Mourning an Icon: On Shock, Congee, and a Personal Encounter with Cory Aquino

In the wee hours of the morning of Saturday, the first of August, a beloved Filipino president, heroine, and the much-touted “Patron Saint of People Power” went to meet her Creator. Corazon “Tita Cory” Cojuangco-Aquino died peacefully in her sleep after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. And, as if the heavens themselves could feel our nation’s grief, it rained for the whole day.

It is times like these that make people run for cover, to seek comfort, and to try and make sense of what’s going on. These are not times for the relentless rush involved in grabbing a burger and some fries from a fast food joint. For foodies, it is a reflective time that calls for meals properly eaten at tables amidst the low hum of murmured conversations or the silent grind of one’s own thoughts.

I was at home when the news broke out: it was six in the morning and I just got out of bed. Given how it was a Saturday and I had a pending order for a couple dozen assorted chocolate goodies (a dozen cupcakes and a tray of cashew-topped brownies, to be exact), I would have just moseyed out of my room and into the kitchen to start faffing about. Well, the faffing about got stalled for about an hour: I was so shocked by the news. You would think that we Filipinos would have been prepared for this: given how she’d been suffering for over a year, the end was certainly inevitable. Alas, despite daily healing Masses in churches throughout the country and a sickbed vigil rivaled only by the one for the late Pope John Paul II, the “plain housewife” who stepped to the political plate upon the assassination of her husband, the woman who led a peaceful revolution that removed the tyrant who ruled us for over two decades finally passed away.

I don’t know how I managed to get anything done without burning myself or any of the cakes or even how I managed the traffic-cursed commute from Muntinlupa to Paranaque, but I managed to do so. However, I found myself at my wits’ end soon after the delivery. I didn’t feel like going home just yet, so I opted to head for Santana Grove along Sucat Road.

The halo-halo congee at Mongkok was what I chose to drown my gloomy thoughts in. On the surface, it looks pretty much like any standard bowl of savory rice porridge: rice, broth, minced chives, and crunchy-fried wonton wrappers. But, while thick enough, it’s translucent rather than opaque. Slices of lean pork cut through the soupy starchiness of the rice and the mild flavors were augmented by finely shredded ginger which, in turn, muted the gaminess of julienned pork stomach, liver, and kidney. Not quite the jumble of goodies (meatballs, sliced century egg, and poached beef) found in most other congees, but this one suited my melancholy mood just fine. There’s just something cathartic, possibly even healing about blowing on ceramic spoonfuls of porridge to cool it down; likewise, something about the fragrant steam billowing onto one’s face gives one the assurance that all will go well despite the present tragedy.

As I ate, my thoughts turned to more than a quarter of a century ago. The year was 1986; I was nine and in the final months of third grade. School was called off suddenly on the morning of February 24th; all the television stations were on the fritz. (This was, after all, the Philippines in the mid-1980s. Unless you were rich enough to get access to FEN, the cable network run for the US Armed Forces in Clark and Subic, all the TV you got was local.) I remember freaking out when my parents left the house and told me and my brother that they couldn’t take us along; it was too dangerous. People were spilling out into the streets even as President Marcos called out the tanks. I have never been a prayerful person, but the frightening reality that the country seemed to be on the brink of something seriously cataclysmic brought me to my knees to say the Holy Rosary several times over. When it was all over, I would learn that the widow of the murdered Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. had been formally sworn in as the President of a new democratic Philippine Republic.

Many years later, as the Estrada Administration came to a close because of yet another revolution, I would meet this agent of change in the flesh. It was Visiting Sunday at San Carlos Seminary; normally a boisterous day for both seminarians and their families, it was disturbingly subdued because the crowds had begun to gather [again] in the EDSA-Ortigas area. My father and I went up to the lobby to look for my brother. At the entrance, we ran into then-Monsignor (now Bishop) Soc Villegas. He shook hands with Dad, then pointed to a little old lady sitting close by.

Tita [Aunt] Cory,” Monsignor Soc murmured to us with a smile.

Dad and I seemed to have been frozen in our tracks: former President Aquino was right there, just sitting on a bench and looking for all the world like some seminarian’s mother or aunt! I remember Dad shaking her hand and she motioned for me to come over and, instead of shaking her hand, I found myself pressing the back of her hand to my forehead in that age-old gesture of respect. I tried to think of something clever or witty to say, but failed and just mumbled “Madame President” even as she murmured back “Bless you.”

I only met her that one time, wasn’t even able to hold a proper conversation. But now that she’s gone, I feel her loss almost as acutely as if she were a member of my family. In a way, as President ergo Mother of the Country, she was.

She lived through both triumph and tragedy, living her life with a faith that sustained her even in the final days. She supported her politician husband, came home from exile to mourn him, and carry on his legacy to free this land from the scourge of tyrrany. She raised her children, became a grandmother; practically became everyone’s mother and/or aunt in the process. She paved the way for change and marched steadfastly in the streets with the common people whenever she felt that their voices weren’t being heard.

Lord knows she wasn’t perfect, but she lived her life well and died in peace, surrounded by her children – both those she bore and the nation she served so well.

And it breaks my heart to know that not bowl after bowl of congee, not even the most decadent desserts, nor even the most sumptuous banquets will be enough to assuage our grief at her loss.

For alas, as the old passage goes, we’ll not see the like of her ever again.