In the face of fear, anguish or the prospect of death we cling to memories, where bits and pieces of joy, hope and, ultimately, life remain intangible but palpable. As always I turn to writing in dealing with my grief.
Yesterday was my lola’s 90th birthday. Already she felt weak so we brought her to the hospital. But the doctors said she was okay and we brought her home. We gave her cake and I thought I might have to blow the candles for her. But she blew it herself and with such strength.
Today she’s here in the ICU fighting for her life. She’s in a deep sleep and she can’t hear me or feel me when I kiss her forehead. We are waiting. For life or death we’re not exactly sure.
The doctors tell us to have her receive the last sacraments. They also say that this might be the best time to contact relatives in far off places. We are being prepared. For what I’m not exactly sure. Or perhaps I simply do not want to be sure.
I wish to talk about my lola. I wish to remember. I watch her now looking into the distance with empty eyes, her tongue hanging out of her mouth, the machines around and connected to her showing more life and movement than this shell of the person she used to be in this cold, damp room. And so I cling to memories of her. I cling to life. I cling to her.
Should death come as everyone in this family and hospital seem to be sure of, it will be an event significant to a relative few. I remember attending a funeral of this woman whose power and influence was great. Her death filled a hall bigger than our house with friends and family. There were videos, picture collages, speeches. Articles proclaiming her achievements were printed in the papers.
Compared to this my lola’s impending death will seem unimportant. But to a boy who spent his childhood in fear and love of her, her impending death will be worst than anything that has happened in his life so far.
Make no mistake about it, my lola was fierce. She was a storm of a woman at a time when I was a storm of a child. Children in our streets feared her, dogs , except our own, ran away from her. Her tongue was sharp, her stares deadly and her walking stick, dangerous.
I spent many afternoons playing hide and seek and patintero with our neighbors. Once the sun comes down my lola’s shouts of “Pumasok ka nga dito, damuho ka!” would fill our streets and I would hide behind rocks or trees. When she found me, as she was sure to, I’d be in so much trouble. She’d scream, I’d scream and she would threaten me with a walking stick. Finally I’d use my ace: “Hindi niyo ko mahal!” and she’d visibly soften. No sorries or I love yous. We’re not that kind of family. But she’d pick me up from where I was throwing tantrums and bring me inside.
Because my mom works in some other city, I’d spend most nights beside lola. After a screaming bout where I’d vomit hurtful words I soon regretted I would lie awake in bed. I’d make sure she was asleep and tell her sorry or I love you. But never to her face. That would’ve been embarrassing.
My lola was never involved in NGOs or charitable works, she had no real property or treasure, she wasn’t affectionate, but she took care of us in her own way. Sometimes I would ask my mom to tell me stories of when they were kids. She’d tell me how my lolo was shot to death at the age of 50 leaving my lola to fend for the family on her own. She would sell vegetables in the market so my mom and her siblings could go to school.
When I was born she cared for me everyday. She’d wash me, cook for me ( I only liked porkchop and giniling, so these she cooked every day) and watch Disney cartoons with me. She would tie my hair in a ponytail above my head like the cavemen in cartoons so my hair would grow thick and strong or so she said. To this day I thank her for that. She’d bring me to school and chase after kids who bullied me with her walking stick. She would even let me eat from her sari sari store but not without the customary “Bayaran mo ‘yan ha!”
I grew up, went to Manila to study and thought about her less and less. But as we both grew in age, our relationship changed. I would find out how proud she was of me, how she would always talk about me to our neighbors. When we talked over the phone, it would always be the same conversation. We would ask each other if we’ve eaten and what we were doing. She would always end with “Matulog ka na at huwag ka ng labas ng labas,” even if it was only 7 in the evening and I was already 25 years old. To her I was always that scrawny, little boy who went off without her permission.
The few times I went home to the province, I would sleep beside her. I’d like to say that it was because I wanted to look after her. But the truth was I was afraid of my own shadow and needed her company. She’d still cook me breakfast and buy me taho.
And still she defended me from bullies. When I had a terrible altercation with an uncle who tried to come at me, ready to punch me in the face, she came between us and pretended to faint so my uncle would stop and leave me alone.
When she found out I was leaving for the states to study, she told everyone who cared to listen in our neighborhood. She was extremely proud and supportive.
Yesterday morning, her birthday, she was feeling all weak and could barely move. But when I walked to her she lit up. She held my hand until she fell asleep, squeezing it every now and then.
That night I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that it was my last day home. Loneliness overcame me and I found myself in her room. She was asleep. I took pictures of her because I wanted to remember, I held her hand, prayed for her, cried, kissed her and told her I loved her, until she woke up angrily and said “Patayin mo ang ilaw!” Even in her sleep she would not allow sappiness to filter through our relationship.
This morning, her children were once more fighting. And despite her weakness, she screamed “Magtigil na kayo!” Frail and in diapers she still took charge and took care of her children and family. She was fierce that way.
Then she could barely speak and looked into the distance. We asked her questions but she didn’t answer. In the emergency room I kept asking her questions but only got her silence. Finally I asked her, “Kilala mo pa ba ako?” and she spoke and said yes. It would be poetic to say that this was her last words to me. But I also asked her if she was hungry and she also said no. That was last.
Should death come there will be no grand funerals or long speeches. There will be no obituaries or picture collages. There will only be her strength, her storm, her love. And that will be enough.
I leave in 4 days carrying this grief, this desire to remain with her. But I hope she knows that I bring her with me, that I will work hard to make sure that she remains proud of me. My life will be an extension of hers.