Real Talk

Life After Death: A Husband’s Story about Love, Life, and Loss

After losing his wife Aina to cancer, Basti Lacson talks about living and loving fully with no regrets.

This story was written by Basti Lacson for Modern Parenting’s 2022 print edition.

This is a love story. It may seem odd to make such a claim, especially when mine doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. What I can say is when you have loved with all your heart and have been loved in return, that is enough to last anyone a lifetime.

Aina and I began dating in 1990, married in 1998, and by 2015, we had lived in Manila, Madrid, Panama City, and Cebu City, and had two kids, Amaya and Mateo. My job had us moving all over the place, while Aina practiced early childhood education wherever and whenever she could. She taught in various schools and aided in play therapy for the young. She loved children so much, so imagine how fulfilled she felt when we finally had our own kids. In terms of parenting, we generally raised the children on our own.

Basti Lacson with his family

The fun days of love and life

During Amaya’s formative years, we were in Spain. This meant childcare, other than daycare and
preschool was out of the question due to cost. We did have some help for Mateo in Panama, but it was part-time housework and child care. Majority of the parenting responsibilities were ours. Aina believed that the foundation of a stable child — and a consequently steady adult — is for parents to always be around for everything during the child’s formative years. She would say, “They should never have to look around to check if we are with them. Once they realize we are always there, they are set for life.”

We never missed any important event of our kids. It helped to have a wife who was a devoted and passionate early childhood educator. She always had parenting foundations from the technical and practical standpoint.”

In 2008 we moved back to the Philippines and settled in Cebu, where we proceeded to live for seven amazing years. By this time, we were in our late 30s, had more financial stability, found the right schools for the kids, and lived in a child-friendly subdivision that all of us enjoyed. I loved my work, Aina found various outlets for her professional and creative expression, and Amaya and Mateo had exciting and outdoor-oriented social lives. In 2015 we moved to Manila and settled right in. Family from both sides now resided nearby, bringing a new facet we had missed for many years.

Amaya was a teenager with an active social life while Mateo was so engrossed in football. Life was smooth sailing and we couldn’t be more thankful.

Then, comes a sudden drop.

Around July 2019, Aina noticed a lump in her left breast. She was typically diligent about her annual mammogram but missed her last one in 2018. This turned out to be stage 2 breast cancer and a mastectomy followed in August. Unfortunately, the surgery determined that cancer cells had gotten past her lymph nodes and into her bloodstream, making metastasis more likely.

After surgery, the oncologist laid out a therapy involving chemotherapy and radiation. Both were very difficult for Aina to endure, and her inner strength was on full display during the aftermath of each session. These were humbling times for a husband because I had to accept what little influence I had in assuaging her pain and suffering. Aina would resort to curling up in a corner of the couch or the La-Z-Boy as she waited for the nausea and discomfort to go away.

One battle was won but the war wasn’t over.

Soon after, she managed to get one clear PET scan and was theoretically cancer-free for half a year. But in March 2021, a lesion was detected in her spine. Targeted laser treatment ensued along with more chemotherapy. We also went to Madrid to get another opinion on her diagnosis and treatment. At this point the pandemic had begun and by the middle of 2021, we began to worry about the schooling of the children and the absence of outdoor activity in their lives.

We decided to transfer Mateo to a school with a strong football program in Madrid. Aina and I brought him ourselves, and before coming back to Manila, the Madrid doctor ordered a PET scan which revealed cancerous lesions in her bones and liver. We considered doing the treatments in Madrid but, in the end, we felt that proximity to a robust support system would outweigh the convenience and modernity of the
Spanish medical system.

Aina Lacson

The grief slowly and harshly begins to sink in.

Looking back, Aina’s health had declined sharply after the cancer had manifested in her liver. The first signs were only for me and Amaya to see. When friends and family would come by, Aina would put her best smile and foot forward because that was how she was. Behind closed doors, Aina would have uncharacteristic cognitive lapses here and there, and her appetite diminished.

This was when I grieved most, as I realized her condition was spiraling quietly out of control. Aina also knew — of course, she did. As we lay in bed at night, we would toggle between light banter such as details on where she would want to be buried, the flower colors, and the music to heavy matters like missing out on the children’s weddings and her grandchildren. Once again, I felt the massive impotence of not being able to do anything except give encouragement and reassurance.

Meanwhile, her physique exposed more bone than muscle, her beautiful face gaunt, and her hair whiter than ever. To see my greatest love withering away before my very eyes were gut-wrenching.

Then, comes acceptance.

At some point our oncologist suggested palliative care, essentially confirming where this was heading. I encouraged Aina’s family to spend time with her every day. Aina resorted to spending her days and even some late nights, at our breezy roof deck, which during the colder months of the year is a pleasant hangout spot. During this time, Amaya and Mateo knew exactly what was going on. When Mateo returned for Christmas in 2021, we knew this was perhaps our last together. Aina was getting frail, but we did manage to have an out-of-town lunch excursion in Tagaytay as our holiday getaway.

One February morning, Aina stared at me like I was a stranger, and began berating me about why I was preventing her from walking out of the room. I wasn’t restraining her, but aiding her. The next day, she lost consciousness and was never the same again.

On February 17 at dawn, Aina slipped away into the den of our home, surrounded by all her loved

Two weeks before…

Two weeks prior, we had set up the house to have a festive ambiance. Friends and family came
by to spend precious moments with her. In the wake and funeral that followed, we all witnessed the amazing number of people Aina touched in her short life. The outpouring was staggering, unlike anything I had ever seen.

Because Amaya and I lived at home with Aina, we had already come to terms with her health’s
general direction. We viewed her passing as an end to her suffering, which I prefer not to outline in detail. Some seemed to take issue with what was, in their view, an absence of apparent sorrow on my part — and that I opted for palliative care at home as opposed to a hospital-based death-in-ICU scenario many are accustomed to. I realized that many of us express sympathy by passing judgment and leaning on rituals as opposed to conveying solidarity and understanding. The scrutiny continued as I attempted to pick up the pieces afterwards.

When someone goes through a heavy loss, what is most appreciated is to be quietly present. Less judgment, fewer rituals, and more empathy.

Mateo came home for his mother’s final days. He returned to Spain the day Aina was buried.
After the frenetic pace following Aina’s death, only Amaya and I were left. I busied myself with work
and exercise to somehow cover up the gaping void Aina left in our lives. I tried to make sure Amaya, Mateo, and I talked about not just the loss but also the wonderful memories we made together. We do not visit the memorial park frequently because it pains us to have Aina underfoot.

What now?

One way we manage to cope is to always discuss Aina, whether in life or in death, and not to avoid bringing her up. It’s a recognition of her immense contribution to our lives while at the same time acknowledging that she is gone. A year before Aina passed, we commissioned
a family portrait by our friend, the renowned artist, Mia Herbosa. Aina and I chose the house we had
just moved into as our setting. The painting was completed after Aina’s death, and it hangs on the
second-floor landing where we pass every day.

In it, Aina is the only one that looks at the viewer, basked in sunlight. It is a beautiful and lasting
reminder to us of what we all share as a family. Aina was a supernova, beloved to many, but whose
light didn’t shine for very long.

The children and I traveled extensively in the next months, first to Australia, and then to
Europe to see Mateo. I also did a fair bit of local adventure-based travel with close buddies. I’ve
started having groups of friends over at home, where I dabble in the kitchen occasionally. I have also started dating again, to the dismay of some, but always with my children’s permission.

Basti Lacson

The love that never fades

After what we have been through, I firmly believe that things like illness and similar life
storms are at times inevitable and beyond our control. What we can control is what we do
with the time we have now with the people we love most.

In the case of my marriage, I believe that we had lived our lives to nearly their truest potential.
We traveled, lived, and built a solid relationship with our children. We explored other cultures,
and loved fully and truly. We were just as happy when we had little and lived in a very small apartment,
as when we had more and moved into a larger home.

Focus on what makes you happy, and you will develop resiliency for life’s storms. A love like ours only comes once in a lifetime and the short time we spent together was well-lived and she never failed to make all of us feel loved. While Wordsworth’s Splendour in the Grass is a poem about aging gracefully, I interpret it as Aina coming full circle for what she was, and still is, to us all.

More about grief:

Baby Loss Awareness Week: 9 Celebrities Share Their Grief
How Parents Can Help Kids Process Their Grief
Dear Parents, Please Allow Yourselves To Grieve

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