A year ago, on Oct. 5, Joker Arroyo left us. All too characteristic of him, he had left strict instructions that he did not want any public announcements, no memorial ceremonies from Congress and the Senate, or the usual ninth-day or 40th-day commemorations, not even the traditional farewell ceremony of his fraternity, the Upsilon Sigma Phi.
We—his women writer friends who first met him during the anti-dictatorship days, when we always needed pro bono human rights lawyers like him for relatives and friends and friends of friends who were in hiding or got arrested on subversion charges—merely smiled through our tears at these typical final instructions from Joker. Though we understood, we had to chide him: “Don’t you see, Joker—it is not for you that we have to assemble together, but more for us to laugh our grief away by recalling times we had with you.”
I was in San Francisco then, the very same city where he died. It was so frustrating not to be able to bid him goodbye, even as I tried to comply with an “official” assignment from the Inquirer through Ceres Doyo from Letty Jimenez Magsanoc (LJM), both personally close to Joker from the dark days of the dictatorship. (Who could have imagined that LJM would follow three months later?)
PDI was maintaining its silence on the news from the grapevine, respecting the family’s request to be allowed privacy in their mourning. Even days after the news broke, the paper was seeking official word from the family.
That seemed least important to his wife Fely, who was responding to all my personal text messages, except that seemingly simple one from the newspaper. Everyone, the family included, was in shock, because his passing was sudden and he was not ill, just recovering from heart surgery.
The Women group (Women Writers in Media Now) remained friends with Joker even when he ceased being our human rights lawyer. There was a hiatus when he was in government service. Our meetings with him resumed only after he had ended his term as a senator, since we never like consorting with friends in public office; we like them better stripped of their titles of authority. We also tried to stay away when politics was an issue difficult to avoid.
There was a lunch he hosted at the Shang Palace, his restaurant of choice in Makati Shangri-La. That was memorable, because all three human rights lawyers we worked with were present—Joker, Jun Factoran, Rene Saguisag. At one point, all three lawyers brought out the rosaries they always carried in their pockets—something not every woman writer present could brag about. We were all impressed that we had to ask in near-disbelief: “But do you pray the rosary?”
How we laughed, too, when we saw Joker off at the driveway and watched him fumbling with his mobile, not knowing how to call or text his driver. One of us had to call his home landline to ask them to summon the driver for him.
He joined us at our welcome lunch in October 2014 for Marites Vitug, who had just returned from Kyoto University as visiting scholar. The restaurant, Mona Lisa at SM Aura, was our choice; it was evident that the mall was alien territory to him. He was lost trying to find us. It was clearly not familiar terrain.
Our favorite shared memories came out all over again after his death. The detainee friends we regularly visited and sought legal assistance for—
and weren’t some of us especially fond of one or two of them? His Malacañang years as executive secretary, and his favorite irreverent anecdotes of Jojo Binay, Teddy Boy Locsin, and everyone’s favorite, Rene.
Was Rochit Tañedo’s private wedding rites in 1986 to visual artist Bogie Tence Ruiz sanctioned by the church, given its unconventional touches? We always teased Joker about his sound bites being lapped up by the press, because they were always well-phrased and controversial. His erudition and rich vocabulary also made him a favorite interviewee.
And a favorite topic, of course, was what we were all like when we were young and foolish.
Joker was a familiar telephone caller at home, more often for me rather than for my husband Elfren, who was his awestruck assistant/runner before he was appointed PMS head and MMC Governor. Elfren was also his campaign manager in two senatorial elections. As Elfren put it, to Joker, he was always an employee while I was always a friend.
Yes, I was a friend enough that he even came to say a few words at my very first book launch, and would be a guest in subsequent ones.
He would call to laugh about something I had written, to chide me for calling him “anti-American,” to tease me about a press release photo that showed me beaming “from ear to ear” beside P-Noy. He wanted me to explain why I was so happy. A few times, he told the househelp who answered the call that it was Erap calling, because he felt that that ruse elicited a faster response from me.
To Rene, Joker was always a caring and thoughtful friend. When Rene tragically lost Dulce, he worried about how Rene would cope. He and Fely were full of concern, and Rene recalls the sit-down dinner—
among their many kind gestures—that the Arroyos thoughtfully hosted for his entire family. “The silverware were all lined up beside my plate,” says Rene.
At an elegant and gracious degustation for visiting Columbia dean Sheila Coronel, with Fely’s Martha Stewart-like setting and plating, Marites Vitug asked Joker: “Do you always dine like this? And then write your memoir in your library?”
The library was a lovely writer’s haven with a well-curated book collection and artwork all around—a collection so extensive that there were not enough walls for them; there were pieces awaiting display space in the toilets! We kept threatening Fely we would help out by spiriting away some of them.
At a more recent dinner for Sheila, I was in yellow because it was Aug. 1, Cory Aquino’s death anniversary. When I entered the house, I called out to Joker to announce that I was still wearing yellow from the morning ceremonies precisely for him, as I knew he would enjoy a big laugh.
When we bade goodbye then after that SM Aura lunch, we said we would gather again by yearend for Fely’s traditional Christmas décor at their home
—which had so impressed my young visiting grandson Diego a few years ago—and to celebrate Joker’s 88th birthday on Jan. 5.
Despite initial arrangements with Fely, it never happened because of the holiday frenzy. To this day, we rue that oversight, for it turned out to be his last birthday.
Joker never felt any need for any of those farewell rituals. But here we are, a year after, feeling the need to come together to grieve collectively and celebrate our friendship with him—for us to be able to move on.
With his widow Fely, the Women group plus dear lawyer friends Rene Saguisag and Jun Factoran attended a private Mass by his crypt in the Santuario de San Antonio Mortuary last Oct. 5.
Anyone wishing to visit Joker’s crypt will have a hard time finding it; that’s how he wants it, in keeping with another one of his Garbo-like instructions. His crypt bears only his familiar but illegible signature, with nothing else beneath, no printed name or dates. The fresh flowers are the only telltale sign of Fely’s daily visits.
I have a bone to pick with him. If he, indeed, seemed to bid his close friends goodbye before his last medical trip to San Francisco, why were the Women not included?
We are having the last laugh today. Despite how quietly he wanted to go, we remember his death anniversary on two days: Oct. 4 San Francisco time, and Oct. 5 Philippine time.
A year after, we are bidding Joker a formal farewell—but a friendship like his can never be forgotten.