by Kloyde A. Caday (Interview)
“Think of it as a simple conversation and catching up, Doc,” I reply as Doc Noel coyly wishes to back out from the interview. I am writing a profile of him as one of the established writers in the region. He obliges, as usual.
After ten minutes, he arrives, and I shake his hands. Concerned with my stomach grumbling and churning, Doc Noel invites me to dinner. Could it be obvious that I am still annoyed at my four-hour ride from Kabacan to General Santos, too unfortunate on catching up a van and bus with malfunctioning air conditioners?
No worries, it’s catching up, no questions on medulla oblongata or metastasis to the omentum, I think, and to smoothen things up, I buy him my latest read, Report From the Abyss by Karl de Mesa. Little do I know he also has something for me: a tin box of hand-picked teas.
Doc Noel deserves his favorite puto bumbong after running chemotherapy sessions to his six patients and grappling under the summer heat on his rounds and consultation. Tomorrow, one of his patients will undergo a bone marrow procedure, and after that he’ll go straight to Davao City for a conference. Yet that’s just the start of his jammed schedule. He sighs, knowing sooner he’ll fly around the Philippines for several appointments and worrying on their newsletter’s impending deadline. Will he still be able to read the books he ordered in Amazon and watch the tournaments of Roger Federer? At least listening to Aegis while on the road is doable.
“Kapoy pud baya mag-doktor,” the writer-oncologist says. I soon recall Doc Noel’s essay “Being a Hematologist,” which opens with a question: “What eloquent echoes in the mind can a tempest foment?” The beating of rain simply reminds him that the world is designed with a cycle of life, pain, recovery, and loss. His writings allow us to peek at what doctors and patients have to go through: from denial to acceptance, diseases the patients didn’t wish to acquire. Their loved ones are often as beaten as them, but still they hold on to a miracle that someday, the bruises will soon pass.
As a reader who’s tossed inside “the humdrum bleakness of the cream-colored walls of this clinic” and who senses peril in “this antiseptic environment that reeked of an odd mixture of ethyl alcohol and a faint pungent-sweet whiff of some unfamiliar drugs,” I find it difficult to believe that the essays of Doc Noel are not borne out of careful considerations on poetics. I remember him telling me he does not bother with the ladder of abstraction and other checklist of creative nonfiction do’s, so I clarify. “Wala gyud, Kloyde,” he repeats, and tells me his way: (1) he types in his laptop all night; (2) the next day he reads his draft aloud; (3) he changes or omits the terms that constrict cadence. He says it’s all about rewriting and letting your own intuition trust the voice you hear in each sentence.
His vivid showing of doctor-patient stories is an extension of his Hippocratic oath and lifetime mission of serving humanity. Definitely, his essays are a product of listening to his patients twice, curing them within, and treating them not as case numbers but human beings whose strength needs to be dignified amidst the dark period of their lives. Andrea Lim, a co-writer and friend of mine, has this to say: “Noel’s way of writing makes everyone hopeful somewhere in between, that all of us are patients trying to be larger than the symptoms of our imperfections and different phases of pain.”
He claims that there is redemption in telling true stories of suffering, and death may be absurd or far-fetched to some. But creative writing, to Doc Noel, enhances his medical profession. Each weave of his warm and truthful sentences can be chalked up to the good relations he has forged with every patient he has encountered. He values every narrative, transforms them into literature, and reaches it out to people who might be losing hope in their own sort of battles.
Doc Noel likes to think he is an accidental writer. Suffice it to say he wasn’t able to guess he’d get read and win writing awards. In his college days, he was the editor-in-chief of Omniana, the student paper of Notre Dame of Marbel University. Supervising the publication, he got only his gut feeling to say one was a good sentence or a bad one.
When “Finding Rest in Lake Sebu” won the travel essay contest in The Philippine Star, he realized that his creative pursuit might prosper. Then again, the oncologist is an oncologist, so he’d end up writing more medical papers instead. In 2002, his essay “Being a Hematologist” won him third prize in the Palanca Awards. Hearing the news, Luis Gatmaitan, another writer-physician, called Doc Noel, who was at that time inside the movie house. He was a proud friend, cheerful even when what turned out to be a simple writing challenge from him earned Doc Noel a writing distinction. Clueless that the Palanca Award is our counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize, and perhaps heavily drawn to the film on the giant screen, Doc Noel said (and I am paraphrasing), “Okay.” This triumph sank in only after a few days when more people recognized his authentic flare for storytelling.
No Muse of nonfiction writing abandoned him when his manuscript qualified for the Silliman University National Writers Workshop. Dominique Cimafranca, his co-fellow, waited for him at the port in Dumaguete. With his long-sleeved polo and a matching tie, what Doc Noel had in mind was that the writing workshop was akin to a medical conference. So when he asked how many quizzes he had missed, Dominique was baffled by the inquiry. This is how the workshop works, Dominique explained: for weeks panelists would evaluate the manuscripts submitted. Fazed, Doc Noel said he’d fly home. Dominique said, it’s your call, but you’ll be hated because thousands of essayists would want to be in your slot. He believed his co-fellow, so he let his scalpels take a break in exchange for a life-changing summer around a tight bond of literary friendship he has cherished since then.
Recently, more writers of SOCCSKSARGEN have felt the need for articulating the tales and everyday life in the region, with writing groups established since 2016. Regional writers get younger and younger, teachers start to invite them to share their craft in their classes, and more fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from the writers in the region are published nationally and internationally. This thriving culture of literature was irrelevant and absent a few years ago, but Doc Noel’s unwavering support has contributed greatly to its growth.
I still remember him showing up to check on Jade Mark and me during our writing fellowship in Davao. Truly, he is every SOX writer’s uncle-physician who introduces them to established writers in the country and invites them to dinner. He is their librarian-physician who provides important books they can’t afford. He is their assistant-physician who gets involved with coming up with literary events in the region. Most of all, he is their fan-physician who would temporarily dish out his Neil Gaiman to read their works. It’s very satisfying, he says, that the shining characters you and the gang are showing to me are same as the articles you have written.
As for me, talking to Doc Noel is like getting along with a favorite uncle, who plays pranks with his nephews and nieces, throws jokes at them, and relates the lessons he has experienced in life. You would soon forget the burden he bears while dealing with the constancy of death among the people he meets, both as an essayist and an oncologist.
When it’s time to leave the diner, I quickly glance at the note I prepared for the interview. He has already answered all the questions, but there are two dates I have written down: his Facebook posts on March 9, 2015, and February 2, 2017.
“It must have been difficult to write about your mother’s pancreatic cancer, Doc. It’s ironic,” I say. Perhaps it’s my calling, he says, perhaps I was destined to be in oncology, hematology, and palliative care so I can take care of Nanay. And I remember the lines in his essay “Other Disclosures”: “Nanay taught me differently. When I was doing what is probably the most heartbreaking and difficult disclosure, her eyes never left mine and her palms held mine.”
“And what about Inday?” I ask.
“She’s my younger sister, an anesthesiologist. She died in a plane accident in 1998. Her story is something I haven’t written about. Too difficult.”
I will drive you home, Doc Noel says. Don’t bother, I say. There’s no traffic. He asks, where is your house? I say, it’s a few steps away from Jade Mark’s. Let’s surprise him, he says. I’d be glad to play a prank, I say.
We arrive at Jade Mark’s room. He says, I wanna sleep on Jayson’s bed, and we point at the unmade bed. He lies down, says, take a picture of me and send it to Jayson. In the end, both of us take a selfie with Jade Mark’s framed picture (Jade says this moment is never off the record).
They walk me home, say goodbye to me, and as Doc Noel disappears from my view, I clutch the tin box of tea he gave. He was an accidental writer, all right, but he has done a pretty good job in his attempt to unravel life’s meaning as he listens well to his patients’ dreams and aggravations. Is there is any sort of accident when his essays brimming with compassion freed me? I think not.
April 20, 2017
Special thanks to Andrea D. Lim, Jade Mark Capiñanes, and Noel Pingoy.