Bad news doesn’t sink in me easily. There seem layers of defense mechanisms in place within my system designed precisely to cushion, if not delay, the impact of life’s blows.
But when a dear relative Skyped to tell us that his MRI had revealed a worrisome mass not shown by an earlier X-ray and a subsequent ultrasound, and that a biopsy had further revealed third-stage prostate cancer of the aggressive kind, there was just no way for an escape by misinterpretation or denial. He himself said it with acceptance and blew away all my cushions.
All at once the symptoms he had been feeling when he was here during his last visit made sense. But, at the same time, the harsh findings were difficult to comprehend, and harder still to accept, though obviously not by him but by all of us who cherish him especially dearly.
True to character, he remains positive and strong, admirably holding up. “Well, it just has to be something of such force to dare challenge me,” he says.
His case is debunking myths I found refuge in against cancer—that it has to be in one’s genes, and that it develops out of some form of abuse or neglect. Well, he had no family history of cancer, and he’s not one to neglect, at any time in his 65 years, his physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
He is habitually disciplined, in fact, and generous and kind to a fault. Indeed, we all are one to ask in reaction, not without a tinge of protest at the heavens, I suppose, “Why of all people?”
Minutes after we said goodbye on Skype that late night, Vergel and I could not look at each other or say anything to each other. He stood up and moved to the sofa, embraced a throw pillow and threw his head back, his eyes tightly shut.
I, on the other hand, remained seated at the dining table in front of the darkened laptop, covering my face with both hands to catch tears.
Before sleeping that night, we talked of flying to be with him and his wife; as difficult as that would be, it seemed even harder for us to be away from them at this time. Almost as soon as we said it, reality sobered us. At our age and as dependent as we have become on a driver and a kasambahay, who does most everything for us, of what help could we be?
No proper time
Another reality hit us: How does grief help at all? If only life and all its demands could be suspended to allow us to grieve properly…
I am terrible; grieving, for me, chooses no particular proper time. It must be my way of coping, and it’s an all-too-familiar pattern now. But, unable to let out a good cry in one go, I also find myself unable, mercifully, to suffer sustained strong emotions, in the same way, I guess, that I’m no longer capable of working up a high fever.
I’m leaking tears all day, instead, and somehow it relieves me—a sort of catheter for pent-up grief.
In my mind I keep seeing his good face, so like Vergel’s, and can’t help but feel the pain of graver possibilities. I recall how unserious and funny he can be, and yet he has not been anything but a good brother and best friend, candid and honest with me in all the years I’ve known him. Many times throughout the day I’ve had to shake myself out of self-inflicted tortures by repeating a mantra: “He will prevail.”
Indeed, there’s much reason to hope. He’s getting no better care than where he is, at Johns Hopkins, and he’s surrounded by his immediate family.
Still I go about my daily chores interrupted now and then by grief, or the other way around—my chores intruding on my grief. But I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that in my case it is dispensed in small doses throughout the day. And again I’m beginning to see the wisdom and gentle kindness in small mercies.
It seems life doesn’t stop for grief of any magnitude. In fact, it would even seem selfish to wallow in it. Besides, we live in exciting and challenging times, and while we continue to pray and hope, there’s work to be done that cannot wait.
A crucial election is coming soon, and Vergel, much to his pleasant surprise—and mine, too—is being invited to conduct question-and-answer forums on election issues on campuses, in both urban-poor communities and better-off villages, and for civic and professional clubs.
I tag along, but don’t promise not to get distracted by grief sometimes and end up weepy, refilling my thoughts with dogged hope and loving affirmation: “He will prevail.”