When I first met him in the 1980's I did not know what to expect. At that time my contact with Americans was largely limited to either gruff, academic types such as exchange students and professors in Cebu City's universities or the occasional rowdy, ebullient serviceman going around that city's tourist destinations. He turned out, to my eternal surprise and delight, to be, well, more Pinoy than most Filipinos I know.
My Auntie Meming, who was my father's favorite first cousin, was part of the wave of Filipino nurses who left this country for the United States in the early 1960's. There she met and married Richard Sowney. They settled down in Philadelphia and eventually had two daughters. Auntie Meming is a vivacious, fast-talking, outspoken, spirited lady while Uncle Dick was, as I knew him, more restrained and deliberate yet a thoroughly affable, mild mannered and likable guy. How they meshed together and managed to keep their marriage solid inspite of the differences in their personalities through the decades has always intrigued me.
Perhaps it was Uncle Dick's deep Irish roots that made the difference. Like most Filipinos, he was a devout Catholic with a deep and abiding respect and devotion for the family. He did not have any difficulty understanding the strong, sentimental ties that bind extended families and their relatives in the Philippines together. It was, in many ways, also an integral part of his own similar cultural milieu.
So after he came here in the 1980's for the first of several visits, I gradually got to know and like him. How can one not develop affection and deep respect for someone who although of a different race and nationality, was so thoroughly comfortable and at ease with a culture not his own; one who accepted new experiences with grace and humility, and who genuinely like people and liked people to like him.
Traveling the dusty roads of Lianga with him many years ago was like seeing familiar places and scenery with fresh, wondering eyes. His exuberance and childlike wonder at seeing and coming in contact with new things was a joy to behold. Through him I learned to rejoice once again at the natural beauty of the sights and vistas whose familiarity have made them so commonplace and ordinary to my jaded eyes.
He would ask me to stop the car at the sight of anything that aroused his inveterate curiosity. Raw palay being dried on mats on the side of the road, a rustic nipa hut beside a rice paddy, a crowded jeepney festooned with people on the roof or a farmer ploughing a ricefield with a carabao. All that merited a stop, a hasty exit, a quick picture from his camera and often, to my horror, an attempt to linger a bit and talk to the local people who would, most of the time, just stare with wonder and bewilderment at the elderly Joe trying so desperately to make friends and communicate with them.
One of my fondest memories of him was of one trip we made from Lianga to Tandag, the capital of this province of Surigao del Sur many years ago. Ordinarily, the 89 kilometer trip over the rough, gravel roads would take me about two and a half hours to complete.
With Uncle Dick and his frequent, impromptu stops, we had to add one more hour to our travel time. But to my surprise, I enjoyed the trip almost as much as he did. Through him I saw this part of my world again this time through his eyes and I realized once more how inured I had become to the variety of wonderful and remarkable sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures it has. Qualities ready to be sampled again and infinitely appreciated.
Because of him, I came home a chastened and wiser man that day.
Yesterday morning I got word from the United States that Uncle Dick had unexpectedly passed away after a long bout with illness. He was already in his 80's.
I felt more than a bit numb after receiving the sad news. When good men die, we feel bereft and crushed. With so much that is wrong with the world today, their passing, in many ways, impoverishes and demeans us and we feel spiritually poorer and destitute.
But the greatness of men is judged not just solely by what they have accomplished in their lives but also by the kind and quality of the memories they bequeath to the people they leave behind. And good memories of Uncle Dick we here in Lianga have aplenty.
Here was a good man who lived his life with an open and generous heart, who made us laugh and see the world in new and different ways, whose life made a difference in my own and in the lives of many others. His family's loss is not only theirs but also our own.
For truly good men are rare in this world and to lose one is like losing a part of that essential goodness that makes this world livable in the midst of dark and dangerous times. What remains are the images and impressions, the remembrances of a life well lived and the dawning realization of how lucky we, who have been left behind, to have had the privilege of knowing such a man and how our lives have been so immeasurably enriched and made more meaningful because of people like him.