Births and deaths
There is nothing momentous for someone turning 28. You’re too young to be jaded and cynical, yet you’re too old to be a naive idealist. This age is not the turn in poker or climax in fiction that can alter the outcome of a story; 28 is just a chapter.
But fate twisted my Chapter 28, changing forever how I will look at my birthdays to come. Because on my 28th birthday, my sister died.
Teng, the fourth among six siblings, succumbed to cardiac arrest at 34. Teng and her son were supposed to be at our nephew’s birthday a day after Christmas. They were terribly late at almost 5 in the afternoon. Sanse, the third eldest, phoned with a hint of irritation over the usual tardy sister. The boy picked up the phone, saying Mommy won’t wake up. Only the two of them were in their rented house. There was no alarm, as we knew our sister was a deep sleeper.
But all hell broke loose when my mother’s cousin found her unconscious, lying in her own pee. There were signs of a stroke. After she was brought to the hospital, she showed signs of improvement while in the ICU. Our family discussed recovery plans — her forthcoming therapy, the renovation of our parents’ home to be wheelchair-accessible, the mental preparation for a new life not just for her, but also for everyone.
But, after a successful second dialysis for her kidney failure, my sister’s heart suddenly stopped functioning. The massive cardiac arrest destroyed all our hopes and dreams for her recovery. It was a steady decline from then on, and she ultimately passed away on my birthday.
Her health didn’t deteriorate overnight; it was, frankly, the result of years of neglect and abuse, brought about by working conditions that go against your body clock and natural instincts.
Stress is an unavoidable occurrence that helps humans develop coping mechanisms and effective problem-solving skills, but too much of it also destroys your ability to think clearly and judge correctly. Hands down, Teng was the best in what she did, but she overworked herself without realizing she had limitations.
People can die without rhyme or reason. People die, and together with them, their frustrated dreams and shattered hearts and nasty secrets. People die because we are just a bunch of meat and bones vulnerable to horrible diseases and freak accidents. It’s just a question of when and how, never a question of why.
My sister was a solo parent to Marcus, who was turning 4 years old. On the last day of the wake before her cremation, everyone was singing happy birthday while the child shied away from blowing his candle on a chocolate cake in front of her mother’s coffin.
This was supposed to be a joyous moment, a celebration of life and love. But the child knew there was something wrong, that there was someone missing, though he didn’t have the capacity yet to articulate his raw emotions.
I didn’t grow up celebrating birthdays because we were really poor back then, and there was no money for such things. I remember that on Teng’s 18th birthday, she came home from her college classes and there was just a cake. No party, no sumptuous feast, no friends invited over, just one cake. I don’t know how she felt at that time, but what I know is that memories can really become a painful thing.
The death of a loved one can only be truly mourned after all has been said and done. Everyone becomes so caught up with the funeral arrangements and new living arrangements that things don’t sink in right away. When the normal everyday routine is back and you have the time to reflect on things, that’s when the realization of permanent loss becomes unbearably enervating.
Losing a loved one is like running a lifetime marathon while carrying a 50-pound baggage. At first you can carry it; you can even say it’s easy. But as the miles go on, it becomes harder and harder. Every step is a punishment, and the baggage seems only to get heavier. If only you can stop carrying this weight—but you can’t, because life goes on while the dead stays. All you can do is pause, breathe and carry on.
When President Cory Aquino died 10 years ago, a former classmate questioned why the hell people were saying nice things about a dead person — why those sweet words of appreciation were only spoken when the person couldn’t hear them anymore. Maybe she was right, but she missed the point entirely.
Eulogies are not messages for the dead, but stories meant for people they are leaving behind. Eulogies are spoken not to please the dead, but to ease the pain and longing of the ones grieving the loss. There is a catharsis in reliving the habits, nuances and imperfections of a loved one before everything abruptly ended.
Quantum physicists postulate that time doesn’t happen in a linear way, and past and present events have no difference. So, for me, that last Christmas when Teng was with us singing and laughing and full of life didn’t end; it will never end. It’s always happening and will always happen in another world, in an alternate universe, in another time.
I don’t believe in heaven, but I really do hope my sister is in a good place, where all wounds have already turned into wisdom.
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John Thomas Miranda, 28, is co-owner of Bado ni Buri clothing store. His sister’s tattoo, “turn all wounds into wisdom,” is engraved on her urn.
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