At UC-Berkeley in 1999, I had the good fortune of taking a creative writing class with Cherrie Moraga, a renowned Chicana poet. I was struggling to reawaken my muse after four years of professors assigning me expository essays had successfully crushed whatever creative impulses I still had.
Our assignment on this particular occasion was to write a dialogue consisting of that conversation we wished to have, but never had…
October 5, 1999
You lie below the grass, and I tramp up this silent hill, bracing my flannel about me as the wind blows by.
You were the matriarch of our family – sitting in the middle of the room among everyone else at our family gatherings, with my aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters, children running around amidst the smell of lumpia and pansit. You sat there, behind your large, round glasses, grasping the chair with your arms and filling it with your plump frame. You played cards and mah-jong and gambled with my uncles in Tagalog, and I couldn’t understand what you all were saying. You were the one who nicknamed us – my cousin, Joseph, now a grown man, is still called “Buddy Boy.” My aunt you named “Berot” since she was a child (because she liked Baby Ruth). Me? I was “Ron Ron.”
We all had only one name for you: Lola. Not only me, my sister, and my cousins addressed you as our grandmother – but also some of my aunts and uncles called you Lola.
You were the first person in my family to die. You were seventy-five.
I remember my mother’s tears as we stood around your coffin at your funeral. Her tears came from deep inside – all the pain and sorrow of her life coming out in those few minutes. As she stood there crying, I thought of this woman, now fifty-one, and everything she sacrificed in order to raise me. Never once did she refuse me a favor I have asked of her. And when I came out to her, she embraced me and cried and said she still loved me. I cried, too. But how many moments like that make up my life? As a boy, I had been taught all not to feel. No hugs, no kisses – only regret. My tears flow out only when it is too late. She is still sobbing. How will I feel when my mother is taken away from me, as hers was right then?
I do not want to forget her, or my sister. She and my mother are flickering sparks, sparks that are already fading and will suddenly leave me someday.
Lola, I now turn away from your grave and proceed to walk down the hill.
I stood over you also back then – as you lay in your hospital bed. You lay there, eyes closed, your round glasses gone, no longer in a dress, but now in a plain white hospital gown. Your hair is sweaty and has been drawn back. Your mind, previously so often occupied with other things, with life, is now focused solely on breathing – your entire body heaves as it draws in each breath and exhales. I want to talk to you, but you are from me. I still have questions. In the Philippines, you lived through the Second World War. You scrapped together a living as your husband fought to drive out the Japanese army. You bore nine children, raised them, and took all of them here to America. One of them was my mother. The day my aunt found you lying on the floor unconscious, you had just come home from St. Francis Church, where you had volunteered nearly every day as long as I have known you. That was where you ran the church’s souvenir shop, and once when a person went in to try to rob it, you berated him for stealing from God. He left in shame.
I remember only an outline of your life. I will never be able to sit in your lap and ask you questions. This is the conversation we never had:
My cousins and I arrive at your apartment and knock on your door. Your apartment is one block from my school – we stay here afterschool so that someone can take care of me while our parents are gone. You open the door and let us in. I breathe in the distinctive smell of your apartment, brought about by all the pilipino foods you cook that have now settled in the heavy wooden furniture. The aroma embraces us. After all of the dramas of third grade that occurred today, I am now surrounded by your apartment and its aroma. You yourself have just come home, and oh how your bones must ache! You immediately begin to cook us Spam and rice, and mix us some Kool-Aid. I am sitting at your table, my hand holding a bright green plastic cup.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome, Ron-Ron.” I sit there, trying to find the right words for what I am feeling, as you place a plate of food in front of me.
“Eat now, eat! While it’s still hot!”
“I love you, Lola.”
“What?” she asks. Your face shows surprise. After a while, you laugh.
“You love me, of course! Ten-ten.” That is how you say ‘thank you.’ I stand up and hug you. We are in the kitchen. You hold me and place your cheek next to my cheek, swaying me back and forth…
“I love you.”
You lie in the bed. I lean forward, kiss your forehead, and straighten up again. Your eyes are closed – you don’t know I’m here. I look up and see the clock. You are about to die. Your entire body heaves as it draws in each breath, and exhales. Heaving, heaving…