When I took my first trip to Chicago in 2010, it was to meet my hero Roger Ebert. Little did I realise that I would meet someone who would come to be someone just as dear, if not more so.
He was Jay, a cousin of mine from my father’s side whom I had never met. My uncle Noel suggested that I stay with Jay’s family during my visit, and I looked forward to discovering a side of my bloodline that had remained unknowable for such a long time.
I didn’t know what to expect. I gave him a call and not knowing what he looked like, he sounded like the whitest man on earth. It was quite jarring placing his face to that voice upon touching down at Union Station. He was lean and fit; in such terrific shape that would put men more than half his age to shame.
I gathered from my uncle’s stories that Jay was a jock. He played hockey with gusto, body checks and all. He played baseball in high school. And up to the time that I had known him, he was a passionate cyclist. He once told me of his plans to go with his biking buddies to retrace the path of the Tour de France. He was a sportsman through and through, but there was a formidable mind within that formidable body.
He graduated with degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like his old man he was a lifer at IBM, having served for more than 2 decades across New York, Tokyo and Chicago. He had an artistic eye, translating his love of cycling into photography.
Jay was a very centred individual, measured in thought and action with no wasted movement. You could always feel how he could anchor a room as structure seem to flow from his presence. Though he was full of authority, he was not humourless. He would tickle or play tag with his kids Nick and Aly in public. He once told me, “It’s not my job to be friends with them.” He could have fooled me.
Before I met his young ones, I had dreaded what kind of stereotypical American adolescents would greet me. But they were marvels of politeness and curiosity; the veritable best of youth. Their constitutions could only have been formed by the bedrock provided by Jay and his wife Kendra, whom he absolutely treasured.
He could also be quite thoughtful and eloquent, especially when talking about matters dear to him. Whenever I would ask him about doping scandals in cycling, I could easily imagine him speaking on behalf of sportsmen everywhere. Whatever it was, I would always look forward to what he had to say.
We had a lot in common. We were both firstborns, both more accustomed to Western sensibilities than our Asian roots. We shared many values. We would compare notes about our dads, and he reminded me of my own. We just hit it off really well, like a big brother I never had.
I remember talking to him about dealing with the attention I was starting to get over my film essays, and he gave me some valuable insight as to what some expectations might be of me. And surprisingly, he related to my experiences of finding a “calling.” Finally! Someone who I could talk to who knew. Family at that.
Despite his devotion to living healthily, his body kept on betraying him. In the last few years of his life he had suffered several life-threatening heart stoppages. Most of them occurring doing things he loved most. He suffered cardiac arrest after playing hockey. His son Nick once found him crawling in his lawn, nearly passing out after fixing his bike. After my first Chicago visit, his heart stopped while cycling, and was only jolted back into action after breaking his shoulder, falling into a patch of poison ivy.
If God has a sense of humour, Jay rolled with the punches and laughed along.
A few months after that setback, Jay went through therapy and testing and seemed to have isolated what was wrong with his heart. He was taking a new set of meds that as far as I knew, was working. Diagnosed with hypertension and having experienced a near fatal car crash, I sort of knew what he went through and was sad to know of these shared sufferings.
I was hesitant to stay with his family upon my second visit in 2011, afraid that my wife Claire and I would be burdensome. But they pleaded with us to come and so we did. When I saw Jay, it was like nothing happened. He was still fit as a fiddle, waking up as early as 5am to go biking as far as 50K. He once told me that it’s funny going to work later in the morning (from Glencoe to Chicago), when it dawns on you that you were there earlier using your feet.
I talked to him about his health, sharing our fears of mortality. He told me that he wasn’t going to live a fearful life full of regret. It would not be the lesson he would leave his kids. I admired him greatly for that.
This morning my wife woke me up after she got a call from my sister back in Manila. She told me that I should brace myself. Though I had woken from my slumber, Jay did not.
My day has been on one long pause since then.
He was without vice. Without waste. He loved his family deeply. He was devoted, disciplined, passionate and introspective. In him I found a role model as well as a shared and cherished bond. And if anyone deserved to live a long rewarding life, it was Jay. He did his family, his parents and the Mirasol name proud.
From now on, my trips to the Windy City, which have always been filled with excitement, will now be tinged with longing. As I remember him, I cannot help but recall an email we shared shortly after his therapy back in 2010, as I wrote:
“As we both have heart problems, I feel a bond with you apart from those that tie us in blood. I can’t help but feel for you now as you try and make plans for things that are near impossible to plan for. I know you’re looking back at your life, contemplating the gravity of it all and of those that are dearest to you. All I can say is that I’ve been through just a little of what you are going through, and that I am with you. You’re not alone.
“I hope all that babble helps somehow. Not to sound trite, but I love you cuz. I miss you all.”
“Michael — your note helps. A lot. This is the kind of thing where I first think that I’ve had some bad luck, but that with some additional reflection, I realize that I’ve used up way more than my share of good luck just to be here today. It plays with my head, a little. But even knowing that, there’s really no way to plan. As you say, it’s unplannable. One must just do the best that he/she can, and not accept less than the best from oneself. That’s what we can control, in the end.
“I’ve recommitted myself to doing my best with my family. That includes you. I’m sure I’ll stumble since it hasn’t been what I do best, but I’ll give my best to it. We’re all we have.”
“Be good. Love, Jay”