Keithley: Life and death of a fighter
When Edsa ’86 heroine June Keithley was finally called by God at exactly 6:45 p.m. on Sunday, she heaved a big, long sigh, with her head on one side, resting gently on a pillow.
Her only son Diego, 38, a UNTV broadcaster, broke down, crying, as he hugged his mother tight, drawing to a close the final chapter of Keithley’s epic battle with the Big C.
Surrounding her in her last hours were just immediate family, aside from Diego: his wife Angel, their children, daughters Angelica, 15, Giana, 14, Rafa, 12, son Mio, 6; sisters Gabriela and Ika, both 21; and sisters-in-law Grace Castro-Tuason and Cherry P. Castro.
Filipinos know the name June Keithley: the voice that sparked the first peaceful people power revolution in the world that brought the long-ensconced Marcos dictatorship to its knees.
Broadcasting nonstop for 14 hours, from Radio Veritas and then from dzRJ, then camouflaged as Radyo Bandido (after the former was bombed by the Marcos military), Keithley called upon the people to gather at Edsa to protect the ragtag band of rebel soldiers in Camp Aguinaldo, led by then Defense Minister, now Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and then Constabulary chief Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, who went on to become President, succeeding Corazon C. Aquino.
It is a name that has left an indelible mark in contemporary Philippine history and, for her tenacious courage, a grateful nation gifted her the Legion of Honor, the highest honor bestowed on civilians.
Keithley’s Legion of Honor medallion now hangs on the lid of the casket that bears her body, lovely and peaceful in repose, at St. Ignatius Cathedral in Camp Aguinaldo.
Saga of bravery
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, her battle with the disease was just as epic, in the large canvas depicting Keithley’s saga of bravery and sacrifice, revealed only in the privacy of the family nucleus and close friends.
Confined at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City for six months, “she has defied all common knowledge of medicine, according to her doctors,” Diego said. “They were at a loss” on why his mother was still alive. She should be dead, they told him.
And her body was certainly ravaged by the spreading cancer. She could open her eyes but rarely. She could hardly talk.
“Her mouth muscles were infected,” Diego said. “The right part of her brain was somewhat gone. Puro tubig na (It was all water). She was blind and deaf.”
But as she fought it, she lived—despite its invasion of her breasts, then her brain and eventually, her other organs.
Recounted Diego: “She could hear and recognize voices. She’d tear up and cry. She would raise an eyebrow.”
She watched Korean telenovelas and her favorite ABS-CBN shows.
Diego laughed softly as he recalled his mother slanting her “tiger eyes” in dismay if the TV set was hooked to a show she did not like. To show displeasure, Keithley would wince and furiously blink her eyes.
Before confinement at St. Luke’s, she continued to live the way she wanted—engaged, involved.
Voice gradually silenced
She regularly attended Cinema Evaluation Board meetings as a member, ably hosted parties and family reunions at her home, wrote a column for this paper, among other things.
Others would just note the suffering, the toll of cancer on her body: rapid weight loss, from a hefty, healthy frame to a mere 100 pounds; she wearing a turban to hide a balding head. The gradual weakening until she had to use a wheelchair. The gregarious storyteller and funnybone reduced to a speechless stammer. The shrill, girly voice that could break out into a beautiful soprano as she sang gradually silenced.
Will to fight
The echo of that voice, her lust for life, still reverberates in the memories of people who knew and loved her, and the countless thousands who heard her and came to Edsa bearing flowers, food, rosaries, crosses and images of the Blessed Virgin.
To Diego, his mother did not “suffer” cancer. “Because I know. She was not just my mother. She was my friend. I was very close to her.”
When her doctors told her she had cancer, Keithley accepted it calmly. “But the will to fight was there.” And there was no anger, no denial.
For Diego and his sisters, losing both parents to cancer was difficult. His father, Angelo Castro Jr., creator of ABS-CBN’s “TV Patrol” and coanchor of the nightly ANC newscast, “The World Tonight,” with Tina Palma, died of lung cancer at 67 just last year.
With both parents seriously sick, at one time both confined at St. Luke’s, Diego spoke of his own struggle. There were the many times of crying alone in the bathroom. And in these last six months of his mother’s life, he was practically living in the same hospital room, sharing a bed with wife, Angel, and son Mio.
Diego’s birthday will fall on the last day of this month—Nov. 30. In the last two weeks of Keithley’s life, he was telling his mother not to go gentle into that good night, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote.
It wasn’t right anymore for her to just hang on, hooked on an oxygen tank, he says. “Go, Mom. You don’t need to be here on my birthday.”
She heard. In her heart, June Keithley must have known that everything in Diego’s world, as well as Gabriela’s and Ika’s, will be all right.
So she went.
June Keithley died at the young age of 66.
As befits a hero of the Edsa Revolution, her body lies in state at the military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
On Thursday morning, her body will be taken to ABS-CBN, where necrological services and a Mass will be held for her at 6 p.m., network chief Bong Osorio said.
The military will give her full honors at her funeral at Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina City on Friday.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the military, said the honors would include pallbearers, the playing of the Taps and a gun salute.—With a report from Christian Esguerra