There’s the Rub

Shining through

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Death has been around of late.

First toward midnight of Saturday night. That was when the texts came saying Billy Esposo was fighting for his life, the doctors were trying to revive him but his plight was desperate. Half an hour later, a little past midnight, the texts said he had booked a flight to heaven. I went posthaste to Makati Medical Center and came home at 3:30 in the morning.

I was fighting off sleep to finish a column Sunday morning when a call came from my brother, Paul. He was tearful. His daughter, Katrina, was fighting for her life, the doctors were trying to revive her but her plight was desperate. Though Katrina had been in the hospital for a month, I was totally unnerved. I had just spoken with Paul the day before: Despite a bump here and there, Katrina seemed to be recovering. A few days before, she had been taken out of the ICU at the Philippine Heart Center and put in a regular room. But she had had a relapse and was scheduled for another operation the following day.

Whatever was ailing her had baffled the doctors. Katrina, 29, fell prey to dengue last Christmas and stayed at the hospital for a week or so. A couple of months later, in February, she had breathing problems and was brought back to the hospital. She was diagnosed as having fluids in her heart. That was the first time I heard of it, I had always thought only the lungs got affected that way, until Billy told me about a month ago that he himself had had that condition a couple of times before.

Katrina underwent surgery and was fine afterward. As she was recuperating, she asked me if I had a hard time going meatless (I’ve been so for more than four years now). I laughed and said it wasn’t so at all. But then food has never been my weakness.

I don’t know if she ever got to try it out. A month later she was rushed back to the hospital after turning blue from being unable to breathe. She fell into a coma but was revived after a while. She was opened up again. That was the beginning of a roller-coaster ride of emotions for her parents, Milen and Paul. Paul, who had prayed to all the saints, had been euphoric when told she was out of danger after the operation and would probably recover fully. But every so often, Katrina would have problems breathing again and need emergency treatment. And though she seemed to be responding well to stimuli, there would be days when she would fall into a trance.

They would live at the Heart Center for a month. Last week, things seemed to be going fairly well, she had been taken out of ICU early on. But that lasted only briefly: A couple of days later, she was unable to breathe and brought back to ICU. An examination showed her to have fluids in her heart again. The doctors couldn’t understand where it was coming from. Her tests were coming up negative, but still the fluids kept coming back. Was it coming from a particularly vicious strain of virus? Was it a rare congenital heart defect? Was it both?

Whatever it was, it proved lethal. Last Sunday morning, when they cut her up they found out not just fluids but also blood clots all over her heart. Stout as that heart was, it finally gave out.

The anguish at losing a child and at that age is not something you could wish on your worst enemy. Milen, Katrina’s mother, was inconsolable, the world having just turned empty and desolate. Her brother, Jiji, a doctor, would tell me thoughtfully that there was a word in Tagalog and English for a spouse who had lost a partner, they were a widow or widower, biyuda or biyudo, and there was a word for children who had lost their parents—they were orphans. But there was no word for parents who had lost a child. And yet that was the most painful thing of all. And yet that was the most cutting thing of all.

Maybe the namelessness of it defines it completely. Quite apart from your own feelings for the person who has just gone, you see the absolute agony of the parents at their loss and you are overwhelmed. You feel helpless in the face of the devastation, unable to offer anything except your just being there in that terrible hour of need, trying to share an un-sharable loss, an indivisible bereft-ness. You just stand in stunned silence, not wanting to sully anything with platitudes.

Life is so unfair sometimes. I suddenly remembered the laughter of the family one time that I was with them for dinner. Milen and Paul’s family is a regular one made special by the extraordinary closeness of its members. The dinner might have been a party, everyone bantering and laughing and teasing each other, Katrina the most cheerful of them all. The siblings are especially close, a son and three daughters, who like each other’s company and treat each other like barkada. That laughter said everything. To have companionship like that sundered in this way, life is so horribly unfair sometimes.

But I saw them, too, at the cremation, I saw them, too, at the wake, and I thought, maybe it’s that same closeness that will see them through this dark night. I saw the kids rubbing their mother’s back as she sobbed on the shoulder of her husband, the kids drying the tears in their eyes to attend to the visitors, the family members leaning on each other and the goodwill of the people Katrina had touched to bear an oppressive weight, and I saw a light shining through the dark night. I saw ordinary people made extraordinary by their giving as much as their grieving, by their laughter at their recollection as much as their grieving at their loss, and I saw how some people could be so absent while they are there and how others could be so present even when they’re gone.

Katrina will go today. But only so formally, only so officially. She’ll always be there with us.

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