CHAPTER 1. Ditas Lichauco: Will I die?
She lay in the hospital bed in Makati Med November 18, after suffering a lung infection, and as she struggled to clear her voice, she wrote down: Will I die? Her family suppressed their sobs, and her mother edged closer and whispered again and again, “I love you, Ditas, I love you.”
Ditas Lichauco is my sister-in-law, the kid sister of my late wife, 9 years her junior, the youngest sibling among four daughters: Helen (Small) the eldest who is a super-secretary and world traveler; my wife Cecilia (Henares), wife and businesswoman; and Luisa Lichauco, the nun, now Sister Marissa of Maryknoll.
I remember the first time I saw Ditas, to be exact, August 23, 1945 on the 15th birthday of her sister Luisa. She was only 8 years old, a spunky lively child running through a garden of flowers with the wind caressing her hair. Cecilia, her sister, only 17 years old, the most beautiful of all the sisters, so tall she was tapped to play basketball in school, a swimmer with long legs and beautiful body – was just shot during the Battle of Manila, her right leg amputated. And their mother Emma Roensch Lichauco, a young matron who is half-German, dazed with the weight of responsibility and numbed by quiet desperation.
Ditas who came late into the family almost as an afterthought, was inseparable from her mother. From Day One, they slept together in the same bed, to the frustration of her husband Tommy Lichauco and the mild jealousy of her siblings.
The first time they were separated in 1946, Ditas was nine, clinging tearfully and hysterically to her mother’s skirts as Emma tore away herself away to bring the other sister Cecilia to the USA for treatment of her amputated leg, for a college education, and to fulfill her destiny as my love and fiancee.
A year later, in August 1947, Emma the mother came back to her Ditas, bringing a big red apple for pasalubong. A few months later in February of 1948, Ditas was stricken with poliomyelitis, then called infantile paralysis, now called polio, an extremely contagious disease that also afflicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt who survived to serve 4 terms as US president, and the son of Dr. Agerico A.B.M. Sison, who died. For years Emma would be haunted by the thought that it was the apple she brought that caused the disease.
The lethal disease was eventually controlled with the development of the Salk vaccine in 1953. But in 1948, 11-year old Ditas Lichauco was paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a borrowed iron lung for months, struggling for survival, and bathed by hands inserted into rubber gloves inside the machine. Here started the respiratory ailments that plagued her weak lungs all the rest of her life. Her uncle Marcial Lichauco was able to get her and her mother shipline tickets to USA for further treatment. And back in the Philippines in 1951, Ditas, confined to a wheel chair just as Cecilia my wife hobbled around on a cane, began a good and useful life as an expert bridge player, fabulous cook, church devotee, charity worker, a choir singer, patron of Earth Day and the St. Francis sunrise mass, bringing love and good cheer, with a smile and a song, to her friends and family, especially to my children and grandchildren,
On November 23, 1999, after a lifetime of pain and discomfort, after a lifetime of bringing sunshine and happiness to others, 4 days shy of her 63rd birthday, Ditas lay in her hospital bed dying of a heart attack. Will I die? she asked.
Of course, my darling Ditas, of course. Die and live again, shed that ravaged, withered body wracked with pain, shuffle off that mortal coil that’s been your prison for a lifetime, and live again, free at last to run with your sister Cecilia, through the gardens of the Lord, with the wind caressing your hair.
December 13, 1999, Philippine Post