On August 18,2012, at around 5pm, a Piper Seneca plane bearing four people-two on the pilot seats, two as passengers- caught trouble while airborne in the cloudless sky of Masbate and moments later, nosedived at lightning speed to the still waters below, like an eagle headshot by a sniper’s bullet. It was one of those rare tragedies that make us shake our head. Only that, on that fateful afternoon, when the sun was poised to retreat to its sanctuary, such tragedy would wrack a nation already beaten by natural calamities. Most importantly, it would stun typhoon-ravaged Bicolandia from whence came one of the men on board the ill-fated plane, whose only desire was to rush to the embrace of his wife and daughters. It was to be a happy, private homecoming. It ended up into national mourning.

Our Jesse Robredo, secretary of DILG and former Mayor of Naga City, one pride of Bicol believed to be poised for greatness, has fallen. My Bicolano heart is pierced with inexplicable grief. And now a cloud of gloom blankets the happy place — Ang maogmang lugar– because the man whose trademark smile that reduced his chinky eyes to a pair of pencil slits, and who made Naga a multi-awarded city and showcase of good governance, is now gone.

This month, I shed profuse tears -much more than those I shed all other months combined. It was only barely a week after our family went through a medical crisis involving my eldest son who spent three days at the ICU of Asian Hospital for Dengue Hemmorhagic fever. At the height of the heavy downpour of tropical storm Helen, I was on my knees outpouring a rush of pleading for the life of my son who started spitting blood and getting delirious. The prospect of death claiming a loved one was real, dreadful, unacceptable. Praise God though, He responded and honored our prayers just the way we implored, but not without wrenching my mother’s heart and suffering from a worn lachrymal gland.

At 8:00 pm of August 18, I was again to shed tears. This time for the man who stood as a beacon of hope for the Bicolano spirit, a man whose great deeds outshone his simplicity, a man who brought the sparkle of Naga city – a once debt-ridden, obscure place- to national consciousness.

I had just arrived home together with hubby and the kids when elder sister Lilit relayed the news of the plane crash. My heart sank. I immediately thought of the family. Time must have stopped for them, as they waited for news — good news. I thought of Naga and its constituents. That tiny but bustling city that has been the former mayor’s showcase of good, no, excellent governance for six terms. It had been my second home. I studied there for almost two years before I gave in to the irresistible pull of the State U nestled at the foot of Mt. Makiling. Four of my eight siblings have settled there after graduating from its well- respected universities–Ateneo de Naga and University of Nueva Caceres.I thought of my nephews and niece who practically grew up knowing no other city leader but him. I thought of the Naguenos — Oh, how they love him. How did they take the news? Mayor Jess was their every man. He was one with the people. He was selfless. He was unassuming.

I had always been a secret admirer. I never knew the man personally. I came to know him and his ways through my elder sister who works at the City Hall and who has known him since he was first elected as mayor in 1988. He was known at the city hall as “Pogi” a term of endearment to him by his subordinates. The first time I heard it, I even raised a brow. With the image of Richard Gomez in his Bench commercial as my standard of male beauty, my then teenage, Mills and Boon-soaked eyes could not agree with such endearment. That I saw “Pogi” at the city hall with his dishevelled hair, wearing a pair of faded jogging pants and looking like one of those metro street sweepers out for lunch break all the more convinced me my sister and her colleagues at the city hall may have to visit their eye doctors.

But I knew this moniker was way beyond the physical. It was an endearment attributed to one close to the heart. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly,” says the little prince. A heart that loves sees only the beauty of the object of his love. To city hall employees, Mayor Jess was “Pogi.” Period.

On occasions I visited my sis at city hall to ask for money to buy Tocino or Longganisa at the Supermarket, I would overhear snippets of conversations about “Pogi.” How he was a stickler for energy and resource conservation –how they were required to recycle and use the back of draft papers, how he would personally see to it that at lunch break up to 1o’ clock, all office lights and airconditioning units should be turned off to conserve energy. When he won the coveted Ramon Magsaysay for good governance, I felt proud as a Bikolano. Wow. It was no mean feat. He was the only Filipino mayor who had earned such accolade. It certainly made Bicolandia, Naga City in particular, a top destination of LGU executives across the archipelago, if only to observe first hand the best practices instituted under his leadership. I am not privy to the numerous awards he and the city won — Dangal ng Bayan, Galing Pook Award, whatever. All I know is that they were tangible proofs of his world-class leadership. With the awards, Naga gained prominence as a model city, and we Bicolanos had never been prouder. Thanks to “Pogi” who epitomized our ideals and showed what the Bicolano spirit was capable of achieving. Thus, after the death of Sen Raoul Roco, an equally-loved Nagueno who rose to national prominence with his brilliance and charisma, Bikolanos (I was one of them) pinned new hopes on the fast-rising Robredo.

By a twist of fate, however, whatever hope I secretly nurtured (Presidency for a Bicolano, perhaps?), was to be snuffed out on that fateful Saturday afternoon. Later, in the dead of the night, amidst the steady breathing of my sons in bed, I woke up suddenly, Pogi’s smiling image flashing in my mind. I wrestled in prayer for his safety, tears flowing profusely. Oh, why was I like this? how could the news about him make such an impact on me? Was it because of the unexpectedness, the suddenness, the swiftness and the violence by which he might have faced his curtain call? As I implored for his safe return, I felt a searing pain, an unusual heaviness of heart, all the while asking why a devoted father whose only hope was to spend some precious moments with his family in the midst of his national duties, could meet such tragedy.

Yet I was hopeful that a miracle would happen. After all, nothing is ever impossible with God. A miracle to us is mundane to the great creator. Wasn’t he able to raise Lazarus back to life? Did he not save Daniel from the lion’s den? Did he not part the red sea so the Israelites could cross safely? Did he not send a whale to swallow Jonah and spew him alive three days later? What more could he not do?

Restless, I textd my sister Diding in Naga. I wanted to know what she was feeling. I knew she was close to him. Here’s what I received:

Nakapanlulumo talaga pangyayari. Kaya pala to nagmamadali ta maatend kan awarding kan bunso nia na swimmer. Arog talaga kaya cia ka devoted na ama, maski ano busy, pag may event an aki niya, napuli siya. Grabe, nasa denial stage pa kami. Nag vigil kami kasubanggi sa harong ni Sec, hanggang ngonian, dai pa naghuhuraw ang tao. We are so sad sa nangyari, grabe an hiribian mi. Up to now, pag nagigirumduman ko, naturo pa luha ko.

(It’s a wrenching experience. The reason why he was in such a hurry was that he was to attend the awarding of his youngest daughter who is a swimmer. That was how devoted a father he was. No matter how busy, whenever one of his daughters had an event, he would go home. Terrible.We are still in denial stage on what had happened. We cannot contain crying. Up to now, as I remember it, my tears flow.)

On Tuesday morning (August 21,2012) more than two days since Secretary Jess went missing, I finally learned the sad news confirming the worst fears of everyone. I let the tears flow freely, mingling with the gushes of water as I took a shower.This time, the water felt harder, not as soothing as it used to be. In fact it felt punishing. I spent no more than five minutes- just enough time to allow the tears to subside and dissolve alongside the water from the shower. I tried to rub myself a litte harder than usual hoping to wipe away the heaviness in my heart. I did not feel better. Undeniably, his passing stirred a tempest of emotions I never want to acknowledge, yet seeking attention. Mayon volcano has started to manifest itself in my bicolano heart, seething, rambling. So many questions, so many whys.

Until the news of his death, we had had so much faith, so much hope, and so much admiration for the public man that he was.Until his death, it had not not occurred to me that he was just a simple family man who longed to celebrate his daughter’s milestones, enjoy the comforts and love of his family, hoping to steal time even just for a single day because he knew he had the nation to attend to as his national duties would eat up his weekdays. It was family time. He had to be home. If he had his own wings, he would have flown home by his lonesome, like a weary eagle returning to her nest.

Up to now, I cannot shake off the grief, though the object of my grief never knew me from Adam. Since he went missing I have awakened In the mornings with a heavy ache and a wrench in the gut that never seems to go away. “Life is like a chaff easily blown by the wind, ” so the book of Ecclesiastes says. I have once again been pressed to face issues we keep at bay and even all too easily dismiss when our boat sails smoothly — questions about life, mortality and eternity. He who was at the prime of his life, he who was at the peak of his career, he who had high hopes for his family and country, he whose silent works wafted a breath of fresh air to the stench of politics. Again the whys never end.

We Bicolanos are resilient. We are used to being ravaged by typhoons year in and year out. We manage to raise a brow and even shrug when news of a typhoon hits us as though it is as natural as tomorrow’s breakfast. When Typhoon X howls at us, we simply take cover, endure her blows, ache a bit, pick up what’s left of her punishment and get on with our lives, ready again to face her next lashing anytime of the year. On August 18, 2012, though, a catastrophe like no other wracked us to the core, unmatched by any super typhoon that ever hit us. The passing of Mayor jess, the one great leader we so love, was a news nobody, no Bicolano and no Filipino was ever prepared to hear. That he was taken in such manner, after all what he has done for Naga and for the country as DILG secretary only exacerbated our sorrow.

Where do we turn to in these trying times? Borrowing Peter’s words, to whom shall we go?

There is absolutely no one to turn to but to our maker. Grabbing my ipad, i hit the keys to pound heaven’s door. I need answers. He must know them.

Dear Heavenly Father,

You were silent when everyone else -every Bicolano, every Filipino was on his knees and cried out for the safety of Sec and his companions. Miracle, Lord. You were never wanting of these. Surely you did not need reminding of the wondrous things you had done, for a miracle to us is ordinary to you. The list below, though incomplete, says enough about you and your power.

You fed 5000 people out of a little boy’s lunch box.
You turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
You brought to life Jairus’s 12-year old daughter.
You saved Daniel from being devoured by lions.
You parted the red sea so the Israelites could cross safely.
You sent a whale to swallow Jonah and spew him alive three days later.
You healed the sick, the maimed, the demon-possessed.
You raised Lazarus, dead for three days, back to life.

Oh, lest I forget, you created every breathing being. What more could you not do? The word impossible is definitely not in your vocabulary.

But this time, Lord, why didn’t you show Bicolandia and the entire nation that there is still such a thing as a modern day miracle? If by your grace, the aide found his way out of the sinking plane, why didn’t you extend the same grace to the two pilots, one of them even preached your word, and to Sec Jess? What was on your mind when this tragedy happened?

We lost Bicolandia’s beloved son.The nation lost a treasure. Do you not care for our sentiments? our Jess would have done more for the country. Surely, our Jess, a loving father would have wanted too, to escort his daughters to your altar when the time for them to marry comes. He would have loved to meet his future sons in law and give them pieces of advice on how to lead and love a family. He would have relished playing to bits with his grandchildren. He would have… He would have…

Why? Didn’t you know we felt violated? We felt “robbed” of a good man — a man living out the Matuwid na Daan slogan both as a government official and family man. That he was snatched from us of a force you alone had the power to control only compounded our pain. Is this the manner by which the “good” are rewarded in this lifetime? Not even a time to properly say goodbye?
Have you not heard my countrymen’s sentiments? Pagkadami daming masasama, mga kriminal, mamamatay tao, magnanakaw, buwaya, etc. bakit hindi na lang sila ang kinuha? Bakit ang isang matino, matuwid and mapagkawanggawa pa ang nawala? If righteousness were to reign in a nation, why take leaders, rare leaders, who take that less trodden path? Why leave a people who hunger for the matuwid na daan, “orphaned?” Why?

I abhor death, as I am sure you do. You are life. You are the creator. Death is an abberration, a disruption, a time stopper. Yes, I remember you did not invent it. It is a result of a fallen world, of that first great sin commited by our forefather of long ago who disobeyed your command. As a result, all (including us and those who have yet to be born) have “sinned” and should therefore be doomed to suffer its main consequence–death.

I know it is the very reason why you had to intervene more than two thousand years ago.

We, humans will all die. That is a done deal. (Hebrews 9: 27). But you made provisions that even if our physical bodies rot and be feasted on by worms, that part of us created in your image will return to your bosom so long as we put our faith in your son-the Word, the God who became flesh and dwelt among us.” Christ came to “destroy the works of the devil and to free those who all their lives have been held in slavery by their fear of death. “He came that we may have life. And have it to the full” But the irony was, in order for us to have life, he must die a criminal’s death on the cross.”

You are a father, above anything else. What must have you felt when you saw your son hanging limp on the cross, blood oozing from his thorn-pinned temples, pained and crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What did you do when when your son agonized in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of suffering that he was about to bear, to be taken from him? All it would take for you was just to nod a head and the legions of angels could hve struck dead your son’s tormentors. Why did you restrain? Because you listened more to us, to the sinners’ pleas than to your spotless, Holy son’s pleading. For a fleeting moment, you forsook your power in favor of love — for us. Oh, how easily could we forget this. In our selfishness, we tend to self lick our wounds and blame you for our miseries, when all you had and have in mind is our well-being. Forgive us, Lord.

Until the day you wipe away every tear from our eyes, some, if not most of us, will continue to ask why. The beauty of it though, is that you have the answer. As you spoke to Job out of the whirlwind and rested your case as the great I Am–the beginning and the end– He whose thoughts are “higher than our thoughts and whose ways are higher than our ways, I too will just borrow his words.

“My ears have heard of you, but my (spiritual) eyes have seen you.” May your name alone be praised.

One thing I believe in is that whatever life situation we may be in, in the midst of grief, pain and suffering, You, the great creator are good. When bad things happen to good people, as what happened to our dear Secretary, such never change the fact that YOU are good, and you are the same, yesterday and tomorrow.

We entrust your son, our Jesse to your eternal bosom. Heal our grief that we may come out of this better persons, better fathers, better mothers, better friends, and better citizens. You once again reminded us how fleeting life is. We are a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,” so the book of James says. And indeed, it is the quality of life that matters, just as you have shown us the quality of a man that our dear Jesse was.

Thank you that we who are still living, can find meaning and purpose in the midst of tragedy. Forgive us for ever thinking that your love depends on our human efforts.No, your love has long been sealed on the cross. You proved it when you did not spare your own son, who never deserved the spit and lashes he bore, from death. It is our response to that love that is oftentimes skewed, myopic and even misplaced. Lord, open our eyes that we may see that just as we continue to hurt and suffer in this fallen world, you too, share our pain, and much more.

Thank you for the life of Jesse Robredo. Indeed we are a nation blessed.

Postcript:

My sister Diding, now in Naga Ciy attending the wake, sent this latest text message:
(August 23, 11:45p.m.)

I am really amazed at the people here sa wake ni JMR (Jesse M Robredo). They know the casket is closed,still they patiently wait sa pagkahabahabang pila. A touch on his casket seems enough for them. Hay, si Mayor talaga, iba ang karisma. Para ditong Penafrancia Fiesta.

Our dear Jesse, in life or death, you are our man.

 A toast to a life well-lived. This poem fits you to a T.
 THE MEASURE OF A MAN
Author: Anonymous
Not – How did he die? But – How did he live?
Not – What did he gain? But – What did he give?
These are the things that measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.
                                     Not – What was his station? But – had he a heart?
                                          And – How did he play his God-given part?
                                          Was he ever ready with a word of good cheer?
                                          To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
                                        Not – What was his church? Not – What was his creed?
                                          But – Had he befriended those really in need?
                                          Not – What did the sketch in the newspaper say?
                                          But – How many were sorry when he passed away?
                                          These are the things that measure the worth
                                          Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.