MANILA, Philippines ? How can death ever be beautiful?
How can one find rhyme or reason in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU)? Or color amidst the steel braces supporting antiseptic machines that perform only with buttons and switches, but never with a heart for the suffering patient at their mercy?
Where is the poetry in those cryptic machine-generated alphanumeric reports that disclose how vital signs?blood pressure, heartbeat, pulse rate and oxygen count?have begun to falter? How find rhythm in the incessant drops of IV fluids that swell the hand to a black and blue palette?
Where is the melody in the beeping, buzzing sounds that guiltlessly announce the end of another life?
Switch frame to the same Capitol Medical Center ICU setting, afternoon of August 9. Pete Roa, 67, an institution in Philippine broadcasting, is about to meet his Maker. His 10-year stroke, paralysis and partial blindness due to glaucoma and diabetes, have been exacerbated by emphysema and gastric cancer which has metastasized to his brain and lungs. He is in the final throes of his bout with pneumonia and multiple organ failure.
Bishop Honesto Ongtioco, and his friends Fathers Sonny Ramirez, Jerry Orbos, Larry Faraon, Aris Sison and hospital chaplain Father Mel, have taken turns administering the last rites to him the day before. Visits from his doctors?Drs. Bong Aquino, Gabby de Leon, Joselito Atabug, Franz Arcellana, Boots Francisco, Miriam Calaguas and Rima Tan? have become more frequent and urgent.
Days ago, when Pete was more coherent, he would still banter with me, our children Joey and Chiqui, and her husband, Antipolo Congressman Robbie Puno. He would take calls from our Virginia-based children, Leah and husband Russell Cuevas, and Ben and wife Michelle Frondoso. Despite increasing incoherence, he would wax nostalgic with siblings Tito, Nita, Patty, Dado, Eddie and wife Alma, and Angelina and husband Des Montemayor. Nen, eldest brother Cocoy?s widow, drew him out of memory lapses by recalling Saturday mahjong sessions, which he authoritatively declared was preventive therapy for Alzheimer?s Disease. Rather expectedly, his hallucinations spawned by medication and anesthetics were marked, not by restless lament, but by the game?s winning moves like pong, kang and bisaklat.
Pete?s irrepressible humor sustained him through the last few months and days. To the end, he described our 43-year marriage as ?bliss? for me and ?blisters? for him. Once I repeatedly asked him my name to test if I was still ?connecting,? and he repeatedly answered ?Boots.? In a game of multiple choice, I asked him again to choose from among Boots, Ai-ai or Pokwang, and he responded, ?All of the above.? I stopped asking after that.
Still in multiple choice mode, I would ask, ?What do you feel in your head and on your chest: a house, a building or an elephant?? ?A hippopotamus from Australia? was his testy answer. Once I saw him counting, so I thought of helping process his thoughts and even waxing philosophical. I asked, ?Are you counting sheep, your blessings or my laugh lines?? He retorted, ?What?s wrong with counting fingers??
About two weeks before Pete?s demise, my son-in-law Robbie informed him that the family would set up a memorial fund for his advocacies, which we had known to be broadcast education, stroke rehabilitation and propagation of devotion to St. Padre Pio that he shared. Pete was never one to regularly visit shrines, pray novenas at dawn or kiss holy images; but he did all these for Padre Pio.
As an introduction to the fund, Robbie asked him, ?What would you like us to get for Mom that you may not have been able to give her in your lifetime?? ?Another me,? was Pete?s one-liner. We told him there was no ?other him;? and besides, the fund would not suffice. Came his punch line: ?I have no tag price.?
In earlier years, whenever Pete and I would talk about the inevitable, he would already predict his ?earlier appointment with God.? He said he preferred to ?go ahead? and be my ?advance party? since he would be clueless about funeral arrangements that he said would be better left in my hands.
Shortly before he passed on, however, this man of too few words uncharacteristically specified the details of his own ?conduct to Eternity.? He wanted his Carmel scapular under his favorite barong as he lay in state in a brown wooden casket, preferably rented since he was going to be cremated anyway. No more cumbersome steel leg braces; ten years? discomfort was enough. The wake would be four to five days, enlivened by live music, laughter and joy as he was headed anyway for eternal bliss. We asked if he wanted necrological rites with the ?de rigueur? tributes. As vehemently as a sick man could, he shook his head. But, oh yes, his last night could be climaxed by a ?farewell concert? to herald his entry to heaven. He could still name, albeit with much difficulty, those he wanted to be sent ?call slips? for his ?command performance??from stage manager to musical director to singers to host. Ah, the producer and director still plying his trade, practicing his craft, doing what he did best, even at his own curtain call!
Starting August 7, I smuggled my way into the ICU outside of visiting hours. I wanted to be at Pete?s side whenever his curtain would fall and his lights would dim. I thought that the 10 years of his stroke had brought us closer to God and to each other, strengthening every fiber of our togetherness. I know now that his last three days made us inseparable from the Lord and from each other, with time for expressed love and forgiveness.
Pete?s final days were marked by muted pain and suffering, heightening to levels that science and technology could not yet address. It was God?s abiding presence, felt in prayer, reflection and quiet surrender that blessed Pete with the healing that we, his loved ones, had asked for.
Pete?s last expressed wish was a ?quick and timely demise.? We added that it had to be according to God?s will and His ?time and motion? schedule, not ours. We asked for no miracle. Only that Pete?s faith be nurtured and that his sufferings comprise purification and be lifted up. Even better, sublimated.
We, his loved ones, stood tearfully, silently suspended in time, surrounding Pete in prayer and our own act of surrender to God?s might. At 4:15 p.m., Pete went ahead and preempted his respirator, which continued to run as medical personnel declared him dead.
In his lifelessness, Pete found God?s timelessness. His face glowed with serenity and peace. An ethereal presence hovered, assuring us that Pete had blissfully joined hands with his Maker.
That was the grace of Pete?s rite of passage, the blessing of his final moment. It showed us that, yes, there can be rhyme and reason in the ICU, color and warmth in steel hospital devices, poetry in medical charts, and music in the beeping machines that announce the beginning of life in another realm. Yes, indeed, death can be beautiful.
The family has established PRIME (Pete Roa Integrated Media Endeavors) Foundation, with Board Members, Atty. Raffy Evangelista, Jose Mari Chan, Dr. Bong Aquino, Fred de la Rosa, Bibsy Carballo, Marichu Maceda, Ed Roa and Nestor Torre. Its initial projects include a play on Padre Pio?s inspiring life, a lecture series on broadcast education through the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkasters sa Pilipinas, and an adjunct program for stroke patients of the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation. The play on Padre Pio will be staged starting Jan. 16, 2008, Pete?s birthday. For inquiries, call Josephine de Veyra at tel. nos. 9299571 and (925) 4159224.