December 21, 2007

Belated homage

A year ago I wrote wistfully about my father who had died ten years earlier during the anniversary of the declaration of martial law. My mom, who in her twilight years had been hoping that her children would write what they thought about her before she passed away, never got her wish. Now would be a good time to fulfill that desire and gift her spirit as well as mine with some kind of closure.

I am told I inherited my mother’s comeliness. But according to a male high school classmate of hers who became Marikina police chief and who I met while I was still a student leader preparing for protest marches in that town, I couldn’t hold a candle to her in the looks department. Aside from being pretty, she had a whistle-bait figure and a sense of style. There was a long line of suitors to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) School of Nursing dormitory where she boarded.

Mom had a lot more to do with my eventually becoming a political and social activist than even I ever acknowledged much less credited her for. To begin with, my revolutionary roots come from her side of the family: her father was a Katipunero from Pateros, Rizal. It was a pity that I never got to know him since he was long gone by the time I was born but my mother’s unwavering conviction that oppression breeds rebellion and that ergo to rebel is justified must have sprung somehow from that revolutionary heritage.

That is why in her heart of hearts she couldn’t bring herself to censure -- in fact, she understood and empathized with -- my youthful activism. Even before martial law was declared, her anger about my coming home very late at night from innumerable meetings was quickly dissipated when I started explaining the latest outrageous policy or act of the Marcos regime and engaged her in a spirited discussion.

Mom said she joined demonstrations in order to keep an eye on me but she knew what the issues were and she generally took a progressive position. Ironically, it was she who ended up courting physical harm: in one demonstration in Plaza Miranda she almost got trampled on when someone caused a commotion by shouting about a bomb going off. It was a false alarm.

Her brand of activism manifested itself in more specific issues and projects. Even as I had gone underground at the height of martial law, I learned that she collaborated with other activists’ mothers to put up a day care center for children of poor parents and full-timers. In later years she became concerned with environment issues and involved in anti-election fraud campaigns.

Mom was baptized Caridad after twin siblings who preceded her were named Fe and Esperanza. They constituted the triumvirate of Faith, Hope and Charity. In hindsight the name fits her well. She not only exhibited a caring attitude and extended a helping hand towards relatives and friends who were in some sort of trouble or difficulty, she displayed a pronounced humanitarian bent when she chose to take up nursing after high school. This was in the mid-thirties when embarking on a nursing career was not yet primarily motivated by a desire to work abroad and eventually migrate to greener pastures unlike today.

She finished her short nursing course at the PGH, got married and had six children. During all this time she worked and eventually went back to school to acquire her bachelor’s degree at the University of the Philippines College of Nursing. That was in 1961, she was forty-six years old by the time she graduated and I was an eight-year-old fourth grader.

Mom applied herself to her profession with pride and passion. She became the Chief Operating Room Nurse at the Quezon Institute (the country’s then premier tertiary care hospital for tuberculosis patients named after President Manuel Quezon who suffered from TB). She always told us stories about how she held her ground against domineering male doctors who showed little respect for the nursing profession, treating nurses as little more than a doctor’s handmaiden. She was triumphant whenever she was able to give them their comeuppance, professionally or otherwise.

The character traits I indisputably got from my mother are her feistiness, especially triggered when she felt an injustice had been committed against her, her close relatives or friends; her being outspoken in her views and her tenacity when she had decided to take a certain course of action. Of course, the flip side of these otherwise positive traits have also been passed on to me: being ill-tempered and somewhat pugnacious (most especially with police dispersing rallies and soldiers terrorizing civilians); appearing to be opinionated (particularly in the eyes of persons in authority not used to being questioned and status quo-ers who can’t stand people rocking the boat); and not least of all, a streak of stubbornness that not even the healthy practice of Mao’s criticism and self-criticism has been able to eradicate.

My mother’s constant admonition to all of her five daughters was that being a woman should not be a bar to achieving one's full potential. She was a firm advocate of women having a career outside the home and for wives to have some degree of financial, psychological and social independence from their husbands. She encouraged us to develop our intellect and to choose spouses who would not feel threatened by wives who could think, who were articulate and took up their own stand on matters in the home and in the larger world outside it.

Mom was the one who encouraged, even nagged, me about becoming a doctor after I was released from detention and finished my psychology course. She argued that aside from earning a decent living I would become fulfilled in devoting my life to a form of social service that would creatively channel my activist impulses.

By the time I got my medicine degree, got married and had two children but was clearly not settled down, not retired from political activism and not on the road to becoming a successful doctor with a busy clinical practice, Mom started to worry and seriously fret.

I guess behind all my mother’s criticism and complaints was her gnawing fear that I would get arrested again or worse and that she and my dad couldn’t see me and my family through another such crisis. At that time I was too involved in my causes to appreciate where she was coming from, to be patient in reassuring her and in drawing her once more to participate in the continuing struggle of our people for a better life, for freedom and justice.

For that I am extremely remorseful. And I write this belated tribute to her to place things in their proper light and to pay homage to a truly beautiful woman of substance and uncommon strength of character – my mother.#

*Written on the occasion of Ms. Caridad G. Castillo-Pagaduan's 92nd birthday
Published in Business World
21-21 December 2007


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