‘Dad in white, lying dead on the tarmac’
I distinctly remember the sense of anticipation and uncertainty at the meeting of the Women Writers in Media Now (or Women) the day before Ninoy Aquino’s expected arrival on the afternoon of the next day, a Sunday. As had become a regular practice of this group of journalists organized in 1981 during martial law by Marra Pl. Lanot, Mila Astorga Garcia and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, we were meeting at Odette Alcantara’s lovely and welcoming Heritage Art Center in Cubao, Quezon City. Odette was a feisty woman warrior and, in her later years, an environmentalist who supported our causes.
Initially, the members of Women came together to hone their craft and critique each other’s writings. But the growing climate of suppression in the country led them to join the struggle for freedom from the dictatorship. They did what they knew best and wrote the stories of fellow citizens stripped of human rights—and some of them paid the price for daring to offend the powers that be and expose the regime’s excesses. It is a badge of courage they proudly wear today that they were summoned to military court hearings for their writings.
At that Aug. 20, 1983, Women meeting, there was indecisiveness about meeting Ninoy at the airport; we did not wish to add to what was sure to be a large homecoming crowd, and we were absolutely confident that there would be subsequent protest rallies under his leadership that we would certainly join. We felt that at worst, he would be thrown back in detention.
Even today, 32 years later, Ninoy’s death still angers and resurrects all the anti-Marcos sentiments. Did the regime really feel it could get away with murder, that the citizenry would simply be cowed into silence? Aug. 21, 1983, drastically changed the course of Philippine history, led to the dictator’s undoing, and the return of our democracy.
When one cannot but yield to the strong feelings of antipathy that this nightmare brings, one appreciates and marvels at the absence of negative feelings of three of Ninoy’s daughters—Ballsy Cruz, Pinky Abellada and Viel Dee—at the recollection of that day.
Viel remembers what it was like for her in their home in Newport, Boston—a comfortable and secure environment that her father left for much uncertainty and danger back home, “I was awakened in the middle of the night with the shocking news and even though it was a very warm summer night (and we had no air conditioning in the room), I suddenly was shivering cold.”
Ballsy and Pinky share (along with many of us) the enduring image of “Dad in white, lying dead on the tarmac.” No other words are needed to convey the tragedy of the assassination, preserved in that timeless image.
It is apparent that, armed with their mother’s deep faith and prayerfulness, they do not dwell on the past and have learned to always look to the future with optimism.
It is a blessing for the family that it was also because of Aug. 21,1983, that their special long-time friendship with respected theologian Fr. Catalino Arevalo, SJ, began. He was then on leave from the Ateneo and was studying in Boston College across from Newport. When an American fellow Jesuit informed him about the assassination, he just felt he had to offer his help to the slain ex-senator’s family, whom he had never met. He says he must have met Cory in his youth because his best friend during his Ateneo schooldays was Monching Cojuangco, a cousin of Cory’s, in whose Baguio home he would spend summers.
Back in Manila, Father Arevalo celebrated the first Mass for Ninoy in October 1983. Starting from then, he became Cory’s spiritual adviser, and continues to be the invited priest with his thoughtful homilies at family commemorations.
It must provide the members of Ninoy’s family much consolation that through the three decades, they have never been alone in their commemoration—long before it became a national holiday. To every celebration of the Mass at the Manila Memorial Park, faithful Ninoy followers from all walks of life would come unbidden. Cory Aquino would always say that this faithful attendance was heartwarming and beyond all expectations, that the crowd had done its share and when her turn came, it would no longer be necessary to be ever present as well. That has been unheeded, of course.
It is said that when Cory was buying a memorial plot for her husband, she turned down the plots in the more private and secluded areas where the mausoleums were, saying even then that Ninoy had to be where people could easily visit.
To Ninoy’s daughters, there is comfort in the public remembering of a man “who gave up his life so that his countrymen would regain their lost freedoms.” Let his life, and death, ensure that we will “never forget the horrors of a dictatorship and martial law and prevent its repeat.”
What are the lessons learned from their father? Pinky speaks of “his big heart and his love for country and love for people from all walks of life.” Eldest daughter Ballsy keeps those lessons close to her heart.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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