"We are all mortals, and dying is certain although nobody knows when- and how. "
- Dr. Nico D. Calingacion(2009)
Those are the words that I heard from Uncle Nico, at Dr. Belen D. Calingacion, her sister's residence one fine day a year ago. We were having lunch while waiting for further details about the news of his uncle's passing away while working overseas. He was worried about his cousins' and aunt's loss which he also shared, yet was able to find a reason no matter how painful the experience was. Over lunch, he expressed his surprise to the cause of his uncle's death. Accordingly, it was heart failure and he noted the irony considering his uncle's arguably healthy lifestyle with preference to salad, vegetable and fish dishes. A physician, and a lecturer connected with Fatima University, he mainly attributed the cause of his uncle's death to genetics. Ivy and me exchanged smiles when he said " that's why I love to eat what I want and enjoy my life as much as I can" as we are aware of his appetite for various food, most particular of which is his love for pork cracklings(chicharon) from Cebu. Not long after, Minnie Crouse, a close friend who arrived after three years of medical treatment in the US, was surprised with his ultradelicious cooking and food presentation. He took efforts to personally cook the milkfish (bangus sinigang), a dish every Filipino balikbayan would love, and vegetable dishes as a welcome gesture. "I feel like dining in a hotel!" she exclaimed in delight. In response, Uncle Nico simply smiled. Although I always overhear him instruct the househelper in menu preparation, that was the first time I discovered Uncle Nico's flair for cooking.
I have been away since December, bore my own share of pains and grieved my own losses. I remembered in particular Uncle Nico's words of wisdom when my own cousin was the first casualty of a freak vehicular accident which rendered other van passengers and the driver seriously hurt in May. Von has just turned eighteen and the family was grappling to understand his "sudden death" considering human standards. He loved singing, playing the guitar and drums and together with his band, was happily on the way home from a church-organised performance when his life was snatched away. I shared them these words from Uncle Nico and noted that this came from a medical doctor. Death is a reality and somehow, such words eased their pains- and mine too.
I was alone in the villa on Friday the 13th preparing to attend the last day of the photo workshop, a first time experience for me at eight in the morning when I received a a text message from Mam Belen. The message, to me then -was surreal. Dr. Nico D. Calingacion, her brother died of massive cardiac arrest, accordingly- last night. "It was too sudden. He is only 50 years old" the message said further. I reread it and shuddered to find out that indeed, it is Uncle Nico, his only brother. I did not know how to deal with it and I had to call my sister Divine, a psychology major to ask how to respond to such news. After a few minutes I sent a message back- indeed it was sad news and I was surprised to find the cause of his death. I was told that it was a complication with his inherited illness- diabetes. I cannot contain my surprise because Uncle Nico is a doctor and reads a lot regularly, about medical advances as evidenced by the huge piles of medical books and journals in his room which Rose, the househelp files regularly. Talking to him over tea time is like attending a medical lecture session. Noticing that I am a carefree gal, he took time to ask about my career plans and encouraged me to go for the plans that I willingly shared with him. It was during this conversation that I discovered the possibility for him working in the United States yet he was not very much into, as the recession has affected his plans and so does some family concerns.
During my short stint of staying with them, I have also seen how happy person Uncle Nico is- and how he lived his life to the brim. He knows how to unwind as he regularly goes out with his friends anytime within the week, and further relax during Saturdays. He makes our Sunday mornings a lot lovelier by playing the piano as I sing along with songs I am quite familiar with. He has seamlessly played "Amazing Grace", among other familiar tunes sans musical pieces He has been a very caring son to his parents, protective and loving brother to his three sisters and a doting yet at time strict uncle to his nephews and most specially, to his nieces. He has been very kind to me and gracious enough to share his favourite chicharon whenever I come over for a brief stay. I remember watching then President Cory's televised hearse with him immediately after lunch. Together, we laughed over Willie's outburst as a reaction to the live coverage simultaneously aired on then popular noontime ABS- CBN show, "Wowowee." And we discussed the political implications of Cory's death and how it could change the landscape of Philippine politics.
As I prepare to go and pay my last respects to Uncle Nico, I seek answers to my own questions about his "sudden demise" and try to understand the intricacies of death-I remembered the very words that he said a year ago. Only this time, it applies to his own.