Til Death Do Us Part

I started writing this post two months ago but couldn’t bring myself to finish writing it.

Yesterday, an officemate’s husband passed away and I remembered this unfinished post. I had a moment of intense sadness then, and suddenly found myself with just the right words to write to finish this post. It’s long and may bring a tear or two, but do stay with me. I promise (I hope) that the end of this long post will evoke a reaction, strike a chord or just make you smile. Cheers!  

Growing up, what I knew of marriage was confined to the world I saw within my childhood home.

While friends would share stories about how their parents were either separated or about to be separated; or some of my friends’ fathers were caught to have had affairs, mistresses or worse, illegitimate families — my biggest marriage sob story was that my parents fought and bickered almost on a daily basis — like cats and dogs who’d snap and bark at each other all day long. Their fights could last for as long as an entire episode of Champoy, an entire day, sometimes several days of sniping, snapping and barking. At its worst, cold war ensues.

But for the most part, on family day-Sundays, they’d be back walking hand-in-hand while taking us kids out for a stroll in the mall or a short frolic in the park. Every now and then, we’d catch a glimpse of them stealing a quick kiss on the lips or a peck on the cheek. In the car, they’d tease each other (wholesomely, I might add — or at least I hope it was) and laugh uproariously at a joke that only the two of them would understand. At the dining table, they’d get into long discussions and debates about the latest news report, their friends, my grandparents or whatever blazing new topic is the pick of the day while my brother and I would wish for the long conversation to end so we could just get back to our rooms. At night while my brother and I were tucked into bed sound asleep, they’d spend hours in the family room catching up on their late-night soap operas.

Because of what I saw and heard, I grew up thinking that this is what marriage should be.

Looking back now without the rose-colored lenses of innocence, I know their marriage was far from perfect.

Some of my most painful memories as a young adult involved some of the biggest fights mom and dad ever had.

In one fight, I had seen my mom so distraught and blinded with anger that she lunged at my dad without realizing she was holding a pair of razor-sharp giant scissors. Thank God she missed hitting him. But that same fight made my mom so angry that she left home for the very first time ever, leaving all of us behind. She wasn’t gone long, she also came back that same night. It was a big deal though, for someone who never set foot outside the house without my dad in tow.

On another occasion, they had a fight and dad left home. He was gone for several days without anyone knowing where he had gone. Again, a first for him. He eventually came home four days later stinking from filth and alcohol. By then, my mom was barely coherent from panic and worry. Especially when she discovered that the night before, he had been seriously contemplating jumping off the Guadalupe bridge to drown himself in the Pasig River.

I still remember the scene that greeted my eyes when I eventually checked up on them an hour after dad had finally come home. They were seated on the couch with dad’s arms around her while she cried her heart out.

Days before dad passed away, I marvelled at how volatile mom and dad’s relationship continued to be even after almost 4o years of marriage. I saw for myself how my dad’s fight for his life was rallied on by his love for my mother; and how the absence of her presence, her love and patience (when they fought) even for just a few hours would evoke in him a feeling of incomparable despondence, enough to make him wish he could just end it all.

As all happily-ever-after love stories go, they kissed and made up again a few hours later and she was back to holding his hand, cajoling him out of his morose mood, and simply taking care of him the same way she’s always done all these years.

But as we already know, happily-ever-after would end there as days later, his body succumbed to his illness. On his death bed, I saw my mom crushed and broken for the first time in my life.

The tears I shed and the ache in my heart at that exact moment when she had to let him go is something permanently etched in my heart.

Because in some way, I caught a sudden glimpse of myself…. and crumbled with the intensity of a new kind of emotion I’ve never felt before — pure, raw, unadulterated fear.

The fear of realizing that how much I love my husband… is no different from how much my mother and father loved each other. How their worlds were so fused together, that their worlds could not exist without the other in it. How they were each others’ sources of lightness, darkness, sorrow, happiness and everything else in between. How they spent almost 40 years of their lives together from morning til evening; from sleep to wakefulness. How their lives took on meaning only because they had each other.

And how ultimately when it was time to let him go, it didn’t only leave my mom a grieving widow. It left her suddenly alone, suddenly incomplete, suddenly… just one.

It strikes fear in my heart to suddenly comprehend that this kind of love — its depth, its intensity  —  can turn you inside out, rip you apart in ways that nothing else in the world can.

Already, I see the similarities. How my sun rises and falls with my husband. How tuned we are to each others’ moods. How one frown, one bad day from either of us can dampen the spirits in our home. How days that we don’t speak to each other can make me feel like wanting to just drown my sorrows until I’m numb from the pain. But conversely, how just a simple text from him to say hello in the middle of a workday can lift my heart and bring a smile to my face. How one touch, one hug can make all my troubles disappear for a fraction of a second. How at the end of a long day, all I long for is the sight of his face cracking a joke to dispel the ache in my bones. How I can’t even have a restful night’s sleep without him beside me. How at the end of it all, my world only feels right when I know he’s feeling alright.

Til death do us part. I never really thought about what this marriage vow truly meant until I saw it unfold right before my eyes.

More than my own pain as a grieving daughter, my biggest undoing upon dad’s death was seeing my mom battle a new kind of demon all on her own.

A primal and raw pain when his body was lowered into the crematorium and later on, when his remains took its last trip and were finally laid to rest forever. A sunken, defeated and panicked heart the first few months upon being truly alone now after 40 years of having him always by her side, for richer or for poorer.

For weeks she wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. What has become her routine of cooking dinner every night for 3 (mom and dad + my brother) would now just be a meal for 2. What help he used to give her in keeping the household organized, the small things — taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, heating the bath water — would now be tasks no one would help her with. What used to be their 40-year routine of watching a movie or a new show after dinner before they turn in for the night would now be something she would have to rediscover all on her own.

During that time, she would succumb to sudden fits of crying and stay crying for the rest of the day. She told me back then her crying fits and bouts of depression were uncontrollable and took on a life of its own — she wanted to stop but couldn’t. She was always afraid to be alone. Eventually she found a way to keep herself so busy that she would come home at night ready to just drop dead.

Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months.

But little by little, I saw small, subtle changes. It started with a dream. A fleeting glimpse of his familiar figure hunched over the rickety armchair he loved sitting in.

One day, I saw mom smiling again.

And I began to realize that how much they loved each other in life doesn’t change nor go away in death.

At home, she has the picture of dad we used during his wake. In it, he’s happy, smiling, jolly — wrinkles, whiteheads, age spots and all.

Every day, she begins the day talking to his picture. During the day, she whispers questions or stories to him in her heart. While going about her household chores, she pauses and silently consults him in her head. Every week she continues to visit his resting place, lay flowers and light candles. She sits by his crypt for hours and speaks to him as though he were just right there beside her. She looks around for signs that he’s still around. Every now and then, a butterfly lands on her shoulder as she walks the length of the mall with my brother. Sometimes she smells the scent of candles or flowers at home. Once, she slipped… but miraculously did not fall. Once still, she sat silently by his crypt wondering if he could still hear her, when a yellow petal softly touched her cheek. There were no yellow flower beds anywhere nearby.

At night, she takes his picture to bed beside her and bids him goodnight. He visits her in her sleep and she wakes up feeling calm and at peace.

And now she looks back and remembers all that he was, and all that he is to her. And she knows that all that he is, all that he was — wrinkles, whiteheads, age spots and all — will always be with her, will always be a part of her.

And that in the end, it was all worth it.

And suddenly, my fears take a pause.

And I realize — this is the kind of marriage I want.

While there are times when I wish my marriage wasn’t as co-dependent as ours is; while I sometimes envy friends whose husbands didn’t mind it even if they spent days away from each other for each of them to spend time with their respective friends; while I sometimes wonder what it would feel like to not care as much I do when we’re having one of our bad days and aren’t on speaking terms…

…I also see how blessed I am.  Few people are lucky enough to find someone who makes going through the sometimes-painful, sometimes-exhilarating roller coaster ride with — all worth it. Despite the constant ups and downs, despite the tumultuous everyday — I do marvel that after 10 years, he’s the only one who can make me laugh myself silly til my sides ache (even if I’ve heard the same joke over and over and over again). He can still make me feel giddy and excited even when we’re doing something as mundane as going to Greenhills or Robinsons Galleria on a weekend. He can still make me feel like the prettiest, sexiest woman in the planet — cellulite, sun spots, unwanted curves, white hair and all. He can still make me look forward to something as simple as movie night at home with a bowl of pop corn, the airconditioner turned on at full blast and us lying side by side on the bed while snuggling under the covers.

After more than 10 years and hundreds of fights later (and anticipating the hundreds more coming our way in our lifetime), I’m blessed enough to know that he is still and will continue to be the only one I want to grow old with; the only person I want to hold-hands with when I’ve reached the last years of my life; the only face I want to see every morning, everyday for the rest of my life; the only one to sit on a rickety old couch with while watching reruns of old movies.

At the end of it all, perhaps everyone deserves nothing short of a love like this. The kind that makes you weep with its intensity and depth, the kind that makes you tremble with fear, but also the kind that makes life worth living.

For richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, til death do us part.

Thank you Mom and Dad, for the gift of your love for each other and showing me that the only kind of love worth having is the one you’d give your everything for, til death do you part.

Written in memory of G. Wang Jr. and V. De Ocampo. Clickable photos for original source.

The Color of Mourning

I’ve always loved vibrant splashes of color.

A year ago, my wardrobe consisted of bright yellows, deep reds, jade greens, aqua blues and splashy oranges. Paired with black leggings, white jeans or khaki pants, choosing my wardrobe for the following day was always a pleasant few minutes of rummaging through my rainbow-colored closet. On bad days, wearing happy colors created a lift in my heart and caused me to feel just a tad bit more cheerful.

When dad passed away last August, I had to shove all my colors to the back of the closet and start taking out my blacks, whites and grays.

In Chinese tradition, the immediate family mourns the death of a loved one by wearing mourning clothes for one year. The strictest Chinese families stick by the 365-day uniform of a white top paired with a black bottom. In some families, the customary black mourning pin is always attached to the white shirt.

In our family, we were a little less strict. No happy colors first. Stick with subdued, muted colors.

So I spent the first few weekends after dad’s death weaving my way through shops and stalls with the intent of rebuilding a new wardrobe that made way for a grieving daughter.

It’s been almost 9 months since then. Inside these 9 months, I’ve gotten used to directing my gaze immediately to clothing racks that held blacks, whites and grays in my shopping trips. My office mates had also gotten used to seeing me in these colors.

And so it was that last week, I thought that perhaps it was time to start easing my way back into color. ‘Course, the supremely hot weather in Manila now isn’t doing much to dissuade me from rummaging through my closet again for the summer dresses I used to wear in search of anything that could help ease the heat. So I began with the blues. Royal blue one day. An aquamarine scarf the next. (I’m not quite ready to start with the shades of red and yellow quite yet. That will wait til one year is done.)

Not surprisingly, it evoked a lot of reactions from friends who no longer remembered what I looked like in color. I recounted the story many times. The story of why I had to give up color all this time.

It’s no surprise that these days, I’ve been dreaming of dad a lot more often than usual.

The months have flown by. Inside these 9 months, we’ve all had to cope with all the repercussions of dad being gone in our own way, in our own lives.

It’s been a wild roller coaster ride.

The first two, three months were a struggle to recover lost balance. To find some level of physical normalcy after the months of agony. Get back the hours of sleep you’ve all lost. Try to regain some of the weight lost to lack of food and proper rest. Bouts of illness that were testament to the stress the body and spirit had to endure.

The next few months was all about finding a new level of normal.

When the dust has settled, what’s left is a woman who is now a widow, alone for the first time in her life after almost 40 years of having my dad by her side almost every minute of every day. She goes to sleep at night clutching dad’s picture tightly to her chest, and wakes up every morning bringing that same photo downstairs with her to keep her company in the dawning hour of the day.

And among us left fatherless, we go on with our own lives and deal with the impact it has left on us and our families.

While I struggle to recover normalcy in my own marriage after the toll it has taken on my husband and I; my brother embarks on a journey to find himself and reach a state of balance as he accepts his new role as the head of the family.

All this, as my younger brother who grieves the least among all of us during the days of dad’s wake — is besieged by intense emotions he can’t explain, can’t express and can’t deal with as easily as he’d like to.

Throughout this time, I think we were all on the brink of an emotional breakdown.

I know that for many months, I was sinking in a pit of despair I tried to ignore and brush aside. There was a restlessness in my heart, a sense of anxiety that something bad was about to happen again. And that nothing but bad things would happen to me, and to those I loved. And the responsibility of putting it all back together was on me.

It’s silly, I know.

But 9 months later, I think we’re all ready to try to start living again. To start enjoying life again. To have hope again.

I dream of dad a lot nowadays. Suddenly though, thinking about him isn’t as painful as it used to be anymore. I missed him for the first time early this week without feeling a tug in my gut.

For the first time, I’ve come to understand and accept that I will never see him again, not in this lifetime anyway. I will never receive another text message from him again where he either talks about money, asks me when he’ll see me, or complains to me about mom, my siblings or uncles. I will never walk into their home anymore and see him sitting on his favorite worn and sunken armchair as he puffs cigarette smoke in the air. I will never sit in the dinner table in front of him again with his corny jokes always tinged with a layer of moroseness. I will never again ride in the car with him as we try to cram months-worth of stories in a 15-minute ride to work.

I will never get to see, hear, touch or smell my dad again. But that’s okay.

Cliche as it may sound, he is in my heart, in my mind and always will be a part of me. In my moments of despair I call out to him and pray to watch over me and take care of me. I don’t know if he does, or if he’s still busy looking for a new cigarette buddy.

Wherever he is, I think I’m ready to start bringing my colors back out again. In my head, I think to myself — hey dad, you like my outfit today? It’s blue.. not your favorite color but I’ll get to it someday soon. Til then, I hope you like me in blue…