Death And Life In The Family

Hey, folks. You might have noticed I’ve been incommunicado for part of this week. I wish I could say that I was on some wonderfully epic adventure, but my near-600 mile road trip down to Bakersfield was for something much more personal. If you were following my blog a couple of months back, you’ll probably recall a post I wrote about my grandmother. Just before the end of January, the inevitable happened; her body could no longer keep up with her iron will and spirit. She died just as we all thought she would: tending to that rose bush in front of the house. She had just finished watering and pruning it, when a neighbor saw her suddenly lay down. My relatives and emergency responders did everything they could, but it was over far too quickly. And that’s the best anyone could hope for. Aside from dying in your sleep, a fast, peaceful death is preferable to an agonizingly dragged-out hospital drama. While I’m sad she’s gone, I’m actually happy, too; her injuries in 2013 made daily life incredibly painful, and she must have despised being so limited. It’s only fitting that she died doing the one of her greatest passions.

She died almost exactly 19 years after my grandfather, and they were buried next to each other. I had the honor of being one of her eight pallbearers. It’s an tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, though not all coffins are covered with cloth anymore. I won’t go into details about the funeral out of respect for my family; it’s excruciating to see the important people in your life emotionally broken. What I will say is that my grandmother earned the love and respect of every person she ever met. I heard so many stories about her life in the last week. How she met my grandfather – a valedictorian with hopes of becoming a lawyer – in high school. How they in their mid-20s survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II. How they once owned a coconut plantation. How she had a dozen kids, and became a master seamstress just to make ends meet. How the family suffered through floods and famine, starving and barely scraping by with nothing. How she sacrificed so much to keep everyone alive and well. How she taught her children how to kill and butcher a chicken the old fashioned way, to garden, to cook, to sew, to tell time by looking at the sun, to be disciplined, to be appreciate what little they had. How my grandparents took in stray kids and helped them survive to become pillars of their communities today. How much she loved to travel, and how she could be up and walking miles before sunrise. How the family came to the States in the 70s, resulting in multiple real-life American success stories. How her willpower was the stuff of legends.

To quote my cousin: “It’s a good thing Grandma died before the zombie apocalypse, because you know she’d have slaughtered every single one of us.”

Judging from what I’ve seen, that’s probably not an exaggeration.

I spent a lot of time with my extended family. I don’t get to see them very often – some of which I haven’t really visited with in 19 years – so it was very good to catch up. Religion is a huge part of our parents’ lives – it’s the reason they came to America – but it’s only one aspect of ours. I may be considered strange and rebellious by the older generations, but I discovered that all of us grandkids are far less straitlaced than we look. In a good way. I’m relieved to know that introversion, sarcasm, and geekery run in the family. My cousins are programmers, civil engineers, chefs, bakers, entrepreneurs, cosplayers, video game geeks, fashionistas, teachers, bankers, athletes, aspiring scientists, and so much more. Some like to go barhopping, while others prefer Disneyland, Comic-Con, and Austin City Limits. Others love Magic: The Gathering, Creepypasta, and Vocaloid. One of my cousins vowed to get all the kids together and throw me a Dirty Thirty birthday in Vegas this October. I haven’t decided if I’ll take them up on it yet.

Thank you for everything you’ve done, Grandma. Not just for all you’ve taught me in life, but for helping me become closer to my family even in death. I’ll miss you.

Death And Fish: A Grandmother’s Determination

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about precious. No, not the ring, but a person who just can’t seem do you wrong. This one actually took me a little while to figure out, because I recognize that no one is infallible. People aren’t perfect; perspectives are subjective, so even the very definition of “perfection” makes it inherently impossible. It really boils down to what’s perfect for each individual. For me, it’s my grandmother.

Now, this isn’t because of spoiling me as a child or anything like that. Quite the opposite, in fact; she’s a tough, but fair old woman that values hard work and discipline. She’s lived nearly a century, 2/3rds of which she spent in various houses in the Philippines. She worked as a seamstress, and made clothes for her family for years. She married young to an up-and-coming church minister, and she had at least twelve children. There may be a few more; information from her early days has always been kind of hazy. Not because she’s forgotten any of it – she’s still as sharp as steel trap – but because she barely speaks English. She’s been here in the United States since the 70s, but never fully adapted. Her Tagalog is terse, but her voice is crystal clear. She’s pretty stoic at a glance, so her hearty laughs and twinkling eyes can catch you off guard in the best way.

When you first meet, it’s easy to underestimate her. She looks like a 4’9″ mass of wrinkles and bones. At 95 years, she seems frail, like an old porcelain doll. But if you stay around long enough, you’ll realize she’s the toughest person in the room. By far. Witness this little old lady getting up at the crack of dawn and taking her dogs for a walk. She used to do miles every morning, but now she settles for laps around the garage. Not long after, she’s in the kitchen, making breakfast for everyone. Her homemade lumpia is legendary. She’ll ask for help if you happen to be awake, but only for reaching something on a high shelf. Once the food is served and and she’s done eating, she’ll don a gardening hat and some gloves and go to work in the backyard. That old porcelain doll you met? She’s hauling dirt, pushing pottery, and looming over flower beds. She might ask you to carry a shovel for her. She works slowly and steadily, coming in only around lunch time with a fine layer of sweat on her forehead. A meal and a couple hours of napping later, she’s up for another round.

…At least, that’s how things used to be.

Earlier this year, my grandmother had a couple of bad falls. That’s not good news for anyone, especially when you’re 95. A few of her ribs cracked, and one of her arms was rendered useless. She could’ve had surgery, but the procedure and its fallout ran a high risk of killing her. Her spirit was strong, but her body was just too old. So she turned it down. Despite the advice and warnings of the doctors and the pleadings of her children, she accepted the inevitable. She went home with her busted arm cradled against her body as if it a handbag. She couldn’t even lay down to sleep anymore. When the wheelchair was delivered to the house, she dismissed it with a single line:

“I will not be using that.”

When the doctors tried to explain how to use the oxygen tanks:

“If I cannot breathe, I will die. It is that simple.”

When we tried to reassure her by saying that she’d live to be a hundred, she practically facepalmed.

“I do not WANT to live to that long! Being old is very hard!”

She put on a brave face, but it felt so terrible. Within a few months, she admitted that she probably wouldn’t live much longer and asked for my mother and I to visit. We brought her a whole cooler full of seafood and bags of homegrown fruit to cheer her up. To our amazement, this crippled old woman grabbed a huge fish and began preparing it literally single-handedly. Having a useless arm and chest pains didn’t seem to slow her down in the slightest; her grip on the knife was firm. However, she did ask for more help than she used to. As the three of us ate fish with rice and steamed vegetables, she nodded to a row of flower bushes outside a window.

“I work on those every day. Without them, I would be dead by now.”

It’s heartbreaking to think of her. She’s still alive – I’ll be seeing her at New Year’s – but how long she can hold out is anyone’s guess. It’s hard to see someone so tenacious, so tough, so utterly full of life be brought down because her body can’t keep up with her spirit. While I recognize that her pride keeps her from accepting help, her determination in the face of death and not succumbing to despair is admirable. If this 95 year old woman with a crippled arm and ribs can rise every morning to tend her flowers and still cook delicious fish, then I have to do better. She deserves it.

A Dozen Years: The Rise And Fall Of The Boss Man

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about loss. That one’s really relevant to me because I lost my job not too long ago. Without getting into specifics, I worked for a dozen years for major company. It started as a summer internship, then a part-time position during college, then a full-time thing after I got my degree. I had the unfortunate timing of graduating just before the recession hit. As in, weeks. Since the employment market was terrible, I fell back on my old standby position and dug myself in. I loathed the thought of going back to my former job, but it was the safe, logical choice. I developed more on a professional level, using my experience to transition from an aloof part-timer into a leadership role. I was very good at it. It didn’t pay much, but I was earning enough to recover what I’d spent on my education and save for retirement.

And it drove me nuts.

Aesop once wrote that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s very true, and it goes both ways. I learned a ton about leadership, procedures, and on-site training, but I loathed how dehumanized and empty I felt every single workday. The younger staff respected me for my years of service, insight, and refusal to play office politics, but eventually they took my responsibility and competence for granted. Even though I was still in my late 20s, I was nicknamed the Boss Man. I even mentored some of my higher-ups! I didn’t fit in with this newer generation of corporate worker; what they teach in seminars is what I learned the hard way, through hands-on experience and patience. Good work ethics had been watered down into statistics. I had too much pride to just phone it in for the sake of meeting quotas. You can’t quantify the human connection with a pie chart. I voiced contempt for the new corporate atmosphere several times.

Too many times.

When I got the call at home, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I had an inkling I was going to be replaced; why keep a mouthy old-timer when they could just hire and train someone new for a fraction of the pay? The possibility of transferring to another position was dangled in front of me like a carrot on a stick, and I played along for months. But at some point, someone decided I was more trouble than I was worth. So it ended with little fanfare. A simple, impersonal telephone call from HR stating that I’d been terminated and that the necessary paperwork would be sent to me. Twelve years of service, and that was that. I jotted down the notes, thanked the HR representative for informing me, and hung up the phone. I sat there quietly for about a minute. Some of my family was in the room. I said, quite clearly:

“It’s over. They cut me loose. I can’t go back now. But it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m just trying not to panic. I’m trying…not to panic. I’m trying not to panic. I’m trying not-

Then I started crying. Hard.

I’m not the emotional type at all. I’m the clever one, the one people go to for insight and advice. But in that moment? I was in free-fall. I’d read about panic attacks when I studied psychology. Never thought I’d have one. But within seconds I went from sobbing to gasping for air. My arms went numb, and my head was in agony. My heart felt like it had aged a decade, and the room was spinning. But about all else, it hurt. Regardless of how much I hated my job, a dozen years is a long time. It felt like a chunk of my body had been ripped away. I had put so much of myself and my life into it, and now it was gone. It wasn’t just a place to work, it was a place to go, to meet new people. Now all I had were the memories and skills I had developed. After all those years of service, I’d be nothing more than a footnote, someone quickly forgotten and replaced. It felt like a betrayal, even though I’d practically walked right into it.

Eventually, I stopped crying and focused. I’m great at looking things from a critical, logistical perspective, and this was nothing different. Looking at the calendar, I realized that my health insurance would end in a week and a half. Thanks, HR! I scrambled to get appointments for both my dental and vision care. You think fitting a check-up into your schedule is hard? Try getting an appointment during Thanksgiving week. It’s even harder than you’d expect. With a lot of searching and phone calls, I managed to squeeze in both appointments before the month ended. Now my teeth are all sparkly, and a new pair of nerdy-but-hopefully-attractive glasses will be on my face next week.

I might even post pictures.

After that, it’s more basic stuff. There’s filing for unemployment, and taking care of the arrangements for my 401K. I’m getting the paperwork organized. I’m going to be doing a résumé for the first time, and it’s going to look pretty weird. I don’t think employers expect to see someone holding a single job for a dozen years. There’s health insurance to consider too; now that my safety net has been burned away, I’ve got to find some to tide me over. I’ve heard the phrase, “Everyone has to have health coverage in 2014!” so many times, it’s annoying. It’s like a survival mantra or something. Of course, not everyone’s going to get it; try saying that to the next homeless dude you see. Go on, try. He’d probably laugh in your face. As for me, I already know I need it; I just need to figure out out which one. I’m holding off until January, because paying premiums twice is something I’d rather avoid.

After that? It’s…murky. I don’t know what other job I’d be suited for. Just have to take these uncharted waters one day at a time. I’ve come close to failure and managed to overcome it before. I intend to do so again.