Where is God when it hurts this much?

I have asked myself that question too many times this week. There are no words to describe how terribly sad this all is, really, and when we are asked how we are all coping I can only mumble that our hearts are broken. It literally feels that way. And even that is saying the very least. “The King of French Exits,” as we sometimes called him, did just that even in death. He did not want to interrupt us, he went quietly without a fuss. There we were laughing and living, gaily going through life as we knew it, and in a heartbeat he was gone. Just like that. He never said goodbye.

It was a beautiful California morning, and Richard and I were in San Francisco. It was a little after lunch and Richard had just bought me lovely flowers from a sidewalk vendor — yellow roses, fragrant and dewy with big, velvety petals. When the call came, immediately the sun stopped shining. The flowers in my hand suddenly looked sad and lonely. And the balmy weather felt even colder, even that early in the day.

Everything was a blur from that point. There was this strange, scary silence that felt so unfamiliar but so right. Richard and I went on auto-pilot mode practically at the same time, doing what we could do, given the distance. There were many, many calls to and from Manila. Decisions to be quickly made. But none could change the fact that Douglas Quijano — Tito Dougs to me — had breathed his last in the very new home he so loved in Lucban, Quezon.

It must have been a major heart attack. I’d like to believe it was quick, and that he did not suffer more than he had to; please, someone tell me it was only a few minutes of pain at the most. He was always a shocker — he would constantly shock you with good news, with the truth, with the real deal behind the greatest showbiz scandals, with surprises, with smart solutions. True to form, he shocked me, and for that matter everyone else who knew him, with his death.

I don’t know exactly how we got to the Fisherman’s Wharf, but what once was a beautiful, cozy place now felt hollow and dreary and impersonal. It felt very much like being in a strange space in a strange time. San Francisco was now just a city of random shapes, blurring together in blobs here and there. Life had just left whatever remained of the day. The only thing that made sense was the movie in my mind — the many memories of Tito Dougs that shifted like fine sand in very rapid sequence. We hardly spoke a word to each other, Richard and I, and the three others with us pretty much just spoke in syllables, too. We all knew Tito Dougs very well.

Beside me, I could almost touch my husband’s pain. I saw it in his eyes, in the way his hands shook ever so slightly with every call, the way he clenched his jaw, the way he angrily chewed the cherries. I felt it in his catatonic silence. Tito Dougs was like a father to Richard, for all of 25 years. We ordered cups and bowls of clam chowder and it was only after my first spoonful that the tears finally came, falling into my soup. It felt, looked and tasted like paste, but I kept eating it just the same. It was better than doing nothing.

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All we wanted to do was go home and be with Tito Dougs, but no flight could be booked. And we had commitments to fulfill. It was the most difficult thing I had to do to date, work-wise: having to bravely smile and sign autographs at the GMA Pinoy TV booth when grief could have very well been my name. Richard tried to be the braver one, maybe because I was always crumbling like a cookie beside him, and to a certain degree he succeeded at looking and acting okay, but once the people were gone he withdrew into himself. We had a conversation of sighs and deep breaths, just holding on to each other but not knowing what to say. The distance adding all the more to the pain, all we could do was grieve, albeit in very different ways. I cried while walking through the aisles in Safeway, not in the least way bothered by the fact that strangers were looking at me.

At a certain point I could feel we both wanted to be angry at someone, anyone, for what happened. But at who? What? Tito Dougs? That his heart stopped beating? That he did not take better care of himself? That he ate too much of the good stuff? The moment our commitments were fulfilled, two seats opened up and we flew home.

I remember my first trip to San Francisco as a fairly new bride, Tito Dougs was with us. We spent a whole morning together in the wharf. I was in a yellow sweater and he took wonderful photographs of me near the loveliest fruits. I remember my first TV interview as Richard’s bride-to-be, with Butch Francisco and Cristy Fermin on Showbiz Lingo — while I shook and whispered and stammered my way through it, Tito Dougs was looking on and smiling his kind smile, encouraging me to just relax and speak Tagalog as much as I possibly could. When I had to meet the press, when I reported to the set of Richard Loves Lucy for my first taping day, when I had to shop for Christmas presents, all the business meetings I attended and all the contracts I signed, he was there beside me.

Eleven years ago I was just so scared of the showbiz world because it was often presented in a nasty way. But in hindsight it is not so bad, really. An industry is only so bad as the people in it and, yes, there are a handful of decent people in entertainment. Tito Dougs was one of the few. Because I had him to lean on, because I had him to guide my every step, there was nothing to be frightened of. Showbiz was a kinder place because of him. How one person can make such a difference.

You could tell Tito Dougs anything, even way beyond the professional, and he would listen quietly and thoughtfully, at any time of the day. When you were done speaking, he would share his take on things. I prefer to call it wisdom, the kind that only comes with time and experience.

I would call him after I successfully baked a cookie or tried a cake recipe, share with him the funny new things Juliana would say or do. I loved hearing him chuckle, his laughter came in waves; the funnier the story got and the harder he laughed. He was a cross between Buddha and a teddy bear; there was something nurturing and fatherly about him that went beyond his lovable roundness and white hair.

Now, I am not saying he was a saint because he could be fierce when he had to, especially when it came to protecting and defending the people he loved. He was like a mother hen, always looking out for our welfare. He had a wonderful work ethic, and honored his word even if a better offer came along. Naturally, he expected the same thing from those he dealt with.

He loved art and travel and music and Lucban was his happy place. He often said he wanted to retire and die there.

We felt so helpless, Richard and I, hearing the news so far away. All we could do was grieve, and when the sting became too much to bear we would get on the phone with his other wards and close friends, our siblings all — all of us brothers and sisters in that we loved Tito Dougs — and weep. I would be with Marilen on one line, both of us barely talking, just sobbing. John would be beside her and I could hear him wailing on the phone to Richard who was in turn beside me, his eyes tearing up and his body trembling.

Tito Dougs knew each one of us like a good father knew his children. We could call him up anytime of the day or night and he never made us feel we were intruding, or that our call was unwelcome. And if he said he would call back, he always would.

Whenever there was something troubling or puzzling me, it was always easy for me to say “I will figure this all out, everything will all make sense, after I talk to Tito Dougs.” Knowing he was always around was assurance enough. He was very supportive of my writing, and would remind me never to miss a deadline, unless I really had to, because it was something I might get used to. When stage fright would get the best of me, he would say “Kaya mo yan, even if you make a mistake no one will know.” He was a voice of reason when none could be heard, he would inject humor just when you thought none could be found. Timing was his forte; maybe that is why he succeeded in all his endeavors.

Let me share with you a favorite story about Tito Dougs. He was attending his high school graduation, and the students all had to wear ties. He noticed that a classmate of his had no tie’ — his parents could not afford one — so Tito Dougs ran all the way back home and arrived just in the nick of time to hand his classmate a spare tie. They never saw each other again, but many years later, when Tito Dougs was a writer and starting in showbiz as a manager he encountered some financial trouble. He could not pay some of his utility bills. If I remember the story correctly, it was his electric bill that mysteriously stayed connected for months despite his nonpayment. It turns out the person in charge of collection always managed to put his bill under a heap of unpaid others, extending his grace period until he was able to get back on his feet. That kind man turned out to be the same classmate he had given a necktie to many years back. He later reminded Tito Dougs of this during a phone conversation.

The eulogies and tributes have been pouring in at chapels 7,8,9 and 10 of Heritage Park the whole week. In that sense, Tito Dougs, your death really is a celebration of your life: the legacy of kindness and generosity that you left behind. When we lay you to rest, after all the people and the flowers are gone, how do we move on? In the days to come, we will feel your loss in its full measure. I dread that. There will be many lonely days without you ahead, but in some strange way I welcome it. Because if pain is the only way I can feel you now that you’re gone, then I’d rather have that than nothing of you at all.

Today is Father’s Day. How bittersweet that I now write about all that you are and all that you mean to us in the past tense. Please know that your memories will live on, in the many people whose lives you have touched. Please know also that despite all that I do not quite accept or understand at the moment, one day, I believe God will fill with something beautiful that space that, for now, just hurts so much. And when that happens maybe then I will also be able to forgive you for not saying goodbye.

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