Remembering Sec. Jesse

It was such sorrowful news. I remember being seated at a very long table where we were celebrating what was a very happy occasion — the wedding of sweethearts who were finally tying the knot after 15 years of being together — and then suddenly being hit by the news that Sec. Jesse Robredo and two other pilots were missing after their small plane had crashed somewhere in Masbate.

The bodyguard/aide had survived. We felt good about that bit. If the bodyguard had survived, then there was every hope the others would, too. A hush had fallen over the entire room by then, one that in the succeeding days would grip the entire nation in a roller-coaster ride of, first, hoping and praying and believing in miracles, and when that did not bring Sec. Jesse and the two pilots back, a mournful acceptance — closure, if you can call it that — when his body was finally retrieved (the other two bodies would be retrieved a few days later).

As his daughter Aika had said early on when everything was so uncertain, their family was trying to “manage their expectations.” Those days he was missing afforded a grieving nation and the families of the two pilots a chance to do exactly the same.

Like a legend, I first heard of Sec. Jesse long before I actually met him. During the campaign season of 2010, his name and that of Rep. Jun Abaya were always mentioned as the go-to guys in the Liberal Party. There was nothing they did not/could not address. As neophyte representatives, a bunch of us were sent to Tagaytay Highlands for a series of workshops and Sec. Jesse was one of the most awaited speakers. Long before he actually took the floor, we neophytes already knew that he was the poster boy for good governance. He was pleasant, spoke matter-of-factly, and smiled a lot. My first impression was that he was a pensive man.

It wasn’t long before I had every reason to call on Sec. Jesse. When I first assumed office I only had one mayor as an ally. There were lots of irritants in the system, many things I did not know, local officials who refused to cooperate for the simple reason that we belonged to different political parties. Sec. Jesse was the man for the job. He would allow me to vent and be the emotional-public-servant-faced-with-a-frustrating-situation-trying-to-find-my-way-in-the-maze-of-politics, and then he would calmly point me in the direction I must pursue — the voice of wisdom and reason and experience. He had leadership and decency all at once, he was tough but fair. With him , you knew there was no double-talk, no games. He was not a player in the sense that he wanted to be on everybody’s good side; when he took a stand, he took a stand. My interactions with Sec. Jesse were mostly done over the phone, I met with him formally (by that I mean I asked for an appointment) at his office once, spoke to him face-to-face during budget hearings in the House, but the bulk of it really was via phone calls or text messaging.

In hindsight, what I appreciated most about Sec. Jesse, especially from the perspective of a neophyte, was that he was always so accessible. He obviously had to carry a multitude of problems coming from all corners of the entire nation, but not once did he make me feel that my concerns were too petty or parochial, even if they probably were from his more experienced viewpoint. With him, you always felt the genuine concern for a party mate. You were not just a statistic in his day; yours was actually a concern he would do his best to help address and solve, immediately. No phone call made to him was ever left unanswered or not returned; every text message sent was always acknowledged and/or replied to. In this day and age, that is a rarity. In this day and age, it is appreciated a hundredfold.

Now I am just one of the countless many he treated like a real human being. And that is evidenced by the outpouring of love we witnessed over the past week — a nation, distressed over the loss of a great yet humble leader; a nation, thankful that even if ever so briefly the light of this great leader’s life was upon us all. I always say that in life, it is easy to program people’s reactions towards you. But in death, you are no longer around to control that. The reaction is always raw, spontaneous. In death, the sum of who you were, as you lived your life, rises to the surface, borne in the recollections of the people you knew and who knew you. The real you is laid out in the daylight. Sec. Jesse had a sendoff fit for a king. He was loved and respected in life and in death, and rightfully so. He deserved every bit of that.

The signs of a good man gone from us forever were all there — the crowd that wore their hearts on their sleeves, the four strong and beautiful women he left behind (his wife, Atty. Leni, and daughters Aika, Tricia, and Jillian), the massive support afforded by the president and his men to the search-and-rescue/retrieval efforts and then, the state funeral, the yellow ribbons, the many stories and features, the long sighs and tearful goodbyes. Yes, his was a life well lived.

During his funeral, the choir sang beautifully I’ll be Seeing You as his flag-covered casket was brought out of the Basilica Minore de Nuestra Senora de Peñafrancia in Naga for the 21-gun salute. The president and his cabinet came in full force. Government officials from all over the country were there. Even the biggest and bravest of men had tears in their eyes. It was painful, watching Atty. Leni and the three girls and wondering how life would be like for them in the coming days, months, and years. But then God will take care of that for sure. Their strength, courage, and grace were as admirable as it was palpable. The funeral felt more like a celebration of his life than a painful closure of what will always be a great loss, which is the way we hope all funerals should be. There were less tears — not as much as the first few days after the crash, at least — but in its stead was this quiet, if painful, acceptance of what cannot be changed anymore.

Sec. Jesse is gone. The kind of man you see in such movies as Braveheart (William Wallace), Lord of the Rings (Aragorn) and Game of Thrones (Ned Stark) is gone. Thank you, Sec. Jesse. Rest in peace.  Heaven is your greatest reward for a life well lived. May your legacy live on.


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