At a meeting last month between a breast cancer patient, her parents and other close family members, and her team of doctors, the oncologist called the malignancy a “blessing.” The term would presumably lend a positive perspective, and that hopeful attitude could help fight cancer, which tends to thrive on stress and despondency.
An unyielding joyful outlook helped keep another sufferer, this writer’s cousin Joji, alive for the full six years, which physicians said she had to live after malignancies were found in her colon. This week the “blessing” of wayward cell growth claimed Joji’s life. After turning 58 last month, she “passed away peacefully at home surrounded by her loving family,” as published in the obituary in The West Australian newspaper, mercifully ending months of agony, painkillers and interminable waiting.
There will be many fond reminiscences of Joji in days ahead. “Amazing Grace” was how her sister Stella calls her, recalling her second name. On many occasions, Joji had played the big sister who saved the day, from writing the essay Stella could not get done for class, to helping her, her husband, and their two sons get immigrant visas to Canada in the mid-eighties. And imparting a lifelong lesson when, on turning 18, Joji told Stella that her greatest wish is to spare their parents any burden.
The scattered Lirag clan will have their own memories. In the family compound under the gaze of the twin bell towers of Paco Church half a century ago, Joji was the toughie who beat everyone else up star apple and mango trees. Hands on waist, she bellowed at a bullying cousin, defending other kids as the meanie scurried away upon hearing his name in her voice.
Those frolicking days in pigtails and short pants might have flashed briefly through Joji’s mind as it dimmed amid multiple organ failure and drugged numbness. She could have also relived in the fatal seconds her elementary and high school days at Assumption schools, her college years in Maryknoll, her brief stints at the clan’s textile mill, and her family’s move to Vancouver over several years starting 1977.
No doubt birthing and raising her only son Justin in Canada and Singapore would deserve a flashback. So might the love and caring of her second husband Greg, who spared no expense and time to make Joji’s last six years as joyful as it was painful, if not more so.
The clan would also remember with fondness and deep admiration how the brave, unbowed woman showed no hint of pains and burdens during get-togethers in Singapore, Manila and Vancouver between excruciating, debilitating therapies and colon and liver operations. Of special joy were the twelve days that the four sisters spent in Perth some months ago. Besides Joji and Stella, Belen and the late Jose Lirag had two younger daughters, Chona and Bambi, and a son, Jay.
As remembrances of Joji emerge, especially on her once-active Facebook page, there will be many words to honor and cherish her. Yet in their better place, the departed have no need of praises and tears from the world they left. Rather, it is for the sake of those remaining that we remember. For the recollection and celebration of lives past affirm the value of every person’s existence despite his or her inevitable end. Since the deceased matter, so do the rest of us.
What about the pain, the suffering, the frustrations? Joji certainly had her share, perhaps more than others. The weight of domestic and disease troubles are not among those moments many who care for her would wish to recall.
Still, it was those trials and tribulations that offered opportunities to struggle for betterment, to hope and seek for the fullness of life and love, and to feel the caring touch and hear the comforting word from so many who sought to ease the agonies and extend the years. It was the unfortunate beating of a Jew on a desolate road that brought forth the Samaritan’s kindness.
This is not to say that misfortune is in any way desirable or justified. That this life’s sad segments shall never pass to the next, shows that they have no place in the fullness of God’s kingdom come. However, the gems of divine love, truth, justice, and power occasioned by the untoward events and conditions of this world—those are of eternal value, and we celebrate them in recalling the agonies of a soul no longer with us.
In this life, of course, the agonies eventually triumph, at least over the instinctive imperative for lungs to keep breathing, hearts to keep beating, muscles to keep moving, and senses to keep sensing. We go to immense lengths to keep body and soul together, working interminable hours, enduring excruciating remedies, hoping and praying against terminal prognoses.
Joji’s high spirits fed expectations of full remission during seemingly tumor-free periods. But the deadly growths kept lurking and recurring, despite excisions of colon and liver, and all manner of chemical, radiological and surgical life-sustaining procedures. Finally, her doctors could not avoid a terminal prognosis.
But that death sentence opened the door to Joji’s final affirmation of life and joy, as she and Greg toured the world in her last year in it, seeing places, loved ones, and each other’s eyes at every turn. The immovable date with death brought a final fullness of living and loving to Joji.
At interment in Perth and prayers in Manila, Singapore, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, family and friends will come together in mourning, missing and memorializing Joji.
Yes, our beloved Josephine Grace Lirag Kyne is gone from the world we inhabit, even as we believe she now enjoys a better habitation.
On the other hand, her son Justin, now with his own family with wife Rachel, and all other souls touched by Joji’s love, caring, joy, and life are living, breathing testimonies to how she mattered to so many. Those who pay respects, others who remember and pray from faraway, and even those who never knew her—all were somehow touched by her. As we shall eventually know when we too have passed on.
“Everything about her is all good and that is the legacy she has left behind,” summed up Stella. God bless you, Joji, as you have blessed us all. Amen.