When death takes away a loved one, your whole world stops. Our world stopped. We re-prioritised. We revalued. Re-evaluated. The problem is even when our world stopped, the world around us hasn't. Work piled up. Amortisation. School activities. Kindergarten. Community activities. Life.
I wish there was a pause button where we could properly grieve and heal. But life doesn't work that way. It goes on and one of the greatest fears we have is that when life takes over, we forget that we've lost a loved one. Ronnel shared this with me and this was one of the fears I had when I lost mama. Only now he articulated it so well that I remember why I started wearing bright red lipstick then. Why I wore her clothes. Why I couldn't give away her belongings. Because I was afraid that with time passing and life's business, I will forget mama. When I heard Ronnel say that I realised how impossible my fears were then, impossible but real. It is impossible to forget a loved one, as there's that gaping hole in our heart. You can't see that hole but it's very real. Every pinch we feel when we hear their favourite song or read their favourite verse reminds us of that hole. But I know this feeling, the fear of smiling too soon, of laughing too soon, of living too soon.
I have no answer for Ronnel for this. I can only support him through this process. It's doubly hard for him because he had no time to prepare. With mama, I had a few months. Ronnel had only a few days. And some of those days I even took away. I pray that he forgives me. I would have made different choices if I knew then what I know now. But life also doesn’t have a rewind button. We cannot change the past but we can change the future. We make tequila out of lemons. We look at the time we have and heal as much as we can in whatever way we can.
One way to heal is to honour. Yesterday was the 40th day since Tatay left this world. In Filipino Catholic tradition, we celebrate the 40th day to mark the soul's entry to heaven. There are no strong biblical origins of this tradition but it is a venue for the family to pray and come together once more to honour a loved one's passing. As we are far away, we had our own small gathering of five and prayed the novena with a makeshift altar for Tatay.
I’d like to honour Tatay by sharing the lessons I’ve learned from his life. I did this with mama too and hope that in this way, it can cover that hole in our hearts a bit. Here are the top 5 lessons from Tatay.
Lesson 1. It's never too late. Tatay's first few years building his family with nanay wasn't the best. This was the stereotype family with a couple who married young and still finding themselves and in those early years, Tatay lost his way. He knew that. He said that several times and used that history in his talks in the church and community. But that wasn't the crux, it was the change in him that was more important than anything else. And his change wasn't overnight. It was a long gradual process and there may still be remnants of his old life but who he is in the last 20 years of his life was no way near the former twenty. So it's never too late. A little change can go a long way.
Lesson 2. Give your best and God will do the rest. I'm paraphrasing this from Joma's sharing / eulogy. Joma, my brother-in-law and Tatay's youngest son, shared one advice Tatay told him in one of their father-son sessions. Tatay told him that when he is confronted with an adversary, use whatever is around you, get the biggest rock you can find and give it your best shot. Father and son are not violent so this was a metaphor for using the resources around and giving your best to accomplish any task at hand. Mediocrity is not an option.
Lesson 3. Go through the stages. I talked about this in my previous post when Tatay shared his process of acceptance. He knew early on that there was something wrong, and that things could go for the worst. Tatay never said it was easy but it was easier because he went through the process stage by stage until he's accepted and surrendered everything to God. In life, there are times when we get the wind knocked out of us and we feel lost. Tatay has taught me that the best way to face these things is to do it at your own pace, in stages, bit by bit. Just like how you eat an elephant, a bite after another.
Lesson 4. Love and show it while you can, every way and every time you can. I've always seen Tatay express his love in different ways. I don't know if he's been using the language of love but it feels like he's been matching his expression with the language of the recipient. With Nanay, he's always been affectionate. His language and manner speaks loudly "I am proud to be her husband. She is the love of my life.” You can see this in his FB posts and the endearing manner with how he treats Nanay. It is not all rosy though, especially when the sickness hit. He became irritable and short-tempered but even during those days he recognised this and asked Nanay to be more patient with him. Nanay, ever as admirable, replied “If I was patient with you then even without your sickness, how more so now when I know you’re hurting?” With his grandchildren, he showered them with affection and gifts — it didn’t matter how big or small. Aqui still remembers her mini-store built by his Lolo. How creative is that? Even I, as an in-law felt so much love from Tatay every time I was there. I never felt like an outsider. And when it was time to leave for NZ, he would fill our luggage with things he knew I needed and wanted, even before I knew it. I would be surprised with how much he’s given me before I even ask.
Lesson 5. Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy. This is a dilemma because there are times that what makes you happy can hurt others so take this lesson with caveats. With Tatay, happiness for him is seeing his loved ones happy and serving God. The trick is to balance these two because there are only 24 hours a day and serving God, evangelising, counselling others and building the church takes time away from family. Ronnel was affected most by this and he shared this in his eulogy in the church. But this was what made Tatay happy and he accepted that. I admired my husband’s courage in sharing this in front of all, inside the church where Tatay has served. But it is true. The time taken away by service is time we cannot take back and there is that balance we need to hold because at the end of it all, it will be family that will matter the most. Even in his last days, Tatay thought most of his family. When he was being brought to the hospital and could barely speak, he kept on saying the name of a restaurant, telling everyone to eat there. Ronnel promised him we would all eat together after he’s left the hospital. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the promise to eat there with him but we still went out and ate there as a family.
I know there are so much more lessons to share from Tatay’s life. Family and friends, add more here if you have any to share.
I guess what’s more important than the lessons is how we live them in our lives. Ronnel is still grieving and healing, and the pain is still raw in this 40th day and as we celebrate Tatay’s 60th birthday tomorrow. So much have changed in our family despite the world moving around us. We’ve re-prioritised. Previously, our aim was to clear our mortgage when we turn 40. That’s down the drain now. That triangle of knowing God, serving others and serving your family — we’re tipping over to serving family first. We know how it feels as children to be not the priority in your family and we do not want our children to feel that at all. By serving my family, I know I am serving God. Today, I have a sick household - husband and 3 children in a myriad of symptoms that may be caused by the flu virus or a tummy bug. They’re all in bed covered in thick blankets which gave me this quiet time to write. I know there is work that has piled up and I am grateful for a workplace that understands. For now, family comes first. There will come a time when our children will have their own lives, hopefully in service of others and God and by that time, we can tip the pendulum to swing to the other side. There is no right or wrong choice to this. We admire people who devote their lives in service of others, that is what makes them happy. For us, this is what makes us happy.