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End of a legacy

By: Clark Edward Runes Uytico - @inquirerdotnet - Inquirer.net | July 28,2020 - 08:00 AM

We recently commemorated 30 days since my maternal grandmother, a public school teacher for more than half a century, former member of the Sangguniang Bayan, former vice mayor, and former mayor of Caba, La Union, passed away. She was 86 years old.

I was at the office finishing up some matters so I would be free to spend my weekend reading books and watching some movies on that fateful evening of June 5. It was the end of the first week of work after a two-month quarantine.

I arrived home around 8:30 p.m. As I opened my Messenger, I saw a tagged message: “Lola passed away earlier this evening.” I was shocked. My heart skipped a beat — a beat too long — as I stood there with my knees frozen, lost in the moment. Time simply stood still, and I knew I wasn’t dreaming.

As I typed my reply, I knew I had to get to Caba. I grabbed coffee and a change of clothes, and immediately drove home to Angeles City to fetch my father and brother. We then drove straight to Caba. As I was told, there would only be 12 hours from the time of death until a mandatory burial. Sleep can always be regained, but time cannot. We HAD to catch up.

My grandmother came from an impoverished family, was raised in humility, and studied diligently in La Union Standard Academy after World War II. At the age of 16, she ranked No. 2 in the nationwide licensure exam for teachers, but forsook all opportunities in Manila to serve as a public school teacher in her hometown. She would singularly devote her whole life to that one noble profession until her retirement in 2001 as principal of Caba Elementary School. After her teaching career, she continued to serve the town of Caba as a councilor, then as vice mayor, and eventually as mayor. She retired from politics in 2007.

My best memory of her was when she was mayor in the summer of 2006 and I was staying in Caba for vacation. I would go to her office in the municipio and say, “’La, pengeng 50, bili lang ako ng fishball.” She would get her wallet and draw a single crumpled P50 bill from among crumpled P20 bills and give it to me. We would rush to the fishball cart and order (P50 then seemed like P200 now, especially since prices are cheaper in the province). Then we’d see her walking in the yet to be renovated and beautiful Caba town plaza, picking up candy wrappers and other plastic garbage. Of course, she’d just walk home; we live one street away from the municipio and public market. No bodyguards. No car. No extravagance.

After passing through several provincial boundary checkpoints, we arrived in Caba around half past five in the morning. There, we were notified that, since she died of “pulmonary embolism,” they took a swab of her throat secretions and was tagged as a suspected COVID-19 patient. My uncle who lived with her throughout her life denied that she had ever developed any symptoms of COVID-19. But her age and her status as one having suffered from life-threatening pneumonia last year put her at high-risk from COVID-19.

She was full of life and vigor. Only after she complained of some slight difficulty in breathing before tucking to sleep did someone bother to take her blood pressure: 80/60. At this point, she was already soundly sleeping, and her shallow breathing was not labored. She was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival. Everything was so sudden; no one expected her quiet passing.

Since she was a COVID-19 suspect and the result of her swab test was due in 5-7 days, the municipal health officer refused to give any health clearance for us to conduct her wake at home. Thus, the municipio gave us two options: first, to have her remains cremated and conduct a limited three-day wake with her urn; or, second, to have her remains buried in only a body bag below a dungeon pit mass graveyard for all COVID-19 suspects and/or positive patients, without any wake or any funeral. There, her remains would have to stay for 5-7 years before being exhumed for burial. But by then, identifying her remains would almost be an impossibility; the body bags and/or their tags would have disintegrated, and the bodies would have already decayed.

Time was already running out, and our indecision would spell the certain removal of her remains from the hospital’s morgue. Thus, no matter how much our family loathed the idea, we were constrained to choose the first option: cremation of her remains. Her legacy of selfless public service does not merit such an affront to her mortal remains as to be buried in a mass graveyard pit.

I once asked her why, if she was so intelligent as touted by my parents and other relatives, she did not pursue higher studies or academic degrees or professional achievements. She remarked, “Kung hindi ako ang magtuturo, sino pa ang maaring magbigay ng nalalaman ko para sa susunod sa akin?” She stayed, teaching until retirement because she believed that the youth is the only investment we have for the future.

Until now, her words have remained etched in my soul—and perhaps will forever remain there. It is an understatement to say that my grandmother is one of my greatest inspirations for pursuing a teaching career; to always choose the harder path, and go the extra one thousand and one miles for the succeeding generations.

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Clark Edward Runes Uytico, 29, is a nurse and also a practicing lawyer and law professor from Manila.

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