When the ones we love leave us, everything seems to collapse for a moment. There is a connection you cast your heart out to make…maybe one last attempt at holding on to the feeling that this person is still standing on earth, breathing the same air you breathe. There is a stark spark of hope. And then everything goes dark. Some people get lost in that darkness…so pained, distraught, and scarred by the loss. The hold of sadness is so strong, as strong as your hold on the person you refuse to let go of. At least, this has been my experience with death thus far.
After my last lola’s passing, I am learning that it is also possible for people you’ve lost to somehow become even more present, because that presence is no longer limited to the physical body. The distance between one another can no longer be measured. The spirit becomes pure energy, no longer confined to the body, living everywhere, from our own memory spaces and right up into the stars. This is what I imagine heaven is. Freedom—from suffering—physically, mentally, and spiritually. Heaven is made out of us.
Darkness and Suffering
Darkness, like all things, can be both good and bad. For me, darkness was greatly a bubble of fear. You breathe, you eat, and your emptiness and exhaustion leave you with just enough energy and concern to reach for temporary satisfaction. You care about people, but despise attachment and are unwilling to sacrifice your comfort knowing the risk. You long for truth, but greatly limit the places you search for it. While you attempt to protect yourself from the world in your quest for purpose and answers, you sacrifice human interaction, connection, and relationships…the very things that give purpose to our existence. You are nothing but a body of breath, getting swept between successive waves of angst and apathy. You know that this is no way to live, but you cannot find your way out of fear. It’s safe and comfortable, and when it’s not, you tell yourself that this is what you deserve.
In case it’s not obvious, I’ve spent a lot of time in darkness. Painfully at first. Then indifferently. And then finally, I just gave in to it and accepted that maybe this was where I was supposed to be. When I began to live thoughtfully in it, I learned that living in darkness teaches you a lot. It can drive you mad at times, but if your focus is drawn on finding purpose in it, darkness no longer becomes an enclosed, but infinite space. It’s no longer a holding cell for your demons, but a blank slate. Darkness strips away distractions…all the things you think you want…and both provides and prepares you with what you need. If you find yourself in it, be patient and learn all you can. Without darkness, I would never have been able to let go of my pain and find faith. I could never appreciate the comfort, welcome the warmth, or see the piercing beauty of the smallest spark of light. But I think most of all, it provides wisdom in suffering.
I don’t believe suffering is a choice, but a necessary chaos that challenges us, breaks us, and welcomes us to life again and again. I think the choice lies in how we deal with suffering…we can fight it, distract ourselves from it, or numb ourselves to it. But I also believe that it can be made into a mindful and deliberate act of faith that breaks down walls and rewards us, particularly with empathy, or the ability to see one another and ourselves. There are times where you won’t always know why, but you know to keep going…that’s all that matters. Then in a moment, you open your eyes for what feels like the first time, and you find yourself in a place where it all becomes, not just worth it, but illuminating. Love unveils what’s been there the whole time, what you were supposed to find in your darkness, what your heart was searching for without even knowing it. And while it might change your perception, it doesn’t necessarily change you. It simply extinguishes darkness by feeding the light that you had in you all along. It challenges your doubt and your fear so that you can find the conviction to believe that there is good in you and in others. This is the groundwork for unbreakable faith. It’s this faith that allows Love to make miracles in our lives, welcoming us to life again and again.
If life is suffering, the only thing that can save us from suffering is death. But what saved me from darkness was forgiveness and grace. It was from this enlightenment that I was also able to see that the loss of everyone I have ever loved, whether physical or emotional, has left me with guilt because I was always the one who gave up on Love.
I visited my lola in the Philippines 4 years ago, and one of the first things she said to me when we saw each other was, “I’m sorry,” and asked if I forgave her. As surprised as I was, I didn’t give it too much thought. I automatically gave a smile and nodded. When I was younger, my lola used to live with us. We fought a lot. I would always feel so guilty about it, but in her presence, I just couldn’t control my anger.
Looking back at that apology 4 years later and really taking it in, I feel like I was the one who was forgiven. I’ve felt sorry many times in my life, but this was my first time feeling “forgiven.” It made me feel like I was worth being loved, and that being loved by me was important to someone, no matter how imperfect I was. I’ve always carried this image of myself as a monster that only knows how to hurt or disappoint people, and who’s heart only has room for grudges, so I’ve tried to keep my distance to spare them and hide that part of me from them. But she helped me see past my anger, to stop building walls between us, and face how hurt and afraid I actually was.
Forgiveness is the most blindingly bright act of Love that I have ever experienced. I have never felt such peace, stillness, and lightness. It takes true humility, a kind of strength that I’ve always desired. A kind of strength that, until now, I could never fathom expressing. While I didn’t realize this all until her passing, I think it did somehow let Love work a second miracle the last time I saw her.
On July 16, as I made my way to her town of Calatagan, I was anxious. I had never visited my mom’s side of the family without my mom. I didn’t speak Tagalog. And most of all, it was the first time I’d be seeing them after the death of my cousin, Mariz. She was 17, and died drowning during a school trip 3 years ago. It was traumatic, and I essentially had this fear that I would just start crying once I saw them. Well, I didn’t. But when I saw my lola, for a moment, I wanted to react in the worst way. She looked so small and weak, and I could feel my breath struggling up my throat and panic flooding my brain because I realized that this is probably the last time I’ll see her. I didn’t know what to do, and I guess it’s weird that I thought there was something I should do, but regardless, I at least knew that I had to make the effort to be present…something I’m terrible at. And this wasn’t exactly an easy situation to be present in, but I wanted to really try. I don’t know how it all happened, but right there and then, something took over.
During the visit, I exchanged bear hugs and kisses, admired my uncle’s chickens, walked around the house, caught up with and delighted in the company of my crazy aunts, and feasted on my uncle’s cooking that I missed so much. Afterwards, as everyone continued to feed me with turon and babinka, I sat by my lola, quietly and happily held her hand, and when parting, exchanged the only two things we said to each other…a simple “goodbye” and “I love you.” It was very peaceful. It was so simple. But it was everything. The best way I can describe it is that it was a completed relationship.
I usually struggle when it comes to expressing love. Sometimes I’ll sadly attempt to pile a crap load of guilt and obligation onto my heart, but I’m even more reluctant to show love because I’ll know it’s not coming from a place I want it to. But looking back, when I say that something took over, it was “grace”—a “divine assistance,” as it’s defined—that allowed me to express Love in a way I never thought I could. And in return, grace allowed me to experience death—and now life—in a way I never have before.
When you harbor darkness in a relationship, you are as good as blind to seeing the soul of a person. What I failed to see prior to her death is how much of her is in me. The “lola” I knew had a very lively and willful spirit, which often came off as abrasive, aggressive, and made for a lot of head-butting between us. She was not a passive woman. Easily sparked. Headstrong. I didn’t experience or know my lola in the same way that my other cousins did. Maybe they never saw this side of her because only I could bring it out of her. Maybe this is what I saw in her because these are the qualities I see most in myself (we’re both Tauruses, ha). Or maybe I was just a straight up punk. I always felt ashamed of these qualities, and damned them as weaknesses. But after letting go of the guilt, after being forgiven, after being touched by grace, I can finally see her. I can appreciate that all these qualities are simply products of her strength and passion, and that the quality/length of her life, the family she created, and her peaceful parting from this earth are true marks of a fulfilled and blessed life.
I can’t remember a time my heart never felt even just a little heavy, and when I finally met and lost someone who helped me bear this burden, that was when I began to question “why.” Why did I have to feel so different and see the world the way I did? Why did I experience the world so differently, so much so that it was hard to connect or relate to anyone? How could I give so much of myself to worrying about the world, and yet was unable to connect to the people right in front of me? There could be endless reasons…maybe because I never felt like I had anything to give them. Or because there are people who need me more. And yet, here I was, tucked away, selfishly hiding from responsibility for anyone’s pain because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable to Love again. I couldn’t let myself be seen and became so debilitatingly afraid of it. But today, someone uncovered the light in me. Today, everything in me burns because someone saw me. She showed me unconditional Love and allowed me to express the same. This is the miracle of light that she has revealed in the shadow of fear I thought I would always be too prideful, too unworthy, too weak, and too deep in to defeat. And the empathy it has left me with allows me to see that the same strength I saw in her is also in me, and that empowers me to use it in a positive way towards what I am passionate about. It is a way to honor her life by using the light she blessed me with to live mine.
Reflecting on my experience with my lola’s death, I can’t help but feel like everything happens for a reason. All of the memorable experiences I’ve ever had with love have always left me with wounds. I’ve never had any peace in parting. This was my first experience with forgiveness and grace, and I feel like it’s not only healing me of the pain that I haven’t been able to let go of because of guilt, but also specifically my broken perception of relationships, as well as the capacity of my heart. For me, deaths have always sent me running into the dark. But this time, I found it possible to become so inspired and enlightened at how present a person you have lost somehow becomes, that you are ignited and become the light in your own darkness.
I feel like my senses are not just awakened, but heightened. I am hungry, thirsty, searching, listening, feeling, hearing all at the same time, all the time. I am feeling human and alive. It’s almost too much, but I can’t help but let this light blind me, and let this fire burn me, because there is no room for doubt or hesitation. There is no more retreating into the darkness. There is no looking back now.
This is a post I began to write the day my lola passed away. I meant to publish it the same day, but started to see that maybe this wasn’t supposed to be about her. I certainly don’t capture her fully in my words, and simply never could. So I gave myself until the 40th day of her passing to finish…to “let the fire burn away the dead wood of my mind,” and make room to let this post become whatever it was supposed to be about. I wrote from the inspiration she sparked, and this is what came of it. It’s a step (and hopefully a continuing effort) in trying to reach a more honest place, bringing back to life things that I long neglected, re-entering old relationships with an open heart, and sharing what I find.
This day couldn’t be a more pleasant day to arrive back to NJ. It was a cool, sunny day. My mom made me food a.k.a. laid out her typical feast of food enough to feed 5 people. But nothing could make me feel better about being back. I think I fell in love in the Philippines. And I can’t even begin to explain how heavy my heart feels being away now. I can’t even begin to explain how that trip finally woke me up, gave me a moment of feeling free, made me feel something other than fear, and made me see and want something more than my own well-being. The Philippines is a place I want to surrender to and be shaped by. I’ve never felt such pride in being Filipina. I feel like this emptiness that I’ve carried can only be filled in the Philippines. I cannot stop thinking about the people…the people I’ve met, the people I’ve seen. The experiences with everyone I spent time with, and the faces of people I just saw are consuming my mind. I feel my heart wanting to break into pieces and be given away, to become part of the land. Something just makes me want to connect, to plant myself deeply into the culture and the life, and I never got enough time to really feel like I was able to do that because I was still taking everything in. I can’t help but look at everyone and know that we share a common history, we share roots, we are connected in a way I will never be connected to anyone else in any other place. I also can’t help but feel that maybe who I would’ve been if I grew up in the Philippines is who I’m supposed to be. Is it possible to make up that time? It doesn’t really matter…what matters is where I choose to go and what I choose to do now. It’s driving me mad being here. Maybe I’ll feel better when everyone else comes back. I just wish I had more time there right now. I wish I got to explore more. I wish I got to record more things. I wish I got to have more real conversations. I wish I knew so much more about life in the Philippines.
Took my first fall today. I was waiting for it because I was fearing it so much, lol. I’m sure it won’t be the first. Luckily, I fell on my ass, so I had some cushion. But my whole back tensed up, and I couldn’t take in a breath for a good minute. I’ve never felt back pain like that before. Like I was just in a car accident. I’m constantly reminded of how old I am. I’m not as flexible, fit, and agile as I used to be. But it’s my fault. And honestly, this is what I wanted…I wanted longboarding to kick my ass so that I could get some fight back in me. So I would start giving a shit again. So that I could just feel again, even if it’s searing back pain. I need something to get me out of my comfort zone, something to get me to stop locking myself up inside. I used to be so expressive…I used to write, reflect, sing, play, learn, and be passionate. But not anymore…not like I used to be. And now I don’t know who I am. I need to express myself again. And then eventually have fun. It’s the first time I’ve felt hungry for anything. The pain is better now…been stretching on the old yoga mat, self-medicating with motrin, staying hydrated, and getting potassium in my system.
So you see…longboading therapy is already working ;) It’s my light. My piece of something positive. And even though it literally hurts to breathe, I can’t wait to get back on the board. (And am grateful that I can). I know I’m a longboarder. I know that longboarding is going to be my anchor and my wings. Please keep me safe long enough to bomb hills and slide.