Ode to Death

Papa and Mama died 20 years apart. Mama died in 1998 and Papa in 2018. Mama in October, Papa in December, both near year’s end.

I was born in 1969, which means Mama died when I was 29, so would not see me turn 30, and Papa died when I’m 49, so  will not see me turn 50 in two months. Both died when I was on the verge of something–what some would call a landmark event. Or a new beginning.

The piano movers picked up the Young Chang upright piano Papa bought me in either 1999 or 2000. I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact year, just that it was not long after Mama died, but I tend to think the gesture was partly out of tenderness and partly out of grief. For I reminded him of Mama, he often said, he called me Baby, a term of endearment much as he was lovingly called Boy, all his life by his siblings in the Philippines.

Moving the piano from his house in San Diego to Austin will cost 1200 dollars, probably more than the twenty year old piano is now worth. I looked up the year the piano was built using its serial number, and discovered it was built the same year Mama died, 1998. I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m compelled to force connections or to find patterns in matters beyond my control, so that I can find a commonality in my grief.

They both died from cancer, their deaths left me parentless. It feels as if Papa’s death hits harder, but only because his death is fresh, and I have lived a greater portion of my life with him in it than without.

I will miss–

calling you at least once a week, hearing you say “I’m okay,” when clearly you are not, and then turning the attention away from yourself to the other, “give my love to the other half.”

hearing the concern in your voice when you say “Take care of yourself” and “your health is your capital.” You worried about us girls because so far the women in our family, Mama and Dyna, both died from cancer.

the way you’d get lost in memory, your eyes losing their present focus, seeing hazy images of things long past, caked with grime and dust.

how you would eat in silence at your favorite restaurant, Zorba’s, savoring your food slowly and with care. This memory pains me now as I clear out the kitchen cabinets, throw out the unopened bottles of Ensure, half eaten microwaveable meals. Dozens of frozen single Sara Lee cheesecakes remain in the freezer and some in the vegetable bin. You told us many months ago that you couldn’t taste food and had to force yourself to eat. The signs were there, but you kept going on while we were besides ourselves with worry, on call, phones never shut off, knowing one day soon we’d get the phone call. You’d pour salt on already sodium-rich food to make it palatable. You went from a robust weight to less than 120 pounds, from high blood pressure, to no pressure at all. The gasping for breath, wagging of the tongue in your final moments. Dressed in diapers, secreting liquids that had to be sucked from your mouth, into a tube, then into a canister. The sight of unused packages of adult diapers makes me so sad, yet it all comes together like identical bookends, a cycle of birth and death. You used to say life was too short and you aimed for age 120. We used to say that you’d probably outlive us all, considering your strength and your stubborn will to live. Each birthday, your ritual was to read the number of the Psalms that matched your age to show gratitude for having lived that long. You were once a baby gasping for air, wailing and screaming in your first few moments in this world, and you went out gasping for air but keeping your cries to yourself. Somehow, despite the pain and sadness, it seems like this is how it’s supposed to be. Death–both a friend and an enemy.

I don’t know what all this really means, only that I wish to both forget and to not forget the terrible thing I witnessed: I alone of all your children, saw your last gasps for breath, your last sigh I could have sworn was a call for my name, but couldn’t have been–was your last breath an inward or outward breath? You said you didn’t know how much time you had left, but that you were ready, you lived a long life. Were you really ready? Did you feel alone? Were you afraid? Did you hope to see Mama? Is she there with you? You are buried on top of her, just as you wished, and you died at home. Was that a comfort as you slipped away into unconsciousness? They said you could hear me, but could you really? No, really? Already some days have passed that I haven’t thought much about you. I’m afraid–To forget seems to mean to move on and seems to equate to erasure, which in turn means I too shall one day be forgotten and erased. And I’m not ready, not yet, until I am. And then…

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