All of us know how finite life is, that nothing in this world really lasts. But though this knowledge is with us every moment of our lives, we often fight it because it is very difficult to let go.
Many politicians, used to privilege and power, can’t let go; if they lose an election, it is almost always because they were “cheated.” Political power is an aphrodisiac, an addiction, so they cling to it to their dying day. Women – many of them cling to a past when they were beautiful, their faces unlined with wrinkles. And the rich dream of bringing their wealth to the grave but that narrow pit cannot contain all their loot or their corpulent corpses which turn to dust.
There are those rare individuals who lead quiet, useful lives, moral lives even, who should linger a little longer, not for themselves but for others. But they let go quietly, silently. I knew three of them.
My father-in-law, Antonio Jovellanos, was a government doctor who, for much of his life, worked with lepers. He was on call day and night, not only for hospital patients but also for the people of the surrounding barrios. He reached his patients on foot or horseback. He encountered ignorance, superstition, and crushing poverty. He was often paid with chickens and eggs, which he would always decline.
He belonged to a middle-class Ermita family. His father, Cesareo, was an Ateneo classmate of Rizal, who used to visit the Jovellanos home in Padre Faura, the same place where my bookshop now stands. As recounted by my father-in-law, Rizal was very judicious. He was already being watched by the Spaniards as a filibuster and he didn’t want to jeopardize his friend so they would go somewhere else to talk.
MY FATHER-IN-LAW was quiet and appeared distant, but was actually very warm. He read a lot, particularly history. He resented me at first because I eloped with his daughter, but we eventually made peace, well enough for him to agree with my politics. It was pleasurable talking with him because he was insightful. With his background, he would often trace how perverse family relationships and character leads to social decay.
Like his oldest brother, Jose, parish priest of Tondo, and his sister, Bernarda, who was a Benedictine nun, he was almost saintly. He was the epitome of hard work and honesty. He was a great influence in my life. Once, he came upon my wealthy acquaintances in the bookshop. After they left, he asked about them and my revolution which would sweep them away; he was aware of moral dilemmas. My reply was ambiguous. I said, I’ll cross the river when I reach it. He died without a fortune other than the fondness and respect that I and the others who knew him kept in our hearts.
When President Elpidio Quirino retired in Novaliches, I visited him a few times. His retirement home was on the way to Tala, where the girl who became my wife was staying with her parents. President Quirino was magnanimity personified. He was a great President, honest, with a stern eye to the future. It was he who planned our economic recovery and development with the assistance of superb technocrats like the late Cornelio Balmaceda.
He was, however, portrayed as weak. It was a very wrong perception – he was very strong but was the traditional Filipino patrician, well-mannered, without bombast. He did not have the common touch of Ramon Magsaysay, the man he selected to be his Defense Minister to fight the Huks.
He had a land reform program, his answer to the Huk demand for agrarian reform, which Magsaysay followed. He was so charitable, he forgave the Japanese who massacred his family. He said to bear anger is to bear a heavy and useless burden. I always addressed him as “Apo,” the Ilokano term for someone venerable or in authority. And as Apo, he let go of that primal anger and declined the arrogance of those who hold power.
I was out of the country when Luis Taruc, the heroic guerrilla and Huk leader, died. I watched the old rebel grow old, and saw how much he loved his people and how hard he worked for them. He even accepted the Marcos dictatorship so he could get assistance for them in return. To the very end, he was vocal in stating and reiterating his socialist faith, that he was never a communist. His communist critics and colleagues reproached him for that: he fought with the communists, therefore he was one of them.
HE LIVED SIMPLY, FRUGALLY, and let go the many opportunities that would have improved his income. He was vocal and emphatic about what he believed in – democracy, social justice, land reform. He might have sounded like a broken record, but he meant every word. At one time, we visited a poor village where he had followers. They crowded around him, some of them weeping. He said, I have no more tears to shed.
I cite these three men who I admire very much because to my mind, they illustrate the fortitude and truthfulness that make ordinary existence more meaningful. Many of us strive to live morally, but human as we are, we commit mistakes, we sin, and are mortified.
We try to be honest with ourselves so we can be true to others and find that we are sometimes “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” How true what Rizal said, that it’s the honest man who has enemies. Jesus’ sermon on the mount should comfort us, but even if it doesn’t, we must remember that tattered cliché, virtue is its own reward.
It is really difficult to let go when we have a job left undone, an unfinished novel, a debt unpaid, or we are engaged in an effort that fulfills us and lifts our spirit. But time is running out. So then, let go gladly, peacefully even, but never, ever let go of the dream.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 1, 2019