The Wake of Our Forgetting

THE WAKE OF OUR FORGETTING

By Tina V. Cabrera

The service is to begin at 10:00 a.m., one of several scheduled for this busy December weekend. We are the first to arrive: Little Brother, my husband, and me. Papa’s coffin is draped with a flag (American of course) and sits atop a sturdy lowering device. Three groundskeepers with their sun hats and gloved hands loiter nearby. Are they ready? Are we?

 As I tread over the green turf over green grass, I am startled by Mama’s marker propped up a few feet behind Papa’s coffin even though I knew this needed to be. Here lies Josephine C. Cabrera. In our hearts forever. The resurrection we await. And I remember. I remember what the Family Service Counselor had said just last week: Don’t worry, your mother will not be disturbed by the disinterment. Her casket is sealed in a slab of concrete.

Only twelve chairs are set out, for we do not expect a large crowd. Everything is some shade of green: the chairs, the artificial turf, the tarp, Mama’s marker (I had picked it, right? The color, the substance, the words. Yes, Papa had asked me to. But this isn’t about Mama now is it?).

The next to arrive is Big Brother. He can only stay for the service and not the tribute-to-Papa lunch, for he and his wife have to catch their flight home immediately after. Big Sis, the oldest, arrives shortly after with her husband, daughter, and son-in-law in tow.

An older gentleman walks up to us wearing dark sun glasses that sit snug atop a bushy moustache and a black fedora that matches his black suit with red silk tie. He greets us with a handshake and says he’s the director, pointing to his lapel. His name is, what’s his name? I’m here in place of Elizabeth. That’s right. I just lost my father this past weekend, she had said, while escorting us on a tour of the cemetery grounds. Oh no, we responded in sympathetic unison. I couldn’t believe the coincidence. Her empathy did not go unnoticed. I said, If you don’t mind me asking, what did your father die of? Taken aback perhaps by the directness of my question, she did not immediately reply. She said, My father had been in declining health for years, you know, a shutdown—one by one—of the main physical processes. Papa also suffered a lengthy decline, though his was from a slow-growing prostate cancer that went undetected for years because he had stubbornly refused to see a doctor.

When Big Brother places a wreath of carnations on top of the coffin, the director tells him to remove it. Nothing is to be placed on top of the flag. The flag a shroud obscuring from view the make and model of the casket we had chosen based on Papa’s wishes: Batesville Delray, light pecan satin exterior, rosetan crepe interior, species of wood unnamed. Papa had made three stipulations for his burial: One, that he be buried on top of Mama and if that wasn’t possible, to be buried nearby; two, that he be buried in the simplest, most modest of containers: a wooden box; and three that he not be embalmed. He faithfully followed the Jewish faith—Colel Chabad to be specific—but had never fully converted; one must be denied three times, a challenge for most let alone someone in such poor health. All moot for the Honor Guard detail assigned to this Saturday morning service; all they know about this deceased retired military man is what they need to know to carry out their duty of paying military tribute: Manuel V. Cabrera served in the navy for 22 years, retired as a Chief Machinist, and with a rank of E-7 deserves the 21-gun salute.

But first…

Eulogy

Big Brother had meant no disrespect when he placed the wreath of flowers on top of the American flag and so immediately apologized. He might be ignorant of military protocol, but not of what matters most to our father. Papa retired from the navy over 40 years ago, and though some of the stories he told involved his military experience, most of them emphasized other aspects of his life, such as how he met our mother and his poverty-stricken childhood during World War II in the Philippines.

After removing the flowers, Big Brother returns to the seating area and stands at ready. Any time now he will start the service off with a eulogy. When I asked him to deliver the eulogy, he was just as willing as he had been for Mama’s memorial. He said, I hope it’s okay with you guys, but I don’t want to focus so much on Papa himself as on what he did for us his children. I’d like to emphasize our gratitude for our friends displaying such kindness in showing up to support us. In a bow tie and golden-colored suit and with a gentle smile, Big Brother begins by introducing Manuel Valencia Cabrera…better known as Papa…born on November 16, 1934…lived to be the ripe old age of 84 years and some dozen days. He describes Papa in terms of his relationship to others: as father, as husband of our Mama, and as grandfather to eight grandchildren; as expected, he states who Manuel is survived by. Most effortlessly, he transitions into scripture. Ecclesiastes 7 verse 1 says: “A good name, or reputation, is better than good oil, and the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Why? Because on the day of a person’s death, that person has accomplished much.

What do you want me to say about Papa, he had asked me and Little Brother as his hands hovered over the laptop keyboard in Papa’s living room. He was generous I said. Little Brother, the youngest of us five surviving siblings, simply nodded in agreement. He was selfless, I added.Papa had, especially in his later years, always vocalized his concern for the well-being and health of his children, dismissing his own discomfort by repeatedly saying, I’m okay even when he was not.He had had to catheter himself the past two years at least twice a day and his leg had swollen to twice its size.

He was a good father and a good husband. And he did all he could in his later years to make sure that he was not a burden to his children. So concerned was he with the welfare of his children that in his living trust he left no stone untouched. With reference to his Mazda RX-8 (evidence of a late-life crisis I had teased):

“At the time after my death, ownership of this car shall be transferred under a very simple suggested rule:

1) Flip-coin

2) Draw-straw

3) Whatever all of you decide. Whichever, you can come-up with that’s fair……whoever is the winner get the ownership of the car. I love you all, Manuel V. Cabrera/Father.”

He had addressed this memo to “All My Children,” an addendum which was to override the original memo dated four years earlier; that document had originally transferred ownership only to his two youngest children—me and Little Brother, who were to:

“1) Sell the car and split 50/50

  2) Either one may offer the other to pay half of the price (Kelly Blue Book at that time)

  3) Flip a coin…whoever wins…got to keep the car

At any rate…. may the both of you be content and at peace with one another…. whichever option you wish to take.” 

Two years after the most recent memo his RX-8 was wrecked in an accident and he bought a more modest car—a Honda hybrid—to take its place. We didn’t need to flip a coin or draw straws or any such method for in his final days, Papa decided to give the car to Big Sis, the only one of his children living locally. He transferred ownership to her with the caveat that she let her siblings use it when visiting. We had recently coordinated our visits with the intent of parsing out responsibility for Papa’s care since he refused Hospice care. None of us were to come at the same time to ensure coverage for stretches of time beginning in winter and ending in late spring. The plan was that Big Brother was to come first, followed by me, Little Brother and then by the second to the oldest, Other Big Sis. Papa took a turn for the worse sooner rather than later, so we each arranged to come as soon as we could. I flew in first on a Tuesday night (just hours before his death) followed by Big Brother, Other Big Sis, and lastly Little Brother, who all happened to arrive after he died. Papa’s car was stored in his garage, the keys for which Big Sis kept hanging by the door for whoever was visiting at the moment. We still called it Papa’s car even though he hadn’t driven in years and it was no longer his.

Big brother continues. Papa was reclusive after Mama’s death, but he wasn’t always. He fondly remembers the family station wagon (we had a wagon?), the green and white camper (that I vaguely remember, laying down on the compact bed), and how Papa used to take his children to the beach and camping. I don’t remember any of those trips, but I do remember going to the drive-in to see two very scary B-movies, one about a man who turns into a snake (or a snake who turns into a man), and another one called “Bugs,” about well, an epidemic of bugs. Were those the days when Mama and Papa were still kind of fun?

He loved his family. Papa loved his children. Even Jesus, who promised to raise the dead, gave way to tears. So today we give way to tears. But we are also not left brokenhearted or crushed in spirit because Jehovah says in Psalms 147 that he heals the brokenhearted, and he binds up their wounds. Those that are here are here to express words of consolation and sympathy. Your presence is greatly appreciated. Take the time, Big Brother says with powerful feeling, to consider how brief that life is. How uncertain it is. Psalm 90 verse 10 says that the span of our life is 70 years. Or 80 if one is especially strong. So apparently, Papa was especially strong. But as it states further in that same Psalm, they are filled with trouble and sorrow. Yes, my father was filled with trouble, as we all are, we struggle in this life…But the Bible also holds out hope. First Thessalonians chapter 4 says, We do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who are asleep in death, that you may not sorrow just as the rest do who have no hope. Job, who suffered long, longed for the grave as reprieve after having lost everything. Can a man who dies live again? Job answers that yes, he can, and he will wait for God to call him back up from the grave. Imagine that—our Creator longs to bring the dead back to life. That is the hope that the Bible holds out. Imagine that, imagine what Revelation 21 says, that death will be no more. Neither will mourning, nor outcry, nor pain be anymore.

Big Brother concludes with an expression I’m going to borrow from a scholar and hope this will help us to find comfort from this day forward and the days ahead:  While graveyards like this graveyard may remind us of the brevity of life, the resurrection hope that the Bible holds out ensures us of the brevity of death.

If only. Who is this scholar? I thought he was going to quote from Rush, his favorite band, but with the mention of the resurrection, the words must be from a fellow Jehovah’s Witness. What would Papa have thought if he could listen to his own eulogy? I should have given the eulogy, considering I was the closest to Papa, or so it seemed, or at least added a few words of my own. Of how Papa was not a Christian but a Noahide and aspiring Jew. How he thought the JW’s beliefs were false and how I wasn’t sure if before his death he still believed in a resurrection or that he would ever see our mother again. I’m such a coward, just as I was at Mama’s funeral. I had not stepped up even though I had the ability to speak as eloquently as Big Brother with his many years of being a congregation elder. But no—my job was to write the poem for the memorial stationary, and Big Brother did his job, didn’t he? As trustee, hadn’t I had the courage to ask him to take charge? Soon they will lower my dear Papa into the earth on top of our dear Mama, whose grave had to be disturbed according to Papa’s wishes.

When Big Brother spoke of the hope of a resurrection—predicted for generations while never coming to fruition—I cringed; Papa subscribed to Jewish belief and was highly opposed to what he called that lie of Christianity. He devoted himself to the Noahides, a peculiar version of Kabbalah. But quoting from the Psalms, that was okay, wasn’t it? Papa may have condemned the New Testament, but he believed strongly in the Old, especially the book of Psalms. On every birthday he promised he would read the number Psalm that matched his age as a way to show devotion to the only true God. He read one of these Psalms to me one birthday season and it went one ear out the other. Papa may have failed to convert to Judaism, but in his old age, his mind was still sharp. I’m gonna relocate to Israel, God willing. If only he give me a few more years of life. He used to say, I’m going to live to 120, and boy that wouldn’t be a surprise. You just keep going, Papa, you’re so strong.

Little Brother and I regularly visited Papa on summer and winter breaks. So we were familiar with Papa’s habits, how he donated to Jewish charities on a monthly basis. Just days after his death, I In went through his files for important papers and found a letter addressed to Mr. Cabrera, asking for him to please be as generous as you possibly can to Jewish children hospitalized in Israel for life-threatening diseases. In the margins, Papa had penned a little note: “A little amount for hospitalized kids in Israel.” The note was dated six days before his death in the amount of $25 and included the account number. Papa was very meticulous about keeping accurate records for everything. Papa must have known that he was dying. Hadn’t Big Sis said so? Papa said two nights before his death, I don’t think I’m going to make it.  Papa had mentioned something about a rabbi—hadn’t he? Was it that I ought to inform the rabbi of his death? But what for? To simply inform? Or to request that he be at Papa’s service? To speak? To give his blessing? Do the Noahides or the Chabad believe in an afterlife? What does it matter now that Papa is gone? But if that’s what he had wanted, shouldn’t I have made sure to make note of it? Was I a selfish daughter for not keeping as accurate a record of his wishes as possible? And death will be no more. Neither mourning, nor outcry, nor pain be anymore. In our hearts forever, the resurrection we await. Those words on Mama’s marker created by me when I once believed. Hadn’t I wished with all my heart that Mama be spared by Jehovah from dying a painful death? I won’t live to see the year 2000. She didn’t. Papa would not live to see his great grandchildren or his youngest son’s children. He wouldn’t see me turn 50 in just a couple of months.

Big Brother did the best anyone could under the circumstances, not knowing whether or not Papa wanted a religious service, or whether or not he would be offended by a Christian-flavored sermon. But I knew, didn’t I? Shouldn’t I have told Big Brother about Papa’s poor opinion of what he believed to be Truth? Papa probably had told either me or Little Brother at some point what he wished in that regard. What did he wish? What did he wish?

      Military Tribute

Other Big Sis watches the whole thing through an iPad sitting on a chair of its own next to Big Sis, who monitors it throughout. Other Big sis watches with her husband and two kids, set a box of tissue next to her, just in case. She feels numb as she had when Mama died. At Mama’s funeral, she only cried when she saw middle sister—who died from lung cancer four years ago at the age of 48—wail and shake upon the lowering of the coffin into the ground. And now through a computer screen she watches and listens to everything—the eulogy, the military tribute, her sisters trembling as they participate in the flower tribute. When the service is over and the screen goes dark, she will whisper goodbye, the lone bugle still echoing in her ears as she heads to the kitchen to prepare dinner.

Little brother is to accept the flag and the rounds on our behalf. When the funeral arranger asked who would accept the flag, we volunteered him. When we asked if he’d like to take the flag home to Korea, he said with directness—What am I supposed to do with it?

      An Honor Guard team of three stand at ready with their rifles some 50 yards away. Two active duty Honor Guards—one male and one female— stand by the casket at ready and the director begins speaking.

This does not come easy for many, very special. I see he put many years into the military. The reason I know that is because I see the ones with the rifles. They’ll be doing a volley, it gets pretty noisy. We don’t have any kids, so it’s okay, they won’t get scared. I cover my ears usually. During the playing of the taps, I’m going to ask those that can will stand and offer the proper salute, all current and former military members. All others will place their hands over their hearts.

At this time, it gives me great privilege to give you the United States Navy Honor Guard.

 Two guards: Step 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, about face. Lift, fold. About face, salute. Ready, face.

Honor Guard Captain calls to attention, port arms: Ready, to, aim, fire. Ready, to, aim fire. Ready, to, freeze it.

Family, please stand.

Bugler plays Taps: Da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da.

You may be seated.

Two Guards fold the flag: Reach, smooth, fold, left, step side side, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, fold, smooth, tuck, turn over, tuck, press, flatten, lift. Slow salute. Female guard turns, step, step, step, kneels before Little Brother.

On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and our grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.

When the guard hands Little Brother the flag, he nods, takes the flag onto his lap, and whispers thank you.

Salute. March away.

Honor Guard Captain strides toward the casket, pauses for one final silent payment of respect. Turns, walks slow with head bowed, then knees before Little Brother.  

On behalf of the United States Navy, please accept these rounds as a symbol of our Navy’s core values: Honor, Courage, Commitment.

Little Brother slips the rounds of honor, courage, and commitment into his right pocket. Slow Salute, turn. March away.

***

Little Brother wasn’t supposed to come until the first of the new year, but then we informed him of Papa’s rapid decline so he flew in earlier. Not early enough. He missed Papa’s death because he was tied up with exams. Couldn’t he do as I did and have someone else proctor finals? Yes, but then how would he get the written exams over to the US from Korea afterward for grading? At least he wouldn’t miss the funeral, which could not be scheduled until 10 days after Papa’s death.

He does not cry at the service, he does not cry when I lean on his shoulder and weep. He’s not one for tears. In fact, when he got the news of Papa’s death, it was my sister-in-law who he says broke down in tears. He does not cry at lunch after the service at Papa’s favorite Greek food restaurant, where he accompanied Papa a dozen or more times until Papa could not summon the strength to leave the house. Maybe he cries when alone in the master bedroom where no one has slept since Mama’s death, not even Papa who slept in his office-turned-bedroom. No one has stayed in that room except for Other Big Sis who had to return home the same day Little brother arrived. Like Little Brother, she is not much for public displays of feeling. She had no reservations about staying in the room where our mother suffered and which Papa left undisturbed like a shrine. Unlike the rest of us, Other Big Sis didn’t have a specific duty assigned to her. However, she played a big role in getting Big Sis, Big Brother, and me to agree to a visitation of Papa at the funeral home. As the first one to rouse the courage, she implored, he looks so peaceful, and much better than in recent photos. In those virtual photos he’s wearing his baby blue and red sweat suit, the clothes he died in, hooked up to an oxygen machine. Big Sis and I had forewarned her—Papa will just be covered with a sheet—it might be a difficult thing to see. But she insisted she wanted to see him. Since she had not been there when he died, she wanted to see him one last time. Big Brother had also decided he didn’t want to see, for what was the point? And Baby Brother didn’t need to decide for he was still out of the country. But at the last minute, Big Brother decided he ought to be there for his family, when he saw how torn up we were over the whole thing. After some twenty minutes, and after wiping tears and blowing noses, we handed over the paper bag of Papa’s things we thought should go with him: his nicest pair of black boots, black Bolo Tie, pair of dark gray socks, black faux leather vest, a blue long-sleeved striped shirt, and a pair of black Docker pants—Papa was so short, look how short the pants are, Other Big Sis had exclaimed. The dead must be dressed in their best. Big Sis gingerly touched Papa’s things. She and I carefully recorded the items one by one. I signed the papers as witness to the few items we believed Papa would wish to be buried with. As we left the mortuary, we saw the same ally cat we had seen when we arrived, lounging by the wheel of a white car. All the cars in the parking lot were white. It felt good to breathe in unstifled air. Immediately after, we grabbed lunch from Papa’s favorite place for fish tacos, he used to eat at least two. Later of course, he could barely finish one. It made me very sad to see a Styrofoam container with left-over tacos and bottles of Ensure that I thoughtlessly threw out so that Little Brother scolded, You could have donated them to a food bank!

      Flower Tribute

The flag. The flag is draped over the coffin. Inside lies our dear Papa. The flag drapes the coffin—surprisingly small—so that the only visible part is a sliver of wood. We’d mutually agreed on the most inexpensive wooden coffin, for that is what Papa had wanted—that he should be buried in a wooden box and that the box not cost a lot. Papa affectionately called me Baby from the time I was born to the time of his death. I used to get embarrassed by this nickname, but over time it had become old hat. I sit in the front row between Little Brother and my husband. I hold the phone below eye-level so I can witness the event in real-time while also filming the thing. What for? In case memory—and it will—fails me. The entire military service takes no more than ten minutes, but every few seconds, I look at the screen, and then at the performance in real-time. Sobbing ever so quietly, I lean against Little Brother’s stoic shoulder. Now I am embraced by my husband. Inside the wooden coffin Papa lies still. Will not disturb. Out of refrigeration for several hours, transported in a black hearse, the opposite of the white van in which Papa was transported freshly dead from his house to the mortuary where he would not be embalmed.

The director announces that next on the agenda is the flower tribute and I immediately raise my hand before he finishes speaking. It’s a tradition, symbolic. It’s what we call a flower tribute. It’s a way of saying, Manuel, we loved you. Manuel, we’re gonna miss you. And I think it’s been touched on, till we see each other again. Can I have two family members…I want to lay the wreath of flowers on top of the coffin, the flowers sent from Uncle, Papa’s one surviving brother of the Cabrera clan in the Philippines. I wonder how long the flowers will last beneath the soil and grass and how long before Papa’s un-embalmed body will begin to decay. I remember because it happened so recently: Uncle Junior’s response to seeing his brother hooked up to the oxygen machine, unconscious, all through the smart phone screen. How he insisted—I want to speak to my brother, even after I tried to tell him that his dear brother was dying. Uncle simply couldn’t believe it was true. I just spoke to him two weeks ago, on his birthday, he insisted. He said he was fine. But Papa always said he was fine, up until that Sunday before his death I spoke to him one last time, I had a feeling it would be, shaking and crying unconsolably. Hearing my sobs, he had said in a soft, weak voice, I’ll be okay. No you won’t. You need help. Please accept the help offered by—dare I say the word that wreaks of death—Hospice. I tried to calm Uncle down by saying, you can speak to Papa, if you want, I will bring the phone over to him. I brought my phone to the hospital bed set up in the living room, the TV behind it on to some cable channel with the volume on low (who turned it on, probably the hospice nurse to keep the motif from being too solemn and dark), faced the screen to where Uncle could see Papa and Uncle burst out, Oh no, my brother, Manoy, no! Then I brought the phone to Papa’s ear. Uncle spoke in their shared dialect of Cebuano, his voice having lowered, words I could not understand, but could imagine. Manoy, brother, please, this cannot be. I love you Manoy, I love you so much. It was all too much to bear, I returned to the kitchen as if out of fear that this would be all too much for Papa, who the nurses had reassured us could still hear. The almost-dead, comatose-like patient can still hear; the sense of hearing is the last to go. We used to play when we were boys, Uncle Junior said, Manoy, Boy.  He was so distraught that I worried he might have a heart attack, considering the shock and his poor health. So I messaged my aunt the next day to ask after Uncle and she said that his blood pressure was high all that day but finally lowered. Your Uncle Junior is better, thank the lord.

I and Big Sis, youngest and oldest girls respectively, step toward the flag-draped coffin and lay the wreath gently atop. As I step down from the threshold, I look down into the pit where Mama is buried, deeper than six feet. As together we lay the wreath of carnations down on the coffin, I tremble with tears and remove my glasses to wipe my eyes. I whispers words of endearment to Papa and sit back down next to Little Brother, the flag folded on his lap with only the white stars on display. While his duty was to accept the flag, mine was to write a poem for the memorial stationary. Aside from Little Brother, I am the only sibling who professes to be a writer and so it was a given that I’d create the poem in Papa’s memory. I didn’t want to express just my thoughts and feelings (and what were they exactly), so I asked each sibling to contribute one line each, say, their fondest memory. In the end, I relied on the stories Papa told me that I remembered only because he told them to me so many times over the years:

You are not here, you are here—

in the vastness of the ocean

you crossed, here

in the house you called home

for nearly 50 years.

Here in the stories you told

time and time again:

How when you met Mama,

she pretended not to notice,

stealing glances from behind

a comic book;

How you eloped on leap year and

swore you didn’t realize

you wouldn’t have to give

an anniversary gift but

every four years;

How as a boy you had fangs for teeth

And how—boom! They fell out at

the clap of hands by the medicine man;

How grandma taught you a little ditty:

“Oh look at the moon; she’s shining up there

Oh how she looks like a lamp in the air.”

I will think of you each time

I see a full moon—

Your face wide, eyes shining,

Smiling. 

That line, “I will think of you each time I see a full moon” is a bit of a stretch, but I will try and remember my promise. I stare at the white stars on the flag that sits on Little Brother’s lap. I will be taking the flag to my home in Texas, stow it on top of my treasure chests of memorabilia in the office closet until I remember to buy a case to enclose it. I may remember to place it atop the piano he bought for me soon after Mama died, which I plan on having shipped for a total of 1200 dollars, more than the piano is now currently worth. But that’s okay, Papa left plenty enough to cover the funeral expenses and a 30% share of the inheritance for me.

When the flower tribute—the last part of the graveyard service—is over, and all the guests are gone except for me, Little Brother, Big Sis and her family, I need a moment alone with Papa. I step onto the precipice and make the mistake again of looking down into the disinterred grave. I whisper Goodbye Papa, I love you. With no tissue or handkerchief, I have to swallows my tears, cough, and wipe my nose with my hand. How many times have I already said goodbye—once when he died, again at the mortuary when I wasn’t going to look but then did? Before falling asleep, and then again in the dark morning? This goodbye is different from the rest; it is the last time before Papa is buried forever. Soon, like Mama, he will be protected from the decomposing elements by a hard, cold, slab of concrete. My last glance down is not enough to bring up vivid memories of Mama. A vague sensation looms in the air because I am vaguely aware that Mama is buried deep—deeper in the ground below. I weep—not for Mama, but over the fresh loss of my father. I weep also over the fact that eventually I will feel little, if anything at all, when thinking of either of my parents, buried here, one on top of the other, one headstone stating something I no longer believe, and the other which will state the simple fact that my father served in the military and lived for 84 years.

***

Big Sis arrives in a smart black dress suit and heels, the ones she wears to special Jehovah’s Witness events that happen only once a year, such as the Memorial of Christ’s death. Her jet-black hair sits in a loose bun, the way she always wears it. I hug her, whispering, You look beautiful, in her ear. She steps down the inclined hill, and when I ask if she’s okay, she sniffles back her tears and answers, No, I’m not okay. She hugs a bouquet of multi-colored roses close to her chest.

She makes a beeline to Mama’s tombstone, etched with words of my creation so long ago, some twenty years now isn’t it, when I was still a Jehovah’s Witness—it’s a shame she no longer is, Big Sis must be thinking. How do you do it—face the world and death without any hope.

Papa died at home, so he got his wish. Plus, he lived a long life. That and the fact that he’s no longer in pain should console. Oh and the resurrection of course. Of course? But he died an unbeliever, so…

She sits in the front row on the left, next to her husband who sits on the aisle seat. She puts the iPad on the seat to her right so that Other Big Sis and family can observe the memorial service virtually. She gets her cue from the director, And I think it’s been touched upon, till we see each other again. Can I have two family members perform the flower tribute?

I wave my hand, and she follows suit. She grabs my hand, and together we approach the threshold. She takes hold of the left side of the wreath while I grab the right. She sniffles back tears when she sees me trembling and sobbing uncontrollably. No need to grieve, she must tell herself, for Papa is at peace now.

When the flower tribute is over, Big Sis will forget everything the director said because her focus is on getting through this most painful loss of our last parent. I had to stop recording on my smartphone to participate in the tribute, and Big Sis’s iPad served as a virtual window to real-time, not as a recording device. She will also forget because she must have said a silent prayer partly addressed to Jah—Oh Jehovah, help me, help me let go—and partly to Papa, Forgive me.

Not a burden to his children. Papa died on Wednesday morning at 3:41 am in the presence of me and the hospice nurse on duty. At the time, Big Sis was asleep at home, but had her phone on. She had been on-call essentially for months, taking care of Papa as the only one of us living close by. On Monday night, when he was awaiting the oxygen machine and pain medication, he practically begged her to stay overnight, but Papa, she said, I can’t. I’m so exhausted, and I have to work tomorrow. If I don’t go into work, I’ll lose my job. Good thing I didn’t stay and call in the next day, she explained later to me and Little Brother when she treated us to dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant, very close to hers and to Papa’s home. We hadn’t asked her about that night, but she explained anyway. Come to find out, as a part time teller at the bank, I don’t qualify for FMLA.

She had tried to console him that her husband, his son-in-law that he loved, would stay with him. Please, I’m begging you, understand. I’m about to pass out.

According to the scriptures, it is the grown children’s God-given responsibility to care for their aged or aging parents. It would be a sin to neglect this duty. She is reassured from the outside that she did her best. After Big Sis explains herself at dinner, I remind her of how Papa repeatedly said I don’t know what I would do without your sister. She has changed. She is so kind and does everything I ask of her.  Yes, she got past old grudges over past injuries—both Papa and Mama not helping her when she broke out with the worst acne, Papa beating her legs with the vacuum cleaner that one and only time he lost his temper on her, and other regrets. Her selfless acts can partly be attributed to character, partly to religious conviction, partly out of genuine love for family. She carried the burden for almost two years. She visited him at least twice a week, bought his groceries for him, cooked meals, took him to the doctor, sat and talked. It had gotten very difficult in the past weeks. His left leg swelled so much it caused him great pain. She trimmed his toenails and what was left of his hair. But there were some things she was not trained for, such as helping him catheter (he wouldn’t have let her even try anyhow). Finally at the end, through a conference call, we convinced Papa that he needed hospice nurses to come and assist around the clock. We knew he was in a bad way when he acquiesced and agreed not only to the nurse assistance but to pain medication and oxygen. Big Sis remembers, for its still fresh, how pathetic Papa looked, slouched in his wheelchair in the kitchen, barely able to speak or to stay awake, asking when the oxygen would arrive. Will it arrive soon? It didn’t get there until past 9 pm that Monday night, but when it did, she was relieved to see that it did give him some relief.

When Papa begged her to stay the night—this is something Big Sis won’t and cannot ever forget. It was either stay with him till his last breath or lose her job at the bank, which she already nearly lost when our sister was dying from lung cancer four years prior and she had taken on the job of primary caretaker. She’ll never know if she really would have lost her job had she stayed the night, if she would either have went to work without sleep and plowed through, or missed work and explained later that her one and only father was dying, he needed her, and her boss would have understood.

When I asked Big Sis to contribute a memory for the poem, Big Sis said, I know Papa called you Baby, but did you know that I was his first Baby? You may be Papa’s Baby, but I was the first. Yes, Baby says, I know. He also said you were his Princess. You look beautiful. I wish Papa could see how you did this all for him.

Little Brother carries on his daily routine: Write at the coffee shop or library, pack a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of fruit or nuts, and a cannister of water to consume outside of the cafe or library, then resume work for a few more hours after, then get a more substantial dinner. Everyone processes their grief in their own way, I say, stating the obvious in my attempt to gauge his feelings. Writing is my way of dealing…dealing with life, he says. Onward then, for what can he do otherwise? We knew it was coming. Papa had been officially diagnosed with prostate cancer a year and a half ago, and most likely had it for several years prior, for he knew something was wrong but refused to be touched by anyone, especially by a doctor. Little Brother stops short of accusing Papa of letting himself die. For that was what we think anyway, we just don’t say it out loud. Still, you’re never really prepared, I say. But Papa was. Papa had appointed me as Executor and Little Brother as co-executor, jobs neither of us wanted. I’m smart on an intellectual, academic level, he insisted, but not with matters of daily affairs or red tape, that I hate. He will do his part, clean up the kitchen and toolshed, get it all done by himself in two days rather than taking staggered trips to Goodwill. Push through, keep busy with work. Death is inevitable, happens to us all. I’m not one for rituals, he adds. Being raised a Jehovah’s Witness—you know how they shun rituals for the most part—has left its mark. Writing is a project of passion and he will not let anything get in the way. Besides, there’ll be a time to grieve, he’ll grieve in his own way. He has nothing to prove to anyone.

In reading Todd May’s “A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability,” on the recommendation of Little Brother who used the book in teaching philosophy to his undergraduates, I am idrawn to Stoic acceptance of death, death as both tragedy and necessity. In “Death,” a book by the same author, he expands on his argument that while death is an evil, so too is the notion of immortality. But none of what I read could prepare me for the visceral experience of seeing Papa’s body one last time at the mortuary. I had decided I wasn’t going to go in, that I wanted to remember him as he was, but that in itself was self-deceiving, for I had seen him die before my eyes and then rolled on the gurney into the vehicle that took him away from his home of 50 years. Other Big Sis had said, “You guys should go see, he looks better than I expected. He looks like he’s at peace.” So I went in, he was dressed in a hospital gown, cold from refrigeration, and yes, he looked better than those hours right after he passed. Finally, not suffering anymore. No more pain, Papa, no more pain.

Now that the hardest part is over (or is it?), we must clear out as much as we can while here and after discussing with my siblings, I must make the final decision about what to do with the house. I could stay in the master bedroom, which has its own bathroom, but prefer to sleep in the blow-up bed in my old bedroom. I cannot bring myself to sleep in the same room where I witnessed Mama slowly deteriorate from cancer some 20 years earlier. A visitor peddling some nonsense “sound therapy” as a possible cure for late stage uterine cancer asked her if she wanted to live, to which Mama had nodded yes. Mama’s pale, ghostly face, reminded me of the Scream. Out of that face came a strained plea to go on living. Yes, the drawn face said, I’ll submit to any unproven method of therapy.

When clearing out the room, to my surprise, I found Mama’s old brown and furry bed spread. The blood stain. I hadn’t thought of any of this for years now, but the dried blood—Mama had coughed up blood, which at first, we thought was the grape juice she had just sipped. The blood seeped through the thick fur into the back side and the stain was still visible. I ask Big Brother to dump it with the rest of the trash, and he does. Papa stowed the blanket along with several other old sheets all these years. Neither of us comment on the obvious. Papa should have washed it if not thrown it out. Mama should have gone to the hospital the night before when everything hurt except her eyelashes. She wanted to spend one more night at home. I love you, now let me go. I did not get to see Mama take her last breath, but kissed her forehead and said goodbye in the cold hospital room where they moved Mama’s body onto a cold steel bed. The dead need no comfort. I was the only one of my siblings who got to see Papa take his last breath, but had arrived from the plane too late to speak to him while he was still conscious.

Writing is a way of handling life. I post about Papa’s death on my blog the day before Christmas. I share the entry on Facebook and friends make comments such as “Beautiful words in the midst of grief,” and “Very Moving.” After revising and fine-tuning, I post an update: I finished this piece…I think:

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 Middle Sister, 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…

When I read my Ode to Death again, I see it as a vain attempt at coping, and worse, as maybe an exploitation of what should be private feeling. Yet again, and—it’s true isn’t it, the saying about time and distance…I am not as obsessed to relive my experience of his last breath or to know with certainty how he felt with none of his children right there to hold his hand before falling into unconsciousness…

A month after Papa’s death, me and Big Sis exchange texts:

Hey sis, how are you feeling?

I feel down a lot.

Me too. I’m missing him a lot lately. So used to calling him I nearly did yesterday.

Aww…yeah…sometimes I’m still in disbelief but, I haven’t had what you call a meltdown yet cuz I’ve been staying busy. I was thinking…Maybe subconsciously I thought if I had some of sentimental things belonging to Papa or Mama it would ease the pain……. but no, nothing does.

Before my flight home, I tell Big Sis that I will call or text once a week to make sure she’s okay. I know it will be especially hard for Big Sis, who must have gotten used to being Papa’s primary caretaker of all his surviving children. As time goes on, I will forget my promise, not willfully. That’s just the way it goes.

It is true, isn’t it, what they say—who says? —that time and distance loosens the grip of grief…Where are the voicemails…did I delete them by mistake? Oh, God. Here they are. Good thing these texts I thought were deleted are not completely deleted. And I can save them forever if I want. Where is the voice mail my brother-in-law left, was it the day I flew out, the day Papa died, did he know I was coming? Is it too late to ask if brother-in-law told Papa I was flying in that day he fell in the bathroom, before he went comatose? Did he know his Baby would be there and so held on? I’m sorry, Papa, I didn’t come sooner, to be able to say goodbye.

[10/28/18 0:25] Hey Baby, its Papa, I’m returning your call as I promised. So I don’t know where you’re at now, but anyways, you give me a call if you have the chance. I love you Baby. Okay, bye.

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