Sic transit Gloria mundi

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Monday, March 3, 2014


LAST Friday I found myself inside Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s detention room at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center (VMMC) in Quezon City. I sat next to her at the dining table, looking forlornly at the chocolate-coated cookies arranged neatly on a plate.

“They look delicious!” I said in an attempt to cheer her up. She leaned forward stiffly, careful not to turn her head (she wasn’t wearing the famous neck brace), picked up a cookie with a pair of kitchen tongs and placed it on my plate.

I looked at her and tried to imagine the President of the Republic of the Philippines, surrounded by her Cabinet, her Generals, the Presidential Management Staff, the Presidential Security Guards, her legal counsels, political advisers, spokespersons, presidential assistants, protocol officers, etc., serving cookies on my plate.

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Instead I only saw this little lady with a pale sad face, alone in a decrepit hospital room which is actually her prison cell, waiting for the redemption that she knew would never come, and dreading both the trial that would lead to conviction and her deteriorating health that could lead to death—whichever would come first.

How it all came to this—Gloria the president reduced to Gloria the detainee, serving cookies on my plate with those same hands that once steered the nation’s ship and slew every known Goliath in the country’s political landscape—is a journey that we all shared as a nation.

But it was a personal journey for me as well, dating back to February 2007, when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo first came to Holy Angel to swear into office the new university president. It was the first time an HAU president was inducted by a President of the Republic, so we were all agog. Right after the program, President Arroyo turned to ask who the director was, because the program, she said, was “perfect” and “it started and ended on the dot.”

I savored the presidential compliment with a pinch of guilt, because only days before, I had joined the bandwagon of critics who bashed, mocked and cursed her for declaring a state of emergency following coup attempts by Gen. Danilo Lim and Col. Ariel Querubin.

I talked to her again in 2008 when she attended our celebration of the birth centenary of Rufino Cardinal Santos (we were surprised she accepted what we had thought to be only a token invitation), and again in 2009 when she inaugurated the new University Chapel. I wasn’t in charge of invitations, but I took a lot of criticism for her attendance, because the national mood was against her following the Maguindanao Massacre the month before. In fact, a group of Kapampangan journalists picketed her convoy outside the campus.

We met again after that, during a private party at Clark. I had come to see someone else, but somehow, the presidential guards escorted me to her table where I had no choice but to sit beside her. (I don’t even remember what we talked about.)

In 2010, she and Gov. Lilia Pineda visited the Center for Kapampangan Studies (CKS). It had only been two months since she left Malacañang, so she was still followed around by the usual retinue of security, media and sycophants.

When she returned in 2011 to attend our Juan Flores sculpture exhibit, however, she only had one companion—her personal nurse. All her friends, having seen the writing on the wall, had dropped her like a hot potato. She struggled with her neck brace as I toured her around the museum. I still treated her like the former President that she was, maintaining a respectful distance behind her. I was worried that she might hurt her neck because she kept turning around to ask questions. As she and her nurse returned to her van, another visitor (who had benefitted during her presidency) was seen smirking behind her back and overheard asking why we still bothered with a “laos na” (has-been).

That visit proved to be Gloria Arroyo’s last public appearance, because two days later, while she was undergoing treatment at the Veterans hospital, the PNP carried out the warrant of arrest issued by the Sandiganbayan for plunder and graft. And the main front-page photo of The Philippine Daily Inquirer was the one showing Gloria and me at the museum!

Nothing was heard from her again until last week when she asked Francis Musni and the CKS staff to visit her. After being cleared by security, there we were, face to face with the former president in the VMMC presidential suite—“suite” is a misnomer, because it looked and smelled like a cheap apartment in a decrepit building, and the only reason it’s called presidential is that it was where Presidents Emilio Aguinaldo, Sergio Osmeña, Elpidio Quirino and Joseph Estrada were once confined (two other previous occupants were Felix Manalo, founder of Iglesia ni Cristo, and Ninoy Aquino, following his hunger strike in 1975).

“Do you still remember us?” I said, to break the ice.

“Wa naman, mikit tamu tauli anyang Juan Flores exhibit, ali wari?” she replied. She spoke mostly Kapampangan and a little English, but never Tagalog. She was all ears and all smiles to us but we did catch a glimpse of her famous temper when an aide brought in the wrong papers. We handed her our presents, saniculas from Atching Lillian Borromeo and an old map of Pampanga.

When I told her that surnames like Manansala, Maninang, Manalang, Manuntag, Maglalang and Macapagal used to have different pronunciations because they were actually descriptions of their ancestors’ skills, virtues or occupations (for example, Macapagál used to be Mácapagal, which meant “someone who makes you tired, or wears you out”), she quickly pointed out, “Slave driver! My ancestors were nobility, so they had slaves who were always tired.”

She said that although she looked better than her recent photos, her health was actually deteriorating fast. I asked her if she had tried alternative medicine, mentioning to her my friend Riza (of Orissa Garden) who I said could make her feel better. She replied acupuncture and even stem cell therapy, “but only the cheap ones here,” she quickly added. “What I really need to do is consult a neuro-cervical surgeon in Singapore, but since they won’t let me go there, I have to shoulder the cost. Even if what they’re accusing me of is true, you think I can afford him, including all the money he will lose from patients he will miss that day?”

She surprised me with the names of her frequent visitors, her knowledge of goings-on in Pampanga, in her district, and even at HAU, including rumors of Manny V. Pangilinan buying it.

After one hour, we said our good-byes. No hugs and kisses, just weak handshakes. She walked us to the door which she opened and held for us.

I can imagine how an ordinary citizen might feel inside a prison cell, but I’ll never know what goes on in the mind of a former President of the Philippines who’s now prevented even from sending or receiving text messages, and from using the Internet. “They also didn’t let me have cable TV, until Jesse Robredo said enough,” she told us, referring to the late DILG Secretary.

When all is said and done, celebrities, politicians and other public figures are no different from you and me—they are fundamentally good, they are kind to loved ones and polite to strangers, and they settle their debts with God every night when they go to bed.

Just because you hated her as president doesn’t mean you should continue hating her as a person. It’s clear to me now that those are two different things.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on March 04, 2014.

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