‘Pwede palang mawala ‘yung loved ones mo nang ganoon lang’

Story by Ivy Ferrer and Guinevere Latoza

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses the deaths of some COVID-19 patients.

Bars Datiles and his children holding photos of their departed loved ones Lala Villoria-Datiles, Dante Villoria and Daniel Villoria, respectively.

Lolo Dante, who died on March 21, 2020, was the first one to pass away, followed by his son Daniel exactly a week later. Bars and Lala started having feverish episodes shortly after, eventually finding out that they, too, contracted the virus. On May 9, 2020, Lala would draw her last breath and tread the same fate her father and brother did.

They are only three of the 545,300 COVID-19 cases recorded in the Philippines as of Feb. 12, 2021. Every passing day that the pandemic is left unsolved, the figure pushes to higher marks, a reality that the human mind isn’t psychologically wired to process.

For the Datiles family who endured the passing of not one, not two, but three members due to the virus, looking at and living with the things they left behind is more than enough to make the gravity of the crisis felt. They need not grasp at figures.

Groping in the dark

What used to be simple gestures and mundane interactions are now the Datiles family’s most treasured memories of their Lolo Dante.

At his prime, Dante Villoria was a high-ranking official in the Quezon City government.

What his family remembers most about him, however, was his generosity, compassion and kindness.

“Uuwi ‘yon [sa] bahay, sasabihin niya ‘Lika kain tayo.’”

Dante, 84, already exhibited symptoms of dementia when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 12. He passed away due to complications of loose bowel movement and deterioration of potassium level. 

Dante Villoria’s remains rest at the family’s altar. / Photo by the Datiles family

His last moments with his family were abrupt as it was at the height of the coronavirus scare in the country.

“One day kami nag-stay sa hospital, which is another reason na kinatatakutan [namin]. Hinatid ko lang siya, and although nasa labas lang ako ng parking lot, natatakot nga ako … maghapon kami magkasama basically, kasi nasa triage ‘yung father-in-law ko, nasa area ng isang tent or parang isang emergency room,” Bars recounts.

At the time, Bars and his family felt they were groping in the dark, as very little was known about the virus and the extent to which it could affect people.

“Nagi-ingat kami that time, pero we didn’t know how the virus was that contagious and it really could kill people … hindi pa namin talaga alam. Pero, takot na takot kami,” Bars says.

On March 13, the Quezon City local government announced a state of calamity due to the increasing reported cases in the city, prohibiting any mass gatherings and leisure activities. A day before, Metro Manila was placed under community quarantine from March 15 to April 14.

Lala Datiles’ belongings neatly placed at their tabletop. / Photo by the Datiles family
Reminiscence from family and friends

Lala, as described by her husband, was a fun-loving and friendly person. She was known back in the days as a popular student in her school — an amiable and charming one. Her friendliness and sense of feistiness was remarkable as told by her friends.

In the latter years, Lala would always be the one to initiate hangouts and meet ups with their friends. These get-togethers, according to Bars, were some of the manifestations of Lala’s desire to connect with her loved ones. 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a heavy toll in terms of physical contact and verbal interaction. Instead of spending her last days with family and friends, Lala had no choice but to endure spending time alone within the restricted walls of the hospital room.

Bars Datiles, recovered COVID-19 patient, holds a portrait of his departed wife.

Bars recounts the smallest errands, daily scenarios and quaint leisure activities as the most enjoyable and unforgettable moments with his wife. He reminisced about the times they would drop their daughter off to school, and then have long walks in the Academic Oval afterward.

From the time the couple was admitted to the Lung Center of the Philippines during lockdown, the dread of rising hospital bills, the safety of their families and the concern for their children left at home kept the two worried. The Datiles family is one of many who carried the burden brought by the pandemic and extracted a heavy toll on their relatives and friends as they grieve for the loss of Lala, as well as their Lolo Dante. 

“So, imagine mo na lang ‘yung naiisip ko at tsaka ng asawa ko, fearing for her safety, fearing for my safety, for my mother-in-law’s safety, and my two kids’ safety, and she was also worried about our medical expenses,” Bars shares.

The cost of treatment for COVID-19 in the country weighs alarmingly around P1.312 million to P3.1 million, depending on the severity of the cases. It was also reported that the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation would compensate medical expenses to patients only until April 14, 2020.

Bars remembers how Lala gave her guidance and last will to their children staying at home and to him lying down beside her at the hospital room.

“Ang pinaka-comforter ko, ‘’Wag mo isipin ‘yon,’ kasi hindi ko rin ‘yon masabi positively. It’s so grave to imagine [her death], pero hindi ko na lang mine-mention. Pero hindi ko masabing, ‘Magkikita tayo ulit,’” he recounts.

Lala passed away at the age of 48.

Celebrations amid a pandemic

Approaching the first half of last year, the Datiles family has been in an ordeal compounded by losses and hospital bills, with a turbulent society as the backdrop. 

It was only during Mother’s Day, the day immediately after Lala’s passing, when they first experienced a sense of relief.

“Normally, kakain kami, lalabas kami [tuwing Mother’s Day]. This time, she finally came home,” says Bars, recounting the arrival of her urn. “Iyon ‘yung after all the stresses and the anxieties. ‘Yung ordeal namin since March, natapos noong May 10.”

An allotted space in the Datiles household for Lala and her belongings

Lala may have physically passed away, but her essence is immortalized by her family who allotted a tabletop for her urn and memorabilia.

All Souls’ Day was a novel experience for them because instead of visiting and bringing flowers to departed relatives in the cemetery — a typical Filipino family tradition — they held a mass for Lala in the confines of their own home.

Come Christmas season, their family would usually gather at their paternal grandmother’s house, together with several extended members of the family. But, nine months into the quarantine, the face-to-face December reunion of the Datiles clan was replaced by video calls.

Grappling with grief became even more challenging with the absence of physical contact from other loved ones. But Bars remarks a comforting prospect: “Extra special dahil andiyan lang siya sa bahay namin.

Coping and looking forward

As a figure in the house who now holds most of the responsibilities, Bars finds himself buried in chores, errands and home repairs. Doing these tasks keeps him busy, but it is also his own way of coping.

He also didn’t watch Korean dramas before, but the passing of Lala changed that. Bars discovers that most plots of Kdramas involve the passing of a wife, child or any other significant character.

“[Doon] ko nararamdaman na parang lahat ng situation, kami ‘yun ng asawa ko kasi buong buhay ko, naka-intertwine doon sa kanya,” he says.

For his daughter, the comfort of friends, titos, and titas offered respite. She was also assigned a counselor by her university to help process her family’s series of losses. For his son, silence and a state of recluse was his way of coping.

Encompassing all their narratives, however, was the outpour of love and support from friends and family, materialized into almost-everyday deliveries of relief goods and well-meaning messages.

As the new year unfolds, so will the graduation of the family’s eldest child around June. Bars, who experienced a hiatus in his work as a party stylist because of the lockdown, hopes to have more work this year. 

But, even with a variety of COVID-19 vaccines in sight, he believes that it will take more than six months before families can have safe reunions and celebrations, beyond phone and computer screens. 

This possibility is made more distant by the fact that no supply agreement with vaccine makers has yet been signed by the government, and that the schedule spewed by officials, signaling the start of vaccination programs, has actually been declared as tentative by the Department of Health. 

The Datiles family holding on to a chair where Lala would usually sit. / Photo by the Datiles family

The effect of the coronavirus is not simply a rise in figures; it bleeds through families across the nation, in many different ways and throughout an indefinite amount of time.

The pandemic might end, but for families like the Datileses, it can last lifetimes.

“Itong COVID na ‘to, rude awakening talaga na pwede ka palang makuha, and pwede palang mawala ‘yung loved ones mo nang ganoon lang, without regard for anything, age or economic status,” he says. “Kaya, habang buhay ka, be a good person to others kasi pag nawala ka, it’s how they will remember you.”

DISCLAIMER: All photos in this album were submitted to Tinig ng Plaridel for this release. TNP was granted permission to post-process and publish these photos on its social media accounts.

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