Unstoppable women

They once formed a graceful trio that walked the length of the UP Diliman campus every day even before the sun was up.  Their lively chatter covered a rich agenda: family and friends, national politics and social science, academic gossip and paths to spirituality.  For more than 20 years, they were my family’s closest neighbors on campus, resident comrades, philosophers and friends.

Priscila Santos Manalang or Cil was an educational anthropologist, one of the best minds ever to teach at the College of Education, and a great writer.  Widowed quite early, she heroically raised a brood of 7 and some of her children’s children, while fulfilling her duties as a teacher and researcher.  At the height of the dictatorship, she purposely set aside time so that she could join every demonstration or attend those endless meetings of the parliament of the streets.  She wrote some of the most lyrical manifestos against Marcos, as an active member of Kaakbay, the movement founded by the late nationalist senator and human rights activist Pepe Diokno.

Her best and dearest friend from way back was Rita Domingo Estrada.  Rita was a psychologist of tremendous originality, one of the pioneers of Sikolohiyang Pilipino, and a devoted bridge player.  She too was an ardent admirer of Pepe Diokno.  She never missed any of the meetings of Kaakbay.  The movement was her apostolate, and she always insisted on being at the front-line of demonstrations so that she could, in her sweet motherly voice, disarm and conscienticize the riot police.

Much younger in years than Cil and Rita was another neighbor from Area I in the UP Campus – Elsa Perez Jurado.   Elsa was a devoted teacher and political scientist, a wife to another academic and loving mother to 3 girls.  In the late 70s, she served as the first deputy director of the Third World Studies Center, performing the unenviable role of  taskmaster to the Center’s anarchic fellows.  When her husband Gon Jurado, the economist, took up an assignment in Tokyo, she joined him not to keep house but to help organize the Filipino community there.

All three suffered from cancer.  Cil Manalang was the first to be stricken with cancer of the breast.  A beautiful and witty woman – she never allowed the scars of radical mastectomy to affect her poise. Then it was Elsa’s turn – hers was a brain tumor which gave her excruciating headaches.  She had a series of debilitating operations, but not once did she lose her glow.  Rita had cancer of the colon.  The doctors arrested the cancer by cutting her colon, which is why for a long time her husband Dr. Horacio Estrada, a professor of pharmacology at the UP College of Medicine, referred to her as his darling semi-colon.  There was something perennially New Age about Rita, and I never thought she was sick.

They took early morning walks as an antidote to their affliction.  They were determined to collectively conquer cancer. Their friends and students cheered them on as if their own well-being depended on these 3 women’s continued recovery.   They nearly succeeded. Elsa’s condition improved for a while, and the silence of the tumor made her eager to return to the classroom.  But a subsequent checkup showed a cancer that had menacingly spread.  She was the first to go, almost two years ago.

Cil had a remission, and managed to follow a leisurely schedule as a retired professor doing special projects for the office of the UP president.  She continued to write, lecture, and edit academic papers. Just when everyone was beginning to think she was indestructible, she died last year —  not of cancer but of pneumonia.

And Rita was completely cured of her cancer.  Though retired from teaching, she continued her regular meetings with former students and the younger faculty from the Department of Psychology.  She enjoyed her grandchildren immensely, was part of a group of golden women that discussed various social issues, and continued to play bridge.  She died last Wednesday, not of cancer but of clogged arteries.  No one knew she had a heart condition.

Two things impressed me most about these three women. The first is the way they ingeniously combined career, family, and social involvement.  In their hands, time was an artfully managed resource.

The second is the way they bore their physical distress with grace. They never allowed their friends to see their pain.  Their entire attitude towards their condition inspired not sympathy, nor least of all pity, but only awe.   It was their joy, not their suffering, that they generously shared with their friends.

At Rita’s wake, Dr. Horacio Estrada, talks only briefly and very clinically about  her symptoms and the onset of the fatal stroke.  His eyes are red and sad as he tells the story of how, as a medical intern, he courted his wife.  He only remembers her laughter, her stubbornness and her firm convictions.  He grieves, but does not solicit sympathy.  When he  hears that Rita’s students and colleagues are planning a tribute, he dismisses the thought, and says that he is sure his wife would find it so funny.  I would agree.

After all, what do we know about the “economy of the soul”, as Nietzsche once called it – “the balance effected by distress, the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed…”  When we pity our friends, he said, we do them an injustice because we strip away from their suffering that which is distinctively personal.  We make their “worth and will” very small.  It never occurs to us that “the path to one’s own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one’s own hell.”

Therefore, it is not to mourn that friends must gather for the final sendoff of a departed friend.  It is rather to celebrate life, to inspire in those left behind courage and perseverance, to “share not suffering but joy.”


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