By Marinel R. Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
October 10, 2012 | 12:55 am
Actor Cesar Montano sang Don McLean’s “Vincent” softly to his dear friend, filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya, as she lay on her deathbed early evening on Monday.
“I cried so hard, I had a hard time finishing,” Montano told the Inquirer by phone yesterday. “The song is an ode to (19th-century Dutch artist) Vincent van Gogh and was our favorite—she was a painter, like me.”
Montano was one of a few friends that Abaya had asked to be around in her last hours. She succumbed to breast cancer at 6:30 p.m., at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Global City, Taguig.
Abaya was already “heavily sedated” when he arrived at 10 that morning, Montano said; yet she was able to mouth “I love you” to him and his wife, actress Sunshine Cruz.
The actor recounted: “I told her, ‘Dito lang kami (We’ll be close by).’ She could only make feeble gestures by then. I sang worship songs to her the entire day. When I started singing ‘Vincent,’ she made this abrupt movement that surprised all of us. I think she wanted to sing it with me.” Among those present in the hospital suite were Abaya’s sons, Marc and David, filmmaker Olivia Lamasan, and ABS-CBN executives Malou Santos and Enrico Santos.
Montano added: “It was painful to see her go. I held her hand; David held the other.”
The award-winning director was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2007. Her health improved in 2008, but the cancer returned the following year. It went into remission again in 2010 and recurred in 2011.
Abaya’s son Marc told the Philippine Daily Inquirer last month, “It’s stage 4 now, but she’s fighting.”
In a TV interview shortly after his mother passed on, Marc said, “She was ready; it was up to us, the family, to be ready, too—to be there [and] give her love in the final moments.”
Ate Vi’s ‘mom’
Actress and Batangas Gov. Vilma Santos, who first worked with Abaya in the controversial sex-thriller, “Baby Tsina,” last saw the director at the wake of actor Johnny Delgado, who also died of cancer, in 2009.
Santos recalled: “Direk Marilou was already sick then, but she told me, ‘Kaya ko ‘to (I can handle this)!’ Her face never showed she was in pain. She was just very excited about the movie she was working on, a tribute to Our Lady of Peñafrancia.” The movie, “Ikaw Ang Pag-Ibig” was Abaya’s last. It was released in 2011, distributed by Star Cinema. The actress said she had lost someone she considered “a mother” with Abaya’s passing.
For Montano, Abaya was a “personal adviser—my mentor, my most trusted director.” Abaya directed him in the landmark films “Jose Rizal” (1998), “Muro Ami” (1999) and “Bagong Buwan” (2001).
The actor related: “She called me Pepe—from my role in ‘Rizal.’ As a filmmaker, she was very learned and highly technical—and very organized, especially during pre-production. She was very thorough.”
For “Muro Ami,” Montano said Abaya “challenged” him to get in shape in just three months. “She made me practice deep-sea diving even with heavy rains that resulted in zero visibility. She explained that if I prevailed in the worse conditions, actual filming would be a piece of cake.”
But he was happy that his friend had “died filled with so much love for everyone in her life. I’m lucky to have met and shared fond memories with her.”
A few months ago, in an interview with broadcast journalist Jessica Soho, Abaya spoke of realizations resulting from her affliction: “We tend to take love for granted. We don’t show it enough. It’s because we don’t have enough time. What cancer has given me is time… to think about my mortality and what my life is worth and what I can still make of it.”
Award-winning writer Ricky Lee said he made a deathbed promise to Abaya that he would finish the book they had been working on for months. “It’s a double memoir,” he said, “about our life and work during the ’80s.”
Lee said Abaya was still working on several scripts, but that when she was already too weak to write, she turned over a few to him. One of these, Lee said, was a bio pic of painter Juan Luna; another is about Maria Rosa Henson, the first Filipino woman to tell her story as a comfort woman in World War II.
“Another script in progress is ‘One Last Cigarette Before I Go,’” said Lee. “It’s Marilou’s line—she would always say that after a long brainstorming session. The story is of a dying man who tries to set things right, make amends.”
Art and good food
Santos said she used to hang out at Abaya’s house in Quezon City. “She liked showing me her paintings. She served good food. I would stay there for hours.” In the end, Santos said, though they seldom communicated,
“I was constantly updated by colleagues of her condition. I know how hard she fought [but] at least she’s resting now.”
Montano related that, among his friends, it was Abaya who grieved the most when his son Angelo committed suicide in March 2010. “Angelo was her baby. They were scuba diving buddies. She attended to everything during Angelo’s wake and burial. She told me to stay composed and not break down in public, for my family’s sake.”
During that last interview with Soho, Abaya also said: “There’s really no death. We’re just in transition from one stage to another. [These days] when I wake up in the morning, I [feel] that the Lord had nudged me. Maybe there are a few more things that he wants me to do.”
Abaya’s remains will lie at the Ateneo Chapel (Gonzaga building) in Quezon City until Friday. Masses will be celebrated everyday at 6:55 a.m., 12 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. She will be laid to rest on Saturday at Loyola Memorial Park in Parañaque City.