I was shown kindness at a young age – the kind that drives you to pay it forward.
Kindness came in the form of smart and skinny Letty, who donned a bob she typically accented with a thick pastel-colored headband. She had a flat nose, was taller than most of the kids her age, always had a handkerchief in hand, and acquired acne problems way before her teenhood.
In a pink Hello Kitty stationery, Letty wrote to me and asked me to be her best friend. I was flattered not only because she held the coveted top spot in our class but also because I had written her, asking for the same thing.
It was reciprocated love and mutual admiration. Who doesn't want, nay, yearn for that?
Letty was the class valedictorian and school paper editor-in-chief, who showed everyone love but trusted the judgment of a few.
She was a natural in everything she did.
While all our other classmates' business-oriented families had money to spare for personal tutors, Letty the only child of middle-class parents reviewed by herself and got perfect scores.
The rumor mill was rife with stories of strange coping mechanisms Letty supposedly employed to get over a single mistake in an exam including, among others, dunking herself in water inside a drum. It never bothered me that I didn't feel the need to fact-check it from her. I guess it didn't matter.
I had trusted her with my life. I was over the moon to be her closest friend.
When I saw Letty's body on February 3, I no longer recognized her. She was skin and bones. Her father tells me she had been bedridden for more or less two months prior to her death.
I didn't feel anything during my visit to her wake, except a voice in my head as I looked around the room. Kindness, kindness, kindness, the voice spoke over and over again. My thoughts wandered to the future that could have been for Letty.
"Successful na kayong lahat, ano? (You are all successful now, right?)" Letty's dad quipped.
Letty never got to work. She fell ill shortly after our elementary graduation. The illness did not have a name back then, or at least the adults dared not name it in front of us kids.
As we grew up, my batchmates loosely used the term "depression" when asked what Letty's sickness was. Speculations arose as to what triggered her condition that made her unable to normally socialize, verbally express herself, and go about a regular teenager's routine including schooling.
She had fought till age 24 and took medication after medication, which her dad pointed to as the cause of her eventual decline.
"Nag-deteriorate na yung katawan niya sa gamot (Her body had deteriorated with all the medicine)," he said.
"She was not well," I told a fellow classmate at the Montessori school Letty and I attended.
"I'm also not well," the classmate replied but quickly added that she manages just fine.
On our way home from the wake, the classmate recalled how she had always liked the puppet show Letty and I produced for class. I don't remember, I told her. She said she really liked it, and it was entitled "Operation Kindness."
How apt to call it an operation. There was an urgency about it. That was Letty's mission on earth, even as she lived only a quarter and with a healthy state of mind only half the time.
People can speculate how Letty could have been a great physicist or doctor or lawyer or artist. But I knew Letty beyond the perfect scores, the lovely writing, the anime drawings, and the nerdy reputation.
We spent after-school hours talking about our family set-ups, about books and narratives that haunted and inspired us, about the dreams cut short as we awoke from our night's rests, and the dreams we kept alive as we went about our daily lives.
I knew kindness through her, tasted it in its purest form. I have lost count of the times she let love win over ego. Oh, how often she let a bullying kid off the hook because she knew better!
She didn't care about what others thought or said. She didn't mind not being part of the fleeting in-crowd, but also didn't shove how self-assured she was in their faces.
It is probably the memory of her that I tap into when I have no fear of majoritarian impositions, yet having to show respect and decency for that majority.
There are countless rude people out there causing this world more destruction than they are aware of, imposing upon others twisted standards of what they think are right and wrong. Letty proved that talent is easy to acquire and needs no boasting, but character goes a long way in influencing lives.
When I speak of my personal heroes today, I describe them as the ones with "intelligence complemented by kindness, unrestrained courage driven by sound principle, and tough speech resulting from careful thought."
Looking at the short life she lived mostly spent – at least consciously – with childhood friends, many will say Letty had so much potential. But above all that, she would have been an extremely kind person who would have made this world a better place just by being her.
This article was first published by Rappler.com, a Manila-based social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change