Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Memory Boxes

My cousin Gerald, the eldest son of my Tito Butch, is dying. He's 32. He has a wife and 3-year old son. We expect his fight with leukemia to end any moment now. My family is grieving a world away in the Philippines, and I know my false hope for relief when he dies is illusory. I thought there would be that same relief when my Tita Cita died from breast cancer in 2004. I didn't want her to suffer anymore. To regret what she had never done. To dwell over everything she would never get to see. Which she did. That's what made her slow death even harder - knowing that she did not want to let go. And when she was finally gone, I waited to feel the relief that I thought would be there. It never came.

My mother shared a memory with me last Thanksgiving of my Tita Cita, who - in her 40s and in the more successful stages of her battle with breast cancer - wanted some sort of little baking oven. My mom was visiting her family in the Philippines at that time and my Tita Cita was awaiting some important test results regarding the remission of her cancer. If the results are good, she had said to my mother, she wanted to go buy that little oven. If the results were bad, there would be no reason to waste money on it. They went together to get the results and immediately after the doctor revealed the good news, she turned to my mother and said, "Let's go get that oven."

A few years later, in the final moments of her life, my Tito Rocky remembers standing at the foot of her hospital bed as doctors and nurses bustled around her failing body, surrounded by tubes and needles and machines. Over a nurse's shoulder, he made eye contact with her and saw the sadness and defeat she was feeling. He knew in that instant that it was the end and that she was letting go. My Tita Marie told me the story that my Tito Rocky had once shared with her. After that, he had said that he hoped to never have to watch someone he loves die again.

For a family of 11, composed of my mother's four brothers and four sisters, who struggled in the poorer areas of the Metro Manila throughout most of their child- and young adulthood, you'd think life would at least offer them a break in their later years. Instead, my mother has osteoporosis, and her eldest sister has been bedridden, suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, since her early 20s. My mother's eldest brother Tito Sonny died suddenly in 2000 of pancreatitis some 15-20 years after losing a teenage son in a tragic bus accident. Then, last year his oldest son died from the same pancreatic complications, leaving behind a young wife and two small children. And recently Tito Sonny's only daughter was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is currently fighting a winning battle, but if she were to die, my tito's wife and youngest son - a cousin my age - will be the last two of a family of six.

Some of my titos and titas think that our family is cursed. My mother's father was mentally-ill. From what I was told, he had some form of schizophrenia; my grandmother, in her later years, eventually developed Alzheimer's and lost quite a bit of her short- and long-term memory. After my Tito Sonny died from pancreatitis, the family had to stop telling her what had happened to him because she would grieve all over again as if she were hearing of his death for the first time. In some ways, she was. It was the same for my Tita Cita. My grandmother, who remained until she died with her unmarried daughters in the concrete house where she had raised her children, would call out for Cita often and then cry. It is hard for me to imagine a woman, who was well-known for her humor and wit, to be disoriented and despondent. I thought there would be relief when she finally died.

There wasn't.

I don't know if I believe in curses, but I do believe in luck. So maybe curses exist in the same way that darkness is just the absence of light. My father's side of the family, hailing from Boston, is known for having extraordinary luck. Though they've had their share of health conditions, they've all had some fortunate - and sometimes amazing - breaks. Maybe that was the light for my mom when my dad first saw a beautiful Filipina nurse on an elevator at Johns Hopkins Hospital and fell in love instantaneously. He - as well as everyone else who was born or marries into our family - bands together and assists when and where they can with the family's growing medical bills. Yet my Tita Olivia, ever the humble and generous soul despite her crippling disease, is still often giving away what little money she has to the poorer around her in Manila.

Whenever I reminisce with my parents about my transition to New York, my dad often comments, "It's that [last name omitted] luck." Maybe I shouldn't write about that luck and cause a jinx. I just wish it would bring me a winning lottery ticket - though I supposed I'd have to actually buy tickets to have any chances.

When I was in my late-teens, I wrote a letter to Oprah after seeing an episode where she had helped a family. I hoped that she would renovate my grandmother's concrete house in the Philippines (which has little to no running water) and provide them with comfortable furniture, especially my Tita Olivia, who has spent most of her life in a bed. I wanted my Tita Connie, Tita Cita and Tita Marie to be able to retire from housekeeping in New York City and live comfortably in their own home near their friends and family. I specifically wanted my Tita Cita to stop working seasonally in the United States and enjoy whatever time she might have left in the Philippines. I promised Oprah in the letter that if she could help me renovate the house so that they could live well in the meantime, I would help them all retire once I was rich. I never mailed the letter because I didn't know how I was going to get rich.

When I was 25, I found the letter and realized that two of the people I wanted to renovate the house for were gone. My Tita Cita had died and my grandmother no longer remembered who I was and did not know what was going on most of the time. I don't know if I cried more while reading the letter about the house that never was or the people that no longer were.

Now I feel like I'm waiting again to hear every one's memories of Gerald and put them in my little mental box where I save things I want to remember. As his situation begins to seem more hopeless, my mind tries to trick me into anticipating the relief. I know it won't be there.

A Year Ago Today: No post
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LuLu said...

Oh my goodness, how sad. I will say a prayer for your family! I understand family struggle and death. I have been to at least 10 famly funerals and most of them suicide. Keep your head up!

Dina said...

Wow girl, that is sad, but it's NOT A CURSE. fortunatley, your living a life that you can say "Im making the most of day..." we don't know when were due to die, so making the most of everyday counts!!!!