That first night, I knew he was gone—Robredo’s wife
Moments before his plane plunged into the sea off Masbate island on Saturday, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo was telling his wife, Leni, on his cell phone: “Ma, just a moment, I am just attending to something. I will call you back.”
Robredo’s voice was calm.
Leni, in Naga City, was on her way to the airport to fetch him. She had no idea that the plane, a four-seater Piper Seneca, was about to crash.
He never called again.
When told by a Robredo aide that a plane had nosedived into the water, she thought: “Could it be their plane? Could it be him?”
That was how Robredo’s wife, Maria Leonor Sto. Tomas Gerona Robredo, 47, recounted in a press interview in Naga on Thursday her last conversation with her husband. Before then, Robredo had talked about his wish to see his family one more time.
Here’s that interview translated to English:
Question: What’s the decision of the family about the offer to bury Jesse Robredo at the Libingan ng mga Bayani?
Leni: We feel very honored with the offer but we are very sure that Jesse would prefer to be buried here. Naga has always been his home. He always tells me this is a happy place. That’s why I think we will be doing him a great disservice if he is not buried here.
Q: How does his family feel now, the brothers and sisters of Robredo, his parents?
Leni: We are coping but it’s very difficult. It’s so painful to lose a husband, lose a father, lose a brother. But now we know that this is what God wants. There’s nothing we can do but accept. All through his life Jess would always say, ‘What is fated is what will happen.’ I think the most that we can do to help him find rest is to show him that we are strong and we can take this.
Q: What were you and the Secretary talking about while he was on the flight?
Leni: Actually, we had quite a long talk. On a regular basis, we would talk 10, 20 times a day, but on that particular Saturday, our text exchanges and our conversation must have doubled. He was flying to Cebu while we had an occasion here. I would update him.
He would call and was so happy. He wanted to talk to our daughter, to congratulate her. All throughout the day that was the tenor of our talk. He wanted to be home. He had expected that the affair involving our daughter would be over by 5 p.m. But at 2 p.m. I texted him that it had ended. So he knew he would not make it.
Bent on going home
I thought he was not coming home anymore but a staff member of his told me he was bent on going home. It was not unusual for him and he was always very happy to surprise us. So I texted him at about 3:15 and said, “Pa, are you coming home?” He said, “Yes, we have boarded the plane.”
I am the one who drives the car and fetches him at the aiport. He said, “Take your time because our ETA is still at 4:15.”
I left the house about 3:40. I drove to the Naga airport in Pili. Just before I reached the airport, he texted me, “Our plane is going back to Cebu.” I asked him, “Why?” He did not answer me. Then he replied again, “The plane is going to Cebu.”
I was waiting for his instructions, if I would wait for him at the airport or if I would go home. But I could not contact him. So I decided to go home. I texted him, “I kept calling you but you do not answer.” And he answered, “The signals are bad.”
When I reached home I checked the log of my cell phone. It was 4:40. That’s why I thought it was impossible that the accident happened at 4:30 unless the time on my phone was advanced … Finally I was able to contact him on his Smart number. He told me, “Ma, just a moment, I am just attending to something. I will call you back.” He spoke in a very calm voice. It was as if I was calling him while he was in the middle of a meeting.
So I told him, “OK.” I didn’t call him again. I thought that they had landed safely in Cebu and the reason he was busy was because he was trying to find tickets in a commercial flight.
But about 15 minutes later, around 5, his security in Manila, Paul, called me up. He said, “Ma’am, were you able to talk with Sir?” I was a bit confused because I told him, “Yes, five minutes ago.” I asked why. He said that “a few minutes ago he called me up asking for help to clear the Masbate Airport because they were going to make an emergency landing.”
In fact, I think the airport was already cleared for landing, several officials were there but they reported sightings of a plane that had supposedly crashed into the sea.
It hadn’t sunk in yet so I said, “Could it be Jess and his companions?” Paul said, “Maybe not, Ma’am. Hopefully Ma’am, it’s not them.”
But when I put my phone down, that’s it, I began to think it might be him.
‘My legs like jelly’
I told my youngest daughter first because she was the one with me. I told her, let us pray because something might have happened to Papa’s plane. She was already crying. I decided to call up Aika. She was in Araneta Coliseum watching the UAAP, Ateneo vs FEU. I told her what happened, she left the game, picked up her sister and they went to church.
I also informed my brother-in-law and my sisters-in-law. My youngest daughter Jillian was already crying and she was asking me if we can go to church. I told her, in my condition I don’t think I can drive because I felt like my legs were turning into jelly.
In a few minutes Mayor Bongat and the city council arrived until there were already many people in the house. Everyone was hoping that he would be okay. But after the first night, I knew that he was gone.
Q: Have you talked with the aide (Senior Inspector June Paolo Abrazado) of Secretary Robredo?
Leni: I wasn’t able to talk with him but I texted his father. I said, “Sir, this is Leni Robredo. Please tell June we are very thankful to him, we are thankful that he survived, we knew he took care of my husband … June served my husband very well. He is a good man, he was kind to all of us. That’s why whatever I feel now toward him is the gratitude that everybody feels.”
No longer important
Q: Many people say that he deserves a posthumous confirmation. Do you think this is necessary? What do you think is the best way to remember your husband?
Leni: When the confirmation was scheduled, I think it was last Wednesday or the Wednesday before that, I texted him. We are devotees of the Virgin of Peñafrancia and I was telling him, “Pa, I started the novena today for your confirmation hearing.” I said, “It’s just right because the confirmation hearing would be on the ninth day, a Wednesday.” He said, “Ay, don’t pray for that anymore.” He said, “It’s okay if I am no longer confirmed. Just pray for the midterms of your daughter.”
I’m just speculating but maybe that is no longer that important for him. I think what is more important to him is that he was able to do his job well. For me, it is as if it’s just a formality … I would like to think that not being confirmed was no longer a big thing with him.”
Q: Your husband has been a bastion of good governance and he has been awarded several times. What would the family want to continue the legacy of Secretary Robredo?
Leni: As of now, maybe because we are numb with grief, I can’t think of concrete steps. I would want to continue, not his legacy because I could not do what he had done, but maybe keep his memory alive. Whatever it is, maybe whoever will take his place would continue what he has begun. And hopefully the seeds he had planted in local government units would grow. Because if that does not happen, it’s as if the labors that my husband had done have gone to nothing.
He wants cremation
Q: Have you decided to cremate or bury him in Naga?
Leni: When Jess was alive, that was what he kept saying, that when dies, he wants to be cremated. So most probably, we would be following his wishes. He will be cremated but the people of Naga will be able to visit him. So we are preparing for that.
Q: What do you miss most about Secretary Jess?
Leni: I can’t say because of what we are feeling now. But while we are sad now it’s as if we are still kidding him at home … I am sure that what people have now shown him was beyond his imagination. He was always assured of the love of the people of Naga but it turns out it is not just the people of Naga who love him … He was very hardworking, very passionate about his work.
‘Are my efforts appreciated?’
When he comes home, sometimes he would say, “Will anything that I have been doing amount to anything?” It’s as if he is wondering if his efforts are appreciated because it’s different with the national and the local. Locally, the results are instant and he was used to that. But nationally, the results are not instant and he gets impatient. He would keep on asking: “Are my efforts appreciated?”
I keep talking to him until now, telling him, “See, the people have answered.” I am sure the point will come that we will miss him but right now we are steeling ourselves and we’d rather think that he is very, very happy now.”
Q: What do you think is the greatest thing Secretary Robredo did for the city and the entire country?
Leni: I cannot answer that. What I can say is what he did for our family. Jess was a regular husband, a regular father. He was not a Secretary, not a mayor if he was home. What I mean is he wanted to feel important to us.
He would come home only on weekends and the things that needed fixing were waiting for him—the busted light, the plumbing, the out-of-order telephone, these were waiting for him.
Cup is overflowing
He said one of the reasons why he wanted to come home every weekend was he felt grounded here … Power has its way of getting into you but it’s as if he is saying that every time he comes home, he wants to feel like a regular dad, a regular husband. That whatever it was that needed to be done had to wait for him.
What I want to say is while it might have been unnecessary that we should bother him about trivial things, it made him feel important. He was always doing something for the family. When I say “thank you” to him, he would say, “Least I can do, Ma.”
He would tell me, “It’s difficult to get used to certain things.” He was referring to perks in the office. He would tell me, “It’s difficult to get used to those things because you might get used to them.”
I think that’s why he always came home every weekend. Because that’s the way he was. So when people asked him, “Why do you keep coming back home?” he would tell them, “If I don’t come home, I would lose my head in Manila.”
Q: Do you have any regrets that he went to DILG?
Leni: None. I know he lived a full life. He fulfilled all his dreams. Just last Sunday, the one before this Sunday, we were having a talk. He said, “Quotang-quota na ako!” He said he no longer had any dreams for himself—just for his children. It was as if he was saying that his cup is already overflowing.
It’s as if he was saying, “I never dreamed that these things would happen to me. Sobra-sobra na ito (This is too much already).” And I think he was prepared to face the Lord.
I may have told you that he often went to Confession, maybe two or three times in a month. That’s why he is very ready. For me, I didn’t even question why he was taken so early. That’s how I explain to my children. While what happened was tragic to us because we were not prepared, his kind of death was perhaps a reward for the good things he had done.
Q: The feast of the Peñafrancia is coming. Will Secretary Jess be part of the traslacion and the fluvial parade?
Leni: I think he will be there in spirit.
(Editors Note: Leni Robredo was a graduate of the Universidad de Sta. Isabel in Naga City from elementary  to high school .
She graduated at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1986 with a degree in Economics and took up law at the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City, passing the bar in 1990.
She is the eldest of the three children of retired Naga City Regional Trial Court Judge Antonio Gerona and Salvacion Sto. Tomas. She is at present connected with the Naga chapter of Saligan, a national alternative lawyers’ group helping farmers.)
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