Conclusion: My Thai wife, the Big C, and me


We lived through a number of false dawns, when the latest CT Scan or Pet Scan would show that the cancer indicator had drastically declined, pointing to the possibility that she was in remission. 

It was on occasions like this, when the doctors would tell her she could afford to take a vacation from chemo, that her high school classmates, whom she christened the “Fatboys,” would gather to celebrate at her house with food and drink. Happy reunions like these provided the opportunity for her friends and relatives to embrace me as one of their own, despite my very rudimentary Thai. It was then that an anti-corporation activist like me discovered that Google Translate not only facilitated communication but also created community.

Hopeful CT Scan readings also provided the opportunity for us to travel. With hope returned energy, and we took off for those countries she had longed to visit but somehow had never had the opportunity to do so, like Brazil, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Italy. 

I applied for fellowships and teaching positions, which enabled us to live for months in New York, Wisconsin, and Japan. Looking back, I think she did not fully trust the cancer readings and wanted to absorb as much of life as possible in case these readings did not, in fact, portend the much-desired remission. These were happy times, when she could spend hours shopping at her favorite US garments store, TJ Maxx, in Madison, Wisconsin, or when we would queue to get into the best tonkatsu hole-in-the-wall near the Kamata subway station in Tokyo. 

She liked to cook, and she would entertain guests in Manila with her home-cooked tom yum kung shrimp soup and tom kha gai chicken dish. She loved the Philippines, and one of her goals was to master Tagalog, though, like me when it came to Thai, she was endlessly frustrated by what she considered the complexity of Tagalog. 

“You have all these crazy conjugations,” she said. “We have only one tense in Thai.” To which I replied, “Yes, but you have this crazy tonal language, where depending on the tone, the word klai could mean 'near' or 'far' or the word suay could mean 'beautiful' or 'ugly’.”

Chemical warfare

But reality would always intrude, rudely. After a few months, the next CT Scan would register a rapid multiplication of cancer cells. The pattern became all too clear: the cancer would retreat before a new chemo formula, bringing down the cancer reading, then they would regroup to find ways to get around the enemy, then having developed immunity to the formula, they would counterattack with a vengeance. 

There was savage chemical warfare taking place in my wife’s body, and it was taking its toll. Yet the illusion persisted, perhaps in me more than her, that we could indefinitely stave off the final assault with more and more potent chemo formulas. Since her passing, I have been haunted by the question whether chemo delayed or accelerated her demise. I doubt if I will ever be able to find the answer.

In any case, the dream that chemo could prolong her life indefinitely was shattered in mid-January of this year, when the cancer began attacking her brain, bringing about so much pain that we had to bring her to the emergency room where they pumped her full of morphine. A 10-day treatment with radiation therapy saw her regain both strength and spirit, so that at the end of it, she had become the lively center of activity at Chulalongkorn University Hospital’s cancer ward. I kidded her that she would probably win if there were an election held for the ward’s “patient representative”.

BELOVED. Suranuch 'Ko' Thongsila is the extraordinary wife of Walden Bello, former member of the House of Representatives. Photo from Walden Bello

BELOVED. Suranuch 'Ko' Thongsila is the extraordinary wife of Walden Bello, former member of the House of Representatives.

Photo from Walden Bello

The Big C’s final offensive

We brought her home in mid-January, only to bring her back less than two weeks later as the cancer resumed its attack on her brain. Again, a brief interlude of relative well-being after radiation therapy followed, after which she underwent another CT Scan. At that point, the doctors gave us the news that the cancer’s offensive had broken through to different parts of her body and they were discontinuing chemo since it was no longer effective in containing the cancer’s spread. 

That was the handwriting on the wall, and she took it bravely. Lying together, she took my hand one evening and told me that despite all her tribulations during the last four-and-a-half years, this had been the happiest period of her life, much more personally fulfilling than when she had been professionally active. 

Chan raak khun mak mak,” she whispered in Thai. “I love you very much.”  Then she asked, “What’s going to happen to you?  It’s you I’m worried about. I told Jit to promise me that she’ll take care of you,” relating her conversation with her cousin.

On March 22, Ko marked her 55th birthday with a merit-making ritual officiated by a Buddhist monk, one that, in Buddhist belief, would help release her from the cycle of reincarnation and human suffering. The next day, an ambulance came to fetch her from her house for the last time to bring her to a Catholic-run hospice in downtown Bangkok. Four days later she passed away.

Unsolved puzzles

It was only during the 5-day Buddhist departure ceremonies that I began to truly appreciate my wife’s impact on people. Hundreds of people came upon learning of her passing, paying their respects to a person who had touched their life as a compassionate humanitarian worker, a political activist who sought to bring opposing parties to common ground, a person loyal to colleagues and friends and devoted to relatives.

But before the rituals ended, I wanted to take advantage of the presence of so many of her colleagues and friends to make sure I solved the two mysteries that still remained unanswered – queries that she used to gracefully sidestep with a kiss or a smile.

The first one was why Ko made such a drastic break from Thai public life 5 years earlier. One piece of the puzzle was provided by one of her closest friends who told me that part of her withdrawal was job-related. After 10 years as executive director of the Siam Cement Foundation, the mother company was doing a rotation and assigning her to a new post, and while she understood the rationale for the rotation, she felt that there was still so much more she wanted to do to improve humanitarian services in Thailand as head of the agency, so she resigned.   

Another piece came from another friend, who speculated that the battle between “Yellowshirts” and “Redshirts” that had riven Thai politics during the Thaksin period had thoroughly disillusioned her, especially when her friends found themselves on opposite sides and close friendships were torn apart. 

A third piece of the puzzle came from another confidant, who said that Ko told her that she had done everything else and the only thing remaining that she really wanted to do was to experience married life.  But all this did not add up to explaining her sharp withdrawal to close friends like former Prime Minister Anan, who told me, “I tried to get through to her, but she just seemed to close all doors. I could not understand it at all.”

Perhaps the mystery of my wife’s break with Thai political and civil society will never be completely answered. Nor will the second mystery, which was why she chose me to be a partner in place of much more qualified candidates. But though I still was curious, the answer had become irrelevant. Though I think we started our relationship as good friends who were probably not yet in love with each other, by the time Ko departed, our battle against cancer had made our friendship evolve into deep, true love.   

As he left the cremation rites at which he officiated, Prime Minister Anan, who had served as Ko’s surrogate father, said to me, ”Thanks so much for taking care of her.”  I choked and could hardly utter my response, “I would do it all over again if given the chance.”

ONE WITH THE OCEAN. A Buddhist monk commits the ashes of Ko to the ocean. Photo from Walden Bello

ONE WITH THE OCEAN. A Buddhist monk commits the ashes of Ko to the ocean.

Photo from Walden Bello

No surrender

The day after the cremation, under a soft sunlight in the Gulf of Thailand, I committed the remains of the person who had provided the meaning of my existence over the last 5 years to the sea.

The Big C had won, but having put up a good fight, Ko would have felt no dishonor at the outcome. She had not surrendered. I was reminded of the time 5 years ago, in May 2013, when she and I went out on a boat, probably to the same spot, where we lowered her mother’s remains to the sea.

Did she have any inkling then, I asked myself, that nearly 5 years later, she would be joining her mother in the depths? She could not hold back her tears then, and I could not hold mine back now, as I thanked her for giving me the best years of my life. –


Rappler commentator Walden Bello is the husband of the late Suranuch “Ko” Thongsila.