When Marcos called for a snap election in 1985, Tommy saw that as an opportunity to go back to the homeland after five years of self-imposed exile in the US. Working closely with the late Senator Butz Aquino, he plunged himself into helping organize the march that led to the 1986 EDSA Revolution, coordinating efforts with various opposition groups like KASAPI (Kapulungan ng mga Sandigan ng Pilipinas), ATOM (August Twenty One Movement), and RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement).

With the restoration of a new government in 1986, Tommy was appointed administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), where he was instrumental in setting labor standards that affect the overseas recruitment of Filipinos.

Truly a nationalist by heart and in deed, Tommy had this to say on the Chinese invasion of the West Philippine Sea, “I personally felt so offended by what I saw of the Chinese occupation that I am willing to take up arms at my old age to fight them off instead of DU30 just raising his hands in helpless surrender.” (April 21, 2021).

Tommy was one of a kind. One could infer that throughout his life he never wavered in doing what was right. He knew right from wrong.

With Covid 19, the family’s ice plant business suffered a heavy blow. According to Tommy, they had to sell some of their assets to remain financially viable. Ice deliveries to their clients dropped tremendously, resulting in their employees being unable to take home enough to sustain their families.

To help his employees, Tommy and his wife, Baby, decided to “provide them with free rice, fresh chicken and vegetables which we buy from some of our customers at below market price whenever they fall below this threshold.” (August 16, 2020).

Tommy’s generosity, at a time when his own business was struggling, made a lasting impression on me and, I am sure, on his employees.

Despite the adverse effects of the economy on the family business and Tommy’s eye problem that has been bothering him, his outlook in life remained positive. In fact, his sense of humor was intact.

He once poked fun at me with, “Greetings to your better half whom I saw with you on Facebook while touring a park in Utah. I don’t know her name and even with my eyeglasses on, I could not really have a complete idea of how she looks. That’s how bad my eyes have deteriorated. But I know she is a lovely and loving wife having to put up with you all these years. Joke only. “(November 13, 2020).

A snippet in his November 24 2020 email also cracked me up. Describing his relationship with his wife, he wrote, “Aside from my poor eyes, I am also wearing hearing aids on both ears. So with her squeaky voice and my poor hearing, it’s a miracle we are still together. But we look forward to celebrating our golden wedding next December.”

I don’t regret that it took me almost 50 years to reconnect with Tommy. But I deeply regret that our promise to see each other when I visit Manila will not happen. He passed on last June 1, 2022.

With Tommy now gone, I feel like it is 1967 all over again, when he left the novitiate. The difference this time is my realization that, as written by an anonymous author, “A strong friendship doesn’t need daily conversation, doesn’t always need togetherness, as long as the relationship lives in the heart, true friends will never part.”

Rest in eternal peace, my friend

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