Sisterhood in solitude

For as long as her physical condition allowed her, my wife Karina insisted on regularly visiting Sen. Leila de Lima at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame. Nearly always short of breath because of her congestive heart and flooded lungs, she would take deep breaths from the medical oxygen tank she carried in the car before walking toward the gate where visitors were processed. She gladly went through this for a courageous sister she deeply admired until just a few months before she died.

On what would have been Karina’s 74th birthday last March, the detained senator sent my family a handwritten letter remembering her dear friend and letting us know how much she missed her. Her visits, she recalled, unfailingly brought her a lot of cheer, for her dear friend always knew how to make her laugh and sing.

I inherited most of my wife’s friends after she passed away. These are strong irrepressible women who embodied an organic feminism steeped in empowering practice. They have kept in touch, inviting me to join some of the gatherings that they knew their friend would not have missed.

It has been amazing for me to see how my wife’s friends mirror her life in so many vivid ways. I could see her projected in their convivial laughter, in their passion and in their advocacies, and sometimes even in the way they speak. This sisterhood is undiminished in its strength, and on those precious occasions when I could join them, I am rewarded with a glimpse of what my wife must have been like in the company of these friends whose lives she shared and touched in varying ways.

But the one friend Karina would have liked me to check in on if I had the chance was Senator Leila. We used to talk about her: how her freedom was snatched away from her in the most vicious manner. Her improbable incarceration on bogus charges that were designed to keep her, a sitting senator, in detention, without the right to post bail, is a stark reminder of the culture of impunity into which our country has tragically descended.

I remember how Karina seethed when Leila was subjected to gleeful slut-shaming in a male-dominated committee hearing at the House of Representatives. She let out a roar of expletives upon seeing these “honorable gentlemen” outdo one another on national television in their malicious effort to draw out salacious details from the driver who had been summoned to testify “in aid of legislation.” The sheer hypocrisy of it all was galling. None of these moralizing lawmakers ever had anything to say about the openly adulterous relationships of their own male colleagues or, least of all, that of the highest official of the land whom they were out to please.

Leila was on my mind in the weeks following the lockdown intended to control the spread of the virus. For many of us, this has been our first taste of what it means to be under house arrest. In this enforced solitude, we binge on YouTube or Netflix, or read, or cook, or shop online, or sleep the whole day. We try to catch up with friends we haven’t seen through our mobile phones, communicating with them on Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Zoom, etc.

And yet, in these unusual circumstances, we find ourselves quite often visited by unease and emptiness. It dawns on us that we are supremely incapable of managing those moments that people accustomed to meditation artfully welcome. We fret, we start imagining symptoms, and we panic at the thought of catching the disease, and of dying alone.

I wondered what it was like for someone in Senator Leila’s situation. Alone, without a mobile phone, a tablet, or a laptop, she would only have her guards to talk to after her visitors for the day had left. I knew that she loved to write letters, but I also hoped she had enough books to keep her company.

As though in response to my ruminations about her situation, one of Leila’s staff sent me a screenshot of a letter she had written on Karina’s first death anniversary. “It’s already been a year since Ma’am Karina’s death, but the pain of her passing never goes away… I know that she continues to guide and give us courage especially during this time of great trial.” On reading this sweet, thoughtful message, I resolved that Leila would be among the first people I would visit as soon as the community quarantine was lifted.

It was with these thoughts that I reached out to some mutual friends for news about her. To my shock and disbelief, I was told that she had been held incommunicado during much of May. On instructions from the PNP top brass, ostensibly as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, her custodians stopped all visits by her personal assistants and Senate staff. Even phone calls from her executive assistant had to be separately applied for and cleared by the PNP.

She promptly wrote to PNP officials to please allow some members of her household staff to help her out in her room at least one hour a day every other day, assuring them full compliance with physical distancing and safety protocols. But, to no avail. In the sweltering heat of summer, with no contact from outside, she could well have been hooked up to a ventilator.

Sen. Leila de Lima has been in detention now for exactly 3 years, 3 months, and 7 days. No court of law has found her guilty of any of the trumped-up drug charges that had been filed against her in several courts. Not allowed to file bail, she may remain in jail for the duration of the current regime. But, they won’t be able to break her. She is a warrior, and, above all, a woman.