We had my youngest granddaughter with us for her Christmas break last year, a happy way to end 2019 and begin 2020. I took that as a sign of an auspicious year. I was turning 80, and Vergel and I had booked ourselves for a cruise. Meanwhile, Vergel was looking forward to his younger brother Lito and his wife, Grace, visiting from the States in late January, and I was on the last rehearsals for a dance for our St. Theresa’s Quezon City high school homecoming. Then the new coronavirus struck.
Not yet fully aware of its dangers, I gave a Chinese lauriat for classmates, mostly balikbayan, themselves visiting for the homecoming. I chose the day of the last practice, a week before my birthday.
Not a month later, a balikbayan classmate at the lunch, Zorina, a doctor herself, attended the burial of a cousin in Pampanga who had died of the virus. Soon after, Zorina herself fell ill. Her younger brother Joey asked her and her husband to move from their condo in Taguig to his own home in Wack Wack, where he could take better care of her. Zorina seemed relatively healthy for her age, 82, and to our shock she died of the virus, and so did Joey soon after. Her husband, even older, was somehow spared.
Aside from all the welcome lunches for all those balikbayan classmates and one teacher, there was also the preparation for my 80th in early February. I had no second thoughts about celebrating, with old friends and relatives. Cousin Ninit Paterno’s children and their spouses were there, notably her son Mickey’s wife, Jean—she and I had our own relationship. Earlier on we had thought we’d lose Jean to cancer, but she had somehow battled into remission after remission.
At my 80th, she looked well and pretty. The virus had not made its presence felt yet, and neither had there been any sufficient warnings. Before that we had been with her at the Christmas lunch at Ninit’s. She gifted me and Vergel with the Paterno book, which took 15 years to put together, a labor of love for family, indeed.
I was told she had been able to call her loved ones for personal goodbyes. No one could be with her in the midst of the pandemic, as Mickey and their daughter, Sofie, were both quarantined themselves. She also called Ninit and each of Mickey’s siblings and a few choice friends.
Ninit was holding back tears when she told me, “Jean just called me to say goodbye.” She described her voice as clear and strong. From the way she sounded, Ninit said, it was hard to believe it would be her last call.
Sometime in late February, Lito and Grace went back home, missing the lockdown by 10 days. In early March, and as it turned out not a moment too soon, we pool exercisers, “aquabelles,” as we like to call ourselves—Annabel, Nida, Celia, Linda, the less religious Baby, and I—and our exercise teacher, Meya, with Celia’s husband Rene and Vergel, took off for Anvaya Cove.
On our last night at Anvaya, the President announced a pandemic lockdown. We thought of driving back that same night, anticipating a rush the next day. But no one was willing to give up our last night in paradise. The next day, March 11, we woke up to a bright beautiful morning of sun and sea, with not a clue that we would not see each other until it was more or less safe to resume our aqua exercise.
New rules of engagement
Meanwhile, the virus claimed victims close to home. While we were away at Anvaya, a friend and neighbor, Ed, was taken to the hospital, accompanied by his wife, Jingjing. A few days after we got back, he passed away. Our barangay captain and our condo administrator called for a socially distanced meeting outside at our curbside. We called Jingjing, who had herself caught the virus. She was crying when I spoke with her on the phone. I condoled with her and assured her she’d be all right and that we’d be praying for her recovery. We tried calling her again, but no answer. In a week she, too, was gone.
It was Ed I liked to sit beside at our condominium board meetings—he was quick with numbers and asked some of the most sensible questions. He got his virus entertaining a balikbayan sister who must have herself gotten it in Singapore, her last stop before Manila.
During the extended lockdown, I had time to review my long life, recalling many good times with the people I cared about and missing them terribly. Some have left us for good, but there are those with us still and with whom I will be reconnected, though under new rules of engagement.
Strange as our new world may be, it is still humanity’s only and common home. Perhaps we should start treating it as such. We may have to learn new ways to thrive and survive, but I have no doubt mankind will.