I woke this morning to read that Teddy Arellano had died.
Disbelief rushed through me. How could this be? He was much younger than me. How could this be?
I moved over to his Facebook page and began scrolling to see if it was some sort of Filipino joke. It wasn’t. Teddy had really passed. His friends were posting photos of flowers, remembering him fondly and urging him to go gently and peacefully to his maker.
Teddy is the latest in what seems a long queue of significant others who have moved on. A swagful of beloved ‘hero’ musicians and actors. Two other Facebook friends died very unexpectedly sending shock through the online photography community. 2016 is a sad year and we aren’t even in May.
Teddy’s death has hit me harder than the others because I knew him. Not just through records and films or Facebook posts but in the flesh.
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing.
I met Teddy in Beijing in 1997. We were part of a small Oxfam team drawn together from the UK, Hong Kong and Australia to make an assessment of the humanitarian situation in North Korea in the wake of a couple seasons of floods.
We met in a Communist era hotel. Teddy was young and rather rolly-polly. He admitted to being too fond of donuts and more than once disappeared from the group only to return with a big box of pink, chocolate and sugary rings that he “just had to buy” after stumbling upon a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet.
Teddy was the only one of our team that had been to North Korea. He was one of thousands of politically-aware youth that had been invited by Kim Il Sung to a grand Youth Solidarity event in Pyongyang several years earlier. Teddy made us laugh and shake our heads in amazement with his stories of massive parades and staged propaganda shows. He let us in on ‘true’ tales of the Great Leader and his family. He prepared us to receive ‘on the spot guidance’, once we arrived.
The next ten days turned out to be a highlight of my life. Not just as an aid worker but as a person. We got to walk around Pyongyang without our ‘minders’, take a ride on the grand subway, visit villages and towns far from the capital and get drunk with officials who urged us through bloodshot eyes to ‘tell Clinton he’s a devil’.
I got to know Teddy pretty well on that trip. He didn’t just love donuts and gadgets—he had the first micro disc recorder/player I’d ever seen—but he had a genuine passion for making things better for people. Though he didn’t share a lot about his background he did speak of being involved in leftist causes and I got the sense he was from a fairly well off family.
But the best thing about Teddy on that trip was his cracking sense of humor. He was rotund and spoke in a quiet way. He looked jolly from the git go and he had the timing of a comedian. The understatement and the elongated pause. The sarcastic jibe which could have hurt but for the sparkle in his eyes.
We got to calling each other Comrade. And thanks to Teddy the whole group became expert at giving ‘on the spot guidance’ to our official minders on the differences between the Workers Paradise and the outside world.
We stayed in touch over the years, both working within the Oxfam world. Drinks at a pub in Oxford. Tea at a café in Manila. When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit in 2013 I tried to get him hired by the Red Cross but it didn’t work out. Instead, he and some friends organized their own little NGO in Tacloban. They struggled for funds but were at the very coal face of assistance, sleeping and working in the same conditions as the victims themselves.
His Facebook posts were usually quite political, highlighting the gap between promise and delivery by the government or appealing for funds. Teddy, it seemed to me, had lost some of his jollity. He was a very serious and committed humanitarian.
One thing I hadn’t known about Teddy, and I think he didn’t know about himself, was that he was a brilliant photographer. I could be wrong but I think he only took up a camera in the last few years. The first few images he posted on Facebook blew me away. His eye was so mature and acute. He was capturing stuff—all in black and white—that made my jaw drop. Portraits that were troubling but compassionate. Street scenes worthy of exhibition. With a little effort I have no doubt he could have been recognized as a truly outstanding artist.
I hadn’t seen any posts from Teddy for a few weeks. I had no idea he was ill. He suffered a stroke on 11th March and passed away yesterday.
Ted. Farewell comrade. Give some on the spot guidance to St Peter about taking people way too soon!
I don’t know what happens when people die.