Remembering my Lola
Two years doesn’t feel like very much time. Sometimes, ninety-eight years doesn’t even feel like very much time.
Two years ago, I flew to the Philippines with Deanna. Then, she was just my girlfriend, but I knew we were serious enough that she needed to meet Lola. My grandma. The only grandparent who I really ever got to know. The one who lived in my house and shared the room next to me on-and-off for most of my teenage years.
That introduction was such a joy-filled moment. It reminded me of the song Go Where The Love Is. Those very words gave me an extra push to get those plane tickets and to make sure that Deanna and Lola got to meet. That summer, going where the Love is meant going to see Lola, and we did.
I decided to always go where the Love is, so today, I’m flying again. To the Philippines again. It’s a similar route, but this time without the joy.
Lola’s funeral will be on Saturday.
This time, going where the Love is means being there to hug my mom and my aunts, to be with them when they share stories about their mother, and to be one more attendee to remind everyone of how much my grandmother was Loved.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in that Lola has now passed. I heard she went quickly. She developed a cough and went to the hospital where she died in her sleep. There wasn’t much discomfort. Her life ended the way most of us would probably want ours to end. Without much pain. Surrounded by Love. At the end of many, many years.
This all happened just days after she celebrated her 98th birthday. For a while, it seemed like she was on track to outlive us all. This week, though,
I have hours to go before I land in Hong Kong. Then Manila. Then my mom’s hometown of Iloilo. This week I’ll spend four days in a plane just so I can spend two of them in the Philippines. Still, I can’t imagine not being there. Lola was important.
Knowing my family, they’ll probably want me to speak at the funeral service. I’ve been thinking of what I could say. There are so many possibilities. Lola lived a lot of life in 98 years.
I could talk about the numbers people associate with Lola. 98 years. Nine children. Twenty grandchildren, and twenty-one great-grandchildren. Her Love was so large, it was statistical. I kind of like the way that sounds. To my family, these numbers are important, and they’ll be repeated at every possible opportunity.
Growing up, I was always aware that I was number nineteen out of those twenty cousins. That my mom was number eight of nine. I always took these numbers for granted, thinking it was a bit overkill for our family to be constantly in awe of its own size. How fitting that I know realize that these numbers were important to Lola because they represented the people she Loved.
I could also talk about the years I got to know Lola the best. In her late eighties, as she lived with us in the bedroom next to mine. Long after she moved to the Philippines, and even up until now, I still call that room in my parents’ house, “Lola’s room.”
It was there that I got to see Lola get older, and she always seem a bit surprised by her own age. I remember several times that she would announce to me, “I am now an old, old woman!” in her high pitched and gentle voice. I would smile back. She’d been an old, old woman for virtually my entire life.
I would introduce her to the TV show Monk. I could never tell if she kept track of the plot at all, but she loved that he was very afraid of germs. I recall once, a telephone fundraiser called her phone line, asking if she would support whatever cause he represented.
“How can I support you?” she asked sincerely. “I am the one who needs supporting!”
The Lola I knew was sweet. Gentle. Always slightly worried about something, which was probably the result of spending most of her 98 years looking after nine kids. Once she could confirm that everybody was safe and where they should be, she could start winding down for her six o’clock bedtime, which only got earlier the older she got. She would also wake up earlier and earlier, and it’ll always be a bit of a mystery as to what she did with all that time between three and six, when nobody else was awake. I heard she spent it praying for all of her offspring, and I don’t find that hard to believe.
This was a total contrast to my personality at that time. I was in high school, gaining freedoms one at a time. A drivers’ license. A loosened curfew. The promise of college around the corner. I was restless and adventurous, wanting to go places.
In spite of our totally different personalities, having Lola around the house meant so much to me. As an only child, having the presence of somebody else was significant.
I know I have no shortage of memories from around this time. Of her teaching me how to make veggie tempura. Of her finding it hilarious when I would hit the button on her remote that switched the language of TV shows to Spanish. Of her being starkly concerned of John McCain’s age during his presidential run, despite being about twenty years older than him.
I could easily talk about these moments and memories for a while, and I probably will. Ever since I learned of her passing though, I’ve become all the more interested in the other side of Lola. The side I didn’t really get a chance to know. Being one of her youngest grandchildren means that the memories my aunts and cousins have been sharing these past few days have been from before I was even born.
I never really got to know about Lola’s travels that everybody talks about. Aside from her tempura, I really can’t recall the tastes of any food she’s ever prepared, but so many of the memories that have been shared about her have revolved around food. I also never got to learn much about the foster child she adopted, or her sister’s family that she also looked after. I knew those things happened, but I was born far too late to be very familiar with those stories.
Instead, I knew the sweet, gentle, constant presence in the room next to mine.
The more I hear these other stories, though, I wonder if I might take after Lola in more ways than I realize. I grew up hearing that I inherited the personality of Lolo, my grandpa. But perhaps also took on more from my Lola than I ever realized.
Now this realization makes me smile, and makes me realize that embedded in each of the little things we do are the legacies of the people that made us.
There’s cooking, for starters. I love cooking, mixing foods together to see what I can do. My mom was never a big fan of cooking, so there was always a bit of a mystery about why I grew to find it so fun.
Turns out that the answer was Lola. My mom and her siblings were so spoiled by Lola’s cooking skills that they never developed much of their own interest. Pork stew. Lumpia Shanghai. These were some of Lola’s best dishes, I’ve learned.
Then there’s Lola’s heart for orphans, vulnerable children, and anyone without someone to look after them. She was like a mother to her siblings after her own mom passed away. Then, after decades of raising own children, she took in a foster child. No one would’ve blamed her if at the end of raising nine kids she decided she was finished, but she took in the boy, and then helped her kids look after her grandchildren.
The week that she died, I defended my Masters’ thesis on the topic of orphans and vulnerable children living in institutions in South Africa. I wrote the thesis after revisiting a care center I had volunteered at years prior. I wonder if some of that interest in disadvantaged children has its roots in Lola’s compassion for that same population.
Then there are Lola’s travels. In her life, she’s made it to the Holy Land, to Hawaii, to Indonesia, to the pyramids, to Virginia and Michigan and Illinois and Kansas and Oklahoma and California. It’s a modest amount, but when you think about how much travel you’d expect a woman born in the Philippines in the 1910’s to accomplish, it’s impressive.
Even more impressive is the fact that after living for five and a half decades in the Philippines and having raised her family there and building a home, she and my grandpa decided to uproot and move to the U.S. All for the sake of being closer to her kids as they were starting to form families of their own.
She went where the Love was.
The lights in the plane cabin dim, and the windows fade to a thick black that blocks out the sun. If not for this, I would be experiencing around 48 hours of nonstop sunlight. The guy in the seat next to me is fixed on some action film with Gerard Butler.
I unfold the airplane blanket and remember the very last interaction I had with Lola. It was the night before Deanna and I left the Philippines and Lola’s bedtime came around, early as usual. I volunteered to be the one to help her to her room. I tucked her in, pulled a blanket over her, as she happily welcomed the night’s rest. I pulled the blanket slowly, deliberately, knowing that at her age, I could very well be seeing her for the final time.
I was right.
I’m now underneath the airplane blanket, somewhere over the Pacific, on my way to see her body be buried. Lifeless for the first time in nearly a century, and it strangely feels too soon. Losing people is the worst.
That night I tucked Lola in, though, I saw a look of gratitude in her restful face. I can imagine the extent of her gratitude now, thanking God for the body she just departed. Thanking Him for giving her such a good one; one that could last for nearly a century. One that lasted long enough to see all her children grow into late adulthood. One that lasted long enough to see her twenty grandchildren all reach adulthood, and then become outnumbered by her great grandchildren. I imagine her giving thanks for her hands that bathed countless children, her knees that supported endless prayers, her fingers that prepared decades of great meals.
I like to think of Lola thankful at the very end. It makes me thankful too.
When I was born, Lola was 72. It’s amazing that I got as much time with her as I did. I don’t know how many people would have guessed that she’d be around long enough to see me hit my mid-twenties. To meet the girl I’d end up married to. Today those years feel too short, but I know it was all very generous.
Lola’s very long life was spent surrounded by Love, and at the end of the day, no matter how many years we get, I think that’s all we could really want.
I will miss her, and it’s hard to express how much I’ll be missing her. She was definitely a bedrock of my childhood that I’ll have to live the rest of my life without. But I know I’ll have her Love for another 98 years, and then some more. And for however long I get to live, there will always be a little bit of Lola’s legacy buried between the words of my thesis paper, the flavors of my chicken adobo recipe, and the mileage points I’ve been racking up.
Points to help me go where the Love is.