Leaving Lola – Part 2: Walking With Ghosts
Part 2 of 3, CLICK HERE to read part 1
Reese said, “When you are there, you should blog about funerals in the Philippines” and I first thought, “Wow, that’s sort of a morbid subject”. Little did I know that funerals in the Philippines can be emotionally lush and symbolic celebrations, especially if the person lived a long life — like my Lola did.
We were to take her all the way to the cemetery in Alaminos town. There is a Church here which has been there since the end of the 19th century. Like Lola, it has survived provincial guerrilla fighting, a Japanese occupation and the destruction of a World War. Its walls still stand, weathered and storm-beaten, but inside is bright with stained glass, gold leaf and birds flying around while singing their songs. We should be so lucky to maintain the same inner beauty when we ourselves grow old, no?
“You’re wearing that?” said my Mom as I straightened the collar to my black shirt. “Yes, it’s the only black I brought.” My mom told me that I didn’t really have to wear black because for sure I was going to be hot — we were walking Lola’s casket all the way to the cemetery. I peeked downstairs to see that the other guests were wearing jeans, t-shirts and certainly not black dress clothes – which most of them probably couldn’t afford anyway.
This is the Philippines, where you either own land or you don’t. And if you do, you count yourself blessed because receiving it was as much a stroke of luck as anything else. Way back near the turn of the century when the Spanish-American war resulted in the dissolution of the friar lands, Lola’s family was simply in the right place at the right time. Great ancestors were bestowed with hectares of mango, lanzones, coconut and mahogany, thus sweetening familial fate for generations in a new republic where colonial promises too often go sour.
I was tucking my shirt into my slightly matching black dress pants when I suddenly heard the sound of trumpets. I rushed downstairs to see a full marching band: tubas, trombones, clarinets, you name it. Even a drumline and a few baton twirlers for good measure. This wasn’t customary; Lola had requested that when she die, a marching band would play her favourite ‘happy songs’. She was adamant! She did not want a sad funeral – she was going to see Lolo.
When the band started playing their selections, I laughed and looked up to the sky. “I Write The Songs That Make the Whole World Sing” and “Mandy”. Hardly the tunes of a somber occasion! Was this a joke? I could almost feel Lola slapping me on the arm while laughing her signature chuckle (I am also known for my laugh).
It was time to leave. Lola left first in the hands of a few strong townsfolk who loaded her casket into the hearse. One by one each of our guests left the house and positioned themselves in the street ready to start the journey. We were careful to let everyone else leave the house first because it is tradition that visitors must cross the threshold first — or else another death is to come to the family.
To the tune of Manilow and holding up umbrellas like shields, we began our march. Twenty people became thirty, and thirty became forty which begat fifty as neighbours along the way joined the parade, payongs like swords held in tribute. The marching band’s playing made sure that Lola’s friends in the town knew that she was leaving; it was her way of saying her final exuberant goodbye. After all, how can one be sad when there is a marching band?
As commuter buses, jeepneys and air-conditioned cars zoomed by on San Agustin, passengers tossed coins at our procession to bring us and them good luck. This is another tradition, this time from Greek mythology, symbolizing the coins given to the boatman at the River Styx in order to cross to the afterlife in Hades. This is also part of the Filipino tradition; the coins are meant to offset the cost of the funeral — an inevitability in the Philippines. Whether we are rich or poor, we take care of the elderly until the very end.
Walking through Alaminos town with my mother was ironically easy; in Canada I ride the TTC and my Mom drives to the to store at the end of the street, but somehow these 5 miles seemed like a small feat today, even in the hot sun. “The school I went to when I was small is now dilapidated,” said Mom, “and that’s the restaurant of the boy who was trying to court your Tita V when we were teenagers”, pointing to the street-side food stall that read: “KCF Fried Chicken”, nestled between two large Coca-Cola logos. “Imagine if she married him? She’d still be here in the Philippines, maybe frying chicken and not in America.”
As I took everything in, it became clear to me that my mother and I were seeing this moment from entirely different angles – me romanticizing at times of the past and her being glad to have left them behind. Isn’t this the pattern of us?
Then I imagined my mother as a child walking with my Lola along this same path toward church each Sunday, I realized how fitting it was that I was finally joining them on this journey. Would this be the last time this walk between mother and daughter would ever be taken? And the last and first time for mother and son? Would we one day also become ghosts? What other ghosts from the past were there with us that day?
As the procession made its final turn into the church’s cemetery, the music suddenly changed to a more somber tone. Out of the hearse’s speakers: “Ikaw” by Sharon Cuneta.
Ikaw ang bigay ng Maykapal
Tugon sa aking dasal
Upang sa lahat ng panahon
Ang ibigin ko’y ikaw
Ikaw ang tanglaw sa ‘king mundo
Kabiyak nitong puso ko
Wala ni kahati mang saglit
Na sa iyo’y may papalit
Ngayo’t kailanma’y ikaw
Ang lahat ng aking galaw
Ang sanhi ay ikaw
Kung may bukas mang tinatanaw
Dahil may isang ikaw
Kulang ang magpakailan man
Upang bawat sandali ay…
Upang muli’t muli ay…
Ang mahalin ay ikaw
My Lola Eden, fan of teleseyres and melodrama saved the dramatic ending for last and as we entered the gates our tears began to flow – it was time for final goodbyes.