Last night, my wife began the ultimate journey of her life. I can only imagine the marvellous things she is seeing right now.
My life with Clem has always been marked by journey, travel, adventure, and exploring. While we both grew up in Manila and studied at the University of the Philippines, we met in Mindanao where she was pioneering a hotel institute and I was working with the Mindanao Regional Development Project.
The fact that we met while on the road was, for me, a sign of things to come. For more than 40 years, we explored different places together. But more important than that, we explored the different terrains of life—its ups and the downs, the smooth and the rough.
Clem and I had a long-distance relationship. In the 1970s, she studied in Salzburg and worked at the Vienna Hilton for seven years. I was then in the Netherlands on a scholarship. We would meet up regularly though we didn’t have much money. We toured Europe but sometimes used just one train ticket. We shared a baguette at the Eiffel Tower—underneath, not atop, because climbing the structure meant paying an entrance fee.
Sometimes our dates weren’t dates at all. She would be on night shift at her hotel in Vienna and I would wait for her in the lobby. I waited there so often that one night, I was mistaken for a bum trying to get warm, and got thrown out of the hotel. It didn’t matter. We were in Europe and we were together.
We got married in 1981 and started a family. We had Joao, now 33, and Lia, 24. We did our best to make family travel a priority. By the time Lia was 11, she must have been to all the Disneylands in the world. Sometimes we would look back and compute how much we had spent on travel and think, had we saved all that money, we’d have a house by now. But we never had regrets.
Clem was in her element when we went on these adventures and stuck to the highest standards about everything. Well, what else can you expect from the first female resident manager of the five-star Manila Hotel? Even packing was a major production: underwear folded into squares. Tide bar for doing laundry on the road. Hand wash. Disposable toilet seat covers.
Her support for me was as unstinting. I worked with government for 33 years, and took home a paycheck that was puny compared to what she was making. It didn’t matter; she supported me. I would encounter the instabilities that came with the changes in presidency and she was there to support me. I made good career decisions and some bad ones. Still, she supported me.
The last trip we had planned together was in May 2012. We were going to tour Italy as a family, a gift for Lia who had just graduated from UP cum laude. But Clem had to go to the doctor first to discuss the results of an earlier routine checkup that she had undergone simply because, may promo daw, 50 percent off.
The findings were not ideal. God had a different kind of journey planned for her. It was a journey full of doctor’s offices, CT scans, bloodworks, surgery and chemotherapy. The road was strewn with oxygen tanks and battles with infections. Eventually the journey had to be lived day by day, then hour by hour, then breath by breath.
In our last years together, there was no guidebook we could turn to. And there were so many questions. How do you know whether to pray for healing or acceptance? How do you know if you should choose aggressive treatment or palliative care? How do you prepare your son and daughter for losing a parent? I don’t think anyone has the final answers to these questions. There may be no guidebook, but there was a Guide. We realized that we had no resources on our own, so we threw ourselves to the Infinite.
Even now, as I try to come to grips with grief, I still believe in the grace of God, who turns our mourning into dancing and who creates beauty out of ashes. I saw His grace when He gave Clem to me and created our family and allowed us to enjoy life in ways that bring me to my knees in gratitude. I saw His grace when He enabled Clem to endure multiple CT scans, surgery without anaesthesia and physical therapy when she could barely move. I saw His grace when Clem went peacefully last night.
I have spent many months thinking about this phrase called the will of God. In the past, I tried to grapple with it in abstract ways. But we have a God who came in the flesh, and who wants us to engage with His will in the flesh, in the thick of everyday life. I think He wants us to discern and respond to His will in concrete and tangible ways: in big things like marriage decisions, in day-to-day life like how to respond to inconveniences like taxes and traffic, and in life-and-death crises, like being stricken with cancer.
In the last few years, in the midst of Clem’s two-year battle with cancer, I have had many opportunities to engage with this idea called the will of God, though the word “engage” sounds too simple. Looking back, I think Clem and I engaged with God’s will in many ways. At the beginning of her illness, we denied it. Then we resisted it. Then we conformed and finally accepted it. In the end, we found that we could actually want it, even love it.
Through it all, we watched as our prayers to God shifted, evolved and changed. Through it all, we discovered that God loved us unreservedly and unconditionally.
Clem’s diagnosis of cancer came in May 2012, a localized growth in her left lung that in medical terms was described Stage 1B. At that time, we looked at her condition as a worrisome inconvenience, an interruption to the trip to Europe that we had been planning. We asked God for a quick solution with little downtime, so that we could go on with our travel plans. We wanted to get back to our normal lives.
Clem went into surgery in June. The outcome was not what we had hoped for. In medical terms, her cancer was in Stage 2B. With this came the emotionally-laden medical term: chemotherapy. We were no longer in denial about Clem’s illness.
Our prayers took a different turn. It was no longer, take this inconvenience away. It was now: We know this illness is real. Please heal Clem. Please make her recover.
Clem had six chemotherapy sessions in the latter half of 2012. We were grateful that the side effects were not devastating: no hair loss, no violent bouts of nausea. She came home to rest and recover and we had hoped that she was in the clear.
But over time, Clem developed a very strong aversion to certain types of food. She was afraid of dairy and meat. She had encountered literature that claimed that these foods fed cancer. Against her doctor’s orders, Clem embarked on an eating pattern that left her with a severe nutritional deficiency. Her immune system became compromised.
And then another blow came. When she went back for her CT scan in December last year, the test results showed that her cancer had recurred, and had now spread to the right lung.
It was at this stage that we began to encounter real and persistent fears about Clem’s condition. We were also becoming more and more confused about the decisions we had to make. Should Clem undergo chemotherapy when she was so weak? Should she eat this and not that? Again I sensed a subtle shift in the way that we prayed. We were beginning to see the limits of medical help and human expertise. We pressed closer to God, and we said, alright, if this is the way You want us to go, then teach us to do it Your way. We were moving into conforming to God’s will.
One by one, we had to strip ourselves of our dependence on medical technology. It was becoming clearer that even the best hospital facilities and treatment could not always bring healing, and could at times even do harm.
Again, my prayers shifted ever so subtly. I know that sickness never come from God, but for some reason He had allowed it. Now that medical interventions were beginning to fail, my prayer became: “God, help me do everything in my power to help my wife endure this.”
We set up a makeshift hospital at home, with nurses, a hospital bed, feeding tubes, oxygen tanks. For a while there were small wins. We were gratified that Clem’s appetite had come back and her friends, who were familiar with her tastes, kept sending food over to the house. It was like a regular fiesta everyday.
But this did not last. Before long, it became difficult for Clem to swallow. Even water flowed too fast to swallow, so I looked far and wide for a special type of water thickener that would make it more viscous. One day Clem told me one of the most heartbreaking things I had ever heard: “Papa, I’m not getting better.”
She said this matter-of-factly, but it was heartbreaking because of the type of person I am. All my life, when I wanted something done, I would mobilize all my resources, all my connections, my knowledge and power to do it. But for the first time in my life, all my so-called powers were not making a difference. Looking back, if there was a point that could have driven me into despair, this was it.
Shortly after, I came across a reading in St. Josemaria Escriva’s book “The Way.” It said: “We are but mere blocks of stone in the hands of a Master Cutter. It is He who knows best how to shape us, to bring out the best in us so we should not resist. By trying to avoid the blows of life, we make things worse for ourselves and bring suffering upon us anyway. But if we learn to accept and love the will of God, we discover firsthand that His burdens are not heavy and that joy, peace, and happiness are ours for the asking.”
I did my best to walk with Clem throughout this journey, to share her burdens and make the journey easier. It was only at 11:20 on the night of March 20 this year that I had to let her hand go. From that point on, she would have to journey without me, while I continue with my own journey here. But one bond that kept us together, and still does, is prayer.
I cannot claim that I was heroic in my walk with Clem. There are many things about cancer that left me angry, or in tears, or reeling with confusion, or just overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of all the suffering.
But I also found comfort in seeing how heartbroken Jesus Christ Himself was in the face of sorrow and suffering. Writes Henri Nouwen: “When the moment to drink that cup (of sorrow) came for Jesus… He didn’t feel He could drink from (it).” Jesus Christ, Son of God, abhorred suffering and even asked, at first, that the cup of sorrow be taken from him.
Nouwen goes on to explore what enabled Christ to eventually choose to drink of the cup of sorrow. Beyond all the abandonment he had experienced, Christ still had a spiritual bond with the Creator, a bond of love that had not been broken. The love of God enabled him to say, “My Father, let it be as You, not I, would have it,” Nouwen wrote.
He goes on to conclude that “…the cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our life can we consider drinking it.”
I looked back on the last few months of Clem. Was that joyful sorrow? And though I found nothing there but sorrow, I was reminded, ever so gently, of some things about Clem’s last days that were very unusual.
First, for the most part of her treatments, Clem had been virtually pain-free. She had a lot of discomfort from the cumulative effects of chemotherapy: shortness of breath, deterioration of her optic nerves, weight and energy loss, and in the latter part, partial paralysis and slurred speech. She had to suffer the indignities of commodes and being cleaned up. She hated her tube feedings. But she was mainly pain-free.
And being pain-free for a cancer patient is unusual. I had heard stories from friends who had seen their loved ones in great pain and had to confront these through patches, sedation, morphine and medication. But Clem never had to go through a pain management program.
For a long time there was no explanation for the absence of pain, until recently. In December 2013, Clem had a brain scan to check for metastasis in that area. Her scan was clear, except for a micro dot, an incredibly tiny jumble of nerves in a specific area of her brain. One doctor later propounded a theory: This micro dot seemed to be strategically situated in Clem’s central nervous system, and may have blocked pain sensations in her brain. Had it been elsewhere, or had it been bigger, it would have caused profound damage. As it was, it seemed almost carefully contained and placed with precision, in ways that kept her from more suffering.
A second equally amazing thing is that, even during her last critical moments, she did not go through any aggressive interventions like emergency intubation. I also did not permit the insertion of an IV line, as well as further blood tests. Even paracetamol was not introduced into her system. When the doctor suggested a paracetamol administered intravenously for her fever, the nurse started to crush the pill. But the device broke.
I choose to see the hand of God in all of these. The same God who sees the fall of every sparrow and who numbers the hairs on my head—in my case a very small number—also has the power to manage the tiniest details, including the tangling of tiny nerves in the brain of a sick daughter. It was like God saying, “I am in control of the details. I can take care of you, down to the last cell, the last nerve.”
I choose to trust this God in the days to come, in the years to come. I do not know what His plans are for me, or for Joao, or for Lia. But little by little, as He graciously reveals His love, I am enabled to trust Him, and enabled to drink of the cup that He chooses to have me drink. He will bring good out of this.
My greatest privilege, next to being loved by God, was to be loved by Clem. The most profound blessing about my life with her was that she reshaped the trajectory of my life, and brought me closer to God without preaching, bullying or proselytizing.
Before I met Clem, I was a regular churchgoer. I was the grandson of two bishops in the Aglipayan church. One of them went on to become Obispo Maximo, succeeding Gregorio Aglipay. Lolo Ago, would hold weekly Sunday masses at our Pasay compound. These regular services were important to me. But when Lolo died, I lost my spiritual moorings and went adrift.
I met Clem in 1973. Early on I knew she was of Catholic faith, and she knew that I was an Aglipayan. We did not spend a lot of time arguing on contradictory doctrines. Our solution to differences in faith was simple. She would go to Mass, and I would wait for her in the car.
We began making plans to get married in 1980. By that time, the question of faith was looming larger. For one thing, we had to answer the question “Where are you getting married?” For another, I was about to become son-in-law to Justice Leonor Ines Luciano, who was also, of all things, a two-term National President of the Catholic Women’s League, and a Papal awardee.
Clem and I ended up getting married at the Archbishop’s Palace, and our wedding ceremony was officiated by Cardinal Sin. I was not required to convert to the Catholic faith before the wedding. At that time, my relationship with God remained rudimentary. And through it all, Clem, along with my mother-in-law, remained strong in their own faith while giving me freedom to work out my own.
After getting married, we stayed with my mother-in-law whom I would later drive to church for daily Masses early in the morning. This time, I didn’t stay in the car but would join Mommy in listening to the service. I was creeping closer towards God; from the parking lot, I had moved into the church. And slowly, I began to see a fabric made of the interweaving strands of my life, the love of God, and the love of Clem. Day by day, through the realities of marriage and family life, God shaped and reshaped my character. Don’t get me wrong. I am still a work in progress.
Prayers helped when I knew the end was coming the day Clem started to hallucinate. She was partially paralyzed by this time, but up to this point her mind had been perfectly sharp. I was praying with her when she interrupted and said, “Papa, remove my sock.” She was pointing to her paralyzed left foot and I noted that it was bare. So I ignored her and continued to pray. She again said, “Papa, remove my sock.” Again, I ignored her. It went on and on, until I finally told the caregiver to give me a pair of cream colored socks. I then went through the motions of removing them and told her, “O, ayan, Ma, natanggal na (There, I’ve removed it).” To which she replied, “No, it’s a blue-colored sock.”
It was heartbreaking to see her begin to hallucinate. But it was an event bathed in our morning prayers, and it reminded me that these painful situations were still squarely within the love of God. Clem’s mind was fading, but we were still tightly woven together in prayer—me, my Clem, and my God.
On the morning of March 19th, I was waiting for Clem to awake so that we could do our morning prayer together. When she woke up, she was very drowsy. I sat beside her, and as usual, whispered into her good left ear. “I love you, Mama… Do you love me?” She answered in a whisper, but very clearly, “Yes!” I bent my head again and whispered to her, “God loves us.” Again, she answered: “Yes!” I asked, “Mama, do you love God?” Again, very clearly, “Yes.”
It was the last conversation I had with Clem. It was short and heartbreaking in its childlike simplicity. But I am confident that God loved it, and blessed it, because it was a conversation that still revealed the three unchanging and interwoven strands of love: me, my Clem, and my God.
I am confident that Clem is conversing with God today in her usual vibrant way. In God’s time, I will rejoin that conversation.
Today I will be seeing my wife off for the last time. This time, she travels without any luggage, and this time, there will be no return flight for me to look forward to. But I am comforted by the thought that her destination is, in a literal sense, out of this world. The most beautiful places that Clem and I have seen together, are probably no match for what she is seeing right now.
None of us will be the same after today. A writer once said, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken. The bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Today, if someone asks me what my plans are, I can only say the three of us—Joao, Lia, and myself—will limp on, together, until we learn to dance again. •
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