"Careful the things you say
Children will listen ..."
CHILDREN WILL LISTEN by Stephen Sondheim
Last weekend I posted a shoutout on my Facebook account that read:
JOEY REYES quotes a friend talking to a workaholic complaining of exhaustion: "OH, BUT THAT'S ALL RIGHT. MY GOD, I AM SURE YOU WILL HAVE SUCH A BEAUTIFUL AND EXPENSIVE COFFIN.
Numerous friends responded and reacted. Others gave comments. One of them was somebody who I considered more than a friend or a co-worker. I have known her for the past six years when she joined a writing workshop sponsored by a broadcast studio. Since then we have grown a very special attachment together with certain members of the said group especially after we worked together in about three shows where she was part of the writing staff.
But it was only most recently that her work as a television writer blossomed. She was most overwhelmed when she became part of one of the best business units in the studio then eventually asked to be a contract writer for the station. This usually means that the corporation values the writer tremendously so as to tie her up for the next three years so that competitive companies can no longer entice her to change loyalties with heftier take-home pay and benefits.
Not that this would tempt my friend to move networks: her loyalty to what she considered her mother company was the subject of so many jokes I used to hurl at her. I am not sure how she responded to my cynicism but I knew she would still smile although I sometimes upset her by my warnings. Like so many who have literally spent decades plodding down the halls of show business empires, we know how the system works.
Nobody is shocked by mercenary practices of the system. Nobody complains about what others can condemn as near inhuman working conditions considering the long stretch of hours, the amount of compensation given and even the security given in terms of health benefits. Everything is made clear from the start: either you want it or you don't.
Either you take the terms of working for a profession that knows no legal holidays, respects no working hours and offers no real sense of professional security, or you go back to the nine-to-five world where you can be an SSS Member and have the complete comfort of Medicare.
I knew from the very start that my friend wanted this.
Even when we were starting to know each other --- I, the teacher and she, the student --- she always had this wide-eyed view of the creative world in television writing. She started out as a fan, talking about the movies in my filmography and when she saw them in cinema houses, the memorable lines and all the trappings of fan-dom. But after the workshops are over and you sit across tables designing story concepts or working on narrative treatments, you graduate into a closer relationship. Like the rest of the very special participants in that training session, she became a daughter.
And we were all so happy for her. Of all who joined that workshop, it was only she who landed as the most active writer for a string of soap operas and episodic shows. Before we knew it, she was completely absorbed by the system, mouthing lines that spell loyalty vows to the network. I used to kid her about that. I used to tell her what my best friend always used to say: "You are never loyal to corporations. You are only loyal to individuals. Corporations just want profit. Individuals possess greater dignity."
I knew she was working on two shows for the network late last year. She has an ongoing telenovela showing in the early afternoon.
Last 11 January at about noontime I received a text message from one of my friends from the studio asking for prayers because my friend has been rushed to the hospital earlier that day. The message read that she was unconscious.
I called up the sender of the text message to confirm that indeed, my friend was brought to a nearby hospital by one of her neighbors --- actually her headwriter for the telenovela where she was a part of the pool. I wanted to gather more details about what happened so I called up the headwriter who also attested that at about 4:00 AM, my friend asked for his help to be rushed to the hospital because she felt nauseous and had a splitting headache.
By around 9:00AM, she was already diagnosed with multiple aneurysm. Before lunch time she was unconscious and at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.
I was stunned. I was trying to figure out how this could have happened but I should not have been surprised. It was only later that I discovered that my friend already had a history of hypertension and that she was sometimes rushed to the emergency rooms of hospitals because of so-called palpitations and migraine headaches.
She thought that these headaches and nausea were only results of her long hours of writing, sometimes stretching until dawn in order to beat deadlines for revisions and suggestions of scripts to be taped that very next day. This was, after all, a standard practice in the industry. You work until your work is done. You have no definite working hours. You are always waiting for instructions before you can finalize scripts. Your laptop or notebook has become an appendage to your person: you sometimes bring your writing machines to the toilet and email scripts from the latrine.
All sorts of stories floated about her ... and everyone felt sorry. Everyone had a foreboding story to tell about negligence, about not watching out for your health ... about not acknowledging the symptoms. Everyone had the answer --- but my friend (who was now strapped to her bed in the ICU) did not even know that there were questions.
The next day I visited her at the hospital.
I could not help but cry when I saw her with all the machines attached to her person. The good news was that she still gained consciousness and supposedly responded to instructions and to the people around her. The bad news was that another vein was threatening to erupt and that her brain was already swollen because of the pressure created by the hemorrhagic discharge mixed with the spinal fluids.
When I got there, my friend was being prepared for a procedure to drain her brain from the fluids and to undergo a process called "coiling". The doctor explained this to me but then just how much medical info can one take at a moment like that?
I asked the doctor what was the extent of her brain damage. He said it was still too early to detect that. Their principal concern was to save her life. Another raptured vein will be fatal. Then I asked if she should survive, what were the chances that she could be back to normal or even close to it. The doctor gave a roundabout answer. He said it would require time. Perhaps it involved more operations but definitely a tremendous amount of therapy.
The only note of assurance the doctor yielded was that she was still relatively young so chances for her recovery would be greater compared to someone already in her fifties.
They carted my friend away to be brought to the operating room.
A few hours later I found out from her head writer that there were some difficulties with the "coiling"-procedure. I do not know exactly what other procedures would follow. One thing is for sure: she will be in that hospital for the longest time. She is bound to spend at least two to three million pesos. And there is no assurance that she will be the same person that we all knew.
Days have passed and I am still stunned.
I have always told the younger generation of media workers that indeed there should be love for one's work. What is the point of being in a profession if you do not love what you are doing? But there are limitations. There are parameters. There are constraints as well as restraints.
You cannot have a living at the cost of your life.
Yes, you can spend days and weeks and months on end working eighteen to twenty-seven hours straight in order to prove to the bosses how dedicated you are to your job ... or the pursuit of excellence. Yes, you can be at the beck and call of the gods whose functions in a corporation is to give orders and have the worker ants execute the jobs. That is the system. And, as I said, if you choose to work in that world ...you take the system for what it is worth.
But the choice is still yours. I kept telling that to my friend. There is the system ... and there is YOUR choice. There is what has been established as the norm. Good or bad, whether you want it or not ... is your choice.
I do not know if my friend listened to the words I told her in jest or in utmost seriousness. I am disturbed by stories of people working until they practically hit the floor out of sheer fatigue. But you don't think about things like that when you are young. You think of your career and the opportunities to impress. You think you are made of superhero stuff.
So as I write this, my friend is still in the ICU unconscious.
There are no more news about her. There are no more text messages providing updates. Life has continued. People have moved on. And we will only get snippets of precious information when they happen. It will take a long time before she gets back into the groove of things. But, in the meantime, everybody has gone back to routine.
My friend suffered from multiple aneurysm because she wanted to prove that she was dedicated and professional. Because she loved her work. And now I have great fear that she will end up being a vegetable.
And she is only 35 years old.