The letter goes: “I am sorry to hear about your cancer journey too but applaud you that you are still working.” It is a letter sender approximating her experience with the disease that my cousin, Jessie, was also going through. This was Jessie’s reply: “When my lung cancer metastasized to my brain I agreed to the recommendation of brain radiation on the hope that it would eliminate those lesions or at least retard their growth or spread, already more than a dozen of 3-6 mm all over both ‘hemispheres’.”
Jessie was a doctor and this shows in her next paragraph: “When 3 lesions recurred I requested for a targeted radiation called Gamma Knife Surgery on its claim to destroy only the cancer cells in lesions targeted at radiation delivery, and that normal neurons would be unharmed.” Jessie continues: “Unfortunately, while the lesions regressed, the brain changes surrounding the 2 or 3 lesions targeted caused a massive right-sided hemispheric edema that slightly shifted to the left at which time I was advised to undergo surgery or suffer the progression of the left shift.”
Jessie would recover and at this stage she would write how “in 2005 on my first break and partial recovery from the toxic impact of the radiation and some from my medications, I managed to organize KISSROOT on the ideas that were rooted to my experience…and on the inspiration of my parents, my father, and his civic concerns, accepting fish, shrimp, baked products, even a bleating goat for his legal services to the poor…”
KISSROOT was Jessie’s project. It is good to listen to hear her now speak of this organization she so painstakingly organized and dreamt of seeing through: “What KISSROOT does is not enough at this time, but I am hopeful that sometime in the near future it would be showered with sufficient dollars to solidify its goals to relieve deprivation, etc, among the impoverished, beginning with the precious undernourished children of the Philippines.”
Haduk-Ugat, that was the translation into English of the name of the said project. In the language of the island, one could see human lips touching one’s roots or beginnings.
Jessie would never see how KISSROOT moved a community in the most significant way because in 2011, one snowy afternoon, past three, US time, at four in the afternoon, Philippine time, she passed on.
This summer, she is coming back to the island in the form of a tribute to be given to her during the last leg of the 2nd Bikol Book Festival. A group of writers who are part of this edition of the festival began this celebration that doubled as a pilgrimage.
The band of writers from Bikol region and other parts of the country with the National Book Development Board traveled from Naga in Camarines Sur, to Calabanga, back to the city and then to the town of Tigaon. Albay was next. On the third day, the ardent pilgrims moved again from Naga where they retired at night to conduct a whole day of fora and discussions on the power and source of folktales, translation, copyrights, and artificial intelligence in Nabua, some 40 kilometers away. Late afternoon saw the group in neighboring Iriga City to launch a book. Then it was time to go to Sorsogon, to its port town of Pilar, where a ferry would take them to San Fernando, in the island of Ticao in Masbate.
Except for the long stops and seemingly repeated vigils in the city of Naga, the celebration is a coming home, a pilgrimage.
Jessie had the same peripatetic life, opting for decisions that were extraordinary like the time she told her parents how she wanted to take a break from her medical internship in favor of a workshop in Silliman University under the Tiempos. Or her quick travels to Ticao where she would haul with her luggage of books on literatures made heavier by medical books she still needed to read for her study.
In the middle of her illness, she would write me long letters, in thick cursive shapes that would have been single-spaced if typed, outside of the longer typewritten letters. Cancer never dulled her. At one point, I told her to take it easy. This prompted her to write on some more:
“A huge part of my efforts that may look frantic to you is indeed frantic, my way of therapy for me so that I deflect my reality to what is positive and not to the nightmare that is hidden in the claws of that very real and deadly crab inside me.”
“It is not easy every day to wake up very tired and to want to sleep all day, but to resolve not to do that because it will only lead to extending my life without much purpose. I take KISSROOT [her philanthropic organization] concerns and issues to the extreme so I can look at the other extreme of being alive, and to know and feel that I can still move my fingers, and that I can continue to piece together words, even with intermittent brain freeze, hearing loss, and loss of sensations, and to know that whatever I do for this organization is always intended for those less fortunate than I am, and that is meaningful to me, and that is what keeps me going to a frantic scale, whenever I can scale the extreme.”
This and more were Jessie’s letters to the world and not to writing, which is just as well. I could see her giddy, giggly even, smiling, a girl-woman, a priestess she sometimes imagined in her hysterical moments, a poet.
In Ticao Island where she was born, Jessie Clemente Badillo is going to be honored not for her pains but for her poetry.