Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fly High! Bidding Amiel Good-bye

Even grown men cry.

At 11:30 AM today, the Chapel of the Holy Angels at the Ateneo de Manila University Grade School was filled to the rafters as members of his family, friends and the school community bid Amiel Alcantara good-bye in a mass that was concelebrated by university president, Fr. Ben Nebres, and Fr. Kit Bautista, grade school headmaster.

In a tribute to his youngest brother, Avie Alcantara said that Amiel had wanted to achieve three things in life -- "to be an Eagle scout, a soldier and to be legendary." By dying early, Avie said, he managed to achieve two -- now he is a soldier of God and in a manner of speaking, has become legendary. "I know understand why he seemed to be more advanced than me even if I was older than him. Why he used hair gel at an early age, why he had a celphone and I didn't, why he used Axe deo cologne and why he was so adept at YM. I guess it was because he was going to leave us early."

Avie's talk was followed by a beautiful, moving five-minute video tribute made by his uncle, set to the song "Gone Too Soon". At this point, there was no dry eye in the entire church, including mine.

Pepe Alcantara gave the response on behalf of the family and in his message he made some salient and very insightful points --

For his son Amiel he said -- "Forgive me for not being there with you. I would have wanted to be there, to hold you, to protect you." Pepe recalled tearfully how at 6:45 AM on the day that Amiel died he had wondered why after their family van had backed out of the driveway, Amiel asked the driver to stop and he got off, rushed to Pepe and gave him a tight hug. "It was unusual for him to do that. Now I understand why," Pepe said, his voice breaking. "It was a day", he narrated, "that began with the tight hug of a much beloved son and ended with him inside a coffin." The lesson here, he says, is that when someone hugs you, makes sure you hug the person back and that yoiu do it well because you'll never know if it will be your last." He then shared with the crowd how, on the second day of the wake, a third grade student approached him and gave him an envelope, "I need to return this to you..." the young boy said. And when Pepe asked him what was inside, the boy told him that there was 111 pesos inside -- Amiel had been giving him money to supplement his allowance because he lived all the way and had to travel from Cavite. Amiel, was truly selfless even at such a young age.

Pepe then spoke about his family and how he saluted his son Avie for his courgaeous act of pulling Amiel out of the wreck that tragic Tuesday morning. He thanked Yaya Tata for saving Avie and daughter Jana from harm and in the process putting herself in harm's way instead. "Tata has been with us for 40 years, she was Melanie's yaya and is a second mom to my children. We are forever grateful to her."

Lastly, Pepe spoke to the community, asking them to be more protective of "the seeds in this community." He asked them -- "How can we regenerate, or even begin the process of regeneration if you are unable to protect the seeds that you have here." "Magpakatotoo tayo," he said solemnly, "How can regeneration happen if a child cannot even finish his sandwich..." and his vboice trailed off.

He spoke to Amiel's classmates from 4-Manobo-- "Amiel will be your angel, but I am sure he will not haunt you," he said in jest. "You will always be with us, every moment of every single day," he finished as he threw a sad gaze at where Amiel lay.

The morning's mass was ended with a beautiful release of blue and white balloons, an act that gave momentary joy as each member of Amiel's class released a balloon withg a message attached to it. The balloons were emblazoned with "Fly high Amiel" - a line that holds special meaning to anyone who has ever spent time as a student at the Ateneo. The balloons were released by Amiel's Grade 4 classmates and family members at the hearse slowly made its way to through the grade school driveway.

Fly high, Amiel. Fly heavenward, back to your real Home. As Avie Alcantara put it so beautifully, "In God we trust. In God, Amiel, we entrust."

Special Report On Amiel Alcantara

GMA-7 News came over yesterday to get my thoughts on Amiel's passing. In this video also is my friend, Noemi Dado who founded The Compassionate Friends where we are co-founders as well.

Amiel's story is one that has riveted every parent because his death shakes every parent's heart to the core. Later today he will finally be laid to rest. The saddest part of the grief journey is when everyone has left, when the loved one has been buried (or cremated) and you return home and realize that your family is no longer complete. This is when the anguish, the longing and the sadness truly sets in. Now more than ever, the Alcantara's will need our prayers. Let us all remember them as they begin the long road to healing and finding their "new normal" without Amiel.

For the latest Philippine news stories and videos, visit GMANews.TV

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Losing Amiel Alcantara - An Update

My heart is heavier now than it was earlier today when I started to piece together what had happenned to Amiel Alcantara, the Ateneo fourth grader who was hit by a CRV at the Ateneo de Manila grade school parking lot yesterday afternoon.

My husband and I have just returned from his wake and I am shocked, stunned and restless over the circumstances surrounding his death. The Alcantara's actually almost lost three children, and not just one.

Amiel, his 65-year old Yaya Tata (who has been with the family for 40 plus years), his 7 year old sister, and 13 year old brother Javi, together with the driver, were already so close to their car when the CRV driven by Teresa Torres, careened from behind and hit Amiel. Yaya Tata was able to push the youngest one and the elder boy out of the way but was too far to get to Amiel. Yaya Tata had herself suffered injuries and fractures and is set to have surgery next week. The most heart-wrenching thing about the whole thing is that it was the Alcantara's driver and 13 year old Javi who had to extricate Amiel from beneath the van. The impact was so strong that three other vehicles were damaged in the process before the vehicle finally came to a stop. How does a 13 year old young boy cope with the image of seeing his younger brother that way?

It was the driver who took Amiel to the New Era hospital and they were en route to the hospital in another Ateneo parent's car when Amiel died in his arms. Amiel's father, Pepe Alcantara, former chair of the UP Student Council in the 1980s, and his mother, Niann, were no longer able to see their youngest son alive. It is a tragedy of such great proportions.

The CRV that careened through the parking lot was around 25 meters away from where the kids were standing. Apparently, for some reasons that remain yet unclear, the driver had stepped heavily on the accelerator because a screeching sound, akin to those that you hear at drag races, was heard by several witnesses before the car sped and hit Amiel.

The saddest part is that according to reports, Mrs. Torres, herself a mother of a fourth grader at the Ateneo, has not offered any apologies to the Alcantara family and claims that it was all an accident. I really don't know if being unapologetic is a legal strategy or a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Charges of homicide, reckless imprudence and several counts of perjury have supposedly been filed against Mrs. Torres who remains in custody at a Quezon City police station early today.

The Alcantara's come from a large, closely-knit family and I was comforted to see many family members and friends at the wake this evening. I was seated beside Amiel's youngest sister who though smiling, appeared a bit dazed. "Sana that car was not just kept moving and moving and would not stop," she told us when we asked her about the accident. My heart goes out to these children, I'm almost certain that this is a loss that they will carry with them forever. I only find comfort in knowing that Amiel is now happy and safe and whole with Jesus. I pray that justice will be served because Teresa Torres is a mother with a family too. May her family find courage and enlightenment. May God hold Amiel's siblings and family members close, protect them, and may they all be filled with the Holy Spirit so that they may be guided at this very difficult time.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Prayers For Amiel Alcantara, Ateneo Grade School Parking Lot Accident Victim

I couldn't sleep last night.

At around 10:30 PM, P came rushing into the room and asked me if I had received a text about a young boy who had died at the Ateneo Grade School earlier that day. I immediately got up and we both looked at L, all of ten, who was fast asleep on the bed. "He was L's age..." she said.

The details I have are still sketchy but my heart is so heavy and it goes out to everyone involved in the accident. The loss of a child is always, such a complicated loss. It becomes an even greater and more difficult loss to grapple with when an accident is involved.

Amiel. That was the young boy's name. A beautiful Hebrew name that means "friend of God". According to initial reports, he had not been feeling well that day and the school had advised his father about it. Amiel has a brother who is the seventh grade and so when dismissal time came, they were supposedd to all go home together. The boys were already in their car when Amiel got hungry and so he and his yaya decided to go to the grade school canteen to buy something.

Meanwhile, inside a van, a 30something mom, had instructed her driver to go and get her young son. If you are a parent, you know how sunduan time at an elementary school can be such a nightmare. The mother said she would just take care of moving the vehicle if need be.

From behind the vehicle come Amiel and his yaya. And that is when the accident takes place. It is vague to me but according to accounts, the van was backing up and hit the young boy and the boy must have yelled out. Rather than stepping on the brakes, the mom panics and hits the accelerator instead...

That mother could have been me. That boy, God forbid, could have been my son. I pick up my children everyday from school. I know what the traffic is like. I've heard of children who have been sideswiped in the parking lots of elementary schools all over the country. I've had a cousin who got backed up by a jeepney in the parking lot of Don Bosco Makati in the 1970s, died for a minute but came back. Amiel did not make it. And now there is a pall of gloom all over the Ateneo campus and in every parents heart.

To lose a child is every parents nightmare. I know how it is. I've been to hell and back. My heart breaks once more. Amiel was my son's age, the only son I have now. I heard his older brother saw the accident happen. It is a major tragedy of great proportions. So traumatic for everyone involved.

When something like this happens we are saddenned, we grieve, we are angry, we are called to action... What can parents do?

The tragedy is a wake-up call. Traffic and parking need to be re-assessed, not only at the Ateneo, but perhaps in most elementary schools where the traffic has become a daily nightmare. It happenned on a sprawling (but crowded with cars) Loyola campus. It could just as easily have happenned inside a Greenhills subdivision, on Ortigas avenue, in a cramped parking lot in Makati. Parents and school administrators need to join hands to find a solution lest another young child loses his life.

I pray for all the families involved. I pray that they get the therapy they need. A child's grief cannot be swept under the rug. They may seem okay on the surface, but when it is not dealt with and processed, it is a sadness and a loss
that they carry with them all throughout their lives. One that affects psyche, behavior, relationships, and life attitudes. I think of Amiel's kuya, of his family and of his classmates. I want to reach out to them, to do activities with his classmates, to read them our story. I think of that young mother who accidentally ran over him. How do you live with something like that?

My prayer is for everyone involved to be wrapped in the love, support and prayers of family and friends. It will be a very long journey for all. Faith and forgiveness will be the keys to moving on. But to get that point is one that will entail navigating a very long and arduous road. The only way to find the light is to go through the tunnel, there are no shortcuts. I am sure that Amiel is now happy in heaven, he whose name also means "My people belong to God." May God be with all of them, with all of us who grieve this tragedy, at this time.