this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on April 23, 2005.
Seven days ago, my aunt died of cancer. She was 52 years old-the only sister of my dad, a family of five siblings. Around six months ago, she was diagnosed of having cancer of the uterus. How did we take it? Well, the entire family was devastated. My father died of colon cancer. So did his father, so did his father’s brother. And so did many other relatives of ours. My father was only 31 years old when he died.
I’ve loved my aunt all my life, but I did not feel any surprise at all about to learn she had cancer. I was all too familiar with the affliction, and I knew it would come round and round in this lifetime of mine. I thought I could learn or gain nothing more from it. I was wrong.
Somehow, in my short life, I’ve seen how a disease like cancer can affect you in the most unexpected ways, long after a loved one has died of it. I began accepting it as a part of life. Growing up an only child without a father gives you plenty of time to think about it. It gives you time to witness and study its effect on the deceased’s loved ones, like in the case of my dad: my heartbroken but strong grandmother, my uncles who were resigned but brave about it, the friends who miss and cherish him, and most of all, my mother, who had to rise over the tragedy and will herself to live, to love and raise me by herself.
I witnessed it all. And I had to witness it again.
Cancer, I learned, seems to be both the curse and the gift bestowed upon our family. This realization recently hit me full force on my face, helping me to see God’s reasons behind every loss. For every loved one God takes away from us, the love that our family has for each other doubles and grows. We learn to cling to each other tighter, listen to each other better, sacrifice for each other more than we can afford to, and share among ourselves more burden and responsibility than what we think is bearable. The love that one gains from experiencing a loved one’s death is infinite.
My aunt’s deteriorating health prompted us last month to rush to the States to be with her during her final days. I almost stopped work on all my projects and packed my bags pronto. True, part of my excitement was to see my family-going there meant spending time with relatives whom I seldom see. But when I got there, I found my aunt thin, haggard, and almost bedridden; a far cry from the glowing, happy, laugh-out-loud woman we knew her to be. The sight of her in that condition deeply upset me.
We settled in the house to help her family take care of her; the doctors had given up treatment and had pronounced her terminally ill. The next few weeks proved to be both happy and tense for us all. Our daily routine included bathing her, giving her medication, hanging out with her, telling her stories and cheering her up. Being a typical, music-loving Filipino family, we listened a lot to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and bossa nova. At times, we played the guitar or sang beside her. Her friends, almost family to us, visited everyday. On a good clear day, we would walk her around the park on a wheelchair, which she enjoyed immensely since we would all horse around and make her laugh.
Sometimes she made us laugh. Sometimes, she would show a trace of her beautiful smile. Sometimes, she would cry silently in pain. Many times, due to the heavy influence of the morphine and painkillers, she would say so many unusual things that either amused or alarmed us. At night, we prayed the rosary, all 20 or so of us. We basically surrounded her with all the love we could give, and this love emanated from her to us and back to her, filling the air and the house thick with so much love you could almost touch it.
Her birthday and her son’s wedding on the approaching Dec. 25 were going to be a triple occasion, celebration or treat, although we all had fear in our hearts she might not make it till then. But she willed herself to get up and be there for everyone that day, even if we knew she was in extreme physical pain. She knew it would mean so much to her son, her family, and her friends. She had such a positive attitude she made it through Christmas, and the New Year, too.
Until then, hearing of somebody die of cancer had become so trite to me. After that experience, it will always remind me of that special time in my life when we (my family and relatives) tried to make the most out of every minute, every day, and every moment shared.
From now on, every time I’d miss my aunt, I’ll think about how she brought everyone together one Christmas season, and the love we all shared because of her. We shall carry it inside us till the day our turn at death comes. For how else does one remember a life?
She was an extraordinary woman, mother, friend and wife. She was my godmother and my idol since childhood. She had the style and the carefree attitude for life such that I always modeled my life after hers. She loved and was loved. She had it all-and she shared it all. We are naturally a brood of happy and easygoing folks in spite of all our losses.
When my father was still struggling with cancer, he requested my mom to play the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in his funeral march. What a silly song for a funeral! Up to this day, my mom cannot tell if he was half-joking or not. So, of course, it wasn’t played during the march. But I heard it playing somewhere recently, and I tried to catch the words this time. I can almost hear Mick Jagger singing now:
“You can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes/ you just might find/ you just might find/ you get what you need…”
I suddenly felt that my father was just there, with my Lolo and my Tita, singing in heaven upon us all below.