The nearness of her
Margie T. Logarta (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - I came charging in midway through her funeral Mass, but I had a good reason for being late. As usual, I had been beating a deadline, albeit a very special one. My brothers and sisters had asked me to deliver the tribute that Thursday morning for her — our mother, Llita T. Logarta, who had returned to her Creator at dawn of April 7. 

And though I cringe from public speaking — give me the chore of interrogation any time — I could not shirk the awesome task of weaving the tapestry of her well-lived life in a set of paragraphs that would never do justice to this woman of grace and eternal sunshine.

After endlessly repeating in my head the mantra: “I won’t cry” during the eulogy, that’s exactly what I did, but managed to soldier on despite several excruciating pauses. At her “inurnment” two days later, I broke the pearl rosary bracelet that I had been wearing all that week (following advice from a close friend so another death in the family wouldn’t be repeated too quickly), as well as the speech I had delivered, with her ashes. Little tokens, poignant symbols of my wish to be close to her for all time.

You see, I was the usually absent daughter. I was the one who was always hardly there.

As a several months-old infant, Mom and Dad (the late writer-lawyer Nic Logarta) left me in the care of her parents and older sister Teresita, when Dad took up a post as press attaché in the Philippine Embassy in London. My three older brothers were entrusted to another set of relatives.

Oh, they returned a few years later, but by then, they had become strangers. Wisely, they decided not to break my grandparents’ hearts by demanding me back, sparing a toddler the trauma of re-bonding with what was practically a new family.

From then on, that was to be the pattern of Mom’s  relationship with me — mothering from afar.

Or was it really?

True, she and Daddy had a second batch of kids, starting seven years after I was born, with a second daughter, followed by a third, and finally, their fourth and last son. The concerns of this fresh brood of youngsters, together with those of three older sons, certainly must have consumed Mom’s energies. But she still never let me forget that she was very much around. When I started school at Institution Teresiana (now Poveda), she insisted on driving me there, motoring early morning from their Phil-Am Life Village home in her black snub-nose Mercedes-Benz to my grandparents’ leafy complex near the QC Welcome rotunda, then all the way to what was then called Highway 54 (EDSA to a younger generation).

I don’t quite remember what we talked about during those leisurely drives — traffic was light then — except I felt strangely wistful when we pulled up the gravel driveway of Teresiana, as if reluctant to let go of the intimacy. In the early ‘60s, Mom was one of Manila’s few female drivers. The only other mother I remember tooling around was the late Sonya Mathay, who always wore stylish sheaths and black leather gloves. It was she, who gave me my first intimations of chic.

Mom also never missed out on red-letter dates in my life. There was my first communion at Teresiana, a high-profile event indeed, with classmates who happened to be Imee Marcos, Ballsy Aquino and Ria Roxas, which meant that Ferdinand and Imelda, Ninoy and Cory and Gerry and Judy must have been there, too! She was in the audience at the usual round of piano recitals, classroom skits and college plays, including an unexpected lead turn at a Tanghalan Ateneo production of Orlando Nadres’ Paraisong Parisukat, playing the mousy shoe sales lady “Isya” Cruz. (Our director Pilar de Guzman-Palabrica surprised us one night, inviting the playwright himself and Melvi Pacubas, the original Isya and for whom the play was especially written, to watch. I like to think our little troupe aquitted itself, making Melvi cry during one dramatic scene when I made wala and flung scores of shoeboxes and their contents about the stockroom.)

Mom pronounced herself surprised and impressed that I had mastered the entirely Tagalog dialogue — I usually scraped by in Pilipino classes — although she couldn’t resist chuckling that I sounded like an insik. To which, I retorted I did have Dad’s singkit eyes. So there.

The graduations were important family milestones, of course. Dad may have been missing in action, but not Mom, tita Inday and Lolo, who were teary-eyed and proud as punch at the medals I received for extra-curricular activities. 

And it was none other than Mom who started me off on my journalistic path. She persuaded tita Eggie (Apostol) to hire me one summer, while still at the Ateneo, as a parttime reporter for her then fledgling Mr & Ms. My first assignment was a man-on-the-street poll posing the question: “What do you think of the title, Ms?” It made the first edition of the magazine with a lovey-dovey Joseph Siytangco and his future wife Kathy Malabanan on the cover, and ran in several editions after.

During this early exercise in interviewing, I got my first taste of public censure when a beauty queen I featured drove someone to write in saying how dare I include a woman who was the mistress of a top businessman. The subject was a former classmate I had not seen since high school. How was I to know her clandestine activities? At least the incident provided a preview of the power or perils of the journalistic trade.

Once I got stuck in the family profession — apart from Dad and Mom, older brother Louie was also a scribe, who went on to become National Press Club president — there was no turning my back on a life ruled by irregularity, crazy work hours and chasing a hot lead or provocative personality. Mom, meanwhile, got a second wind and went back to full- time writing for Mr&Ms, Mr&Ms Special Edition and eventually Philippine Daily Inquirer where she led the Lifestyle section from 1987 to 1994. We saw little of each other (cell phones were still a novelty), but we kept up through our bylines.

Our mother-daughter writing tandem was obviously prolific enough to prompt the late Chief Justice Querube C Makalintal and speaker of the Interim Pambansa to remark to her: “Why is it sometimes your article has the name Llita and sometimes, it’s Margie?” She quickly clarified the situation for the esteemed gentleman, after much laughter between them.

I have been away from Manila for 23 years now as a “OFW professional,” 10 years in Singapore and 13 years now in Hong Kong. Even that, Mom helped facilitate. On one press trip to Singapore and Malaysia in 1990, I asked her to hand my CV to artist Jose Tence Ruiz, then a graphic designer with the Straits Times, on the off chance there were job openings in his newspaper. “Bogie” happened to mention my interest to another writer friend of ours, Joel Lacsamana, whose company was indeed in need of an editor. By the time Mom got back to Manila, I had already accepted the job offer and was geared to leave that week.

I’m sure it saddened her and my aunt (the grandparents had long gone) to see me go, but these generous ladies had never stopped me from having the adventures that came with being a journalist — I just didn’t bother telling them about some of my close calls. They weren’t going to start now.

Though the years, we kept in touch as much as our busy schedules and distance would allow. She would always grouse, but with tongue-in-cheek, that she had “inherited all my friends,” particularly those enterprising PR folk, who would send her their press releases with an accompanying greeting: “Hi, Tita Llita, I’m Margie’s friend.” Soon, they became her friends, too.

In Singapore, I had switched gears from news-features to covering the airline and hospitality industry, which I continue to do, work that has become even more relevant given the explosion in tourism and business travel around the region. Mom was always keen to learn which exotic destination I was headed for next, and I made it a habit of SMS-ing her before each trip so she could request her favorite intercessor Padre Pio to keep me protected. Those prayers came in handy during one holiday to Urumqi in China’s volatile Xinjiang region, which had no Internet access and IDD service at the time I visited due to a government ban curbing civil unrest.

Little did my travel companion, Janice, and I realize there were several places in the city that were risky for visitors to venture into, but we lucked onto a tour guide, named Jack Ho, whose commitment to our safety and unique sense of humor was one of the highlights of the experience.

Once, a three-day press trip of hers to Singapore coincided with a very dark period I was experiencing. I stayed over at her hotel, practically begging her not to attend the official functions, but to stay with me. Each night, I curled up beside her in the king-size bed, desperately seeking her maternal warmth. With a mother’s instinct, she said: “Who’s the b------? I’ll stick my umbrella up his a--- where the sun don’t shine and twirl it!” Oh, Mom, you were hilarious even while I was devastated.

Without fail, she sent chatty letters and birthday cards, which arrived before the date or on the dot, all penned in her lovely script. One note card, emblazoned with Van Gogh’s vibrant sunflowers and dated Sept. 2, 2001 to me in Hong Kong, said: “If I don’t communicate with you as often as I should, it doesn’t mean I don’t think of you. You are always in my thoughts and in my prayers, and if I haven’t said it lately, I’m saying it now: ‘I love you my dearest daughter. Very, very much. And I’m very proud of you.’”

And she was very much in my thoughts and prayers in recent years as I witnessed how a stroke and the following litany of complications vastly altered her physical self and threatened to crush her trademark joyful spirit. Fortunately, Hong Kong was near enough to Manila allowing me to rush back when she see-sawed between recovery and passing away.

One such incident in mid-March depressed me no end and I called on my brother Nicky — the victim so many years ago of a barkada’s careless driving that killed him and another passenger — pleading with him to help ask God to end Mom’s suffering. I added, “Please be there when it’s her time to cross over.” I couldn’t bear the thought of her bewildered and wandering in the dark.

On Good Friday, they rushed her back to the hospital for a new complication, and on Easter morning, I received a lengthy e-mail from my sister-in-law Cora, recounting a strange but remarkable tale of Mom’s night nurse “with the third eye.” The caregiver had reported the appearance of male visitors by Mom’s bedside, one of them bent over her, while the other stood beside him.

Startled, Melery asked them not to take Mom away, after which they vanished. Believe it or not, but I chose the former, remembering what I had asked Nicky earlier. Later when my sister Michele showed the nurse pictures of departed relatives, she identified Nicky as the one nearest Mom. They were also very present in the hospital room during her last hours, we were told.

Up to now, we still haven’t figured the identity of the second visitor-being. It wasn’t Daddy…nor her father, General M.S. Torralba, whom, President FVR told me, he served under before the Japanese Occupation. My editor Millet suggests it’s an old boyfriend, while I think it could have been an intern-angel, learning the ropes of sundo! I’m just grateful she had company, and it was someone she had never stopped aching over and yearning intensely to see.

During the interment rites, attended by our family and a few friends, the nurse “saw” her patient again, and she was smiling.

Wherever she is, I know Mom’s having a ball. Now, I just hope she won’t forget to check up on me from time to time.

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