08 September 2009

Lolo Papa: Memories of My Maternal Grandfather

Artwork: The Vertical Horizon - Tobi Zausner, year unknown

I remember waking up on the morning of September 9th, 1988 and asking my father how my maternal grandfather was doing. The previous evening, you see, my mother's sister and her husband came to our house to tell us that my grandfather - my Lolo Papa - had been rushed to a hospital in Daly City; my younger aunts in California said he had a heart attack. I remember how my elders whispered frantically among themselves; I remember hearing snippets of conversation where the words extreme unction were mentioned. I asked my younger brother who, even then at barely nine, had an encyclopedic knowledge of liturgical terms what an extreme unction was. It turned out to be the term for the Anointing of the Sick - but, in this case, was more appropriately referred to as the Last Rites.

I did not like the sound of that.

Nor did I like what my father said in reply, "He's dead, Ritzie; he's gone."

Gone. The grandfather who wrote my school speeches, the one who opened his extensive library to his bookish grandchildren, the man who opened my eyes to the world beyond Philippine shores was dead at the age of 64.

I don't remember much from that day, but I remember coming to school numb in both body and soul. I remember breaking down when a classmate crassly said that my grandfather probably died because he saw my [ugly] face. Other classmates tell me I nearly killed the boy who said those words, that I put my hands around his throat and tried to throttle him. They say my grief and the rage that came with it were terrible to see. Strangely, I have no memory of that particular event. All I remember is that my mother sent a note to my adviser, Mrs. Abot, telling her that I would be out of school for a while as we were in mourning and waiting for my grandfather's body to be flown home from California.

It was the first time that I actually experienced a death in the family; the death of my great-grandmother in 1985 didn't count as I was so young at the time. I could not make heads or tails of anything; while my grandfather was never really in the best of health - indeed, the Lenten fast usually had him bedridden - I could not imagine him dead. Not even, alas, when the coffin finally arrived with him in it: a frozen statue, a wax dummy of the man we knew.

I remember being a spoiled rotten little princess; the first grandchild on my mother's side of the family, one precocious enough to speak straight English from the cradle and read old Reader's Digests by the time she was two. My grandfather indulged me with a wealth of Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, and tons of chocolate from his many trips abroad. However, even an indulgent grandpa has his limits and I likewise remember the sarcasm that punctuated his occasional scoldings: sharp biting wit that would shut me up faster than any spanking ever did.

I remember him teaching me how to count in French as we rode the elevator in our Paris hotel, how to toss coins into the Fontana di Trevi in Rome. I remember him showing me the greatest works of art at the Louvre: paintings and sculptures that, until that point, I'd only seen in books. I remember him taking time out of his busy schedule in Singapore to join me and my parents at the zoo.

I remember how French and Italian kids would point to him and shout "Japonais / Giapponese" because of his distinctly Japanese features. I remember him sorting me through my first real French meal (yes, there were frogs' legs!) and him giving me my first taste of a Chinese fish-ball soup in Malaysia.

I remember how he was always impeccably dressed, seeing how he'd been a military man, a public servant, and a diplomat. If I close my eyes, I think I can still catch a whiff of the Old Spice cologne he wore. I remember his laughter, the sparkle in his eyes. I remember how dapper he looked even in his house clothes. I remember how he liked ube cakes and fresh atis in season; how he cooked a mean embotido that appeared on our Holiday table every year without fail.

I remember his graciousness, his integrity; how, as a government official, he took no bribes and kept his own counsel. They don't make public servants like him in this debauched day and age.

I remember disappointing him by losing the student council election just a few days before he died.

I remember curling up in my room and weeping inconsolably when I got home from school. I remember thinking how unfair the world was (it still is, come to think of it). I remember wondering to God why He took my Lolo away and left the big bullying kid in school alive when he deserved death more than anyone else did.

My Lolo has been gone for 21 years as of today.

Truth be told, however, I still grieve; I still mourn.


I was never able to say a proper goodbye.

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