I first saw Cory Aquino in person during the premiere night of “Cory: The Musical” last November 2008, that loving tribute of songs and stories written in the eyes of and exclusively penned for her by close family friend Bing Pimentel. At the end of the production, when lead star Isay Alvarez and the rest of the main cast led the way for a thunderous applause, the 75-year old former president struggled up from her seat to give a few words of thanks and inspiration. It was almost clear then that her fragile state could not anymore hide the fact that this icon of democracy was, in fact, suffering from the terminal stages of colon cancer. It was almost clear, too, that I may well be seeing her for the first and the last time alive.
My parents were not even married when Ninoy Aquino was killed at the height of the Marcos regime in 1983. I can plainly say with all honesty and naiveté that I never went through the odious years of Martial Law era, never felt the stirring emotions of a unified People Power in EDSA I, never experienced the harrowing loss of democracy in the dead of night – only to have it resurrected by an unlikely heroine-of-a-housewife more than a decade after. To stretch the gap even farther, I never had the privilege of shaking hands with the woman once famously chosen by Time Magazine as Person of the Year, never knew how it was to work alongside this Fulbright Awardee for International Understanding, never had an inkling on how it felt like to be a doting grandchild to “one of Asia’s most influential leaders of the 20th century.”
What I have, beyond a few surreal meters of plush theater rows, is the lingering memory of having been able to vicariously trace her origins back to the old ancestral home in Quanzhou, China, eight years ago. More matter-of-factly, her husband Ninoy was also my exact natal predecessor of 55 years, a boon we share together with our noteworthy ears, academic inclination, and keen literary fervor (the idea of assassination has not occurred to me in my wildest dreams – yet.) Ninoy was the yang to Cory’s yin, the articulate voice to her lending ear, the convivial soul to her kindred spirit. With his death, she had to be yin and yang at the same time. As he watered the tarmac with senseless blood that fateful day in August, so must she sensibly redeem it three years later with a bloodless revolution in February. As his death sparked the flames that sent irate millions into a quest for democracy, so must her death fan the same flames that brought back the lessons of history.
And so I write, because to write is sometimes all one can do in the aftermath of a nation’s sorrowful outpouring, in the aftermath of unabashed, unexplained grief. Because to write is to proffer the humble gift of words, served on the simple platter of reminiscence and tendered in the hope that heaven reads the muffled lips of a now orphaned people. Most importantly, because to write of the life Cory Aquino lived is to write of snippets of each and every Filipino’s life – and incidentally, mine as well: grim shadows of the past, firm reminders of the present, hopeful exhortations of the future.
Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, in his poignant eulogy, quietly pointed out how “selflessness, faith and courage” have always remained at the forefront of Cory’s life, the indelible trio of principles that constituted the bedrock of morals by which her whole life was founded on. Selflessness, manifested in the concrete hierarchy of “God, country and family”, has been her battle cry for living for others, for the continuous betterment of those around her even in her darkest, most painful days. It is with this realization that I marvel at the frail gallantry of Cory as a human person, and if only to generalize – to the extent by which the lot of ordinarily extraordinary persons make themselves extraordinarily ordinary. Courage, by way of defying fraudulence and a feared despot with the striking candor of truth and sincerity, places her in the league of a modern day Joan of Arc – shining sword traded for rosary beads, blazing red for canary yellow, final martyrdom on the stake with serene acceptance of disease.
Cory, however, is not Cory without the unwavering and almost saint-like faith that shook mountains with a single prayer, and yet, in itself, was virtually unshakeable. (If a “Hail Mary Squad” so much as existed, she would have been, hands down and without question, ringleader of the gang.) As someone once put it: “Before, I was not too entirely convinced of a woman who brandishes prayer as her prime weapon; but it never budged under duress, and now she has made me a total believer.” Even as she reluctantly ascended the silver steps to Malacañang, and even as she voluntarily exited the chief commander’s throne with paramount grace, she knew her real power – and wielded it effortlessly across an archipelago mobilizing an army of sorts that rejoiced as she rejoiced, wept as she wept, and fought on even as her strength slowly succumbed to the dreaded Big C. We again swarmed out to the streets when she called for a defaced president’s ouster. We rallied behind her as she sought asylum for rebelling soldiers. We marched with her, church to church, school to school, when she took a stand behind the reputed underdog of a boiling political scandal. And now, more than ever, we raised the cudgels for her with her recent denunciation of the infamous Con-Ass, read aloud by a grandson as she lay stricken on her pristine hospital bed. All of which prompted me to ask: What is it about her that moves us? Rather, what is it about her that moves us into action?
The celebrated Pablo Picasso believed that “some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, while others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Yellow, of all colors, permeates the darkness the easiest and the most; the veritable, elemental mother of light. Cory, who took up painting in her twilight years, must have wisely understood the connection and so chose yellow to initiate the illustrious spectacle that dramatically engraved itself across the surface of our nation’s history, conveying a people’s shared sentiments and brilliantly capturing that tearful moment of joy once victory has been claimed. In a country barely holding its own under the dark for so long, yellow was a refreshing change, the gentle impeding strand that could, the provident beacon slowly but surely leading the way out of the proverbial tunnel. Yellow depicted the outrage of the angry throng of two million escorting Ninoy to his grave, and yellow, too, emblazoned the banner bearing our tireless crusades for deliverance. For all she’s worth, and for the “crosses and roses” patiently borne for the sake of an ailing nation, we thank Cory Aquino for transforming a yellow spot into the yellow sun of Philippine colors, for her legacy of light and the things that stood beyond it.
But even in the light of one’s best and most noble intentions, one cannot please all, and at all times. There are those who attack her feeble handling of fiscal policies, the lackluster response to communist insurgents, the burgeoning energy crisis, the way she opted to tread the path of honor and hard work by politely shunning the World Bank’s offer to absolve us of our debt-rigged dilemma. Even then, in the midst of a thousand detractors, it is all too easy to single her out with her signature smile, shrugging her shoulders as if resigned to the fact that she was, and will always be, limited. A classmate of mine, a not-so-ardent fan in the spectrum of Cory fanaticism, once dreamt of her “on her knees, pleading for forgiveness for whatever errors she may have committed.” And it occurred to me that perhaps, it has always been her nature to forgive: Gringo and the numerous grisly attempts to throw her out of office. EDSA II and the eventual reconciliation with Erap. Bitter factions right smack in the Cojuangco clan. Daughter Kris and her rocky romances. Conrado de Quiros, the very same writer whom Kris once rued as being “so mean to my mom”, would later mean what he said and say what he meant when he called her “one damn good person.”
With her passing arose a great many speculations about the theory of goodness, goodwill, good people. Sometimes, it meant introspectively looking at the fundamental basis of human nature and discovering that moral lodestar deep within. Other times, it rested on the more profound grounds of relativity, on cautious, unbiased deliberation of graded evilness: greater evil, lesser evil. In his speech at the start of “Cory: The Musical”, Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III described his mother as being “so different from the powers that be that govern us today”. Without being unjustifiably cynical, I have come to consider her death as the unofficial end of an era, of bygone days where public service was an untarnished honor and personal integrity was still in vogue. No one would argue when I propose that for most of her life Cory played the part of a much lesser evil, her flaws a mere speck in the rancid frays of the contemporary political arena already marred and marred still, her shortcomings presumably given in to inexperience that had much to do with coping with gargantuan responsibility and generic demands at the same time. I once fielded such a question to my aunt: “How good was she?” To which she readily answered, “Well, I say she was good enough, wasn’t she?” For most of this country’s 80 million denizens, there was no doubt. She was good enough, damn good enough.
In burying Cory, we give tribute to her simple yet significant contribution to the restoration of a free Philippines, tainted as it is by the unbecoming forces that threaten to break its cornerstone of nobility. In accompanying her for a straight, sacrificial eight hours to her final resting place, we commit ourselves to the perpetual cause of upholding democracy that she so adamantly fought for for much of her widowed lifetime. In braving the corporeal embodiments of searing sun and roaring rain, we testify our solidarity as a Filipino nation cloaked in mourning, sealed in love, and bonded in hope.
“It is good to see the (people power) spirit still alive,” one person commented, no less than struck short of awed at the heartwarming sight of a million Filipinos flooding the flooded streets of the metropolis in a desperate attempt for last minute glimpses, tributes, and farewells (plus photo-ops.) It was definitely larger than life; the wonderful frenzy now fondly referred to as “Cory magic”. I was inclined to think that in this age of ephemeral transitions, just as pages yellow away and persist beyond the mortal days of their venerated authors, so shall the robust yellow of “Cory magic” elude death in its agelessness. After all, way after she stepped down as president, I was a personal witness to how a catchy Hiligaynon jingle (sung to the tune of a then popular jukebox dance hit, the title of which I cannot recall) continued to gain popular acclaim back home, ingeniously crafted as follows:
“Everybody/saka sa lubi/
Kung mahulog/singgit lang kay Cory…”
(“Everybody/climb the coconut tree/
If you fall down/just call out for Cory…”)
The creator’s first intention, I would suppose, was certainly and primarily for amusement (as if anything else mattered more to a five year old kid.) But for those who knew better, it was more than an act of endearment, more than an acknowledgment of trust that goes well beyond embracing her as president, wife, and mother. With her passing, it is in confidently affirming that we can always count on the Tita Cory we knew to bring the country back to its feet, albeit in spirit, and to bring us Filipinos back to our feet, whenever, wherever, and always with a pleasing, soaring sense of heightened national consciousness.
Twenty-three years ago, as the newly-instated president of a republic on wobbly knees, she beseeched the joint Houses of Congress to “join us, America, as we build a new home for democracy; another haven for the oppressed so it may stand as a shining testament of our two nations’ commitment to freedom.”
Twenty-three years later, as a medical student of an institution sailing past its centennial year, I entreat my fellow countrymen to “join us, Philippines, as we build a new home for democracy; another haven for the oppressed so it may stand as a shining testament of our two heroes’ commitment to freedom.”