As I stepped out of the airplane I smelled a familiar smell of dew and dampness, one which I had smelled before in places like Veracruz and Cuba. For a moment, I looked back hoping I’d see my grandmother trailing behind in her walker. My visit to the Philippines was the first time I traveled out of the country without her. The last time I had smelled tropical humidity was when we had visited Cuba for the second time. I remember arriving to the Cuban airport, feeling uneasy and uncertain – eyes watching and interrogating us as we walked through the corridors, before reaching the immigration booths. A wall lined with doors stood between us and Cuba. We were each escorted to a different door. I was asked for my passport and stood in long silence as the official probed and prodded at my passport, swiping it several times and staring intently at the computer, which I had no view of. All a sequence of actions, which heightened my uneasiness and uncertainty. I was finally told to go through to the other side. As I opened the door, I saw my husband waiting. I was relieved. A few minutes later, my daughter came out. My grandmother took the longest. Finally I saw a door open with a bit of sound commotion – loud voices, animated voices and laughter. I instinctly knew that was my grandmother. She had been entertaining the officials with her traveling stories, and everywhere she went, she made sure people knew I was a teacher at Hoover High School. She always had a way about her that brought out the best in everyone she came across. To her there was no distinction between a person of power or authority and someone with a less “powerful” role. She treated everyone with dignity and respect; pass the roles that identified them, right to their spirit.
I wanted to make sure, during the last months of her life, she was treated with the same dignity she had always treated others. Though she was dying, it was important she continued to be validated and honored. That she didn’t just become someone we were taking care of, but that we were standing in solidarity with her. The process of coming to peaceful terms with her death would be one that would connect us all. Coming to terms with death did not mean giving up on (her) life; it just meant we stopped fighting death. By surrounding her with love and family, we attempted to make the process less frightening for her.
My Tia Mary told me that even though part of my Tita was fighting to survive, there was also a part of her that knew she was dying. One after noon, they were sitting in Tita’s bedroom, and she was gazing outside, toward the backyard. All of a sudden, she brushed her fingers through her hair with a look of sorrow. My aunt, her sister, asked, “Que tienes Manita,” as she lovingly called her. My grandmother sighed deeply and responded, “Siento que se me va la vida, Mary.” She felt as though life was escaping her. She spoke of wanting to live a little longer for her family. She had dedicated her whole life to us, and the most difficult part of dying was learning to let us go.
A month prior to Tita’s death, she asked me to take her to the salon so she could get her routine beauty care – manicure, pedicure, and waxing, even though there wasn’t much hair to wax, her tattooed eyebrows ensured she always had perfectly shaped arches. Even in the midst of battling for her life, she refused to stop living. Tita was such a diva-fashionista. She had such a sense of style and a hip look that mirrored her hip attitude. She had also asked me to dye her hair; in all her eighty-four years, she had never worn it silver. It was the last “normal” girls-day-out we spent together.
As I was dying her hair, we had a moment where we talked about her cancer and how she felt about all that was happening to her. She had spent so much of her life caring and nurturing us, she just couldn’t fathom there being anyone else who would fight for us the way she had. During our conversation, there was a pause followed by Tita shaking her head as she gently sobbed. I asked her if she was crying because she was afraid of dying, but she shook her head and continued sobbing. Then I asked her if she was concerned about Carmen’s well-being, and I assured her I would always watch over Carmen the way I knew she’d want me to. But she shook her head again and said, “No, no es eso.” Then it hit me . . . she was scared to die before she had the opportunity to see Carmen again; she was surrounded by so much family, but Carmen was still finishing up her semester in college. When I asked if that was why she was crying, her sob became stronger, like a wounded child, and she nodded her head. It broke my heart. Carmen was not only a gift in my life, she became a symbol of hope and new beginnings for both my Tita and I. In her, we began to see the liberation we were all waiting for.
Two weeks before she passed, she stopped going to her radiation treatments. It had become a great struggle for her to attend the treatments; each time she went she became more fatigued. Getting dressed, walking to the car, getting in and out of the car, walking to the medical office, undressing again for the treatment, receiving the treatment, getting dressed again, and making the trek back home had become just too labor-intensive. And one day, as it was time for her to get ready, she grabbed my hand and softly pleaded, “Ya no mas,” shaking her head with the little energy she had left. I knew, without radiation, the opportunity for a miracle diminished greatly. I asked her if she knew what canceling her radiation treatments meant. She softly responded, “Si.” We both recognized in silence, it was officially the beginning of the end. My grandmother was a fighter, she never gave up, but she made that decision because her body could no longer fight. She got back in bed, and lay down like a vulnerable child, relieved that she would get to rest.
Carmen arrived a week before Tita’s death. For Carmen the process was much more difficult; she had not been present, as we all had, to assimilate Tita’s journey to dying. When Carmen left to college at the end of the summer, Tita was a vivacious and colorful woman, and returning to see her in such a declining state was heart-breaking to say the least. The following is a journal entry in which Carmen describes her coming to terms with Tita’s dying:
My Tita Carmen loved, and I mean, loved food. If you offered her food, she would take it in a heartbeat. If you had food left over, she would gladly eat it. Food was important to her because in many Latino cultures and families, food is what connects us. When I came back home for Thanksgiving break, Tita Carmen was basically gone. She could no longer move and her speaking ability was almost non-existent. But to me, one of the most important aspects she had lost was her desire to eat. Feeling hungry signifies life. It means that your body wants to keep fighting and living. My Tita Carmen had practically lost all sense of hunger. There were only two things she would eat, if that: sopita and banana. I remember when I fed her, she wasn’t very hungry, so we decided to give her a little bit of banana. My grandmother had always been the one to take care of us, and now we were taking care of her. (Tita’s maxillary muscles had started to weaken, so she could no longer fit her dentures in her mouth. This made it so that we could only feed her soft food.) With the banana, I had to be careful not to scrape too much onto the spoon, because she couldn’t have too much at once. I still remember what it felt like. . .feeding my grandma like a baby felt like I was saying goodbye to her. It was a coming to terms with the fact that she was going to leave us soon.
Two days prior to my Tita dying, she asked Carmen and I to give her a bath. “Escojeme una blusa para ponerme,” she requested. She wanted to get out of her pajamas and dress in her usually fashionable clothes. Perhaps it made her feel more alive, or perhaps she wanted to feel like herself before she died. When I pulled out the first blouse, she wrinkled her nose in a protesting gesture and mumbled “No. Esa no.” Then I pulled out another blouse, and she wasn’t going for that one either. I thought it was so like my Tita to be lying sick in bed, but still be meticulous about what she wanted to wear! Finally, at about the fifth blouse, she nodded her head.
That day, Carmen, Tita, and I experienced a beautiful moment in which we found acceptance and closure. My Tita asked to be given a bath. By this point, simple tasks like taking a shower were just too arduous. I remember Carmen and I gently wiping down her body with a wet cloth, trying to record in my memory every mole, every age spot, every vein, and every wrinkle. It was the greatest honor and sign of respect that Carmen and I could give her for all that she represented in our lives. It was also a moment my daughter and I would share for the rest of our lives, and perhaps, a moment she would remember when it came time for her to come to terms with my death. I felt proud of the compassionate and generous woman Carmen was becoming, and humbled that my Tita had played such an essential role in her upbringing.
After bathing her, in her deteriorating state, she lifted up her hand, struggling against her weakening body, and pointed toward Carmen. Then, as if she had weights on her tongue, she asked me with an affirmative tone, “Es mi niña,” pointing toward her chest. To which I responded, “Si chiquita, es tu niña, tuya.” She nodded her head in agreement and winked at Carmen, giving her a strenuous smile that radiated with joy. This moment came full circle to the day I gave birth to Carmen. Tita told me when Carmen was born, as soon as she was placed in my arms, I looked at her and asked, “Es mía, es mi niña?” She was so pure, so perfect. I couldn’t believe I deserved something so beautiful. What magic existed inside of me, that I could create such beauty? I imagine that’s what Tita felt in having had the opportunity to be part of shaping Carmen’s life. In a very perceptive way, Tita knew her spirit would live on in Carmen. Carmen was (is) our niña.
In witnessing my grandmother’s journey to a physical death, I learned to discern what I needed to let go of and what I needed to hold on to. Life is about nurturing another being, understanding that how we care for that being, whether it is a plant, a crop, an animal or a person, will determine the significance of our own lives. Sometimes we are even fortunate enough to nurture a being into life. Only when we love another being and stand in solidarity with him or her, can we begin to realize and embrace the miracle of life.
I didn’t know at the time, but in caring for my grandmother, I was nurturing her into death. It wasn’t something that came easily, especially when I had to come to terms with never touching or speaking to her again. Some deaths, like my brother’s, are tragic and unexpected therefore they cause a lot of grief and suffering before one can come to peace with them. But there is something very mystical about witnessing the dying process of someone who lived a complete life. As I watched my grandmother physically fade away, I was able to feel that she was more than her body. The last few days, when I couldn’t connect to her physically anymore, I felt a different energy, a presence that was unbinding and timeless. In some aspects, nurturing Tita into death was more profound than nurturing life because I found a deeper connection to spirit. Death is something we all want to understand, but can’t, so when I came face to face with its mystical essence, it hit me at a soul-level, the way nothing in this world has. I understood then, that spirit is the only lasting reality, and with that understanding, I knew that my Tita would be with me (us) forever.