By David Haldane
Nov. 1, 2018
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.
Now he’s gone and someone else will have to finish the job.
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.
A former Los Angeles Times staff writer and winner of a 2018 Golden Mike award in radio broadcast journalism, David Haldane fell in love with the Philippines on his first visit there in 2003. A few visits later, he also fell in love with the beautiful young Filipina to whom he is now married and, with whom, he has returned many times. David has written extensively about his experiences in the Philippines for several publications including Orange Coast and Islands Magazine. Today he and Ivy, along with their eight-year-old son, Isaac, divide their time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines. His award-winning memoir, Nazis & Nudists, recounts, among other things, the courtship of Ivy and finding a place to call home. For David that turned out to be at the tip of a peninsula marking the gateway to Mindanao where he and Ivy are building their dream home next to a lighthouse overlooking the sea. This blog is the chronicle of that adventure.
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We are saddened to hear this and send prayers to his family. This, unfortunately is all to common for those that have not the means for emergency care and any surgical procedures that may occur. My wife and I have gone through losses while both there in the Philippines and also abroad in the U.S. We both feel a sense of responsibility to help where and when we can. We know and seen what it is like to live from day to day. The simple things we take for granted here in the States are dreams to those living on the edge. As I near retirement, we will help much more to those that really need the help. So sad to hear…..
It would be close to the same in the US, with our broken healthcare system. Both healthcare and insurance is becoming unaffordable, unless you have good corporate insurance or are a government employee. In the US, life insurance is more common, so that’s a help to the family when you die. I do think, however that if treated earlier, this tragic death could have been prevented.
Although the story saddens me, it also causes some frustration. Despite having a tough life from childhood, apparently Juni thought it fine to father multiple children he really couldn’t afford. Now others (relatives, friends) who may have made responsible choices in their own lives must either help support Juni’s family or feel bad because they choose not to help. Juni may have been a good, focused worker, but he isn’t my definition of a good man. I know that’s harsh considering the man just died, but I’ve seen this similar situation multiple times myself in the Philippines. I wonder if Juni and his wife ever had a conversation about whether they could afford to have a child. My guess, probably not. Does being poor excuse a person from personal responsibility? That being said, my wife and I usually contribute when we know the people involved in these situations. I just wish we didn’t have the opportunity to do it so often.
I enjoyed reading your article and looking at the pictures; thanks for sharing! It sounds like Juni was a good man. On his wife and kids I suspect family will step in to help and not just short term, but for the long haul. That is the Filipino way.
This is such a sad story David. It’s hard to imagine that a young, salvageable life can be ended due to economics. I know this is all too familiar a story here, but whatever the personal circumstances behind it, it’s still a tragic loss for his family, and something once hopes would never happen. For the first 29 years of mt life I was fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of free health care in the UK thanks to the National Health Service. For all of it’s faults, it is a great asset. Emergency services and intensive care are of a particularly high standard. Then for 32 years working in the Middle East I again had the benefit of free and comprehensive company-provided health care of a high standard. It’s too easy to take these things for granted until a story like this comes along. How fortunate I am to never have had to worry about falling sick. I can only wish his family well. I’m sure they appreciate the support you give.
Thank you, everyone, for your comments. You make some good points and, of course, as expats most of us are fortunate enough to never have had to face this sort of dire situation. I can report that Juni’s younger brother, who is still single and lived in Cebu, has actually relocated to Surigao and replaced him on the crew building our house. He has also moved in with the family and assumed the role of breadwinner. One of my friends back in the States read this article, which I posted on Facebook, and, unasked, sent the family a fairly sizable (by Filipino standards) donation to help out. “Sometimes I just think it’s important for people to know that there are others out there who care without expecting anything in return,” she wrote me. I would only add that, in this instance, it was important for ME to be reminded of that. When Ivy and I delivered the gift to the family, Juni’s widow cried. The bottom line: sad, inexplicable things happen in this world, but somehow life goes on…