When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, the untreatable kind, she began falling asleep. At odd times. Anywhere she sat, she’d doze off without warning.
One minute we’d be talking at the dinner table, and the next, she’d trail off, her words blurring until they flattened and disappeared.
She would take her wooden rosary beads from the thick glass top of her antique dresser and begin to say her prayers but never stayed awake long enough to finish them.
Just a few Hail Marys in, her head would nod, sway from side to side, and then bow forward as if paying homage to the collection of little religious statues on her dresser. Most of the more popular icons were in attendance: St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, some guardian angels, and of course, Jesus in his most important life stages – baby, child, man. Her rosary beads, worn to a rich patina through daily meditation, would trickle down in a tangled heap on her lap.
Sleep is good, said my aunt and my mother, who both lived with her. She needs it. But Nanay’s naps grew longer and longer and deeper and deeper. She couldn’t even stay awake to eat.
Every day after work, I would drop by her house to help with her care. She lived two streets away from me in the ancestral home where I grew up – an old, sprawling Spanish casa built in the 1940s. Back in the 80s, it was a vision of old-world splendour; movie companies would come and use our home as a backdrop for films with rags-to-riches plotlines.
Over the years, though, it had become more and more expensive to maintain it in all its glory, and little by little, the house began drooping, seeming to sag into itself with exhaustion and the weight of time. Even the once gleaming checkered capiz windows, which used to sparkle and wink at me from a distance as I walked home from school, had faded to a dull sheen.
When it was time for her to eat, my mother and I lifted Nanay up to a seated position on her bed, and I slid right behind her. I stiffened my spine and wrapped my arms and legs around her torso to keep her upright. Her body felt like a marshmallow – plump and pillowy. It was a softness I’d known all my life, from the first time she’d rocked me to sleep against her breast, singing lullabies and folk songs while my mother went to work, to the last time she’d hugged me, just before she’d started falling asleep.
As soft as she was, she was nowhere near light. Her dead weight crushed my chest until my breasts were sore. I hooked my chin into the crook of her neck, bringing our heads together to stop hers from lolling around. We were like Cerberus missing the head, the one that represents the past. There was only what is and what will be.
I remembered a dream I’d had a month earlier. I was walking through the hallway of a dark, dusty house, where hundreds of life-sized china dolls rocked in wooden chairs. In the dream, I’d wandered through the whole house in a haze, trying to pick one to take home. On the second floor, I found my grandmother sitting on a rocking chair. Or rather, I found a version of her as a wrinkled china doll with her eyes closed and her hands folded neatly on her lap. The sight of her had apparently so distressed me that my husband shook me awake. I sat up in bed,my cheeks wet and salty, feeling like my worst fear had come true.
Just four weeks later, I had become the rocking chair, and Nanay had become a doll in a purple flowered housedress, too round and big for me to hold, but I stretched my skinny limbs, all four of them, around her just the same. Every muscle in my body froze up as I jiggled her awake enough for my mother to pry her mouth a bit open with a teaspoon and drip some milk into it.
All around us stood reminders of faded glory. An antique dressing table held my grandmother’s knickknacks – a pewter-and-pearl box for her bobby pins, a wooden hand mirror to check the curls at the back of her silver-grey head, her assortment of lotions and perfumed oils, a collection of souvenirs from weddings she had graced as a godmother, and a powder-blue brush with nylon bristles.
A nine-foot tall aparador made of solid narra loomed over the entire scene. The mirror faced the foot of the bed and seemed to absorb the proceedings into its inscrutable depths, keeping them safe until they might be brought out later when we needed our memories refreshed.
It was strange to see our image reflected in the mirror. As I cradled Nanay in my arms, I wondered if she even remembered how our roles were once reversed. Was it still intact, the part of her brain that housed her memories, our memories, of brushing my hair till it shone – till I shone – before sending me off to school? Did she remember feeding me spoonfuls of rice and my favourite tocino long after everyone had left the dinner table because I took too long to eat? Did she remember all of this?
I remembered. And I suppose that’s all that mattered. It’s the cycle of life, after all, this role reversal. She took care of me from the day I was born, and now it was my turn, handing back all that love until she breathed her last. It was the only reason I, merely half her size, could sit there and hold her upright .
We continued our two-headed dance until the little bowl of milk was finally empty. When it was all over, I felt as antique as the rest of the furniture.
Two weeks of this existence passed. Her heartbeat grew slower and fainter. One night, it slowed down so much that my mother summoned our neighbour, Dr. M, to preside over this business of dying. After countless visits to our home, he had become a friend.
That night, he sat on a white plastic chair beside Nanay’s bed, his hair still rumpled and his eyes red from interrupted sleep. He looked pretty much like he always did on these night time visits – solid and stocky, thick square glasses framing his chubby face, hurriedly dressed in a white undershirt, khaki shorts, and slippers.
But unlike those nights when he would come with his medical bag in hand, all he needed on this particular night were his stethoscope, his wristwatch, and several cups of coffee.
Our whole family had been summoned too, and we all gathered around her bed. Some sat on the floor, some on beanbags, others on antique wooden chairs.
On her bed, Nanay lay in a brown dress that matched the rosary beads in her hand. My aunt, always one to colour-coordinate, had seen to that. Nanay’s chest rose and sank erratically, expelling old, musty whooshes of air out into the old, musty room. It won’t be long now, the doctor said, so I lay down beside her and nudged her head once again with mine, but there was no response.
Won’t you open your eyes? I pleaded with her, but only in my mind, where no one else could hear. Won’t you look at me one last time? For some reason, I couldn’t get any words out. I’d braced myself for this night for so long that my grief itself seemed to understand it couldn’t come out. Not yet, except for a few sneaky tears tiptoeing out of the corners of my eyes. If I let go, I wouldn’t be able to savour this last moment with her. So, I brushed those tears away, swallowed and pushed the lump in my throat down, and pressed my body against hers, longing to imprint that softness on mine forever.
As I waited out the minutes, my left arm across her stomach in an embrace, I thought about how she used to call us every evening at six to gather in front of the altar in the living room to pray the rosary. At seven years old, I’d already memorized the prayers, even though I didn’t quite understand them yet. I only knew that to sit down and pray with my grandmother was an act of obedience, which I would understand later was one of the reasons for praying it – to honour Mary’s obedience to God. To say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…” was Nanay’s reminder to live life with grace and to remember God’s presence no matter the circumstances.
It wasn’t exactly exciting. Saying the same words over and over never is. But there was a little variety in the form of the mysteries. Every day would be a different set of mysteries – Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous, each of them calling to mind the key chapters in Jesus’ life.
I don’t know why it was the Sorrowful Mysteries that stuck in my head before all the others. Perhaps because it was dark and gruesome, a stark contrast to the light and radiance of the rest. Perhaps it was the words – scourge, agony, thorns – new words that rolled off my tongue easily but seemed to mean things much bigger than I could grasp. Perhaps it was the picture they painted – a man stumbling, hoisting a heavy cross up while rivers of blood flowed down his body, an image so frightening that it compelled me to pray just so he would stop bleeding.
Or maybe it was just that my grandmother and I had picked so many flowers – sampaguita, santan, ylang-ylang, hibiscus – from the bushes and so many guavas from the tree in our yard that I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would feel a thing as terrible as agony in a garden.
At this thought, I smiled and nudged her again. How lucky I’ve been to be so loved by you. To have you fill my days with such immense light that darkness disturbed me so much.
Her chest rose and fell at longer intervals as the minutes passed, the metronome of her breath slowing down. At half past midnight, the doctor checked her pulse once more. He said, “Thirty. Won’t be long now.”
I whipped out my phone and Googled “what a heart rate of 30 bpm means.” Google gave me a list of sites – all listing the keywords “dying person.” I clicked one and landed on a caregiving site where I found a list of the symptoms experienced by a dying person. I had never thought of death in terms of signs and symptoms and numbers; as something measurable and quantifiable. Death had always been intangible for me, a land too far away, and too hazy for me to really understand. It was certainly too large to be contained in a numerical representation.
The website stated that a dying person exhibits loss of appetite and increased sleeping periods. It dawned on me then that Nanay had started dying, not at ten o’clock tonight, but two weeks before, just a few Hail Marys in.
My heart sank with each descent the numbers took, even as I murmured prayers and sang praise songs for the life of the woman who raised me and who has been an indulgent presence even in my children’s lives. I steeled myself, draping my hand over hers and over the rosary laced through her fingers. We’d reached the last bead – I had no more Hail Marys left, and neither did she. Suddenly, despite all my attempts to be stoic, I felt the weight of aloneness, heavier than her body ever was on mine.
Still, I thought about how fortunate I was to be there right then, to be sharing that moment with her as I have every beautiful moment in my life. I didn’t know then that, a year later, we would meet again in a dream. I’d find her in an airport filled with people, all dressed in white, all walking together as if they had a flight to catch. She would hold my hand until a man – whom I recognized as my long deceased grandfather, approached her. He held a giant white pinwheel. In this dream, there would be no need for words as she turned to me, smiled, and let go of my hand. In this dream, my grandparents joined the throng of people, leaving me to watch the pinwheel bob up and down, up and down, until it became nothing but a tiny speck in the distance.
On my grandmother’s last night in the room where she’d rocked me to sleep many times in the past, I was just grateful for the chance to be present. I was grateful to hold her as she slept. Perhaps she was dreaming of the man with the pinwheel. In that valley where we must part ways, I was determined to be her faithful companion, as she had always been mine.
When the doctor finally said, she’s gone, the whole family wept. I did, too, although I still couldn’t quite believe the truth of his words. I held on to Nanay’s wrinkled hands and to the beads running through them. I let go only when my mother said it was time to pray one last rosary for her. And I found myself saying Hail Mary once more, praying for grace amidst the sorrow.