Posts Tagged ‘Lizzie’

On This Day of Utmost Radiance




A reprint from 2006, because I couldn’t say it better than this. Eleven years have passed.

I will think all day long about my sister, Lizzie, who died 6 years ago today. I do not feel anguish anymore, nor do I feel depressed. I still miss her very much. It’s another example of unbelievably adjusting to the impossible. Life goes on, happiness returns, yet at the center of it there is an absence that holds even as the years grow on around it.

I know she is and she is watching over us. Last night at around 12:30 my daughter handed me a phone. I was asleep and so slowly woke up to the sounds of my family in California in their traditional merrymaking.

It was my brother’s birthday and there was the party and eating going on in the background. My niece Stephie remembered us over here on the far coast and, bless her heart, made sure we got to participate.

It slowly dawned on me as I returned to wakefulness that is was about to be Lizzie’s death anniversary. It is always this way in my family now. The dead are so entwined with the living, it is as though they are in the next room behind a one way mirror. We talk about them as though they were on vacation. There is no fear of referencing their names, and no discomfort in speaking of them.

I think we love to remember them and remember them often.

Today, then, is the memory of the day when the least likely one of us to die, did die and die while we all screamed into eternity, “NOT LIZZIE!!”. She was beloved, and she had a very rare and devastating cancer. She left a bereft and heroic husband and two beloved little boys who she loved with all her heart and us. And us.

When she was diagnosed, equal to the weight of the possibility of losing her, was the prospect of her leaving her husband and sons behind. She was completely devoted and in love with her family. There was nothing more she wanted in life but to be with them. The prospect of that loss, was for us, incomprehensible to fathom. How could that be?

Once, there were eight of us. We should have been the happiest of children, but,like all families, we were dealt a rare bunch of cards. Looking back at midlife I shake my head in disbelief at how we made it, in spite of the violent legacy of the wartime childhood of my mother, no psychotherapy, no awareness of child psychology. We managed to carve out good days, good weeks, good memories.

Our mascot, ongoing cheerleader, undaunted, resilient, always positive, exuberant center was Lizzie. She was beautiful and funny and had what we all called “ganas”. She was my best friend.

There was a point in the story when she revealed to us that she’d had a nagging pain in her hip that was not being alleviated by Tylenol. The check up brought devastating news. I was standing in the attic of this house, holding the telephone, looking at the eaves and the nails coming through the roof. I could not believe what I was hearing.

The road to her end was full of pain. Her physical pain, her unwillingness to leave her family, her unwillingness to talk about death, lest that be a sign of losing hope of healing. She prayed, and prayed and prayed some more. She was a traditional Catholic, trained at a moment in the 1980’s when the University of San Francisco had returned to the old Jesuit way. She was talking about a trip to Lourdes, with our older sister Maria, who is a nurse, as a pilgrimage companion. She renewed her faith and was my beacon. She had clear thinking and always returned to the traditional Catholic devotions. The rosary, novenas, the wearing of the scapular. It was her great thrill to visit Carmelite nuns, to go on pilgrimage, to collect Catholic books and things.

She loved sitting at Jose’s Court in La Jolla with a platter of nachos. She made friends, good friends, wherever she went. She was a naturally loveable person. Add beauty and brains to the mix, and an irrepressible sense of humor, and you had our Lizzie.

We all loved her. There will always be a gaping hole where she and Daddy were. But as life goes on, everyone we know experiences loss. It is inevitable. In the world of the young and tragic, people sometimes feel that they musn’t speak of the dead. Life can become difficult if you have to be aware of what you cannot talk about. It is much better to be like the Filipinos, or the Mexicans and incorporate the living and the dead into everyday life.

Which brings me back to today and tomorrow, which marks the anniversary of the stroke that nearly felled me. It is a brilliant radiant day today. The air is as clear as Baguio and the leaves on the trees are sparkling. They have not given up the green yet. The air at night is delightfully chilly.

I think about how far I’ve come in a year, and how this weekend is weighted with anniversaries. My brother’s birthday, my sister’s exit to Everlasting Life, the stroke that sent me on the Alice in Wonderland trip down the Rabbit Hole.

So here we are on this day of utmost radiance. Not looking back, except with love for the radiant girl who we loved. Moving forward with years, God Bless us and those we love with health and happiness as we go into the future. Whistling merrily in the dark, like Lizzie’s favorite English saint, Edmund Campion.

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I could have grown up into a depressed cynic, who lost the happiness lotto because of life experience and baggage. But, deep down in me always lived the soul of a happy child and an almost boring stability. I was not particularly brave or articulate as a child, but a child nonetheless, like all the multitudinous hordes of children in the world today. As a former child, I remember what it felt like, and lucky for me, my personal stars aligned in such a way as to break the bonds of generations of sadness, and here I am, about to be 53. As Oprah says, “This I know for sure…” This I know for sure, the best things we are told are true, and only love lasts.

If you are randomly stumbling upon this blog you might want to know some of the back story. I grew up in the Philippines. Far from being half this and half that, I am 200%, Filipino to my cells, and American to my cells too. Some things I love like a Filipino, my family for instance. Don’t tell me that political dynasties or benevolent dictatorship is the only solution for my troubled heart-home. Something in me that endured an Atlantic voyage to a wild, untamed land balks at that. We can change our future. It’s un-American to think otherwise.

Which brings me, dear blog readers, to touch on a shadow in my childhood. My dear Daddy, God rest his soul, was afflicted with bipolar disorder before there was a term for it, before there was medicine. Certain things could trigger an episode, like Christmas.

Naturally, my siblings are split between memories of beautiful Christmases, and memories of sad Christmases. Christmas is a loaded time. I have found that the road of acceptance and open-heartedness is my path to a beautiful Christmas.

One time a medical intuitive who has a radio show told me that I have tried to recreate my own childhood positively. That is true. I wanted the big family, all the kids around the table. I married the most stable of men, but not before marrying one who killed himself.

Awareness is all. We don’t want to repeat what we don’t have to.

That’s enough about sad things. I always want to remember how happy my parents were when Daddy was stable. Nowadays, there is medicine, therapy, and many interventions that can give a bipolar person a long and happy life. The latest brain research shows that rumination, the reliving of sad events, messes up the brains’ frontal lobes. As my positive psychology class taught me, gratitude, faith, goals, and positive experiences are the upward spiral that counteracts the down-the-drain of negativity.

When I was little, just ten, we had a magical Christmas at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Mama decorated the house with gilded red ribbon, a parol, poinsettias, a great Christmas tree, the Belen (Nativity Scene), stockings. We all had new red flannel nightgowns sewed by our live in seamstress. We went to midnight mass at the base chapel, and home to Noche Buena (the Philippine reveillion), and opened our presents.

I remember the music, the feeling of contentment and security, how we all were together. I remember how the next morning, the hot Pampanga sun baked the flowers outside and how the arch of the acacia trees shaded our house.

That year, on Christmas Day, we piled into the car with all the kids and a yaya (nanny) and went to Manila to visit Lola at Lourdes Hospital. I won’t forget that either. Lola, with her hair down, smiling sweetly from her bed. Lolo, sitting on the bed by the window. I remember Uncle Sonny coming in with Auntie Lou. Uncle Buddy and Auntie Lynne and my sweet little cousins.

Auntie Lynne’s parents lived near the hospital on Kanlaon Street. Their house was all wood paneled and dark with rooms and corners that were a place of endless fascination for me.

A few days later, my Lola Mercy died. She had been sick for about a year, and her death was unexpected. The whole world shifted when she died. It was my first encounter with death.

Two more Christmases followed that, one raucous in Albuquerque where my cousin D. came with her parents from California. She was an only child and all her presents came with her. She shared, though, as she always did- as she shares to this day.

The second Christmas was in Hawaii, and Daddy was hospitalized at Tripler Army Hospital. That Christmas Day was bright like the Pampanga Christmas, but oh so lonely. I couldn’t wait to return to the Philippines.

In that time of waiting for my uncles to raise our airfare back, one thought gave me courage. We were going to live in the old house in Baguio, Casa Blanca. In our Hawaiian kitchen there was a box of Lipton tea, with a picture of a tea cup and a hillside. It looked to me like Baguio. I would imagine sitting in the old dining room, looking out over Mt. Santo Tomas, and conjure the safety and security of that faraway place.

I recently looked on the net and saw that our old house in Kailua is a luxury home now. I hope the successive owners were happy in that house, with it’s indoor fish pond and beautiful garden. It was not meant to be for us. I remember a sunny kitchen and how even in Hawaii, the streets outside were quiet like the rest of America that I experienced. I missed the street noise and lively parade of people who colored our life in the Philippines.

The next Christmas, 1969, was spent back at Cresta Ola, my grandparents’ beach resort in La Union. It was a happy place and through these years via the Internet, I have heard from many former children who spent holidays there with their families. That Christmas was our first there since Lola died. I could tell the difference, but still it was jolly.

Lolo handed out presents to the staff, and I remember their glee at the gifts. When they went forward to claim them, it looked like a scene from a story about a good king, beloved by his people. Lolo sat in his arm chair, and the staff- waiters, maids, grounds people stepped forward with a kind of a bowing posture and gave heartfelt thanks. While watching it, I was thinking of how hard my own heart was, at 12, there were many things I wanted, but could not have. I noted how these humble people were so grateful and determined to grasp that elusive quality they had in abundance.

A few days later, Lolo died of a heart attack and the lights went out in our big family again.

The next year we found ourselves in Baguio. If you don’t know where Baguio is, let me tell you. It was a beautiful city built during the American era in the Philippines. It’s in a pine forest called a cloud forest by botanists. On some of the twisting roads you might think you were in New England, because so many of the places were painted white with green shutters. In that place, the air is pine scented. You could sleep under many blankets with open windows and breathe the beautiful air all night long. At sunset, the geographic location and the closeness to the ocean blended the air and sky for a spectacular show.

In my Baguio, there was a green-gold light as it turned from dusk to evening. The twilights were lavender, violet, purple. The sky was as colorful as the Aurora Borealis, with the tropical clouds colored orange and red. I have read that other cities in cloud forests, at similar latitude and longitude and proximity to water have the same phenomenon.

Christmas in Baguio was Filipino with a touch of Frank Capra. The old timers in Baguio, the older folks who set the city up, were largely still there. Their grandchildren were my friends. We owned the city with an affectionate hold, feeling far luckier than the Manila folks who only knew it for Holy Week, the summer break and the dash between Christmas and New Year.

In Baguio, the firewood was a local pine, sappy and resinous and aromatic as incense. This was the smell you inhaled with great breaths, if you took a walk on a cold night.

There was caroling. Finally in high school, we filled cars driven by big brothers and made our caroling calls on family and friends. All girls, singing away with hoarse voices, we wouldn’t stop and we were fed at each stop. Who could say no when we were greeted with tables laden with special treats? I am sure that today, the sound of “Give Love on Christmas Day” brings mist to the eyes of my classmates who are mostly away from Baguio now. Such is life in the diaspora.

No matter how difficult it was for me when my Daddy had an episode, there was the surrounding bounty of the city, my friends, relatives, and general nurturing culture of the Philippines. To make things better, my relatives had an attitude of making things happy for children at Christmas. Auntie Mary Anne comes to mind. There was no family time spent in talking about the upheavals. There was lots of family time spent in support of my mother, and attention to the festivities of Christmas.

So, during those difficult times, I simply turned a switch, and if things were too noisy at home, I simply escaped into my richly colored outside world. Unlike in America where people can retreat into madness and silence, the show goes on unabashed in the Philippines. The phone kept ringing with friends planning outings, the doorbell kept ringing with friends passing by, the relatives kept their Christmas visitation schedule. Life went on, in spite of the cross we carried.

Looking at this practically, given that there was no awareness of this illness, there was nothing we children or my mother could do, except surf with it and not judge it in the long run.

We all grew up and moved back to the United States, for a spell there were trips to California at Christmastime. We moved to California. Then, one year, Daddy died leaving a hole in our extended family.

Today, my older sister and cousin are the junior matriarchs in their region. They have a tribe, and the season is kept with light, color and food. There is a lot of togetherness, and distant folks are welcome to fly in. They keep the feast and have given their children an unbroken stretch of years colored by stability, bounty and family.

Our Christmases here in Massachusetts are happy ones. Always, there are the six children and their pets and their friends. There is music and food. No matter what twinges of memory there may be, I remember that I loved my Daddy dearly, and all that is best in my family culture, I owe to him.

Because of his illness, he was larger than life. He loved my children intensely, and that deep attachment shows in how they have taken pieces of him for their permanent selves. At my bravest I am my father’s daughter. At my most optimistic, I am his student of positive thinking. At my most stubborn, I am the one who will not compromise on that-which-cannot-be-bent. When he was dying, I spent so much time with him and made peace with all the past.

Two nights ago I dreamed of my sister, Lizzie who died in 2000. I miss her so much, not only because she was delightful, but because she was stalwart, faithful and true.

Last night, I was going through boxes in the basement and found stash of letters she wrote to me from Oxford. She wrote me every week, and I daresay I was the only one of our siblings she wrote that often, because at the time I was widowed and she was watching over me from afar. Her letters are funny, and full of her ganas. After she died, I sought to fill her void with my other sisters. They are so different from Lizzie that it is impossible. I love them but Lizzie and I spent years together with a shared vision.

I continue this road without her, grateful for the time we had together, and secure in the faith that she watches over us all.

In my dream, she was carrying her youngest child and looked so happy. She looked as she was in real life when she carried that baby. One of the treasures of this internet era is that I am in touch with her friends who share memories of her that are in perfect synchrony with mine. She made friends wherever she went, and was beloved by people. I daresay that if someone had a problem with Lizzie, there was something wrong with that person.

So this is how it is, at this age dear blog readers. All my Christmases are rolled into a giant ball of life. It is more jewels than coal. But for as long as I can remember, Christmas is the stretch from my birthday to December 25th. It’s an ongoing feast of memory and nostalgia, and missing and relishing. It is full of my babies, who tower over me, and their memories of Bud and me, and all our pets and this old house.

I still miss Baguio come Christmastime, but pine firewood is for sale in New Bedford, and we are really lucky we’ll have some snow during the season. God’s birthday is celebrated all over the world, and from where I type, grateful for my family and friends, that is a good thing.

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Today is May 28th

PIC-0150Today is May 28th. I don’t feel particularly inspired to write, so bear with me, if this is a fallen souffle of an entry. It’s my late sister Lizzie’s birthday. She would have been fifty. I think fifty is such a lovely birthday, because you can pick any year in the past and think of where you were, and you will hopefully have come far!

Lizzie accomplished so much in her short life. She was a loving wife and an astonishing mother. She put her boys first all the time. She was a rock solid person. Plus, she had a wonderful sense of humor. Oh Lizzie.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Bud is stranded at Logan Airport, waiting for the fog to lift. I’m sick and muddling through. The children are great. The cats are great. And just for fun, my baking girl made a chocolate pie out of chocolate tofu. Yes, it was sublime.

The lilacs are all in bloom, and the lily of the valley is so beautiful. One of our neighbors has white lilac and lily of the valley in front of their house. What a treat to walk by. The perfume is beautiful.

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Dreaming of Lizzie

This morning I had a very clear dream about my late sister Lizzie. It was so clear, and so normal. There were no Alice in Wonderland bits, things unfolded like a normal sane conversation.

In the dream she was sewing. Lizzie was an expert seamstress in real life, something she invested in. Her favorite outing would be to a fabric store in downtown San Francisco. She had a super-zippy sewing machine and took tailoring classes from someone who appeared on television.

In the dream she was healthy and wearing an elegant purple suit. Her hair was thick and chic. She was smiling and had her beautiful face that made me think of Vivien Leigh. I burst into tears of joy when I saw her in this dream.

Our conversation was a kind of review. “See? Everything turned out alright, just like I told you.” “See? The boys are fine. “I told you you’d make it without me and you did.”

Lizzie was rare among relationships because she loved unconditionally. She was always on my side and in the years that we grew up, we became very close. So close at the end that I couldn’t bear to see her die. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.

I could call her every day of her illness for 2 to 3 hours a day. But I couldn’t get on a plane to see her. She came out that last July to see us. All I wanted was to see her eat when she was here. She managed a bite of watermelon, popsicles. To see her without an appetite, the girl who defined eating with gusto- made me feel like the walls were closing in.

The smallest things fatigued her. We had the idea of going out to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, Mass., a devotion that we both shared and had followed from it’s growth under the papacy of John Paul II.

As it turns out, our big van broke and we rented a blue van. We didn’t end up going out to Stockbridge, we went instead to St. Anne’s Shrine in Fall River, Mass. We figured that God was everywhere, and given the circumstances, a shrine 15 miles away was as good as the one 100 miles away.

That weekend was my son’s JM’s birthday. We made a banner, “Welcome Auntie Lizzie, Happy Birthday JM!” The banner is rolled up and safe somewhere in our museum.

When we rushed her coming off the plane, she started crying, “So many children, so many beautiful children.”

That weekend when she would speak to her husband, he would be buoying her up, and they shared a sweet banter.

She told me that weekend that she was unafraid of things now. We were both a curious mix of brave and scared. She had so overtaken me on the bravery curve. My sister Mimi is brave like her.

So she died, and everything went gray. I don’t know why filmakers make touching films about death. For anyone who has ever lost anyone, death has a yucky, ugly side. The absence is so final, and one has to pitch into a life-long discipline of believing in unseen things.

I’ve been a believer all my life and have had my share of losses. Lizzie’s death was the one that cut into my soul. Her death was the one that made me feel that I was adrift.

I had dreams of her that were like visitations after her death. I would see her in a dream and I would explode with joy.

When I was under sedation in the scary October 2005 medical misadventure, I had a clear conversation with her, but she looked very grave. I guess I was in very serious condition. I guess I wasn’t good enough to die and go right to heaven, because she and my father weren’t in that glowing open armed posture you read about in Near Death Experiences.

They were serious, and I was scared. She told me that I would be alright, that everything would be alright. The boys would be alright, I would get well and raise my kids, I would return to my life.

Last night I was telling Bud about the quality of that sedation experience. Unlike dreams, where you have a feeling that you are in a dream, that you have an option, probably by habit to wake up, this sedation experience was a continuum.

It had all kinds of scenes, and it was one crazy ride, with a purple monster, the voice of evil, and Our Lady’s mantle strewn with stars.

Which brings me back to last night’s dream. She was well, she was smiling, and she told me that, “See, you made it.”

It’s hard to believe that I could envision a life moving forward without my sister Lizzie. Our move to New Bedford, and her move to Montana, where simply stops on our lifeline, where we would eventually end up closer together again, somehow.

As it turns, I’m still close to her, it’s just that the pain is gone. Somehow, the miracles of the healing heart have worked. I find myself baffled when talking about her and not bursting into tears.

I do believe that she lives behind that veil, in a realer time than we have. It’s not in memory. I believe that every once in a while she finds a way to send me a message.

We all carry on in the land of the mortals, believing in the unseen world, and doing our work of living. And that’s all I know.

Whenever I meet people who don’t believe, I don’t even feel like I should proselytize. I send up a prayer, there are so many good people in the world who are seekers. God can draw them to Him. I’m just a witness, an example at times, of someone who believes anyway.

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Living as we do, far away from Asian markets, and specifically, Filipino markets, imagine the fun of hunting down Christmas ensaimada from the Pinoy market. Not any Pinoy Market but Sure Pinoy Oriental Food Mart in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Yesterday, taken with the sudden impulse of needing more Filipino food at this holiest time of the year, we packed into the bigger van and headed for Braintree to see what we could find. There was also a trip to Borders to spend the gift cards given by Auntie Maria.

We were so delighted with our bonanza at the market. There was buko pie, otap, hopia, pan de sal, pan de coco, dried mangoes, longaniza, calamansi juice and Sky Flakes. In the back – sitting regally in a perfect large white bakery box, was a treasure of ensaimada.

We were all thrilled. This was a moment that sent us back in time to the Filipino market near our old house in San Diego. On those warm Christmas Days when the kids were the cutest tiny children, we had our own little family tradition of eating longaniza, pan de sal, and ensaimada on Christmas Eve. We managed to bring that tradition East, hunting down and finding the Asian markets that would carry these special everyday things from the Philippines. Some years we’ve made it all ourselves. This year, things were so busy and there was so much baking to take to New Hampshire.

It was a merry ride to the bookstore. Later, laden with books and Filipino food, Bud brought everything into the house from the van, as he does not believe is letting his many girls lift heavy things.

Last night at around midnight, I smelled the aroma of pan de sal being warmed in the oven. Evidence in the morning showed the midnight snackers had it with an abundance of butter and mango jam.

The other thing that was a happy blast from the past was a gift from my sister Mimi. A Claxton Fruit Cake arrived. Claxton was my Daddy’s hometown in Georgia. All through my childhood, my grandmother in Georgia sent us a fruit cake.This fruitcake carried with it the yearly repeated story of Mr. Tos. It was Mr. Tos’ recipe and Mr. Parker was his apprentice. Mr. Parker later turned the business into a local legend. These were people my Daddy knew from his childhood. The fruitcake was Georgia in a box.

All through the years, the fruitcake meant my sweet grandmother, was thinking of us thousands of miles away. I love that fruitcake with a childlike devotion for all it represents. When it arrived last week, Christmas came with it. One look at the red and white box and I could see my Daddy in his big white t-shirt, enjoying a piece with a tall glass of milk.

Christmas food is magical food that lives in memory and it gives one the amazing ability to time travel. When I see these foods I feel for a moment that we are all young and all together. Death has not touched us, and life stretches ahead without potholes, because it is Christmas. I see my sister Lizzie making us laugh with her hilarity and Daddy being outlandishly funny too. The table is groaning with food, and we are all together.

Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon.

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