03 November 2010

Brushes with Death

For somebody who has always had issues with anything associated with death, my brushes with it have always been up close and personal. In 1992, when my mother was approaching the end of her time in this dimension, we had her confined at the old Magsino Hospital uptown in Lipa City and feared this was where it would end.

It didn’t.

She recovered sufficiently for us to be able to bring her home and she did not actually succumb until about three weeks later. At the Base Hospital, as things would happen…

While Mom was at the confined at Magsino’s, I left it to my brothers and sisters to take turns watching over her while I went to work. Partially, I wanted some semblance of normalcy in my life in these trying times; and partially, coward that I used to be as far as death was concerned, I did not want to be anywhere around her deathbed when she finally decided to move on to the other side.

In my earlier story The White Light, I described how – as a matter of fact – I was the only one of us five children in the family beside her deathbed when she finally exhaled her last, grudging breath. Life is always colored by countless ironies facing all who go through it; and here was one glaring irony staring me in the face, something destiny dictated I would not escape from.

Ironies also bring learning; and from this one occasion that I fervently used to pray I would be spared from witnessing, I learned that death could also come so peacefully – even beautifully, when I come to think about it – and as a catharsis from months of suffering.

Three days later, we were about to bury her at the Floral Garden. Those who have experienced having somebody die in the immediate family know that deaths, wakes and burials are accompanied by so many superstitions.

The Mass at the Base Chapel had already concluded; everyone was starting to board their vehicles to join the funeral procession; but someone warned that since we held the wake at the mortuary inside the Base, the remains had to be taken on a quick last trip to our home so that Mom’s soul would not become earthbound. Or something to that effect…

There was a problem: the driver of the hearse – naturally – did not know where we lived. Four against one – five, if you include my Dad – is a fair enough majority. Suffice it to say that I was nominated and had pretty much little in the way of choices about boarding the hearse.

This was among the things I used to fret about when Mom was at her deathbed. Who among you wants to ride on the front seat of a hearse? I mean, when I was young boy – and certainly sometimes even to this day – I used to wince at the sight of one driving along on the road. I also used to cover my eyes when the family went on trips and there was a funeral parlor along the road. I just did not want to look at the caskets for sale!

Funnily enough, despite my nomination for this unwanted privilege, I was too numbed by the events of the last few days and just wanted to get on with it! As things happened, riding a hearse turned out to be no different from riding any other vehicle, albeit there was a box at the back with my Mom in it. Frankly, the fact that it was my Mom made the world of a difference. I do not think I can ride the front seat of a hearse with somebody I do not know lying at the back.

Fast forward now to 2006 and this time to when it was Dad’s turn to exit from this Earth… I told the details in the story Grief Without A Body. What I did not say in that story was that Dad died in August; and his cremated remains were not flown over to the country until January of the next year.

Dad had expressed in a written testament that he wished for his remains to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. This my older brother dutifully worked on so that we could get a proper soldier’s burial courtesy of the Philippine Air Force.

I was grief-stricken for days on end immediately after Dad’s demise. Burying his ashes months later was still sad; but nothing like what we in the family all felt the previous August. By January, we had all processed our loss in our heads and in our hearts; and Dad living all the way to the age of 87 was a blessing in itself.

There was a family Mass before the burial at the chapel inside the Villamor Air Base. When it was time to make the short trip to the Libingan, it was decided that Dad’s ashes would ride with me in the car I had rented. I was not against the idea at all; in fact, I remember thinking it was 1992 all over again – except that this time, the hearse was a blue-painted sedan.

The interment rites were lovely. I have to hand it to the Air Force; they know how to take care of their own. There was a band and a gun salute. I was sure Dad loved all the attention he was getting!

There was even a bit of humor during the proceedings. Dad’s ashes were contained in an obligatory urn. However, there were too much ash remains that the rest had to be placed in a plastic Tupperware box.

The rites had concluded and the cemetery workers were starting to seal the tiny tomb that contained the urn – and a good thing my older brother remembered just in time that there were more ashes in the plastic box. We all laughed that Dad would not be too happy when Judgment Day came and his remains were not all in the same place.

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