Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Honouring Tatay

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.











Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Coming Home

Clueless
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









Sunday, November 20, 2016

Earth, Wind and Fire

Earth, wind, fire. These are elements we’ve had to face this past week to remind us how precious life is.  It started with the big quake Monday midnight. It was the strongest quake I’ve experienced since we’ve been in NZ for ten years now.   Our bedroom is beneath our garage and when the quake shook our house, I could hear the ceiling/garage squeaking.  I knew it wasn’t just a simple earthquake – I woke up Ronnel who automatically scooped up Axle as I woke up the girls on the floor bed.  This was one of the benefits of sleeping in one room, I was waking them up, shouting “cover, drop, hold” to remind them of the instructions they’ve learnt from school.  We were by the door when the shaking stopped.  We went back to bed and everyone else slept as if the shake never happened.  I couldn’t sleep.  I could still feel my heart pounding with a million “what ifs” circling my head.  Prayers helped still my heart and squelched the anxiety.  I knew that if the garage collapsed on top of us, our bedroom would slide towards the houses underneath and we’ll probably be ok or worst scenario is, we’d be squashed by the cars and it would be quick and painless.  I knew watching gore films with Ronnel won’t do me good. At this point, I’ve been exchanging texts with my friends, checking up on them. I’ve told my family members across the miles that we were ok.  I still couldn’t sleep and went for my cure-all – my fantasyland, my dramaworld.  I watched a drama—couldn’t even remember what it was—and was able to forget a bit and slept a couple of hours.  The next morning greeted us with a tsunami alert, heavy rains and news of flooding in some areas. It was a flurry of text messages between me and my team, checking up on them, making sure they were ok.  Some had to evacuate to higher ground – all I could offer were virtual hugs and prayers, especially to some I couldn’t contact.  Thankfully, they were all ok.  The following days were full of uncertainty, while our workplaces are being checked for safety.  Fortunately, we were able to work remotely with the help of technology.   It gave us time for self-reflection and time to spend with the family.  On Tuesday, we heard vigorous knocking on our door.  It was our neighbor letting us know, there’s a fire in her house and the fire trucks are on the way.  Didn’t I say- earth, wind and fire?  Fortunately, it was a minor incident but it still frightening especially for our neighbor, who I consider a good friend and my kids’ NZ mum as she’s been looking after our children for 7 years now.   Once safety was confirmed, the next priority is to get things back to normal. The children were oblivious to the what-could-have-beens and what-might-be – kids will be kids but we made sure they knew what happened.  We explained to them how blessed we are to have been unaffected, how we should be grateful and how we should help those who have been affected – and also to prepare for – just in case.   We slept in the living room the following night with our bags near the stairs, ready for pick up in case we need to evacuate.  We are hoping for the best, but ready to face the worst.   In the meantime, we do what our family does best – stick together and enjoy each other’s company.
                                                      
Axle was delighted with the firetruck visit in our neighborhood. 

Kids thought we were camping in the living room.



Another way to get things back to normal is work.  I attended a work conference on Thursday with around 130 like-minded people. I was part of the organizing committee so it was out of the question to not be there, plus I had the materials that were needed on the day and it wouldn’t sit right with me to ditch my responsibility, however little it was.   The venue was deemed safe but there were still aftershocks felt throughout the day.  I’m sure it was still quite unsettling for the participants but we trudged on. I had faith that it would go well. And it did. 
The weekend went by peacefully despite the family being struck with a cold virus – starting with Axle’s temperature, then Ia, then Ronnel, sparing Aqui and me, we lived as if it was any other day.  Our house is still a mess, the kids continue to squabble over little things (I’m sure it’s a big deal for them), Ronnel still watched NBA games and I continued to binge on my Korean and Japanese dramas at night.   At first, I was worried about how ‘unworried’ we were, especially Ronnel. I am slightly jealous that he soundly sleeps at night, not worried about anything. I asked him about it and he reminded me of what real faith means – God has our back, if it’s our time, it’s our time – just like that movie Final Destination.  Ok, this didn’t help me with the sleeping much but it helped my resolve to be reminded of what faith means to my family.  It’s just like our bags in the doorway, we pray and hope for the best but are ready to face the worst.
 
Tomorrow, I’m back at work. I had a dream that while I was meeting with my boss, another earthquake occurred and we had to postpone our meeting. Dreams are usually about either our subconscious hopes or fears – this definitely was the latter.  Regardless of the fear, the worries, we continue to live, love and have faith.