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.

Family Traditions

What’s one family tradition you’d like to carry on in the future

When I was younger, my family and I had plenty of traditions, and I’ve always wanted to uphold all of them for my future family and kids. From meeting for Sunday lunch at Mama’s house after 1 o’clock mass on my mom’s side, to opening presents right at midnight on my dad’s side, these are all little traditions that I remember as a kid. As us cousins and kids got older though, the traditions started to change as well. Meeting weekly became hard given people’s changing schedules, availability, etc. Waiting until midnight to open presents got harder to do since the adults were getting older and struggling to stay awake, as well as the kids being so young that staying up until midnight was more of a hassle than a treasured tradition. Like everything in life, things change.

Especially with big families, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page. Everyone’s schedule is all fucked up, other priorities, some just don’t end up coming, people move or live far away, and with time, everyone just kind of branches out and does their own thing as their own little families expand. Major holidays and gatherings like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Tatay Jacinto’s birthday, Mama and Tatay Celso’s death anniversaries, are all days out of the year that are basically mandatory for my family. Those are the holidays that I take seriously and know that I can’t miss. As I get older, in the back of my mind I’m thinking of how I’m going to celebrate holidays with my kids. I quickly realize that my family events and holidays will be something that I have to thoroughly plan out as well, because I’ll have a whole other side and family that also celebrate those holidays.

I think back to pre-COVID, when my older cousins with kids have to leave some holiday parties early to make it to their in-law’s side. Some alternate year to year what holiday they will spend with which side. The compromise of divvying out holidays is something I know is in my near future, especially since I do have plans on having a family of my own one day. To be honest, it’s kind of foolish of me to previously think that every single tradition I had growing up would be continued when the time comes for me to have a family. But, a girl could dream. I came to the unpleasant realization that I can’t uphold all of those traditions – but that’s okay.

But one tradition that I would like to carry on in the future is celebrating “death anniversaries” for family members who have passed on. This is a tradition that my mom’s side upholds. For outsiders, it may be a little weird to celebrate the day when somebody died, but for us, it’s a reminder of the departed’s life. It’s a time to pray for your loved one’s soul that they continue to rest in peace on the anniversary of their passing. Growing up Catholic, anything surrounding death usually involves prayer. Given people’s differences in religion, and my own beliefs on religion, I would take this tradition and tweak a few things – turning it into a celebration of life, either on the death anniversary, or the birthday of the departed, maybe even both days.

This is something that my mom’s side practiced since I was a little kid. My mom’s eldest brother passed away before I was even born, but I have fond memories of us praying for him and having a bigger than normal Sunday lunch to celebrate. The painted portrait of Uncle Rolly was displayed every death anniversary. They would light candles and gather in the Livingroom of Mama’s house to begin the rosary. Even though I never knew who he was or got the privilege to meet him, I knew of him because we celebrated him and remembered him on his death anniversary.

Mama would orchestrate Uncle Rolly’s death anniversary rosary. And when she and Tatay Celso passed away, we continued the tradition for them. When July 12th and November 10th roll around, I know we are due for a family party. I black out that weekend because I know we will be celebrating with a family gathering and prayer service, no question about it. Because everyone is off doing their own thing, this is the 1-3 times out of the year we are all guaranteed to be together as a family to remember a family member who is no longer with us. It gives the family time to catch up, bond, and see each other. If nobody told you it was a death anniversary party, you would think it’s somebody’s party. And that’s basically what it is – a huge party with a lot of food and people.

Celebrating death anniversaries is definitely a tradition I want to continue for future generations to come. I think it’s a beautiful thing to honor someone in the family who is no longer there physically. It gives a chance for the younger children who never knew them, to still get the gist of what the person was like through stories and memories. It takes a sad memory – for those who remember – and turns it into a celebration of life and good times for the people who are still around. Even if this tradition evolves over time and eventually turns into a dinner at a restaurant instead of one of the siblings hosting it at their house, it is still the same concept of celebrating and remembering someone who has passed on.

That’s something that is very important to me – letting my future children know of their relatives that have passed on that played a big part in their parents’ lives. I’m really big on family history, and making sure that nobody is forgotten. Celebrating someone’s birthday or death anniversary is also a great way to cope the loss of someone important in your life, even if it is years after the fact. For my Mama and Tatay Celso, we celebrated every year until COVID hit. Even the random 2-9 year death anniversaries, because we want to remember and we want to keep their memory alive, letting them know that even though they’re not here physically anymore, we still celebrate and remember them. It’s super important to me for my future children to know their lineage and know where they came from, who were the people that helped raised me, and how we remember and honor those that came before us.

Rafa’s 2019 Reflection

There was just a couple more days of 2019, and I got a message in my Instagram DM’s. It was from an old high school friend, Rafa. She told me that she wrote a reflection of her 2019 that really hit home for her, and wondered if I would be interested in reading it.

Rafa explained that this was her first time writing a reflection, and it was a therapeutic experience that brought her to tears at the end.

“I thought of you when I finished,” she said. “I was like ‘I know somebody that will like this.'”

It made me really happy. I’m always encouraging people to dig deep within themselves for some type of self-discovery moment – probably because I aspire to be Iroh from Avatar the Last Airbender one day… still currently Zuko with my angry ass 🤷🏻‍♀️. I always try to leave the door open for anyone who wants to share their story with me, and I thank you, Rafa, for not only sharing with me, but agreeing to have it be posted on here.

I feel like Rafa and I are very alike. We make our stories of our struggles and insecurities public in hopes that it reaches someone who can relate. I admire her ability to open up about her struggles and reveal raw emotions.

Here is Rafa’ 2019 Reflection:

The year of 2019… What a year for me…

This year I embraced my art of seduction and it felt so good to feel wanted and desired as a woman. I was able to experience and feel what its like to feel wanted… As a woman I felt the need to have that experience. I was searching for other’s validation in me. I was desperate to be seen by others that made me feel like I was “the next Kim Kardashian” yet not satisfied by all the attention I was getting. On this journey I learned and gained a lot of experiences. I gave my time to the wrong people. I met amazing people. I struggled financially. I cried. I screamed. I gained weight. I lost weight. I had hair extensions. I took them out. I decided to live make up free. I decided to embrace and love my natural hair. I prayed. I danced. I got drunk….. A L O T!!!!!! I smoked weed for the first time. I went out partying A L O T. Partying was part of me “seeking other’s validation”. I traveled A L O T. I experienced the rich lifestyle. I met celebrities. My phone would blow up with so many messages, calls, voicemails, DM’s from guys I was never interested in. I became toxic to myself at some point. I felt like the shit. I went downhill again. I realized that money doesn’t make anyone happy. I decided to take a step forward into my future career. I took big steps backwards because I had bigger bills. I worked out. I was able to reunite with my auntie after 16 years. I fought depression and I won throughout the whole year. I was selfish. I learned how to say “NO!” I learned how to walk away without looking back! I learned how to not give people second chances to come back into my life. I trained my head to be stronger than my heart! I was emotionally unstable and unavailable for love! I lead people on. I hurt the ones I cared for. I hurt myself. I built boundaries. I irritated a lot of people. I was at some point heartless, cold, & careless. I was stubborn. I unfollowed a lot of people I didn’t feel like I needed on my social media account. Others I blocked. Best feeling in the world!!!!!! I would constantly ask myself why can’t I have what they have? I confess to God. I was always very transparent to God. I was very transparent to myself and others. I loved & lost the person I was madly in love with.. I learned how to value my inner self, my beauty, my body & mind. With everything that happened this year the most important task that I did not fail was being a mother to my little girl… Yes I left her with family to go out but I always and forever will come back to her. 6 years later and I still haven’t found ways to explain what it feels like to love a child. It’s crazy because she’s my weakness and my strength. She drives me crazy. She gets me big time mad but I can easily forgive her and move on with my day…. She doesn’t judge me regardless of what I say or do. She loves my imperfections and she still sees me as her role model. And that’s crazy to me because I have so many flaws… I love being her mother. It’s like she’s my best friend.. She is so incredible and it’s so real… I tell her weekly “I don’t know how to measure my love for you but I love you as big as the sky” she always has this big ass smile, it’s so priceless and I’m so blessed to be growing together. I lived a life I always wanted to experience.. so when I’m ready to settle down I know that I will not look back or have the urge to live this wild life…. and after all I am so grateful for all that’s happened, the good and bad.. Maybe I’ll be ready for love in 2020. Maybe not! But hey, look at me now: still standing, laughing, smiling, loving, forgiving, & living.. Still a few days to enjoy the rest of this beautiful year of 2019…..

Love, Rafa 💕