Remembering Abelardo Gatmaitan (1926-2009)

3 January 2009. It was around 9:00 PM when I started cramming my Japanese journal for Advanced Nihongo (JSP104). I could have done it an hour earlier, if not for a priest’s hurried movements towards an old man’s room. Curiously, I followed him. As I enter the said bedroom, I saw the old man lying with his mouth wide open and with his eyes staring blankly at the beige ceiling. Around him were his four children and his ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend, who happens to be his wife, was staring at him through puffy eyes. The priest murmured some chant, after which he applied some generous amount of oil on the old man’s forehead and right hand.

At the exact moment that the priest’s right thumb left the old man’s forehead, the latter screamed “WAAAAH NINAY!!!” His wife rushed to his side and asked what it is that he wants. To her dismay, he just repeated calling her name “Ninay, Ninay” this time, with a smaller amount of decibels. Her wife began to brawl in front of her. Seeing this pitiful scene, one of the old man’s daughters turned to me and said, “Son, please lead us in the recitation of the Holy Rosary.”

After hearing this instruction, I told myself, “it’s just a matter of hours.” So I did what she asked me to do. I added some theological essay after I ended the Litany to the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. I tried to shorten my words so that no salty water would leave my tear glands. (The old man was still blankly uttering his wife’s name.) After I was done with my chore, I abruptly left and went to my own room, where I bolted the door shut.

“How unfair can you get? I completed nine nights of Simbang Gabi! I wished that he be spared of Death’s visit! It’s just a matter of time before he celebrates his diamond (60th) wedding anniversary with the woman he loves! Can you kill some top-criminal instead? He never committed any crime! Spare him. How unfair can you get?” I was talking to no one in particular then. (Thank God no one was passing by my room to hear me speak aloud to myself.) And without warning, one stupid droplet of salty water departed my right tear duct. Five drops followed, then the left tear duct opened to release a teaspoonful of the said liquid. Next thing I knew, I was crying as if a fiancée of five years just broke up with me. It was after half an hour when I realized that school resumes on January 5 and I have to really start my Japanese journal already.

Like Jesus’ birth, things proceeded silently at 952 San Juan during the Eve of the Feast of the Three Kings 2009. The old man would just call his wife’s name at 30-minute intervals. But to make sure he stays calm until the dawn breaks, his son (and his wife) decided to watch over him. The old man’s wife slept on a sofa outside the room, while her three other daughters went back to their respective homes. From 9:00 PM onwards, everything was still (well, except for the sounds of stray cats flirting in the dark). No one seemed to care about me, cramped in a small area of our living room, cramming my Japanese Journal for Advanced Nihongo (and talking to Larry my old Acer laptop and Microsoft Office Publisher 2007 alone).

It was 3:00 AM when I finished the last of the ten required journal entries. My eyes have been screaming rebellious words since 1:00 AM. I shut Larry down and was about to go to my bedroom when the old man’s son approached me. “Wake up you Mom, Troy. Your Lolo’s breath rate is decreasing.” He then left me to wake up the old man’s wife.

At the back of my mind, I was muttering “not now – be rational and don’t be unfair.” I knocked on my Mom’s room. After around thirty seconds, the old man’s daughter who asked me to lead the holy rosary went out. “It’s Lolo. Uncle told me that he’s breathing at a terribly slow rate now.”  She then told me that she will be joining her brother in a few minutes, so I just stepped inside the old man’s room.

Indeed, the old man was breathing at an awful pace. It was as if someone turned on a gigantic vacuum pump and sucked out all the oxygen in the atmosphere. His son who was by his side told him, “Amang, amang, stay strong. But if you want to go, it’s okay. It’s okay.” I can tell him he was lying as he spoke the last sentence as a huge teardrop left his right eye at the exact moment. (At their back, the old man’s wife and her son’s wife were both crying a bucket of tears.)

For a golden moment, the old man seemed to recognize his son. His face shone with fleeting joy. He lifted his right hand and tried with his all might to hold his son’s lap. His son recognized the sudden glow in his father and extended his right hand as well. However both hands failed to meet as the old man screamed with a painful “AAAAARGGGHHHH!” His hands dropped and he breathed no more. They were just an inch away!

Abelardo “Abner” Gatmaitan, 82, passed away a few minutes past 3:00 AM. The culprit was his gastric carcinoma. At that moment, his wife Segundina “Ninay” Gatmaitan rushed to his and Alberto “Berting” Gatmaitan’s spot. Both wife and son were hugging each other tightly, shocked at what just happened. Tears drowned the words they want to utter.

Mommy Norma Alivio came in late. She knew that the terrifying horror just took place when she saw the sight of Ninong Berting and Lola Ninay. Immediately, she approached Lolo Abner’s body and cried in front of him. Lola Ninay was brawling real bad, so that I told her to sit down on a chair beside Lolo Abner’s bed. Ninang Flori (Ninong Berting’s wife) approached her to calm her down. Mommy then told me to wake my sister up. He told me to go to Mama Lily Chee’s house to wake her, my cousins, and my niece as well. She on the other hand, went back to the living room, picked up our landline telephone and called Ninang Dina “Gett” Gatmaitan.

After ten minutes, the children of Lolo Abner and Lola Ninay were all in Lolo’s bedroom, all lost at words with what just transpired. A few more minutes, our extended relatives from the neighboring houses flocked to Lolo’s room as well. It was around 4:30 AM when the funeral service which Ninong Berting called half an hour after Lolo’s death came. As his body was carted out of our house, Ninong Berting kissed his father’s forhead and whispered “Thanks for waiting for me, Amang.” With so much activity happening, the drowsiness I was feeling evaporated and dissolved into nothingness. It was as if I was doing my thesis paper again.

Lolo Abner returned at 10:00 AM. He was inside a white casket, and his face looked like as if he has not experienced pain for a thousand years.  He looked totally peaceful.

He was buried three days after. Nine days after the burial, Lola Ninay turned 81. She was not in the real mood to celebrate her occasion though.

As a child, Lolo Abner really hated needles. As much as he can avoid it, he would avoid medicines delivered by syringes. He was also very playful way back then. During World War II, he would scream insults to Japanese soldiers and hurriedly climb up a nearby tree.

Despite his naughty side, Lolo Abner proved himself to be a serious lover. He gave up his dreams of finishing his college education when he met Lola Ninay. She saw in him that he was true to his words and so even she was then a Senior high school student running for honors, she eloped with him. What Lola Ninay did was a real heartbreak to her parents, but eventually they approved of him after they observed him to be truly hardworking.

Lolo Abner was a Spiritist and as such he attends no Holy Mass and prays no novena. Lola Ninay on the other hand was strictly Roman Catholic. It was then a conflict of interest when he and Lola Ninay decided to take their relationship to a formal setting. But being a responsible lover, Lolo Abner took no hesitations and told Lola Ninay that he would be willing to be baptized Catholic so that they can finally arrange their Church marriage. And finally, on September 1, 1949, Abelardo and Segundina exchanged their vows of forever before God. From that day forward, Lolo Abner learned to accept Lola Ninay’s God in his life as well. He really does not go to Holy Mass, but in practice, he was better than any Catholic who regularly hears Mass.

Proof of this was when one day, Lolo Abner’s brother Lolo Manuel gave him a huge amount of land to support the growing family. Lolo Abner’s three kids were about to enter high school and his youngest daughter was about to be born. He wanted his children to finish college and become professionals, something that he and Lola Ninay were unable to do. Without any second thought, he sold his lands. To add to their family budget, he took on any job available to him, one of it being a land surveyor. And he did not fail. By the 1980’s he was able to produce a businesswoman, a medical technologist, and a mining engineer.

One of the noblest things Lolo Abner has done is to selflessly give up a chunk of his land to his step-brother, Lolo Itoy, and his family. Lolo Abner gave a generous area to Lolo Itoy for free so that the latter and his family can have a place to stay. Until now, Lolo Itoy hasn’t forgotten this act of love.

As the number of his family members increased with the births of his grandchildren, his care and love to all of them multiplied a thousandfold as well. I will never forget those days when I was a grade schooler how he would drive me and Ate Kendi Chee to Holy Spirit Academy everyday. He would sometimes brag how he and his jeep Teban can go at furious speeds on the busy highway. He was simply my father figure during those times that Daddy Nick has to be out of this country for work.

How can God be so unfair. All I wanted for Lolo Abner was to live last 2009. I wanted to give him my first college diploma. I wanted them and Lola Ninay re-married after 60 beautiful years. How can God be so unfair to take away his life on the exact same day the celebration of His Son’s Epiphany? How can God be so unfair to take away the soul of my superhero?

Exactly one year from now, at around 9:00 PM, I was cramming my Japanese journal for Advanced Nihongo. Six hours later, I finished my tenth entry, Death would be coming at our doorstep to fetch Lolo Abner. But his arrival, I will never forget what I saw: Lolo Abner’s and Ninong Berting’s hands failed to clasp each other. They were just an inch away. And it was at the moment that the father has finally recognized his son.

A year has already gone. While at some times it just feels as if Lolo Abner just went to Greenland for vacation, the reality that he will not return anymore to tell me tales of his youth bites my heart out. But as the cliché goes, life must go on. His physical body may now have rot five meters below ground level but the memories and teachings he has instilled on us will remain in our hearts and minds for eternity.

I am perfectly sure that he is happy with his Creator right now.

Lolo Abner, my superhero, I will forever miss you. I will offer to you my second college diploma. Kudos to you!

Those who are dead are not dead, but just living in my head. — 42 by Coldplay, from the Album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends

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