by Gilda Cordero-Fernando
A writer colleague, Andres Cristobal Cruz, had died and many of his friends came to the wake. He had been ill for a very long time, reported Mario M., spent from the memory of so many tragic deaths in his family. So depressed and sick was Andy that he refused to see anyone. The first time Mario went for a visit he was denied audience but then he went again and was able to get into Andy’s room.
The sick man was alone in his dark room staring at the wall. They didn’t exchange a word. Mario just silently massaged his friend’s back for a long, long time until Andy fell asleep. The next time he heard, the writer was dead.
The university had a necrological service for him. The keynote speaker, Adrian Cristobal, said Andy had achieved immortality because he had written so many poems to leave behind to posterity. I wondered, as I have, many times before, what immortality really means. Is it a book of fifty poems that you leave behind? Is it a novel or three novels? Is it a public office you occupy where you gave your all?
Andy had also written a number of short stories in English and two novels in Tagalog. Few people had read the later novel, not even National Artist Rio who was sandwiched between Karina and me. “But I did!” chirped Sol R. who was sitting farther down on the pew, “And it was good!”
Few had read the novels as few Filipinos really read literary stuff in the R.P. Did that constitute immortality for the corpse before us?
The next day I was at a surprise party for a young designer, given by her equally young friends. Across the table, a fellow guest, about thirty years old, asked me, “What do you do?” “I write,” I said. “Do you publish any of them?” he asked. I said, “Yes, some.” “What an understatement!” smirked Myrza, the Cosmo editor sitting in front of me.
The smart young fellow seemed genuinely interested in finding out what I was doing. He himself was into “electronics” and conducted what sounded like an interesting educational program especially for expatriates. He had absolutely every right as the next fellow to know nothing about me since I was even more ignorant about his computers. On my left was Ginger, bright-eyed and all of twenty-one. I’m sure she didn’t have an inkling of what I was doing for eternity either, or cared, except that she was beside me. Neither, I’m sure, did Kate nor Barbie, when Clinton coached them before taking them to one of my parties. I was barely two generations away, still active in the field and already lost to almost the whole table. I began to question Adrian’s upbeat words about Andy’s immortality.
What about names of illustrious people who have been honored by their philanthropic progeny with scholarships and awards, a revered one almost fifty years old? Didn’t such generosity and love beget immortality? Of course it is entirely possible that such a gesture could be completely independent of immortality. Maybe it is just a human tag we attach to people who’ve done us some good.
The popular concept of immortality is that we are remembered. By our family, by the people we love, by people who’ve been touched by us. Shelf life: fifty years. Yet how hard we work to be remembered! With videos, photos, letters, diaries, and other memorabilia that we leave behind. A piece of land, an educational plan, some gold arrae to use for the grandchild’s wedding. If we write, we paint, we act, we dance, our names and our work will predictably fade away. We get old-fashioned. We become old hat.
Last New Year, while clearing the jungle of our bodega, I again came upon my departed father’s bundle of old writings. They were already fragile and browning. Periodically I had wanted to throw them away because for the last fifty years I had not really gone over them and it didn’t seem likely that my children would.
One was the draft of an article on his motorcycling adventure all over the cobblestones of France, Belgium, Italy, and England, the first Pinoy in 1928 to have done so. Another was an unfinished history of prewar Pagsanjan and its inhabitants. Among the clutter was also my mother’s album with her high school classmates’ pictures, not one face I knew. All the memorabilia were neatly pasted and annotated and they almost did not survive my generation! I felt like abandoning the daunting job I myself had begun of collating hundreds of family snapshots. Who in the next generation of even more cacophony would bother with them?
Whatever do we take with us when we go? Certainly not our albums, not our money, not our house and lot. Not even the body we have taken such care of with creams and rubs and perfumes and entrusted to the care of many doctors. Not the things we’ve invented or analyzed or written or composed or painted. Not our illustrious backgrounds, not our awards and citations. Not even our personalities and our talents, our wounds or our glories, our wishes and our intentions.
I suddenly remember visiting an old man (not a writer) who had received many accolades in his long life. His awards and citations lined the shelves of his hunting lodge-type study, every cup, plaque, and medal polished to dazzling perfection. But he was unhappy. He said he was getting old and people were beginning to forget his accomplishments. He said he needed just one more final award. Did he really believe they were passports to heaven?
What role does media play, if any, in one’s being remembered (and therefore becoming the vehicle of immortality?) If you’re not known, if no one had heard of you, then who will claim that you are immortal? For instance, well-publicized projects get a lot of corporate and private support—because they’re praised in columns and gabbed about endlessly on T.V. But there are even more unknown projects doing virtually the same thing, for many more recipients, for a longer period of time, and for a fraction of the money! Does their obscurity make them less qualified for immortality? Does their value diminish because they did not get media support? Maybe immortality has nothing to do with remembrance either.
But what about the real, real immortals, the masters, and other greats who never get out of the limelight—Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Freud and little old Mother Teresa? Our own Rizal and Ninoy. What distinguishes them from you and me? They just have bigger and deeper wells to draw from. It seems that in certain generations specially loaded individuals are tasked to come down to earth with a mission to make civilization grow—the sciences, the arts, all of culture. Surely they had no intentions of becoming immortal—the essence of immortality being that it’s not sought after.
Anyone, it seems, can have a share of perpetuity. With words we’ve said or an act that inspired someone, that influenced the attitude or behavior of another person, who consciously or unconsciously, by word or by deed, passes it on. Nothing is really lost. Maybe immortality is not so much about a deathless identity as those impulses towards good that we leave behind. A courageous act. A discovery. A more equal way of life. An original style. A kindness. A lesson of truth. It is for others to be inspired by, to pick up, to build on, modify, expand or detail, and pass on. Without necessarily knowing its source and not in their original shape either but morphing forever and ever. Maybe the ever-flowing river of influences is the real immortality. And that’s anonymous.
Photo: Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Manila. 1930. p. 247
Source: The Last Full Moon, Lessons On My Life. U.P. Press, 2005. pp.243-245.