I remember vividly my last visit with my grandfather. Late morning, August 1985, just before I left Manila to begin my sophomore year at Barnard College. He’d been sick a couple of years already and often complained about the deteriorating quality of his life. He had a lot on his mind, so much so that he didn’t seem all that interested in the usual chitchat about me and my life as a teenager; instead, he shared with me his thoughts about the Philippines and the mess it was in.
I remember thinking that his eyeglasses seemed extra thick and cloudy that day, as if they were preventing him from seeing things clearly. As far as he could tell, we were barreling towards a bloody revolution. Ninoy Aquino had been murdered two years before; the country was bankrupt; people were clamoring for change; and President Marcos, who’d been in power already twenty years and was in poor health, refused to step down.
Wearing a monogrammed pajama set in blue paisley, he looked frail and spent in his reading chair, his two golden cocker spaniels spread-eagled on the carpet beneath him. I felt strangely out of place. First of all, I was having what would be my first and last adult conversation with him. Second, it was rare to see him depressed. His sense of humor was legendary. It was the secret weapon in his armory, and he always had just the right repartee to lighten the dourest mood or diffuse even the stickiest diplomatic situation.
That was the last time I saw him. A few months later, in the second week of December, my dad phoned me in New York City to let me know that Lolo was in the hospital for emergency surgery—and that this time it was serious. I was getting ready for end-of-term finals but was well aware that it wasn’t just Lolo’s life that was in jeopardy; the Philippine situation, too, had grown critical. The international community was gravely suspicious of the Marcos administration, as the military had already been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Aquino. Members of the clergy (i.e., Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin) were beginning to criticize openly those in power. Protests were erupting on the streets with more and more frequency. Marcos, in order to prove that the majority still wanted him as president, had called for a snap election.
As if he could no longer withstand the blows to a collapsing Philippines, Lolo died on December 15. His death was attributed to a general collapse of his circulatory system. He was a month shy of his 88th birthday.
Tributes and condolences flooded in, assuaging our family’s grief to some extent. Leaders from all over the globe honored us with their appreciation of his years of devoted service to our nation and to the cause of world peace.
“A greatly beloved patriot has passed from our midst. Men of this stature survive even their own mortality, and what history may have missed, our hearts and our memories will recall.” ~ President Ferdinand E. Marcos
“We share more deeply than you know your own sense of loss at his passing, sharing your pride in the singular achievements of this remarkable man.” ~ US President Ronald Reagan
“The passing of Romulo, coinciding the UN’s 40th anniversary, signifies the passing of an era.” ~ UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar
“An outstanding scholar, a distinguished soldier, and an illustrious diplomat.” ~ Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew
“Australia has long valued the outstanding contributions of Romulo in international affairs, both in the UN where he served with distinction as president of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, and in the Asia Pacific region as a long serving and successful foreign minister who contributed to the development of good relations between our countries.” ~ Australia Foreign Minister Bill Hayden
“General Romulo had made invaluable support and assistance in founding the republic of Korea in 1948, and protecting its independence in the ensuing years.” ~ Korea Foreign Minister Won Kyung Lee
“We are losing an adviser, a counsel and friend. We shall all remember him.” ~ Malaysia Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmad Ritthauddeen
“. . . I will remember him for the passionate intensity of his conviction and commitment to the causes he believed in.” ~ Singapore Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan
Though he died a private citizen, we gave him a state funeral, with President Marcos and the First Lady there to honor him. Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin officiated the mass at Santuario de San Antonio before his body was transferred to the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Each of the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, the United States and the Secretary-General of the United Nations sent representatives. From the CCP the funeral procession pushed onward to the state cemetery, Libingan ng mga Bayani. There under the thick canopy of acacia trees we buried him.
“My father died as he lived,” said my uncle Ricardo Romulo in his eulogy, “indomitable, at peace with God, and in the bosom of his family.”