Steve Mendoza recently buried his 23-year old son, Alvin Jhon, in a cemetery in Manila’s financial district Makati.
It was his last moment with his son who would have looked like he was just sleeping if not for the color of his hands, which had turned greenish.
Steve stood beside the coffin. He was wearing a shirt bearing the face of the Black Nazarene. He stood out in the middle of the crowd who were all wearing shirts with Alvin's face printed on them along with the word "Justice" in big bold red letters.
Steve clutched a .38 caliber bullet. He held it tight as he whispered, "Son, this is the kind of bullet that killed you. This will be the same bullet that will avenge you."
Alvin would still be alive if it weren’t for a fourth extra cup of rice.
It was past midnight on Oct. 12, 2016. The young man was sitting at an eatery outside the alley where he lived. He had been there 10 minutes when a couple of men on motorcycles stopped at the street corner just after Alvin ordered his fourth cup of rice.
"It looks like they’re about to shoot someone again," Alvin told the girl serving the rice.
About a minute later, the masked men rode past Alvin spraying bullets at him. He fell from his seat, blood pouring into the gutter, leaving his fourth cup of rice uneaten.
The news made Anafe, Alvin's mother, scream. Her screams turned to wails as she ran to her fallen son.
She knew in her heart that he was still alive, but no one moved when she begged for help. She knew, as a mother, that he would still make it.
"He will live, he will live," she murmured.
But it was not to be. Anafe embraced her son, let out a scream and finally, as if to say goodbye she touched his face and closed his eyes.
And then she prayed.
"Lord, if this is what you want, it is up to you," she said.
Alvin was not on the drug watch list of village leaders.
He was killed while wearing a black shirt and brown khaki shorts — similar clothes, neighbors say, of a man being hunted by the police. Alvin was already dead when the police asked if he had an alias and if it was Juanito.
Alvin was not Juanito.
He did take drugs before, Anafe admitted. He took methamphetamine. Aileen, Alvin 's common law wife, did not take it in silence. The couple quarreled and fought over it.
Alvin and Aileen had two children — Ivee, 5, and Esteban, 3.
He was jobless, and Aileen was the breadwinner. They all lived together — Anafe and Steve, Alvin, Aileen, and the two children — in a hut meant for two people.
A few years before, Anafe had suggested the couple live outside the city until Alvin was free of his drug problem.
In 2015, the small family moved and lived in Cavite, a province south of Manila. Alvin changed. Aileen made him change. She told him that if he used drugs again, she would leave.
He took care of the children — he had a way with the kids and could keep them well-behaved. He had dreams too, dreams for his children.
He looked for a job, passed a drugs test and was employed as a delivery boy for a fast-food chain.
They then moved back to the city, where Alvin remained drug-free.
There’s been a killing spree since President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year, said Steve.
When Alvin died, more killings followed in the street where Steve lives. He counts ten, perhaps more.
More than 6,000 victims have been killed from police operations and vigilante killings since the Philippine government launched its anti-drug campaign six months ago.
The rising death toll seems insufficient for the president.
"Until the last pusher is out of the street, I’ll be very frank with you, until the last drug lord is killed, this campaign will continue until the very last day of my term," he said in a post-Christmas interview.
Steve has thought of revenge. Like in many other cases, he knows no one will bring justice for his son. He thought maybe he could do it.
He thought of borrowing a gun. He thought of going home to his province to get his own gun. He thought it only takes two policemen to pay for his son’s death. Or perhaps finish them all — throw a grenade on a Monday morning when many are gathered for a flag ceremony in the district’s police station.
He thought of killing many times. He thought about what he said to his son, before he was laid to rest. However, he shook his head forgot about it and prayed.
Steve prayed to the Black Nazarene, which has been his "savior" for as long as he can remember. He prayed for forgiveness, and then for acceptance.
For many years, even before he got married, Steve devoted every Jan. 9 to the feast of the Black Nazarene.
The annual feast in Manila's Quiapo district, attended by millions of Filipino devotees, is considered one of the most spectacular religious events in the country.
It is believed that the centuries-old wooden life-size statue of Jesus Christ, which was brought to the Philippines from Mexico by Augustinian friars in 1606, is miraculous.
In 2004, Steve co-founded an organization in his village devoted to the image.
Every year since, he leads the vigil to the "translacion," the procession of the Black Nazarene, barefoot.
This year, on Jan 9, Steve kept his vow. He woke up past midnight. He prepared a red gown for a replica of the image that the family owns.
Steve dressed Jesus. He carried its cross before putting it on the image's shoulder. And then joined the procession.
For many years, it’s been the same. And for years to follow, it will be. "I will keep doing this for as long as I can," he said.
His wishes are simple every year — forgive me for my sins, protect my family, cure our illnesses. Every year he asks for this. Every year, his wishes are granted.
But this year he asked for more. This year he asked for acceptance. This year, he carried the cross of Alvin’s death. He carried the weight of its sorrow. He carried the burden of it all — the anger, the longing, the thoughts of revenge. He will carry it until it fades, until he accepts. He will carry the cross until he no longer feels the pain.
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