Seasons of Love

525,600 minutes. 525,000 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes. 

How do you measure a year in a life?

My aunt’s passing opened a new set of floodgates that forced me to contemplate on the topic of life and death all over again.

These days, I’ve been having numerous conversations with my immediate family about how dad died. Contrasted against how my aunt passed away, dad actually died beautifully. If there ever was a perfect way to move on to the next life, I’d say dad’s manner of death was just perfect.

The months when he was sick, all the way until the precise second his heart stopped, he was always surrounded by those whom he loved best.

We all made our peace with him, and he with us.

We all had the chance to let him know and feel that whatever else had happened in his lifetime, he will always be husband and father to our family, and that he is loved.

Even while confined to his hospital room, we found a way to make sure we’d spent quality time with him — watching TV together; sharing magazines; talking and arguing about my younger brother’s love life (or the absence of one); contemplating the mystery of my work and persistent busy schedule; alternately teasing him and annoying him while his grumpy nature would cause send us into fits of uncontrollable laughter…

While transitioning from life to death, there we were again. All around him, holding his hand, whispering words of love and encouragement to let go and take God’s hand while soft music played by his bedside, guiding him toward the path of light and into God’s lovely dwelling place.

Whatever else happened in the course of our relationship with him during his lifetime, he knew at the end how well he was loved.

Somehow, these memories now help soften the agony of remembering those months. Close to a year later, we can finally look back and remember him fondly. While the images of his pain and struggle still remain in our heads and hearts, the passage of time has also cushioned the intense pain it used to bring about when remembered. Now, we can talk about him with less sadness. We can laugh in memory of our grumpy, ultra-sensitive and clueless dad and wonder if he’s already found a new cigarette buddy while his spirit has finally found a peaceful resting place.

My aunt’s passing is a different story. Separated (physically and almost legally) from my uncle, and physically apart from her daughters, my cousins.

At the time her illness was discovered up until her death, my cousins were in Canada. I hear that even during the difficult months of her chemotherapy sessions, they weren’t talking much then either.

When she died, my uncle and cousins were all in Canada. On her death, her sister was in the ICU waiting room along with my brother and sister-in-law.

My aunt is not even a blood relative. My/Our blood connection with her exists because of my cousins.

(Though this biological fact doesn’t lessen the gravity of her death to me — of all my aunts, she was one of the few I was close to while growing up. Apart from being the one to introduce me to reading romance novels, she was one of the few who took the time and had patience enough to spend time with me and play with me as a child.)  

On her death bed and in the last few hours of her life, she couldn’t see, feel, touch or hear those dearest to her because they were all too far away. They couldn’t even bring in a mobile phone for her kids to be able to say their goodbyes — her body was too vulnerable to germs that even mobile phones couldn’t be brought into her room.

After 2 years since they last spent time with her, my cousins came home to Manila to see their mom already embalmed in her coffin.

I cannot imagine the pain and grief they must be feeling now. And somewhere in there I know is a guilt that won’t easily go away.

I’ve always believed — and, since dad passed away, I’ve known — that death is hardest on the ones left behind.

While a loved one is going through the agony of an illness, you’ll never really know what to do and how to behave. While dad was sick, it hurt me that some members of my own family could not find it in themselves to be there for him. On his death bed, none of his own kin (siblings, aunts & uncles, etc.) were around, even if they knew it was just a matter of time. During his wake, his blood nephews and nieces weren’t even around — when his nephews and nieces from my mother’s side were around almost everyday.

What I realize now is that we all deal with these things in our own way. Not everyone is equipped with the strength to withstand the pain that comes with a loved one being terminally ill. Many just naively hope for the best that death is not yet around the corner and there will be days yet to spend together.

In the end, the best thing anyone could hope for is the reassurance, the knowledge and certainty that when their loved one was still around, that they did everything they could not just to ease their time while they were still around, but also to do everything they possibly could to make them feel loved and cherished.

It’s the gift of bestowing the knowledge on one you love — that they lived a life worth living; that he/she can move on to the next life at peace and in harmony with the world, knowing that he/she had truly loved and was truly loved in return.

How do you measure a year in the life? Measure in love. Seasons of Love. 

Written in memory of Josefina Martinez Qua-Hiansen. Ever-loving wife, dedicated mother, loving aunt and friend. June 1957 – June 2011. 
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Day 46. Watching my Father Die, Religion and Pop Culture

While watching an episode of NCIS last night featuring a woman who witnessed a murder happening next door, I suddenly started having flashbacks of watching my father die.

On a separate occasion months before he passed away, I also remember one particular episode of Criminal Minds where Penelope Garcia rushes to the aid of an assaulted man, and holds him in her arms as he dies. She says something, “One minute he was alive, the next he was just… not.

While watching dad die, that line did pop up in my head for a brief moment in time. I recall his nurse also telling me then “look, he’s taking his last breath.” I don’t know how she knew that, maybe it comes from years of experience.

I didn’t feel as morose about that thought back then. But the flashbacks I had last night were alarming.

Yes, Penelope said it right. One minute he was alive and breathing, the next he was just… not alive anymore.

Literally watching life leave a human body is profound.

In Harry Potter, JK Rowling creates a distinction between people who have seen death as it happens, and those who have not.

Harry Potter: What are they?
Luna Lovegood: They’re called Thestrals. They’re quite gentle, really… But people avoid them because they’re a bit…
Harry Potter: Different. But why can’t the others see them?
Luna Lovegood: They can only be seen by people who’ve seen death.

Watching dad die raises a plethora of new questions about mortality and life after death.

With a Roman Catholic upbringing, surrounded by nuns and Jesuit priests in my most formative years, not believing in heaven and hell is unlikely to happen. I’ve always had faith that these “places” actually exist.

As an adult, I’ve created a slight redefinition of who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell.

While the stiff and unrelenting Catholic Church strictly espouse all their traditional, conventional and outdated rules and regulations supposedly set by a very harsh, judgmental God; I believe my God is a loving and merciful God.

Blame the Jesuits, if I believe that when you’ve already exhausted all you can to make an honest and clean living, that stealing from rich people to feed your starving family is forgivable and does not merit a soul going to hell.

On this premise, then I always knew in my heart my God will welcome my father into heaven.

I believed that… until he actually passed away. Seeing the frailty of mortal human life, watching life leave his body, watching him take his final breath, it made me ask questions.

Where is he going?

Is he going anywhere at all?

If there’s no heaven and hell, then did he just truly, unequivocally cease to exist?

And if heaven and hell do exist, did my father just go to heaven?

What if he was sent to hell?

And in heaven, does he remember his life? The ones he left behind?

Does he “watch over us” as everyone keeps saying?

If he is “just around me and in me”, how come I can’t feel his presence anywhere?

Why does it feel like he really is completely gone, and I can’t even feel his spirit anymore?

What really happens when a person dies?

I guess I’ll never know.

It’s been a month and a half since dad’s death. The intensity of the emotions has gone, and in its place is some kind of calm and resigned acceptance.

Yup, life has gone on.

My mom and younger brother (who lived with my dad) are rediscovering a new kind of “normal”. Especially for mom, the time that passes doesn’t come without pain and the feeling of loss, but thank God for this invention called “work”, time passes more quickly and the mind is not left idle.

In the midst of all unanswered questions about what happens when we all die, and where my dad now is, I suppose I’ll just take comfort in a song that’s brought me comfort for many years now since I heard it the first time.

Jars of Clay wrote this song for a good friend of theirs who had already passed away from HIV. Before his death, he confided his fears about dying and what happens to him after.

In death as in life, we always pray that we won’t go through the journey alone. And this is the balm my heart needs to reassure me that in his death, my father is not alone.

Be still let your hand melt into mine.
The part of me that breathes when you breathe is losing time.
I can’t find the word to say I’ll never say goodbye.

I’ll fly with you through the night so
you know I’m not letting go.
I’m not letting go.
My tears like rain fill up the sky.
Oh my love I’m not letting go, I won’t let you go.

I saw the host of silent angels waiting on their own.
Knowing that all the promises of faith
come alive when you see home.
Hold still and let your hand melt into mine.

And I’ll fly with you through the night
so you know I’m not letting go.
I’m not letting go.
My tears like rain fill up the sky.
Oh my love I’m not letting go, I won’t let you go.

Shed your heart and your breath and your pain and fly.

Now you’re alive.
I’ll fly with you through the night so
you know I’m not letting go.
I’m not letting go.
Tears like rain fill up the sky.
Oh my love I’m not letting go, I won’t let you go.
I’m not letting go, I won’t let you go.

Day 32. Life Goes On

If dad were still alive, today would have been mom and dad’s 38th wedding anniversary.

Mom chose not to celebrate it, even with us. But she did pay him a visit at his crypt, lit some candles and laid out some fresh flowers.

It’s been a little over a month, and life has gone on. The “normal” that I longed for is back. I don’t find myself staring off into nothingness anymore on idle moments. I’ve remembered what it’s like to do things I used to love doing. I can watch our DVDs again. I can read the tons of books waiting for me again. I can surf the Net, chat with friends, spend time on Facebook, and blog about other things apart from my dad.

The flashbacks have decreased significantly. When they do come, pushing them out of my head is easier — almost second nature. I find that there are still many things I have not come to resolve within me. Memories of his last few months are still too painful to remember and think about. It will take some time.

I dream about him sporadically. In all my dreams, he’s already ill but still alive. It’s different variations of the same scenario come back to haunt me in my dreams. Once or twice, I remember crying in my sleep – only I can’t remember if those were caused by dreams I had of him, or if it was something else entirely.

Life goes on, and we all grieve in our own way.

My older brother has seen fit to take over the role of dad. In the hopes of not repeating his mistakes or his perceived “shortcomings” when it came to my dad, he’s obsessed about spending more time with mom. Which is okay, except that sometimes it’s bordering on coddling her.

My mom alternates between being okay, being sad, and dredging up the not-so-good moments of their marriage. It didn’t help that supposedly, one of the household helps in their compound told my mom a few days ago that dad tried to put the moves on her. Two days ago, she was dreadfully mad and sad at the same time.

My younger brother seems to be the one who has recovered the quickest. I hope it’s for real, and I hope he’s not just sweeping it all under the rug convincing himself that he’s fine.

My husband has yet to fully recover from the trauma of all the ceremony that came with dad’s passing. That’s a story that deserves its own post. But I’m not writing about that today.

As for me, for the most part I’m already at peace with his death, and have slowly accepted that he’s no longer physically around.

One of the hardest things I still deal with nowadays though are small triggers that elicit memories I’m not yet ready to confront.

When he was in the hospital, twice I went around the hospital neighborhood looking for magazines that could keep him entertained. Thus, seeing magazine stands now make me cringe and bring forth a barrage of recollections and emotions that overwhelm me.

When we thought we could already bring him home from the hospital, I promised dad that I’d buy him a DVD of the movie “Expendables” since we were just chatting about it that day. Of course we already know he never went home. And so perhaps it will take quite some time until I’ll be able to watch that movie… if at all. Thankfully the reviews weren’t too good.

Even taking a crap stirs a memory I push away every time. I’ll never forget that the day before he passed away, he soiled himself and the entire room since he had already lost muscular control. Afterwards, he was already in a diaper all the way until his crematory services.

It’s little things like this that still stir up emotions I’d rather not deal with yet.

While some would say it’s an unhealthy way to deal, I say it’s setting aside until such time that it becomes easier and less recent.

And so, after 32 days, life for me, goes on. Yes, time makes things a little easier. But I still miss him.

And always, I pray that everytime I whisper a prayer, that he’s up there helping convince the powers that be, to grant my prayer.

Day 15

Exactly one month ago was the day dad took a drastic turn for the worse.

This was the day we had to rush him to the hospital because he had started losing overall muscular control.

We all thought he would just stay in the hospital for a few days to regain his strength.

Little did we know then that it would be his last car ride ever. And that he would never again leave the hospital alive.

I recall during the seemingly endless and painful ride going to the hospital while dad was gasping for breath, moaning with pain and trying to hold back his bladder — I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think. All that existed at that point in time was how unbearably painful it was seeing and hearing him that way.

15 days after dad’s passing, little bits and pieces of images continue to flash in my head every now and then. Images come unbidden of those moments where my once strong and happy father was feeling his worst inside out. The moments when his desire to live had deserted him, and all that was left was despair and hopelessness.These were the moments when he would cry, weep or shed a tear wordlessly. The moments when he would ask permission to just pass away and leave us behind.

I wish I could just erase these memory flashes, take away all the horror and despair that surrounded our family during these times. And I wish to God that my memories of my father would be nothing but the good memories.

It’s not to be so.

Those who’ve grieved all tell me it will take some time for the painful memories to become a little less harsh. It will take an even longer time to start resurrecting happy memories that don’t leave an empty gaping hole in your heart.

Over the weekend, I told mom that one of the most difficult things I have to live with now is the fact that in his last few years, most of my interaction with dad was very unpleasant. The last few years of his life characterized the worst part of our relationship. At some point, we had not spoken to each other for several months because I was angry. Mom acknowledged this, saying that the sad part about our relationship is that the last few years, our relationship was all about money.

My birthday was a perfect example. On that day, (my birthday was the day before we rushed him to hospital), dad never even texted me or called me to greet me a happy birthday. True that maybe he was feeling extremely ill already. But my mom reminded me… he was strong enough to text to ask for money.

Dredging up good memories is harder for me than it is for the rest of my family.

The hard part about all this is realizing that while I couldn’t change the nature of our relationship, I could’ve spent more time with him so that we could create better and happier memories to offset the memories we don’t quite want to remember.

In the hopes that this blog, and this entry would resonate with one or some of my readers, here’s something I want you to remember.

All human relationships have imperfections. We can’t all always get along. The closer we are to someone, the bigger the chances of encountering conflicts, problems, and the better chances of getting hurt or angry along the way.

But really, if we take time to nourish those relationships that matter, investing more time and more in the relationship is bound to give both of you more memories to cherish. So much so that all the things you wish had never happened; all the negatives that surround your relationship — would pale in comparison to all the happier times.

Photo from http://www.snapsandflipflops.blogspot.com

Day 10

I finally went back to work today in spite of a progressing cold and a slight fever. I think I couldn’t bear to spend one more day cooped up in the house trying to keep my mind occupied to avoid having flashbacks of the last 3 months.

It gets easier as the days go by.

And it certainly helps to start bombarding your head with other simple problems or obstacles to get through. It helps to put a temporary halt on reliving in your head the most painful moments of the last 3 months.

Since dad passed away 10 days ago, I’ve been keeping a mental list of the things that struck me the most throughout this ordeal.

First, an alternative career as a funeral planner is not such a bad idea. I heard a couple of friends talking about it a couple of weeks ago. I found it funny then. But now I kinda get it. Minutes after my dad passed away, we already had hospital staff bombarding us with questions we couldn’t quite answer properly. Where are they bringing my dad’s body? What is he wearing? Are we cremating or burying? Where will the wake be? Are we cremating now or later? Will the funeral parlor pick up his body, or should we put him in the morgue overnight? Who will settle the hospital bill?

In the middle of all of this, there were family and friends to call. Calls to answer. Text messages to send and reply to.

Now I understand why one of my best friends immediately offered that she and her husband could act as our errand guys just minutes after I told her about the news.

It’s not the easiest thing in the world making decisions such as that when you’re still in the process of recovering from shock and grief.

Second, “last days” are the worst. I thought nothing could compare to the pain immediately after a loved one’s passing. I thought seeing his body being put inside the crematorium was already the worst. Nothing prepared me for the pain that comes with the last day of the wake, and the day of the inurnment. The days of the wake keep you busy and numb you to anything you might feel. So you go on thinking that it’s all okay already, and you’ve already gone through the worst.

Apparently, the “last days” are unbelievably difficult. It’s not the eulogies.

It’s the horror of finality. It’s the fear of knowing the “what happens next” is just around the corner, and sooner or later it’s time to deal with reality. It’s the emptiness of putting the urn inside the crypt and watching them seal it for good. It’s knowing that whatever physical form he had is now truly, utterly and completely gone.

Third, “condolence” truly is the emptiest word in the Dictionary. What does it really mean anyway?

It takes one who’s lost a parent, to know what to say to someone who’s just lost one too. The most comforting words I’ve heard are from those who just outrightly say that nothing they say can make me feel better. It’s the truth. And it’s comforting because I know they understand my pain, and they’ve been through it and have survived it. Which tells me that I’ll survive it too. That someday, it will be okay.

Because truly, when reality sinks in, the hardest part to deal with is fear that life as you’ve known it, will never be the same again. Life without your parent will never be the same again.

But when I see my friends who’ve been there, then I know that yes, it will never be the same again, but it will be okay.

Fourth, getting home after the final inurnment is perhaps also one of the most difficult hurdles to get through. Whether the death happened abruptly and quickly; or was a long drawn-out process — the sudden eerie silence can drive you insane. All of a sudden, there are no phone calls, no text messages to answer. No news to fear. No relatives to update. No errands that need to be done. No money to raise. No hospital shift to go to. No wake shift to go to.

Suddenly, there’s just nothing… just, silence.

Suddenly, you have all the time in the world to do the things you used to love to do, but don’t remember how to do anymore. And you can’t eat, can’t sleep — even if you’ve been running on empty for weeks already. You find yourself just sitting, staring off into nothingness as memories of what you’ve just been through suddenly come crashing down on you on that first silent moment.

It’s still difficult talking about these things with others.

I’ve found that the first few days after, I didn’t really feel like going out, not even to just take a stroll in the mall. It’s a bit painful seeing that for everyone else around you, it’s the same old thing and life goes on for them. It’s just another day, nothing new. And yet, in your heart, you feel so crushed and so empty that you just wish the world could stop for one minute and grieve with you too.

But that’s not the way the world works.

So often I’ve hungered to just be able to spill all the disturbing, dark and painful thoughts lingering in me, but hesitated. Maybe I just didn’t want to burden anyone. Or maybe, I’m not yet ready to talk without breaking down, yet again.

Eulogy

Written and read on September 2, 2010.

—-

I think that for anyone, preparing a eulogy is not easy.

How exactly do you paint a picture of the life of a man you’ve known all your life in just a few pages? What adjectives do you use to describe someone who’s been a part of your life from the day you were born? Which among the thousands of stories and anecdotes do you choose to share with everyone else, to give them an idea of what kind of father dad was?

It would be much easier to say just the usual things you’d hear in a eulogy. About how dad was such a great, caring and loving father… about how he would always pick me up when I fall… about how he always seemed to know the right words to say to make everything better…. The stereotypical things one would normally expect to hear from a daughter delivering a eulogy for her father.

But the truth is, dad was a complicated man. And in some ways, an unconventional father.

While other fathers would be the one to offer advice and words of wisdom to his children, our dad would instead be the one to often ask for OUR advice on things that bothered him.

Mom was just sharing with me the numerous conversations he had with our youngest brother Jeff whenever they’d be alone together. Dad would share this latest predicament with Jeff, and a little later on, you can expect that Jeff would be the one to deliver a long sermon to dad.

I realized that in many ways, dad was the same with me. He would talk on and on about his woes, worries and frustrations while driving me to work on some days or while chatting on the phone… from the smallest things like why Daniel Craig is the new James Bond (he says Daniel Craig is his least favorite James Bond); or why the car in front of us is going so slow while furiously blowing the horn of his car… to the bigger, more pressing things like worrying about the future, money and during these past few months, about his health and sometimes, about death.

We didn’t always get along. We’ve both had our share of disappointments and frustrations with each other. Ours was also a very complicated relationship.

But then, that’s also what made our relationship special.

And ultimately, it is also the best and most lasting legacy he has left me with.

See, in spite of everything, my dad was always there. He was always just around, his door and his heart always open for me any time of the day. Even when I was a child, he never disappeared and never left us alone to fend for ourselves. Every single school day, he would wake up early in the morning to drive us to school, and fetch us at the end of the day. Every Sunday, he would take us out so we could spend some family time together. Never fail.

And when we all grew up, he would always make himself available for us whenever we could spend time with him. He never cancelled on any plans we made, and would always be there. When we’d visit him at home, he would always wait for us no matter how late it was or how long it took us to get there. Even when he was already in the hospital, he would wait for us to battle flooded Metro Manila rush hour traffic to get there, even if he already wanted to rest for the night.

No matter the time of day, no matter how we felt about each other at that point in time, dad was always there.

Dad was also always one of my biggest champions.

I remember a couple of years back, dad visited me at my office. While we were outside the office talking, my boss, who happened to be no less than the Managing Director of my office then, came outside and joined us for awhile. To my complete embarrassment, dad actually asked my boss how I was as an employee, and if I was any good at my job! Parang Parent-Teacher Conference. Thankfully my boss’ reply was very positive otherwise it would’ve been nothing short of complete humiliation. J

But it turns out, I found out that since then, dad proudly talks to anyone and everyone about my successes at work… maybe even to strangers sometimes. And he does the same about my brothers.

A few years ago too, I had gone through a very difficult time at work. Without even hearing the complete story yet, my dad was already extremely furious at the people who had caused me pain. If he could, I think he would’ve given those people a call to say “how dare you do that to my daughter!”

On the last few hours of his life, his doctor told us that while his lungs had already failed, what kept him alive then was his heart. His heart continued to beat, solid and constant.

That’s just like dad. Solid and constant. Because he was a man with a big heart, and a giant capacity to love. He loved deeply and completely. In our family, we’ve always said with great fondness that among all of us, he was always the one who was most sentimental.

His loving heart was what got us through many things and saw us through many difficult times. No matter the circumstance, no matter what crisis we had faced as a family, no matter the disappointments and frustrations… his love for us never failed. He never stopped being proud of his family and bragging about us to anyone who would listen. He never stopped holding all of us in the highest regard. He never stopped being there for us when we needed him. He never stopped asking for us, wanting to spend time with all of us whenever we could.

He may not have been the perfect father. No one is. But he left me and my family one of the best and most enduring legacies in life; and something even better than a grand inheritance, or any life lesson.

By his example, he’s taught us what it means to love unconditionally, steadfastly and completely.

We will miss you, dad. On one of our last serious conversations, you told me “Jing, sorry ha. Ang gulo ng daddy mo.” To which I said, “But you wouldn’t be my dad if you weren’t.” And then you said  laughingly, “Oo nga naman. That’s true.”

In a funny way, maybe our lives will be a little bit simpler without you around. But it would certainly be emptier. Less complete.

But we take comfort in knowing that where you are, you’ll just be there watching over us like you always have, and still continuing to teach us that at the end of it all, it doesn’t matter what we have, what we do, what we say or don’t say… what matters is how we all love each other, enough to overcome anything.

We’ll see you again someday, dad.  I hope that up there in heaven, you’ve found your eternal peace at last.