Dealing with death | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022



Death is certain; the critical questions are when and why it happens when it does to someone and not to another.


These secrets are kept from us, although in some cases, particularly where death was coming suddenly or unexpectedly, intimation by premonition happens, as in the case of my friend Monina.


Just recovered from pneumonia, she was advised to limit her visits to her husband of 50 years, confined for dementia for nearly a year. One day she decided to bring out an elegant outfit and put it aside, along with its accessories, in a big couturier’s box, marking it “Pamburol.” She died days later.




Last month, Lita, the wife of my second cousin Beneting, succumbed to encephalitis, a complication from the pneumonia she, too, had just been recovering from. Lita was a die-hard Yellow Brigade member, and I also knew her to be creative with beads—two of her preoccupations in retirement.


But she was much more than that. Speaking at her wake with a deep fondness and admiration for her, Beneting reintroduced me to her, giving me at the same time a rare peek into his own soft spot—he’s a private and rather formal man.


Economist (Georgetown for his undergraduate, Harvard for his masters; former deputy governor of the Central Bank), historian, author, Beneting finally found his match in Lita Ganzon, meeting her at a cousin’s party.


After graduating from Assumption High School at 12, Lita went to the United States for a degree in creative writing at Stanford. She returned and enrolled in medicine at the University of the Philippines at 16 and became a full-fledged pediatrician at 21.


But, a polymath, she made her mark as a numismatist and antiquarian; she cofounded the Money Museum of the Central Bank and was once a juror for the Coin of the Year Award in the United States.


A beautiful Spanish mestiza, Lita inspired the master Fernando Amorsolo; his portrait of her stood on display at her wake. At 83, she looked younger than her years.


Only child Isabel, called Tweetie, has given her and Beneting two grandchildren, Bianca, 18, and Jean Michel, 15. They live in the United States, but Tweetie has come to be with her father at this time of loss.


No doubt, in the family tradition, Beneting will bear his great loss admirably, secure in the conviction that his beloved has joined the angels and saints.


Taken early


When death comes as a consequence of the last stages of cancer, it may seem merciful, for surely heaven awaits them; but it’s no less painful for those left behind, as in the passing of my shy and guileless cousin Ces, only 56, and that of my daughter’s classmate, neighbor, and dear friend Liza, 53.


Both succumbed to cancer within the year of diagnosis. It’s hard to understand why some live on to dementia and others, with so much promise, are taken early.


There’s a well-respected, successful physician, Gin, now battling Parkinson’s in his 80s, who seems impatient for life to end, in spite of being a nonbeliever, therefore expecting no life, never mind heaven, after death. Not even the Christian promise of being reunited with his wife Nancy (“the only woman I’ve ever loved”) could make him accommodate an afterlife in his strictly cerebral philosophy.


An undemonstrative man, he shocked us and won our hearts with his dedication and devotion when he took care of his wife through many years after her stroke. A doctor who worked for everything he owns, he also has been given much in life, foremost an intelligent and pretty wife, with a sense of humor that surely helped her understand his genius, and two sons a parent would be proud of.


He has lived a comfortable but simple life, on his own terms, and won all his battles, most remarkably the ethical ones. He has gained the high esteem of colleagues and patients in the profession he has practiced until his hospitalization. He lived, worked and loved by his self-imposed standards.


Without the promise of heavenly rewards or threat of hell, he has lived a life that proves man, indeed, is intrinsically good—a proposition he is sure to debunk himself, out of both modesty and principle.


Out of anyone’s control


On my first visit, I found him lying in bed, looking deceivingly weak, until he got up on his own power, unaided by his two watchful sons and walked toward me. I felt weak in the knees.


“How can God strike you dead when you’re walking around unaided?” I asked, forgetting he was a consistent nonbeliever.


“Do you want me to kneel?” he teased.


He promptly went back to bed. He said he had just had a seizure. Knowing him, now that matters are no longer in his control, I can understand his frustration. I had brought up the subject of stem cells on a visit in his clinic not long ago, but he had shaken his head vigorously at it, saying, “What the stem cells do inside you is out of anybody’s control.”


Control seems very important to him at this point; no wonder he can’t sleep. I overheard him discussing the difficulty with his doctors in my last visit, and I remembered what a meditation master said about going to sleep: one must let go, completely.


Ironically, it’s the mind that keeps us awake, and it’s also what can make us let go; but it needs to be helped.


The meditation teacher told the story of a very busy and successful business magnate who, despite all his problems and the many employees dependent on him, has no trouble sleeping. Asked how he did it, he says, “Before I go to bed, I burn everything I own.”


However he can manage it, my doctor friend Gin sure could use some good hours of sleep, if only to forget about dying just yet. But don’t we all get a taste of it every night, in a way, when we close our eyes to sleep?