Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Why I never mourned for Magsaysay

A reprint of a column I wrote on my Dad's death anniversary

Why I never mourned for Magsaysay

March 16, 1997

Tomorrow is the 40th death anniversary of my father, Jess Paredes Jr. He perished with around 20 others in an airplane crash on Mount Manuggal in Cebu.

The nation was devastated by that tragedy which took the life of President Ramon Magsaysay, but I didn’t know it. After all, my family was going through its own agony. Also our neighborhood in Cubao got a triple whammy; besides my Dad, his friend Secretary Hernandez, who lived several blocks away, was in that plane. So was Senator Lopez, who lived on Lantana and whose daughter Sonia was a friend of my sister and my cousins.

When I said goodbye to my Dad on March 16, he was getting into Secretary Hernandez’s limousine to go to the airport where they would catch the Mr. Pinatubo, RM’s plane, and ride with the President to Cebu. Magsaysay was to deliver three commencement addresses in Cebu City and my Dad wrote two of them. The President had asked my Dad to come and hear him deliver the speeches—and who could say no to the President?

My Dad was overworked, he had stretched himself thin working as executive secretary of the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines, teaching at two law schools, doing two radio programs, and running errands for the Archbishop of Manila. And then he was a part of the President’s circle, close enough to be given an assignment as one of RM’s ghost writers.

He had a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away. He worked late into the night, his typewriter clickety-clacking in the silence of our large new house. He hardly had time for himself and here he was taking off for Cebu just to hear the President deliver some speeches. “Never mind,” he told my Mom. “We may take the presidential yacht on the way home. Then, I’ll be able to rest.”

So when we heard about the crash of the presidential plane, my Mother clung to the hope that my Dad had heeded his own need to relax and opted to take the slow boat to Manila.

In the afternoon of March 17, I learned that the word “confirmed” meant something other than a state of having received the second sacrament. It’s confirmed, my uncle said. Jess is dead. The wreckage of the plane had been found. There was only one survivor, a newsman named Nestor Mata.

My father’s remains were brought to our house where he lay in state for a couple of days. He had a fine bronze coffin, very heavy, and covered with a Philippine flag. We were told that the coffin was originally meant for the President’s remains. However, an even fancier coffin arrived from the United States and my father was next in line for the top-of-the-line items, behind the senators, congressmen, Cabinet secretaries, generals and colonels who had perished with the President. So he ended up with second best. Not bad for a man who had no title other than “Attorney”.

The coffin was sealed so it was easy for a 10-year old to deny that her father was in there. At the time, it just felt like he was taking an awfully long time to come home.

After the coffin came, the flowers followed. Wreaths with ribbons bearing the names of the rich and famous overflowed from the living room to the garage, to the terrace and the garden. I gaped at the people who crowded into our home—senators and congressmen, priests and nuns, radio people, movie people, stage people, my brothers’ classmates and teachers from the Ateneo, and hundreds of relatives. I remember seeing Diosdado Macapagal who had been our neighbour in Laura Street in San Juan, Raul Manglapus who had played the organ at my parent’s wedding some 19 yeas before, Emmanuel Pelaez, Ambrosio Padilla and Soc Rodrigo. There were other important persons who came but a 10-year-old could only be impressed by the most prominent faces.

Letters, cards, checks poured in from everywhere. I figured we must have gotten famous overnight because the mailman delivered a card to our house in Cubao addressed to Mrs. Jess Paredes Jr, Manila, Philippines.

On the day of the burial, we wheeled my Dad’s coffin up Boston Street and down Lantana, to Immaculate Conception Church where a mass was held. Then we motored to a cemetery in Manila where I was shocked to find a non-descript hole in the wall awaiting his elegant coffin.

I remember a crush of people in a small space, a bunch of red roses and a bag of soil being passed from hand to hand to be placed in the niche with my Dad’s remains. The roses were a remembrance from his wife and 10 children; the soil was a part of the Jesuit cemetery in Novaliches where my father had said he wanted to be buried. Since Novaliches was only for Jesuits, the fathers did the next best thing and gave him a piece of Novaliches.

Five years later, my mother brought us to the cemetery to exhume my father’s grave and transfer his remains to the basement of our parish church. Several men pried the black marble nameplate and pulled out the bronze coffin. They lifted the cover and my siblings and I saw its contents for the firs time: a fatigue-colored body bag. My mother unzipped the bag and a fine dust rose with the breeze.

My father’s remains were a mixture of bones, a pocket watch, a half burned wallet, and a gun. The worldly goods were not his, but my mother said she recognized his teeth among the bones. My siblings and I picked up the pieces and put them in a white box which we brought to the crypt for a second burial.

When the crash happened in 1957, the entire country mourned for Magsaysay. But not me. All I knew was my father would not be coming home to the new house he built us in Cubao. I would never again hear his hearty laughter, or feel his tight hugs. The center of my life was gone.