[OPINION] 'Tuesdays with Morrie' moments with my high school literature teacher

It did not happen every Tuesday, as Mitch Albom had experienced with his ALS-stricken teacher Morrie Schwartz. The encounters would take place sporadically, sometimes months from each other, sometimes weeks. I can’t tell now if any of our numerous encounters over the years even fell on a Tuesday. And by meeting her, I don’t mean the way Mitch would see Morrie by travelling all the way from his Detroit home to Morrie’s place in West Newton, Massachusetts, which can be a two-hour plane ride. I always met my own former teacher not willfully, but by chance. And why not? She was my neighbor.   

Bumping into her was a beautiful disruption. The ritual of leaving my narrow, gravelly street in Umali Subdivision, Los Baños to brave the world out there, and the ritual of sneaking back to this very street after a long day’s fight, would be spiced up sometimes by a spunky single septuagenarian by the name of Gloria Uri. 

Her small and slender body, crowned by white hair that glistened in the sun, would come out of the white gate right across my street, and I would silently walk towards her as she closed this gate. The goal was to sneak up behind my retired professor, and like a grandson teasing her grandmother with childish paglalambing or affection, I would break into a “Good morning, Ma’am!” I remember how her face and eyes would light up, how her smile broadened at the sight of her student from more than a decade ago at UP Rural High School, and who now happened to be her annoying neighbor. 

My thesis “advisor”

The year was 2012, during the weeks leading up to the big faculty meeting at UP Los Baños’ (UPLB) College of Development Communication, where decisions were made over who graduated or not. I needed a final pair of fresh, expert eyes outside the university faculty to review my thesis manuscript, and who better to do it than my high school English and literature teacher living right around the corner?

It was a dark and quiet night in Umali subdivision, and I texted Ma’am Uri if she could do it for me. She texted back and asked me to meet her at the white gate immediately. Carrying my 200-page draft, sporting eye bags from days of cramming and sleep deprivation, I dashed to the front of her house to hand the draft over. 

Days later, she came back with two pieces of feedback. One, that I had to make sure my findings were discussed according to the sequence of my objectives – which was reminiscent of how she taught us to write our high school term papers 13 years ago. And two, that I must use pseudonyms for the names and places I mentioned in my study, which was a rather controversial one concerning the activism of some sitio members against a powerful political leader. She looked me in the eye, her stare tinged with motherly concern. I followed her advice, and to this day I believe that she had spared me a lot of trouble. 

A woman of faith

One afternoon in August 2018, I was walking back to my street and saw her come out of the white gate again. She was wearing a Tiffany blue floral shirt and carried a mulberry bag. As was almost always the case when I was supposed to go straight home, and she was just about to leave hers to get to Saint Thérèse Church where she served as lector, I’d tell her, “Let me escort you, Ma’am, to the end of this street.” 

It only took about 5 minutes to walk to the end of Mt. Kitanlad Street, but once we reached it, we were already so engrossed in our conversation that I decided in a heartbeat to walk with her all the way to St. Thérèse. 

It felt like a pilgrimage to the French Carmelite saint herself, tour-guided by her ardent follower, the woman who told me that every night she would actually pray that I'd come back to the Catholic Church. She told me – no, raved to me – about the deeper beauty and mysteries she kept discovering about God and the Catholic faith. She told me to read Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She told me, since I also picked her brain about my Master’s thesis on singleness, that she was proud to live the single life, because she was already living her future life in heaven as the bride of Christ. 

While we didn’t agree on all the big philosophical questions, I – like Mitch Albom with Morrie – was nonetheless inspired by a life that was wholly lived with integrity. It was a life that chose a version of the truth and a set of values and stuck with them. 

In the 2019 elections, in fact, she was doggedly supportive on Facebook of 8 specific senatorial candidates who seem to have passed her high moral benchmark. She was so dogged that she even commented under one of my personal photos that Filipinos must vote for these candidates. I can only imagine her heartbreak over the fact that not one of the eight won a seat. 

Saying goodbye

It was either early this year or in late 2018 when I noticed it had been a long time since I last saw her come in or out of the white gate. What I clearly remember was feeling a bit lonely about not having seen her for a while. I remember missing her. One day I saw an old lady beyond the white gate and asked her about Ma’am Uri. The old lady said that she was having stomach pains and was now at her sister Lorie’s in Marymount Village.  

On the afternoon of February 21, 2019, as I was doing research on Rizal in his shrine in Calamba, I got a message that Ma’am Uri was confined at the HealthServe hospital. Stage IV. Ovarian cancer. The message said she opted not to do chemo. That decision was so in character for such a strong-willed woman, I thought at first, though my heart eventually sank. I did have the energy to pay her a visit that night, so I did. 

In life, there are regrets that can haunt a man his whole lifetime. As I got off the jeepney in downtown Los Baños, entered HealthServe, and knocked on Room 409, I knew this decision was something I’d never regret. That encounter would turn out to be our last. 

I opened the door to a small and dark room. There was my old professor in a hospital bed, trying to turn her head to me but barely managing to do so. After apologizing to her sister for showing up late, I came closer to Ma’am Uri so she could recognize me. Her face lit up – the way it would whenever she chanced upon me at our streets in Umali – but it was now more frail, as was the rest of her petite body. She took my hand, a rosary coiled around her wrist, and spoke to me in whispers. 

I couldn’t make out everything she uttered, but what she said as she looked to the ceiling was clear enough: “If it’s the Lord’s will, then His will be done.” In the middle of saying these words, her voice cracked, and for a very brief moment, she cried. It was a cry that lasted but a second, and while it was a restrained one, it was so raw that it seemed to stem not just from a failing body, but also from a soul racked with pain.     

I’m actually a crybaby, but something about the idea of crying in front of a very sick loved one seemed out of place. Perhaps people intuit that crying might add to the suffering of the patient, that you might be presupposing the patient’s imminent death. As the cliché goes, I wanted to show that I was strong for Ma’am Uri, and it would also be embarrassing to cry in front of her sister. 

Ma’am Uri made me promise something before I left: That I’d finish my Master’s degree in Communication Arts at UPLB on time next year. I didn’t expect this to be my mentor’s final instruction, but then again she’s had my best interests at heart, always, to the very end. 

Exactly 5 months after that night, at age 74, she would pass. When the news reached me, it felt like a block of truth that had been hanging in the air for months finally hit the ground. I tried to dismiss it for the rest of that day, but once I lay in bed in the dark of my room, the truth about her death began to consume me. I tossed and turned in bed, grasped at my hair, let out a defeated sigh. My old mentor was gone, my friend was gone, my walking partner was gone. My Morrie Schwartz was gone. I’d been stuck in grief since I found out, but some people in the last two days had told me to rejoice instead, chanting the mantra, “No more pain.” 

Of course I’m happy her suffering’s over, but sometimes, I can’t help but think about the absurdity and harshness of life – its power to let us come into this world from the wombs of our mothers, but with a death sentence already tagged to our infantile foot, its random treachery of taking away the people we love when we least expect it, or when have not said the words “sorry” and “thank you” and “forgive me” enough. This absurdity and harshness of life must not be met with simplistic rejoicing or immediate acceptance. One might do well to probe, to challenge what one has believed the entire time, to get angry, to weep, to roar with laughter, and then perhaps, if time allows, to accept. And then we become better, wiser people, our minds having witnessed another cycle of life and death. From someone else’s death, we feel more alive. 

In life – and in death – Ma’am Uri has made me more alive. She has made all those she left behind more alive, although I must say, walking the streets of Umali would never be the same again.  – Rappler.com

Linus Van Plata graduated magna cum laude from the University of the Philippines Los Baños in 2012. He delivered the above piece at Professor Gloria Uri’s necrological service.