I felt suffocated. The air was heavy with grief, with the loss of Butch, a dear first cousin, son to Brother Number Five of my father’s.
Butch was firstborn to Francisco “Pipo” Roces and Nisena Ortiz. Sylvia, Ninit, and I were ourselves, respectively, firstborn to Brothers One, Liling; Two, Tuting; and Three, Titong, in the nine all-male brood of Lola Enchay and Lolo Rafael. Born before the war, like us three, Butch had to be just a few years younger. Not that chronological ages mattered; all of us cousins have been close. And so were our fathers and mothers.
I agonized over Butch’s condition as soon as I was told about it, and yet wanted a detailed report, every day. I got it in a roundabout way, from Butch’s sister, Tina, who got it from Butch’s daughter Joie, each way through texts and other mobile forms of messages—we were many, many miles apart. We knew how Butch fought the brutal attack of the virus on his vital organs. We prayed and prayed and prayed and were lifted by every positive sign, every improvement, no matter how small.
I had myself just recovered from a moderate attack, which itself felt like the worst episode of my long life. The toll in exhaustion it took on my 81-year-old, albeit relatively healthy body, drained me. It afforded me no rest. I remember how many on the brink of death say over and over again how tired they were, so tired that, at that point, eternal rest, unknown as it was to them, was what they sought.
Butch had a few things going for him. He was in the intensive care unit in Houston, Texas, where I had myself lived in the early part of my first marriage. I’m still familiar with how even then, in the 1960s, Houston was already making a name in the medical field, which gave me confidence for Butch.
But soon, it was almost as if the virus, after showing signs of retreating, had regrouped for a more massive attack. The latest lab results were devastating. His doctors, fearing the worst, called his wife Zeny, herself newly recovered from a milder assault of the virus, to be by his side, along with the rest of the family. Everything had been done to save him.
I recalled my dad’s words each time he survived an ischemic attack on his heart in all his 91 years, “Kiddo, if it’s just one organ acting up, I’ll be just fine. But the moment all my organs start ganging up on me that’s when I’ll be in real trouble.”
Butch was fighting on too many battlefronts. I increasingly became seriously afraid. My messages to Butch, sent to Tina and Joie, had been at first confident, even playful: He wouldn’t jump the line, if he had any respect for his elders. His dad is 99. One of two uncles is 91 and the other 89. And we are older cousins. I also told him I never prayed so much for anyone, and that, as soon as he was well, I meant to collect big-time in blowouts.
At one point I confided to Tina that I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. Should I insist and beg God to let him live, not knowing what quality of life awaited him post-COVID? In the end my prayer became one of comfortable surrender to God’s will.
I received an invitation from his immediate family to pray in Butch’s presence via Zoom. It was shocking and painful to all of us to see him that way, when only a month ago he was full of life—commenting on my posts, for instance, with characteristic humor. We gathered as family to pray and say our final goodbye and messages of love.
A few hours later, Tina texted, “It’s over, Chit; the fight is over.” It was time to let him go.
I learned later that he had chosen not to be vaccinated. And I was tempted to think that he might have been alive today if only he had had his vaccine. After all, it’s so easy to get it there. But I also believe death happens when and how it should. And so it is with every death, which, of course, doesn’t make it easier to accept for those left behind. I knew that, if I had to say something in their presence, I’d mess up.
So I wrote this right away, and filed it away, upon learning he was gone: “Goodbye, my dear cousin Butch. You had a good life, not without its pains, but all in all it was a good run. We prayed for you; now it’s your turn to pray for us.”