Thursday, September 24, 2015

In The Few Months After August 1983

Dearest Sacha,

You asked me to write about how you were as a child, but I thought that maybe I should write about an earlier time in your life. I have already written about the day you were born, so this is about your birth month, and the few succeeding months.

A few days after you were born, while you innocently slept in your crib, nobody - except perhaps the perpetrators - had the idea that the country’s history was taking a sharp, dark turn.

Ninoy Aquino, a political oppositionist, came home from his exile in the U.S. to face and challenge an ailing dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Instead of laying down the traditional red carpet for him, he was met instead with bullets –aimed at short range at his head, as he was being led down the stairs of the plane, away from the passenger tube that would have brought him to the airport’s arrival area, where probably friends, relatives and political supporters were waiting to welcome him.

This crime was pinned on a civilian who himself was gunned down dead. The blood of the two men, mixed and splattered on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, did not help to explain this tragic event that eventually brought the country into a dark political abyss.

Two men, one well known and the other unidentified for the first few hours, were killed at the country’s premier airport, yet this tragic event was not in the news. We heard about this disturbing event from Tony Lopez, a friend and editor of Asiaweek (a magazine similar to Newsweek or Time Magazine) on the same day that it happened. He brought with him, a photographer from Hong Kong, Arthur Kan, who came on the same plane that brought Ninoy home. Although he did not witness the actual killing, he had photographs that he took at the scene of the crime, as well as photos of Ninoy before the plane landed. He had films that needed to be processed, but no photo lab was open at that time.

Papa himself processed the films, and neither a cursory nor a studied view of the shots showed any images that could help solve the mystery at the airport. But the photographer was still shaken, and worried how he could spirit away his shots back to his editor in Hong Kong. Tony and Papa taped the processed films to his legs, and Tony took him back to the airport. He wanted to return to his home on the earliest flight, as he just did not feel safe in Manila. We could not blame him.

The government clamped down on all media – newspapers, radio and TV (there was no Internet available to the public yet then) – and this news blackout fueled rumors that the country, or at least Metro Manila, was in total civil disarray.

I was recuperating from childbirth, and still on advice by my doctor to have bed rest, since I had given birth to you through caesarean section. With news of the assassination came disturbing rumors that the country might have to prepare for civil unrest.

Although I was born right after World War II and had no personal experience of life at war, I had heard stories from my relatives and my parents about their being driven from their homes to seek safer places. How was I going to do that, with a baby in tow? Also, that meant that we would not have an adequate supply of formula milk. I could not breastfeed you, or your two older sisters, because of a condition called “inverted nipple.” Fortunately, I still had one good breast, so if we would have to run and not have access to formula milk, then I was hopeful that I could still feed you.  We were gripped with fear, and joined hundreds of people in “panic buying” at the nearest supermarket, Cash&Carry.

Papa took me along - not to shop, as I was not allowed to be on my feet a long time - but to help decide what to buy.  Not feeling safe about leaving our children at home, we bundled you up and brought you along, with your two older sisters (Ching was seven and Kathy was 3-1/2).

There is no seating area in the supermarket, so he grabbed a chair and made me sit down on it, and from time to time, he would bring me different brands. My job was to tell him which brand we normally bought (imagine us in those uncertain times still being concerned about buying the right stuff!).  He loaded the supermarket carts with cans upon cans of formula milk, toilet paper, canned foods, and other “survival” goods. The two girls insisted on buying candies and Jello– they were as essential to them as pork-and-beans were to us.

While we kept the studio and office open during the next few days, no work was forthcoming.  Shoots were being cancelled and no new ones were being scheduled.

Tension continued to mount. The wake for Ninoy Aquino was held at the Sto. Domingo Church, near his home in Quezon City. His widow and children came home from the United States. Papa went to the wake, and photographed Ninoy’s bereaved family, and our favorite activist-priest, Fr. Nico Bautista, who joined throngs of people who wanted to pay their respects to the new hero. Papa said that the length of the queues was unbelievable. He sensed that something significant and different was happening, but didn’t know what it was.

Not having any connections to the local newspapers, he submitted them to Asiaweek, with Tony Lopez instantly accrediting him as a stringer for their magazine.

On the day of the funeral, Papa went to the church as early as 5am so that he could get a good position. He followed the funeral cortege and was amazed to see more than a million people lining up the streets – a million people who are finally finding courage to go against the Marcos dictatorship. Ninoy’s coffin was carried on an open truck, followed by followers in yellow shirts, through streets decorated with yellow ribbons (inspired by the song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”). From Quezon City, it went through Rizal Park, where more people waited for hours for a glimpse of the funeral procession. It was about 12noon when they arrived at the Luneta. And as if the heavens were grieving with the country at the final march of this hero, rain poured and lighting struck. Papa, without breakfast or lunch, was drenched. He groped for his wallet to keep it from getting wet, and discovered that it was gone. It could have dropped or he could have been pickpocketed – he could not tell.  The crowd was so dense that he did not feel anything, and since this was in the days before cellphones, he could not report to me the loss of his wallet, money, credit card and driver’s license.

Unmindful of his loss, he followed the funeral cortege that snaked through Metro Manila’s main streets – through Roxas Boulevard, Quirino Avenue, South Superhighway (now named Sergio Osmena Avenue) and into Ninoy’s final resting place at the Manila Memorial Park on Sucat Road in Paranaque.

He came home at around eight or nine that evening, changed his clothes – by then already dry – and had his first meal of the day. After peeking into your bedroom – where everyone was asleep, you in a crib, Yaya Pilar on a mattress on the floor beside your bed, and Ching and Kathy, with Yaya Ninfa, in trundle beds - he still had tons of energy to tell me lots of stories of what he had witnessed and photographed.

Proudly he told me that he did not join the truck that carried the photographers and journalists. It offered a good vantage view, following the open flatbed truck that carried Ninoy’s coffin – but he said he didn’t want to be stuck in one position. With his motorcycle, he could be more flexible, and it was easier for him to move around. He said he noticed that newspapers or news agencies had posted groups of photographers at strategic points in the city, but since he was the only one covering this monumental event for Asiaweek, he had to cover it from beginning to end.

You were just a couple of weeks old, so as Papa spent the whole day processing his films and sorting his shots, you were asleep for most of the time. We still had a big stash of formula milk for you, but we continued to worry about the worsening situation in the country.

For the next few months, Marcos’s efforts to clamp down on media could not stop the gossip and clandestine news. It was mostly journalism-by-photocopiers, but a few brave souls starting printing tabloid newspapers. One of them had an unlikely and unsuspecting name, “Mr. & Ms.” Rallies were held in the city every week. While they were supposed to be angry demonstrations against the Marcos regime, it was also uniquely Filipino. Office people from the Makati Central Business District shredded Yellow Pages (phone directories) and threw them as confetti – from the upper floors of buildings facing Ayala Avenue – to the demonstrators below. There were placards denouncing the Marcoses and yellow ribbons everywhere to show sympathy for Aquino, the new hero of the long-suppressed nation.

Life went on, no matter how hush-hush everything was. We scheduled your baptism at the Magallanes Church, Msgr. Nico’s new parish. We chose our closest friends – the Villanuevas, the Palos, the Sabalvaros and the Lumbas to be your ninongs and ninangs. In the midst of all the uncertainties that were happening in the country, your godparents, papa and I continued to get together every now and then, joining the rest of the nation in sharing “chismis” news – what could not be published or aired on radio or TV, but somehow was being passed on from one Filipino to another. At one point when the political situation seemed very dim, we decided to have a party, at what we now fondly call “Casa de Poy.”  We thought, then, that it might turn out to be our last party, our last hurrah. We were all tense about the political situation, and felt that we needed to do some scenario planning.

I did express my predicament about being unable to nurse you in case we had to escape into the province, and being unable to run, if we had to always source canned formula milk. Your Ninang Bibbet was also nursing a baby boy, Anton, who was born five months before you.

She said not to worry about it, and proceeded to tell us how her mother-in-law raised her children during World War II. Ninong Poy’s mother raised a goat, and gave her children goat milk. Someone in our group objected to raising a goat, as a goat can eat anything in sight. Your Ninong Bobby suggested that we pooled our money together to get a cow. We could get milk from a cow, of course, and when we needed dinner for our regular get-together, we could cut its tongue and cook “Lengua.” I squirmed at the thought of cutting the tongue of a live cow, but your Ninong Bobby had more outlandish suggestions. He said, “Come Christmas, we could cut off one leg and have ham. That leg could be replaced by an artificial leg.” Some of us may have objected to cutting up this cow part by body part, but we were all in agreement that we had to keep it alive. By this time, all of us imagined this poor cow, sans her tongue, and without one leg, but standing on a prosthetic limb. Bobby continued to make us laugh by repeating clandestine jokes about how Ninoy was killed, and all of us sharing jokes that people told during the darkest years when Marcos imposed martial law. (Thirty-two years later, no one in our group could remember those jokes, but we all have vivid memories of our imaginary, physically impaired cow).

We examined our behavior that evening, and questioned ourselves if our telling jokes and having fun were part of our coping mechanism in the face of the possible danger of a grave political unrest in the country.  Born after the war, we were facing possibly the first big threat to our lives and the comforts that we knew. We talked about the different ways that Filipinos used humor to diffuse tension. Mirth turned to nationalistic pride as we proudly asserted that, unlike non-Filipinos who would probably be nervous wrecks if they faced a similar tragedy or danger, the Filipino can learn to cope, and even triumph, by making fun of everything that he could not control or understand.

In the first few months after you were born, we entered the dark tunnel of our own current events, our own time in Philippine history-in-the-making. We were still uncertain what other developments would unfold. No solution or salvation was on sight. Although we had not previously looked upon him as our hero until he was killed, the man who declared, “the Filipino is worth dying for” was, sadly, dead. He who came back to deliver us from the dictatorship was gone, and there was none other in the horizon. We all had young children that we prayed we could take into a better future, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel. But in the darkest hours of our generation, that night as we said goodbye to each other, we were sporting smiles on our lips. We were ending the night feeling light-hearted, happy and optimistic that we could survive the uncertainties of the times. How we turned around from the gloom, doom and tragedy of Aquino’s untimely death to being consoled that even if we continued to face hard times, we could look back to this night when we had our valiant, gallant attempt to laugh – that we were all imbued with the Filipino sense of humor that no dictator could subdue.

A lot happened in the months after your birth, and in the next few years, while you learned to crawl, eat solid foods, walk, talk, run, climb stairs, read, write and even use a computer, more important events in the country would come still. As a nation long silenced under a dictatorship, we came to find our voice in the years when you were growing up. This is not a historical account of what transpired when you were an infant, (you can freely read about them in books and on the Internet) but a personal recollection of what we were going through as we worried what life would be for you and your sisters.