A note: I will be defending my thesis for my MFA this week. The thesis is a memoir titled “A Reason For Being” and it is about the four days that I spent in Kennewick, Washington to attend the funeral of one of my aunts who passed away from cancer. I was tasked to give the eulogy at her funeral. “A Reason For Being” layers stories of the Filipino-American women in my family, and their struggles, love, loss, and successes they faced in their lives.
The excerpt below is from Chapter 2: The Three Sisters. Chapter 2 encompasses stories of my mother, and her sisters Lucy, and Vicky. In this scene, I just arrived in Kennewick, and was dropped off at the hotel by a man that Vicky nicknamed Satan.
Kennewick, WA: 2011
“You know Satan told me several weeks ago that when your Auntie Lucy dies, he’s going to take his Mercedes and drive it on the highway at 70 mph. I told him why drive 70? Make sure to drive it at 120! It will be a sure thing that he kills himself!”
I sat on a bench outside the hotel as my Aunt Vicky smoked cigarette after cigarette. I was inhaling secondhand smoke and was still recovering and emotionally numb from the ride with Satan to even complain. I question my genetic make-up whenever moments of bitchiness and badass-ness surfaces exposing a part of myself that surprises people—myself, included. I wondered where that stems from. The answer always came in the form of some relative telling me the things they’ve done in their lives and I realize that I would have done the same exact thing. These actions have a tendency to be fueled and driven by some innate molecular cell that has been passed down through the bloodlines. And, to me that is the best excuse for one’s character. Vicky, my aunt, is the epitome of one who doesn’t use that as an excuse. She takes full advantage of the trait and is as brash and bold as she wants to be. No excuses necessary.
There were moments such boldness served her well. When she finally arrived in Kennewick, she realized she was too late to see her sister. As she stood in her sister’s bedroom, she watched the funeral caretakers place her dead sister in the body bag. Before they zipped up the bag, she was bold enough to grab the scarf wrapped around her sister’s hairless head and inhale what was left of her. It was a sisterly act of devotion. It was also Vicky’s last defiant act as the little sister.
The youngest of the three sisters, Vicky’s stories have been told over and over again as a means of comic relief in our family, but these stories are indicative of the kind of woman she had become. I was told that when she was only 5 years-old, one of her chores was to help the maid do the laundry. Part of this chore was making sure that she gathered all of her dirty clothes so that they could be washed. When Vicky didn’t want to do it, she had the attitude that she didn’t have to. This mentality left her without any underwear one night when she had to perform at a school program. Desperate, she sought the aid of her two older sisters, Lucy and Penny, who absolutely refused to loan her any of their underwear. I can imagine Vicky’s desperation and, realizing that it was her own doing that caused her to be in this situation in the first place, shrugging her shoulders and maybe even saying “the hell with it” in Chabacano and going her merry way as she rolled her eyes at her sisters. That evening, on the stage in front of her family, fellow classmates, and the rest of the school, Vicky performed her dance and when she swirled her skirt, she flashed to the audience not only her charming smile, but also her ass.
“You know I told Satan that married people communicate differently with one another. Just because they communicate that way doesn’t mean I communicate that way with my husband. I told him you communicated with your wife by ignoring her! If I want to, I’ll communicate with my husband with sign language and I’ll do that from Singapore or somewhere. I’ll take off! That’s how I communicate with my husband when I’m pissed off!”
Vicky was the only one that I have ever come across who knew the finer things in life while acknowledging the practical importance of the ability to survive. She can recognize the exotic flavors of authentic Indian food made by someone from New Delhi, just as she can easily appreciate grabbing a box of its generic counterpart at the grocery store without remorse and relish it just as she would if she were sitting cross-legged at some restaurant in India. The woman had no discriminations. Growing up, she once told me, “Jeng, you know, you can’t always cook every day. You’re gonna be busy running around. Sometimes it’s easier to just do something quick! Cause you know with kids, if you take forever cooking, you might just end up killing one of them from starvation. One moment you hear them calling your name, next thing you know they are passed out on the floor drooling from hunger!”
Whenever Vicky speaks she has an uncanny ability to demand attention. I’m not saying this because it is her intention to grab attention, it just so happens that it’s her voice that commands and demands it. Unlike my mother or my Aunt Lucy, who are both soft-spoken, Vicky had a loud and deep voice. Whenever she spoke, one would think that she was pissed off, until of course, you see her pissed and only then you can distinguish the difference between pissed and not pissed.
It takes a true artist to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in what I consider a very Vicky-esque manner. When I was nine, Vicky and her son Paul came to visit our family in Oakland. Paul, at three, had a tendency to act like a brat. One day, he kept whining that he was hungry and refused to listen to his mother when she told him to wait a second. Paul’s demands came at an unfortunate time when a conversation was boiling between my Lola Fe and Vicky. Finally, irritated with Paul’s demands, Vicky went into the kitchen with Paul following her. The angry artist emerged.
She took one slice of white Wonderbread from the package and slapped it on the plate. She took a butter knife, and dipped it in the jar of Peter Pan peanut butter and slathered a heaping mound full on the one slice of bread. I could have sworn with that motion, I heard the slice of bread yell “damn!” Next, she took out the Smuckers strawberry jam and with the same butter knife dug out a glop of jam and slapped it on top of the peanut butter. Once the jam was on, she flung the knife with effortless fluidity and it landed with a precise thunk in the sink. Paul’s face registered relief that the knife landed in the sink and not on him. Finally, she took another slice of Wonderbread and slapped it straight onto the jam. Paul looked at her creation, looked up, and whimpered, “thank you,” as he tentatively took his lunch. He walked past me, holding on to a plate that held a very flat sandwich, goo oozing from the sides. I heard him say “I’m sorry sandwich,” on behalf of his mother.
As I continued to sit on the bench with my back against the wall, Vicky continued to pace along the cobblestoned concrete in front of me. She was on her one of her rants where there is no escape for the person who finds herself trapped as the lone audience. I was the perfect audience for her, she had been waiting to speak to me and all I could do at that moment was to listen. The woman pacing in front of me has had so many different hairstyles throughout the decades, but the one that she was sporting that day suited her lifestyle. Her hair was cut in chin length bob. Her eyelids have begun folding over becoming hooded from the years of smoking, but yet rounded that when she smiled or squinted (from the smoke or attempting to read up close), they appeared much smaller. Regardless of her chain smoking, there was not one wrinkle on her face. The only wrinkles that would show themselves would be when she was laughing so hard that those wrinkles act as if they are performing a dance for Broadway. When I knocked on her hotel door to let her know that I’d arrived, her first words to me were Oh my god, Jeng! So skinny! That is a greeting expected from Aunts, and I had to be grateful because she could have said Oh my god, Jeng! Ang taba mo naman! Which would have meant that I would have to watch what I ate all weekend because she’d remind me of how much weight I gained from eating an egg roll.
“Jeng, would you believe that your Auntie Lucy told me that Satan will be worth 1.5 million dollars after she dies?”
“So, basically, he’ll be a rich old widower?”
“I don’t care if he becomes a rich man. I hope he smokes his ass to death,” Vicky said as she inhaled the nicotine from her own cigarette.
I looked at her as her eyes squinted from all that smoke. The only aunt left in my life was slowly inhaling an element that could cause the same disease that killed her older sister. I was tempted to take the cigarette from her and step on it. But to do that would risk my own death.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have grabbed that cigarette from her fingers, flicked it off as far away from her as possible. I’d wrap my arms around her and hold her tight, inhaling her fragrance and patting her back. I would tell her the following:
“Auntie Vicky, in exactly 9 months, on May 7, 2012, you will wake up at 1:00 a.m. at some hotel in Manila hoping to get some packing done. With you there, your younger brother and your grandniece. You will faint, and instantly you will be gone. They will attempt to resuscitate you, until the ambulance gets there. They will arrive 30 minutes too late, and just like that, you will leave this world. True to your word, you will have lived life the way you wanted to, and you will even dictate your own death. Quick, and to the point. I will receive a phone call from Uncle Freddy on a bright Sunday morning (while I was getting a pedicure—because you are the Queen of Perfect Timing, even if it meant ruining someone’s relaxation time) telling me that you passed away during your visit to the Philippines. At that moment, I will put into practice what you, Lola Fe, and every woman in our family have taught me: to control, and maintain calm when the storm hits me in the face. And, above all else, for one second or even one minute, if possible, remain in denial—until I can no longer do so. I will call every relative that’s stateside for confirmation, and only when I call those in the Philippines will I realize that I can no longer be in denial. The only memory that I can recall was when I told you not to travel because you weren’t feeling well, but you said you could handle it. You can handle anything. I will be glad that ‘Love you, Auntie!’—were my last words to you.” But, I didn’t tell her that. I couldn’t have known that I would lose her too, and only through the act of memory can I alter what should have been.
Instead, I sat there and listened to Vicky talk, torn between relishing and enjoying the time that I was spending with her, and feeling devastated for the circumstances we found ourselves in.