Family members and close aides surrounded former former President Cory Aquino as she lay in her hospital bed, praying the rosary after doctors had informed her children that she only had a few moments left. Mrs. Aquino had been battling colon cancer for 16 months.
SPO3 Jaime Castro, “Caster” to everybody, knew she was gone when he heard her eldest daughter Ballsy Cruz say “Mommy, goodbye.” This was the woman he had guarded and protected with his own life when she was President. He saw Ballsy give her mother a kiss. At that moment, his tears fell. Caster felt as if his own mother had died.
“Turing niya sa amin parang mga anak,” Caster says, referring to his fellow members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) during Mrs. Aquino’s time.
Caster was Mrs. Aquino’s food taster when she was President. “Nagulat nga si Ma’am, may ganito pala na trabaho. Kasi bago nga [nya] kainin, kailangan dumaan sa akin,” he tells us in an interview. Caster performed the same task for Mrs. Aquino’s only son, Noynoy, throughout his six-year presidency.
To this day, Caster, now retired, remains loyal to the Aquino family. Praying his dream of becoming a monk will one day come true, he serves as an altar boy at masses held by the Aquinos, whether during Christmas or at the birth and death anniversaries of Ninoy and Cory.
For the last nine years, without fail, Caster has been joining the family at the mass they hold for Mrs. Aquino at the Manila Memorial Park. He will be there with them again on August 1st to mark the 10th death anniversary of the country’s icon of democracy.
“Every anniversary niya, pumupunta ako sa sementeryo kasi napakabait niyang tao. Pangako ko sa puntod niya, hangga’t makakaya ko, kung ano’ng matutulong ko sa naiwan niyang pamilya, gagawin ko,” Caster says.
It’s been 10 years since Mrs. Aquino passed away but there’s still sadness and longing from Caster and her other friends like Margie Juico, Deedee Siytangco, and her niece Maria Montelibano when they talk about her. During Mrs. Aquino’s term, Montelibano headed Radio-TV Malacañang (RTVM); Juico was her appointments secretary; and Siytangco was her press secretary.
Two weeks before Mrs. Aquino passed away, Juico organized healing masses for her held at the Greenbelt chapel. Juico and her husband, Philip, visited the former president in the hospital, too.
“She had her eyes closed then she opened them, then closed them again. I told her, ‘Tita Cory, let’s pray,’ because she loved to pray. When I said ‘Let’s pray,’ she wanted to lift her hand in prayer but she couldn’t raise it up to her forehead,” Juico tells us.
Juico also massaged Mrs. Aquino’s arm, unaware that the former president felt pain even with the slightest touch.
“Wala naman sinabi sa akin si Pinky (Mrs. Aquino’s second daughter). So, I got the rosary she gave me when she got back from Fatima, put it in her hand, touching her hand all the time,” Juico says. “Then she mumbled, I couldn’t understand. Pinky told me, ‘Margie, I think she just wants to thank you.’”
Montelibano says she loved Mrs. Aquino too much she couldn’t bear to see her in pain. Siytangco adds: “Ang sakit, to see her in pain.”
Caster recalls he rushed to the hospital after learning that Mrs. Aquino’s prognosis wasn’t good. Visitors weren’t allowed. “Buti na lang andun si Ate Ballsy at pinapasok ako,” Caster says.
When Caster came in, Mrs. Aquino slowly opened her eyes. “Nagkatinginan kami. I told her, ‘Ma’am this week, everyday sa Greenbelt, may healing mass offered para sa inyo. Masaya siya nakita niya ako. Napapikit ulit siya tapos binuksan niya ulit mata niya,” Caster says.
Caster, still detailed with the PSG that time, found himself going to the hospital almost every day. Finally, he asked permission from his commanders to take a leave of absence because he wanted to be of help to the Aquino family. He backed up Mrs. Aquino’s then close in security Insp. Melchor Mamaril at the hospital, staying with the family round-the-clock until she passed away.
“‘Yung natitirang oras na lang niya, makatulong man lang ako, ‘yung serbisyo ko sa kanya,” Caster says.
He tells us he couldn’t forget how Mrs. Aquino defended him from media when reporters learned that she had an allergy attack because she ate seafood in one provincial trip. Caster had reminded her she wasn’t allowed to eat it but Mrs. Aquino did not want to offend her hosts.
“Naging attorney ko pa siya. Sa akin, okay na kahit hindi niya ako sanggain sa ganung issue pero sabi niya sa akin, ‘Hindi, kawawa ka naman,’” Caster says.
Two weeks before Mrs. Aquino stepped down from office, Caster says she raffled off to the PSG and other Malacañang household members the many gifts that had been given to her as president. Caster recalls many of them were expensive. “Wala siyang inuwi,” he says.
Montelibano says Mrs. Aquino did not even want to stay in Malacañang, “even though it was the seat of power.”
“She wanted everybody to understand that as president, she was the guest of the Filipino people,” Montelibano says.
The three women all describe Mrs. Aquino as “dutiful and devoted to her friends.” She visited Siytangco’s husband, Sonny, when he was confined at their home. Juico recalls Mrs. Aquino was the first to arrive with Fr. Catalino Arevalo at the wake of her father.
Having been with Mrs. Aquino all the years she was president, Juico, Siytangco, and Montelibano recall how the "pa-machomen were more scared of Tita Cory than they were of their wives.”
“They wouldn’t be caught dead doing something wrong.Takot na takot sila. Naku, if Tita Cory finds out,” Juico says. Mrs. Aquino didn’t think twice about confronting them.
“It’s the fear of disappointing her. They did not want to disappoint her,” she adds.
Disloyalty was what disappointed Mrs. Aquino the most, the three women agree. Mrs. Aquino expected loyalty to righteousness, loyalty to what is right.
She also didn’t even want people to think she was taking advantage of her having been president, so much so that it took six years since she stepped down from office before she finally allowed Noynoy to run for Tarlac district representative.
And the presidency? “I don’t think he [Noynoy] would run for president if Tita Cory were alive,” Montelibano says.
“Between mother and son, there was really an intimate bond. They would have endless discussions about many things—Why was it this way? Why was it that way? And I am sure, si Noy misses that when Tita Cory passed away,” Maria adds.
Caster and Insp. Melchor Mamaril had the unfortunate task of having to call up then Sen. Noynoy Aquino to tell him to rush back to the hospital in those early hours of August 1.
The senator had gone home before midnight after staying with his mother, instructing Caster and Mamaril to update him of the situation at the hospital.
“Nasa kabilang kuwarto kami nina Mamaril and Dr. (Alex) Ayco nung kumatok kasambahay ni Ma’am Kris na tawagan na raw si Sir Noy. Hindi na raw maganda lagay ng Mommy nila. Tinawagan na namin si Sir Noy pati mga bayaw niya,”Caster says.
When the former senator and his brothers-in-law arrived, Caster and Mamaril were in the corridor, guarding the door to Mrs. Aquino’s room. They couldn’t hide their tears from the only son, who asked them: “Ano’ng nangyari?” Caster and Mamaril did not tell him that his mother was gone.
Caster volunteered to be in the back-up vehicle of the ambulance that brought Mrs. Aquino’s remains from Makati Medical Center to The Heritage Park. He remembers how the media tailed them even when the family had preferred that moment to be private.
Most of Mrs. Aquino’s closest aides are now living quiet lives, including Caster, Juico, Montelibano, and Siytangco, watching from the sidelines how government is being run today.
The three women remain grateful to Mrs. Aquino for “bringing out the best in us.” That was the kind of boss that the former president was, they say.
For Caster, he wants people to remember Mrs. Aquino as the one who helped bring back democracy to our country.
“Hindi siya naging abusado sa kapangyarihan," Caster says. "Isa pa, may takot siya sa Diyos.”
Photographs from the files of SPO3 Jaime Castro