The Last Birthday

This is story 7 of 9 of my Tatay’s Series. This is my way of honoring Tatay’s life and legacy. It wouldn’t be right if I DIDN’T give him his own series and avoided writing about his passing all together. But I’m also aware that this is something I need to do for myself – to put my grief, anger, and emotions all out on the table, instead of distracting myself with work and other things to avoid the reality that he’s gone.” -Marinelle, LoveYourzStory

As Tatay’s 98th birthday drew near, I remember basically pleading with God, the Universe, any higher power that would listen to me, to please let him reach his birthday. If he was going to leave this Earth under these unfortunate circumstances, the least they could do was let him celebrate one last birthday surrounded by family. By this point, he was barely eating, his good memory days were a thing of the past, and he lost a significant amount of weight. He no longer went downstairs because he couldn’t walk on his own, let alone sit up on his own. He was completely bedridden.

I remember thinking, “If Tatay can make it to his 98th birthday, I’ll be at peace when he passes.” He made it to his 98th birthday, but of course I still wasn’t content with that tradeoff. It was so ironic greeting him happy birthday as our gut feeling knew that his time was very limited. Everyone’s “happy birthday” greet to Tatay that day was matched with a lump in their throat. It was a mix of emotions for sure – feeling grateful that he made it to another year of life, hopeful that his health would somehow miraculously get better, depressed that we have to see him that weak, and feeling selfish for wanting him to live longer in his current state.

Tatay’s birthdays have always been a big celebration in our family. His birthday falls on July 3rd, so we usually lump it together as a multiple day event since July 4th is a holiday and family usually comes into town. We had a lot to celebrate, each year was a reminder of how resilient, strong, and blessed Tatay was to reach another year of life. With the exception of his 97th pandemic birthday, we went all out every year to celebrate with food, family, and gifts. And for his 98th, we all came over the house despite the pandemic. This birthday was one that I was grateful to attend since his 97th birthday was so downplayed with everyone sheltering in place. But if I’m being honest, it was a really sad day.

We made the usual route up the stairs to Tatay’s room. “Happy birthday, Tatay!” we said happily. He laid in his bed before us, completely unresponsive to our presence and what we just said. His eyes were barely open, he looked the weakest I’ve ever seen him. He was on a new medication that he had started the day before. He was totally out of it, completely lethargic. Tatay looked so small in his bed, and as we tried a few more attempts to see if he’d respond to our greets, he didn’t. We tried to shrug it off, “Let him rest,” as we made our way back downstairs.

It was a “party” but it felt like anything but. The atmosphere was gloomy downstairs as the adults took turns going up and down to and from Tatay’s room to check on him. My cousin’s wedding was the following week in Florida, and the majority of the aunts and uncles had planned to make it, flights booked and everything. They announced that Tatay’s health was declining fast, so they all decided to cancel the wedding trip. They started to plan out a schedule where all the siblings took turns helping Tita with Tatay throughout the week, especially during the night. He was completely unable to stand, sit up, or do anything independently. On top of that, he would get frustrated and would try to stubbornly deny help, making it even harder to assist him. It was a lot for Tita to do on her own. The majority of the siblings are retired, while my dad and Auntie Salvie still work. They all had to Tetris their schedules to be there for Tatay. This schedule would continue indefinitely.

At one point during the night, we asked when we were going to cut the cake. With everything going on, the cake was the last thing on the aunts and uncles’s minds. Tatay didn’t have a cake. This was blasphemy to our ears. This is the first birthday party for Tatay that I can think of where we all got together and didn’t have a cake for him. Sometimes, there were even more than 1 cake. And my gut feeling was telling me that not only was this going to be his last birthday celebrated on Earth, but also some of his last memories with family, it was necessary to get him a cake. My sisters, my younger cousins, and I debated on who would go on the quick car ride journey to get Tatay’s cake. I didn’t want to leave Christian at Tatay’s house alone with all the adults, so I told them that them 4 could go get Tatay’s cake while I stayed back.

They eagerly put on their shoes and headed for the door, excited to go on an adventure together. I’m glad that they got to have a little break from the melancholy toned birthday party. I realized that my dad was missing, so he was probably in Tatay’s room. I told Christian that we should go up and see how Tatay is doing, at the very least, keep him company. We entered Tatay’s room and not much had changed. He looked completely out of it, totally feeling the effects of the medicine. You couldn’t tell if his eyes were slightly open or all the way closed. He didn’t speak much, just groaned every now and then. We sat on the chairs that were lined up against his bedroom window.

My dad and Auntie Lilia were in the room while Christian and I took a seat. I couldn’t help but look at Tatay knowing damn well that his time was coming up soon. He was so different from the week before, such a drastic change for the worst. I remember just the week before we were telling him that his birthday was coming up. He didn’t remember how old he was turning, but he was a lot more coherent than the Tatay that laid before me. The medicine he was on truly had his head in the clouds. I couldn’t stand to see him like that, but at the same time I wanted to be there with him on his birthday. It wasn’t about me, it was about him, and I wanted him to know that we were all there to celebrate him. However, this wasn’t your typical birthday party. This was the saddest birthday party I’ve ever attended. It was celebrating Tatay reaching another year of life, but being slapped in the face with reality that death would be knocking on his door soon.

After about 10 minutes in the room, I couldn’t take it anymore. I started to cry as I looked at Tatay on the bed, so frail, so small, in and out of consciousness it seemed. Christian reached over as his eyes began to water too. I know being around Tatay in that state was probably bringing up memories of his own Grandpa who passed away about a year prior. My dad tried his hardest to fight back tears, but started to cry as well as I had my moment. I could tell my dad was trying not to look at me or acknowledge that I was crying, but the harder he tried to focus his attention on something else, the more emotional he got. We don’t do well with talking about our emotions or expressing them, but I know my dad gets more emotional when he sees his girls in distress.

My Auntie Lilia looked at me, completely aware that I was crying, but tried to change the subject. She let me know that just 3 days before, on Wednesday, Tatay was on his feet and walking independently. She started with, “Can you believe that just 3 days before he was walking outside?” That was news to me. She explained that Tita went to the store to get some groceries, leaving Tatay alone at home. Tatay was resting and most likely asleep, so she thought she’d make a quick run. He no longer could get up on his own at that point, or so they thought.

When Tita arrived back home, Tatay was missing from his bed. Where was he? They found Tatay down the street with his walker in hand, not properly dressed for the cold Bay Area weather. When they asked him where he was going, the answer alone made me clench my jaw trying to hold back tears as Auntie Lilia continued with the story. Tatay said that he was going back home – to Roland’s house. His mind still believed that he was living with my family at our house.

“Can you believe that? He got up by himself, put on his shoes, carried the walker down the stairs, opened the door, walked down the steps to his house, and was down the street!” My Auntie Lilia said in complete amazement.

I couldn’t believe it either. Tatay managed to carry his heavy ass walker down 2 flights of stairs, not a single scratch on the walls. What was more amazing was the fact that before this incident, he couldn’t walk downstairs on his own that well anymore, he needed assistance. I was relieved that Tatay was still close by when Tita realized he was missing. I don’t know what I would’ve done if he was missing for even just an hour, especially during the times when Asian hate crimes were at an all time high.

That was my Tatay – he never failed to surprise you with his strength and perseverance. It was then that they decided to install cameras in his house. They wanted to make sure that he was safe at all times, and if he needed help, we would know. I wondered what was going through Tatay’s head at the time to be so motivated to go back to our house. That was his last hoorah outside, his last adventure, the last time he walked independently. And now 3 days later, he was totally immobile, could barely open up his eyes, and totally out of it. It’s amazing what 72 hours can do when time isn’t on your side.

When my sisters and cousins came back with the cake, they had stories to tell of their own about how difficult it was to get it. But all that mattered was that we had a cake, that Tatay’s last birthday wouldn’t be cakeless. Getting Tatay a cake was really important to us cousins, and I’m glad that we got to give him a cake one last time. Because it was an ice cream cake, they quickly prepared it so it wouldn’t melt.

Since Tatay was feeling the effects of his new medication and was completely bedridden, the whole family came up to his room. The room was dim, adding to the already somber mood. Michael came in holding the cake, the “98” candles already lit. My dad took one side of the cake as they positioned it in front of Tatay as he laid on the bed. We all began to sing happy birthday, hoping that Tatay would at least open his eyes. Tatay laid there, eyes closed, unresponsive to our singing. It was the saddest happy birthday song I have ever sang.

After the cake, they started to give him his gifts. Tatay loved receiving his envelopes during birthdays, so it lightened the mood a little bit when he started to open his eyes as they were putting money in his hands. They joked that Tatay woke up at the right time to receive his presents. However, that was short lived as he got drowsy again.

Tatay’s lethargic state was partially due to his new medication that he started taking the day before his birthday. The siblings decided that night that they were not going to continue to give it to Tatay since it made him so out of it. The next day, we visited again. Tatay was completely coherent, and even though his time was coming soon, at least we got to see him be somewhat aware of his surroundings. We asked him the day after his birthday if he remembered anything from the day before, he said no. That was the last birthday Tatay spent on Earth with us. It wasn’t ideal, but at the very least, I’m happy that he was surrounded by family.

2 thoughts on “The Last Birthday

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