Sometime in March 2007, I, with Ate Ballsy, my brother Jim, Lino Rivera and Ben Tangco were in a meeting with Auntie Cory (Aquino) to discuss our projects in the Aquino Foundation.
The country was again experiencing political instability amid corruption allegations and a questionable mandate raised against then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In February that same year, some high-ranking officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and disgruntled soldiers declared their withdrawal of support for Ms Arroyo.
There was again restiveness and divisiveness within the military ranks, reminiscent of the times that led to the two People Power uprisings, which resulted in a change in political leadership.
In the meeting, I recall, our discussions diverted toward what was happening in the country. I remember how we expressed much frustration and disappointment about why we, as a country, could not seem to learn from our mistakes and how the majority of our people seemed to have already been pushed to apathy and indifference.
It seemed that only a few Filipinos felt outrage about corruption and repression.
When Auntie Cory called our people to prayer gatherings to pray for the country, we would even get very nasty, anonymous text messages—“Wala na yang Cory Magic ninyo! Wala namang magagawa yan kundi magdasal nang magdasal.”
In that meeting, we asked Auntie Cory, “May pag-asa pa ba ang bayan natin?”
She immediately replied, “Hoy kayo ha! Bawal mawalan ng pag-asa. Habang buhay kayo, hindi pwedeng tumigil lumaban para sa tama!”
We fell silent. Then she went on casually, “Baka dapat may mamatay.”
What followed was nervous laughter.
We pointed at each other as to who would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in the same way Uncle Ninoy (Aquino) did on Aug. 21, 1983.
Of course, we all knew that our non-heroic lives, even if we offered them, would not have pushed our people to defiant action.
Clearly, when Auntie Cory said this, she honestly believed that no less than another heroic act could again give our people collective inspiration, moving them to unite for change.
The only question left unanswered was—whose life would it be?
Fast-forward Dec. 25, 2007. Every year, the Cojuangco family spends Christmas lunch at my grandparents’ home in Makati.
Upon our arrival, we learned that Auntie Cory would not be able to join us because she had to be rushed to the hospital on Christmas Eve due to a severe case of high blood pressure.
At that time, there was no clear diagnosis because there were no symptoms.
After days of rest, Auntie Cory fully recovered and went back to work.
On Feb. 25, 2008, I accompanied her to the Makati Business Club meeting where she was invited to speak on the occasion of the 22nd anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution.
Gasping for air
As she spoke, I noticed that she was gasping for air each time she read the longer sentences of her prepared speech.
On our way back to the office, I asked her if she was having difficulty breathing while delivering her speech. She did, she admitted, and self-diagnosed that her asthma could be acting up again.
Back in the office, I told Ate Ballsy about what I observed and suggested that she ask her mom to see her doctor.
A few weeks later, Ate Ballsy called and told me, “Kuys, bad news! Mom has cancer!”
I was shocked. It was the kind of news you hoped you’d never receive.
The next day, I got a short text from Auntie Cory—“Please come to the office.”
As I entered her office I asked, “Yes, Auntie Cory?”
She said, “I just want you to know I have cancer. Do not worry about me. I am at peace. I feel I have lived a full life naman.”
She told me how, after the MRI, she looked at the concerned faces of the doctors and how no one wanted to say what they had found. If I remember right, she was the one who pushed the doctors to speak out when she asked them pointblank, “Do I have cancer?” They replied, “Yes.”
They showed her the MRI image, which she said looked like a “Christmas tree with many Christmas lights.”
MRI scans identify cancer cells by illuminating them in the scanned image. The many “Christmas lights in a Christmas tree” indicated that the cancer cells were all over. It was stage 4 colon cancer.
Honestly, I did not know how to react. Even if I already knew Auntie Cory had cancer, it still felt surreal hearing it straight from her. A part of me still did not want to believe that Auntie Cory would go through yet again another battle, and this time there was a big chance she would lose and leave us.
I remember that all I could tell her was, “I’m so sorry to hear this, Auntie Cory. I promise to pray for you.”
In the days that followed, the question was whether or not she would still go through treatment. Initially, Auntie Cory did not want to go through treatment anymore. As she said, she was ready to go.
However, with great prodding from her children and close friends, she agreed to undergo chemotherapy, and this gave us another year and four months with her—a bonus for all of us who loved her.
Auntie Cory passed away on Aug. 1, 2009, a Saturday.
Through the kind assistance of then Mayor Jojo Binay and the Makati Medical Center staff and administrators, her remains were transferred from the hospital to The Heritage Park, while then Sen. Noynoy Aquino announced the passing of his mother outside the hospital lobby.
It was agreed then that after a few hours of private time with her immediate family at The Heritage Park, Auntie Cory would be brought to the St. Benilde Gym at La Salle Green Hills for the wake until Monday. Then she would be brought to the Manila Cathedral where she would lie in state until Aug. 5.
This arrangement was made possible through the kindness and generous accommodation of the De La Salle brothers and Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, then the archbishop of Manila.
Outpouring of love
The five-day wake, while anticipated, was unexpected in terms of the outpouring of love and affection of a grateful people.
When everything was already set up at the St. Benilde Gym, the family left Heritage Park in a convoy of cars. When the convoy reached Edsa, people in cars and public buses who passed the convoy randomly waved their hands and honked horns to the beat reminiscent of the noise barrage during the 1978 Batasang Pambansa election. It seemed like the people’s way of letting Auntie Cory know that they remembered what she and her family had to go through during those times.
At the La Salle Green Hills campus, a number of her close allies, friends and relatives were already waiting. At the gate on Ortigas Avenue, people were already lining up even before the public could be allowed to go inside the campus.
When the gates finally opened, the queue on Ortigas Avenue had already extended all the way to Edsa.
People patiently queued under the sun or in the rain—anywhere from an hour to seven hours just to pay their respects and say their goodbyes even for fleeting seconds.
The entry of people was occasionally stopped whenever a Mass or a necrological service was held. Each time this was done, we would go down the line of mourners to offer them food and drinks donated by friends, relatives and supporters who also helped in the distribution.
It was literally like the “multiplication of the loaves that fed the multitude of people.”
We also apologized for the inconvenience caused them but their common response was, “Do not worry, this is the least we can do for Cory!”
When we transferred Auntie Cory’s remains from La Salle Green Hills to the Manila Cathedral, there was a request to pass by Ayala Avenue in Makati so that more people who could not go to the wake could say their final goodbyes.
We had to make arrangements for a flatbed truck to carry her casket so that people could have a better view, similar to what was done during the funeral of Uncle Ninoy.
As we approached the corner of Edsa and Ayala Avenue, the funeral convoy bearing Auntie Cory’s family members had to stop as a large crowd had blocked the road. From there, the convoy inched its way along the entire stretch of Ayala Avenue with the crowd walking in front of it setting the slow pace.
As they marched, people unceasingly and loudly chanted her name, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” When the convoy approached the Ninoy Aquino statue at the corner of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas, the confetti rained from the buildings along both sides of the road. It was the same energy and atmosphere of the many marches and rallies that Auntie Cory led in the same avenue when she protested against the Marcos dictatorship and other succeeding attempts to undermine our democracy.
It was as if people wanted to make her know, at least for the last time, how much they appreciated her leadership in those very trying times.
The scene in the Cathedral was no different from that at La Salle Green Hills, except that the lines were even longer and people were going in and out of the church until the wee hours.
Again, we went through the motion of bringing food and drinks to the people lined up, and whenever we apologized for the inconvenience they were experiencing, they repeated the message, “Okay lang, this is just a little sacrifice for Cory!”
As we were preparing for the funeral on Aug. 5, after former President Arroyo left the Cathedral at around 3 a.m., I noticed an elderly woman sitting near the confessional box at the back of the church. She was accompanied by a young girl whom I assumed was her grandchild. Both were drenched from the rain that poured outside. I approached them, apologized for having them wait outside, and asked if they needed anything to help them dry up or if they needed anything warm to drink.
Immediately, the woman responded, “Huwag mo na kaming alalahanin, iho, ayan lang naman ang mabibigay namin para kay Ma’am Cory!” As I was about to say goodbye to them to attend to the funeral preparations, she went on to ask, “Ikaw, nakapagpahinga ka na ba?”
On the day of the funeral, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos either marched with the convoy or stood along the route from the Manila Cathedral to Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque to say their final goodbyes to Auntie Cory.
It took us nine hours to bring her to her final resting place beside her beloved Ninoy.
Looking back, I was truly overwhelmed by the expressions of love and affection from the people who did not even know Auntie Cory personally.
Prior to her getting sick and her eventual death, I was already starting to believe her critics that our people no longer looked up to Auntie Cory and had already written her off as a leader they would follow. (See related story in this section.)
Then I remember what Auntie Cory said, “Baka dapat may mamatay!”
When she made that remark back then, I believe she did not imagine that it would be her death that would bring our people together again. I am certain she was imagining what happened when Uncle Ninoy died, when our people found collective outrage and courage to take it upon themselves to effect their desired change that eventually climaxed in the peaceful People Power Revolution three years after.
What Auntie Cory’s death unleashed was a more quiet collective outrage expressed with much love and respect of the Filipinos who probably realized they just lost someone who touched their lives in some profound way.
Suddenly, it may have dawned upon them that the person who once bravely stood up and spoke up to fight for their rights, freedom and welfare was gone. It was as if they had lost a loved one who selflessly sacrificed for them.
Death or even just the prospect of death really has a way of shaking us back to our senses.
There is truly something life-changing when we suddenly lose someone or something we love so dearly. Our choice of how we should move on to transcend the emptiness and the loneliness that follows can be truly transformative.
There are times we encounter the question, “If today would be the last day of your life, how would you live it?”
When I ponder the answers to the question, I often find myself realizing that there is very little time to catch up on what I believe are most important in life: so little time to be kinder; so little time to be more compassionate; so little time to be more understanding; so little time to be more patient and less judgmental; so little time to be forgiving, so little time to be more humble; so little time to be more loving.
I have to admit I am feeling very weary and tired these days. Our country is so sharply divided. We, as a people, have become very vicious against each other. We are hurting each other in ways I have not seen. We do not like to listen to each other anymore.
As such, we fail to discover the lessons we can learn from each other as we all strive to be our better selves. I am left feeling helpless and despairing at times because I have really very few answers to the many questions that arise.
Then I remember another remark of Auntie Cory in that meeting, “Hoy kayo ha! Bawal mawalan ng pag-asa. Habang buhay kayo, hindi pwedeng tumigil lumaban para sa tama!”
Suddenly, I am reminded I still have time.
If I may borrow and rephrase her words again, “Baka nga dapat may mamatay!”
However, it may not be so much the same physical death that she and Uncle Ninoy had to go through to move our people into effecting the change called for during those times.
It is very disturbing that many of our fellow countrymen, women and children die as a result of extrajudicial killings. It appears that the killings have not stopped and we do not know when they will.
Maybe, we are being reminded again about the call to die from our sinful, self-centered and demonized selves. If more of us choose to be kinder, more compassionate, understanding, patient and less judgmental, forgiving, humble and loving as Cory Aquino was, maybe we could move each other to effect the real change that is called for today.
Imagine if one woman, who chose to love us unconditionally, moved so many of us into action toward the change we aspire for each other and for our country, what more if there are more of us who will also choose to do the same? —CONTRIBUTED