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A tale of muses and dreams |


A tale of muses and dreams

WONDERBLOG - Ping Medina -

When I entered Leodigario “Gabby” De Guzman’s studio-slash-home, I could tell something was not right. He was hospitable to a fault, gamely offering to show me his paintings, talking in the same loud voice and animated expressions. On the outside, he looked healthy as a newborn baby, but something was different.

I met Gabby at Ateneo De Manila University in 2001. He was three years my senior, an outspoken Political Science major. This huge man always strutting around campus with his long hair tied in a bandana. As a rapper in the alternative music club, he was well-known as that boisterous “chigga.” With a combination of the chinkiest eyes and the biggest mouth, everyone gamely called him not by his legal name, but by his ghetto name, L-Train.

Gabby’s journey into the arts started as a kid when he was kidnapped by his lola and forced to join a drawing contest. From there, he became one of the most prolific artists in Ateneo’s high school and college art publications. He then attended University of the Philippines for two years of law school, which he fondly calls “lost school,” before he moved on to full-time NGO work.

Then the day that would forever change his life came. He came down with a sore throat -— and being the pill-popper that he is -— took an antibiotic prescribed by his doctor, then fell asleep. He woke up feeling bad. When his wife came home, she dropped their take-home dinner to the floor and started crying. Gabby faced the mirror, only to be shocked out of his senses: his gums were dangling out of his mouth like octopus tentacles, his eyeballs were completely black. The first thought that popped in his head? “Monster.”

Immediately, he was rushed to the hospital. “There is something really wrong with me,” he thought. Lesions started coming out of his skin. The doctors were not sure of his condition. From sore eyes to chicken pox, it took days before he was finally diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.

In simple terms, what SJS does is it burns you from the inside-out. It’s an extremely rare reaction to antiobiotics. From internal organs to skin tissue, everything dies on a cellular level — all 4th degree burns. To anyone who has seen what this burn is like, you can literally see the exposed flesh and muscles. 

When the SJS hit Gabby full-on, he was in a coma for days. Then he became conscious for a few minutes a day, which lasted a few weeks. He couldn’t talk or move for two months. His cells had become so fragile that eating the softest lugaw caused his gums to bleed. His wife Celts, whom he expresses extreme gratitude for, had to put drops in his eyes every five minutes to prevent him from going blind.

Normally, people die from this, but Gabby is fiercer than that. He was able to rebuild his body to live normally for three years, even though he is classified as a “Person With Disability.” It’s hard for him to do even the simplest things, like walking out in the sun, since he lost about half his sweat pores, and staring at the computer screen.

With his — eyesight is permanently damaged — scars on the cornea left him with blots in his vision — he decided to go back to painting. “It’s like a double-edged blade. It’s a curse because it severely damaged my body, but (it’s) also a blessing. It knocked me down so hard, I went back up to my first love — painting.”

He continued working until one day, his eyes stopped producing tears. The dryness caused a hole in his eye that was letting in so much light, the pain started to give him constant headaches. He would drop artificial tears every five minutes, and it wasn’t until a month later that he underwent surgery to put plugs in his tear ducts that eventually gave him his normal sight back.

Still, other symptoms kept popping up, like rheumatism and chronic fatigue. Despite the pain, he continued with his work. “You forget everything. When I paint, I don’t notice that my eyes have dried out already. It’s amazing! I’ve broken my (fragile) wrist and fingers but when I paint, there is no pain. Coming from a broken family, it’s always been my haven for beauty and goodness. It’s my form of prayer.”

His quiet works express the mystery and beauty of life, as Gabby laments on how we have forgotten who we truly are. “We have forgotten our core values. Not the core values we learn in this world, but the ones with us when we were born! Like Plato said, the process of birth is so shocking that we forget everything innately beautiful. So we spend our entire lives piecing it all together.”

As Gabby fights for his eyesight, he admits he had contemplated suicide. He loves quoting Thomas Hobbes on his SJS ordeal, “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.” He went as far as planning it, but it never happened. “But life is also a party. If you don’t enjoy yourself at a party, it’s your fault. Appreciate everything that gives meaning to your life — like my goldfish. They’re so steady. I think I’d be a very happy goldfish.”

The artist is relatively healthy and cheerful now, with new symptoms popping out here and there. He is fighting for a full recovery, because “syndrome” simply means doctors cannot explain it; they do not know whether you will heal or not. So for now, he has to rid himself of all things that complicate life.

“We’re like dumb monkeys wreaking havoc,” Gabby complains. “I’m not dissing artists who disturb and shock people about current issues, but they’re only treating the symptoms. I go straight for the core. People should stop with all their selfishness, negativity, and try to regain focus of their inner voice. Enough of that excess looking out — it’s time to look in.”

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L. De Guzman’s first solo exhibit, “A Tale of Muses and Dreams”, is happening tonight 7pm at PenPen’s restaurant in Cubao X.

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