Friday, September 30, 2016

Grief and loss.

My lola's family was among the many who went into hiding during the Japanese occupation of the motherland. Since they were fleeing mostly on foot, there was only so much they would be able to carry with them. So of course it makes total sense that my lola and her sister decided to pack their makeup, too. I'm not certain of the exact items they carried, but the mental picture of my lola and her sister as young women toting Revlon and Max Factor in handkerchief bundles as they passed through jungles and small towns makes me smile. This is my favorite story about my mother's mother, because it so perfectly illustrates what our family and friends remember and love about her: her ladylike resilience in the face of hardship. Well, that resilience ... and a mean game of mahjong.


Serving that 16-year-old beauty queen realness in 1936.


On September 2, my lola passed away near her home island in the Philippines. Her only ailments were those that came with her age; after all, at 96, we couldn't expect her to live forever. Hers was a peaceful death, and her three living children were able to be with her as she received her last rites and sacraments. She'd made her arrangements many years ago and was very specific about her wishes, so all in all, the pragmatist in me says it was the best possible situation. Although I knew my sister, our cousin, and I would mourn her, I don't think any of us anticipated feeling her loss as deeply as we did during that first week.

It has been especially hard for my sister and me to say our goodbyes. For one thing, unlike our cousin, we could not make it to the funeral, between her work schedule and the unknown whereabouts of my passport, which I didn't think I would need anytime soon. Of course we were sad that we could not be there physically for the funeral, but I know we will make a trip back one day to visit her grave. Geography is something that cannot be helped, even in the best of circumstances. That is the easy part.

For me, the hard part is knowing that I have said goodbye to my lola twice before, and now I have to do it for real. I know she is at peace, but I feel guilty that I didn't spend enough time with her when she lived with my family. I knew her, and yet I never really did -- something that never seemed to bother her, because she loved her grandchildren unconditionally and took pride in us, warts and all. (I think it is easier to love grandchildren after having been around the block with your own children.)


Disney World, July 1997: My lola, my mom, and their American girls.


My sister aptly said that mourning is difficult and confusing, particularly when you only got to know one side of a person who is closed off to you for a myriad of reasons. There's a line in the movie "Big Fish" where Billy Crudup's character, Will, says that he and his father were "like strangers who knew each other very well." I can tell you so many things about my lola: I could tell you that she once hiked a local Virginia mountain in high heels. That she was a teenage beauty queen in her home province. That she always knew how to make Ramen noodles the way my sister and I liked it (with egg drop, frozen vegetables, and just enough seasoning). That she always made sure we had our afternoon "merienda" after school. That she watched the news every night and my first real exposure to current events was while I played quietly at her feet. That she once sprained her wrist trying to carry me as a baby because I was so fat and she had misjudged my weight. That her father was Spanish and she was so tickled when we started to learn that language in school (and especially when my sister became fluent). That at practically every Filipino party, you would find her at the mahjong table with her winning tiles, snatching everyone's money like it was no big deal. That she quit smoking cold turkey. That she was a champion bargain shopper, whether she was at Belk, an outlet mall, or her favorite shopping destination, Singapore. That my father called her a "girl scout" because she always had whatever anyone possibly could need in her purse (she must be where I get that from). However, a few years ago, when I noticed her starting to slip away, I realized these details were superficial ones and I desperately wanted to learn more about her. But it was too late. And my failure to mine our extended family history as well as her personal history is something I will always regret. Somehow, everything I know about her will have to be enough.




All of this guilt stems from the fact my lola helped raise my sister and me. She moved in with my family when I was 7 years old to help my mother, who was helping my dad start a new business. When my lola made the decision to permanently return to the Philippines, I was 23. She was a few weeks away from her 90th birthday. This means I had sixteen years to get to really know her. And I didn't. I spent those sixteen years trying to be everywhere BUT home with her. I try to tell myself that the gap between us was a mixture of the youthful frivolity and teenage angst coupled with generational and cultural clashes, that children were meant to be seen and not heard back in her day, that each other's concepts of a grandparent-grandchild relationship were completely different but it was fine as long as I was a good girl ... but this never should have been an excuse. Those gaps weren't necessarily unbridgeable. The bottom line is that I should have tried harder. Now that she is gone, every answer to every question I have for her also has gone with her, and there aren't enough words to express how profoundly sorry I am that I missed my chance. My sister and I will never have another grandparent.

The last time I saw my lola and got to kiss her and hold her hand was in May of 2012, during my family's most recent trip as a full unit of four. (If you want to go into the archives, I shared some photos from that trip.) We visited her just about every day and she seemed to be doing well, but my mother didn't tell her we were leaving for the States until the day we actually left. My lola greeted me by a nickname I'd given myself as an infant when I started talking, and for a second it was like she was her old self again. I remember furiously blinking back tears as we drove away to the airport because because I knew, deep down, that this would be the last time we saw each other. I remember being so angry and anxious before that trip without knowing how to articulate it, but now I think I was scared of how I would react to seeing a different, more fragile aspect of her.


Richmond, Dec. 2007, before my college graduation. I almost cried again when I saw this photo because my eyebrows were SO BAD and my glasses frames did nothing for my face. 


Amidst all this sorrow and guilt, believe it or not, is relief and joy. Relief, because my lola was ready, and had been for some years. I first sensed it when she returned from her sister's funeral a few years ago. My lola was around 88 or 89 then; the woman we hugged and kissed goodbye in front of airport security a few weeks earlier was not the woman who came back to us. She was frail, pensive, and somber. Quite tellingly, she put away her mahjong set. (Not too long after this, she stopped speaking English and spoke primarily in her native dialect.) The change in her was incredibly jarring. Shortly afterward, she decided to return to the Philippines for good. I couldn't wrap my head around it and I asked my mother why she was going back when both of her daughters were in the States, where she had access to healthcare and overall a better quality of life. At first, my mother's blunt reply was that my lola was going back because she was going home to die. I kept asking why. My mother said that I wouldn't understand yet, but someday I would feel compelled to spend my last days where I was born. I facetiously asked her if that meant my sister and I would flop onto the Jersey shore like sea turtles. My mother knew that wasn't what I was really saying and told me to drop it. But over the last few years, watching my mother and my aunt look on as my lola gradually deteriorated and weakened has been so wrenching. Apart from the emotional toll it has taken on them, the practicalities of finding someone to care for my lola as well as someone to cook and keep house for her have been a logistical nightmare. I know here in America it is hard enough to find a trustworthy, competent caretaker -- now imagine what that's like when your loved one is halfway across the world. In fact, we were having trouble finding a new caretaker in the last few weeks of her life. In her way, I think my lola understood the complexity of the circumstances. Despite the inevitable turnover every few months, we are indebted to all of my aunt's friends who helped either by finding replacement "staff" or by dropping in to spend time with her, ultimately keeping her company until her children could be there to say their last goodbyes. [I know this aspect of eldercare is not something that is discussed on a nail blog (or in most places), but this was my family's reality and has colored the swirl of emotions and memories I am trying to unpack. Additionally, this might well be my future reality should my parents choose to settle abroad.] Once or twice a year, she would have health scares that sent my mom and aunt scurrying to book plane tickets, refill her prescriptions, and pack carry-on bags of supplies and black clothing, just in case. But she always rallied as soon as they arrived. This went on for the last six years, so when my aunt's friend told us that my lola was not eating or talking and only sleeping, I didn't think this truly would be the end. She'd always pulled through before. Her 96th birthday celebration was in June. We thought she would make it to 100, like one of her relatives.

There is joy, because at last my lola is reunited in spirit with all her dearly beloved ones whose deaths preceded hers. In my heart, I knew the physical and emotional transformation she experienced after her sister's death was the culmination of all her compounded losses. If my math and memory are correct, my lola was a widow for nearly half of her life. Her husband, my lolo, died long before his American grandchildren were born, but he was never far from my lola's, my mother's, and my aunt's minds, even after all these years. At least once or twice a week, one of them would remark, "If your lolo was alive ..." so in spite of us never knowing him, his mark on that side of the family was deeply felt. (At least two of my cousins' names are derived from his, and his name definitely was in the mix during both of my mother's pregnancies.) I believe it was also because of my lolo that my cousin, my sister, and I never addressed our lola as "Lola," which is quite unusual in Filipino custom. We merely copycatted our mothers, who addressed her with the same endearment that their father had used. To me, the use of that name seemed like a way to keep my lolo's memory at the forefront, much in the way that his earthly presence had been so dominant.


My lola and lolo in what must be the late 1960s, going by those shades.


There is joy, because now my lola can be with her sons again. My lola and my lolo had six children, four boys and two girls (my mother, the daddy's girl, is the fifth of six). In a span of four years, three of my uncles overseas died, mainly from complications of cancer. I remember being unsure of how to process my grief at the time, because I had met those uncles only three times and while my memories of them are nothing but warm and fond, they remained benevolent, affectionate strangers; it was seeing how much their deaths affected my lola that distressed me the most. The last time I remember all of my lola's children being in the same room was when we celebrated her 80th birthday in 2000. It was the first of my lola's lavish birthday celebrations, for which we rented out a hotel ballroom on the island, had catered food, hired a DJ and DIs (dance instructors- common at Filipino parties). I could see that her heart was full to bursting with happiness, but she would have been just as content to be with her children at a gathering on a smaller scale. I know she looked forward to her parties, but every June until she died, she started to look a little less present and a little more tired.




Here in the States, a birthday gathering or holiday in my family was never complete without an often times comically awkward phone or Skype call with her, even though she barely could hear us toward the end. We had to yell, "Hello!" which I had to do as recently as two weeks before she died. These calls were non-negotiable to my mom and aunt. After dinner, we could expect to pass the phone around; later we crowded around the computer to Skype. It will be strange not to do this any more. The last few years have been tumultuous for our family for reasons separate from her condition, and our lola's death is another event that makes my sister, our cousin, and I feel as though the rug has been pulled from underneath us, so to speak. Not until now had I ever really considered how much more our family dynamics will change without our matriarch, our constant. The realization that the upcoming holiday season will be the first one without her is a tough one. It's been impossible not to think of her this month, as my sister, our cousin, and I all have September birthdays that we experienced without her being a phone call away for the first time. And my lola's wedding anniversary was on September 20th. On my father's birthday, she was buried next to my lolo, bringing them together for the first time in roughly four decades. I think that's beautiful.

If you read this post, thank you. I am very aware that much like "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 8 contestant Thorgy Thor, I could stand to learn to edit. But for whatever reason, I find myself working things out when I write, and I really needed that catharsis. Grief in its many forms is complex, and I needed to be able to examine mine. I've written about my sister on this blog. I've written about my aunt. So when I sat down to write a few words about my lola the day after she died and somehow this post came out, I felt a little better. I just wanted to wait to be in a better headspace to go through it again and post it, so that everything might be relatively fresh -- but not raw, if that makes sense. Additionally, this Sunday makes one month since she died, and it seemed like the right time. I've since spoken with my cousin and my parents, who showed me photos from the funeral, and in some odd way, that has helped bring about some closure. Not a lot. But some. And that will have to be enough until I can get over there.

However, to keep it legal: Here is a crappy picture of Essie Hiking Heels, after 5 days. I used Essie Good to Go top coat and this manicure looked damn good. My mom used to ask me to give her a polish to bring back to my lola, who preferred the typical grandma colors, but also enjoyed bright coral reds. I think she would have approved of this one.




I put on this one the night after she died, before I raced from my parents' house to see my sister so we wouldn't have to be alone. My sister remarked that perhaps "high femme" mourning would be appropriate for a woman who always took pride in her appearance to the point where she accompanied my parents on my college tours in high heels. (A few days later, another cousin in the Philippines posted that even toward her last days, our lola would not accept visitors if she had not applied red lipstick first.) In that first week, I couldn't get it together to do more for myself than shower, force feed myself, and wonder why my face was so blotchy -- but nails, I could do.

I will end by saying that my lola could be very stern and frustratingly old-school hardline at times. Every time a male friend would drop us off after school or pick us up, she could be seen peeping suspiciously at the driveway behind her blinds; once I was so embarrassed that a male classmate who witnessed this one night asked our teacher if she could give me "extra EXTRA credit." And if my lola caught my sister or me playing music or turning on the TV on Good Friday, she shut it down real quick. She was horrified when I learned how to whistle as a child and hated it whenever I whistled, because according to her, ladies did no such thing. The night she died, I found myself whistling a song she often hummed or sang around the house, and that made me laugh. It also made me cry when I spent the next day and a half listening to it on loop, using those three minutes and fifteen seconds of music and lyrics as a sort of emotional salve.




If you are on good terms with your grandma and you still get to see her, tell her you love her. Spend time with her and ask her to tell you about herself. As we get older, so too do our grandparents, but when they go, your grief will be easier to manage if you have these stories and memories to hold on to. I know I am lucky to have every precious scrap I do have of mine: old photos, a song, a Revlon, her mahjong set. I just can't help wishing I had more.