Circumnavigating life

I am writing about Jim Toolen to show you that this world is filled with people who are interconnected without their knowing it, who made lasting impressions on each other without suspecting it, who are unaware that their lives have mingled like sand and water. Meeting someone again after the course of decades is like circumnavigating life, or at least one of its many contours.

One day in November 2010, my nephew, Carlo Cruz, called me, in supplicant mode. He had been tasked to take me to dinner, the very next day, at the home of the Llamas family, whom I had not even met. I could not refuse, Carlo made it clear, because I was going to be the “surprise” of the evening. One of the guests was anxious to see me again “after all these years.” I was perplexed, needless to say, who could that be? Carlo revealed that the gentleman in question was one of my escorts during the Miss International Beauty pageant in Long Beach, California.

If truth be told, none of us contestants had time to meet anyone and the only men we saw were those four good-looking young Californians , tall and tanned, dressed in coattails in the evenings who were tasked to escort us down a grand staircase to center stage, in front of a glittering, kilometric carpeted ramp where we walked and swayed to music reminiscent of our region of origin. For the Asians, it was the “March of the Royal Children” from the movie “The King and I.”

The rehearsals for the pageant, specially for the two nights of judging and coronation were merciless . Because these were televised live, everything had to be timed and structured down to the last detail. There was a choreographer with an aquiline nose and wavy hair and once, during breaktime, he sat with us girls and introduced himself as Josef Stember. He looked directly at me and said he had been to the Philippines where he taught ballet. Mr. Stemberski! I gasped. Are you Mr. Stemberski? I was your pupil. I hope he did not feel old when I said I was only nine then. My mother enrolled me at that ballet school owned by one of her society matron friends, Mrs. Pacita Madrigal Warns. I asked why he shortened his surname and he said it was because Americans found it difficult to pronounce Stemberski. At that moment, did he feel that he had circumnavigated life?

Going back to Jim Toolen, thanks to Jaime and Cleofe Llamas and my nephew, we were able to touch base after 44 years. Jim was gallant enough to say that he had no doubts I would win the beauty contest, if only for the way I walked. I asked why he was an escort, was he in show business? Was he one of Mr. Stemberski’s dancers? Jim said he and his buddies had read an ad in a Long Beach paper and thought it would be a fun summer job to escort beauty queens, so they applied and were hired on the spot.

Jim eventually got involved in the tour and travel business and met his wife Hedy Taylor, a Filipina from St. Scholastica’s College whose cousin, Snooky Taylor, is a friend of mine. After years of residing and working in Florida, they decided to retire in the Philippines. At that dinner, Hedy said they live in Dumaguete, by the sea, and if I should find myself thereabouts, to please let them know so they could invite me to their home. I did exactly that. A couple of years later, the Heritage Conservation Society held a summit at the Silliman University after which I visited Jim and Hedy in their paradise by the sea. .

Early this week, when I heard about Jim’s death, I could only imagine how devastated and distraught Hedy must be. I sent her my deepest condolences. She was silent for a few days before she messaged her FB friends: “I have tried for a couple of days to find some words to express what is in my heart, but the truth is my heart is gone from me, there is just a big dark hole from which no words have been able to emerge. I do not know what many others have known, that this pain, this grief, will change, it will not end, but will change to something more bearable, like a scar. Because I have not found the words, I have used poetry , the comfort of poetry tells me that what I am feeling has been felt before….I must depend on the words of others, Jim’s wonderful heart was the best thing about him, and yet his wounded heart is what cut his life short.” Hedy’s lament is an encomium to the 37 years of happiness and fulfillment she and Jim shared.

Now, there are a few names and faces whom I wish to meet again as I circumnavigate this globe of life, one of them is a professor in college who opened my eyes to the intricacies of international politics, the other is a friend who was patient enough to teach me a few native songs and yet another, an eminent thespian thanks to whom I received an award for my cultural activities. There is an enumeration of gentlemen, a very short list I’m afraid because most of whom I would have wanted to meet again during this circumnavigation have already passed on, blown off course by celestial winds and tides.