Love and Relationships

[FIRST PERSON] Embracing grief

Ging Reyes

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[FIRST PERSON] Embracing grief

CROSS COUNTRY. The late broadcast engineer and cyclist Milo Santiago Cacanindin poses with his mountain bike in Libuagan, Kalinga in 2012.

Personal collection of Ging Reyes

Death broke me, as life did several times over. It seems I have an easier time healing from life. Peace still eludes me.

I recently had a reunion with a friend whose husband died after more than a decade of suffering the effects of a stroke. Asked how she coped with his passing, she said she had long accepted the inevitable and when death finally came for him, they were both at peace with it.

There was a calmness and grace that I saw in her as she said this, a state that I have yet to reach. And as the day of the dead nears, my grief takes me back to that early morning in March almost three years ago.

The plane was about to land. My tray table was stowed and locked, my seatbelt fastened, my bag under the seat in front of me, mobile phone in my jacket pocket. I couldn’t wait to disembark. I’d been away for almost two weeks, and what I feared might happen happened. My husband had to be taken to a hospital after complaining of back pain.   

This was no ordinary back pain and may or may not be related to his illness. Milo had been suffering from chronic kidney disease, a consequence of diabetes, another chronic disease for which there is no cure. Type 2 Diabetes can destroy major organs. It had been ten months since the doctor delivered the news – his kidneys had failed. As thousands were dying from the dreaded coronavirus and many parts of the world were in lockdown, our life together was upended by this unwelcome but undeniable reality.

From a distance, one would not think Milo had a chronic illness. He stood tall and had an attractive, sanguine face, with eyes that seemed like he was up to some mischief or about to tell a joke. He looked athletic, with toned arms and legs from decades of cycling up and down mountain trails. Those hardcore bike rides had slowly eased over time, but especially after he turned 60.

His doctor, a middle-aged man with thick hair, serious eyes and a small frame, explained it in terms we could understand: “His diabetes had destroyed his kidneys and it’s irreversible. This is common among diabetic patients. Now, the organs essential for removing waste from his body are no longer functioning. He needs to take the next step.”

Milo did not say a word. He knew what the diagnosis meant. I felt a tightening in my stomach and had the urge to throw up. Suddenly, I was afraid, and I knew that he was too.

Three times a week, my husband had to go through a process called dialysis, the only treatment that would help to keep patients like him alive. A kidney transplant was not suggested at that time. We also took some comfort in the fact that there are dialysis patients who could live up to ten years or more. I was only slightly familiar with this disease and knew little about dialysis treatments. I never thought it would strike my family. My husband had always been extremely active, loved the outdoors, went mountain biking every week. This couldn’t be, Milo was indestructible. We’d made travel plans. We’d grow old together, we promised!

But a part of me did see it for what it was – a death sentence. Memories of our travels and misadventures, his laughter, and jokes, flashed in my mind’s eye, interspersed with images of him lying in a hospital bed, tubes attached to his body, machines humming. I hated this about myself, this tendency to see bleak scenarios far ahead in the future. I sometimes blamed it on my instinct for news, or anything that may be newsworthy.

It was while he was at the dialysis unit, accompanied by his private nurse, when the doctor asked him to check into the hospital after complaining of pain in his lower back. I was on my way to Half Moon Bay when the nurse called to tell me this. I panicked but almost immediately was assured that he was fine and needed to go through some tests to find out what was causing the pain.

When we spoke on the phone, he insisted he was alright except for the pain, and all he probably needed was to go through an MRI so doctors could prescribe medication. “I’ll check if I can rebook my flight,” I told him.    

But I could not change it. In 2021, flights between San Francisco and Manila were fewer due to the surges of the pandemic. It would take 3 days before I could board a return flight to the Philippines.

I checked on Milo once again before leaving for the airport. He was all set for a minor procedure, before the MRI. “They could not access his veins for the IV insertion,” his nurse explained. 

This was not new. It had been frustratingly difficult to access his veins for intravenous drips. The nurses would succeed after about a dozen attempts, by which time Milo would be screaming in agony. I learned that this was common among patients with chronic diseases like diabetes. To solve this challenge, the doctors recommended inserting a PICC line on his upper arm, from where all his medications could be administered. PICC stands for Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter; its placement is a minor procedure, which he’d already successfully gone through during a previous hospital stay.

“This is going to be quick, and then I do the MRI and that’s it,” Milo assured me. “Are you all set for your flight?”

“Yes, and your bike is all set too! And I got you a pair of diabetic shoes. I’ll be home soon but as you know, I would have to quarantine myself before I could see you,” I replied with a sigh.

I could sense his excitement at seeing his favorite mountain bike again, which he asked me to bring back home in a customized suitcase, no less.

“Okay, just come home,” he replied.

His voice sounded tired, and I could hear his labored breathing, as if he had to dig deep to draw the air from his lungs. Another side effect of his illness. 

Too late

After the plane maneuvered into its final descent to Manila, I turned on my phone. A text message from my stepdaughter, asking me to call her as soon as I can. I thought, “Maybe Milo’s MRI got pushed back again.”

The purser announced the plane’s final descent and the local weather over the speakers. I could see the outline of cities and buildings and highways from my window. I wasn’t sure if it was premonition or gut feel that pushed me to make the call.  

“Papa had a cardiac arrest. Shortly after the PICC line procedure, his blood pressure dropped, and they had to intubate him…he was taken to the ICU and it was there when it happened. They resuscitated him, but it lasted twenty minutes,” my stepdaughter managed to say the words in between sobs.

“I told them to keep trying…and that you’re arriving soon. He’s in a coma,” her voice faded out.

My stomach was in turmoil. I felt like a knife went through my gut. Twenty minutes? I couldn’t breathe. It was supposed to be a minor procedure. He was out for twenty minutes!  I couldn’t stop the tears.  How does he recover from this? I had so many questions. What happened? How? He was supposed to be alright, wasn’t he? Why? Why him?

The plane landed and we disembarked. I went through the motions of presenting my passport, claiming my bags, riding in a pre-registered car to check into a government-approved hotel. Upon arrival, all passengers must go through COVID-related, government-sanctioned procedures. It dawned on me that the mandatory quarantine protocols would keep me away from Milo in the ICU.

All throughout the car ride, all I could see was the image of my husband lying on a bed, unconscious, hooked to a machine that helped him breathe, surrounded by monitors transmitting lines and graphs and numbers. I was gripped with guilt and regret.  

When I finally managed to go to the hospital, it was as I imagined – the machines, the breathing tube in his mouth, the steady hum of monitors. But I wasn’t prepared for the coldness of his hands and his entire body; he felt almost icy, despite the mylar thermal blanket wrapped all over his body. And then something else struck me – his eyes were open. I could no longer remember the explanation for this, but I requested the doctors to have them covered.

The doctors spoke to me in their gentle, diplomatic tone, explaining the sequence of events and the treatments administered, softening the blow of their grim diagnosis. That first meeting gave me hope despite all evidence to the contrary. When someone you love is fighting for their life, there’s always a voice inside you that tells you to pray for and believe in miracles.

I’d never prayed as hard as I did during those ten days; friends and family, current and former coworkers set up a prayer group for Milo’s healing. But the few encouraging signs one day (seizure medication working) would be drowned by dire findings the next (brain function severely impaired).

He never woke up. We said our goodbyes while he remained in that state, trapped in his bed, his eyes unblinking, his body cold to the touch. A priest came in to give him the last rites, which, to our surprise, led to tears streaming down the patient’s face.

The writer with Milo Cacanindin in Big Sur, California before the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal collection of the couple

Milo breathed his last on a sunny morning in March. The sunlight and blue skies made me think of those days when he’d bike up his favorite mountain trails. It was a strangely beautiful day. 

The doctor called time of death at 10 past 8. It sounded so official. I knew I’d accepted this as inevitable, but I still couldn’t come to grips with the reality that my husband had turned into a dead body. Is this it? Was I able to say goodbye to him if I wasn’t sure he’d heard me? Did he feel bad that I wasn’t by his side that night at the hospital?    

There was little time to pause and dwell on the pain. Between paying the hospital bill and making funeral arrangements, I functioned with the efficiency of a ruthless taskmaster. Grief and sorrow go side by side with the practical and the mundane – choosing a casket, selecting his clothes, deciding on flowers, talking to the mortician, giving instructions to the embalmer.  

It’s been almost three years and I’ve been both busy and idle. I’ve embraced grief, even welcome the pain it brings. I could not bring myself to get rid of his clothes, his bicycles which I will never use, or the gadgets he was so fond of collecting, which have become obsolete. I have yet to find the center of the bed, and his seat at the table remains empty. My guilt may be in the rearview mirror, but I clearly see regret straight ahead. Death broke me, as life did several times over. It seems I have an easier time healing from life. Peace still eludes me. – Rappler.com

Ma. Regina “Ging” Reyes was the longest-serving head of ABS-CBN Integrated News and Current Affairs. She retired from the company in December 2022 after 36 years as a Kapamilya. Previously, she was ABS-CBN’s North America Bureau Chief for 8 years. In 2022, the World Assocation of News Publishers named her as its Southeast Asia Laureate for Women in News Editorial Leadership

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  1. GM

    There’s something in this remarkable piece for everyone. If you’ve experienced the same sense of loss as Ms. Reyes, you’ll get it. If you value an appreciation of life and good, often beautiful writing, you’ll want to read it. Haunting in its detail. Stunning in all that it evokes. Thank you for writing and running this piece.

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