09 August 2009

Farewell, Leila

This past week has been a week of good-byes.

When Cory Aquino died, the whole nation mourned. My friend Bun and I were one of the countless thousands who stood in line Tuesday night in the Intramuros area, hoping to catch a glimpse of the beloved former President on the last night of her wake.

Well, we weren't able to see Cory, even though we stood in line until 2:30 am. It was raining, there were too many people, Bun and I were both getting sleepy (even though we tried to amuse ourselves while standing in line), and some parts of Intramuros were flooded--and so we decided to turn back.

Got home past three in the morning, exhausted. When I woke up several hours later, I received the most depressing news via SMS. My colleague in UNICEF, Leila Dabao, had passed away after a painful, 2-year struggle against colon cancer.

Eerily enough, she had the same sickness as Cory's, and both their deaths were just a few days apart from one another. But Leila was only 57 when she left this world--and to me and to many others, she was gone too soon.

Unlike Cory though, Leila was given more time to enjoy the rest of her life; she was diagnosed in April 2007, and had 2 blessed years to prepare. I remember all this, because I was in the hospital too when she was told by the doctor that her cancer was in the advanced stages, and she had only some months or a little over a year left to live.

This was heavy, heavy news to bear, and anyone would have understood Leila if she had raged and gotten angry at the world and at God. But Leila wasn't like that at all, and I remember all too clearly how serene she looked in spite of the sad fate that she had to accept.

That day in the hospital back in 2007 is my best memory of Leila, for she was at her most beautiful.

I was confined in Makati Medical Center in the last week of April 2007 for an ovarian cyst removal surgery. There was a huge dermoid cyst--the size of a human fist, according to my doctor and to my mom, who had actually seen it post-op--located inside my right ovary. I had to stay in the hospital for a few days to recover, as the pain from the surgical scar would not have made it possible for me to walk and check out of the hospital right away.

I've always been a healthy person all my life, and this cyst operation came as a shock, because it made me wonder if I had any other sicknesses I should know of. I was 27 at that time, physically active, healthy and acceptably slim--and it was a blow to me to discover that I had this ugly cyst (thankfully benign) swelling inside my ovary.

So there I was, lying in the hospital bed, recovering after the surgery, entertaining depressing, self-pitying thoughts like, "What if there are other cysts in my body? What if I have a lump in my breast? What if I have breast cancer or some other terminal illness?"

An office mate of mine texted to let me know that Leila, or Ms. Leila as she was called by many in UNICEF, was also confined in Makati Med, and on the same floor where I was staying. In fact, she was just a few doors down.

I had already known at that time that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and as soon as I was capable of walking and with no more IV needle stuck in my hand, I decided to visit her.

Leila was really just three or four doors away from my room, but my walk took forever. I had refused to sit on a wheelchair, and I wanted to try and walk, even though 'walking' meant shuffling my feet across the floor and holding on to the wall to avoid losing my balance. I felt like some 90-year old woman, because it took me MINUTES to reach her door. By the time I entered her room, I was tired from my efforts, and the scar in my pelvic area was throbbing painfully (I had to take a Dolfenal 500mg tablet every four hours to counter the pain).

Ms. Leila was in bed, reading the Bible. Her daughter-in-law let me in, and Leila smiled when she saw me. I slowly, gingerly sat on her bed, and we talked for a while. I was careful not to ask direct questions about her cancer, and she did not bring up the topic as well. Instead, she asked how I was and said that she would pray for my speedy recovery. I felt tears well up in the corners of my eyes, for I then realized I was in the presence of a truly selfless person. She said nothing about her own condition and chose to concentrate on another individual's well-being.

The next few minutes were very difficult; I had to struggle not to cry. Ms. Leila was advising me in her gentle voice to always pray and to count my blessings, and not to worry because I'd get well soon. She also said to trust in the Lord and His will, and she even read out loud some passages from the Bible.

The way she looked and how she talked to me with such peace in her voice would always stay in my mind. I was physically healthier than her, with no terminal illness to bear at that moment--but she was the stronger one in spirit, a real child of God. I felt ashamed for being so self-pitying, when my own condition wasn't nowhere near to being a tragedy of some sort. People were dying, and here I was, worrying about the physical pain of post-surgery as well as the non-existent scenarios in my head about contracting breast cancer and such.

I cried in the hallway when I left her room. I didn't dare cry in front of her, and I also refused to cry in my own room, because my mom would see and probably be upset at the sight of her daughter in tears. So I cried in the corridor, as I slowly made my way back to the room. I cried because I was angry at myself for being so self-absorbed, and I cried because Ms. Leila, the good person that she was, didn't deserve to die so soon. She should have lived longer, but then again, who was I to question His plans?

Leila was the faithful child of God; she had learned to accept early on what He had in store for her. She was so ready to go, and she let everyone know that she was just waiting. But while doing so, she still drove herself to work everyday for these past two years and kept herself busy. And when she could no longer go to work because she was so weak, there was still no complaint from her--just serene acceptance. In the end, she died quietly and peacefully, in spite of the great pain she had endured in her last few days and weeks on earth.

We held a memorial service for her both on Wednesday and Thursday. Leila, in her unassuming way, had actually not wanted a public viewing and a wake, but it was impossible for us not to visit and pay tribute in some sort of way. Both services were beautiful, and many of us cried. But we laughed too, as some stood in front to share happy, funny memories with Ms. Leila. The services were also a celebration of her life, and I'm sure she would have liked that we remembered her that way.

Ms. Leila, we love you and miss you very much. You are an inspiration to all of us. May you rest in peace.


Many of us in the office were pretty overwrought with how the week had turned out, and it was a bit of a shock to us when we got an email on Thursday afternoon that the mother-in-law of our colleague, Geo, had passed away.

Although we've never met Geo's mother-in-law (we only knew her as the kind soul who prepared Geo's yummy lunches) and it wasn't really a close connection, some of us who were good friends of Geo went to the wake last Friday to pay our respects.

Spent some time with Geo and his wife Bullet, who were both really happy to see us. It was rather disconcerting to be at a wake once more, but we had no problem 'settling in', as my office mates and I ate pasta, pan de sal, chicken lollipops, and half a bowl of peanuts. A strange kind of way to spend Friday night, but that's okay.

Was in Starbucks yesterday evening, doing some work on my laptop, when I got a text from Bun. She was asking me to accompany her to a wake that night.

Are you kidding?? I stared at my phone in disbelief--but with the strange, irreverent urge to laugh.

I don't think I'd be able to handle another wake, I said to Bun.

It turned out that I didn't have to accompany her after all, but I still found it disturbing that there were so many deaths happening in my circle of friends and acquaintances. Either I'm getting old, or people are not staying healthy these days.


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