By Marivir R. Montebon
This is an excerpt of my book Biting the Big Apple: Memoirs of a Journalist Turned Immigrant. Sharing this piece in memory of the late Mario Auxilio, activist, husband, and father of my only child, who passed away by the assassin’s bullets on June 17, 2007, a Father’s Day. How do you heal old wounds? I keep the faith.
The sunny morning of June 17, 2007 felt like a foreboding. In my home in Cebu, where the air was crisp, I was inexplicably frightened. My heart was beating rather fast, and I knew that when I felt that way, it almost always meant something wrong is going on.
Our house was unusually quiet that Sunday, a Father’s Day. I was heading to the bathroom for a shower, but was surprised to see what seemed to be spilt, black, thick liquid on the floor.
I had to bend to look closely at what it was. It was a pool of huge black ants. Stationary ants. Goose bumps. That was odd, as the entire floor was clean of food crumbs, how can there be so many immobile ants? I made an effort to jump off so as not to disturb their congregation. It was rather eerie.
Just before I entered the bathroom, I received a text message from a friend, a doctor working in the neighboring city of Tagbilaran. “Vir, he has passed on. He didn’t make it to his scheduled surgery. I am sorry.” I couldn’t speak.
The man he was talking about was my estranged husband. His body was riddled by four bullets: one in the jaw, two in the thighs, and one in the arm on the night of June 17 in his hometown in Bien Unido, Bohol. His assassin, who was from the military, was regarded as a close and trusted friend. Mario Auxilio, then Secretary-General of the party list Bayan Muna, was gone.
The Bayan Muna (Nation First) is the largest political party under the party-list system in the Philippines. Since its inception, its leaders and members have become targets of political persecution by the government. Before becoming a leader in Bayan Muna, Mario organized and led many farmers and fisherfolk organizations in Cebu, Bohol, and other parts in my home country. He was one of the thousands of victims of arbitrary political killings in the Philippines during the regime of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
My first reaction was disbelief. This could not happen. He couldn’t die. Mario was able to go through all tough times – a self-supporting college student, a student activist since the time of the dictator President Marcos. He was incarcerated twice for helping farmers claim their land through the land reform law, and was kidnapped by military abductors in 2004. He should have passed this one, I thought.
My conversation with our doctor friend jolted me back to reality. He is gone. And there was so much work to do, there was so much forgiving to make in a marriage gone mad. It was too late for that now.
I had to tell my daughter Nikki, who was then 14 years old. For the first time, I was numb, still in disbelief that this had happened to me and my little family.
There in her room was our daughter, busy tinkering on her computer. I asked her to stop what she was doing and said, “Nak, daddy is gone. Come and let us say a prayer for him.”
We sat on her bed, covered by a purple Power Puff Girls bed sheet. I held her hand and asked her to remember what was best about her father. “He joked a lot. He cooked the best calamari. He was funny,” Nikki said in a delightful staccato expression. And all I had said, all I could have said to her back then was, “we never reached the time to forgive each other. And the failure of that marriage was because we never put God as our center. We thought we were too intelligent to manage it ourselves.”
Before I knew it, I burst into tears. And I apologized to Nikki for the pain we, as parents, may have inflicted on her. I was sorry she had to live in and witness an abusive marriage, I feared how that would impact her. And now, her father’s death.
We were crying as we prayed The Lord’s Prayer and vocally said, go in peace, Daddy.
Later during that day, news came out that Mario Auxilio was killed by a military man, a bosom friend, whom he had rivaled in a love interest for a woman. I thought that news was a lame military excuse for a political persecution. Despite our differences, I knew my husband better.
Mario had a burial befitting a hero. In fact, it was so much like in the movies where ordinary townsfolk – rural women and men and dusky-skinned children and teenagers – would personally grieve and fall in long queues to view his remains in a white coffin.
As the huge truck that carried his casket passed by, the kids, some wearing rubber slippers and some barefoot, lining the narrow foot paths of the hills which Mario had helped establish raised clenched fists, as a sign for the quest for justice.
The Church of St. Isidore, the Laborer was filled to the brim for Mario’s requiem mass at the town center of Trinidad. In my eulogy, I said Mario would have preferred to die this way, by the assasin’s bullet than by the complications of his diabetes.
Five years since his death, the assassin remains at large. And the prosecution of his murder case has gathered dust in the office of the Provincial Prosecutor. The number of people killed in the name of politics has increased alarmingly across the entire country.
I couldn’t expect anything worse than that. Justice delayed is justice denied. To this date, I keep faith.
Three months after my husband’s death, I decided to fly to the US. I left Nikki behind to the care of my sister Joana and our father. At that time, the Philippines ranked second to war-torn Iraq with the second largest number of journalists who were slain in the line of duty. (The featured picture is Leani and her father in “their kind of dance” which makes me really laugh like crazy.)