Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Remembering Grandmother

How would you say goodbye? Everyone knew, even if they could not accept it at that moment that the end was near. I stood inside my grandmother's hospital room. My cousin Karol was one of six people endeavoring to restart our grandmother's heart. By that time, how much drug had they already pumped into her and how much time had past, I had forgotten. In the room were my uncle (Glen), his wife (Bilog, my youngest aunt) and Karol's mother (Peachy). They were all doctors. My uncle asked his wife and sister-in-law, if they still wanted to keep fighting for their mother. He was the attending and it was my aunts' mother who lay dying. Though it wasn't my place to comment nor voice my opinion, at that moment, if they had asked me, my choice wouldn't have been the "right one".

I called my grandmother (her given name was Mena), "Lola", which in Filipino means, "grandmother". She was the only grandparent I have ever known. By the time I was born, the years my father had been an orphan were more than the number of fingers that I had and I had the complete set. My maternal grandfather had passed on years before as well. My maternal grandparents started life, poor. They started life working as farm hands. It was through hard work and perseverance that they started grinding and selling coffee. It was an age when having 11 children was more than the norm. By the time their 11th child and youngest daughter came into this world, their business was thriving and they were well off. Yet my grandparents and eventually only Lola had sent all my uncles and aunts and my mother through college. Some people would say that in itself is a worthy achievement but that is not the only thing she did.

The choice made was to keep on fighting. The ICU was two floors down. Having been closest to the door, I held it open and the gurney passed through with all the people around keeping the fight going. They were fighting for my Lola.

My Lola had been sick for years. At the age of 87 years, old age had finally caught up with her. Being in and out of the hospital became the norm for us. Having children, sons-in-law and grandchildren being in the medical field was a boon for my grandmother. Knowing the facts and having relatively a recent experience with death, I had been preparing to say goodbye to Lola for years. Callous it may be, but the fact was, death was inevitable. it was only a matter of time. So when Lola was rushed into the hospital the day before, it was no surprise. It was the norm.

The day Lola was brought back to the hospital, it was my first day out. I had just gotten out of the hospital having spent weeks in one trying to get better. I was itching to go home and getting normalcy back. Even as the discharge orders were cut, and though my symptoms returning, the need to go home was greater. When you've been to hospitals all your life, you kind of develop a distaste for medicine. Well, maybe not for everyone because some children who've lived all their lives surrounded by medicine grow up and join the medical practice. Little did I know that my next hospital tour would be just a day away.

It was decided that Karol and I were going to stay at her parents' house. In my mind that was exile. The rationality of course was that I was still showing symptoms and the cleaner air of the provincial life might do me good. We had barely started to settle in when the call had come. It was my mother, who at the time was visiting Lola. We were to go to the hospital. grandmother was dying.

It was how we found ourselves in that hospital room with Lola. It is really remarkable how one realizes that every moment is special and that there are moments when things do fall into place.

People who have no business in the ICU shouldn't be in there. It was easy to walk in and watch the procedure. I didn't really care for the sign that says to keep out. It was stupid really, looking back at it now: i was still showing symptoms and that was no place for me. I was neither doctor, nor patient. Waiting outside though, that was hard. The doors to the ICU closed and I sat waiting outside. My cousins would come down and sit. My aunts and uncles and mom would swing by. They'd eventually return to the 4th floor, by Lola's room. We were all restless that night.

A few hours later, doctors had stabilized Lola. It wouldn't be the night Lola would pass on. It would be the start of another long stay in the hospital.

My experience with Lola was different from my other cousins. Of those of us who grew up with our grandmother, I probably spent the least amount of time with her. For instance, I never had afternoon naps to wake up with chocolate or treats that Lola would have waiting for them beside their pillow. My cousins did. I didn't know about it until much later. Lola treated me differently.

Growing up, the first Friday of every month for me anyway, was Lola's day. My Lola would travel to Manila every first Friday of the month. It was her custom to visit Quiapo Church in Manila to hear mass. She would visit my parents' house in Manila when she did. It would also be her day of shopping. It was a joy to have her visit.

Just as it was constant for my grandmother to have her first Friday sojourn, during those visits, she always made it a point to slip me money. It wasn't that I needed it, my parents were well off. I never asked for it either. I never approached her for money and it was always her reaching out to hand it, more often secretly slipping it in my palm. I guess it was my grandmother's way of affection. It was almost always kept as a secret between us, rarely handed publicly or blatantly. The amount would vary depending on how much money she had on her. It was between fifty pesos to as high as a thousand. Like any kid, it was always a joy to receive money. By the time Corazon Aquino was president and the five hundred peso bill was introduced, I was about to start my teenage years. My regular stipend grew to the two hundred to five hundred range and sometimes a thousand or more when it was Christmas. My other cousins, rarely got that same treatment. It was good to be treated differently.

When Summer came, it meant a sojourn to Baguio City. Sometimes even a double vacation which would sometimes include a trip to the beach or pool. A convoy of vehicles carrying family members would climb to that mountain city. It was one of those rare occasions, outside of course, Lola's house that my cousins and I hang out. It was always fun. Everyone would be there.

There was this one vacation with my parents, my aunt Bilog and Lola that we went to Singapore. For me at least, in those days, Singapore meant a trip to Toys 'r Us, along Orchard Road. What kid would pass up that chance? It was fun to go around town with them. My aunt and Lola were suppose to go home early (earlier than my parents and I anyway) because my aunt had work to do but a strike in the airport in Manila had forced their flight to be canceled. they were shuttled around Singapore to different hotels. By the end of our stay, we ended up in the same flight home. That was a crazy vacation and I had a backpack full of toys as memories.

* * *

The following morning after grandmother was brought to the ICU, I went to my Lola's room at the fourth floor of the hospital. It was the beginning of a protracted stay in the hospital. By mid-day, we had transferred to a room closer to the ICU. I had brought my iMac and took a corner for myself and set up my temporary base of operations (sickky I may have become, but computers are a part of me). For the agonizing weeks to follow, room 302 would be our family living room and my "office". Room 302 would be the place to meet family friends, neighbors and distant relatives who started to pay their respects.

For me, at least for that long month, every day would begin the same as it ended the previous day: symptoms would manifest itself. I was an outpatient after all. Nights would be spent at Karol's house and the day, I would travel with my aunt to the hospital and having to stay at Room 302 was like killing three birds with one stone. I could simply walk to the ICU from there, which was just right around the corner past the nurse's station and see my grandmother on a regular basis. My aunts and uncles would do their rounds and go about their business and would swing by every couple of hours or so. With my temporary command center inside the room, I had my computer Nevermore to keep myself from going crazy. After school or after work or during their lunch break, my cousins would come to Room 302. Did I fail to mention there was always food there? We would have laughs, we would have games. We would joke around and they would play with my Mac. The kids love photobooth.

As the second week of our hospital tour was coming to a close, another family event was to take place. Joan was turning 18 and her parents had already paid for her debut. The ballroom was ready. I guess she was a bit worried that her party would not go through, if for some reason our grandmother would pass on. Lola put up a bit of a scare the day before Joan's party. It was such that all her children had dropped what they were doing and were gathered around her icu bed. We were expecting Lola to pass on that day.

There is something to be said about things falling into place, doesn't it? She survived.

The following night, Joan had her party and we all enjoyed a good laugh and had fun. When it was time to go, we slipped out to go to the ICU and tell our grandmother about all the fun we were having. It would have been a lot more fun, had she been there.

When the doctors first brought Lola to the ICU, we had started to hope for an improvement. We hoped she would eventually leave the ICU and go back to a regular room. She was frail, she was skinny but that woman lying in that ICU bed was not the grandmother I remembered nor wanted to remember. She had all manner of tubes sticking into her, keeping her alive. If it was my choice and if my aunts, uncles and mother asked for a volunteer, I would have turned the machine off myself out of compassion for my ailing grandmother. All those ethics lessons be damned. But doing that was neither right, nor my place to do so. It doesn't take away the fact that seeing your grandmother like that was painful.

Do you know that proverb, there is a time for everything under the sun?

My grandmother's house was a two story building that was a stone's throw away from the City Market. Its terrace was where we had family Christmas and New Year's day parties. Below that was her store, where she had sold countless metric tons of coffee. Behind the store would be the living area and behind the kitchen and dining room would be where coffee was roasted. It was the only way out of the house to go to where the cars were usually parked: behind the house.

My friends know me for my love of coffee but long before Starbucks became a personal addiction, I have always loved the smell and taste of coffee, especially, the local Barako blend. When I was growing up you can never leave Lola's house without the pungent perfume of barako coffee sticking on you and your clothes. (It also didn't help that we'd always be bringing home freshly ground coffee and it would smell in the car, but i digress.) So fondly, I can blame Lola for my relentless coffee addiction after all, everything my Lola had built in her life was built with coffee.

My Lola's house faced two fires that I know of. The first was when I was a toddler. The house then as it does today stood just across the street from the city market. So when a fire swept through the City Market, my grandmother's house nearly fell victim. It suffered little damage. The second fire, I could remember vividly. My parents, my aunt Bilog and uncle Glen rushed to Batangas when we heard the fire. The huge portrait of Lola and Lolo was gone. The fire devoured the impressive Nara staircase, the old rocking chair, the extensive record collection, the cabinet television set (from Heaven only knows what era) that I spent many mornings of my childhood years during family visits watching Superfriends on it, as well as that life-size statue of Jesus as well as all the photos and personal keepsakes of my mother, my aunts and uncles, just to name a few priceless items that fell victim to the flames. That house would be a memory. The fire engulfed everything.

We were in the alley behind Lola's House as the fire was consuming all that family history. I remember Lola wailing, "Ang bahay ko! Ang bahay ko!" (my house! my house!) over and over. I never understood why she was grieving. Sure there were priceless things lost but it was a place, a thing and she had more land and other houses. I would understand her grief only during her burial.

The morning of July 19, 2006, Mena, my Lola passed on peacefully and quietly.

By midday, the family had brought her to the Cathedral. Two rooms were prepared for our use. The next five days would surprise me. Family friends would come from afar and from all walks of life. My uncle the priest is a member of the local Archdiocese. Daily, priests would be vying to give their blessing and even go to have a Eucharistic Celebration (mass). By my count in those five days, we had mass 55 times, each having at least a 100 people packed in those rooms. The avalanche of flowers from as far as the United States, from friends, from family paled to the sheer number of people to have flooded and visited my Lola's wake lessened the grief the family felt. It was an outpouring of gratitude for a woman who had done so much.

My grandmother had money and had land. Many called her friend not because of her wealth. She had friends from the market and she had friends in high places. My grandmother was loved because she helped a lot of people.

All my grandmother's children had gone to school. But they were not the only ones my grandmother had sent to school and helped out. Lola helped other relatives, cousins and friends to get the benefit of education. She helped those who worked for her in her coffee business get an education. Many of those who had worked for her, still work for the family or have gone to better things in life. They all came back that week to say thank you and pay their final respect to this lady who had done her fair share of doing good.

When my grandmother lost her house, she never rebuilt it. It was in my mind, the end of an era and the moment the last chapter of her life started. Lola had her house in the farm but she wasn't the same. When she was grieving for her house in the city, i didn't realize why back then. It was more than just a house. When my grandmother and my grandfather were young, they didn't have much in life. They started building that house together and for many years after my grandfather had passed on, Lola continued that work. It wasn't her house that was just burning. It was all she had built in her life going up in flames. That must have been a mortal blow to her. My Lola was different after that.

It was very difficult to find a photograph of my grandmother smiling, not just because the house burned down and so many memories over the years with it. One would expect that between her 11 children, 33 grandchildren and 19 (at the time she passed, and at the time this was written, it is now 21) great-grandchildren, someone had to have at least one picture of her smiling. Lola was not the smiling kind, even for weddings (believe you me, we went through those albums). Don't mistake that Lola didn't have a sense of humor. She did but she was always formal and reserved. It was how she grew up and how the years formed her, I suppose. We did eventually find one photograph of her smiling. We found it in one of the albums that my mother has kept in my library at our house in Manila.

If the five days of the wake had surprised me, they came back for her Requiem. It could never be a family affair. Her friends, and family friends, distant relatives had filled the Cathedral. Though it was raining when we walked the few kilometers from the Cathedral to the Catholic Cemetery, people stayed and marched with us. The rain was pouring down hard and we were drenched in our barongs (formal Filipino costume) by the time we had reached the family lot at the Cemetery. Six of us carried our grandmother's casket to where her tomb now is, beside my dad's.

The night my grandmother was taken into the ICU, if it was up to me, my first instinct would have been to let her go and give her the "dignity of dying". Seeing all those tubes plugged into her, is not something I'd like to remember. Like I said, that would have been a mistake. My grandmother was full of life and to give her "dignity to die"", I thought that would be a fitting return of kindness for someone who had done so much good and someone who even when she chastised me, never raised neither hand nor voice. There is no such thing as "dignity" in death, is there? There is such a thing as dignity in living and she of all people I know, lived.

My Lola meant a lot to many people: the coffee seller, the mother, the grandmother, she was fondly, "Lola-Inay". Did it matter that the day we buried grandmother, the sky poured down? For all the trials and hardships she had to endure in her life, grandmother was able to share and give a lot more by showing kindness to people and by helping others achieve. Lola built a life around coffee and she never gave up in her life. In the end, my grandmother's life was complete and happy and the month that we stayed in the hospital with her gave everyone ample time for all of us to say goodbye, while Lola was alive. Though we remember her in those final days of painful hardship, struggling to breathe, standing by her while she lived was more important and it was a happiness that can not be measured. As the rain started to wash away our tears, it could never wash away the rich life Lola had built around Barako coffee nor drown its pungent sweetness so full of life and that will always remind me of grandmother.


tonton said...

my grandmother also recently passed on last february. roughly 11 years ago, my lolo passed on, and i could remember vividly how the undying love of my lola for my lolo was in her heart... right before throwing the first Shovel of dirt, she gestures of jumping down while saying "tuki na ku" 3x (i'll go with you). A bit of Satire there... wherein kids laughed, maybe a bit of dramatic comic relief for everyone... but i imagined how i would react if in the future, if i was the one who becomes a byudo...
So after that, my lola lived her life to the fullest, often going with my mom or tita's to tour asian countries and even twice to the united states. Did what she loved, everyday playing mahjong and Kwaho. The last two years, when she lost her eyesight, became the downfall of her health... Until she had no more will to live. As she came near to our creator, she did not cry a single tear... i suppose, because she was ready to reunite with the love of her life. And that fateful day, she did not even budged for pain... after having her breakfast... she just slept...

Dude, im sure they are all there, looking out for us... protecting us.
A very heartwarming post my friend.

...everything has a reason...


tonton said...

dude... that comment above... is gonna be a start of my blogpost... hehe
once i have a quiet time...

Cocoy said...

thanks! :D