It was a hard act to follow. The crowds that attended Benigno Aquino’s funeral procession in 1983 were the largest ever seen in Manila, despite the fact that only one radio station — the church owned Radio Veritas — covered the event. The occasion was widely understood not only as funerary, but political: the procession in 1983 was a symbol of the death of democracy; attendance an act of solidarity with its victims; and mourning a tacit protest against the dictator. When Corazon Aquino was buried on August 5 (EST) 2009, the crowds of 26 years before were far surpassed. The city ground to a halt. Ships sounded their mournful horns at harbor. Bells rang and throngs stood in the rain along the 14 mile route to the cemetery. Former Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican Howard Dee said:
“I was in Magsaysay’s and Ninoy’s funeral. This is the greatest outpouring of love the nation has ever witnessed.” Dee, … was referring to the funerals of President Ramon Magsaysay in 1957 and of Aquino’s murdered husband, opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr., in 1983.
Like those events, this funeral was also political. The Aquino family had pointedly refused a state funeral and mourned her instead as an honored daughter of the Church, laying her in the coffin with a rosary in her hand. It was a pointed slap at the current President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had been accused of trying to extend her term of office past its constitutional limit, a la the Honduran Zelaya. Her carefully staged trip to Washington had been wholly eclipsed by Aquino’s death, from which she returned in haste. She was clearly unwelcome and made a brief, almost furtive appearance at the wake. Her reception was correct. No one would have called it warm. Even in death Cory would bar authoritarianism.
That procession in the rain was Cory’s last duty of state; the final act in the public drama. It was also, to those who understood it, the concluding chapter in a love story. At the end of the cortege was a relatively modest grave, no grander than that which a successful small businessman might have, dug beside the spot where Ninoy lay. It was where she wanted to go. When she first learned she had colon cancer more than a year ago, Aquino told her family she would refuse aggressive treatment. Her time, she said, had come. Her daughter Kris related how, when the end was near, she was called back into the room by a nurse from the corridor, where she had stepped out to drink some coffee. Cory bade her daughter bend and said, “I can see him now. Your father is holding out his hand to me.” Dylan Thomas wrote of grave men “near death, who see with blinding sight”; of those on their deathbeds who, perhaps from the effects of medication, delirium or that blinding sight see before them those to whom they would come. Underneath the story of the People Power revolution was also a story of a woman who avenged her husband and reached out to him across the gulf of death with the frail hand of love.
Cory’s tale is finished, but the story goes on; those who follow bear full upon their shoulders the duty to lay a few more sparks across the band of night. Now she can rest and become once again Maria Corazon Cojuangco instead of Cory. When they married in 1955, Ninoy was a 22 year old who had been to Korea as a war correspondent at 17; who served as a security adviser to Ramon Magsaysay at 21 and had negotiated, only the year before, the surrender of the leader of the HUKs. Maria Corazon was a year younger, returned from a stint as a campaign volunteer for Thomas Dewey after an education at Ravenhill in Philadelphia, Notre Dame Convent School in New York and the College of Mount Saint Vincent, where she had majored in mathematics and French. She would have understood the words of a song that was popular then; in the days before the joy and sorrow, before that last journey in the rain.
Si un jour la vie t’arrache à moi
Si tu meurs, que tu sois loin de moi
Peu m’importe, si tu m’aimes
Car moi je mourrai aussi