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Losing a child: ‘Ako na lang sana, Lord’

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 28, 2022 5:00 am

Shortly after New Year, I got a call from former Antique Gov. Salvacion Zaldivar-Perez, whom I fondly call “Tita Sally.”

“Joanne, I am so sad,” she said. Before I could ask her why, she sobbed, “I just lost my son.”

Those who have lost children, of whatever age, describe their loss as grief like no other. In the natural rhythm of life from time immemorial, children usually bury their parents, not the other way around.

Tita Sally’s eldest son was Dennis Patrick, 58, a Regional Trial Court judge. Dennis was appointed judge in Binangonan, Rizal at the young age of 42. His lolo, the late Supreme Court Justice Calixto O. Zaldivar, known as the “dissenting justice” (because he, along with then Chief Justice Roberto Concepcion, opposed martial law by stating that the 1973 Marcos Constitution was not validly ratified), was his idol.

Dennis finished his Bachelor of Laws in UP in 1993 and passed the Bar the following year.

Judge Dennis Perez is sworn into office by Justice Consuelo Ynares Santiago as his wife Junette and mother, former Gov. Sally Zaldivar Perez, look on. Dennis passed away before Christmas.

When Tita Sally found out her son had died, she said she told God, “Ako na lang sana, Lord.”

We found him lying on the floor propped up by pillows. I bent and caressed and kissed his still warm face. I could literally feel my heart being crushed.

This is the story she told me in between sobs, and I am sharing her outpouring:

‘My world had collapsed’

On Dec. 19, a Sunday, at 10:15 p.m., I was happily watching a Korean telenovela when my phone rang and at the other end of the line was my frantic daughter-in-law Junette, saying, “Ma, I think Dennis is having a heart attack. Please help me look for an ambulance.”

Though shocked, I didn’t panic. I called my physician-niece for assistance. The ambulance arrived with paramedics who tried their best to revive my son but to no avail. It seemed that my whole world had collapsed!

The tragic event was not only very sudden but totally unexpected. I was just talking to Dennis over the phone the day before. On the morning of the day he passed away, Dennis was still playing games with his only son, Thurgood.

Sally Perez and her children Dennis, Roselyn and Noel at Malacañang after she took her oath as governor before President Arroyo.

With my two other children, we rushed to their condo in Pasig. We found Dennis lying on the floor propped up by pillows. I bent and caressed and kissed his still warm face. I could literally feel my heart being crushed, but thank God I was distracted by so many arrangements I had to make.

We went home at 4 a.m. and of course, we all could not sleep. Although still in denial, I prayed hard and repeatedly kept telling our Lord, “Ako na lang sana, Lord. I am already in my eighties. My son is only 58 years old.”

Dennis was an active member of Christ’s Commission Fellowship or CCF, founded by Peter Tan Chi. I am very grateful to his CCF colleagues because they were present during the time of his death, cremation, Zoom, and burial services. Their presence was such a great comfort to me because they knew about my son’s activities more than I did.

A day after the cremation, there was a well-attended Zoom service at the CCF building. Aside from Dennis’ wife, Dr. Junette Alvarez Perez, an economics professor at De La Salle, and their son Thurgood—named after the African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—I was asked to speak.

Although always on the verge of tears, I spoke about his happy childhood, his student days at the Ateneo, his being special because he was our first child. When his father Jose Gaston Perez, died also at age 58 and also of a heart attack, Dennis was 23 years old. Suddenly he became the man of the family!

Former Antique Gov. Sally Perez

Because he did not want to burden me, he asked for permission if he could go to law school as a working student. I was very grateful to then Senate President Jovito Salonga for hiring him as part of his legal staff. During the day, my son would work in the Senate and at 5 p.m. take the bus to UP Diliman for his evening classes.

I could see how difficult his schedule was but he was determined and always assured me, “Don’t worry, Ma. Kaya ko.” He belonged to UP evening class of 1993. Right after graduation, he took the Bar and easily passed it with a respectable grade of 83 percent. When I attended his oath-taking at the PICC, I was a very proud mother!

After practicing law for 10 years, Dennis was appointed RTC Judge by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It was also her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, who appointed Dennis’ grandfather to the Supreme Court in 1965. My son was an RTC Judge for 16 years.

Three-year-old Dennis with his idol, his late grandfather former Supreme Court Justice Calixto Zaldivar and cousin Anna Florcruz.

In 2007, when I got re-elected as governor of my province of Antique, I requested my son-judge to administer my oath of office. Antiqueños said we made history because normally, it’s the mother administering the oath to her son, not the other way around. Anyhow, the occasion was the happiest and proudest moment in the Perez family!

Compassionate judge

I was pleasantly surprised and greatly consoled when I listened to the many tributes during the Zoom and burial services for Dennis. It was like rediscovering the many sides of Dennis’ life. Listening to his classmates, CCF colleagues, and fellow judges, I realized that my son’s chief attribute was that he was a hardworking and God-fearing judge.

A CCF colleague praised his active involvement in a Bible study for children. Because he was always simply and casually dressed, a seven-year-old girl reportedly once asked him, “Are you a real judge?” And he answered, “Yes, I am. But if you don’t believe me, I will hold you in contempt!”

As a classmate said, Dennis had a sense of humor and he did not take himself seriously. But what impressed me most was that he dispensed justice with a spiritual dimension.

According to another CCF colleague, whenever he sent convicted people, especially the young, to prison, he would talk to them first, ask them why they committed their crimes and end up telling them that we are all sinners and therefore we must give ourselves chances for redemption through repentance and by asking our Lord for forgiveness.

In other words, while my son was upholding the rule of law, he was, at the same time, giving hope to these convicts. Indeed, I found these gestures of my son very touching. Perhaps Dennis had started an unusually humane way of dispensing justice.

Although my son passed away at a young age, I felt very comforted when I heard stories about his competence, kindness and humility. His was a life well-lived. For that, his widow Junette, his only son Thurgood, his sister Roselyn, his brother Noel and I are greatly inspired and very grateful to our Lord for giving Dennis to our family!