We had a good start. This year’s vacation was supposed to be just our usual family holiday where we spend a few weeks with family and friends in the Philippines. We do this every 2-3 years, after we’ve saved up enough money and annual leave. We wanted to go home Christmas time but the off-peak fares were too tempting to pass up. It also turned out great as it would mean we could hold a double birthday party for Axle and his cousin Yanna as they turn three on July. Part of that was visiting the happiest place in South East Asia— Disneyland. And so we did. We spent the first week celebrating Axle and Yanna’s birthday up to our Disneyland trip. But that was it. It was downhill after that.
We were on our second day in Hong Kong when my father-in-law was brought to the hospital. The findings were still unclear but initial assessment was cirrhosis of the liver. Tatay was a heavy drinker and smoker during his younger years but stopped his vices almost thirty years since then. The first diagnosis was still devastating but would have still been manageable giving him at least five years with us. He was released from the hospital and was at home when we arrived from HK. It gave us a chance to spend some time with him. My last meaningful conversation with him was while he was sitting on the steps and he told me about the emotional and spiritual stages he’s gone through with his illness. He said he’s gone through the first three stages - Denial - Anger - Acceptance and now in the fourth stage, Bargaining with the Lord, and hoping to move on to the last stage - Healing. Tatay said it wasn’t easy to move through the first stages but he has come to terms with the reckoning of his past life. At that time, he said there are only two things he’s been bargaining for with God: 1) to be reassured that he brought up his sons right and 2) to feel no pain when the time comes. Having this conversation with him felt weird for me, as it was the first time we talked about something like this. Our usual conversations were about our life in New Zealand, the grandchildren, his love life with Nanay and stories about Ronnel. It was the first time he talked about how he knew Ronnel had been angry with him, having witnessed his previous sinful life while growing up. I told Tatay that Ronnel no longer has any of that anger in his heart and that the reason we come home as frequently as we can afford is for our children to know their grandparents more. It never occurred to me that it will be our last, he was still so strong and young in my eyes. I told him that there was no need to ask for #1. He had raised his sons well. His grandchildren are testament to this. The past few days of how the three brothers gave everything they could to find the best diagnosis, and how they’ve banded together for the family are just a few things confirming this. I wish I told him more: that Ronnel is so much like him, that looking at him and how his eyes shone with love for his family was like looking at his son. When there are things Ronnel do or say that I don’t understand, I sometimes would think, “What would Nanay do in this situation?” I would recall the talks Nanay and I had when we come home. I wish I told Tatay this, that his son is so much like him. That was the day before Aqui and I went to Bicol. I was determined to make the most of our stay in the Philippines, also trying to spend time with my side of the family. My sister is home from LA and we were adamant to find out how Papa is holding out since the two strokes he’s had last year. My grandmother is also unwell with early onset of Alzheimer’s and I took the opportunity to visit her with Aqui in Bicol. I was heartbroken when she couldn’t remember Aqui’s name. And so because I had to leave Ia and Axle with Ronnel, he didn’t have the chance to be at the hospital with Tatay when he was brought in on Monday. I was only able to relieve Ronnel of his daddy duties on Thursday. By then, Tatay’s condition has worsened. Another potential cause has been identified — an aggressive form of cancer, targeting the liver, spreading to the kidney and lungs. Luckily, Ronnel was still able to talk to Tatay before he was intubated with respiratory support. I brought the kids with me to spend time with my side of the family, with the kids not being allowed in the hospital. Friday was even worse. I still couldn’t believe things were happening so fast. Ronnel urged me to visit the hospital before it was too late. We all went to the Lung Centre of the Philippines with the kids and my dad and sister waiting in the lobby. It was too risky for my dad and the kids to go inside and be exposed to all kinds of diseases in the centre. When I entered Tatay’s room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He had the look my mother had on her last few days. Only then it registered. This really could be it. I reminded him of our ‘talk’ just last week and that he was still supposed to go to the fifth stage. I told him how his grandchildren love him so much, as do we. I felt he was no longer responsive and his complexion sallow, with the rise of his chest controlled only by the respirator. The room was full of people who love him — all of his sons were there, they’d been sleeping in the room with him with my mother-in-law and other family members. Raw emotion overcame me as it dawned on me that this was it. Tatay’s blood pressure was continuously dropping and the family was now being asked whether they’d like to further up the dosage of the drugs. This was the hardest decision to make and I was in awe of the strength that Nanay had as she drew her sons together and prayed, lifting this decision to the Lord.
At 3:30 that Friday, Tatay went home to his Maker.
Words are not enough to describe the searing pain the whole family felt with this loss. The wailing. The tears. The shock and disbelief. But it was not the end. When death comes unexpectedly, just as in Thessalonians telling us the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, it robs us not just of things that are precious to us but also rational thinking. That is why the support of the extended family, relatives, friends and neighbours has been tremendous. Everyone used their own gifts, talents and networks to help with legal arrangements, financial obligations and everything else necessary to bring Tatay’s earthly body to his resting place. The following days were overwhelming as hundreds came to mourn with the family. Death may have taken Tatay away from us but it also brought everyone together. Nanay has been saying how overwhelmed she is with the number of people crying with her. Usually, it’s only family or close friends who cry with you for the loss but we discovered how many people Tatay has touched in his years walking this earth, leaving an invisible painful wound as he moved on. Tales of how Tatay served and offered his life to the church, lending a helping hand to neighbours and strangers came pouring in. We had to transfer his body for the last wake night to our town’s parish because the chapel couldn’t accommodate the people from Church who would like to honour him with a tribute for the last time. Tatay continued to surprise us as people shared stories of how he lived his life for others and for God. One priest, who was also a close friend of Tatay, said that as priests, they know they shouldn’t be sad about death as it’s the ultimate destination for everyone and it is a happy occasion going home to our creator. But this death was different as he was deeply saddened and he felt the loss immensely, that it was hard to say goodbye too soon.
Our Final Farewell
With the wake came mourners— family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and even strangers— and with that came questions, advice, opinions and other words of concern for the family. We all know these came from the heart, asking with genuine concern what has happened and it may be cathartic for the family to talk about what has happened over and over again but talking about it every time is also taking away inch by inch our strength within. This is also the same reason I am writing about this now. My husband and I are not yet ready to talk about it yet without losing our composure. Please do not talk to us about it just yet — and if I direct you to this post, please do not get offended. I hope this post answers questions like “Didn’t you know he was sick? Why was he brought to the hospital too late? Did you go home to the Philippines because you knew he was already sick? Why was it too fast? How is the family? How are you holding up?” I know these questions are all well meaning and come from genuine concern and so I am also answering them from my heart. Nobody expected this… and even when we were told about how ill he was, it was only a few days before his death. Tatay was the kind of person who would never neglect his health, he was taking meds for every ailment he was diagnosed with and there were not many. He ate well and lived clean for the last twenty years. Neighbours talked about how Tatay would bike around the block every morning having a chat here and there, sharing their coffee and stories. The type of cancer that took him away from us was a silent killer, attacking the liver going through the other organs first so it was hard to detect, and when it was detected, it was too late. I suppose Tatay got what he was bargaining for — to feel no pain when the time comes. We saw him intubated and supported by technology and it felt like he was suffering but I believe that he was devoid of pain, that when his heart stopped, he was already at peace. Unlike us who have been robbed, Tatay was fully prepared, he was fully awake and not in the darkness and so that day didn’t overtake him like a thief. The family is coping. I have no doubt that Nanay will be well looked after by the people around her. Her youngest son lives with her, her other son and his young family, only two houses away and her mother, siblings and extended family a few blocks away. They never left her side. This is the bane that Ronnel and I suffer by choosing to live overseas but with the advent of technology, we should be able to still be there for her. When I told Aqui, Ia and Axle that their Lolo has gone to heaven, Aqui cried out loud, wailing and asking me why God took her Lolo so soon, why God took her Grandma first, then her great grandfather and now her grandfather before she even had enough time to spend with them. She hasn’t even said goodbye properly to Lolo, she said. I didn’t have an answer and could only cry with her. Ia and Axle are too young to grasp the concept of death but they knew that their Lolo was sleeping in the special golden spaceship travelling to heaven. I was surprised when Ia started crying during the burial as the coffin was being brought down gradually towards the earth. I hugged her and she said, “I am only crying today because I know this is the last time I will see Lolo.” I guess she knew what death means after all.
Life Goes On
After Aqui has calmed down from the news that her Lolo has gone, she asked me – are my remaining grandparents healthy? Will they go to heaven soon too? I do not know God’s plans so I didn’t answer the last question. I too, thought, that Tatay was still too healthy to be taken so soon and I share her fear, as my dad’s health is also questionable. I told Aqui to share her worries with them and so she did. I heard Aqui tell my dad to be healthy, to make sure to remove the poison inside his body because she doesn’t want to lose Grandpa. I believe she did the same with Nanay.
The last five days were spent mostly at home, recovering from the flurry of physical, mental and emotional rollercoaster we were in the past few days. All these could catch up to us. Axle woke up on Thursday with a bloodied nose probably from the heat and fatigue from the previous week. The typhoon has forced us to stay indoors but we were able to go out and enjoy the malls. Aqui her fill of Jollibee chicken joy, Ia exhausted herself in Timezone and Axle has had all the bottomless iced tea his little body could take.
The day of our flight coincided with two occasions, Andrei’s (Ronnel’s younger brother) birthday and Tatay’s 9th day and so we were enveloped with family and friends not only praying for Tatay but also praying for our safe travel. Every time we leave the Philippines, we feel heavy-hearted as we leave behind our family and friends whom we will miss dearly. This time around as we leave, we are consoled by the fact that we haven’t left Tatay behind, as he will always be in our hearts.
We will miss you Tatay.
Our last photos with you....
Last Day in the Philippines