She went on the anniversary of martial law to make doubly sure I don’t forget.
I’m no good at goodbyes, and neither was Nena. And so it seemed providential that I was her last visitor on her last afternoon on this earth, but neither of us knew it. If we did, believe me, it would have been messy.
Instead, it was sweet and atypically affectionate. Nena and I were never kissy, touchy friends. But this time, we held hands, for most of the two hours, counting the few minutes she would occasionally doze off.
It had always been a struggle to visit her; she was painful to see—bedridden, helpless, a shadow of her old self in health and in youth. Never mind looks; I myself, in relative good health, could look like her sick self if I, too, stopped coloring my hair and using my hair growers.
But that afternoon, she looked radiant, and I just had to tell her so: “Estas guapa, Nena!” She managed a tight-lipped half-smile, as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”
But I wasn’t. Heidi, one of her two caregivers, said she had just given her a bath, put foundation on her face and drawn her perfect eyebrows. When Heidi had first suggested the bath, Nena had mockingly asked how, pray tell, she was expected to manage it. “Paano?”
Heidi told her she’d take care of it. “Ako’ng bahala, senyora!”
Toast and butter
Indeed, she was lucky to have someone so in charge like Heidi, who was not only efficient and caring, but always upbeat. After the bath, Heidi said she had heard Nena heave a long sigh of contentment. According to Heidi, Nena was more responsive that afternoon. She kept trying to say something, to talk, and at one point she asked for oxygen like it were a glass of water.
After a nap, she opened her eyes and asked for toast, articulating it clearly. I called Heidi, thinking I had heard wrong, but she indeed confirmed it was toast for merienda; then I thought I heard her say “butter.”
“Aba, no se puede, completo con butter!” I said, amazed she even specified butter. I got another tight-lipped half-smile.
This woman cannot be dying, I thought to myself. Although she had been in and out of the hospital, each time giving us a scare, somehow she would always spring back even if never to the point of full recovery. Her heart had become too weak, she was retaining fluids.
Once or twice she had had to undergo dialysis. This last time, she asked to go home, refusing further medical intervention. But I took her looks and her appetite for butter on toast as hopeful signs. So I promised myself I’d bring her churros and chocolate on my next visit.
Just as she was about to eat her toast, I gently released my hand from her loose grip and rose from my chair to hug her goodbye. I planted a farewell kiss on her forehead: “Love you, Nena, see you again, soon!”
On my way out, I took a quick glance around the house I knew so well, my eyes lingering on some pictures in the living room. Our friendship went back in time longer than some of those memorabilia. Our friendship went back to childhood.
She was a preteen tomboy who climbed trees, while I wished I could join her. But, rather than risk life or limb, I preferred to play tienda-tienda with her brother Tony.
She wasn’t too happy about that. So from her safe and high perch, she would throw pebbles at our makeshift stall, sending our leaves, our pretend vegetables, flying; sometimes she succeeded in knocking down our fragile stall altogether. That’s when Tony would holler for their mom, and Nena would get a scolding—a pretend scolding from a chuckling Tita Loring.
Whenever I was away—a teenager in Spain or a new housewife in Houston, Texas—she and I wrote each other. We were always on the same political side. Together we had joined a Japanese-based all-inclusive spiritual organization. So much experiences shared, so many cherished memories, so much time together at every stage of our lives, that, even for someone as forgetful as I am, forgetting would be hard to do.
Like our common friend Bebe, who passed on a memorable day, the birthday of one of my sons, Nena went on the anniversary of martial law to make doubly sure I don’t forget.
I left her that afternoon hopeful that, on my next visit, I’d collect on the other half of those half-smiles she gave me. But I know now she was reserving her biggest and fullest smile for the love of her life, her dearest late husband, Louie Borromeo.
I can imagine him waiting for her at the Pearly Gates like a bridegroom at the altar, shaking his head, pretending to scold her, calling her, as he always did in such mood and circumstance, by her maiden name, “Ay, Marcaida, Marcaida.”
In the end, I imagine him breaking out into a full smile as big as her own, and now calling her by his favorite name of endearment: “Sweetie, what took you so long?” It took her two years.
So goodbye my dearest Nena, Nenuca, Nenutski, Nookie, and our secret name for one another, Fidela. From where you are now, gozando con delirio (taking off from Rizal’s “luchando con delirio,” Nena and I would always take things to extremes, to the point of delirium). And I imagine she would be joyful in heaven to that point as well. Please pray for all of us you have left behind in this imperfect world, to put it mildly.
Thank you for the friendship, the laughter and, most especially, the love. Till we meet again.