My grandmother always waited for me to come home. Whether it was 9 o’clock on a rainy Tuesday night or 2 o’clock on a humid Saturday afternoon, I would catch her sitting on the wooden bench in front of her sari-sari store, squinting her eyes as I walked closer. “Hay salamat, nandito na ang apo ko!” She would always say after the customary pagmamano, which assured her she didn’t mistake me for someone else. Then, she would interrogate me about my day— where I went, what I did, who I was with, and why I came home earlier or later than she had expected. It was a routine I was not particularly fond of.
We lived in the same house until I was 25, which meant I had a curfew even after graduating from college. It was funny, but it wasn’t fun. I lost count of all the parties and dinner invitations I had to turn down because I couldn’t bear the thought of my grandmother staying up and out, worried over my whereabouts. Whether I did it out of love, out of respect, out of guilt, or out of a little bit of each is a question that bears no weight anymore. I will not see her again.
A wake is called a wake because mourners stay up late to watch over the dead—to make sure they are safe, to say goodbye before we let them leave. I learned recently that the word goodbye came from the phrase “God be with ye.” A goodbye was meant to be a blessing.
During grandma’s wake, my sister dreamt of her. In her dream, she saw our grandma on her way to the second floor of the house we lived in. Since grandma suffered from arthritis, it had become difficult for her to walk, much more to go up and down the stairs. Knowing this, my sister extended her arm for grandma to hold. Then, the most surprising thing happened. Instead of accepting my sister’s offer as she usually did, grandma only smiled and said, “Salamat, apo, pero kaya ko na ngayon. Wala nang masakit.”
My sister woke up from her dream, weeping. She talked about her dream, and I wept. And then our mother wept, too. We were crying because our dear old matriarch remembered to say goodbye before going to heaven.
I find nothing comforting about condolences pouring in. They give me the sensation of drowning, of being trampled by words that only exacerbate the pain. My least favorite among the sympathies is “May she rest in peace.” It’s a wasted wish. The dead—the good ones at least—have surely gone to a better place. The living—we who are bereaved—are the ones who are restless and cannot make peace with the permanence of our loved one’s departure.
“She was a good person,” albeit true, fails to capture just how more interesting and brazen my grandmother was. Fierce and stubborn are more fitting descriptions of her. My favorite memory of grandma dates back to my elementary school days.
Once, my classmate taped a note on my back with the words “Mongoloid po ako.” At lunch time, when my mom brought my baon, she asked me if I had been walking around with the note hanging in my uniform. I told her the truth: that I was clueless until she crumpled the piece of paper right in front of my face. Flustered, my mom made an appointment with the principal to discuss how crass the prank was, and to file a formal complaint. Grandma had a different plan. She furiously marched her way through the school gate and spoke sharply about just how impudent my classmate’s behavior was.
I vaguely remember how the events unfolded. I’ve forgotten if she was wearing a duster or an oversized shirt and walking shorts (like she always did), but I am certain she carried her big umbrella more like a rifle than a walking stick. She refused to leave until someone said sorry to me. The specifics have escaped me, but I hold close this memory because it taught me to not think twice about facing troubles head-on. I learned to ignore bullies and their childish games. I learned to just focus on more important things like academics and extracurricular activities.
My grandmother was a staunch believer in formal education even if she did not finish high school. Or perhaps a more accurate statement would be: My grandmother became a staunch believer in formal education because she did not finish high school. At 16, she eloped with my grandfather and had a family with him. They were married for more than five decades, and raised seven children, including my mom. Despite struggling to make ends meet, my grandmother tried her best to send all her sons and daughters to college. She considered each of them an achievement.
It had become my grandmother’s obsession to remind even us, her grandchildren, to work hard toward our goal and to not let anyone or anything distract us. “Mag-aral kayo nang mabuti.” “Magsipag kayo sa trabaho.” It was for our own good, she would add with certainty. She put perseverance on such a high pedestal that when she passed away, I chose to persevere and refused to pause.
Some of my friends told me they worried that I was not grieving properly— that I should have taken at least a week off from teaching, that I should have put off writing papers, that I should have grieved the way everyone else grieved. But what for? I know they mean well, but they were too concerned about how I kept going that they didn’t bother to ask why I kept persevering. I could have given them a satisfying answer.
The funeral lasted only for three days, but mourning knows no end. We lost her just two months after celebrating her 70th birthday. We thought there would be more. We hoped there could be more.
If it’s true that grief is simply love with no place to go, then there should be no harm in offering myself to be its home. Grief came knocking at the door offering a dusty box of memories I thought I had already lost a long time ago. What choice do I have? I could only embrace and welcome it. As I write this, grief quietly sits close to me. There are days it sleeps, there are days it screams, there are days it wanders off and then returns. Grief is a welcome guest. Like I did with my grandmother, I say good morning, good night, goodbye, and see you around.