by Abraham M. Dela Torre
AT THE OUTSET, I didn’t feel up to being cordial to Ate Cecil. She first emerged at the parish office wanting to have an audience with the priest. She said she had a lot of ideas the church may want to hear and, having heard, use in her evangelization efforts.
To the easily intimidated, her credentials are awe-inspiring. A retired Assistant Chief of Commission on Higher Education (CHED)-NCR, with an MA in Ph. D tuck in her sleeves, she could’ve instantly caught my attention had she not been relentless. In her discourses on death and dying, tapping the youth to fast-track catechism, pursuing a reading public to visit her mini library and just about anything that starts her adrenaline (which is never inert) pumping. At 82, this octogenarian is inactive in public service but is not about to rest on her educative laurels. As much as I could, I put up with her almost daily visits to the office (where I used to serve as secretary) even if that meant allocating an ample portion of my work to her harangue which, when her push seemed to shift to shove, I would cut short.
My prejudice was encouraged by other parishioners whom she, at one time or another, in a seemingly calculated cycle, have met, known, engaged in start-up conversation and rendered captive whenever their paths met. They collectively confirm that she is best held at arm’s length.
Although you have to give her credit that, for one whose vision is greatly impaired, she can place a person by his voice. Which almost always gives me away, my baritone being easily detected.
Soon, her forays into the privacies of chance encounters gave reason for the encountered to avoid her. I was of the same inclination, save that she knew where to find me, so my sinister tactic would be to leave my post at the sight of her. It did not take a lot of effort and caused little guilt.
She never married, lives with old ladies similarly situated in a Wellness Place founded and funded by her fellow Teresians, away from family, solaced only by occasional visits of well-meaning acquaintances, one of which is our mutual friend, Marielou.
I suppose she has the limited wherewithal to work out a generosity that is as spontaneous as she is glib. Last Christmas, she gave away books to people I haven’t the vaguest idea how she knew. This is not counting the tons of used clothes she showered the parish all-around caretaker, Kuya Bernard, and his brood. They who live under a bridge on Fairlane Avenue, which destroyed her defenses to giving haphazardly.
What struck me as odd was that I was in her list of book-worthy beneficiaries. Her dedication to one of her prized presents, by Morton Leonard Yanow, was “This is only for your ‘Thesaurus’,” whatever that meant. (Her “condition” was that I do another review of it like I did her copy of Concepcion B. Banaag’s Katesismo.)
To her credit, whenever she was around, and in an effort to thwart her blow-by-blow, I would baffle her with my perceived high-falluting phrases. And she would feign chagrin, dismay or shock at my incongruous outburst. More so when Ate Malou is with us and we would gang up on her, both inflecting a British accent, driving her up the blasted wall.
I didn’t know she was sick. I only knew how sick she was when Ate Malou told me she went through an operation for Grade 3A cancer of the breast. I die a little whenever Ate Malou would fill me in on how steadily she retrogressed. Slowed in mobility here, losing memory there, like she was ready to go anytime. My guilt burgeoned and blew me away. I didn’t know I cared.
I started to pray for her. She tops my list of nightly first mystery petitions for the sick, aged, angry and disabled. Upon my realization of the seriousness of her situation, my prayer assumed an earnest supplication. Where I was loud in my usurping our conversations, I became soothing in my assurances that she need not worry, she has a long way to go, God is good, like there was no lump in my throat.
God will never be taken for granted. After the Thursday 6 am Mass, on my way to my communicant, I saw her and, like a habit long cultivated with her, I bussed her cheek.. She was beaming not as a reaction to my gesture, but for a different gladness. She had improved, is undergoing hormonal therapy and does not have to go through chemo treatment or radiation. At her age, the latter could speed up her deterioration.
Like pilgrims here one moment and gone the next, I do not overexert efforts to make her happy. Ate Malou, a registered nurse, says that joy is the only and extreme medicine she needs without so much as rubbing her face in a laughing fit. We did not make a pact in taking turns at it, only pledged that we’ll make the most of what time she has and so be it.