by Renato Redentor Constantino

The mourning after, when life is at its most quiet, is the most difficult.

Despite a lifetime of insights generated by the woman whose all too early passing orphaned so many — lessons that spanned life, impermanence, and unfettered love — we are reminded of our inadequacy in the face of the finality of loss that death brings.

In place of the woman who once gave light to so many constellations, today there is only the lingering curve on pillows she once rested her head on. The gentle blazing sun that was once Mercy Fabros is no more. And yet those who have come to truly know her do not wonder why the sky remains bright. In her absence, we do not ask why our lives are undimmed by the pain of a life cut too short. For it is only her body that is laid to rest, not her shining memory.

“To touch and feel each thing in the world,” wrote the novelist Nicole Krauss, “to know it by sight and by name, and then to know it with your eyes closed so that when something is gone, it can be recognized by the shape of its absence. So that you can continue to possess the lost, because absence is the only constant thing. Because you can get free of everything except the space where things have been.”

Mercy passed away last May 16 at the age of 67 and was many things to many people. She was both mother and father, auntie and sister. She was a daughter to her mum and the storied land that nourished her. She was embraced deeply as a grandmother and Lamaze teacher, as a comrade, colleague, and friend.

Mercy Fabros was a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. She celebrated life as a constant opportunity to lift up the lives of impoverished women while striking hammerblows against oppression with a passion that would shame the biggest blowhards today on the Left.

She was the opposite of the kind of leader the world has grown accustomed to, the type defined by swagger and demagoguery, a corrosive phylum of leadership that every now and then delivers changes that are unsurprisingly short-lived and often times self-defeating.

Mercy Fabros already embodied decades ago the values and politics that is today demanded by new women activists who reject formations that see women’s issues only as part of a national agenda instead of being accepted as central to radical social change. It is not surprising Mercy is held today in high regard by young feminists who consider it their mission to overthrow a ruling order that rewards the elite with more power while systematically carrying out programs of dispossession in poor communities.

She was part of the nationwide resistance that helped bring down the brutal Marcos dictatorship and she fought to kick out of the Philippines the US military bases. But her activism went far beyond popular national issues. Her sense of citizenship came from a deeper well.

While struggling to bring down the tyrannical regime, Mercy founded in the early 80s the Nursing Mothers Association of the Philippines, which helped give birth to a national coalition that advanced the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, an advocacy that was eventually instrumental in the passage of the Milk Code, which promoted breastfeeding education and which regulated the marketing of infant formula. Mercy was a ferocious opponent of sexual harassment and she was one of the most active campaigners fighting for sexual and reproductive health rights. It surprised none when Mercy added the climate crisis to her core struggles. And her answer to the coronavirus pandemic was to wield the sword she had held for decades: healthcare for all, and for women and the poor most of all.

Mercy preferred to be on the ground, interacting with the unconvinced even when dealing with the bad bacteria of misogynists, always fully engaged and fighting in the weeds in order to work closely with advocates many of whom did not identify themselves as part of the leftist millieu. The duty was not to stand out but to plant seeds and to spread spores.

As Mercy often told her children, “We (activists) do not have the monopoly of love of country.” And she is correct.

Her daughter, May-i, who inherited her mother’s lovely grace, once wrote of mum’s regular reminder, which was to be kind and gracious especially during difficult times. Through decades of engaging government, wrote May-i, Mercy learned “to never let go of the hands of the people who tirelessly work within the bureaucracy to ensure that the policies and programs will be for and by the people. Democracy is not easy. It requires continuous conversation and dialogue even when you disagree. At the darkest of times, her faith in people to work for the common good is is tested. But Nanay doesn’t flinch. She is resolute in her belief in humanity and democracy.”

When the distinguished evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton died in 2000 at the age of 63, his partner, the science writer Luisa Bozzi, wrote in Hamilton’s headstone something appropriate to paraphrase as we recall Mercy’s endowment to us of a life well-lived:

As your body merges with the earth, from here you will reach again your beloved forests, you will live not only in a beetle but in billions of spores of fungi and algae brought by the wind higher up in the troposphere, all of you will form the clouds and wandering across the oceans will fall down and fly up again and again till eventually a drop of rain will join you to waters rushing through flooded forests, stardust merging with the elements of stars yet to be. Immortal.

Photo from PINSAN