By Juan Escandor Jr., Michael Lim Ubac
Interior Secretary Jesse M. Robredo never really left home.
“I will not say goodbye because I know that you will never leave us and will always be in our midst,” Robredo’s widow, Maria Leonor or Leni, said in accepting the posthumous Philippine Legion of Honor accorded to him shortly before President Benigno Aquino delivered his eulogy at Peñafrancia Basilica Minore here Tuesday.
“You are now back home where you truly belong. Rest well. We will love you forever,” she said.
The President conferred the highest award that could be bestowed on a civilian without the need of Congress approval on Robredo after the requiem Mass ending an eight-day wake here and at Malacañang in Manila. Robredo’s remains were recovered at the bottom of the sea off Masbate City, three days after his plane crashed on August 18.
“In behalf of my children, my brother and sisters-in-law, and our entire family, I accept this Legion of Honor award with deep and respectful gratitude. This award recognizes my husband’s achievements in public service, an affirmation of his life and work,” Leni said.
A celebration of life
“I am honored. Our entire family is honored. If Jess were here with us today, I know he would shy away from excessive praise. He might find all the fuss, pomp and pageantry a little uncomfortable.”
“If we could hear Jess speak, I know he would be saying, ‘This is too much,’” she said. “But Jess, just this one time, allow us to celebrate your life in the way we think you deserved to be honored.”
The crowd applauded.
The two met when Leni applied for work at the Bicol River Basin Development Project in the mid-1980s. Robredo was then program director.
Leni thanked the people of Naga for the support and love they had given her husband. “We brought him back here to his happy place because he finds comfort in your constant love. We are going to bury him near the cradle of Our Lady of Peñafrancia,” she said
She said her family extended an apology to them “if you cannot have him all for yourselves. Like you, many (people) also love him. But after this day, you don’t have to worry because you will have him all to yourselves again.”
She thanked the President for the massive search-and-rescue operations that saw over 600 uniformed personnel, along with ships, rubber boats and planes, scouring Ticao Pass in search of Robredo and the two plane pilots.
The intense efforts of the government for the retrieval of her husband’s body and for the state funeral became a “beacon of hope and comfort” as the family waited for Robredo to come home, Leni said. It helped the family deal with the unexpected death and searing grief, she said.
She also expressed gratitude to Secretaries Manuel Roxas, Florencio Abad, Edwin Lacierda, Dinky Soliman, Leila de Lima and Teresita Deles, and Representative Emilio Abaya “who were always with Jess, not just in death but also in life.”
“Thank you for dreaming with him. Thank you for walking with him. Thank you for staying with him until the very end,” she said.
Leni’s anecdotes about her late husband were full of life.
She said Jesse was “always working so hard but at the same time always rushing home to be with his family.”
Neither Jesse nor their children felt any sense of entitlement due to his position, and that he was conscious not to spend beyond their means so as not to “be more vulnerable to temptations.”
When Jesse, during one of his recent birthdays, received a number of signature shirts as gifts, he piled them up inside his closet and told her, “God will be angry at me already.”
“The greatest gift he could give our children is a good name. In death, he gave his children that gift and the best way we can all honor him is to guard that name and make him proud,” Leni said.
When Robredo became interior secretary, coming home to Naga every weekend kept him grounded and made him stronger against temptations, she said.
“The weekend before that fateful crash, he fixed everything in the house—busted lights, broken doorbell, leaking faucets. He always looked for work to feel like a regular man of the house. He said these simple tasks made him feel important to his family and strengthens him,” she disclosed.
“Much has been said about how great Jess was as a public servant. But to us his family, we will remember him most as an exceptional husband and father. He died with nothing left unsaid. He constantly showered us with ‘I love you’s,’” she added.
He texted her just about anything—while in the middle of a difficult conversation, or sometimes when attending a formal function at some flashy hotel, he would text me, “Bok, this is fine dining again; Surely, I will be hungry again.”
He often came home early enough to eat dinner with their daughters, and would drop everything for them.
When they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary, he came home for a few hours to surprise Leni with a “hodgepodge of flowers he got along the way.”
Indeed, he was a simple man filled with his “loving gesture” which was all they needed from a father.
“In a moment of reflection, we agreed that we have been truly blessed not only because we have three wonderful children, but also because life has generally been good to us. That was when he first told me that he had already fulfilled all his dreams for himself,” Leni said.
She said her husband had told her: “I have exceeded my quota. This is more than what I dreamed of. God has given me so much more than I asked from Him.”
“His cup was indeed overflowing,” Leni said. “His dreams for himself was simple God gave him so much more than he asked for.”
“His death was unexpected and we have dealt with the searing grief of losing him. But I believe that for Jess it was not tragic, and he was not taken before his time. He was never fearful of his life. He was always ready to face his Creator,” she said.
Leni said the immense public response to her husband’s death and the collective grief shared by the nation would have given comfort to him that all his efforts as a public servant hit their mark.
“I am amazed to see big burly men crying over his death. When the funeral cortege passed by the streets of Manila and Naga, there were as much cheers as there were tears,” she said.
Robredo is deserving of the honors being given him now, she said. “Maybe for him, it was the perfect end to a life well lived.”
“We are truly blessed to have been loved by you. As my daughter said, ‘You may have been prepared to die, but we were not prepared to lose you.’ We are devastated by your loss, but even if we are grieving we will continue to live because your spirit lives in us. I will make sure that your dreams for our children will be fulfilled,” she said.
“You are home now. You are back where you truly belong. Rest well, we will love you forever.” Robredo’s girl vows to pursue his legacy.