I have long entertained a fantasy about icons: namely, that they have nerves of steel, and are predisposed to triumph above every situation. In that sense they become superhuman almost. I also know they are the most difficult to write about. Not because there are not enough words to weave into a story about the fabric of their life but mainly because there are practically no more left still waiting to be told.
In her well-documented, much publicized famous life, where do I even begin to tell a story about this icon? Mention Rosa Rosal’s name and soft, nourishing feelings of the misty kind immediately rise to the surface. You see red, literally and figuratively, because you cannot help but simultaneously associate her with the Red Cross. It is practically attached to her hip as if she came out of her mother’s womb with it. Tita Rose breathes it, lives it, loves it; she has, for 60 years now, and still counting. Where most others can only hope to forge the beginnings of what they can call a legacy, Tita Rose has already carved hers in stone. Where others simply live, Rosa Rosal lives and inspires. Allow yourself to share a space with her and you leave her presence gently infected with that kind of quiet resolve that makes you want to grab life by the horns and live a life of purpose.
A disclaimer: This piece is not about her life in the Blood Services of The Philippine National Red Cross. That has been written about countless times, although even a hundred more features on that will still not be enough in terms of giving credit where credit is due. When it comes to icons, we unconsciously forget that they did not just become that overnight. They too had to journey to that point. Today, I simply seek to give you a glimpse of the woman, the mother, the wife, behind the legend. This is, very simply now, a story of how every rose, no matter how beautiful, has its thorns.
From a 78-year-old you would want to hear about regrets. Tita Rose is at that age where she can afford to look back at her life objectively, gather clumps of memories to her bosom, and size it up with eyes coated in wisdom. Are there any? “None,” she says very simply and clearly. Have you known pain, I ask. “I’ve had many,” she answers, just as simply and matter-of-factly.
It is poignant what humans are wired to remember. The sharpest recollections come with the most mundane of details, those seemingly insignificant things that, as it happens you think you will promptly forget. Time will eventually tell that you did not, will not, cannot. As such, the memory becomes more poignant, bruised even, and somewhat strangely, so much more to the one listening than the one narrating.
“I was married for five days only,” she says bravely, with none of the sadness, much less bitterness, she has every right to still feel. “He looked like Clark Gable, this American-Polish man who was a very good pilot. His name was Walter Gayda. We met in Hong Kong. I had long black hair and a 22-inch waistline. After three months of courtship, we got married. I was 28, he was 15 years older.”
If the name of the church was a portent of things to come, then the union was doomed from the start. They wed at the church of Our Lady of Sorrows. No invites were sent out, only phone calls were made. But Rosa Rosal was already a big star then and her celebrity ensured that the church was packed to the brim. She remembers a statue falling because of the crowd that had gathered. “It was a bad omen,” she says, shaking her head.
When Walter Gayda saw the crowd, he turned to his very new bride and told her, “I will take you to Hawaii.” They honeymooned at the Bayview Hotel and flew out after one day. As the plane hovered over the landing strip in Hawaii they looked out their plane window, wondering why there were photographers waiting. For whom, the newlyweds wondered. As it turned out, the press people were looking out for her. This displeased Walter Gayda all over again, although his new bride had yet to find out just how much.
As we talk, Tita Rose gives more random details of her very brief marriage. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was a TV guesting while we were there. I remember going back to the hotel after appearing on the show and he was very, very cold. I could not understand where that coldness was coming from. The next day, I woke up early. I looked for Walter because we were going to have breakfast together, or so I thought. His friend went up to me and said, “Rose, pack your bags. Don’t call him anymore, he has left you.”
She did not share any details right after that brutal conversation with her husband’s friend. As I write this, I now wonder how she took the news, how she dealt with it, how she managed to put one foot in front of the other until she was able to flee back to the comfort of the life she knew and the family she had in the Philippines. I was too stunned to ask. I was trying to digest how a new bride could grapple with the range of emotions — there was the high of the wedding, and then… nothing. There was practically no honeymoon to speak of. Five days. Imagine that. She continues: “I went home to the Philippines and my mother asked me, ‘Asan asawa mo?’ ‘Ewan ko.’ ‘Paanong ewan mo?’ Basta ewan ko, nawala nalang siya.’ Tita Rose pauses after saying this. We are both silent. I cannot imagine that kind of pain.
“Shortly after that I discovered I was pregnant.” She remembers throwing up from the first month all the way to her ninth month, no husband beside her, just the mother she adored very much. Many years later, the death of her beloved mother would account for another great sorrow altogether. She was in and out of the hospital for 30 years, and Tita Rose doted on her devotedly until her last breath.
Her daughter Toni Rose would prove to be a source of much joy. But how did you tell her about her Daddy, I asked. “When she was little she never asked, so I never told her anything. But she was growing up fast, so I reached a point when I had to figure out how to break the news to her. Every playtime, every bonding time we had, I would tell her a story about a little girl whose father left her. Toni Rose would ask, ‘How is that mommy now?’ or ‘How is that little girl?’ They are both okay, I would answer. This went on for some time. When she was seven years old, I told her, ‘Toni, remember that little girl in the story I always tell? That little girl is you. And that mommy is me.’ She just hugged me. And that was it. Life went on.”
But God is indeed wise. For all her pains, He blessed Tita Rose with a daughter destined to be funny. Everybody in showbiz knows how hilarious Toni Rose can be, her many stories are the stuff great comedies are made of and will make for a comical read in a series of articles one day. She is her own show. Tita Rose recalls chuckling how she once tugged her toddler along on a bloodletting trip. When she saw a goat, she just had to stop. “Mommy, please, can I talk to the goat?” What did you do, I ask. “Ay, e di I allowed her to talk to the goat.” She would wait patiently until Toni Rose was done with her conversation with the animal. This was the case with cats and rabbits and a pig, too. She treated them like playmates. “Before her seventh birthday I bought a pig. I did not know that Toni had made friends with the pig. On her birthday, she woke up and saw that the pig already had an apple in its mouth. She would not stop crying. “I thought you brought home that pig so it could be my pet!” she wailed to her mom.
Just the other day, Toni said she wanted her mom to tell President Noy to appoint her as caretaker of the zoo. We laugh together, Tita Rose and I, and I ask her where Toni gets hers funny bones. She thinks for a while and says “Ewan ko. Siya lang talaga yun.” During one of those times they appeared together on The Sweet Life, Toni shared that she has a dog named Fiona, a chihuahua, so poised and regal that she actually looks like Tita Rose. “Pareho sila maliit mukha, pareho sila ng profile!’ she says happily. Tita Rose quickly agrees, smiling indulgently beside Toni Rose’s hilarious pronouncements, perhaps to humor the daughter who loves pets so very much. The studio audience couldn’t stop laughing. When I ask how this dog is now, Tita Rose answers “Ay, maganda yung aso na yun. But,” she continues rather morosely, “she does not look like me anymore because Fiona gained so much weight after giving birth. I am still slim.” Tita Rose has no idea she is funny, too. The fruit, after all, really does not fall too far from the tree.
A woman, once she becomes a wife and mother, is resilient. And any window of opportunity to make things right she will grab in a heartbeat. When it comes to keeping it all together, hope springs eternal. Tita Rose shares: “One day before I gave birth, through the efforts of Chino Roces, Walter came back. I saw him the day before I gave birth. Three days after, I remember it was raining very hard, I went out to see him in his hotel. My mom told me, ‘You just gave birth and it is raining very hard…’ I said to my mother, ‘No, my place is with my husband.’”
“I really thought he had plans of taking me and Toni with him. When I got there, they would not let me in. Apparently, he was with a woman in his hotel room. When we finally got to talk I told him, ‘Please give our marriage a chance. You can have the women you like, just make sure Toni knows her father.’ He looked at me and told me he could not take my fame, it overwhelmed him how people always praised me to him.” He summed it all up by saying, ‘I do not want to be known as Mr. Rosa Rosal.’”
After a deafening silence, I asked Tita Rose: “Where is he now?”
“Ay, patay na, thank God,” she said with good humor. And then she grinned and told me, “You can write that I really said that.”
Being the great beauty that she was, she never lacked for admirers. But “I closed my doors on love. I had enough money. I did not need a man. There is happiness without a man. I am blessed to have the Red Cross. All my life I have never been a threat to any woman, Lucy. I always got things done cleanly, without having to flirt or use body language.”
Was she ever bitter? “For a while I was. After all, I could not understand why! I was always a good girl, I was never wild, I was not anybody’s mistress, why this? Why me? I was sad, I was pained, but I also knew I had to live for my child.” This she said all in one breath, transporting herself back to that time when, being the obedient girl she always was, she just had to do what she had to do. “I moved on with my life. And then the Red Cross came. I got so involved in the cause I did not have time to feel bad about my life anymore.”
Her eyes glinting with wisdom and grace, she states: “But I’ve always had this attitude of great surrender. I may look strong, but deep inside, I am always crying. But I never question Him. I have a very personal relationship with God. I talk to Him out loud. When I wake up I commit my day to Him. At night I have a one-on-one with Him. My faith is very important to me. I know that without God I am nothing.
“I’ve had many other sorrows. I was depressed when Toni Rose got separated. In my heart I knew it (the union of Toni Rose and her then husband Moonie Lim) was wrong. But she was blessed with a great father-in-law. Ed Lim was a wonderful, wonderful man. Every day I cry when I see the poor people who flock to the Red Cross. My heart goes out to them. At this point, her voice falters and tears well up in her still-beautiful eyes. “When my grandson James died March 19 of this year, my heart broke into a million pieces. Up to now, I have not recovered. That is why I go to the Red Cross every day, I need to be busy to get my mind off it.” It is easy to see that in the same way she has been a refuge, a source of much comfort, a solution to the pain for the people who flock to her in the Red Cross, that very place has also always been a sanctuary for her. Life can be beautiful, and mysterious, that way.
When you talk to Tita Rose you move from tears to laughter and back again, and you somehow emerge from even the quickest of conversations with her not quite the same person anymore.
Yes, I have long entertained a fantasy about icons: namely, that they have nerves of steel, and are predisposed to triumph above every situation. I now know I give them way too much credit. They may have nerves of steel and they may graciously triumph above every situation, but they are not necessarily spared the wounds that have afforded them the chance to do just that. They do not have it easier than the rest of mankind. Tossed in their basket are bundled joys alongside requisite pains. That they manage to shine like diamonds in the dust is arguably neither just a matter of choice or chance; simply put, maybe destiny was on their side like a birthright. This iconic Rose, beautiful inside out, was born not without thorns. But even in her suffering she was able to find joy by choosing to live a life for others.