I was sitting in the garden of the Cenacle Retreat House in Quezon City that December 24, 2015, waiting for Christmas Eve mass to begin at around 9 pm, when I received the message that would change our world as we knew it. “Letty died,” texted my boss Thelma San Juan.
Letty was Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, editor in chief of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, dear friend, mentor, guiding light, the embodiment of what it meant to be an authentic journalist, and the rock upon which I and a whole bunch of other people leaned when circumstances and trials, both professional and personal, threatened to topple us. Letty couldn’t be toppled. Letty couldn’t die.
But die she did, suddenly, although there had been hints that she was getting sickly and tired and didn’t have as much energy as she used to. This was the woman who kept a laminated list of the names of cancer survivors she was praying for every day, a list that she constantly updated. When I completed my own chemotherapy and radiation after fighting breast cancer and was given a clean bill of health, she gleefully told me that I had been booted off the list. “So I can make room for others!” she explained.
This was the boss who had a solution to every problem, or at least, was ready to listen to you cry about a broken heart in the wee hours in her office, after she had just put to bed the next day’s issue of the country’s then most powerful newspaper.
At her wake, many people lined up to stand at the podium and pay tribute to her with glowing, florid speeches: people—and I say this with utmost diplomacy—who didn’t even know her well, and whom she didn’t even like. Many of these people went home, maybe sighed, wondered who else they could suck up to for media favors, and went to sleep. But we who really loved her and who owed her so much—we wouldn’t sleep well for a long time.
Every time an injustice was committed against Filipinos, I could still imagine her bristling in indignation
And just when she would be out of our thoughts for a while, something would happen—a joyful event we would have wanted to share with her, perhaps, or a blatant, exasperating travesty of the profession she dedicated her life to—and we would remember and miss her all over again. It became our constant refrain over the next few years, as true agendas were revealed, benchmarks Letty had established came crashing down, and controversies that would have had her spoiling for a fight came and went. Every time an injustice was committed against Filipinos, I could still imagine her bristling in indignation.
What would Letty have said or done if she were still here?
If Letty were here, and if the newspaper she helped build had decided to retire her, she would have stepped down graciously. Hanging on to power was not her thing, even as powerful people (and nut cases) gravitated towards her like bees to honey. Still, there would have been a mad scramble for her expertise, I’m sure—whether that meant mentoring, writing, analyzing, strategizing. Her mind was clear, her perception sharp. And while she certainly would be no fan of the current administration, I can imagine her granting audiences to some of President Duterte’s closest associates, even just to pick their minds and listen to what they had to say. She was smart that way, and her journalist’s curiosity never left her.
If Letty were here, her eyes would have been constantly rolling at badly written stories, press releases disguised as legitimate articles, or features with oh-so-obvious political or financial agendas—in other words, she could tell when a journalist had been bought. Because of this, many writers and reporters consulted her, even as others avoided her, afraid that she would see right through them.
If Letty were here, and she was stuck at home, she would have found her way around Zoom and relished virtual meetings, even if the slow internet might have highlighted her already jarring, buffered laugh. She would have felt terrible about missing her daily Mass, and might have found a way to occasionally sneak into the EDSA Shrine if she could get away with it—but I can also imagine her listening to different priests giving online sermons, including her friend, Fr. Jerry Orbos.
With fellow “Army” (BTS fans) friends, I theorized that she might even have had her own “bias”
If Letty were here, she might have allowed an occasional visit to her home in Pasig, but we’d probably be yelling at each other and sitting 15 feet apart in her little garden—she at the little round table where she read the papers and worked her phone, talking to sources and secret informers almost every day, and visitors probably ensconced in the living room, or in the little gazebo in the open air. And we’d certainly have to wait for our food to be brought to us.
If Letty were here, she would have been at my mother’s wake last February, arriving late at night. She would have been teary-eyed herself, remembering her own losses; her father, the late Col. Nicanor (Nick) Jimenez, and my own father, Col. Romeo Honasan, were close friends. The first time tito Nick came home from South Korea, where he was Philippine ambassador, after my dad’s death in 1983, he came to our house and cried unabashedly in front of my mother.
It was Letty who accompanied him—she had spent some years in South Korea, and she would bring her kids to spend summers there—and she cried, too. I was in my first year of college as a pre-med major and certainly knew of her, but that must have been the first time I met her face-to-face. “So this is the journalist,” I thought then. How could 18-year-old me have known that I would not just give up on medicine and follow in Letty’s footsteps, but I would work for her newspaper, and would be graced by her genuine friendship?
If Letty were here, she would have been delighted at this new preoccupation of Thelma’s, a website featuring writers writing not so much about news and current events, but about subjects close to their hearts. I think she may have even been persuaded to pen an essay or two, or at least to give us her two cents’ worth in a Zoom consult. She would have enjoyed my story about being a BTS tita; in fact, considering how curious and updated she was, she might even have liked the Korean global band herself.
With fellow “Army” (BTS fans) friends who knew her, I theorized that she might even have had her own “bias” (in fan jargon, a favorite among the seven members): I put my money on RM, the leader, who’s tall, dark, handsome, speaks fluent English, and has a genius IQ. Meanwhile, other friends say Jungkook, the boyish, multi-talented youngest member, would have caught her fancy. Letty would skip the details and probably have difficulty telling them apart, but would definitely sit through a performance or two.
If Letty were here, she would have been sentimental about the deaths of people she knew, whether from COVID-19 or other illnesses. She would have lost sleep worrying about her two doctor sons, Nikko and Marti, every time they had to go to work. She would have prayed endless rosaries to Mama Mary, to beg Jesus to end COVID-19, but she would not have been paralyzed by fear. Letty was a survivor, and she would have worn that mask and face shield with no serious complaints if she ever stepped out of her house.
Somehow, if Letty were still here, more things would have made sense, for reasons I cannot explain. That was just how she made me feel. She would have felt despair herself, but it would never have made her stop living.
Maybe we don’t hear her laugh or her opinions anymore, or that familiar shuffle of her feet in slippers or clicking heels, or that hoarse voice reducing your name to a single syllable (“Thelms?”—although I was always “Al-YAH” to her, accent on the wrong syllable). We don’t see her peering through glasses at printed-out stories (in the age of email, yes), red pen in hand. We don’t even smell that White Flower ointment she liked to sniff or wipe on her temples.
Yet today, five years after we lost her, because you never really lose the people you love, it’s safe to say that Letty is, indeed, still here—and always will be.