No Eulogy for the Living

We cannot turn away. When something bleeds, you watch it carefully. This last year doctors found in my brainstem a cerebral cavernous malformation: an inaccessible, blackberry-shaped lesion of leak-prone capillaries that tend to bleed and expand places where there’s no space for expansion. Turns out those who dislike me were right: I have a hole in my head. 

Annual MRI scans will reveal my cavernoma – as it’s cutely called – to be dangerously increasing or harmlessly stable. The chance of either at this point is fifty-fifty, which are worse odds than in blackjack (at which I’ve stubbornly lost). It could mean nothing, it could just as well mean everything. 

Such things lead you to take measure. Let me please tell you what I discovered. 


There are a few things still that I’d like to see. The things I broke, fixed. Thanks, given to those to whom I’m grateful. Books, written. Laughter, with loved ones. The Northern Lights. And the entire length of the Philippines, on foot. I’d like to live to see all that. 

Most of all I want to witness politics working the way it promises. That’s partly because I was raised in the midst of it, with my parents as members of Congress. But mostly it’s because it is human to want promises kept. 

Earlier this year, indefinite military rule was declared across a third of the Philippines, with the threat that it might be expanded nationwide; it’s been forty-five years since it’s been used so readily. It’s hard for me to not be concerned. I was born under martial law and I could now die during martial law. Don’t we all hope to end in a better state than we began? 

When Filipinos of a certain age speak of martial law, they refer less to a system of rule than to a troubled era of communal but intensely personal experience. For so many, it remains a wound that still bleeds. For me, it is how I began to learn what democracy is – by hearing true stories about how it dies. 

At first, dictatorship was said to have worked. It brought order across the Philippines. Protests ceased. Politics became straightforward. The unopposed regime built many good things. Manila was peaceful and secure. Evening curfew was effective, and even fun, when it stranded you at a friend’s house or at a party. If you weren’t a communist, terrorist or destabiliser, then you had nothing to fear. At first. 

By 1977, five years after martial law began, my family packed a few suitcases for a short holiday to California’s Disneyland. A short time after, we arrived in Vancouver, Canada, to begin a new life – among the lucky few who could. 

The regime in the Philippines had long turned abusive, with media controlled, the legislature locked down, and many businesses sequestered. Governance had been shared among cronies, while opposition politicians were imprisoned. Dissenters were arrested without warrant and detained without trial, with many tortured, raped, or even killed and dumped on the streets in a practice known, ironically, as ‘salvaging’. 

My family, like many exiles, watched from afar martial law’s expanding violence against others and, like many émigrés, we suffered wounds that even we could not see. Gone was not only our democracy, but our home, our country. I grew up in a purgatory of in-betweenness, never learning the language of being Filipino but never thinking for a second that I was anything else. 

In 1986, nine years after we had left, it was the dictator’s family’s turn to lose what they had stolen from us. In what became known as the People Power Revolution, Filipinos of all backgrounds flooded the capital. The ailing strongman faced a tough decision. Members of the military were abandoning him. His son and heir allegedly urged him to open fire on the peaceful protestors. The American president offered his family asylum in Hawaii. 

In the middle of the night, they fled in disgrace. Not long after, my family returned to the Philippines. 

Three decades have passed since democracy was restored, and that distance tempts us to see the dictatorship as a fourteen-year blip in the country’s history. But remember that for those who endured it, martial law seemed interminable. They could only hope for its end. Thousands who were pulled into military camps, prisons, and shadows did not live to see its demise. 


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