Jade Mark Capiñanes
His name was Gilbert Tan. We called him Sir Gilbert. I first heard about him back in high school, about a decade ago, when I joined a press conference for campus journalists. He was considered as one of the authorities on writing in Region XII, and as such he’d been invited to judge the contest. I never got to see him during the event, though. He had a reputation of being a solitary and elusive writer. Even in college, when I stayed for three years in the College of Business Administration and Accountancy of Mindanao State University – General Santos City, where he taught business subjects, I never caught so much as a glimpse of him.
It wasn’t until I discovered my love for literature—and eventually shifted to the English program—that I got to interact with Sir Gilbert. It was in 2015, and only online at first. We were Facebook friends. One day he commented on my post about finding books by Spike Milligan, one of my favorite writers at the time, at Booksale. He’d seen a book by the same author at Booksale that day, he said, and off to Booksale I went. Indeed, the book was there, somewhere in the second or third panel of the shelf next to the cookbooks section, where he’d placed it for me to find.
I sent him a PM: “I already bought it, sir! Thank you!”
“Next time I find books by your favorite authors at Booksale,” he replied, “I’ll reserve them at the counter in your name.”
He loved books. He had so many books that he frequently donated some of them to the city library of General Santos City. (If you visit there now, you’ll find a shelf named after him.) He would post photographs of his enormous library on his Facebook wall, and as someone who back then was still beginning to build my own, I always felt a mixture of awe and jealousy.
Imagine how I felt, then, when he told me one time that he’d like to show me around his library. “Next time,” he said. “I’m rearranging my library now in preparation for the rainy season. It’s not yet presentable.”
I looked forward to that library tour.
We finally met each other in person one lunchtime in his office at school. He gave me Spike Milligan books he’d bought from an online secondhand bookstore. “Birthday gifts,” he said. He told me he’d read the articles I’d written for Bagwis, our university student paper, which he’d been a former adviser of. I suddenly panicked because he might have thought of my writings as too amateurish—which they were, of course. As far as I can remember, I’d written an opinion article about, of all topics, the sorry state of our school’s toilets. I wasn’t that smart to write about crucial issues like the reimposition of the death penalty or something.
But he spoke in such a gentle way that I came to believe that he was encouraging me to write more. He even talked of his own beginnings as a writer. I remember him recounting the long trip he had to take in 1989, on a couple of buses and a slow boat to Dumaguete City, to attend a writing workshop in Silliman University. In retrospect, I think he wanted to present that trip as a metaphor. For the journeys we have to take to arrive wherever we want to be. Or maybe for something else, for something more important and profound, for something I’ve yet to find and figure out.
Over the next few years the writing scene in General Santos City grew. Although we were not that chummy and all, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we’d become friends. He was one of the “advisers” of our local writing group, and we would consult him whenever we planned to organize literary events. During these events, we would talk about reading and writing, and I will never forget how he would always rant about National Bookstore. He didn’t like the books it sold, for they were too commercial for his taste, and he believed that it should be renamed “National School Supplies Store.”
Sometime in 2017 I was assigned to write an article about him for Cotabato Literary Journal. I wanted the piece to focus on his love of books and on how he, among other few people, made the growing literary scene in the region possible. I contacted him to arrange an interview. He agreed.
“I was thinking, sir,” I said, somehow presumptuously, remembering the library tour he’d promised, “how about we do the interview at your library?”
“I just had a recent termite attack on my library,” he replied. “It’s not presentable yet.”
“Sorry to hear that, sir. How about your office? Monday next week?”
“Okay. See you.”
In September 2018, three months before I turned 24, I left General Santos City, a city I’d grown to love, and began my life anew in Davao City, my hometown. Months later I visited General Santos City again, and that was the last time I saw Sir Gilbert.
April 30, 2019, at SOX Summer Writing Camp, where he and I were guest speakers. He talked about reading and writing—and how those things should always go together. He’d already retired from teaching at the time, and he was spending his days reading, as usual. He was also planning to write a book, something he’d always wanted to do for a very long time, and he was now just preparing the material and other resources he needed. There are only a few forms of love that remain pure, I guess. Reading and writing, if you love them purely enough, are things you’ll never retire from.
Four days before Christmas that year, when I was back in Davao and attending a Christmas party, I received a call from a friend informing me that Sir Gilbert had passed away. He was 63.
Several earthquakes had struck Mindanao over the previous months. Right after one of them Sir Gilbert shared on Facebook a photograph showing his collapsed bookshelves, his books scattered all over the place.
He was a big Star Wars fan. He once posted that he’d enjoyed watching Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the next morning, the morning of December 21, the day he died, he updated his Facebook status, quoting Luke Skywalker: “No one’s ever really gone.”
I’d like to believe that heaven exists, and if it did exist I wish it would be an enormous, endless library. Not only that, but I wish it would be a library where you didn’t need to look for the books you wanted because the books themselves would find you. I wish it would also be a library whose bookshelves you didn’t need to rearrange in preparation for the rainy season, a library that would forever be safe from termites, a library that no earthquake could ever shake. In short I wish heaven was a library that would always be presentable.
I travelled back to General Santos City to attend Sir Gilbert’s wake, on December 23, 2019. It was a simple ceremony attended by his immediate family and friends, who gave short speeches about his unfailing kindness. Someone delivered a funny speech that he might as well have performed stand-up comedy. As intermission, the attendees were asked to sing together Beatles songs, like “In My Life”:
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead, and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all
After the wake I stayed over at a friend’s house, the friend who’d called to inform me about Sir Gilbert’s passing. It’d been a long time since I last went to this friend’s place, and the first thing I noticed was that his library’s Death and Dying shelf had considerably doubled in size. The shelf could no longer accommodate all the books, so the newer ones were just piled up next to it. For some people collecting books on death might be morbid, but if you think about it every single book is implicitly, ultimately about death. Each word we write is a refusal to be forgotten.
And yet the point of reading—and this is one of the few things I’ve learned over the years—is to cling, no matter how difficult, to life. On December 16, five days before he passed away, Sir Gilbert posted the following Facebook status:
Some well-meaning friends suggested that I donate the books to make space in my home (parang Marie Kondo lang peg nila).
Now let me make this very clear:
I’ve lived with books almost all of my life.
To suggest to me that I donate them because I need the space is like me telling you to give away your lifetime partner because you need space. Tama ba ‘yun?
Also I plan to have a container van library made to contain all of my books.
Anyway, in my last will and testament, my books will be donated to the General Santos City Public Library after my designated friends have made their choice(s) as keepsakes.
In the meantime, let me savor their company for some precious while.
He never got to buy the container van, but most of his books are now in the possession of the city library and his friends. Perhaps, in the end, books are never meant to be contained.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic happened a few months later, I wasn’t able to travel again to General Santos City to drop by his library to choose the books I wanted to keep. I just asked a friend who went there to grab some for me. It’s okay, though. I’d like to think now that Sir Gilbert considered me as one of his friends.
I’m writing this because the library tour I looked forward to never happened. I’m also writing this because I never got to interview and write about Sir Gilbert for Cotabato Literary Journal.
Something came up the day before our agreed meeting. I was informed that, as part of my OJT, I was to facilitate the next day the final exam of the subject I was the student teacher of. I apologized for the inconvenience and asked Sir Gilbert if we could move the interview at a later date. He said that his schedule was already full for the coming weeks, that he would be available only sometime the next month.
“Better find someone else to interview,” he added.
“So sad to hear that, sir,” I replied. “Maybe someday, sir.”
Yes, someday. In an enormous, endless library.