It was a Sunday. I did not go to the airport to join the welcoming crowd, because truth to tell I was a little skeptical about him. The controlled press (Bulletin Today, Daily Express, and Times Journal) was full of stories about Ninoy as a traditional politician: There were reprints of stories that had come out when he was town mayor or provincial governor or first-term senator, stories full of bodyguards, haciendas, and the tough talk of the politically entitled. Of course I knew his years in detention and then in exile had changed him; ever since Marcos had arrested Nene Pimentel, on yet another trumped-up charge, the year before, I had had my eyes opened to the true and sorry state of the nation. I looked up to the leaders of the opposition, listened to their arguments, even showed up at a couple of their events. But while I was ready to march behind Pepe Diokno or the old man Tanada, Ninoy left me unmoved. Intellectually, I think I understood him, but there was no emotional, no visceral, connection.
Until the Sunday he died. After a heavy lunch, I had dozed off on the sofa. Sometime in the afternoon, my sister woke me up. She said she had heard that Ninoy had been shot. It took me some time to understand what she was saying. When I finally turned on the TV set, the profusely perspiring face of police general Olivas filled the screen. I did not know much about politics then, but I remember thinking, when I saw him perspire and fidget and look utterly uncomposed, that something terribly important had just taken place, some nightmare had begun.
I saw my father taking the news in in complete silence. Years later it occurred to me that, as a businessman, a corporate manager, he must have immediately realized the assassination’s horrible consequences for business, for the economy. (Sure enough, 1983 and 1984 turned out to be the worst years for the Philippine economy since World War II.)
The rest of the day was a blank; I’m sure we must have spent many hours by the radio, hoping for more news, but all I can remember is the whirring of the hours, as we waited, mostly in vain. Oh, yes, I do remember forming the still-inchoate thought which later turned out to be shared by many other Filipinos who had heard the news: Surely, I thought, Marcos would come out on TV and, well, say something.
Malacanang stayed silent even on the next day, which I will always remember as Black Monday. Back in school, a sense of listlessness, of being out-of-sorts, seemed to affect everyone. A few were exhausted by the outrage that had consumed them since the day before. The impact on Erin Tanada (a grandson, of course, of the old man, and now a congressman from Quezon) was particularly telling. He was always one of the nice guys, one of those happy-go-lucky fellas who are easy to get along with, but that day he was a changed man. I remember him weeping, gesturing vigorously, by the door of the office of the student council; we have to draw a line, he said, again and again, always loudly, like a roar. We have to draw a line, he said, and once he steps across the line [he meant Marcos, of course], we have to fight back. We have to draw a line, he said again.
But Marcos was nowhere to be seen. The shadow of his ominous absence seemed to lengthen as the day wore on, and rumors of panic-buying in the groceries started to circulate. Rumors about Imelda or Ver or Enrile or Danding taking over from a dead or dying dictator also started being passed around. The lack of information seemed especially dangerous. But it was the unusual lack of water in the school pipes that finally convinced Fr. Raul Bonoan, the dean of the college, to send the students home. It was around noon.
At around that time, I called my father in his office, asking him whether he should send someone to buy groceries — you know, just in case. He said not to worry.
Later in the afternoon, those of us in the student council who were still on campus started to plan our first visit to Ninoy’s wake. With the help of Jocelle Concio, who was a senior year rep (and a niece of Ninoy’s), we were able to enter the Aquino family residence on Times Street before nightfall. Even by that time, people from quite literally all walks of life were already forming queues outside the house. (I was able to say a prayer before Ninoy’s coffin thrice: twice in Times Street, and once in Sto. Domingo church. Each time I felt an unbearable heaviness of spirit.)
In the days that followed, as the lines grew longer outside the Times Street house and then, after the transfer to Sto. Domingo, around the Dominican church itself, I must have listened to the bootleg cassette tapes of Ninoy’s rousing speeches in the US a dozen times. Despite the squeaky quality of the tapes, it was obvious that Ninoy must have been a spellbinding presence in those American forums; he spoke eloquently and fluently, in machine-gun fashion, and with great command of the facts. Listening to him on the sidewalk, huddled with all sorts of strangers around a tape player, I finally, belatedly, felt a connection. This hero, the thought recurred again and again, actually died for me.