It’s not easy to write about Gilda Cordero-Fernando, the eternal woman, in the past tense.
I have written about her or mentioned her in this column and writings elsewhere. After all, she was a special, longtime friend and inspirer—it was she who got me writing regularly and professionally. Imagine how honored I felt when asked to become a columnist along with her, in the same newspaper, in the same section, on the same page, here.
After some years of that run together, she stopped writing and then stopped painting. She also stopped dyeing her hair. She had eased up on many things even before the pandemic came and she turned 90, last June 4. Health issues had set in despite strict diet and regular exercise. She endured that awful green concoction she drank every night, before going to sleep, which even her literary power failed her describing; she simply stuck out her tongue as would an aggressively resentful child and rolled her eyes.
Otherwise, she seemed to be weathering her compromised health. What bothered her most about aging, she confided, was the loss of all privacy. “I’m accompanied everywhere, and I mean everywhere!” she protested with a heavy sigh of surrender, as if to say, like it or not, it’s the way things go.
And yet she seemed to defy aging. Her skin kept its smoothness and sheen, for which she credited Pond’s cream. Her appetite, as robust as it was, did not in the least deform her. Her sense of humor remained youthful and deliciously irreverent without ever crossing the line. Her curiosity, of which I was a subject, was insatiable about what made one relationship fail and another succeed. I simply told her, “Sheer luck.” Vergel called it “magic.”
Wheeled around in a chair by a caregiver in later years, she continued to attend cultural events, lunches at restaurants with friends, and wakes. She loved going out, and cared little forgetting she had made a lunch date at home with another friend who thought it kinder to visit.
Friends coursed messages and invitations through her daughter Wendy, who warned everybody her mom was becoming layas in her old age and not easy to catch. And, once out, the last thing she wanted to do was go home. She was atypical of an oldie in that way, but then Gilda wasn’t like anybody else.
Gilda is only one of two people I knew who had developed an attitude toward death. The other was my dad. Surely as smart as God was, Dad thought, He could have come up with something better than dying to get from here to heaven. Having completed more than nine First Friday Masses with Holy Communion when he was a student at the Ateneo, Dad believed he had salvation in his pocket. In his own way, he kept the faith. Still, there was no way to get around dying, as Dad found out, decisively, at 91.
Gilda, in her own way, had her cake and ate it, too. She planned and attended her own wake—yes, she mounted one alive. This new layas syndrome was in fact Gilda up to her old tricks again. Gilda would not be home or leave any tracks when the Grim Reaper came a-calling. “Wala po!” was all that a well-trained kasambahay was at liberty to say.
She could talk irreverently about death, and usually at the worst time. Wondering why some wives refused to pull the plug on their over-dying husband, she said, “Ako iba.”
Indeed, when her husband Elo was in and out of the hospital, he asked her, “Huwag mo naman hugutin ang plug agad, puede ba? Bigyan mo ako muna ng konting chance.” He knew his Gilda.
Some years back we had discussed cremation, relieved when the Church finally allowed it. Sounding like she knew the science behind it, she said “Eh, paano ngayon, when you are cremated pala, all the nutrients disappear, and what’s left is completely useless material, useless even to the earth.”
As soon as she said it, she seemed more bothered than I. She had planned on having her ashes sprinkled around a particular tree in her garden, hoping that she would continue to nurture it even after she was gone. I myself didn’t think beyond cremation, itself horrible enough—it was a more acceptable alternative to worms.
One time we tackled funeral etiquette. “Do you think it in good taste to attend the wake of an ex?” The closest I got to that situation was when a parent of an ex died. I believed it more important to consider the feelings of the living than those of the dead. I didn’t go. Oh, how she wished everyone else did that.
On her 80th, a grand-themed affair done with her usual artistic flair and symbolic rituals she was fond of, she asked Vergel to sing to her. He sang ”Try a Little Tenderness,” accompanying himself on his Little Martin, a baby-sized guitar, as befits, he says, his baby-sized talent.
Notwithstanding, Gilda was visibly impressed and touched, and marveled all the more at our relationship. For years she had been volunteering to take charge of our wedding rites and was disappointed when we opted for simple rites in 2008. But the bridal shower, she, with the other ladies in our writing club, First Draft, sprung on me more than made up for it!
In the end she, herself, opted for an unceremonious departure for a better place. Gilda the layas happy hugger must have had enough of this isolation and quarantine.