Saturday, November 28, 2009

What is owed

EMILIANA Catipay Catubig had a choice few are granted.

She chose the manner of her going.

Tuesday afternoon. The 89-year-old woke up in her own bed. She was in the house her late husband, Gregorio, made for her. She first entered it as a bride of 18.

Now, after a lifetime of farming, livestock raising and housekeeping for a husband and 11 children, she hardly left her home now. She distrusted motorcycles for hire and disliked asphalt and cement, which made her feet swell.

That Tuesday afternoon, before the dream of Gorio even left her, she told her daughters, Santa and Pastora, to get ready. They had to go to the Poblacion in Samboan the following day.

We’re going to buy more rice; a lot of people will be coming here tomorrow.

This is what Toring recalled her mother saying, when she recounted this story later to the others who came home as soon as they knew.

When Emil said that their father had called out to her in her dream, her Toring blurted in Cebuano: don’t go, Ma, don’t listen to him.

In answer, Emil said she wished to wear the dress her children gave her during their golden anniversary.

If it’s going to be hard to put me inside it, just put the dress over my body, she directed.

Then she asked Toring to comb her hair, Antang to wipe her body with a wet cloth. The women changed the house dress their mother wore for a fresh one. When Antang went down to fetch something from below the house, Emil leaned against the arm Toring braced to support her, and passed away.

To contrast with our arrival in this world—violent, bloody, screaming—our departure from this place should afford us some kernel of solace.

Can’t death be at least tranquil? A homecoming without the fuss, a gentle slipping away to sleep? Winding down the story to return to that cocoon of unbeing before the spasms shook and expelled us, before we got pushed out to this world of light and noise and tumult.

Last Tuesday proved me wrong and correct. While Nang Emil left this world to enter her dream, I was following the news for the body count in Maguindanao.

From the 40 first reported as abducted last Monday, the media reports rapidly spiraled into a crescendo of infamy: 21 bodies found, which became 24, then 35, and, as of last Friday, “at least 57.” Never until now has the qualifier, “at least,” been unequalled in its power to chill.

In this country, a death is an occasion to celebrate the dead among the living. Travelling by bus, motorcycle and foot, Emil’s family, friends and neighbors gathered within hours to keep vigil, fulfilling her foreknowledge that more rice would be needed in her household.

While a son and neighbors made her coffin, stories were told and retold; even jokes, swapped. A modest woman who only ventured out to till and hear mass, Emil was known never to turn down a neighbor in need, ready to share milled corn or meat preserved from the fiesta.

Five days after the abductions, a colleague tagged me on Facebook for the names of the 32 journalists massacred in Maguindanao. One is still unaccounted for. I’ve tried to look for the names of the other victims, if only to fight the numbing chill of a deathwatch-by-the-numbers.

Each of the victims was a person. Each had a family, loved ones for whom the vigil will be an unquiet one, not broken by remembrance and jesting, a mourning that will not end with the burial.

Last Thursday, the sun shone when Emil was brought down to the Poblacion for the last time. A downpour nearly drowned out the priest saying last rites in the church. But the sun was out again when the community walked to put her to rest in the local cemetery.

Uneventful, ordinary. A suitable passing that’s denied the 57 Maguindanao massacre victims, “at least,” their families, our country.

For what is owed, let there be then no forgetting; no resting until the rule of law brings the murderers and conspirators to justice.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 29 “Matamata” column

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