I wrote this piece shortly after we were told our father may not survive the night after a complication with his surgery. While we still do not know what the future may bring, we cheer him on every day while his body learns to breathe on its own. We thank you for your prayers.
While I write this blog post, my father is on life support in Brampton. My mother passed just ten months ago in the room immediately beside where he struggles to survive. In order for him to dance this delicate choreography between his heart, his lungs and his liver, he must remain sedated. At any moment, at the completion of any word you read in this post, he may leave us.
In the meantime, I imagine him existing in this plain between our ancestors and us mortals. There is an expansive landscape. A clear blue sky is reflected onto a calm body of water. Since the rules are different here, an old Bentley begins to drive along the horizon, effortlessly along the surface of the water, until the low-pitched hum of its engine stops.
My Lola and Lolo exit the car first from the driver and shotgun seats. They brace against the early autumn breeze of this in-between place. “Jiiiimmyyyyyy!” They call out, their faces contorted in unbridled smiles. They point towards the car.
From the passenger seat emerges my mother. She is no longer the woman I last remember, grey, dying and surrounded by her grandchildren in her final moments. She is as she was in the early 70s. Her jet black hair cascades to the waist belt of her peacoat. But there is someone else. She hoists a small baby onto her hip, my older sister, Paultessa, who died at birth. She is as my father remembers her: the most perfect baby.
The water now reflects this convergence of kin: my grandparents, my parents and my sister. They embrace the way we always embrace relatives at the airport after their long flight from the Philippines, only this is the in-between place. My father realizes that he too is young again. It is the body he remembers most fondly: between the boy who hustled on the streets of Manila to the man who married the love of his life. It is the body he knew before Martial Law, before loss, before diaspora. His hands are graceful and long. His face is chiseled. His hair is long to the ears. He wears his favourite tan-coloured leisure suit with wide tie.
They all cram into the old Bentley and begin driving. They arrive at a Chinese food restaurant, where all great family reunions take place, and everyone is waiting for him. My cousin Andy. His brother, Pete. His cousins. All of them existing in this in-between place at the exact age my father remembers them best, in the clothing he remembers from pictures. Some of them are still black and white, with the colonial pineapple silk of their ternos crisp atop each shoulder. Over food that my mother has ordered special, from a list she checks off to ensure the waiters don’t forget anything, all of the ancestors fill my father in on what their journeys were like to the other side. Some share how perplexing the rules are with time and place expanding and contracting in confusing and spectacular ways. Others share how long it took for them to let go. Perhaps it was too difficult or too soon to leave. Then the question is finally posed to my father.
“Are you ready?” they ask. They have asked this question before too many others before him. They know the profundity of this question but pose it with a nonchalant air only the ancestors can possess.
My father does not answer, he only sips his tea and takes in the faces around him, the assortment of food on the Lazy Susan turning from person to person. My mother hands him my baby sister for him to hold and Paultessa’s curious hands play with his bottom lip. He makes a face. Paultessa giggles. This triggers something deep inside him. His grandchildren. He suddenly remembers playing “graduation” with them all, making these tiny toddlers practice receiving their diplomas to the tune of his humming Pomp and Circumstance. My mother sees a shift in him and knows it is time for the reunion to end, at least for now.
My mother, Paultessa, all of the ancestors, evaporate in wisps of sand and my father is suddenly alone on his favourite chair looking out over a sunset. He understands he cannot decide to leave simply because he misses my mother. He has to leave or return to us when he is ready, when he has made his own decision. He can hear us all crying on the living side, telling him we love him. He can hear machines beeping and doctors discussing his condition. Slowly those sounds fade and he watches images of his big beautiful life play before him. He will leave or return to us when he is ready.