Bien, Hernandez! Celebrate life, cerebrate death

Revised 16 August at 0826 hours, names changed to protect the innocent
MANILA – We have yet to make an art out of mourning the death of a loved one. I remember when my mother died at almost 100 years, we had a party. We celebrated. My brother paid for a band with some pretty young girls to sing and dance for us the whole night through. This was in Asingan, Pangasinan, Central Luzon, the Philippines. And the Hilarios were not the first to hire entertainment on death night. And the girls sang pop songs, and ballads, and rock and what have you, in English, Tagalog, Ilocano. Did we feel remorse? We did feel relieved. Music speaks your language. Music hath charm that soothes the savaged breast.

Bien Hernandez died 27 July 2009 and Cory Aquino died 01 August 2009 (see my 'Cory Aquino's Legacy,' 01 August, americanchronicle.com). A thousand mourned his death; a million mourned hers, and I don't think it's fair. 'Every man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind,' writes poet and preacher John Donne, and he is absolutely right.
We should celebrate a life, not a person. I tell you, the celebrities have already had their reward. In death, what we should celebrate is the life lived, the lives touched, the recollections, the happy little endings.
What is it in death that we hate? The finality of it. It is a door that closes on us and we cannot open it from the inside or from the outside. But we have to learn to accept it – and then make the most of it as much as those of us left behind can.
But it is better if we make the most of the life we have, while we have it. Surely, we the living can lead a life worth remembering so that when we cross the river of no return we can smile. And indeed, in this case, we can smile at last as we learn from the life of Bien Hernandez of the Philippines and New Jersey. Join me as we catch a glimpse of that remarkable life, first from some unremarkable emails:
09 October 2008: Benjamin 'Bien' Hernandez is going to be operated on at Cooper Hospital in Philadelphia 'for a supposedly simple procedure of cleaning his blocked left (carotid artery),' but something happens before that, while the nurse is working on his left arm to start another IV. Bien goes into convulsion; his wife Nenita goes into hysterics.
12 October 2008: At Jefferson Hospital, Nenita watches over Bien like a good wife should. 'She has the TV on 24 hours for brain stimulation,' writes Imelda. (Would nagging help?)
19 October 2008: The doctors ask Nenita her 'position on resuscitation and further life support' and she replies, 'I want to give him enough time to heal.' (She is praying for the impossible. Of course. What else to pray for earnestly if not a miracle?)
20 October 2008: To Imelda, I send a few scanned pages of the book I just edited, Healing Hands, written by Sam Martin, published in Los Baños, Laguna. Those pages speak of healing lessons from the New Testament and of natural healing. (I believe in God's healing and natural healing, which ultimately is from God; I am hoping Nenita does.)
30 October 2008: 'Bien is hanging in there,' writes Nenita. 'He started opening his eyes and blinking, but no sign of awareness of his surrounding! It breaks my heart every time I see him in his hospital bed.' (It breaks the heart even of friends who don't see him.)
06 November 2008: Morinda writes that at the Cooper Hospital last October, what Bien had was another stroke. It might have been triggered by the nurse who was finding it difficult to locate a vein for the IV. (Medical procedures aren't perfect.)
28 November 2008: With the therapist in a facility near their house in Cherry Hill, Bien is showing progress as he can now 'pick up a face towel and wipe his chin!' Nenita writes. (You rejoice at every little triumph.)
30 April 2009: What about a miracle? 'He made the sign of the cross!' Nenita writes. This is the second time he has done it. (Thy will be done?)
15 May 2009: Nenita writes: 'This morning while cleaning his mouth with a swab which I always do, he shook his head, held my hand with swab and said, 'Stop' with a facial expression of 'Enough!' His personality is back. Thank you for the prayers. Hugs and kisses to all.' (Too much too soon?)
02 June 2009: Bien is being evaluated to be admitted as an in-patient. 'It will mean a more intensive rehabilitation that will help him to eventually get much better and be more functional,' writes Nenita. (Here's hoping for the best.)
16 June 2009: Bien is admitted to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want?)
24 July 2009, from Nenita: Bien has gallstones. (My good Lord!)
27 July 2009, from Imelda:
It is with a great sense of sadness and loss that we mourn the death of Benjamin ' Bien' Hernandez, beloved husband of 1958 QPHS Classmate & Co-batch, Nenita Candelario Hernandez, and adored father of Ambrosio, Amado and Lynda. He was a devoted consultant of New Jersey Credit Union Teachers Association who carved a long, distinguished service until he got sick.
QPHS is the Quezon Provincial High School in Lucena City, Quezon Province, about 200 km away from Manila. I knew Lucena City; I came to know Nenita in that memorable suburban town. I never knew her husband Bien Hernandez; I never even saw him – he had been living in the United States; while I have lived all my life in the Philippines. But from the sharings of people who eulogized him, I feel I have known him, and much. (Old photo sent by Imelda that I have deliberately faded 'shows' Bien with yellow shirt, wife Nenita behind him, Virgin Mary to his left, with friends. Some memories must fade, some memories must stay.)
The wife, Nenita, I knew almost 50 years ago. I was studying at the University of the PhilippinesCollege of Agriculture, UPCA, on my 3rd year I think, and I was 1 of 4 guys, gangmates, who fell in love with 4 girls, gangmates. Amelito Llamas, Rodrigo Tolentino, Frank Hilario, Noynoy Paderanga, Nenita Candelario, Imelda Lagrimas, Morinda Savellano, Ramona Lagrimas. Inseparables. We boys all stayed at dorms near the campus at Los Baños, Laguna and the girls all lived in Lucena City, more than 100 km away (Ramona in nearby Pagbilao). But once in a while, the girls would attend some course or training at the Girls Scout Headquarters located in the town proper of Los Baños, and the birds in Mt Makiling would sing. Or we boys would visit in Lucena City, all for one, one for all, and the church bells would ring, if only in my imagination. Love does that to you. Or I would visit the University of Santo Tomas and wait for my girl to come out of her last class so we could talk. I was always well-behaved in those days, if weird, unpredictable, and funny.
Only Nenita and Amelito tied the knot on themselves, and then years later untied it. Then we went on with the rest of our lives, and got married to other people.
Years later, I heard that Imelda migrated to the US, and so did Nenita; Morinda chose Australia; and Ramona stayed in the Philippines. Rodrigo worked with UPCA and then ADB; he retired from there as consultant or something. He and wife Kats now live in a nice house too big now that the children have their own lives to live. Amelito I haven't heard of or seen for ages. Noynoy worked for First Lady Imelda Marcos before (Project Compassion), then with FAO; he is now with Habitat for Humanity.
And I? I wrote an open letter against the celebration of 10 October every year as Loyalty Day by UPCA, arguing that it was loyalty to the Americans and not the Philippines to volunteer to fight in Europe in World War 1 when the Philippines wasn't directly involved – and I became persona non grata to most persons in and out of Los Baños. That was in 1967. You can be logical and wrong. Consequently, I was dismissed from my job as Substitute Instructor; that was the easy part. Feeling aggrieved, I said goodbye to my first love and broke her heart – and mine. Mostly mine. Depression followed, and it looked like it would follow me all the rest of my life. I got married and raised a family of 12 – even as a writer, I had always been prolific.
A good writer but only half as good as a husband and father, my married life was difficult, extremely difficult. My depression would not leave me alone, and my marriage was deteriorating to the point of no return. A return to the fold of the Catholic faith saved my marriage – and sanity. That was New Year's Day in 1991. Today, I'm happy to report that I am with my family, blogs and books. Mostly blogs.
So our Nenita married Benjamin Hernandez and had 3 children: Ambrosio, Amado, Lynda. I am surprised that Bien's life was mostly with family and friends – and foes. Reading the eulogies on Bien that Imelda emailed me, I am struck by the intensity, earnestness and directness of the messages. Straight from the heart, not from the head. These are not handcrafted (like mine would be), but they are exquisite reflections on a life (like each of ours should be). So I had to write this. With my titles and minimal editing, I want to share them with you.
/ 1 /
John Fariñas lost a friend he greatly admired.
He tells us Bien was a brave and kind soul everyone he met would have been blessed. When he became Union President, he worked hard for the benefits of the team members. He was fair; he would try and save your job whether you were an administrator, teacher or a lowly bus aide. 'He never talked about making more money.' He wanted to help everyone, including his enemies. 'If he was told that it couldn't be done, he just worked harder.'
'To Celebrate His Life' by John Fariñas, friend and brother
Sometimes in life, if you are lucky, you meet a person who due to his courage, wisdom and kindness, makes a huge difference in your life. Bien was that person.
In all the years that I knew and spoke with Bien, he never once talked about making more money, or getting a better position, or being recognized for his accomplishments. Bien always wanted to help someone. Whether a person was an administrator, a teacher or a bus aide, he would work just as hard to try and save their job. As a negotiation team member, or as Union President, he worked to improve benefits, to increase wages, and to better working conditions.
If he was told that it couldn’t be done, he just worked harder. He was not afraid to put himself on the line or be ridiculed if it meant righting a wrong. Bien was always concerned that the union had a poor written history and that present members would not know of all the hard work past members did to obtain their benefits and wages. And that members could become complacent.
Bien always wanted to be of help to his family, friends and even foes. We are here to celebrate his life, to mourn our loss, and, just say ‘Thanks.’
Bien was my friend. He was my brother. I will always miss him.
/ 2 /
Amado Hernandez lost a father he loved despite himself.
Can the anguish of losing a friend be as much as losing a father? I think that depends on how much you valued that friendship or that kinship, how much your life had been accidentally touched by someone you didn't know before, or how much your life had been incidentally influenced by fate. We cannot choose our parents, but we can choose our friends. Relationships are important. Bien Hernandez was one of the best friends we never had; how was he as a father to his sons Amado and Ambrosio and daughter Lynda? In his sharing, son Amado shows a loving if lecturing, patient, stubborn father. I can see myself in there somewhere. And yes, Amado's message of celebration shows he can be a good writer if he puts his heart and mind to it. Examples: 'His lectures were legendary.' 'He loved my Mom so much.' (Read and be pleasantly surprised.) 'My Pop was the wealthiest man I have ever known.' (A last great surprise)
'The Celebration Of My Father's Life' by Amado Hernandez, son
Good morning. My name is Amado Hernandez. I am Benjamin's middle child. On behalf of my brother Ambrosio Hernandez, one of the most talented and charismatic salesmen I have ever known; on behalf of my sister Lynda Hernandez-Dorinda, arguably one of the most skilled and knowledgeable pediatric physicians I have ever known; on behalf of our Mom, Nenita Hernandez, definitely the Best Mom in the world, I would like to thank all of you for attending the celebration of my father’s life.
Steven Covey, a well known author, once wrote, the worth of a man’s life can be measured by the legacy he leaves behind. We are Benjamin's legacy. I’d have to say, he's ranked right up there with the very best.
My father, or Pop, as we affectionately called him, leaves an unrivaled and heroic legacy. And it doesn’t stop with us. He was many things to people outside our family circle. He was a loving and caring surrogate father for some, a kind and helpful work associate for others, and a dedicated and knowledgeable business associate to many.
But what I would like to share with you today is a part of Benjaminthat you would not and could not have possibly known about. A glimpse of Benjamin Hernandez, through the eyes of his family.
When my brother, sister and I were young, my Pop tried to teach us lessons about life sometimes through his actions, but most times through long and overdrawn lessons that took the form of lectures. And if you knew my Pop really well, his lectures were legendary. Even as we were already adults, my Pop often used holiday get-togethers and birthdays to teach us something about life and the importance of relationships. I was so happy when my sister and my brother finally had kids. Pop had a new and captive audience other than us.
Two of life lessons that I learned from him was how to persevere during difficult times. The other was how to be truly selfless. I’m still working on both of those. My Pop perfected them.
I’d like to share with you two real life examples of these characteristics in action. I’d like to call the first one the 'Midnight Shift.' The second, 'The Procrastinator Unmasked.'
Perseverance is defined as 'Persisting in or remaining constant to a purpose, idea or task in spite of obstacles.' My father epitomized a person that persevered despite obstacles.
Pop loved to fix things. Sometimes out of necessity, and oftentimes because he loved seeing how things worked. He’d tear things apart then put them back together and more often than not, they’d work better than before. He loved fixing things so much we needed to move to bigger homes so he had more space to store all the tools he kept gathering.
When we were young, we only had one family car at a time. That car was used to take Mom and Pop to work and us to school and practices and everything else in between. Those cars were driven hard. Unfortunately, the cars my parents had when we were young broke down more times than a ’77 Ford Pinto. But since my Pop believed in always saving for a rainy day, he refused to buy a newer car until the current car became unfixable. And believe me, there wasn’t a car he didn’t think was fixable. My 1986 Toyota MR2 still sits on their driveway waiting for the timing chain to be replaced.
When our cars broke down, it would always be in winter, most times before Christmas when money was tight, and always when the temperature outside was below freezing.
One particular night sticks out from the rest. It sticks out because my father never really had the right tools to fix things back then. On this particular night, the problem with the car was a difficult job that really required a mechanic, a hoist and a warm garage.
But with the help of a few of our friends, Andrew and myself, we set out to fix old Tom Jones once again. (Mom named our cars after her favorite singers.) We started right after school with 4 or 5 guys and didn’t end till dawn with just my Pop and I. I forgot exactly what we fixed but the night that I spent with my Pop under that car, frozen like a popsicle and exhausted beyond belief, was one of the most memorable nights I would spend with him.
It was memorable because he refused to give up on fixing that car. He used whatever he could find in the house because he didn’t have tools he needed. One time he brought out a 6-foot metal pipe to loosen a bolt deep within the car’s engine compartment. I held that frozen metal pipe for hours until my hands were numb. We worked hard and long on that car but in the end, after almost 12 hours of arduous work, he finally got the car to work! So despite not having the tools that would make the job easier or the hoist that would lift the car safely above us, or a garage to keep us warm, he persevered and succeeded. He had to – he had to take Mom to work the next day. I’ll never forget the smile he had on his face as the sun shone on it and the engine roared when he turned the key. He just smiled his beautiful smile.
Like the first, the second lesson I learned from him did not come from one of his renowned lectures, but from the way he lived and did things.
My pop loved my Mom so much. I know this to be so because what man in his right frame of mind would put up with a lifetime of nagging, urgings, proddings, and constant reminders about things that needed to be done around the house? My Mom and even some of his closest friends always joked that my Pop was a procrastinator. And that whatever was asked of him would be done – eventually. That was the running joke about my Pop. We joked about how just suddenly and seemingly out of thin air I’d come home and there would be new cabinets on the kitchen walls, a new kitchen island so expertly crafted it looked like Bob the Builder did it himself. There would be a tree house and slides in the backyard for my nieces and nephews. There were statues erected, gardens grown, walls painted, outdoor shower stall installed, and a list of things that would suddenly pop up. Well now I realize why. It was my Mom adding to his list.
But what my Mom and his closest friends probably didn’t realize was that my Pop loved my Mom so much that he kept a mental note or maybe he even kept a journal, of all the things she wanted him to do for her. I’m confident he did the same for his close friends and for us kids. It took him so long to build that island because on his list, that island was probably number 895. He loved my Mom and his kids so much that he listed everything that we asked him to do. And he made sure they were going to be done. So you see, he wasn’t a procrastinator…. No… he was just following that long list. He didn’t want to miss a single thing even if it took him weeks and months and sometimes years. That was his lesson to me.
Loving someone means being selfless and keeping your promises.
Dr Wayne Dyer also wrote about a man’s legacy. He said that a man's legacy cannot be measured by the number of things he owned or the amount of money he had in his pockets. His legacy can be measured by the number of people his life has touched. And how many people love and care for him. Judging by the number of people here, and the number of people that I know love him and will miss him, my Pop was the wealthiest man I have ever known.
/ 3 /
Leroy Hills 
lost a brother he couldn't have.
'Ben' he called him. They became good friends as members of the Camden Education Association. 'Ben was the ever-working member advocate,' Len says. 'He ate, slept, and dreamed about what he could do to improve member rights and benefits.' Oh, 'Ben loved his family,' Len says. 'Ben was a giving person.' He also loved to remodel any old home. 'It was our dream that when Ben retired, we would form a corporation to buy, fix and sell old homes.' Then Ben retired to that Perfect Home in the Sky.
'He Loved Almost Everyone' by Leroy Hills, friend and brother
My friend is gone but not forgotten.
Ben, as I and so many others call him, was like a brother to me. I never had a brother but if I did I would hope that he had the qualities that Ben Hernandez, my brother, not in blood but in spirit, had.
I cannot put a time on when we became friends but we just grew together as we worked for the Camden Education Association. From this association we became good friends.
Ben was the type of person that you could depend on no matter what the problem was. We worked together for over 20 years and never had a problem getting along. We had an understanding that we could disagree without being disagreeable. We talked about our work for the United Associations (Local, County, State and National). We always talked about not taking the work problems personally – to separate our personal feelings from the representation of the membership. Ben was the ever-working member advocate. He ate, slept, and dreamed about what he could do to improve member rights and benefits.
I remember my first term as the President of the Camden Education Association. This was during the time when the state contract settlement averages were no more than 5% and we were about to settle at 7%. The next thing I knew, Ben had talked to Superintendent of Camden City Schools, Dr Webster, and was able to get a quarter of a point more.
Some on the team were outraged because they were satisfied with less, but Ben was always trying to get more for the membership. The problem with so many of our members was they did not understand salary guides and how they were constructed. Ben did!
Ben loved almost everyone. He loved his family and talked constantly about his grandchildren. If you were to visit his office at the Camden Board of Education on the first floor you would have seen the walls surrounding his desk covered with pictures of every phase of their lives.
Ben was a giving person. I believe he would give you the shirt off his back if you asked him. Ben loved to do construction and home repair work. Nenita, his wife, kept him busy remodeling their home. I was constantly calling Ben with electrical projects of my own and if he could not instruct me over the phone he would set a time to come by my house to help me fix the problem. It was our dream that when Ben retired we would form a corporation to buy, fix and sell old homes.
So this dream will never come to reality. But dreams may live on forever. This will be a dream I will keep in my heart forever.
Goodbye Friend and Brother. I will miss you.
I know a very popular modern messiah (oh, how she suffered for her people), someone who forgave two known thieves who were crucified by the public in 1986 and 2001, and whose sins were broadcast for all the world to hear, but even at the last minute of her life, she could not forgive the supposed thief whom the people had yet to crucify. She who has no sin, let her cast the first stone. Love your enemies! commands Christ. Good Lord! Love, so easy to say, so hard to do.
I wasn't perfect either. I could not forgive the Spaniards for enslaving my ancestors for more than 300 years; I could not forgive the Japanese for wreaking havoc on my country in World War 2; I could not forgive the Los Baños loyalists for volunteering to fight in a war that did not involve the Philippines; I could not forgive those who did not treat me as the Christians they called themselves. I was whom I despised.
As I read it, the life of Benjamin Hernandez shows that to love truly is difficult but it can be done. Gracias. Muy Bien, Hernandez! A life spent in living well and loving even better is a life we can recall always in fondness and always in gratitude.
Now then, learning from Bien Hernandez, family man and friend, and John Donne, poet and preacher, if we each write our life as a love poem, we don't have to be a preacher to be one.

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