MANILA, Philippines - Born in 1986, a Tiger year, Helena Gerard Belmonte was like a ray of sunshine for her mother Lorraine and grandmother Lorenza. Her home was a beautiful white house along the Indian River in Central Florida. It was an affluent community that they belonged to, because Helena’s grandfather was a prominent heart surgeon, the first to perform open-heart surgery in the Philippines in the 1960s. He was sent to apprentice under the best practitioners in the United States, and later decided to settle with his entire family in Florida. Helena grew up playing along the road that ran up and down the river which really looked more like a lake, since it was a mile wide with yachts visible in the distance. Every family had their own dock in front of the house, and many had their own speedboats and small yachts. Helena and Lorenza, whom she simply called Grandma, had many balmy Floridian days to themselves, spending them in the park, the beach or going into quaint little shops in the adjoining small cities. Helena’s mom Lorraine was building her career in the big city’s leading newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, 50 minutes away. When Lorraine would come home at night, Helena would always be eagerly waiting to tell her the day’s news. On weekends, mother and daughter would bond, and there was no better place for a child to do this than Orlando, the home of Disney World and Universal Studios, only 45 minutes away from home. But many times it wasn’t even necessary to leave the house, because right on their private dock they could watch the Space Shuttles launch from Cape Canaveral, which was just half an hour’s drive away.
Being an only child, Helena always had the talent of entertaining herself in an enterprising way, and on one Saturday, she surprised the family by putting up a lemonade stand in their driveway. At six years old she had never been to the Philippines, so she didn’t realize she was actually giving her American neighbors a taste of her roots when she used the produce from their calamansi tree (seeds brought from the Philippines) to make her lemonade. Cars would stop by and buy her wares, and when they expressed surprise at the taste, she would say it was her special recipe and give them a shell (one of the many she had picked up from the beach) and say it was her promotional giveaway for the day.
When she was seven, her mother Lorraine decided to relocate to the Philippines. It was a rude shock for the little girl to come to Manila in the ‘90s, with the frequent brownouts and pollution she had never been exposed to. But Helena the lemonade entrepreneur always knew how to make lemonade when life threw her lemons, so she made fast friends in the International Montessori where she first went to school, then later in Poveda, where she finished grade school. High school was spent in Brent, and thereafter she lost interest in scholastic pursuits and decided to pursue modeling. She became a favorite of the Philippine STAR’s YStyle editors Celine Lopez and Bea Ledesma, and became the model with the most number of YStyle covers. She also became a fixture on the Manila party circuit, until she decided she wanted to become an actress and went back to the United States to study for that.
But no, it was not all glitz for Helena. Born with a pretty face to a privileged family, Helena was also born with a malady that scarred every happy, glamorous event in her short life. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder even during her school days, Helena would spend days depressed without really knowing where this feeling was coming from. An independent spirit who did not like foisting her problems on others, she kept the feelings to herself, always putting on not just a brave face, but a happy, oftentimes funny one. She refused to accept her condition and plodded on, coping with the feelings as they came along, trying to make them into lemonade even if it always turned out to be a bitter version of her childhood drink. If Helena were to be accused of any mistake, it would not be excessive partying nor drinking. It would simply be the error of not embracing an ailment she was born with.
Because in the end, it was what proved to be fatal. Shortly after midnight of March 19, after a very happy day spent having dinner with girlfriends, then drinks at a wine bar with her boyfriend and other friends, she went home, and for some inexplicable reason, fell to her death from the 28th floor. Why would a girl who loved life and had just made plans to attend Barre 3 classes three times a week and yoga sessions twice a week take her own life? The answer is she didn’t. Her condition was responsible for this tragic occurrence. Perhaps if society were more accepting of mental illness and treated it like the normal occurrence that it is among many men and women we live and work with every day, Helena would have accepted it as part and parcel of the human condition she had been dealt. Perhaps she would have continued seeing a doctor, and maybe taken a more proactive, positive stance to overcome it, instead of being ashamed, deep inside, that she had it. Because depression, when it hits. is an acute pain that permeates every cell of one’s physical, psychological and emotional being. There is no respite from it, because it takes away one’s very ability to feel joy in anything. One would gladly cut off an arm to experience some relief.
In the week, preceding the incident, it was clear from Helena’s Instagram account that she was feeling pain. Maybe a bit of alcohol at dinner would make one feel better? Hmm. Not enough? Perhaps a prescribed anti-depressant? Still painful? Maybe if one added a sleeping pill? The mind is fuzzy now. It has just been given a forbidden mixture of medication that independently might have helped. The ability to judge rightly is impaired, but the pain still manages to rise over the lethal mixture. A cool breeze and an open window beckons, promising a more permanent form of relief.
And the world loses a wonderful girl who always lit up a room with her smile and the kindness in her heart.