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.

Tatay Jacinto P. Cabillo

This is story 1 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

*I had the honor of writing my Tatay’s eulogy. This is an edited version of the original*

“Our Tatay, Jacinto P. Cabillo, was born on July 3, 1923 in Agoncillo, Batangas, Philippines. He was the third child out of six siblings. As a young man, Tatay helped his family raise chickens, pigs, and cows.

 In 1950, he married Concepcion “Conching” Tagle, and together they had 8 children: Lilia, Peping, Luz, Delfin, Cris, Roland, Salvie, and Merlinda. After 15 years of marriage, Nanay Conching, who was 36, passed away during childbirth along with their 8th child, Merlinda. Tatay was widowed at the young age of 41, and was left with 7 children to raise on his own. From eldest to youngest, his children’s ages ranged from 14 to 2 years old. His in-laws, Tarcela and Ricardo Tagle Sr., stepped in and proposed the idea to adopt all 7 children to bring them to America for a better life. 

At first, Tatay was hesitant. But he knew that he couldn’t provide for all 7 children all on his own, so he agreed with one condition. Tatay believed that Roland and Salvie were too young to join their siblings in the States. He feared that they wouldn’t remember him because they were 5 and 2 years old. He wanted the two youngest children to keep him company because he was worried about his mental health – dealing with the loss of a wife and now his children. So the 2 youngest children stayed back with Tatay in Batangas, where they lived until 1974. 

In 1967, his 5 eldest children left to immigrate to America with the help of their Tatay Ricardo and Nanay Tarcela. It was a bittersweet decision for Tatay, but he knew sending his 5 eldest children to plant roots in the States would be the best decision for the generations to come. The saying is true, it really took a village to help raise the Cabillo children. Tatay and the 7 siblings are forever grateful for the sacrifices and help they received from their grandparents, aunts, and uncles after the passing of Nanay Conching.

After 7 long years, Tatay finally reunited with all of his children in 1974 when he arrived in San Francisco. Everyone in the family had to make a lot of sacrifices and do their fair share to make a living in America. To provide for his family, Tatay worked custodian jobs at Riordan High School and Treasure Island. He was also a flower picker in the city of Colma, which was very on brand with his love of nature.

In his long life, Tatay enjoyed exploring the Bay Area, spending time with family, and of course, going back and forth to the Philippines. Even though he was in the States, his heart always remained in Batangas. And on July 18, 2000, Tatay married Adeleida “Tita” Cortiguerra in Pasig, Philippines. From that day forward, Tita never left Tatay’s side. She cared for him and was at his bedside as he took his last breath. 

Tatay lived 98 long and beautiful years. He had the support and love of his children, wife, and family every step of the way. The Cabillo’s are truly blessed to have had Tatay for as long as we did. He had 16 grandchildren, and was fortunate enough to be around while his grandchildren had children of their own. Tatay’s legacy will forever be passed down to the 8 great grandchildren that had the privilege to meet him, and the future generations to come.

Tatay will always be remembered for his signature Rayban aviators, hats, and impeccable swagger. You’d most likely find him sitting on the sidelines of family events observing and finding little things to do to play with his great grandchildren. Tatay always found a way to connect with each great grandchild, despite the language barrier. He was a man of few words, but when he did speak, he did so with intent.  He knew exactly what he wanted. 

Before the pandemic, Tatay longed to go back to the Philippines and live his remaining days in the country he grew up in and forever loved. Unfortunately, due to a volcano eruption, Tatay’s flight to the Philippines was canceled, and shortly after, the pandemic hit and borders to fly overseas were shut down. Tatay never got to return back to the Philippines, but our family is grateful that we were able to spend the remainder of his life with him here in the Bay Area, despite the pandemic. 

Tatay passed away on Thursday, July 15, 2021 at 6:10 PM peacefully in his bed, accompanied by Tita and family. When our family was sending news to Tatay’s extended family in the Philippines about his passing, they had a surprising revelation to share that brought peace to our hearts. As his soul left his body in South San Francisco around 6:10 PM, a blue colored bird entered his house in the Philippines around the same time. Family members who are residing in the house couldn’t get the little blue bird to leave, and luckily, they recorded it. We were all at a loss for words. He finally made it back home. 

Tatay, our hearts are heavy to know that you are no longer here with us physically, but we are overjoyed to know that your soul is back in the Philippines. We will miss you, our bi-monthly Sunday dinners, watching animals on TV, and seeing your face light up when you received gifts. Tatay’s wish for his children, grandchildren, and future generations to come was this: To have unity in the family and stick together. We love you, Tatay. We promise to live out your wish.”

“Infinity Is Forever”

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A year ago, my cousin, Nina, would never have imagined that she would be raising her son and daughter alone. But it’s the sad reality that she faces now. On September 28, 2016, she unexpectedly lost Will, the man she loved and been with for 9 years. Before this, everything seemed to be going in their favor; they got back together and were expecting their second child, they moved into the top level of the house Nina grew up in, and they were finally a family again after some time apart. Their lives drastically changed when Will passed away, leaving her with a son that was almost 5 years old, and a 2 month old baby girl.

The day after Will’s 1 year death anniversary, Nina decided to get a tattoo in honor of him. Before he passed away, Will wanted his next tattoo to be an infinity sign. When he brought it up she told him that she also wanted it too, and that they should get the tattoo together instead of him buying her an engagement ring.

“I told him, ‘I don’t want a real ring, I’d rather [we] have a house, and then we can just get tats on our ring fingers.’ That’s more permanent than a diamond ring,” she said matter of factly.

So I went with her to get her infinity tattoo, and she wanted to incorporate what seemed like 10 other ideas into it. With great thought, Nina decided to keep the tattoo simple, and stuck to the infinity sign with a music note that Will had tattooed on his hand. Music was Will’s passion, and she wanted to capture that in her tattoo for him.

It’s crazy to think that it has really been a year since Will passed away. And in this past year, I’ve witnessed my cousin change. She admits that she finds herself more antisocial, not wanting people to see her or be around others. She explains how even when she is out with friends, she’s not engaged in any of the conversations that they’re having, and her mind is in a thousand different places. After 2 hours of hanging out, she just wants to go home to her babies and call it a day.

Nina tries to keep herself busy to keep her mind off of the fact that Will isn’t here anymore. When she has too much free time, she’ll replay memories from the past and just overwhelm herself with too many emotions.

“What makes me cry the most is the fact that he’s not here to help me with the kids,” she says frustrated. “It makes me mad that he couldn’t stay here to help me and help raise them.”

And when she starts to overthink, she is met with the same feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt. Before Will passed away, and while she was pregnant with Nalia, they were running into financial issues, causing them to fight. The fighting didn’t stop when Nalia was born, and Nina never got to make up with Will again because he passed away shortly after. The overwhelming feeling of guilt takes over her when she remembers how they didn’t talk before he passed. It’s one thing to know that the person you love is no longer here, but it’s another thing to replay in your head what you wish you could’ve said. Nina feels guilty knowing that she’s living a “comfortable” life because he did pass away. When Will was alive, they worried about financial costs, but now that he passed, she’s not in that position anymore. She feels guilty that it took him dying to be in a place where she’s financially stable.

“I wish I could go travel with the kids because [now] I can,” she says looking straight ahead, as we’re parked in the parking lot of Nalia’s daycare. “….But it’s like… who am I going to travel with… and to share these memories with?”

She reassures herself that things could have been worse, and as bad as it sounds, this probably had to happen. This situation has forced Nina to rely on her mom more than she wants to. And though they disagree, she knows that if Will was still to be alive, it would be another situation with him. It’s one of those moments where you look at all the alternate realities that could’ve happened and realize, either way you look at it, you would’ve been put in a shitty situation regardless.

“I always think, ‘well, maybe this is God’s way of telling me I should appreciate my mom, and accept her for who she is and the type of person she is,” she says. “It’s  hella funny because Will would always say that I act exactly like my mom. And I hella see it.”

She wishes that Will could’ve realized what they had. Nina believes that he knew what they had, and knew they had practically everything they wanted, from a house, a family, jobs, and pretty much everything was set in stone. But he didn’t know how to handle it. She knows that he grew up having nothing, and for him to have everything, he didn’t know how to deal with it. Nina knows that deep down Will didn’t think that he deserved all the good things happening in their lives. He had a lot of responsibility on his plate. They were expecting their 2nd child, his 3rd. He had to provide for my cousin and his 3 children. And she knows how much of a hard worker he was and how he would stress over providing for his family.

“I just wish that I could’ve just told him, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ ” she says. “But instead I was always mad. I would always be like, ‘what is wrong with him?!’ ”

She worries for my nephew, Tre, because he is a carbon copy of his father. She prays that Tre finds his way, because she genuinely doesn’t know what to do when he acts up in school. Nina says that he acts exactly like Will, and that’s why she’s even more scared for him. She wishes that Will was still around to help raise Tre, because since they’re so alike, he would know what to do to get through to him.

Since Nalia was only 2 months old when Will passed away, Nina always wonders what he would think of her if he was still alive. A couple months ago, Nalia turned 1. It’s one of those bittersweet moments that you realize she’s only getting older, and will only know of her father by stories and the few pictures they have together.

“Every time I stare at Nalia I’m just like, ‘what would Will say about her?’ ” she said. “Would he think she’s funny? … I always just look at her like, ‘what would he think about you?’ ”

Of course she knows that dating again is somewhere in her future, but she doesn’t like the thought of starting all over with someone else. She worries that a future partner can  be detrimental to the children, and overall just thinking the worst. She realized that she’s probably going to worry for her children and their well being for the rest of her life. And that’s something she despises about herself.

“If anything, this past year has made me realize what type of person I don’t want to be, but still am. ”

When I asked how she’ll tell the kids about how Will passed, she said she’d be honest with them and tell them the truth. Tre already knows that his dad was “sick,” but that he loved him a lot. Will always believed in not sugar coating the truth to his children, so that’s how she’ll continue to raise them. Tre and Nalia will know the truth, but will also know that their dad loved them and did what he could for them.

Though she hasn’t had many dreams of Will, the dream she holds dearest to her is the dream she had of him holding her hand. She loved his hands. She loved how they were that of a hard working man, but his palms were smooth and soft. In a way she believes that that’s Will’s way of saying that he’s still holding her hand through life.

“Infinity is forever,” she said. “He’s forever going to be in my heart.”

 

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