by Adriana Ortega Carter
You never forget the calm before the storm. You never forget the mornings spent with him drinking a warm cup of coffee and eating your favorite breakfast of bacon and pandesal on your small porch as the sun rose above the horizon. You never forget the way he made you laugh or the way you felt when he brought home another dress just for you, knowing the intricate designs and swirls of color would captivate you. You never forget how his strong yet gentle fingertips brushed your neck as he helped you put on your favorite necklace, the first one he ever gave to you. You never forget how he had given you everything you could ever want, how he would have done anything for you, how he would have done anything just to see a smile grace your lips.
It was December 28, 1967 in Butuan City, Philippines. A young couple walked home that evening to their small apartment. It was the kind of night where you could trace the stars as they formed a dizzying pattern across the setting sky. They illuminated the soft features of the young woman’s face, and her mind wandered to thoughts of her husband as she recalled how they’d met. His eyes had found hers and the rest became history. It was only 3 months later that he proposed to her. Their relationship was the kind you only read about in storybooks; the kind of pure love everyone in the world sought after. Her hand was enclosed in his, and he softly squeezed it as if to say mahal kita, I love you. In the couple’s home waited their three children being taken care of by their yayas, their nannies.
He was a lawyer and the chief legal counsel of the political party which won the recent election. All who knew him often mentioned his intelligence. They say he had photographic memory and owned the biggest dictionary you’d ever seen. They say that he memorized it, and that when he spoke, it was always with eloquence. He was the kind of person who carefully orchestrated each sentence into a melody. Each word that fell from his mouth carried meaning, and when he shared his thoughts, you listened.
He stopped his wife in front of their house that day, holding her delicate hands and staring deep into her eyes.
“Remember, dear, how I hated politics so much? Yet, here I am so deeply involved in it. Forgive me for my sins, my darling, I love you so much and am sorry for anything I’ve ever done to hurt you.”
She did not expect what was to come in the days that followed, but she did know that her husband loved her. And she loved him. Being young and in love, that was all she knew.
She would never forget what he said to her that day.
December 31, 1967 was the mayor’s anniversary. New Year’s Eve. Celebratory fireworks illustrated a collage of painted colors in red, blue, and gold. It would soon be a new year, a chance to start over. Mass at the local Catholic church had just finished, and the couple was invited to the mayor’s mansion for his anniversary party and proclamation dinner. The children were at home again with the yayas.
She wore her most exquisite gold dress, the one she reserved strictly for important occasions. It was one of the many dresses he had gifted to her. He was dressed in a beige Barong.
Some people still lingered around the church, but most had already left. The indigo sky was extravagant and each explosion of color in the sky fascinated her, the sound reverberating in her ears.
Their car, a small, olive green Renault, was parked in front of the convent. Being a gentleman, he walked around to the passenger side and opened the door for her. She was at the back of the car, walking around to the other side, when she heard him scream, “Aray!” Her first thought was that he had been hit by a firecracker, but when she looked around to the side of the car, there was a man. The man was running away holding a .45 caliber gun and was shrouded in a dark jacket so she couldn’t see his face. On the other side was another man holding a .38 aimed at the spot where she was supposed to sit. Another firework burst in the distance. The rest of the night became a blur.
She remembers running towards her husband screaming frantic, incoherent words, screaming for help, help, help. Somebody, please, help. She remembers that people ran, coming from the nearby plaza, she remembers how they rushed him to the hospital. She remembers that she didn’t fully comprehend what was happening. She was in shock. She remembers that she couldn’t cry.
The doctors told her that they couldn’t do anything to save him. The catastrophic injury caused significant trauma as his shattered organs sank into an unending pool of crimson. They told her that he was patay, dead. Her eyes were glazed over, everything felt empty. The words didn’t register in her brain. She couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t. She sat in one of the cold hospital chairs trying to see through the hazy fog that had drifted over her. None of the words in her husband’s old dictionary, none of those words or their formal definitions that he had memorized could describe the numbness she felt that night.
The mayor’s party was canceled. Many offered their condolences; she didn’t hear them. She didn’t remember how she got back to the apartment that night.
Sleep evaded her. The bed was cold. Tears still refused to come. At 5 am, the phone rang; it was a good friend of theirs. He recounted a vivid dream to her in which her husband asked him, “Why me?” She wondered the same thing.
It wasn’t until later that she learned of the plot against her husband’s life by the bitter politicians of the losing party in the recent election. The hired gunmen were both prosecuted and given a life sentence in prison. The mastermind in charge of the assassination plot was not convicted because he was a political giant. She stopped fighting because she couldn’t fight giants. She was tired. She couldn’t fight anymore. She left it all to God.
The national newspaper that had an article of what happened to him with his face plastered on the front page is still hidden in a box of his things that she keeps beneath her bed, gathering dust. She visited his tomb at least once a year with her three children who grew up without a father, and she still visits the tomb by herself now that her children have families of their own.
“Upon this ground lies Manuel David Ortega, a lawyer and libertarian, whose love for law and justice could only be matched by his love for his wife and children. He fell at the fall of evening on December 31st, 1967, from the maddening fury of a gunman’s blind allegiance to those who have murder in their hearts.
This tomb is in loving memory of his name and ideals. If the man were to die a thousand deaths more, he would have offered his life a thousand times too, for those enduring postulates of justice his stout heart could never yield in compromise.
To those who, lacking mercy in their hearts, have only murder in mind . . .
To those who, having no respect for law, have less regard for life . . .
This cold and lonely tomb is their mellowing memorial.”
On June 29, 2015, my Lola, Tagalog for grandma, visited the United States. We were at my cousin’s house in Patterson, New York, celebrating her 74th birthday. My uncle and cousins put together a book of pictures that reflected everything that she had been through in her life, all the memories she had made over the years. We all gathered around her and watched as her experienced hands flipped through the pages. I watched her grin in the warm light of the kitchen, I watched her laugh, and I watched her cry. There were tears of happiness mixed with a tinge of nostalgia as she saw the photographs of my mother and her two brothers, their weddings, my cousins’ births, my birth. And of course, there was the picture of her and my Lolo, my grandfather. I watched as a tear slid off her cheek onto the page of the book and her fingertip stroked his face. The photograph captured her holding my uncle and him holding my mother. They were smiling. It was the kind of smile that told you, “everything’s gonna be alright”; it was the kind of genuine smile that echoed hope for the future. I could tell just by watching my Lola that even after 48 years, she still misses him.
Sometimes I wish that I could have met him. Sometimes when my Lola tells me stories about him and recounts his personality, his brilliance, the way he held himself, I can see him sitting there on the couch across from her, remembering. When she told me the story of how he died, I could tell it still pained her to recall what she had seen that night. It only shows that there are some things you can never forget. There are some things that stay with you forever, and even if you move on, there’s still a part of you that can’t let go. However, today she is a stronger person because of what she experienced. The kind of pain she went through is one that I can’t imagine feeling. I admire the strength she exhibited in overcoming this heavy burden and her ability to still find the courage to get up each morning. My Lola is one of the strongest people I have ever met and is someone that I look up to and respect. I only hope that one day, I too will be able to hold my head high when faced with the black uncertainty of the future. Habang may pag-asa, may buhay; while there is hope, there is life.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
This essay was Adriana’s entry to the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards where she was awarded a national Gold Key for the personal essay and memoir category.