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AAJA: A Legacy of Caring

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Submission for 2019 AAJA Caregiving Contest
This is my personal essay and answer to this AAJA prompt:
Caregiving is often the ultimate expression of love. What was your special caregiving moment?

She Looks Like A Nurse: My Cousin’s Legacy Of Caring

We didn’t make it back in time.

My dad met us at the airport with hugs and wet eyes. He told us Lola passed away while my brother and I flew away from midterms and back to our family.

I was 20 years old. Like many obedient Filipino daughters, I hit the pause button on my college life to say good-bye to his mother.

We met the rest of my family at her bedside inside a Southern California hospice. The silence surprised me. My family could usually fill any room with gossip and laughter.

Lola Stands With Her Daughter And Granddaughter

==== Lola stands on her own, as Tita Sylvia holds me up to get a better view over a ledge in Los Angeles. ====

They turned off the fluorescent lights. Sunlight peeked through curtains, illuminating green walls and white sheets.

Head nods replaced affectionate hugs and greetings. It felt like no one wanted to disturb this quiet space. Inside this silent slice of time, we were caught between two bookends: memories of Lola and the eventual reality of taking care of her final wishes and her funeral.

My mom whispered Hail Marys. Ninang Nora sniffled through tears. My cousin Ate Gigi held Lola’s hand. She may be only 5’2” but she stood like a redwood, calm and grounded in the middle of mourning.

I was upset that I missed Lola’s final moments. I couldn’t believe she was gone, the woman who helped raise me. I was also relieved that she finally escaped her suffering. It was a painful combination of advanced diabetes, dementia and old age. During her last few days, she ended up in a coma.

She never woke up.

My family spent the last few years waiting for this moment, while Lola quietly endured poking, prodding and blood tests.

==== My dad, Lola, cousin Jennie, Tita Sylvia, me and my brother David. ====

“It’s ok,” Ate Gigi said. I wondered if she could read my mind.

“You could still see her.” She urged me to come closer to the bed. “See? It’s like she’s sleeping.” My cousin stroked hair lying limp at Lola’s brow. She softly smoothed Lola’s cheeks.

“It’s ok. You can touch her.” My fingers traced over tiny, weathered hands that would no longer cook my dad’s favorite adobo dish nor would comfort my throbbing head after I banged it on a table inside a reckless blanket fort. Lola warned me about adding that third chair on top of the pillow tower. The lump on my forehead proved she was right.

She felt cold, but my memories kept me warm.

Inside that room where machines stopped beeping and the scent of cleaning products and medication lingered, Lola’s loss kept the other adults immobilized.

My dad said Ate Gigi looked like a nurse.
She was taking a break from nursing school to be with Lola.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, even in the Philippines,” she once told me. “But my mom didn’t have the money to support nursing school.”

She served burgers and fries as part of her first job in America. Ate Gigi kept her dream of becoming a nurse alive as she worked her way through cash registers at McDonald’s Golden Arches and through bulldozers at casino construction sites.

When she finally made it into nursing school, Lola really needed help. She couldn’t move on her own. Ate Gigi walked her to the bathroom. She helped organized her pills. She sat with her at meal times. Sometimes she would tuck Lola in at night, just like how she settled us for bed when we were kids.

==== Lola, Lolo, Ninang Nora and Ate Gigi in the Philippines. ====

They talked about the way things were back in the Philippines. Ate Gigi didn’t correct Lola when she thought she was inside a Manila hospital room, waiting to see her grandchildren enjoying cassava cakes and Coca-Cola bottles from her sari-sari store.

My family thought we could provide the best care for Lola in the United States. So we let her think she made it back home. She seemed comfortable and content. She told Ate Gigi about chatting with her sister and brother and the other family visits that played out inside her head.

Green and white curtains blocked the view of palm trees standing next to an Inland Empire office park.

While grief gripped my parents and the other adults in the room, Ate Gigi continued Lola’s legacy of caring by comforting college students like me, who still ate at the children’s table.

My cousin helped me accept who we have lost. She preserved Lola’s grace and dignity in life and death.

Kris Vera-Phillips @ August 29, 2019

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