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Remembering Marilou Diaz Abaya

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Amazing how women’s intuition works.  There I was, yearning to write something about Marilou, but resisting the urge lest some people think I had joined the bandwagon, claiming to be one of her best friends which definitely I was not, when suddenly, I got this call from an editor-friend: “Ine, how would you like to write an article about Marilou?”

I hedged.  Why me? There were others more qualified for the job—her long-time friends, diving buddies, people and family who stayed with her until that very moment when she crossed into the next life. Mga naghatid sa kanya sa kabilang pinto (people who ushered her entry into another door), as I call it—actor Cesar Montano, screenwriter Ricky Lee…

But the editor insisted and I thought, OK, why not?  Not having seen each other in 16 years I can at least collect my memories of her without cancer getting in the way…

I don’t remember exactly how Marilou and I met.  At first we saw each other often as members of our respective guilds under the Film Academy of the Philippines and as members of the FAP ratings board.

Then began the various fora in the ’80s sponsored by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, where we tackled issues that concerned women.  I remember how she once introduced a film while fiddling with a roll of toilet paper.  Seeing that some attendees were distracted by the toilet paper, she ended her speech with, “By the way, this roll of tissue is not for crying; this is for going to the bathroom.”

On our way out, I just happened to comment—thought aloud—that we should believe everything we say in front of people because, having our respective share of fans, the audience would always believe us.  To which she shot back, “Are you referring to what I said about the toilet paper being for bathroom use?  Of course I believe that!”

She said it in such deadpan manner that it took some time before I realized she was kidding. We laughed hard and gave each other a high five.  “Naisahan mo ’ko  (You got me there),” I told her.

Indeed, this woman could shock me speechless. One time after reading one of my works, she called me and yelled over the phone. “Ano ka ba, bakit ba ang husay-husay mo (Why the heck are you so good)?”  I stood there stunned, gaping, wondering if  I had done wrong. Then, sensing my shock, she asked, laughing:  “Hello?  Lualhati?  Are you all right?” Diyos ko, tuwang-tuwa pa sa galak  (My God, she was even so happy with what she did) !”

We worked together on a TV documentary about women in 1991. It was funded by Ateneo and further cemented our bonding as women.

There was a playfulness to her, no matter what the problem was.  She once lamented that, based on her experience with writers, “None of you ever brought your own pen.”  And so she always had a pen ready for her writer.

We saw each other a lot during the pre-production and subsequent filming of the documentary and talked about everything and nothing in particular, finding common ground as women,  mothers and artists.

She lent me “Fanny Hill” which I never returned; I lent her my cassette tape of feminist songs which she never returned, either.  We talked about religion and hard porn, and about Mother Teresa and Mother Lily—seemingly irreconcilable topics sometimes discussed almost in the same breath.

We talked about “Sophie’s Choice” and how my son, who was 14 when we watched the movie, pestered me with this incredible question:  If put in a similar position like Sophie, who among him and his two sisters would I give up for execution?  He kept at it until I screamed and said that till my dying day, I would not know the answer!  I told Marilou the question gave me the chills and triggered crying spells and sleepless nights.

The next time we met, she told me that the question also bothered her.  “Walanghiya ka, ipinasa mo sa akin ang nagpahirap sa isip mo (You’re shameless!  How dare you transfer that troubling thought to me)!”

She showed me her paintings but raved about the works of other artists, especially the younger ones who were just starting.

On weekends, some artists would converge in her house to paint, and she invited me over to join them.  I declined, saying that painting isn’t one of my many talents.  “Hindi kasi kasama ang painting sa sangkaterbang talino ko [Painting isn’t included in my overflowing talents],” I joked.

She was cool and laughed easily. One of the things I learned from her was that life is like diving.  When waves attack you from all sides, the best thing to do is to take time to keep still.

I remember how this aspiring producer once asked me to do an episode on cancer for a TV series on doctors and diseases. I did, with the late stage actor Adul de Leon’s type of cancer in mind.  As it turned out, the producer had already asked the late Charito Solis to take the role, without realizing that cancer makes the patient grow thin and gaunt.  Charito at that time was big and very healthy looking—how could she realistically portray a cancer patient?

The producer now wanted me to change the script.  “Puwede mo ba akong bigyan na lang ng ibang script  (Can you give me another script)?”

I answered bluntly:  “Puwede naman, basta bigyan n’yo rin ako ng ibang bayad  [Why not, as long as you give me another payment].”

Marilou  was aghast.  “Why did you have to say it that way?  Ikaw talaga!”

I said it naman with a smile!” I retorted.

“You are so taray [bitchy],” she said.  And I answered, “At least I can make taray with a smile.”

After Marilou explained the ins and outs of TV production, the producer became ambivalent especially when she learned about the downside of the business—delays, pack-ups, lack of advertising support, slow return of investment, etc.  The producer wanted Marilou to assure her that the downsides would be put to a minimum, as if the project were Marilou’s idea when it was she who sought out the director.

Marilou refused to commit to anything and advised her to think things over and to see her again when she had decided.  It made me marvel at her endless patience in handling a most exasperating conversation.

“Tsk, tsk, wala akong masabi  sa ’yo; ang pasensiya mo, mula Cubao hanggang Divisoria [I’m speechless. Your patience extends from Cubao to Divisoria],” I told her.

Laughing, she told me to shut up. She was actually near her breaking point, she confided.

After a few more discussions on possible projects and failed attempts to find a producer, Marilou and I drifted apart.

Her son Marc said that when Marilou learned she was seriously ill, she left final instructions as though she were also directing her own wake. That did not surprise me.

Sixteen years ago when Ishmael Bernal passed away so suddenly,  I rushed to Funeraria Paz where his body was brought straight from the Heart Center, pushed the door of the morgue open and found Marilou (with a few other directors) in front of Bernie’s body which was wrapped in bandages like a mummy.  She was already “directing” his wake!

I told her, in mock anger, that she did not even allow me time to shed a few tears for Bernie who was both my friend and my “fan.” “Husay na husay ’yon sa ’kin, ha  [He was so impressed with me]!” Bernie, in fact, gave me my first break on TV.

Marilou laughed and taunted me back: “So why don’t you cry?” she said in Pilipino. “Wala namang pumipigil sa ’yo  [Nobody’s stopping you].”

“Pa’no pa naman ako maiiyak  e natatawa na ’ko sa ’yo [How could I, when you make me laugh].”

The two of us were in perfect attendance at Bernie’s wake, from the first night at the UP chapel to the UP Film Center where the body was transferred the next day.  Occasionally, she’d go outside for a smoke and I would join her. Sometimes it was the other way around. Later, she would tell me: “Dapat yata tayong maghiwalay.  Bad influence tayo sa isa’t isa.  Makakanser tayo niyan  [We really shouldn’t be together anymore. We’re a bad influence on each other.  We might get cancer].”

“Cancer of what?”

“Cancer sa lungs, cancer sa throat, maybe cancer sa suso [breast].”

I shrugged.  “Ay hindi ako makakanser sa suso… wala akong suso [I won’t ever have breast cancer... I have no breasts]!”

In 2007, Marilou was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On Jan. 20, 2010, Marilou joined Facebook and immediately added friends, including me.  Then she started posting updates on her condition as well as her prayers and novenas. I wanted to visit her, drop by the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and sit in her workshop even for half an hour, but I did not.  I could not.  It was most difficult for me to come face to face with loved ones who are here on borrowed time. I was afraid I would feel the unpresence of her.  I had experienced that uncanny feeling of unpresence with, among others, Ishmael Bernal, six days before he died.

So I did what I thought was the next best thing:  I copied my novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and sent it to her through private message.  Maybe I was so affected I did not even remember that I could have just scanned the novena instead of copying the whole thing.  I told her, “You may want to try this novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I tried it once and my wish was granted.  I will pray this novena again for you.  I love you, Marilou.”

That was something I learned from Manay Marichu Maceda:  “Never pass up the chance to say I love you… you may never have that chance again.”

Marilou replied and said she was a regular retreatant of the (Jesuit) Sacred Heart Novitiate and a devotee of the Sacred Heart.  She ended her note with “Thank you, Lualhati.  I love you too.”

On February 3, 2010,  Marilou posted this on Facebook:

“My stamina’s improving by the day. I’m running a film school AND preparing to shoot ‘Ikaw ang Pag-ibig’ with a crack team of former students who are now my colleagues and co-instructors (my energy savers, he-he). AND I scuba dive on weekends to elevate my spirit and endurance levels. Not bad for a 54-year-old cancer survivor. Many reasons to smile and thank God!”

It occurred to me then that, even as she referred to herself as a “survivor,” she had filled up her bucket list and was now slowly emptying it, rushing to get whatever she still could from life.  She always sounded optimistic, though I doubted she was in high spirits all the time.

Cancer is a painful disease; I have seen people suffer from it.  And Marilou herself wrote, albeit in passing, the side effects of radiation: baldness, irritated scalp, fatigue…

Yes, I followed her postings on Facebook:

January 5, 2012:

“Another New Year added to my earthly life, which was not medically expected, but, of course, happily and gratefully received as a blessing. I take this as a call to continue working on whatever my health condition allows me. After the launch of the book  ‘Reefs of Paradise’ last December 6, and after being informed that my tumor markers continue to drop and I’m practically in remission :):):), I’m working again with my oncologist and co-author Francis Lopez, this time on a short video on marine life also. And I’m back to mentoring new filmmaking teachers for ABS CBN/Star Cinema, and my film school, MDAFI.”

What gave me the chills though was her last post dated September 17, 2012…

“Good news. Cancer cells in my brain have been reduced significantly since my radiation program 3 months ago. I’m off chemo for a whole month YEHEEEY!, just daily hormone pills which, hopefully, will relieve me from the usual side effects. Then next tests will determine how to proceed. I intend to get more physically active hehehe during this respite period. BTW, this happy development happened during the Peñafrancia Fiesta last week. So I ask Ina to bless all those who pray for me. Thank you and CHEERS!”

I remembered what my doctor-friend Manuel Suque told me about bacteria and viruses:  that when they seem to deactivate, it does not mean they are dead; they may just be consolidating their forces to attack again. And when they do, they come back fiercer and deadlier. (He was only talking about coughs, by the way.)  That is why, he said, when he tells me to take antibiotics for a week, I have to take them for a week, whether or not I already felt better.

I am no doctor, of course, and I have no right to compare cancer cells with cough bacteria and viruses. But I could not shake away the feeling that it could be Marilou’s final remission.  Still and all, I commented on her status update that it was the best news I had received lately.

News of Marilou’s death reached me through a text message from actress Vangie Labalan.  “Marilou passed away at 6:45 tonight.”  I wanted to cry but the tears would not come past my jaws.  I could only feel the heaviness in my heart.

I went to Marilou’s wake on Thursday afternoon. I don’t usually go to wakes now, but I went to hers and timed it so there would be very few people and hopefully no one from show biz because I did not want to stay long (Tito Eddie Romero and his wife were there though).  She looked peaceful, almost smiling.

Her face had some kind of an inner glow.  In her off-white gown with matching veil and clutching a rosary, she looked more like she was getting married than lying in a coffin.

But maybe in a way she was marrying herself to her Creator—I think that’s the way some people see death.  I have no doubt it helped a lot, to die in complete surrender to the will of one’s Creator, to have faith that death  is not the end  but the continuity of life.  I just hope that when my time comes, I could face death the way she did.

I could hardly stifle my whisper to her:  “Psst, Marilou, pag ako naman, tulungan mo ’ko, ha  [Hey, Marilou, when my time comes, help me out, okay]?”  I could almost hear what she would have told me: “Bahala ka sa buhay mo  [Hah, you’re on your own]!” But help me, I’m sure she would. I like to believe she also had fond memories of me.

July 16, 2012:

“I’m back in hospital confinement for a week of chemo after 15 sessions of radiation and its side effects (baldness, irritated scalp, fatigue). I have lots of time to mourn the deaths of Director Mario O’ Hara and Tito Dolphy.”

I believe that the best consolation anybody could have in this is that she had successfully emptied her bucket list.  As Marilou herself wrote in what might well be her last will:

“I find such great pleasure to donate to Jesuit Communications (JESCOM) my entire film and TV memorabilia, trophies, plaques, certificates, library of books, DVDs, scripts, international festivals, lectures, etc. Mementos and records of my 32-year contribution to Pinoy Cinema. These will be inventorized by Ateneo, and made available for students and the public who may still benefit from them. To the Sacred Heart Novitiate, I am giving my collection of religious images and articles, and lots of furniture for our new wing for retreatants. I am also giving to the Archdioceses of San Fernando and Caceres souvenirs of our common advocacies in culture and the arts. I am so relieved that my family is as  glad as I am with this gift-giving!

“’It’s a wrap!’  Sweet words on any set when the day’s work is over. Better yet, when the film is completed.  Wrapping gifts is self-emptying, even as the work continues till our last breath, no matter when.

“How liberating! What sweet peace of mind! :):):)”

I love you, Marilou.  Goodbye for now.


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