Untimely departures are met with either a sense of awe or great sadness. But regardless of how we choose to react to the unexpected death of someone we know, what hurts us most is the surprise. It is that kind of jolt that goes straight to our core --- if only because we are reminded of our own mortality.
We are made to confront irrevocable facts: that life can be so unpredictable and volatile. That we can go any time without warning, without fanfare. And that we will never ever see or hear or touch that person who has left us forever because he will now only be part of our memory.
What hurts us even more is when someone with such great promise for the future --- someone so young and admirable --- is suddenly gone.
Any which way we look at the events, nothing makes sense. Why should someone right on the verge of a blossoming life, full of challenges and great chances of achievement, be suddenly taken away? What happens to all the possibilities? What will become of all those opportunities for scaling greater heights and conquering challenges and yielding achievements?
It is as if one big switch has been turned off --- and everything comes to an abrupt end without any sensible conclusion. Without any resolution. And certainly devoid of any explanation. There is cruelty in that --- especially for those among us who demand justifications.
But it does not work that way. These things happen.
And God owes us no explanation. We are here only to accept whatever He has so deemed for all of us.
This is how many of us felt when we heard the news about the death of AJ Perez. For the greater number of people who were saddened by this information early on a Sunday morning, the loss of a good looking, educated and refined young actor was enough to bring tears. But for those who really knew him and had the opportunity of knowing and working with him, the sense of loss --- the absurdity of this event --- was doubly devastating.
Young people who meet their deaths in a most tragic if not senseless way takes a much heavier toll on the hearts of those who have lived longer years --- and have survived far greater pains. ( I precisely remember what my father said when our family had to bury my oldest brother. My Dad wept quietly and whispered, "There is nothing more painful in the world than to bury your own child." ) The realization that a life has been so abruptly punctuated multiplies the sense of tragedy --- especially if the young person had so much promise and embodied so much life. The seeming injustice in the death of innocents seem to refute the continued existence of those who we feel are really less deserving to remain among us. We ask ourselves, "Why him?" knowing we cannot provide any real logical answer.
AJ was not your typical wannabe actor. He was no wound-up toy who was too eager to please. He was never typical from the start. There was something about him that made him special in a way that he stood out from the rest of what may sometimes seem like an overpopulated roster of teen-age talents.
(When I met him on the set of Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo where he portrayed the younger brother of Judy Ann Santos, he was a soft spoken boy of about thirteen or fourteen years of age, a student of La Salle Greenhills --- who was quiet and somewhat shy yet replied sensibly ever aware of the significance of propriety and politeness. He was a kid too tall for his age --- apparently loved by his parents as his father, Gerry, would always be around to drop him off the location, make sure his son was all right --- then leave AJ to his own devices to amuse himself on the set between takes. If ever Gerry opted to stay, he would make himself inconspicuous and out of the way of everybody busy at work. That was how the father and son operated. They were never a burden to any body.
I even got to know Gerry Perez quite well: he proudly told me that he was one of the young actors from Bacolod who Peque Gallaga picked as a bit player in the opening party scene of Oro, Plata, Mata. That was how Gerry and I immediately connected. And I remember how AJ listened as his father and I reminisced about that tedious overnight shoot in Bacolod decades ago to complete the party scenes of Gallaga's most memorable masterpiece. He was this kid who was more amused listening to his father remembering his own days as an actor than savoring the anecdote on local showbiz.)
Through the years, we all saw AJ grow up in front of our eyes through that magical box that we allow to enter our most private quarters. We saw how AJ shaped himself into this gentleman who seemed to have the right conduct and good behavior as second nature. He was such an exemplary piece of good breeding that not a single scandal was ever attached to his name. Not a single bad word was ever muttered in the snake pit that was the studio to ever blemish his name or his work habits.
Thus, it did not surprise us that his career carried great promise. It was quite clear that the network set its eyes on the young actor to be next in line among the leading men being groomed for both television and the screen.
He belonged to that special group of anointed performers handpicked by the media gods to be the next generation sensations.
(AJ worked hard. If there was one thing I noticed about the boy on my set, it was that he worked very hard. He was not too fluent in Pilipino ... but he worked hard to get it right. He was not going to equal some of his peers when it came to singing and dancing ... but he never shied away from the challenge of working even harder to deserve the spotlight they aimed at him. He felt he had to deserve every decibel of applause and every centavo he earned. He never rested on the safety net of being "pa-cute".
I worked with AJ for the sequel of Kasal. But the role did not require much from him. It was when we decided to cast him as the son of Christopher de Leon and Dawn Zulueta in the movie Magkaibigan that he truly impressed me.
There are two kinds of actors you want to work with. The first is the very good actor --- the consummate performers who know their art, have made a life of their craft --- and would report to the set without the vanity or eccentricities typical of the mediocre trying to demand extraordinary importance. The second are the actors who you just love being around with --- because they are such blessings on the set. They are so easy to work with and they make life generally more tolerable, pleasing and palatable. They add energy and good vibes to everyone around them ... by sheer enthusiasm that can be so infectious.
AJ belonged to the latter group. He was so well-loved by anyone he worked with --- so that after three movies with my production team, he has already become more than a familiar face for them. It was not simply his boy-next-door looks that won him praise. It was his down-to-earth attitude. It was his accessibility. He never rubbed people the wrong way because that all too famous smile of his is not only reserved for cameras and publicity pictorials. His smile was quite real.
So when we finally shot a critical scene in Magkaibigan where AJ, whose character is that of the son of a dying man, talked to his father's best friend portrayed by Jinggoy Estrada, I was pleasantly surprised. I knew AJ would and could deliver. But I realized he went much farther than I expected. At the end of the scene, I sent a text message of Mariole Alberto, chief honcho of Star Magic, to tell her that ... indeed they have cultivated and carved a gem out of this young actor.
He was no longer the quiet, gangling teen-ager who I met years earlier. He was on his way to being an actor.
I did not have a chance to work with AJ again after that movie.
We would exchange messages on Twitter, bump into each other sometime in the later afternoons as I proceed to the gym on the fifth floor of ELJ Building as he would be on his way to the studios.
I have even forgotten when was the last time I saw him ... but I remember well that I congratulated him because he finished his high school studies at Greenhills. He was so proud of that. He really wanted that.
And among the young actors of his generation, only very, very few give premium or even the semblance of importance to studies. His parents have inculcated the strength of such values, emphasizing that the goal of education is to shape a man ... and not merely facilitate the acquisition of material wealth.)
We were all stunned to find out that AJ was suddenly taken away from us. There seemed to be no reason why it had to happen now. Especially now. He worked hard to be good at whatever he was doing ... and it was only now that everything was really about to begin. And he was called back home. It did not make sense.
But then we can only offer palliatives that can serve their purpose for a while. Or even convince us that this was all part of a plan. A plan not only for Antonello Joseph Perez but for all of us who are now looking at his short but beautiful life. A plan that we could never see in the here and now because we are far too close to the event but perhaps we could learn to appreciate in years to come.
Perhaps there is truth that the good die young. Perhaps there is even greater truth in the fact that we are all sent here for a purpose ... for a mission ... and when we have accomplished what we are set out to do, then we are called back. And for a life so brief, we are quite clear about what AJ achieved in his eighteen years.
Far more impressive than any acting trophy or being crowned as box office king or being mobbed by vociferous adoring fans --- AJ inspired. AJ was an example. AJ brought a possibility that decency can exist in a business that has been corrupted and so capable of corrupting. Until his very last day, as he was coming home from work, exhausted as he lay asleep on that fatal van, AJ was untouched by the dirt of the business, opting to preserve his decency and dignity. Now that we realize has become quite rare ... if not nearly extinct ... in these days of amoral entertainment.
Perhaps God called him back because he wanted to spare AJ of the pain and anguish that will most certainly come in the years ahead. Or maybe God merely wanted to show all of us an example --- of a good son, a loving brother, a hardworking student --- and a decent human being all in the age of eighteen.
We will miss you, AJ. We will really, really miss you.