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It's hard to say goodbye

By LETTY JACINTO-LOPEZ Published Oct 26, 2020 5:00 pm

Harrumph! Basta! When he croaks, there’s nothing good I will say about him. Who cares that he’s my sibling? Who cares that he’s the bunsô?  Who cares that he’s gone?

Ernesto “Naning” is my youngest sibling and he grew up getting preferential attention from our mother. You cannot find anyone more mischievous than him even if you get Dennis the Menace in the picture.        

At age six, he’d stand by the gate of our house. Once he lifted the latch to allow male guests in (visitors of my two older sisters), then broke into a wry smile and opened up his hand. This was Naning acting as the tollbooth operator. These gentlemen had better have coins in their pockets to pay the levy lest the “no coins, no entry” policy was strictly enforced. By Naning.

In high school, Naning transferred, e-v-e-r-y year, to a new school until his senior year. My mother was just so relieved that he brought home a diploma.

It came as a surprise, therefore, that Naning wanted to become a doctor.  He flew to the Big Apple to enroll in New York University, pay the tuition, buy the books, settle in his rented apartment and network with friends and new classmates.

He lasted three months. When I asked him why, he said, “I was missing Nanay too much; I could not concentrate.”

In college, he changed. He stayed put in one school and became a loyal alumnus. He and his close friends formed a gang called the “Champawats,” gaining a dubious reputation as a happy-go-lucky, life-is-a-bowl-of-cherries bunch whose top priority was to enjoy good times. Studying came in a poor second to pursuing girls.

When it came to thrills and spills, he was at the helm, the partner in crime, the willing accomplice.

Every time a gang mate was in a romantic bind and was serious about taking that premature plunge to marry the love of his life, Naning provided the getaway car and even drove the couple to their honeymoon. It always shocked his school counselors, friends and family that he was always in on the plot. Doubly shocking for me because the ladies who got entangled in these on-the-spur imbroglios were my classmates.

Mother Mary kept her promise. When Naning closed his eyes for the last time, Mary was there — at the hour of his death — to hold his hand and lead him to Jesus.

Naning covered every detail, making it a smooth-sailing adventure for many other couples and so gained some notoriety as the Elopement Czar. It must have rubbed off on Naning because he also whisked a lovely girl to the popular honeymoon spot at the time, Baguio.

Naning and Nonette married young and were blessed with six daughters.  He showed no interest in working for the family, seeking any desk job or fieldwork, nor seeking employment in other companies. What he did was wheel and deal in several kinds of businesses — both lucrative, and some downright unprofitable.

He loved to sing and collected vinyl records. He was taken by witty remarks and poignant lyrics in songs and loved everything that was Frank Sinatra. He had a knack for quoting passages from Hollywood films and could easily memorize whole scripts if he liked the dialogue and the actors who starred in it.

Nephews and nieces were particularly drawn to him because he coined special nicknames for each one, the kind that stuck through the years and gave zest to each personality.

His main interest was buying and restoring classic cars and he became very good at it. He also enjoyed cooking and bottling his own brand of sauces and fruit preserves. He could turn any food into a gourmet dish because he had the taste and the eye for making each dish incredibly delicious and unique.

Once, he pirated the cook of this old restaurant called Carvajal noted for a dish called Que-Kiam. The cook taught him all the secrets of making authentic Que-Kiam. When he made and sold the dish to friends and family, it was a bestseller.

At the turn of the century, he moved to America with plans to establish himself there with his wife to follow suit. He worked — from managing a halfway house for retirees, to driving huge transportation buses, to buying and selling cars again — but he never got the hang of living in the States and yearned to return to Manila and retire.

Finally, with bags all packed and ready to fly home to Manila, he was rushed to the hospital instead for an emergency procedure to remove a portion of his intestines. No one knew that he was suffering from cancer of the colon. He had to undergo all the medical procedures to arrest the cancer; it got him looking good as new and completely healed. Yet after regaining his strength and becoming relatively healthy again, he began to pick up his old vice: smoking. 

In 2019, he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Naning refused any aggressive treatment. He opted for palliative care and took strong pills to address the pain.

That fateful Sunday, Naning must have felt that life was slipping away and he asked his daughter to call me. It was our last conversation.

Naning had his arms folded under his pillow, completely relaxed, as if lying lazily in the sun. No one realized that Naning had slipped away.

Praying the Rosary, it suddenly hit me, “Mary, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” 

Mother Mary kept her promise. When Naning closed his eyes for the last time, Mary was there — at the hour of his death — to hold his hand and lead him to Jesus.

“Gotcha, Naning.” Yes: Jesus has got you.