“Not good. It is just a matter of time. Miriam told me to shoot her but I said I do not know how to use a gun,” this was what one of Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s doctors said when I asked how the senator was doing. This was in late July.
The last reports that our dear MDS was again in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital made me shiver. I was chairing a meeting for a bill that was authored by Senator Miriam in the 14th and 15th Congresses when I learned of her passing on. It was a sad moment for us who have worked with, and admired her.
The lady who ate death threats for breakfast, who unabashedly spoke about sex on the Senate floor, who wowed young people with her pick-up lines, is gone. She leaves behind a whole nation she entertained with her unmatched wit and sarcasm, a people she awed by her intellect and very colorful language, millions of women whose rights she championed, and THE country she served for many decades. We lost a one-of-a-kind woman, a top-notch public servant.
Miriam Defensor-Santiago was anything but ordinary. She was larger than life. She did everything with aplomb, no matter what her mood was. She had a persona that was impossible to ignore. Whether she was delivering one of her bombastic spiels, or just quietly walking by, those in the same room would surely feel her presence. MDS belonged to a class all her own.
MDS was intimidating. Numerous times, the Filipino public saw the senator lambast other politicians and those who cross her with the most colorful, insulting words that only she could think of and passionately express. With her amazing command of language and unequalled eloquence, one just had to be ready if one happens to be on the other side of whatever issue she was taking at the moment.
I met Senator Miriam perhaps about 20 years ago in the course of our advocacy for women-focused laws. To say that the feisty senator was progressive is an understatement. Her grasp of human and women’s rights was more than impressive. We never had a problem approaching her to sponsor the bills we were working on, and always, her version of the bills would have strong human and women’s rights components. There was no need to convince her, unlike other women legislators, about the rights we fought for.
MDS met with us more often when the then-reproductive health bill of which she was the principal author in the Senate was being defended on the floor. We had meetings with her in and out of the Senate to strategize on how best to move the bill forward. I had the rare opportunity to observe up close how this woman’s incredible mind worked. More importantly, I got to know a bit more about the feared senator as a person.
Ah, she was regal-like on and off the public eye. She was always poised. She liked being dressed for the part. MDS was often in business attire, ready for work. But if you looked closely, however businesslike her outfit was, there was always an element of fun. Be it the color, a lacey part of her blouse or skirt, floral print, a small embroidery. Just like her personality.
Senator Miriam was known to terrorize people. What many did not see was her fun side. Why else would she agree to do those pick-up lines? And she obviously enjoyed it. The first time I saw her use those jokes was at the UP College of Law where she delivered a lecture on the RH bill. The students loved her every joke. It was a riot and the senator shared not a few laughs with her audience. This was the fun side of Miriam that not many witnessed. No wonder young people adored her.
Up to the last presidential debate when MDS was already quite sick, it was the young people who rallied around her. They were boisterous in their chants for her. I was personally present and while it pained us to see her having difficulty during the debate, we also saw how she beamed and smiled at her cheering squad. The bond was definitely there.
As one of those who served as technical consultants to her and then Senator Pia Cayetano as they defended the RH bill during the seemingly endless interpellation period, I was at the front seat witnessing the brilliance of Senator Miriam.
We were to provide our champions answers to questions from their interpellators. It was up to Senators Miriam and Pia to use or ignore the answers we gave them. We knew they prepared hard and we were not surprised when many times, they actually did not need us there. Thus, the times that Senator Miriam used answers from me gave me such pleasure. This brilliant senator had some use for my ideas!
MDS wanted and enforced order and uniformity. I always brought index cards in the Senate. One time her staff was distributing cards for us to write on and I refused because I brought some. When the staff saw what I had she went, “No, use these. Ma’am does not like different sizes of index cards.” I just had to smile.
Meetings with MDS were like clockwork. Talking points were prepared and followed. No time was wasted. Small talk came after business was over.
MDS orchestrated things as she wanted.
Together with RH advocates, we paid our last respects to MDS. On our way to her I noticed that I left my jacket and the only one I had in the car was a red one. Tradition has it that you do not wear read in a wake. Was I surprised to see MDS all resplendent in a fiery red top with hand-painted small roses! Up to the end, the senator wanted to stand out, break tradition, be radical, but fun and light at the same time.
In admiration, I quietly said goodbye to Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a great woman, a real statesperson. MDS had a great run. She will be remembered.
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