TALA in the Sky of Diamonds

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 12 January) — At around half past one of a gray, wet, and cool Davao Friday afternoon, the small convoy of cars trailing after two motorcycle cops and a Cosmopolitan funeral wagon pulled into the driveway of Chapel 2 of the Davao Memorial Park. From behind the opened back of the wagon was gently lifted the remains of Davao’s grande dame of literature, Marciana Tita Agcaoili Lacambra Ayala or TALA, and placed on a simple trolley bed that was slowly wheeled toward the altar. She was wrapped in a white blanket with only her gnarly hands and her head in brown fedora hat showing. Her ancient patrician face glowed with a calmness of consent when two nights ago—exactly a week after her eighty-eighth birthday—death came while her children and grandchildren sang around her bed in a private room at the Davao Doctors Hospital. At the foot of the altar where Fr. Denny of Ateneo de Davao University and a few relatives and friends stood by, the blanket was unfolded. It showed a Tita ready to set off for a walk—but perpendicularly to us all.

Tita Lacambra-Ayala, also known as TALA (Tita Agcaoili Lacambra-Ayala). Poet. Visual artist. Literary icon. The Davao Writers Guild posted on its FB page this photograph taken by Crest Contrata of UP Mindanao during the launch of Davao Harvest 3 at Casa Leticia Hotel on November 18, 2018

The news of the event came to me only that morning. Lia Lopez Chua, Tita’s longtime poet friend since the Davao Harvest and Road Map Series days, texted me the time and place of the blessing and cremation. She was also the one who informed me in the first week of December last year that Tita was in the hospital due to a bad fall that fractured her hip and fragmented some bones. I visited Tita on the day of her operation and we talked about the Road Map Series and other book projects. News of the successful operation reached me immediately after. Nearly two weeks later, I was told she was in the ICU because of fluid build-up in her lung and other complications. I visited her at once and became worried when I saw her strapped down on her bed by a web of small plastic tubes from all sorts of bottles and machines around her. I visited her on her birthday, but things had clearly taken a turn for the worse by then and the family was preparing for the inevitable conclusion that eventually came a week later.

Family and friends gathered around Tita, and daughter Cynthia Alexander started the singing with “Amazing Grace.” More oldies songs followed, apparently Tita’s favorites, until in the middle of “Moon River” the singing was helped by the sound of a guitar in the hands of son Joey who had just arrived with his family. More songs with guitar accompaniment this time were sung by the group. When Joey’s own “Walang Hanggang Paalam” ended, Fr. Denny took the cue. He was, however, so affected by what was happening before him that he had to struggle with himself for some moments as he haltingly started and continued with the blessing for Tita.

The singing resumed as one by one everyone who was there started to blanket Tita’s body with the flowers they picked from the bunches brought from Bankerohan earlier that day by Cynthia with Lia. Tita looked a veritable Ophelia streaming into the waters of deathless creation.

We clapped for her thanking her for whatever reasons there were in each one of us to thank her for.

Tita Agcaoili Lacambra-Ayala rejoined the beginning of a vast creation that has no end. Photo by RICARDO M. DE UNGRIA

Her body was then wheeled into the cremation room behind the altar. As the furnace lid was opened, I heard Joey thanking her loudly with some passwords for moments of worlds of wonder Tita might have opened for him and his siblings. And finally, to the strains of Ravel’s “Bolero” from the amplified cellphone of granddaughter Vida Ko Rodriquez, the remains of Tita on a cardboard crib entered the chamber and TALA rejoined the beginning of a vast creation that has no end.

It was a simple and beautiful unplanned sendoff befitting an artist who improvised her art with and on materials at hand, renewing the meaning of the ordinary and forgettable from an unexpected angle of vision and offbeat tilt of mind. A woman who lived her life simply yet fully because beauty is in the simple and the uncommon everyday, and who gave so much of herself in whatever she said so skewedly and concisely, she continues to shine on as an ember in every one of us who has been a part of her quiet maverick life.

(Poet Ricardo M. de Ungria moved to Davao City in 1999 as the first dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences of the then newly-established University of the Philippines Mindanao. He served as Chancellor from 2001 to 2007. He is finishing his second book of interviews with Mindanao writers).