A lament for the dead
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2020 - 12:00am

How do you pay your respects to the dead in the time of COVID-19?

One can light a candle and let the flames whisper a prayer.

Or one can bid farewell by clicking on Zoom and type some random numbers to get inside the funeral room virtually, and see a grieving taipan. That would seem intrusive, but for others, it’s the only choice these days.

Then there’s the usual thousands of pesos worth of messages of love and respect in newspapers and on social media.

As for me, I will pause from my perennial rants about the daily black comedy we wake up to and take a moment to pay tribute to three individuals who have recently departed; they were neither friends nor family, just kind strangers I’ve encountered along the way.

Benito Legarda Jr.,94

I met him last year at the Bangko Sentral’s annual reception for the banking community, but I was rushing out of Fort San Antonio Abad. I cannot remember exactly where I was going, but I only gave him my card when we were introduced. We exchanged pleasantries.

To my surprise, he emailed me three days after and invited me to lunch at the  Casino Español de Manila. I had no idea why and where the place was, but as a journalist I accepted the invitation.

He was a former deputy governor of the Bangko Sentral. He shared with me stories about our country, what he did during his stint at the BSP and, like a lot of old people I’ve met, he also asked about what I do and how I started writing. He urged me to “keep raising public consciousness through journalism.”

Gilda Cordero Fernando, 88

One quiet day, years ago, a lady so full of energy and zest walked inside the small bookstore I once had.

We hit it off in an instant. There were many more conversations after that, over coffee, over Bellini’s pizza and pasta, days and nights of boisterous laughter. She was fun, so full of energy and infectious chutzpah.

A renaissance woman, larger than life. Age wasn’t a deterrent for her. She wrote and, at 80, started painting. She generously shared these talents to the young ones, myself included. She encouraged me to do literary journalism, or to just write. And write. So nurturing, so inspiring.

Lucia Gonzales Tan, 77

I met her last year at the birthday bash of luxury car businessman Felix Ang. Her son-in-law, tycoon Alfred Ty, introduced us. When she heard my name, she smiled and her face lit up. I was really surprised. She pulled me away from the crowd, led me to a quiet corner to drown out the noise so I would hear what she had to say.

She just wanted to say she reads my stories. Every column, she said.“I never missed!” were her exact words.

This lady, wife of a powerful billionaire, talking to a stranger with such warmth, kindness and encouragement. I was happy to have met her.

I wanted a photograph of us together, but I was too shy to ask Alfred to take it and I did not think a selfie would do justice to the moment. Anyway, I said to myself, I’ll see her again one day, perhaps in another party.

In the end, I don’t have photographs with all three, but that’s fine. Who was it who said that photographs are for people who can’t remember?

What matters were my encounters with them, fleeting as they were. I will remember it for a long time until maybe one day I lose my memory to dementia. For now, everything is still vivid and pleasant, and it’s all good.

Farewell to you all. Thank you for the conversations and for the chance encounters. I’m glad my time on earth overlapped with yours. You were all generous to the younger ones like me. You were up there, but you reached down.

It’s always an honor to chance upon the humble and the wise, the ladies and gentlemen of the old school, because these days, they’re as rare as fragments of the moon. But most of all, it’s because they are stark reminders that the world is always a bit better with more goodness than bad.

We all leave this world unable to bring anything to our graves, or to the tiny urns our bodies will end up in.

We can only be remembered for what we’ve done for the people around us, how we treated every stranger we chanced upon, and what we did to help this country we all claim to love.

During my grandfather’s wake decades ago, his construction workers were in tears and so many strangers told me what a kind person he was.

Grief never really ends and those who have lost a loved one just learn to hide the tears, learn how ungentle mourning can feel, and realize how language, for once, will fail to grasp what really goes on inside of us. We can only find comfort in the fact that the loved ones we’ve lost touched the lives of others  — not just ours — because they’re simply great people like that.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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