How his near-death experience has made this talented illustrator ever more alive
We couldn’t imagine illustrator and artist Robert Alejandro socializing with his college buddies at a public restaurant with what happened to him last December when he experienced two near-death experiences but there he was, enjoying himself, catching up with his classmates, New York-based filmmaker Fruto Corre and photographer Sheila Nicolas when we first met him last week at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall.
Robert was diagnosed with colon cancer and it took a toll on his health, to the point of death knocking on his door. He was clueless about this health scare, but miracles do happen when love and prayers are present.
Instead of undergoing chemotherapy, Robert traveled the world. “I remember as I was on top of a truck looking for rhinos in Sri Lanka, I thought to myself, ‘I’m supposed to be in some hospital fighting for my life and spending my life savings!’ I learned that life is too short to have relationships that hurt,” remarks the former Art Is-Kool host. “Learn to unconditionally love and get rid of all the past and present hurt and pain.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert was present in most kids’ tablets and computers, teaching live art lessons for free on streaming sites. “All I knew was that there was this awful lockdown and it could be a time of fear and uncertainty for children staying at home,” he muses.
Without any lesson plan, he did the tutorial all by himself, groping but learning and improving every day. “I thought I could do something fun, something kids could learn from, a routine that could bring a routine and normalcy of some sort,” he added.
Heroes are everywhere for him. “I picture someone quietly doing his or her job, doing the job well without fanfare,” shares the 57-year-old Papemelroti co-owner. “The mother who juggles bringing up her children, doing housework, and making a living. The store staff waking up so early so that she was on time to open up the store and leaving so late because she would clean up before heading home.”
Papemelroti, a gift shop was founded by his parents, Corit and Benny Alejandro, with the acronym formed by the first syllables of the names of their children—Patsy, Peggy, Meldy, Robert, and Tina.
“Though it may seem that I have all sorts of advocacies, for now I would like to prioritize myself and my needs,” says Robert. This is the first time he is giving the spotlight to himself—to love himself. “I deserve this,” he says.
He is now “choosy” with commissioned works, especially if his client is not on the “right” page with him. “When this happens, I have no hesitation to beg off from the job,” says this U.P. College of Fine Arts graduate. “It’s so important that I stand behind the work that I do.” No love lost for him.
His tip for aspiring artists is to have fun. “Don’t stress out doing art,” says he, who is the founding member of Ang Illustrador ng Kabataan (Ang INK). “I don’t think it works that way.”
What else does he want to attain in life? “For now, just surviving and keeping alive is an accomplishment,” he says.
If there is one person he is grateful for, it is his life partner, Jetro Rafael. “He taught me so much and continues to teach me each day,” recalls the children’s book illustrator. “Jetro taught me ‘gentleness,’ which I was able to show to my parents till their dying days.”
“Jetro is teaching me how to live and live well,” he confesses. “He teaches me nutrition, breathing well, the importance of sunlight. He taught me self-love, which I needed to survive.”
He credits the Van Gogh is Bipolar restaurateur for the fact that he is alive today.
Robert sent me photos of his meal lovingly prepared by Jetro, the reason he has gained weight again. “The food I eat at home is so good that I get disappointed at times when I eat out,” he says. “I live a life of a prince!”
Last December, there was a call for blood donations and Robert’s friends came to help. “Among them is my friend Angel (Aquino),” he muses. “She truly is living up to her name.”
At that time, Robert was in so much pain because of the cancer. The doctors could not do anything about it. But unexpected wonders from “up above” transpired. He exclaimed, “Seven months later, here I am biking!”
If he is going to see his parents again, what would he say to them? “I would tell them I love them very, very much,” says the former Probe Team correspondent. “I don’t talk that much but I’m sure they know that I love them unconditionally and, despite all that we went through, our love remains.”
At first, when I mentioned to Robert that I was writing about his journey, he gave a quick reply: “Not me, I am sick of me.”
But after a few days, he gave a heartfelt message. “Thank you for this—an opportunity to reflect where I am and where I’ve been. Where I am going is home to my father.”