Monday, September 27, 2010

Five Things I learned about Dying From Abby Tan

Thirty years ago friends were dying of AIDS. Those were traumatic times; we were young and suddenly thrust into caring, grieving and burying too many friends in a short space of time. We were emotionally ill-equipped to handle death because we figured that was for old people.

Now I’m old and death comes to take friends and loved ones at random and in increasing numbers. I think much more about death, about responding to it and how I too will face it one day.

Recently, my friend Abby Tan after four years of battling cancer died with dignity and courage. I was with her through much of that time and I got a first-hand lesson in understanding dying.

When I was with Abby, I often listened to my conversations with her, weighing its authenticity and honesty. I checked my bedside manners taking cues from doctors, nurses, friends, and what my feelings were telling me. We have watched too many dying scenes on the big screen and I wanted to ascertain my reactions were genuine and not celluloid.

I scrutinized my behavior from pleasantries (“How are you…?”) to affectations, deleting those actions that seemed mundane. I didn’t want to be a clod to a friend who woke up each day knowing the limits of her life.

Thoreau once remarked after seeing autumn leaves falling , “I watch these brilliant colored leaves for they teach me how to die gracefully.”

I wanted to learn how to be of solace to a dying friend. But more importantly, when my time is up, I want to replicate the grace, spunk, and love Abby demonstrated till the end. Here’s what I learned.

1. Smile. Abby treated her Cancer as a wily opponent. She researched and went for promising treatments, hopeful with each one, and always bearing a smile. When a treatment failed, she’d try another, undaunted, still bearing a smile.

One could only smile back at Abby. Sometimes I thought I was looking flippant smiling even when cancer cell counts were increasing and things were looking hopeless. I wanted to cry proving to Abby how I felt her pain. But that was disingenuous. I was not in pain, she was.

At her bedside hours before she died, I’d still give a pixie sort of smile whenever she looked my way. At one point, she smiled back. It was a genuine smile, a grateful smile, a smile that you give just as you’re leaving a house or driving away. With that smile, I felt the cord that had attached itself these years between her and me, loosened, sliding softly and smoothly.

2. Drop everything and be there. We lead busy hectic lives. And we make the commensurate excuses. Being older, I’ve decided that’s not the way to go. Abby’s call for help was the test.

Being there for a friend dying is not amorphous like trying to end world hunger. It is crystal clear, sharper, a test of one’s resolve.

I did whatever was asked of me by Abby. Sometimes I faltered and even resented the time and effort I had to put in. But the requisites of truly caring checked me.

I can sometimes cop out from an important meeting with some excuse or other. Not with a dying friend. Either you help or disappoint. Either you love or only so much.

Be there for your dying friend. You’d like that when it’s your turn.

3. Listen. Listen to a dying friend. Ever wondered why public places, restaurants and taxis have their music on full blast? My theory is that we don’t like quiet. We don’t want to hear our thoughts, or even that of friends. We don’t want reflection and solitude.

We engage in chatter on any and all subjects to avoid the queasiness of pauses and silence. Silence feels like death.

With Abby there were long, long pauses in the conversation. There was an economy of words and nothing was extraneous. When she spoke, unfettered with chit-chat, it was to recall her life, moving from Singapore at a young age to live and adopt our country as her own. She’d recall happy times and trips abroad and she’d flash a grin. She would also describe her latest Cancer treatment, its benefits and failures. I learned to listen, really listen because what she said will later be faithfully recalled among friends.

When your friend speaks, be there, at the ready, to listen.

4. Hold your friend. Abby and I didn’t engage much in physical displays of affection. Pecking cheeks and friendly pats were as far as it went. One day, alone with her, she made the announcement, “John, I will no longer go through Chemo. I have matters to settle with my lawyers and when that’s done, I’m ready to go to hospital and die.” I was across the table and I saw she had uttered a realization and a tear fell.

I wasn’t sure what to do but knew it was no time for Good Manners and Right Conduct. I walked over to her side, embraced her, held her hand and cried softly with her as we looked out into her garden and to a sad grey sky. She squeezed my hand slightly and we held one another for a long while until I felt I gave her the strength she needed. With her soft warm hands, she too assured me of her resignation with life.

From then on until she passed away, I would hold her hand or stroke her arm when no one was looking. I didn’t want to feel I was doing so for the benefit of others or some phantom movie camera.

Holding, embracing, caressing and stroking are the proprietary acts of the living. Somethings we all would like to feel till the end.

5. No baby talk for the dying. With babies I shift to goo-goo phrases and sing/song chatter and teasing remarks. I do something similar with the dying. My sentences are truncated and revolving around their condition. I constantly offer assistance and second-guess their maladies. I try to play substitute nurse.

Abby, like many in her condition have had much time to ponder and face life-and-death issues. After that, they want to go on with the daily act of living.

Abby fulfilled her bucket list of visiting Turkey. She would eat despite the lack of appetite. She played golf and was diving just months before.

When visiting Abby in the morning just a week before she passed away, she was still downstairs at her dining room table reading one of three newspapers. She would discuss the news or recount her career as a journalist, the best of the stories she filed and saw print. She would critique what I wrote. For so long as she could stand the pain, she wanted to move, to experience, to have a conversation, the basic elements of affirming life.

It was only three days before her death that finality set in. She decided it was over and wanted to go to hospital. The planned Antartica trip was canceled.

She had weakened so, grimacing in pain, and could no longer walk down the stairs. She was laid on a stretcher and carried to an ambulance. She didn’t open her eyes to see her garden. The newspapers had neatly piled up on the table, unopened.

At the hospital she refused to eat any further.

In the last hours of her life the morphine substitute drip she was on eased the pain but made conversation difficult. A smile, a touch, and just being there was now the balm for me. This was the moment to be brief in words as I strained to decipher her occasional whispers. I didn’t want to tell her to “rest” or “let go.”

I simply said “Abby, I love you.” Perhaps that’s what I’d like to hear when I go too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


(This piece was published in Baboo's regular column DATELINE BAGUIO last Sept 12, 2010. Baboo was responsible for having my workshop held in Baguio)

Teachers of Baguio and Benguet spent a day with John Silva acquainting them with art education last Friday. As participants of the “I LOVE MUSEUMS” Art Appreciation Workshop at the BenCab Museum, John took them through Philippine history and culture by showing old photographs of Philippine settings and national heroes. The participants, most of whom were public school teachers, learned the different aspects of art education.

According to John, signs of an artistic child are they like to sketch, act, sing and write. They are pensive and sensitive and are usually not sports minded. They read a lot and have disciplinary problems. He said arts educated students are four times more likely to have higher math and science scores, involved in student’s affairs, literate and curious and engage in voluntary work.

He discussed the qualitative dimension of arts education among children and gave some examples. Children who read develop empathy to people around them. Those who paint will notice the ugliness around and want to change it. Actors most likely develop confidence to be leaders. Dancers learn grace and how to endure strength. And writers can inspire and change the world. Art educated children are also deemed more insightful, inquisitive, well-rounded, passionate and most likely will be model citizens. And more importantly arts education transports Filipinos to another level of pride and patriotism. If they internalize history and culture, they can be citizens in a true sense.

Tips were given on how to develop aesthetic sensibility in a student. Top of the list was turn off the TV or minimize its use. Explore your city, province and country and the world if there is an opportunity as this widens perspective. And always look for detail

The whole day passed quickly and John proved to be a very interesting resource person. There was no dull or sleepy moment during the day’s workshop. He advised the teachers “not to be boring” and to teach like they were telling a story. Teachers must inspire their students and excite them and make them want to look forward to coming to school.

Elements of aesthetics were identified as color, lines, shapes/forms, textures, composition and artist’s intention. With the use of cameras in their cell phones, the teachers were asked to look out for these elements in the museum after which he critiqued their photographs.

National artist Ben Cabrera took the teachers on a tour around the museum. For most of them, it was their first time to step in there. John also gave some tips on how to set up or establish museums in schools and the community. He recognized some teachers who took initiative or bring arts education on the higher level.

Everyone went home carrying “Loving the Arts, ” A Workbook for Public School Teachers by John Silva published by Synergeia and Superferry Project. Many of them left with different eyes with which to look at the world.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The gorgeous light filled BenCab Art Museum was the site for my latest arts appreciation workshop for public school teachers held last Friday, Sept 10, 2010.

I had close to 50 teachers and arts enthusiasts who wanted to know the basics on arts. Since I try and use a museum as a site, the workshops get called I LOVE MUSEUMS.

It’s great leading teachers to explore using the arts as a teaching mode. Most of them didn’t take such a course in college so they feel intimidated introducing the subject in the Civics or Makabayan section of their curriculum.

I show them scientific evidence as to why music increases math proficiency, theater enhances memorization skills, dance heightens agility and grace and reading develops empathy among students.

The teachers learn aesthetics, what makes a beautiful painting or a work of art and how that makes us better citizens. If you can appreciate a landscape, can you now enjoy it with a billboard blight? Or a dirty river or a coastline with garbage?

For Baguio teachers, I added to the powerpoint old photographs from my collection showing the peoples of the Mountain Province in the early 20th century when they still wore their traditional wear, lived in their houses and danced in their ways. This way of life are often ridiculed and not appreciated so this was a good time to change our erroneous attitudes.

The treat was BenCab himself giving a tour to the teachers in what I consider most beautiful

private museum in the country today. Works of Baguio and national artists, his incredible ethnic artifact collection as well as the best of his own paintings were described by BenCab in the way only an artist could point out.

Aside from the Museum, there’s a peaceful pond and walkways with a river and across, a mountain completely green and unspoiled. From the Museum balcony, there’s the China Sea at a distance to gaze at. There’s a wonderful cafĂ© and a delightful gift shop.

After a whole day of learning the arts, the teachers left much more confident about teaching the subject, awed that they have a beautiful museum in their midst, and promised to bring their students on future field trips.

I thank Pioneer Insurance Company for getting me to travel to sites to do the workshop, Aboitiz Superferry for having published my workbook, and along with private donors allowed me to distribute them for free.

For those of you who would like me to present the same workshop in your province, get in touch with me through this blog or

And if you are in Baguio don’t fail to visit the BenCab Museum. Absolutely stunning. For more info:

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Writing a grant proposal is easier these days. Years back it was 25 pages minimum.

In my day-long workshop, I’ll clue you in on funders wanting it shorter.

There’s currently a $100,000 Gates Foundation grant for innovative ways to tackle diseases. They want it in two pages!

There are other grant applications that only ask for 600 characters!

Funders want succinctness and brevity. There’s urgency out there and your solution may well be the answer.

But first, you need to find the grants.

The Internet can be challenging so I’ll maneuver you to sites where funding is available and opportunities you didn’t think about. Ever heard of Angel groups? Not the harp-playing variety but actual private citizens who’ll take your proposal seriously. I’ll introduce you to them.

I’ll also focus on websites, one that compliments your proposal. We’ll review the best websites today that bring in lots of money for their causes.

The first big mistake in writing is using jargon and terms that mystify and turn-off funders. I’ve gathered a long list of no-no words (like “empowerment”.) Avoid them and you’re closer to getting a grant.

We often have the best ideas but on paper they’re chaotic, confusing, and don’t get to the point.

Your proposal needs order: The Problem, The Need, Your Organization, The Solution, The Budget… These are steps ending with a crescendo.

The Enlightenment. The Persuasive Point.

I know the order. I’ve written it thousands of times with great results. I’ve read many proposals (I did my share of funding) and will now reveal to you the most compelling “tipping points.”

Lastly, the winning proposal these days is one that tells a story. Funders know the big stuff, the millions affected by diseases, poverty, natural disasters; they see that on CNN.

They want a personal story from you, how your day-to-day work to a person or community in need, amplified large is what’s making positive changes. Unique, innovative, and gets results.

I’ll teach you to write your story.

My workshops start at 9:30 am and ends by 5:00 pm. An hour lunch-break is on your own. Bring your laptops and a sweater since the Library can get coldish.

Dates/ Fee: Sept. 22, 30, or Oct. 20, 2010

PhP 3,500

Address: Ortigas Library, 2nd flr.,

Ortigas Bldg, corner Meralco and Ortigas Ave., Pasig City

Reservations necessary: 0926 729 9029 or . Or my assistant Mel at 0917 419 5928,

Saturday, September 04, 2010


September 4, 2010

Mr. Amando Doronila’s column (Philippine Daily Inquirer Sept 3, 2010) entitled “Whose Heads Will Roll” – about pointing blame for the recent hostage tragedy - is in the weekly predictable contrarian tone that he has assumed with regards to the Aquino administration. This time he takes aim at Malacanang’s communications office for its supposed inconsistent statements during the crisis but retains much of his venom for Department In Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo.

Mr. Doronila wants the Secretary’s head to roll despite admitting that the President did divide responsibilities in the department prior to the crisis. Mr. Robredo was to administer the local government functions and his Undersecretary Rico Puno would handle the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Mr. Doronila insinuates that such a partition gets Mr. Robredo off the hook and makes him powerless. He concludes Mr. Robredo’s role as that of “…a figurehead” and logically “…the country would lose nothing if he were removed.” He ends the paragraph by stating “He is useless any way.”

His dismissive conclusion escapes many of his readers. The piece loses cogency and turns mean-spirited towards a well-respected public servant.

Jesse Robredo was chosen as DILG Secretary not for his police skills but for his exemplary work in local government earning him numerous praises and awards. His tenure as Naga City Mayor and achievements while in office is the stuff of legends. What other city could boast that their budget and expenditures were available to the public online or just a phone call away? What other city in the country has a Mayor who spoke like an education official and can rattle off student achievement scores and public school needs so fervently?

In tirelessly promoting honest and accountable government and helping other cities replicate the same, Mr. Robredo was honored in 2000 with the coveted Magsaysay Award, the first ever for a Philippine mayor. Anyone who knew and followed his work could see early on what an asset he would be in national government.

The fact-finding committee which began their first interviews on Sept 3, 2010 will confirm what many of us citizens have concluded for the past week.

Despite administrative supervision by the DILG, the Philippine Police has a mind of its own with more powers and experience to conduct and resolve matters like a hostage crisis. With an incoming head such as Mr. Robredo, there are learning curves to master and it would be reasonable for any newcomer to defer to and trust that an institution like the police force would do its job right.

Tragically, the police and Manila city officials bungled the job and that’s where the inquiry should focus on because decisions were made there and not in Mr. Robredo’s office. To invoke command responsibility in knee-jerk fashion and dash his appointment as DILG Secretary is not clear-headed thinking and we will lose a person whose contributions to that post is still forthcoming. The same kind of knee-jerk thinking is being directed at President Benigno Aquino III as also being responsible for the tragedy.

If one were to lay responsibility on the President’s feet, it should be specific, like reviewing the accessibility the hostage taker, a former policeman had to controlled firearms. We have long been characterized as a gun toting society, which has serious implications for tourism, investments, and law enforcement. As a gun owner and a defender of private arms ownership, the President needs to connect that with the rampant killings committed daily in the country and come up with stiffer requirements and laws.

The inquiry should be thorough and complete to give the consolation of justice and closure for the families of those killed in the hostage crisis. There are though venal opportunists who will use the inquiry to prevent conscientious public servants like Mr. Robredo from taking office and cleaning up DILG. Unfortunately, pundits like Mr. Doronila, way off the mark in appraising Mr. Robredo, inadvertently feed the same cabal that wish this government to fail early on.

John L. Silva is a Trustee of Synergeia Foundation