July 20, 2021
In the last few weeks leading to March 1981, Mom was slowly deteriorating, and it was Tita Nini who made those times bearable for us.
Maria Zeneida “Nini” Quezon Avanceña was my mom’s closest friend since childhood, way before World War II. Tita Nini, together with her late sister Maria Aurora “Baby” Quezon, and my mom Lulu, were good friends who together harnessed their friendships, connections, and resources, and channeled everything into organizing civic organizations or huge projects for the country. They helped found the YLAC (Young Ladies’ Association of Charity), the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, and raised funds to build the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Shrine in Baclaran.
But to me, Tita Nini, was Ninang (godmother). I grew up knowing her as the Tita who dropped by the house often. She and mom would chat for hours, over a meal cooked by my mom. Sometimes, they would be joined by their other amigas, friends from the prewar era they called “peace time.”
I was aware since childhood that Tita Nini was the daughter of the late Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon. I knew of their place in history and the impact their family had on other Filipino lives. But she never flaunted her stature or importance. To me, she was the kind, caring, and very down-to-earth Tita. She and husband, Tito Bert Avanceña, who was a tocayo of my father Gualberto Besa, often visited at our home in Tarlac, with their large brood, for a sumptuous meal prepared by Mom.
Tita Nini knew me since I was a baby. In fact, she, a mother of nine, was the one who taught my Mom how to hold a baby. Something best friends do for each other.
In the 1980s, as my mother’s health declined, she needed hemodialysis every week. We lived in Tarlac then, a three-hour car drive to Manila, so the weekly trips were arduous, especially for my sick mother. Our hospitals in Tarlac, did not yet have the medical facilities for my mother’s serious kidney ailment.
I was in my early twenties, and my sister Isabel was in her late teens. Both of us were at the beginning of our lives and new careers, which we had to put aside to take care of Mom.
Mom’s hospital stay at the Philippine Heart Center for Asia, in Quezon City, stretched from overnight to a few days, depending on Mom’s condition, or the complications from her kidney disease. The once-weekly dialysis advanced to twice a week, until her nephrologist recommended three times a week.
Mom’s failing kidneys affected every organ in her body. Her blood pressure fluctuated from extremely high to very low. Blood test results were bad on all counts. Her cardiac condition worsened. Her liver was severely affected. She developed diabetes. Her once fair complexion turned dry and ashen-colored. Physically, Mom could barely walk without assistance. She needed to be lifted to sit up in bed. Her thin arms felt like they would crumble under my grasp when I helped her get up and go to the bathroom. The veins on her arms were black and blue from the constant injections, bloodwork, and the IV. The portal on her arm, for the shunt to enable the dialysis, was heavy and painful if she tried to so much as lift her blanket.
Throughout it all, Tita Nini came to visit her best friend, Lulu, frequently at the hospital. She brought food and beverage for us: a chilled pitcher of freshly-squeezed dalandan juice, a basket of fruits or a box of ensaymadas.
Tita Nini always came with a smile and cheery stories. She sat by the chair next to Mom’s bed and chatted about friends or the family. Her visits always made Mom happy.
Sometimes, in her exhaustion, Mom fell asleep while Tita Nini was still there. Tita Nini would lovingly look at her friend’s peaceful countenance, and smile affectionately.
“I’ll go now, so Lulu can rest. I’ll come back,” she would say.
Tita Nini’s visits lifted our spirits, when the days at the hospital seemed endless. It was in those moments that her presence was the best balm for our weary souls.
During the first week of March, my Mom slipped into a coma. I called Tita Nini. She came as fast as she could. She sat by Mom’s bedside, and prayed the rosary. Afterwards, she hugged me and my sister, Isabel. She did not need to say anything. We drew strength and courage from her warm embrace.
Mom died at dawn of March 14, 1981. As the machines beeped and a flat line showed on the monitor, I felt like the light switch had been turned off in my world. I wanted to cry in a corner and grieve forever. I was left with a sadness so deep and wide, the sky could not fill it.
“I am motherless now, “ I thought to myself.
The first thing I did was to call Tita Nini. It did not matter if it was five o’clock in the morning. She told me to call her if anything happened.
I held the phone receiver in my hand, and with my trembling fingers punched the phone number to the Avanceña home on Gilmore.
Within minutes, Tita Nini was at the hospital. She rushed into the room as the streaks of the early morning sun peeked through the glass window.
I was standing at the foot of the empty bed, with my then fiancé Elpi Quirino. Mom’s body was just taken away. My father sat on the couch quietly, staring into space. My sister Isabel held Dad’s hand.
Tita Nini was the first to arrive right after Mom died. She was also the last to leave that day.
She hugged me tight, in an embrace that could wash away all the sadness in the world.
Tita Nini stayed all day. She held my hand at the morgue as they prepared Mom’s body. She was by my side as I made arrangements for the funeral wake.
When I sat down to take a breath, she put her arms around my shoulders as I wept.
Tita Nini never left me that day my mother, her best friend, died.
Last week, on July 12, 2021, my Tita Nini died at 100 years old.
When I lost my mother, Tita Nini comforted and reassured me in the moments I needed it most.
But when Tita Nini died, I lost the last connection to my Mom. It was like losing a mother all over again.
Who am I going to call this time?
In the 100 years of her rich, wonderful life, Nini Quezon Avanceña gave love and kindness unconditionally to everyone she touched. Her loving ways taught me that the most important thing about friendship was how you make the other person feel.
Through her love, Tita Nini taught me a valuable lesson: how to be someone’s first call, when the moment arises.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.