Tuesday, September 16, 2003

A Day of Ray

I was travelling half way across the world when it happened. When I returned home from the Philippines, my email inbox was filled with news of memorials and spontaneous celebrations of the life of Ray Gatchalian.

I have been searching his name through websites as if the light of a crystal was shattered. He was a Green Beret in Vietnam as a medic, an Oakland Firefighter Captain, but more notably of recent years a documentary filmmaker, peace activist, and children's advocate. He had died in Chile traveling in a remote area. He had a car accident and had survived it. But later died in the truck that he hitched a ride in, which fell over the ravine. He had dodged many bullets in his life, almost like a cat and mouse game with God. With each bullet he dodged he was given a free pass to touch and affect and give his gifts of love to as many people as possible. In some ways the world was not ready for a man like Ray, in many ways the world needs more people like him.

I met Ray 9 years ago or so when I was an undergrad at Cal. I was just getting to know the Filipino community and a friend introduced him to me. We were at an event at La Pena cultural center and Ray was reading his poetry. He was strikingly handsome, fit, these buff arms, with streaks of white, black and grey through his hair. He was an Oakland Firefighter Captain. Me being born and raised in Oakland, that fact struck me, mostly cuz well, I didn't know too many other Filipinos in Oakland beside my family and a handful of classmates. I was like WOW firefighter AND poet AND Filipino AND from Oakland.

[Oakland is one of those cities that has enough visible tarnish that you may or may not be proud of. Yes, we have the Raiders. Yes, we rioted when they loss. Yes, we have ebonics. Yes, we have some of the highest murder rates in the country. See what I mean? Yet it's the few and the proud who make their home here, who know what heartbreaking love it is to be an Oaklander.]

I would continue to see Ray off and on at various community events. I would greet him like any one of my uncles. We were from Oakland. We were Filipino. We were family.

I watch the crystal spin in my window, watch how the light breaks into rainbows, note how I can never really see the crystal only how it sends its rays throughout the world. Ray was this crystal. I had seen him play music, but I didn't know how involved he was in documentary filmmaking or his other community activities. I hadn't met all the other people whose lives he touched. I had never had a chance to stop to ask him who he was and what he was about. But that didn't matter really, the legacy he was able to live was his autobiography.

Ray was a man on a mission. While most of us run around in this world trying to figure out what to do with ourselves and ask whether we want to get out of bed or not, he understood what he needed to do every single day of his life. After going to Vietnam as a Green Beret medic and seeing his own face in the Vietnamese, he decided to come home and find out more about his people. He knew that his mission in life was to help people and with any and every opportunity he got to do that, he did with tremendous passion and gusto.

There are a handful of people I have gotten to know better in death than in life. It's a sad way to get to know people, but sometimes, that's the way it is and in either case dead or alive they have messages to deliver. This one website, a black and white photo of him stares at me, his eyes are soulful and a bit sad, he's wearing the full firefighter gear, his fingers held in the sign of peace.

His quote sits next to the picture: "What has inspired me is that one person CAN make a difference. that is basically my theme. I can make a difference and together we can make a difference."

Ray's personal website too is still up. His words about 9/11, Gallery, Bio, personal words are still up. He still has things to say. He still has things to tell us. He signs them "Raymundo." Raymundo - in it I see a Spanish play on words "Ray's world." I can't even fathom what Ray's world might have looked like through his eyes and through his heart, but he spent his entire life doing things in our world that allowed us to get a glimpse, enjoy a small taste, of what his world looked like and what our world could become.

Ray died on May 11, 2003. He was 56. I didn't feel sad about his passing. I believe he knew that any day he could have died. In all of his careers he risked his life to save others. In many ways his life really didn't matter, because it was all about saving the lives of other people. It's living life with a certain abandon. When you don't care about your own death, you have that much more of your life and love to give.

On Sunday October 12, 2003, there will a celebration at Oakland's Jack London Square with various bands and groups that reflected Ray's life like so many tiny rainbows around the room. The crystal has shattered, yet somehow, it had to, so that each of us can have a piece of the crystal, if only to create more rainbows to bring light and beauty in this world.

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