‘I never felt bad about the fact that I was adopted’

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An orphan recounts his tale of moving from province to province in the Philippines and finally finding a place he can truly call home. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I was an orphan.

Sometimes when we’re telling stories we tend to exaggerate, even confabulate in some instances to make our stories more interesting. It can’t be helped; people just want their tales to be as palatable and enjoyable as possible, or perhaps more sad. The wizard Gandalf in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” said, “All good stories deserve embellishment,” and I agree; however, I will try my best to tell this story with as little fluff as possible, to the full extent of my memory.

I have had a very lucky life so far. I have experienced an incredible amount of good fortune from my earliest memory and I pray the universe continues to look out for me. There are three major strokes of luck that I can honestly account for and I will try to explain them to you as I understand them.

The first time my luck was proven was when a random police officer named Warren Gustilo of Pasay City decided to go for a walk by the Philippine International Convention Center, along the Manila Bay. It just so happened that a naked little boy, unsupervised and carefree, was playing by the rocks around the same area. Concerned for this boy, as any good police officer (or any decent human being for that matter) would be, Warren decided to approach the boy and ask him about his parents. He said he had no parents. He had no relatives. He had no one. Warren decided to follow protocol, he took the boy in, dressed him in an oversized shirt and walked him into his station.

"I feel no need to find out exactly who my parents are or where I came from because I believe that my past does not define me."

I do not know how long I stayed at the station. It could have been hours, could have been days, weeks, but all I remember is that I felt small and cold but surprisingly not scared. These were police officers and they were the good guys. The year might have been 1996, maybe, I honestly can't tell you. The next thing I know, Warren was taking me to some woman’s house. He said he would take me home and that he needed me to stay with this woman for a while before he could take me to where he lives, Cavite. The woman, now that I think about it, was probably his mistress. I was told he had a few, I could attest for one.

I can’t remember the trip to Cavite. It would have taken hours and I was very young. I remember however, meeting Warren’s wife, Nilda. She was suspicious at first; she looked at me funny. Warren had to explain to his wife why he was coming home with a 4- to 6-year-old boy. She wouldn’t buy it at first but after asking me some questions she finally relented. And with that I was welcomed into the family, and boy what a big family it was. Warren took me to one side and told me I was now his son and I am now a Gustilo.

***

I have very little memory of my childhood in Cavite. I clung on to the Gustilo family (Warren and Nilda had seven other kids) like a drowning cat and they accepted me well enough. Nilda asked me what my name was and I said Jovani. I do not know where I got the name, but that was the name I gave her and it’s the name I carry to this day. So now I had a name, a last name, and a family. Everything was going to be alright. I thought.

My time in Cavite felt very long, at least three years. It wasn’t until very recently that I found out I was only with them for seven months. During this time, I experienced and learned many things. Good and bad. We lived in a highly populated area that other people would have called a squatters area. For me, however, it was paradise. Sure, we were surrounded by drug dealers, users, and other unsavory individuals but this was the only home I had ever known.

Warren only stayed in Cavite during the weekends, spending most of his days on duty in Pasay. He was, for the most part, a good father. He was kind and giving and pleasant but he also drank. And he drank a lot. It was during these drinking days that I experienced some truly scary things.Now I know I’m making him sound like a monster but let me assure you he was a very good man; he just wasn’t himself when he got drunk. He would beat us when he became agitated while drunk, and one time he chased one of the older boys with a 4x4 around the house in a fit of rage.One neighbor asked me one time how I felt while this was happening. I remember saying I’m just glad it wasn’t me.

Other than those occasional outbursts, all was well in Cavite. The other Gustilo kids were very accepting and it made me feel at home. But I have to be honest, I never got attached. I guess this speaks a lot about my early development. A child psychiatrist would have been able to list down all the ways I became messed up by my experiences, but as a kid I remember just not being connected to all of them. I was distinctly aware, painfully aware, that this was not my family, that I was some kind of intruder. I was happy to have a family to call my own but I was never under any illusion that I was part of this family. I was simply, there.

"I am honored and lucky that someone decided to rescue me and make something of me and give me opportunities I would never have had if they had not come along."

 

During the summer of 1997 (at least I assume it was ‘97 because I went to school in Iloilo the next year in ‘98), the second stroke of luck happened in the form of my aunt and the woman who would truly become my mother.

Tita Elma, an elementary civics teacher and her sister Tita Bernadette, a high school civics teacher, were travelling through Manila in one of their random excursions when on a whim they decided to visit their distant relative Warren in Cavite. It was out of the way and a tiring trip for two middle-aged women, but they also wanted to pay their respects since Warren’s father had just died a few weeks prior.

They spoke with Warren and I do not know what they were talking about but eventually Tita Elma approached me. A big imposing woman of 55 years, she said with a warm smile on her face, “Sama ka sa’kin?” Without hesitation, without a doubt in my heart, I said yes and immediately ran to collect my things. It was on that day that I could truly say I was born.

 

***

I remember almost every detail since the day I went to Iloilo. It was as if I was finally being given things worth remembering. When I arrived in Iloilo, a birth certificate was made and my birthday was put as January 16, 1991, the same day as my aunt. My “7th” birthday was my very first and at the same day, I was baptized. My aunt was a strict woman and on many occasions she found the need to discipline me severely, often harshly. In spite of this, I never developed any anger towards her, only love and a bit of fear. I knew she only did what she did because she loved me.  

Tita Elma wanted a house boy, a helper. The reason she took me in was so she could have someone to take care of her home as she became older. What she didn’t expect was my good performance in school. I had good grades, I participated in many activities, and I excelled in them. It was here that our relationship began to change. I was not just a house boy anymore; I was becoming one of her children.

Still, I was aware I wasn’t really one of her children. It is why to this day, after 20 years, I still call her tita. I never asked for anything; instead, I found ways to earn money by doing extra work. I studied hard enough to earn scholarships so she didn’t have to pay too much for my education. My aunt wanted me to be a seaman, but I hated the sea and I am incredibly inept in math. So I urged her to let me take up nursing instead and since I was able to score a scholarship she gave me her blessing to pursue my own course.

Which brings me to my third stroke of luck. I met my fiancée in college and we have now been together since, living in New Zealand.

I wonder about the validity of my story. I wonder if I’ve made some things up. But recently, Nilda reached out to me and answered some of the questions I had and confirmed some of my suspicions. In spite of all this, I feel no need to dig any deeper. I feel no need to find out exactly who my parents are or where I came from because I believe that my past does not define me. I know this strange series of circumstances have affected me in some way, but I personally choose to appreciate the good fortune I have experienced instead of the many missing links in my childhood.

The fact that I was adopted, an “ampon,” had been brought up many times by bullies who were trying to wound me. But it never did. I never felt bad about the fact that I was adopted. I am honored and lucky that someone decided to rescue me and make something of me and give me opportunities I never would have had if they had not come along.

I was an orphan; I had no real parents, but throughout my life I have had four — Warren and Nilda, Tita Elma and Tito Roming, her husband. These people may not have given me a past worth remembering but they gave me the tools to forge a future worth living, and I am grateful. I just hope more children get the same chance I did. All they need is a good person, a warm shirt, and a kind smile.