PERSONAL ESSAY: Donna Amoroso
by Rufa Cagoco-Guiam
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
-Mary Frye, date unknown
Donna Amoroso and I were introduced to each other long before we met in person. Her husband, Patrico “Jojo” Abinales, a long time friend and associate in doing Mindanao studies, had mentioned her to me several times. I knew that Jojo was quite fortunate to have met his match – in intellectual pursuits, in music, in art, in films. Meeting her, and staying with them in their home in Tokyo and in Yokohama was for me a distinct privilege of having been up close and personal with two great scholars, as far as Philippine, Malaysian and Southeast Asian studies are concerned. Everyday interaction in the Donna-Jojo household was always a delightful intellectual exercise, sparked most of the time with Donna’s smart remarks as counterfoil to Jojo’s verbal antics.
But it was Donna’s gentle but firm maternal ways that really struck me. As a mother myself, I could relate to Donna’s oft-repeated concerns about raising a headstrong daughter: trying to find the “best” ways for disciplining without being too harsh, balancing love with firm grips on constant and consistent “rules of engagement.” We shared all these concerns over our breakfast coffee in Yokohama, or when we were cooking some Filipino vegetable dishes, like pinakbet (stir fried assorted tropical vegetables, traditionally cooked in fish sauce) and adobong kangkong, (stir-fried leafy vegetables, cooked in a combination of vinegar and soy sauce) which she relished so much.
Like the scholar that she was, she always brought a pen and a notebook in front of the stove and recorded all the things I did to cook a certain dish. She said she wanted to know in detail the “secrets” of my cooking so she could replicate the taste of the dish when she cooks it! But it was not only in cooking where she showed her scholarly attitude. With a special maternal pride, she showed me her small books about Angela after she and Jojo first got her: Angela’s first English words, which later on proved to be unwieldy because of the speed of Angela’s progress in speaking English; Angela’s many “firsts” . All these she recorded painstakingly, in handwriting, in different small notebooks.
In late 2008, Donna was diagnosed to have Stage 1 breast cancer (this was in Japan, but actually it was Stage 3 already, according to her doctor in the US). It came as a shock to me, since at that time I was just recovering from grieving over the death of my only brother – also to another type of cancer- that of the liver. My brother was only 48 when he died, and Donna was also of the same age at that time. She immediately asked me, “Maybe I will go too, at this age?” I argued that my brother had an unhealthy lifestyle since he was a teen-ager and his cancer was discovered when it was at its terminal stage, when there was no turning back. I told her in the most reassuring way that I could, that she was far so healthy than my brother was, and except for the cancer, she was otherwise a very healthy person. She could very well lick it, like all other women cancer survivors I know, I told her.
With my stay in Japan about to end, I had to bid goodbye to Jojo, Donna and Angela, in January 2009. Little did I expect that it would be my last physical interaction with Donna, whom I have considered not only as a friend, but also a part of my extended family. Despite the distance, Jojo, Donna and I continued our interaction thru e-mail, and Jojo once visited my home in Mindanao early last year. Jojo had shared that Donna was fast recovering through a combination of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and he never indicated any possibility of relapse. When Donna knew I would be a paper presenter in the forthcoming AAAS conference in Honolulu this March, she immediately wrote to invite me to go to Washington DC to visit them there.
So it was a tremendous shock to me when I got news of Donna’s passing. It was even sadder to note that it was not cancer that got her, it was something unexplainable – like a lighted candle burning the last part of its wick, or a power switched turned off. It was like her life force was just gently removed from her body. Looking back, it was typical of her: to go quietly, gently into the night, without much ado, but with light shining bright, like the “soft stars that shine…”
Donna will forever be etched in many people’s hearts, including mine, and I am fortunate to have been touched, albeit briefly, by Donna’s sincerity, honesty, sweet and gentle ways. Deep friendship is not measured by the number of years as friends – I think it is the quality of interaction that defines one’s kinship with another person. And I am lucky to have enjoyed that with Donna.
Farewell, Donna…you will forever be missed…But I will always remember you are still around, in the rain, in the gentle wind, in the soft stars that I see at night, wherever I am… (Prof. Rufa Cagoco-Guiam is director of the Center for Peace and Development Studies at the Mindanao State University in General Santos City)