Death Be Not Proud
NEW YORK—Having just been in Manila for the saddest of reasons—the untimely demise of my older brother, Joseph, at the age of 79—allowed me an opportunity to observe, and reflect, on the state of the metropolis, and the state of the state in terms of issues about which he cared deeply, mainly social justice and government accountability.
Negotiating the seemingly perpetually clogged streets to get from where my younger sister Judy and I were staying to where his wake was being held, as arranged by his widow and two grown-up sons, took an inordinate time, a test of one’s patience—and bladder. Late at night, returning to the apartment graciously loaned us by my sister’s friend took a third of the time, with the traffic considerably lessened. Otherwise, for most of the day, Manila traffic is a prime candidate for the tenth circle of Hell.
I bring this rather mundane topic up as, on my periodic visits, whenever Joseph and I were driving somewhere in the city, we would inevitably talk about traffic, and how it sapped the vitality of those who had to commute to the commercial districts where they were employed. These workers don’t live nearby, as the surrounding neighborhoods tend to be either gated, expensive villages, or equally expensive high-rise condominiums and apartment towers.
The hapless commuter needs to get up at an ungodly hour, battling long lines and chronic fatigue, making their lives ones of quiet desperation. And while there are advantages in being in an airconditioned car, these do not include less time sitting on one’s butt.
How, Joseph would ask, can the worker have energy left at the end of the day, to engage in any activity, whether it was to see a film, spend time with family, or—and this was important—, attend a rally? We would speculate that perhaps the powers that be did after all want to ensure that the average worker would simply be too enervated to protest against a system rigged against him or her.
What really set him off was seeing all these SUVs, with their tinted windows, hogging space. He’d ask, what are these doing on city streets? They may be necessary in negotiating muddy trails and deeply rutted country roads, but not here. These comments, followed by a few choice expletives.
Traffic and its gridlock conditions in the metropolitan area became in our view a twisted metaphor for the national condition, a country at a standstill, choking on its own toxicity. Being retired, Joseph had at least the luxury of having time enough to be active in social-justice movements. While that didn’t guarantee freedom from the vicissitudes of traffic, he could decide at what time he would join the procession of the damned and lessen his aggravation.
We both agreed that the sorry state of the mass transit system had to be remedied immediately. Moreover, he believed, along with other like-minded economists and city planners unconstrained by political allegiances, that one could decongest the metropolitan area by creating job opportunities in nearby towns, thus lessening the daily, harried commute.
When he was felled by an aneurism, quickly, suddenly, my brother had a thousand things going. He was active in nonpartisan movements that sought to alter the political landscape by, among other things, emphasizing the importance of ordinary citizens involving themselves in the processes by which their communities were governed, and determining objective criteria to evaluate candidates running for national office, away from name recognition and the patronage system. And occasionally he put his 79-year-old body on the line by joining street protests and rallies.
He had plans of writing a book on income inequality in the country, inspired by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
And he was the engine that propelled a small nonprofit foundation—the Sister Myrna Francia Memorial Inc. (SMFMI)— that he, myself, my sister, and a few friends had set up that sought to continue our late sister Myrna’s work in urban poor areas, when she was a nun with the Immaculate Coeur du Marie order, that runs the St. Theresa schools in the country. Over the past years, SMFMI has funded the education and vocational training of more than a dozen bright but economically disadvantaged public high-school students.
In so many ways, Joseph was continuing the work he did as a parish priest, when he was still an ordained Jesuit, in a remote town in Zamboanga, a town of fisherfolk and peasant farmers. My brother was a dreamer in the best sense of the word, the sense that the American poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz alluded to when he wrote “In dreams begin responsibilities,” itself a variation on Yeats’s “In dreams begins responsibility.” To be fully alive, one needs to dream, and to dream responsibly. My brother was such a man.
Two days after Joseph was laid to rest, the remains of General Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975, were exhumed from a basilica and moved to a private family crypt. The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said of the exhumation that it would “bring an end to the moral insult of a dictator in a public place.”
“Moral insult” describes precisely the continuing entombment of the late, unlamented dictator and fake war hero Ferdinand E. Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani (National Heroes Cemetery). His corpse was removed discreetly from the family mausoleum up north to preempt any public protests, then quietly interred at the Libingan in November of 2016. People were outraged, that such a desecration was allowed by President Rodrigo Duterte. Not surprising, given that Duterte is a professed admirer of the late dictator.
Franco’s exhumation renews the keen hope of so many that the same can be done with Marcos. May the consummation of our devout desire be much sooner rather than later. Copyright L.H. Francia 2019