Since you left without clear goodbyes, we’re taking it upon ourselves to “talk” to you. But of course, feel free to reply even if you were never into social media or chat apps; it was just good old simple texting for you—you didn’t even have MMS. (You’re now safe from bugging devices, so unlike your entire life.)
Last we texted that Tuesday, two days before your passing, you just said you had to skip dialysis because you weren’t feeling well. Then that Thursday, you were gone.
You’re not the type to dwell on accolades, given that you always wanted reports to be based on facts, not anecdotes (“anecdotal lang yan”—your usual dismissive comment). So here—your funeral had at least 25 million views. People sent you off with love and gratitude. Rather late.
Bishop Soc Villegas, who had just given a most powerful homily in the funeral Mass, riding in the coaster that was part of your funeral convoy, exclaimed in surprise: “Si Sonia yon!” He had just spotted Sonia Roco standing on the roadside in Katipunan, waving a yellow cloth and shouting, “Thank you PNoy!”
Sonia, the widow of senator Raul Roco, would later tell me, “Of course, I tried to go to Gesu, but the line was too long for elderlies like me. So I felt I had to wave goodbye. In 2007, we were both candidates for the Senate. He won, I lost. He became president, I became Citizen Sonia. We have one country to love! One people to serve, one God to unite us in peace! Noy was a quiet, no-fuss hero.”
At Manila Memorial waited nanay Socorro Ramos, a nation’s icon and the founder of National Bookstore. The 97-year-old Nanay Coring stepped out of home quarantine to see your final journey; I know she regarded you like a son. In wheelchair, she held her keepsake, a Cory fan your mom must have given her. Your ninang Ve-G (as you called tita Virgie Ramos) took her photo as they waited for your funeral cortege to arrive.
Those two were people known to you. But there were countless others you didn’t know personally who said their goodbyes and gratitude, or tried to. My old publishing colleague and her family loaded themselves into their car that early Saturday morning and drove to Manila Memorial, but weren’t allowed in.
Apart from Bishop Soc’s homily that echoed what was in the hearts and minds of people about your passing—“Nakakagulat, nakakahinayang…,” “(your) silence of dignity (through the past messy years),” “trolls are dead (in heaven)”—people were touched by Ballsy’s simple words of gratitude laced with misgiving that she wasn’t able to keep her promise to your mom to hold the family together because now the middle—you—is gone. In a time of fakeness, lies, and despair, your ate Ballsy didn’t lie.
Earlier at Gesu, when I congratulated him for a most heartfelt sharing the night before, which was livestreamed nationwide (with your spokesperson Edwin Lacierda being so collected as MC, beneath that face mask), Rene (Almendras) told me how he merely unloaded what he had kept here (his chest) all these years, even if the trolls are on to him now. Rene, Romy (Mercado), and Bong (Naguiat) joined your family and rushed to your bedside at Capitol that Thursday morning, with their wives Marides, Margie, and Tet, along with your loyal staff like “Usexy” Rochelle and Susan, some members of the Cabinet such as Albert del Rosario, Mar Roxas. That moment tore into their hearts, and for your sisters Ballsy, Pinky, Viel, and Kris, used as they are by now to the harsh glare of cameras every time they grieve, grief in solitude was a blessing denied them yet again in this lifetime.
For your sisters Ballsy, Pinky, Viel, and Kris, grief in solitude was a blessing denied them in this lifetime
The day before at Heritage, Susan (Reyes) and (“Usexy”) Rochelle Ahorro were again in a fight-never-flight mode as they tried to help with the arrangements of your wake and funeral. Even as we knew you were sick, your passing still seemed abrupt because death was not an option on our minds; we believed or liked to believe that your diabetes and renal ailment could still be managed.
As the funeral convoy drove out of the Ateneo campus, to Katipunan, to the blare of sirens (your no-wang-wang memo had long expired) and I saw people lined up along the side, waving and shouting, the scene pummeled me hard with the realization that bringing you on your final journey is now part of our 37-year-old friendship (by your own count, Noy).
The day I covered your inaugural in 2010, I wrote (in the Inquirer): Have a safe and noble journey (on your presidency). Now writing that, turned out, was far easier than recounting the past few days. Nothing could have prepared us for the sight of your coffin being wheeled into the chapel from the mortuary that Thursday afternoon. And now, the ride to Manila Memorial.
It’s not true that only the dying see their life flash before their mind’s eye; the living also do—in this case, we your friends who have shared many moments of your 61-year-old life: the happy and sad, the hilarious and the tragic, the celebrated/world-shaking and the private and the usual, then now, your final journey. Unlike you who’s no longer of this world, we now carry the weight—and treasure— of memory.
Seeing you going nearer to your final resting place, I suddenly remembered the morning of your inaugural at Quirino Grandstand. After your predecessor was sent off with boos from the crowds, you strode into the ceremony with applause and cheers that wouldn’t stop. Not only did you look cool, with freshly trimmed hair (still of moderate abundance), you also looked presidential. But even that dignified exterior couldn’t approximate the fierce commitment and dedication, the mental acuity, the faith and measured idealism you were to bring to the presidency.
I remember a matron telling us at the grandstand, “If he stems corruption and brings back a sense of decency in government, that’s good enough for me.”
Then I recall you telling me days before your inaugural that offhand, what you really wanted, at the end of the day, was for the Filipino not to have to work abroad away from their families just because he couldn’t find a job and a future here. You said that if the young, including the children of your generation, would see a productive future in this country, then you’d have considered a good part of your work done.
You’ve done far beyond generating jobs and investments and economic growth. By example, you reminded us about the true values of the Filipino, and which we try to live, no matter how spotty our attempts. You weren’t fake, you were genuine and sincere—in both your vision and everyday conduct, and even in your love life (you always knew when to call it quits).
Now, it is coming out how your Office of the President, indeed your entire administration, was manned by the youth—new or recent college graduates who wanted to see what it was like to work in the government, under you. They were your troops on the ground who experienced how it was to work for their country. By empowering them, you made them realize that yes, they could have a future in the Philippines.
The airconditioning was malfunctioning—I remember distinctly— at the Ceremonial Hall during your inaugural reception so that the guests, in their native finery, were sweating. Your staff didn’t even know their way around the Palace. Malfunctioning aircon—what an apt symbolism, I thought, because you were coming into a malfunctioning country. The odds you faced would have fazed a weak-hearted individual, but then the country had always underrated your strong heart, fierce will power, and even fiercer values. The country didn’t know you enough; it still doesn’t.
You told me what your early weeks in office were like—like opening a Pandora’s box
You told me what your early weeks in office were like—like opening a Pandora’s box (your words), and your immediate concern was, with a typhoon coming that month, you inherited greatly depleted disaster relief funds. While you were in office, the typhoon and natural disaster would be your recurring fear; you said that every time it rained heavily at night you could hardly sleep because you were worried about how many people would lose their homes or lives, and so you kept your staff on their toes.
More and more people are sharing in social media what you’ve done—a recognition that was never in your character to seek—and among those who shared, one stood out for me—Grace Pulido Tan, the quiet worker/head of the Commission of Audit (COA) in your administration. In the nine-day novena Mass for you, Ms. Tan spoke of how it was an honor, sheer “pleasure” to work for you because, she repeatedly said, not even once did you interfere with the work of COA. “Not even once,” she stressed. And that when she asked you, upon her assumption in office, if you had instructions, you merely asked her to do her job—such was your belief in the need for accountability of the public servant.
That spoke a lot about the transformative governance you aimed to achieve—not only to reform but also to transform and with a doable level of transparency. You turned the country into the Rising Tiger of Asia through good governance by transcending “trapo” politics and returning to the law.
People didn’t know how you took the 1987 Constitution to heart, how a copy would be always with you, in the “walking filing cabinet” of your close-in aide, and that in your last interview with Inquirer editors at the Palace, you had the Constitution beside you to stress its passages about rights and freedom. Little did we the editors then know that the freedom and rights we so took for granted in your administration would be trampled on so quickly after you left Malacañang.
From then on, you gave me a special front-row seat to your life
It was in 1984, one late afternoon, when you invited me and another writer from our Martial Law newspaper over to your Times St. home; you said yes to our request for an interview about your martyred father, and the perk was that your mom prepared spaghetti with meatballs, which, in time, would be popular. From then on, you gave me a special front-row seat to your life which, unbeknownst to us then, would have dizzying peaks and plunges, most of them in, though not limited to, politics. In short, we never could have guessed in our early adulthood that you would be president.
In those years, your goal was basic: to ensure the security of your mom and the rest of the family. You told me how at night you could sleep soundly only after making sure that everyone was safe at home, including your first nephew Jiggy, who was already going to school.
Not many know that even as early as then you were already getting interested in politics, specifically in the people and their plight, in the workings of government. You wanted to run for provincial office, but would always defer to the decision of your mother, the president of the country by then. You had to sit it out and wait—in one chat we chided you, “Mayor na lang kaya?”
That would be the consistent prime consideration of your political life—how a decision would affect your mother, then your sisters and the rest of the family. After your mother’s mammoth funeral procession where the people poured out into the streets to show their gratitude, you described to me how unforgettable (understatement) that 11-hour ride to Manila Memorial Park was, how when you got down from the coaster at one point, an old man among the walking mourners came up to you and asked that you run for president. You were taken aback and thought, how could I put my sisters through that again when we’re not even done mourning our mom?
But by then, you had been restored on the people’s radar, especially that image of you as a protective and caring uncle putting your arm around a grieving Joshua at the crypt. From that time on, destiny took over—along with your patient work.
In one of our interviews, you said that “we live in interesting times. Up to when kaya yang interesting times?”—how you wished the day would come when “interesting times” would stop coming for you and your family. Apparently, they never did.
How you wished the day would come when ‘interesting times’ would stop coming for you and your family. Apparently, they never did
You didn’t ask to be chosen, but the moment you were proclaimed as presidential candidate for the 2010 election, you worked yourself to the ground, campaigning, studying and probing hard, starting with the budget. You recalled how, landing at the Manila domestic airport after your provincial sorties, you’d be met by reporters asking you your reaction to the black propaganda (e.g. the so-called psychiatric tests) so ruthlessly released by your opponents. By then you were supposed to be used to being deprived of breathing space—remember when you recounted to me how, standing for the first time before the coffin of your slain father right after you arrived from the US, you turned around, only to be asked by an unforgiving reporter, “So how did your father get his fake passport?”
The campaign attacks saw no let-up, but still you continued to walk to the lion’s dens because you said what energized you was the fervor of people in the provinces—how in Masbate, for instance, you were met by barrio folk who waited late into the night, lighting the way of your convoy with their flashlights. How symbolic it was that you died on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, he who, paving the way for the birth of Christ, waded through the water without fear of its depth.
During your campaign, you went to the Inquirer where, for the first time, you sat down with its fearless editor in chief Letty Magsanoc and answered questions from editors. The conference room was packed with friends and foes alike, ready with a barrage of questions. With candor and in great detail, you talked about reproductive health and the population boom, the judiciary suffering from significant backlog and the importance of an independent judiciary, the Hacienda Luisita issue which you tackled with such extraneous detail, down to the processing of sugar, so that the editors who asked the question seemed overwhelmed just listening to your explanation.
You were still at it at 2 a.m., when Letty stepped in and said you must be tired and had to be ready for next day’s appointment. But you didn’t take the cue to stop. When at 3 a.m. you, Letty and other editors were finally saying goodbye, I overheard Letty tell you as she shook your hand, “You are your mother’s son.”
The road to the presidency had its funny moments, like in your first nationwide presidential debate, in a TV station, you and other presidential candidates were put in a waiting room, with headsets to your ears so that you wouldn’t be able to hear each other’s answers. The headset blared out the then K-Pop hit of 2010—the Wonder Girls’ Nobody, Nobody But You. It played to your ears ad nauseum, your turn being among the last. You would tell me later, “Ganito pala ang ina-assassinate (I felt like I was being assassinated).”
Even then, it showed your God-given gift to see comedy and humor even in trying moments. You had the ability to laugh at yourself and to make others laugh at your satiric one-liners. After you left the presidency, in one dinner, people egged you on to publish your memoirs, and you said, why not start with the jokes that saw me and my staff through difficult moments at the Palace? Nobody at the table said yes to that, not even the women we were introducing to you as potential dates.
Come to think of it, even long before the road to the presidency, we were already building memories. This was in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s.
A few days after your ambush during the 1987 coup attempt against your mother’s administration, you invited me over to the president’s Arlegui residence to narrate in detail, in minute detail, how you were ambushed. With your arm still in a sling, your neck bandaged or in a brace (I don’t remember), your head leaning to one side, you reconstructed what it felt like to come under intense gunfire, to lie flat on the car flooring buried under the body of your bodyguard for indeterminate time. You believed that it was a grenade lobbed at your convoy; you said, it was a smallest fragment of shrapnel, not bullet, that stayed embedded in your neck. Your near-death experience made you realize how truly fragile Philippine democracy was, especially after the People Power revolution. It was only the car’s engine and casing that protected you from the hail of gunfire. “Tibay pala ng Benz! (Benz was durable!)” you told me, and with misplaced laughter, we said that was one takeaway from that nightmare.
It was only the car’s engine and casing that protected you from the hail of gunfire. ‘Tibay pala ng Benz!’
So many memories. You were still not in Congress when you drove us around Hacienda Luisita, showed us the mall, hung around in our fashion shoots (for Metro magazine) where you’d give unsolicited but valid comments like “Summer (shoot) ba? Bakit naka coat?” You pointed at your cousin Mai Mai Cojuangco (Metro cover) whom Metro stylists dressed in a summer coat.
In your office where you worked with your uncle Len before you joined politics, we’d go to the smoking area upstairs and I’d listen to you talk about your love life—how, for instance, one relationship didn’t prosper because you and she were on opposite sides of the political fence. At that time, not only were you optimistic about your love life, you were also looking forward to getting married at 30something, or before you turned 40. Why that cut-off? “I want to be able to enjoy my children. Coz (if I get married at past 40) I don’t want to be attending grade school PTAs in my 50s”—your mind so used to calculation.
In succeeding years, as we talked about one failed relationship after another, I would remind you of your missed marriage deadlines, and you’d say, “Not for want of trying,” then swipe away the topic with, “Basta, you will have the scoop when I get married.” Even as President, you would repeat the promise to me, until the repetitions became rarer and rarer after the presidency. It remained your promise unfulfilled, Noy.
One image imprinted in my mind was of the Saturday right before the presidential election—you asked me to join because you wanted me to see your campaign’s final leg which would bring you to Tarlac and implicitly, to witness this crucial phase of your life. For a change, Letty—who didn’t allow me to write about your campaign, given our close ties—allowed me to cover it. You just asked me to follow these—”Wear sunblock, mag cap ka, no high heels.”
The overflow crowds hemmed in our Elp truck at every stop until towards sunset, we reached the vast open fields. You pointed them out to me, looking exhilarated evidently by both the sardined crowds, then the wide open space—“Look, malapit na tayo sa Tarlac.”
Mammoth crowds waited for you in Tarlac late into the night to hear you speak or even just catch a glimpse of you. Yet even as the politician in you roused the crowd, you kept a measure of idealism. “Pag patuloy nating binababoy ang pulitika, pag umupo ang pulitiko, baboy na talaga siya. (If we continue to turn politics into a pigsty, the politician really becomes a pig),” you told us as you stood up from the dinner table that night.
Before you saw me off, I muttered, “I think you’ll be President.” You cast your eyes downward, but even in the faint restaurant light they bared your hope. TIME magazine was ahead of everyone when, the week before, it ran a story about you, how you were the man who was embracing your own destiny. “Not only his parents’ legacy,” added one of your followers.
Upon your death, people are sharing what you have done and who you were, at least in their eyes. At least now many are beginning to realize how hard and how nobly you worked for the country, not for yourself (there’s a big difference which our past and present leaders don’t necessarily know), as a manager who got things done quietly, as a statesman worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with world leaders, but most important, as a servant leader who didn’t get drunk with power and its trappings. You didn’t even allow relatives to hop on board and turn official trips into state junkets.
Black propaganda ran thick even at the start of your presidency and made people think you were a reluctant president. The truth was the opposite. Yours was never a half-hearted presidency; yours was hands-on obsessive.
Yours was never a half-hearted presidency; yours was hands-on obsessive
I remember one Good Friday when you called to ask if the broadsheets would be open to running full-page announcements about the prevention of Mers-Cov because the virus infection had been detected in one incoming flight from the Middle East. You were consumed with the threat it posed so that you were meeting with health officials and your staff even on a Good Friday, as the rest of the country was on holiday travels—domestic tourism was at an all-time high in your administration. You practically ran the Department of Health in those “Mers-Cov months,” instituting health cards which inbound passengers filled with contact addresses and seat numbers. When you were into details, you were into details.
In September right after you assumed the presidency, during my birthday dinner, we spoke that, while we believed yours would be a good governance—given that our economic and social structures were there, no matter how damaged they were, and that a good helmsman only had to follow and implement the law and to lead by example—we said it was important that what you were doing be cascaded down to the people. But you said you were not after “propaganda” or self-promotion. Turned out, that would be your shortcoming—your bias against “propaganda” or that you lumped it with communication; this was ironic for a man who could be gregarious with friends and even reporters.
On the first year after your presidency, in a forum for high school students—one of a handful of public engagements you agreed to—you admitted, to our surprise, that perhaps, even just a little, “nagbuhat sana [ako] ng sariling bangko (I could have trumpeted my achievements).” It took a face-to-face meeting with the youth for you to admit to that lack.
Among the dinner stories you shared early on in your presidency was how on your first official trip to the United Nations in New York, you and Obama had a “chance meeting,” when Obama stood in the corridor as if waiting for you to emerge from the room and there and then, congratulated you. You exchanged pleasantries away from the world’s camera.
Some light moments of your presidency you spent with us, your friends, are now flowing back into our memory unimpeded by grief because they were fun, funny, unfiltered. After the Palace’s evening functions, you loved staying on with some guests for some sing-along—as your Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez said, “That was the extent of the presidential merrymaking.” After the state dinner for Obama, the few guests who stayed behind requested that Letty sing. Without hesitation she went up to the mic and gave her song’s title—You Are My Sunshine. Silence. Nobody could remember that post-war (as in World War II) song (in fact, you had it Googled later, it was a 1920s song). A young staff, who must be in his early 30s and certainly not one with pre- or post-war memory, whipped up his iPad and summoned the lyrics. Done. Letty did her You Are My Sunshine.
One precious memory was one Christmas in Baguio, when you invited a handful of friends to dinner at Mansion House. I had never set foot at Mansion House and told you that a visit was on my bucket list. Before a simple dinner of perhaps about five tables, in a Mansion House that was gaily but simply decorated, we had a tour of this colonial summer vacation house which, in fact, was no mansion but more like a pavilion with meeting rooms. After dinner came the sing-along. We all had the confidence to sing—until we heard Secretary del Rosario’s daughters sing; they were so good that we all just wanted to stay put at our table. You, with your backup (Rene, Romy, Bong), had to do the finale, The Harder I Try (the Bluer I Get) by the Free Movement, which was your signature song—along with many others, like Falling (which you sang at my birthday dinner). Hearing of how haunted the Mansion House was, we feared going to the restrooms, until you said in your typical “bugoy” way—“Don’t be scared. Just say, oye, oye” (how to address the ghosts possibly lurking from Quezon’s Commonwealth).
Your chill time was simple and predictable: your favorite food in restaurants (Chinese, Japanese, steak, even Korean)—you knew your food, and how—and afterwards, listening to your favorite band, Brothers Unlimited, at Musika Bar.
In one of your birthday dinners at the PSG compound, you asked your guests to sing. When my turn came and I said I wasn’t used to singing with a live band, you assured me it was okay—“Level up na tayo,” you egged me on.
In one of your birthday dinners at the PSG compound, you asked your guests to sing—’Level up na tayo,’ you egged me on
How does one abbreviate memories in bullet points?
At this point, even fun memories turn into sadness. You were a sincere, thoughtful, and upright friend. The week after I buried my mom, you thought that a change of scenery would do me good, so you asked me to join you and your entourage on your day trip to Naga, where I met the newly widowed Leni Robredo.
Sometimes your memories of your parents would crop up unexpectedly at dinner chats. Our table was talking about tennis and how Stan Smith adidas sneakers were the hottest, and you suddenly recalled how Ninoy Aquino, your dad, in your youth, gave you a pair of Stan Smiths.
On your last days in the Palace, as you toured us around the Museum for the last time, we thought to ourselves as we looked at your figure walking away—a rare president, indeed a rare human being, who would not hang on to power.
Yet given the country’s Rising Tiger status, you proved that democratic governance—no matter how painstaking and slow a struggle—was do-able.
Remembering the last June 12 celebration (or was it the vin d’honneur?) of your administration, after many of the guests had left, with only a few diplomats staying behind to enjoy a sing-along, I can’t forget this image: you sat quietly in the corner, alone, leafing through the pages of songs, waiting for your turn at the mic—the President, an upright individual waiting for his turn.
Your opponents underestimated your spiritual makeup
That solitary image presaged your life as Citizen PNoy. You lived ordinary days, with occasional foodie dinners with friends, days highlighted by engrossing moments in your music room—people must know by now what a serious audiophile you were (10,000 CDs at least, according to your loyal assistant, JC Casimiro)—and watching YouTube (you insisted I look up the old Pugo-Tugo ‘50s movie because it was so good. Huh?!) and Netflix. You didn’t follow us into K-Drama because you said you got stressed watching zombies.
After great thought, you finally agreed to have a kidney transplant because you said, in your text, it could give you “a normal life expectancy.”
In the political landscape, you as Citizen PNoy didn’t demand a special place, not even when you knew the 2019 mid-term elections campaign sidelined the yellow symbolism—and you along with it. “I don’t speak unless I’m asked,” you told us about your post-presidency place in public life.
It was so telling, what you asked your cousin Rapa: “Hanggang dito na lang kaya ito? Ano pa kaya ang gustong pagawa sa akin ng Diyos?”
Your opponents remained so vicious that they even begrudged you your sad “alone” moments which they tried to trivialize and turn into political bullets—they were not to allow you normal human behavior (e.g., a broken heart). But they also underestimated your spiritual makeup.
Days after your death, your longtime assistant Rochelle was stunned to see a song pop up on her phone—I’m Alright Now by John Pizzarelli, which you had her Google some time back.
We, who have lost you, like to think that was a message from you—you’re alright now.