The gentle smile that’s no longer there

Lonely times.  Hard times.  Grief springs fresh anew.  My dear sister-in-law, Cecille Paco Pandes, passed yesterday, in Philippine time, September 12 at 2:49 in the afternoon.  This, a month after she lost her husband, my younger brother Albert, to cardiac arrest.  Cecille battled with pneumonia and succumbed to a collapsed lung.  Thirty minutes prior to a scheduled tracheotomy, she left this world.

She leaves a very devastated family that’s trying to comprehend the demise of two beloved parents (and grandparents) whose departures are just weeks apart.  The pain of grief is searing.  But it also bows our knees to a posture of prayer to the One Almighty God who knows the count of every hair on our head, every line in our palms, every sigh of our heart, and catches every tear that falls.  Only He knows where paths converge and diverge, how every life is lived, and where every purpose on earth peaks.  For these reasons, we trust Him, in His son Jesus, the fulfillment of the law and of love. We trust that our Lord has settled Cecille and Albert in His beautiful castle up in the heavenlies.

Still, grief knocks at the heart. 

As I sit in front of my laptop to compose a loving tribute for Cecille, and though I grapple with sorrow, happy and delightful thoughts come on the forefront of memories.  I share them with you in hopes of eliciting smiles or soft laughter, not to deny the tears, not to blow away the wind of grief, but to ride that wind in a grateful, victorious way – God’s comforting way.  

For decades, Cecille worked as a nurse in the Philippines and, for a few years, in Saudie Arabia.  But her higher and preferred profession was being a wife, a mother and grandmother to 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  Her nursing  knowledge and skills, however, served her family well in day-to-day routine care, but most especially when her husband Albert needed closer attention after his strokes.  Cecille was his caregiver.  When there were other caregivers who took shifts during the day and night, she still was the “major domo”.  If she was in an office situation, she would have been tagged a “micro manager”, but a very loving and efficient “micro manager”.

She enjoyed old romantic love songs.  She asked her grandson Jaja to download some old hits on the recorder.  The week I vacationed in their home in Las Pinas in January this year, I heard those songs 10 or 15 times every day, and she never tired of them.  Neither did I especially when I heard snippets of refrains sang from the kitchen or the dining room as she was preparing meals for the family.  To entertain her husband who was bed-ridden after his last stroke, she would raise the volume of the music and danced her disco moves in front of him.  She’d continue her jovial moves with no embarrassment according to her, not even when he lifted his good hand to his head and made twirling gestures with his index finger to teasingly indicate “loca”.  That made her laugh, but of course, that didn’t stop her.  Cutely sassy, in a delightful quirky way.

Taking a rest from her caregiving duties, she would sit herself on one side of the bed across her husband, cut pieces out of old blankets to hand stitch pillow cases.  She wanted to make more of those pillow covers so that he could have fresh ones every day.  Now, how did I know this?   She told me when I asked how she occupied herself during her rest periods.  The truth is, she devoted her rest periods to other chores.  Tireless and selfless.  A workaholic?  Maybe.

Even with house help, she would wake up the earliest in the morning to prepare breakfast for the family.  And breakfast was often heavy – rice, eggs, meat, bread, fruit, and beverage.  For the grandchildren, she would cook special dishes to tempt their appetite or satisfy their cravings.  A doting Grandma definitely.

Cecille and Albert always added fun to our trips to the provinces when I vacationed in the Philippines.  Albert was the master story teller with bags of tales and memories to share, many of them very, very funny.  He was a natural entertainer.  Cecille was the natural overseer making sure that everyone was comfortable or fed.  Of course, the first target of her notice was always her husband.  While Albert was the magnet for nephews and the young generation of male cousins congregating over a few bottles of San Miguel beer, Cecille was the checker ambling back and forth to make sure there weren’t too many bottles on the table.  And when she was the party host, she was most gracious and hospitable.

I remember how she and my other sister-in-law, Rorie (also a nurse), cared for me when I suddenly incurred a high fever at the Shangrila Makati (Manila) three years ago.  While the young ladies in our group were holding a bonding party in the suite next door, Cecille attended to me and made sure that I changed clothes every time I soaked in perspiration which happened frequently that night.  She called the concierge for medicine to lower my temperature.  The care I got was so good, that my fever disappeared next morning, and my appetite crept back.  With their grown children bonding with my daughter and other cousins in the next room, she and Rorie would occasionally check on the ladies and get back to me with funny reports.  The funny stories, and hearing abundant laughter next door must have quickened my recovery. Thank God — I needed that, for a hefty lunch at that fancy hotel the next day.  But even then, Cecille was constantly watching to ensure that I was really well.  A very dedicated nurse.

But aah, what I shall always remember are Cecille’s grace and skill on the dance floor.  In Naga, our group of relatives went ballroom dancing during one of our visits.  The few older seniors declined to get up from their seats and chose to be spectators.  But Cecille, lovely and nymph-like, worked some lively steps and patterns with a DI (dance instructor), expertly recalling the moves of her ballroom lessons of decades ago.  She was a dancing queen!

A beautiful woman with a big heart especially for her husband, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – and still a lot more of heart to spare for the bigger family and friends.  A God-fearing woman.  Her departure leaves a hole in many people’s lives, most especially for her daughters Hazel, Karen and son Chito and their families.

I’m sure her children have hundreds more of stories to tell about their Mommy.  Next time I get together with them, we shall have roast parties with comical stories and joyful memories of Cecille and Albert – a pair that continues to be love birds in God’s kingdom.  They’re home. May God grant them His perfect peace.

Linda P. Jacob

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