I’m not sure if I’ve really felt distance before these last few weeks.
The pursuit of higher education took me an ocean away from home and I have family and friends in nearly every time zone, but distance has always felt manageable because technology bridges that gap. If I ever felt homesick, I could call my parents or my sister and it takes seconds to text or tweet. My grip on this seemingly universal truth started to slip with the news that my great grandma was sick and in and out of a hospital in the Philippines. I grew up with her room only ever a few doors down from mine and after her return to the motherland, we would only get to talk once every few months over the phone and saw each other face-to-face even less. Last night, Friday the 13th of all nights, the woman I knew simply as “Grandma Sally” passed away at age 89.
We’ve known to expect it for months now. My Grandma Emi — bless the woman — would remind me rather bluntly on a weekly basis to prepare me, to ground me and maybe do the same for herself. It’s funny knowing someone you love, someone who had such a prominent hand in raising you is slowly dying and being thousands of miles away. Not being there at her side like you should, like you want to because life doesn’t work that way. Okay, maybe it’s not funny. Not at all. I don’t know what it is. Feeling powerless and restless, knowing time and distance are at work against you. Knowing this was coming does nothing for the hours that stretch on after you’ve heard the news, how the world outside just seems too bright and everyone and everything feels so far away. I don’t know what I feel or how I’m supposed to feel, but I feel the distance and I hate it.
But I don’t want to get into that. Seriously, none of that is fun or funny. That’s pretty much all sad and depressing. Grandma Sally was this funny, unapologetic woman and she deserves a better sendoff than regrets over not seeing each other one last time. (I have a trip to the Philippines planned for December and I would have seen her, would have stayed in a room just doors down from hers again, but I know those nine months would have been hell and asking her to hold on that long would’ve been selfish.)
This woman could cut you down with a single look and silenced rooms with her presence alone, but her smile and her laughter was contagious. She’s the person who planted the seeds of my coffee dependency. Whenever I’d stay home sick from school, she’d make me a cup of coffee (that was mostly milk and sugar) and give me a piece of pandesal (the best kind of bread roll ever) to dip in it and we’d settle down in front of the TV as she cursed out Erica Kane and Erica Kane’s evil twin. Sometimes we’d watch her daytime soap operas on the TV in the kitchen where she reigned. I’m yet to have fried chicken or butterfish that comes close to being as good as hers. Even the saimin that comes with that foil packet of seasoning tasted better when she made it.
Grandma Sally was a constant throughout my childhood. I remember this one time I was playing in our backyard with my buddy, Buster, a tiny terrier who howled when I cried. Buster was trying to eat his kibble and I was petting him or pulling his tail or touching his food or something because, I don’t know, I was a professional jerk before I turned ten. Anyway, Buster didn’t enjoy my game and suddenly my arm was bleeding profusely and I ran to Grandma Sally and the woman held my arm, reached for the salt shaker with grains of rice in it and threw salt on my open wound. I was (and still am) that particular brand of clumsy where I always had skinned knees and bruises, but I’ve never felt pain quite like that. It was some old-school method of fighting off infection and quickening the healing process, right? Or was it punishment for messing with the dog’s food? Either way, I let Buster eat in peace from then on and I can thank Grandma Sally for my moderate to high-ish tolerance for pain.
The ways Grandma Sally affected and shaped my life and the lives of everyone in my family are impossible to tally up. I’m sure there are more ways that I can’t even remember, that go back to when I was a baby and back when my mom was younger and even back when my grandma was younger. Grandma Sally was outspoken and stern when necessary and you never knew what she was going to say, but you always knew she put us kids first. She helped raised generations, generations of matriarchs who I can now hear discussing our next step over the phone. And it strikes me how beautiful that is.
Death pulls people apart and makes things like distance feel like they’re in the same room as you, breathing down your neck, but it also brings people together, a slow yet effective defense against things like regret and aloneness that threaten to destroy us from the inside. I don’t know. Maybe this is my attempt at finding meaning in death (which I always think is meaningless and not worth the effort until it’s staring right at me) or my weird way of finding some shred of comfort in the same way people tell themselves things like she’s in a better place now.
Grandma Sally just passed and we just got the news and I’m not quite sure I’ve fully processed it — again, a side effect of distance — and I’m not quite sure I should be writing all this so soon, but it’s my attempt to stay present as tempting and accessible as escapism is. This is my processing process and my way of saying goodbye to someone who was such a big part of my upbringing and who I am as a result. Grandma Sally deserves to be remembered in every way possible, in our memories and in the ether. This is my small contribution because such is the way of the millennial and the internet is forever and will outlast human life and all that.
With every cup of coffee, every time I catch a whiff of Avon and Victoria’s Secret hand lotions because she loved that stuff, every time Susan Lucci appears in a headline, every time I have a far less superior attempt at dishes she owned, every time I catch sight of the scar on my arm courtesy of Buster, and many more unexpected instances of nostalgia, I remember you and I love you, grandma.
February 26, 1926-March 13, 2015