That Unnamed Place
I had never seen a dying person before my lolo, the only grandfather I had known. I was in grade four and Mama was younger than I am now. After work and on weekends, she’d pick up our lola before heading to the hospital. My little brother and I would sit in the back seat playing “I Spy.” It became harder to keep each other guessing as the landmarks grew familiar. I never heard my grandparents thank her, despite relying on her the most out of their five children. Inwardly, I thought she had already done more than her fair share, having sponsored her family and taken on the brunt of the expense so they could all live in a first world country together. In her place, I would have left my caustic Tito Christian behind.
But my nine-year-old mind didn’t dwell too long on those thoughts. I was preoccupied with the club I had started with Sofia Gonzalez, who sat in front of me in school. Her family had escaped from Pinochet, she once confided proudly. I had few requirements for a best friend then. She had never pulled up the corners of her eyes while singing out “ching-chong-ching.” She didn’t dismiss my last name as unpronounceable and got it right on her third try. But what sealed our friendship was the gift shyly slipped to me in class – inside the crinkled gold foil of a candy bar wrapper was a pink, palm-sized notebook with its own tiny, delicate pencil. Now I had someone who wouldn’t leave me until last when picking kickball teams. Someone to pretend to smoke with, holding chalky, red-tipped candy cigarettes between our fingers like movie stars while we wandered the yellow fields at recess. Someone to help name the place where we first discovered the iridescent long-bodied beetles that crumbled to jewel-dust when we tried to retrieve them from our collection jar. We never did name that place.
The third member of our club, Sophia Hernández, also spoke Spanish, although her family hailed from El Salvador. Like Sofia, she was fair-skinned and unlike me, she didn’t keep to the shade for fear of getting darker. In their matching names, Sofia found her new best friend.
On the drive to the hospital, Mama would tell us stories of how Lolo used to dote on us. The faded, rust-spotted swing set standing in my grandparents’ backyard was a testament to that affection. He even had his own pet name for me, based on my initials: Ceecee. She would show us photographs of Lolo dancing the tango, his handsome smile foreign to the dour-faced man who had taken early retirement to spend his days with his television. He would barely acknowledge our arrival, let alone call me Ceecee. If he had ever known how to dance, he seemed to have forgotten.
He held himself with deliberate stillness, the opposite of my father. If you looked away for a moment, the only sign he had moved would be the curving plume of his cigarette. He kept a drink and the remote control within reach as he watched the ever-smiling Vanna White – blonde, glamorous, and tanned – turn letters after the Wheel of Fortune spun. Only now do I realize from the same vantage point he could keep an eye on the swing set through the glass patio doors.
If Lolo wished to fade into the background, his chair would not let him – solid and preponderous, its smooth oxblood upholstery was studded with antique brass nail heads in regimental outline. Two children leaning back with all their strength might have been able to force it to recline but placing their combined weight on the footrest would not necessarily return it upright. The chair became a rite of passage, granting sharp wisdom to each grandchild through caught fingers, a bruised hand or foot, and in the case of one cousin, a fall on the head. Only the white spider vein cracks that began appearing on the seat after the last grandchild was born belied the chair’s indestructibility.
Occasionally, Lolo would break his smoke-wreathed silence by murmuring guesses in accented English. He and Lola never spoke anything other than English to us and our parents never taught us their language. They told us they wanted to make sure anyone who heard us speak would never doubt we were Canadian. We learned French, instead.
As our reading skills grew, my brother and I would sit down and cautiously chime in with guesses of our own. I was particularly good with sayings: In for a penny, in for a pound. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Discretion is the better part of valor. When one of us solved the puzzle first, we dreamed of going on the show and winning a family vacation to Disneyland.
He expanded our repertoire to Family Feud. We got used to answering in the form of a question by watching Jeopardy! When he did get up to refill our short, thick-bottomed glasses with apple juice and ice, there would also be peanut M&Ms – always dispensed gravely in long-fingered handfuls from the fat stoneware jar sitting on the counter. Lola was diabetic, so we grandchildren knew he got the candy just for us.
My glass empty and not wishing to miss anything, I once thirstily stole a sip from his – only to feel the liquid burn the back of my tongue and throat. My eyes watered as I suppressed the coughs threatening to erupt. Lolo’s eyes had stayed trained on the screen. I let my breath escape slowly through my nose.
One day, he went to the kitchen to refill his drink and returned without a glance at the counter. The next time the cousins got together, the tallest ones peeked inside the jar. It was empty.
It wasn’t because Lolo and Lola lacked money. Playing hide and seek, we knew the cupboards and pantry were poor hiding places because they were always full. Even the small bar in the basement of their bungalow was kept stocked. Vibrant bottles with evocative exotic names like Campari, Bombay Sapphire, and Cointreau stood alongside the more prosaic-sounding Absolut and Canadian Club. My favorite was the wide-shouldered bottle of cut glass kept in a dark purple drawstring bag with Crown Royal embroidered across it.
That was where I hid his cigarettes. When he finally thought to ask the grandchildren if we had seen them, I brazenly told him that I hid them because I loved him and didn’t want him to get cancer. He was tall for a Filipino man. I watched his face turn dark and thunderous over me. Shaken, I ran to retrieve the packs from the purple cloth bag left after the cut glass bottle and its colorful compatriots had long disappeared. A few indifferently shelved bottles of Canadian Club remained. He glared, his hands tense and twitching like Tito Christian’s had been the day he yanked me backwards by the shirt and mistakenly gave me the spanking intended for my cousin.
The last time Lolo spoke to me, he lay dying from the cancer I had hoped to prevent. His characteristically still head and slim brown hands contrasted with the noisy, labored rise of his chest. I heard the adults say his pain medications weren’t working. In my clumsy, childish attempt to cheer Lolo up, I told him how Mama had said I had legs just like his and how I was glad because I thought they were the one beautiful thing about me. (I had inherited his dark skin, too, but no one thought that was beautiful.) He struggled to arrange his words around each breath, his speech harsh and halting through lips that had recently cracked and bled, “Those – are – the – ugliest – legs – I – have – ever – seen.”
Our family prayed to the Holy Mother, the infant Jesus, and to all the saints for a miracle while we reverently kept Lolo’s chair vacant.
Mama tells me as his delirium worsened, he abandoned English altogether; when he died with her hand holding his, she swears she felt his spirit struggle free of his body and rush past her. Every time she tells this story I simply smile. Conjecturing aloud that this was seizure activity secondary to brain metastases would serve no purpose; in our family, I alone speak the language of medical science. It is time to be still and silent, as when I collected the words my parents abandoned to scatter in the air, not thinking I would be listening. On my own I seek words to bring laughter and comfort, having no time for unkindness. The day only Tagalog remains, I will take their hands in mine, careful to keep the rhythm and pattern of familiar sounds from crumbling to jewel-dust on my tongue; I will tell them, “Nan dito na ako. Maayos ang lahat.” I’m here now. Everything is all right.
Aurora Mitchell (she/her) is a Canadian writer and racialized settler of (mostly) Filipino descent. If she had been born in the 15th century, she would have been considered a polymath before likely dying early from disease, childbirth, or burning at the stake. She is an excellent eater. She loves anime, RPGs, and racy period costume dramas. She believes in science. In her dreams, she is a dragon.