When friends pass away
FROM MY HEART - Barbara Gonzalez-Ventura (The Philippine Star) - August 25, 2019 - 12:00am

I heard about the passing of George Balagtas first. We all belonged to the Coca-Cola Group of McCann-Erickson in the early ’80s. George was my boss, one of the best I have had. He was the boss who set me free.

My years on the Coca-Cola account were my happiest career days, the best years of my career life.  George first accompanied me to meetings, then he set me free. Later on I’m sure he worked to get me a Most Valuable Professional International Award (McCann-Erickson was a multinational, now-global advertising agency) and then he sent me for training to the University of Chicago, New York and Atlanta. I owe my foreign training and experience to George Balagtas.

 He was an old friend of mine from school.  He was a jolly, short Atenean I would see at jam sessions.  He would ask me to dance and, because I was much taller than he, he would stand on a ledge and we would laugh while we danced.  He also sang.  I have a memory of him at a meeting in the home of Don Couldrey, one of our foreign consultants, who also passed away some time ago. George stood on a stack of cushions and sang a Barry Manilow song very well but I could not stop laughing because the cushions slowly sank while he sang, making him shorter with every word.

 But that was almost 40 years ago. We parted, got together again, then lost track of each other. His wake began Tuesday because his family was in the States. 

He was discovered unconscious. They rushed him to the hospital but he was dead on arrival. George was 77, only two years older than I.

I was waiting for Tuesday to visit George, but on Monday, Loy’s daughters called and said their uncle, Roland Laurena, an architect, had died. We went to his wake on Monday night. I did not know him but Loy told me that Marilou, his widow, and he were his and his first wife’s neighbors once upon a time a long time ago. “We were a wall apart,” Marilou said. My husband, looking at Roland, said, “I am a year older than he.”

 My eyes strayed to a man seated in the front row. Was it Lor Calma, interior designer and old friend? I remember meeting him when I was a young bride. I tapped his son on the shoulder and quietly asked him, “Is that Lor Calma?”

The son said, “Yes.”

“I don’t know if you remember me, Lor,” I said, and introduced myself.  He remembered me. He told my husband we had met when I was very young. I was totally delighted that he remembered me because I remembered him very well, even if we hadn’t seen each other in almost 50 years.  “I am 75 now,” I said.

“I’m 94,” he said.  We are both old but our memories still work.

 Tuesday night we went to George Balagtas’ wake. I could condole with his wife, Raquel. I looked at George and he wrung my heart, made me realize I hadn’t seen him in too long a time. We sat with the other members of the Coke Group: Butch Tan and his wife Leah, Raul Jorolan, Cherry Calaqui, Baby Enriquez, Peevee Beley, Kathleen Mojica and a lady from accounting I knew but whose name I could not remember. Then later came our clients Chuck Jereos and Milton Lalisan, all old, cherished friends.

 Wednesday night we went to Gina Lopez’s wake. I am a closer friend of her mother, Chita, than of Gina herself, but once upon a time we were closer relatives. My two grandsons are her nephews. Her sister Marissa and I once worked together on the culture show Café Bravo. Two of her brothers were once married to two of my daughters. The priest, who said the Mass, was Fr. Tito Caluag, who married us. A lot of intertwining there. I was shocked that Gina left us so young. She was 10 years younger than I.

 I don’t know why we went to three wakes three nights running. I don’t know why people who were once so close to us are dying. Why, when we discover their ages, do we compare them to ours? Is he older? She’s younger! Unexpectedly we wonder when we will be called. Will it be sooner or later? We brush the thought away, like you brush a spider web away when you accidentally run into one. We brush away lightly, with surprise, also with dislike.  We wish we had avoided it. But we accept that we will never really know until we hear God’s call and know we are summoned.

 We are sad when somebody close to us goes. At the same time we are delighted to see our old friends, talk about old times, and plan reunions to renew valued friendships once more before it’s too late for any of us.

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