Persona

A light that never goes out

'Dear friends, I’m dying; come visit'

At Pretty in Pink event, Margie Espino (seated) with husband Chet behind her, and children Mark and wife Kim, Catherine, Patricia (Photo from Emmie Velarde’s FB)

‘Final Fete’ main event. All together onstage now, from left: Kim, Mark, Chet, Margie, Catherine, Patricia

Margie and Chet Espino in March 2024 (Photo by Tessa R. Salazar)

Take me out tonight
Where there’s music and there’s people
And they’re young and alive
(The Smiths, 1986)

‘Almost complete Quimpo side,’ says Chet Espino of this frame. At the center are Margie’s parents Albert and Isabel, both in their 80s.

I. DEAR FRIENDS, I’M DYING; COME VISIT

Facebook post, April 20, 2024

For the next many more years, I shall continue to find reasons to remember Margie Quimpo-Espino, colleague and friend.

More than one whole— and full-on—decade of dire circumstances that always turned out to have the upper hand (a massive stroke in 2008 nearly 3,000 miles away from home, a fire that gutted her house soon after, two bouts with cancer, this last one ruthless), she is done fighting death, and has set down terms for how the remainder of her life should proceed.

Foremost among these terms is: no more treatment of any kind that will  confine her in a hospital room, prescribe an oppressive diet, and prohibit contact with family and friends.

As for the pain, she had that quickly sorted out. A new cluster of discomforts came with the recurrence of cancer in January last year. She willfully relegated much of that to purely physical status, never diverting her mind from the big picture. Her husband Chet’s theory is that, however much of the pain still bothers her, she has allowed to remain only for added spiritual conciliation, or joyful “sacrifice” that she can offer up to God.

What is the big picture? One where she basks in as much love as possible—receiving it, giving it—for as long as possible.

An unequivocal invitation to “come visit” her at home quickly followed the news of imminent end of life. So in the past six months, security personnel at the main gate of one southern Metro Manila village have found themselves repeatedly giving directions to the Espino residence.

“It is the only house there,” they would add with some concern, “at the end of the street.”

The living room is sun-drenched; the high ceiling is often noticed only on the guests’ way out. That’s because, at this time, it feels like the front door is meant to lead straight to the brick-red dining room, where a myriad of ways to fulfill Margie’s dying (a word she has taken to dropping casually) wish happens: meals and long conversations, lots of joking around, carefully curated music of the times of her life played very softly. On particularly relaxed days, there is live singing, too. Chet plays the guitar like a pro.

Until recently, Margie actively participated in every single chitchat, mischievously  interrupting Chet as he told bits and pieces of their stunning story since that savage stroke in India just a few years before the first battle with cancer. He has faithfully chronicled that journey in a book but, to this day, it has not been diminished by that much retelling. The story is infused with new insights each time, specially into how decisions were made at every turn. Why, for instance, did Chet choose not to hire house help after the previous one left? He has said in so many words that doing everything himself— the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning—fine-tuned his instinct for anticipating Margie’s every need. His processes make for an equally engrossing account.

Margie would  usually be smiling almost the whole time that guests stayed. When a frown clouded her face even for a fleeting moment, everyone around the table noticed and understood.

In November last year, she told a handful of visitors, quite earnestly, that she wanted a big goodbye party. Chet volunteered that they had watched a movie where a woman who is terminally ill hosts  one such pre-death “memorial.” The guests, all friends from the theater, come outfitted in 16th-century costumes, dance to Renaissance music and recite Shakespearean sonnets throughout the quaint service. They all get to say their goodbyes, some calmly, others tearfully. “I want something like that,” Margie told Chet. And wouldn’t it be nice if the guests wore pink!

More and more often, Margie has been leaving the table in the brick-red dining room midway through the usual four-hour sit-downs, sometimes even faster than that. Sometimes she makes her way  back to her seat after a short nap—  this has been happening less and less.

On April 13, Margie got her big wish (why not?). The organizers called it Margie’s Final Fete: Pretty in Pink.

Dainty pink for Margie Quimpo Espino

II. SOMETHING TO LAUGH ABOUT, REALLY?

Facebook post, April 28, 2024

CHET Espino braced himself for heavy drama on the night his family was to discuss wife Margie’s end-stage cancer. Thigh-slapping comedy happened instead.

Their son Mark, joining the video call from the UK with wife Kim, told the most hilarious story. Chet recounted it in his “best for last” (daughter Patricia’s words) sharing during Margie’s Final Fete: Pretty in Pink, a unique pre-death tribute.

“We told Mark earlier by phone that Margie had refused further treatment. He and Kim left work early and went to church, where they promptly started crying. It was a weekday, so there wasn’t supposed to be any service. But they noticed that the church was filling up, and soon enough they realized they were in a funeral mass! They were the only non-relatives, but also the only ones in tears. Kim suggested that they dash out before anyone mistook them for the deceased’s illegitimate children.”

All the tension dissipated, Chet recalled. “Imagine, God sending us a reason to laugh at such a time! It became clearer than ever to me that everything must already be in His hands.”

This was in October 2023. A lot more unexpected things— happy, happier, not happy at all—would surprise his family until Final Fete, held two weeks ago, on April 13.

Three weeks in the run-up to the event, it was all touch and go. Chet, for one, was not sure Margie would make it that far. On April 10, they hadn’t made a final announcement. “We were still having long discussions, although I understood that for as long as she wanted it to happen, it was not for me to give up on the idea. The next day, I asked one more time: ‘Should we push through with this?’  She gave me a mouthful.” He took that spirited defiance as a good sign.

It was her only remaining wish after she decided end treatment. Nine months earlier, in January 2023, Margie’s Stage 3 breast cancer from 2012 was back. It had metastasized to the bones, Stage 4. “She couldn’t walk,” Chet said, “couldn’t even stand. She needed radiation immediately to hopefully slow down the cancer.”

By October, the cancer had spread further, to the liver and lungs. More bone lesions were detected. “Treatment would have been chemo therapy for the lungs, liver and bones,” Chet said. “But Margie was starting to experience severe headaches. If that meant the cancer had reached the brain, that would have called for radiation, separately.”

Because she knew what all that meant, Margie put her foot down. “I don’t want any more of that.”

In any case, this was a couple that never flinched from logic and a clear picture. They asked the oncologist, “If we don’t get treatment, how much time would she have left?” The answer was, less than a year.

And if Margie agreed to chemo? There was no assurance, no way of telling at all. That set in motion everything that led to April 13 because after requisite family conversations, she took to Facebook:

“I have less than a year to live. I don’t want any more treatment. And I want to see my friends and relatives, so come to my house and visit me. My husband is my social secretary.”

Prime seats: Next to the Tuloy Sa Don Bosco children’s village choir, for the Mass of the ‘Final Fete’ (Photo by Jill Quimpo-Paredes)

Mass co-celebrants Fr. Rocky Evangelista and Fr. Francis Vincent Gustilo thank Margie and Chet for ‘allowing’ them to ‘witness her expression of courage and acceptance.’ (Photo courtesy of Joy Buensalido)

A Lifeline 16911 ambulance brought Margie to the event venue, Tuloy sa Don Bosco in Alabang, about five minutes from her home. Chet wheeled her into the Chapel of the Forgiving Lord, where he often heard Mass, to joyous singing by the choir of the street children’s village. She was visibly mellow. A  friend of Margie’s, Joy Buensalido, had suggested Tuloy for the event. There was a reception hall a few steps from the chapel. The compound was spacious and quiet—perfect for the occasion.

“No cross, no crown. No thorn, no throne,” Fr. Francis Vincent Gustilo said in his homily, striking a chord with many, considering the reason for the once-in-a-lifetime gathering. He identified himself simply as the couple’s friend and protegé of his co-celebrant Fr. Rocky Evangelista, eminent founder of Tuloy.

The friendship between the two priests felt genuine, as apparent as the affinity among the guests, the only difference being, not all of Margie’s relatives and friends who were there knew one another until that day. They had been brought together, possibly just this once, by the delicate thread of her love. Many wore pink, her favorite color, as she had requested. To family and her oldest friends, she is “Pinky.”

(***Karen Alparce-Villanueva, founder, Rare Cancers Philippines, Facebook, April 14, 2024
“Thank you, Chet and Margie for the privilege of saying a proper goodbye.”)

All the guests had photo-ops with Margie (and her family, too) during the reception. From left: Frances Yu, Joy Buensalido, with Margie and her daughter Patricia. (Photo courtesy of Joy Buensalido)

Final Fete, organized by Chet and daughter Patricia with a little help from friends, took about four hours, all told. The event was studded with little random miracles, not all noticed by everyone. That Margie had sat upright and attentive throughout the Mass was the first of them.

She was still smiling and calm, not the least emotional, when after the service the two priests approached and thanked her for “allowing” them to witness “her brand of courage and acceptance”! And then, stopping to thank the choir on her way to the reception, she burst into tears.

“Bawled” was the word that Chet used to describe the moment. The significance was not lost on him or anyone in the family. Margie had not been able to cry since her near-fatal brain aneurysm episode in India in November 2008.

(***Chet Espino, husband
Messenger, April 26, 2024
“She told Mark outside the church: ‘I’m crying! I’m free!’ We don’t know what that meant.”)

Inside the reception hall, it was like a movie press conference in full swing—party atmosphere, crisscrossing hi’s and hello’s (“Margie, Margie, we’re here!”), lights, cameras—except there was just a single star. Above the din, Margie, no more tears, eyes dancing, and just a little breathless, told one of the first guests to clinch a photo op, “Para akong artista.”

(***Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, Cancer Survivor
Founding president of ICANSERVE NGO for cancer patients
Facebook, April 13, 2024
“Margie is my hero!”)

(***Jill Quimpo-Paredes, sister, designated family photographer
Facebook, April 13, 2024
“Thank you, Lord, for Manang Pinky’s strength to last the event!)”

The first wave of pictorials lasted about a half hour (another wave would ensue at the end of the program). Margie had been seated for one hour and 45 minutes since arriving at Tuloy. She was tired. A Lifeline ambulance crew set her down on a chaise lounge padded with blankets, at the head of which a medium-size oxygen cylinder stood by. (It was not needed till the end of the evening.)

A merienda buffet was started and soon, a video tribute to Margie made by immediate relatives, long-time friends, former colleagues and protegés. They spoke of Margie, who walked about “with authority” like a princess, Margie the friendly, funny, pretty, and fashionable one, the outspoken colleague, the  straight shooter, the helpful and generous mentor, Margie the dispenser of advice “on anything under the sun,” be it a business opportunity, a new undertaking, or romance.

High praise, no less. But, to riotous laughter, the video tribute also launched “taray-ness” as a word.

With former colleagues at Philippine Daily Inquirer, the author at center in light pink, standing behind Margie (Photo courtesy of Joy Buensalido)

In her home, Margie with former colleagues at Philippine Daily Inquirer (Photo courtesy of Tessa R. Salazar)

(***Joy Buensalido, friend/prayer warrior
Messenger, April 28, 2024
“She is my personal miracle.”)

(***Tsai Chia, co-worker at Philippine Daily Inquirer
Facebook, April 23, 2024
“Ms Margie once saw me crying at the office. ‘Just pack your bags and go,’ she said. ‘And always wear red lipstick. A woman can hide anything when she wears red lipstick.’”)

III. LUNCHBOX NOTES AND PROMISES

Facebook post, April 29, 2024

As a young mother, Margie would slip notes into her children’s lunchboxes every school day. In separate messages, Mark, Patricia, and Catherine talked lengthily about those notes, what they said at the time, how the same words meant much more to them now as adults.

The memories they shared during the farewell party went in three different directions from there, only to return to one other common ground: “And then India happened.” All those years ago, they were no more than children for whom the India mishap was unfathomable. “It was like only half of Mama returned to us.”

Mark and Patricia are in their early 30s; Catherine just  a little younger. They’re okay now. With every decision that Margie made to take control of her situation, she became whole again in their eyes.

“When it’s  my time,” Patricia said, “I want to be like you.” To which Margie retorted from the chaise lounge, loud enough even without the mic, “No, be better.”

Catherine: “I have no doubt that you are going to heaven. I promise I will take care of (Papa) the man that you love the  most.”

Mark: “Holding your hand in the mall will be my special memory. I didn’t know how important it was for you until you told me!” And then, playfully, “Everybody says I am your favorite; I’m still waiting to hear you say it.”

And then it was Chet’s turn. All the while holding Margie’s hand, he told their story yet again.

Coming from the hospital the day that they learned she had less than a year to live, he and Margie went on a date before heading home. And because the “serious talk” scheduled that night with their children was thwarted by Mark’s story of a weepy/slapstick church visit, another video call took place the next day.

“We had a good laugh last night but now, reality check: We’re still in the same situation,” Chet told his children. “As Mama’s illness progresses, she will become weaker. Eventually, she will be bedridden. And eventually, we’ll find ourselves in mourning. But that time has not yet come. Right now, we must accompany her on this joyful journey to heaven. We are talking about a very small time frame, sadly. But for as long as she is here, I shall not deal with the loss that I am facing. I will  just be with her.”

He admitted doubting himself, briefly. “Many friends came up with well-meant pieces of advice. Why not see this doctor? Why not try this medicine? I wondered if I shouldn’t be fighting more. But that would mean going in different directions. That wouldn’t count as being with her.”

Last February, Margie’s pain became difficult to manage. “Morphine was taking care of the body but the headaches—they started in India but now they were cause for alarm. We figured we should get that MRI, just to know exactly what we were up against if we wanted palliative care to suffice. We found two small tumors in her brain. But the more pressing problem was that the cancer had reached the meninges (thin layers of tissue protecting the brain and spinal cord). That proved to be very painful. She had to be put on steroids.”

They were told that the condition tended to “move very fast… about three months.”

“Since we didn’t know exactly when the three months started, said Chet, “there was no base line.“ Faced with that ticking bomb, he took to asking Margie constantly, “Are you okay?“ She never showed the slightest trace of fear or doubt, he said. “Her faith is very simple. There is a God, there is a heaven. To her it is very real.”

(***David Benoit, Composer, “Take A Look Inside My Heart”
Played at “Margie’s Final Fete,” April 13, 2024
“I’ll always care. That’s what my love has come here for.”)

Once in prayer, Chet said, he had this vision, like a dream. “I saw Margie and myself as kids, playing. The Father comes and says it’s time to go home. ‘Not yet, we protest, we want to play some more.’ The Father, supremely loving and kind, says, ‘All right, take just a little more time.’ After a while He says again, ‘Time to go.’ Again, we refuse. Margie and I, we’re really like those two kids. We have been given countless reprieves.  And, as you know, children, after being called enough times, they stop resisting.”

Chet chronicled the devastating events of 2008 in his book, 88 Days in India: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Hope and Love. Published in early 2009, it was described as “the miracle of a family finding faith in a time of great doubt.”

The story told in that book ended on their last day in that unfamiliar land nearly 3,000 miles away. “I’ve been meaning to write an epilogue to that. There’s so much to share after we came home— her miraculous recovery, the fire, dengue, cancer… Last year, I thought maybe I even had the appropriate ending for that second book.”

After Margie posted her open invitation to family and friends on  social media, visitors started pouring into their home. “She made it easy for them,” Chet chuckled, “‘My husband is my social secretary.’ I mean, who does that!” From behind him, Margie raised both arms, as though to say, “Me! Me!” It was met with cheers.

Chet patted down her right arm and continued: “When anyone called and asked how Margie was, I would just say, ‘Come and see for yourself. You have to experience her.’ Most of you, maybe all of you, did come over… and found that she was, indeed, quite the experience. And she still is.”

Margie made the right choices, it turned out. “It’s been a wonderful six months,” Chet said. “But now I feel that any reason I might have to want to extend her life would be selfish on my part.”

It was at the start of that outpouring of love for Margie that he got inspired to write a second book. “I was going to call it, This Is How Our Story Ends. If, as I pointed out, 88 Days in India wrote itself, I can say that Margie has written this ending to our beautiful story in all of three sentences: Accept the will of God. Stay home with family. Spend time with friends.”

Unexpectedly he added (and was that a little catch in his throat?)  “There shall no longer be a follow-up to the first book. This is where our story ends. Thank you all for being a part of it.”

Mark quickly stood up to hold his father steady. The hall was momentarily hushed.

Then Chet passed the mic on to Margie, in keeping with Espino household tradition of letting her have the last word, he said. She dished out a final mouthful, a little too softly, but punctuated it  with a victorious, “I love you!”  Then she ordered her husband and son, “Prop me up!”

Just as Mark’s comic report from the UK melted away the anxiety that preceded one landmark family video call, Boss Lady’s command jolted everyone back into the party mood.

“My mother is tired,” Patricia announced, retrieving the microphone. “But we must say we had not seen this level of  energy in…months!” Margie was propped up as she wished but only slightly, just enough for a concluding round of selfies.

About author

Articles

A veteran journalist, she was the Entertainment editor of Philippine Daily Inquirer, and before that, of other Philippine broadsheets. As Entertainment editor, she spearheaded the award-giving for Philippine indie movies.

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