Sunflowers (an excerpt from A Reason For Being)

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Five Sunflowers in the garden. 2017.

An excerpt from A Reason For Being

Fairbanks, Alaska 1994

In 1994, my youngest sister became ill with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that could’ve been deadly. She had a mosquito bite on her ankle that she did not pay attention to nor bothered to tell me. My parents had separated at this time, and I was raising my siblings while we lived on an Army post in Alaska.

It was the first week in July when Mia fell ill with the seizures. I clearly remembered that it was a Sunday, since we were getting ready for church. I remembered James calling out Mia’s name and I rushed down the stairs to see her convulsing with a seizure. I called 911 as my Dad tended to her and I waited for the ambulance to arrive. They rushed her to Bassett Army Hospital at first for observation, and two days later, they transferred her to the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where there were expert neurologists who determined that her mosquito bite was infected and that the infection reached her spinal chord all the way to her brain, and encephalitis was the diagnosis. My other sister, Mae, who is Mia’s twin was dealing with how to survive this for her twin sister. When Mia was about to experience a seizure, she would hallucinate, then her brain would seize, and when she returned—the seizure kicked her back a few years in age in her brain. She would come out of the seizure thinking she was either 5-years old or 9-years old. The neurologist taught me how to ask her questions: who is the current U.S. President? How old are you? Do you know who I am? Each time she had an episode, my heart would break a little bit more.

What broke my heart most was when the cleaning lady stopped me one time on my way to her hospital room to tell me that Mia called her “Mom” each time she came into the room. My mother did not fly up to Fairbanks during this time. She gave the reason that it was simply because at the same time that Mia became sick with encephalitis, my grandmother Lola Fe had a heart attack and was admitted to a hospital in Los Angeles. Lola Fe was staying with one of my uncles at that time. My mother believed that her own mother needed her help along with Lucy, Vicky, Tito Teng, and Uncle Mike.

I remembered telling my mother that it was alright and that I could take care of my siblings, Tommy, and Dad. I also told her not to worry too much that all will be well and I hope she was taking good care of herself. I guess at 20 years old, I wanted to be a martyr and to prove that I could handle all of it—even though inside, I was figuring it all out as I went along.

I smiled at the cleaning lady and told her, “kasi po you resemble my mom, talaga.” You looked like my mother, and my sister must not have been able to tell the difference.

She smiled back, “ah, talaga? Ganya ba? Kawawa naman kayo walang yung inay ninyo.” Oh really? Was that what it was. I feel sorry for you all that your mother is no here. She continued to tell me that she told Mia, “That’s ok, Anak. You just rest up ok? I’m just going to clean up your room and your sisters will be here soon,” she said that Mia just smiled at her and went to sleep. My face may have registered a certain quiver; the kind of quivering that a face contorts to when it was attempting not to fail by breaking into a million pieces in front of a stranger. But, the lady knew and read my face instantly. She smiled, nodded her head in acknowledgement, told me to have a good day and hang in there, and she went on about her day.

It was in the middle of this dual chaos in our family that I knew that my grandmother was fighting to stay alive, but that she was also aware, somehow, that her own granddaughter was fighting for hers.

Lola Fe gave me two signs that all would be well. And, she only showed them to me.

The first sign was when Mia was staying at the hospital. The first day she was admitted, I had to drive back and forth to our house to retrieve any personal items that she needed while in the hospital. I was also driving back and forth, because I had to maintain the house by making sure my brother James, Tommy, Mae, and my Dad had dinner and that they did all the chores I had assigned them. Once all of those logistics were taken care of, Mae and I would drive to the hospital to give Mia a bath, because she refused to have the nurses bathe her. Each time I drove back and forth, I would walk by a garden area in front of the hospital and I glanced at what the sunflowers had been planted there. I would glance, but never truly noticed them. In fact, I may have ignored the gardener who was always tinkering about in that area.

On the second day, I walked into the hospital and I noticed that the sunflowers had bloomed. I walked towards it remembering the sunflowers that Lola Fe planted at Lucy’s house in Kailua, and they resembled the very same sunflowers.

“Pretty, aren’t they?” I looked to see that the gardener was pulling the weeds in the flower box.

“Yes, very. Were they planted here all this time?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I planted them myself. I’ve been waiting for them to bloom. They finally did this morning” he said.

“They are really pretty. My grandmother planted sunflowers for me and my siblings once.” I said.

“Ahhh, your grandmother had a green thumb! I wish she could tell me why they took so long to bloom! Look– only five of them bloomed and the rest haven’t. Isn’t that strange? I planted them all at the same time too!” He pointed out the five for me.

The five sunflowers were in full bloom. Their petals were the brightest golden yellow and their centers were truly a deep brown that in a few months would have seeds to harvest.

Before I went to the hospital to see Mia that day, my Dad had told me that my mother called to inform him that Lola Fe had passed away. “Please don’t tell Mia about this. We won’t tell her because we want her to focus on getting better, ok?” My dad told me. When I saw the sunflowers that day, I knew my sister would survive. My grandmother’s last gift before she died was to ask God to take her own life instead of her granddaughter’s.

I remember the day years ago when those sunflowers bloomed in Kailua, Lola Fe called me out to the garden “see, Jeng! I planted five sunflowers! One sunflower for each of the five Delcastillo children! Look at how they all bloomed! They are all tall, and strong. One day all five of you will be tall and strong also. You promise your Lola that, ok?”

“Yes, Lola. I promise.”

The second sign during that time was one that I will never forget. While Lucy, Vicky, and my mother were planning the funeral for Lola Fe, I was still spending my July taking care of the family while Mia remained in the hospital. I was trying to mourn my grandmother, but did not have the luxury to do so. I mourned her in the shower where I found that if I cried under the water, no one would be able to hear me. It was the only privacy I could afford.

The neurologist kept Mia in the hospital for continued observation, and would not release her until she was seizure free. During this time, she would have as many as ten seizures a day. Each day, the seizures would decrease as the medication worked themselves through her system. There were days when she was coherent, and acted her age. There were other days when the seizure was so devastating that she would come out of it thinking and acting like she was 5-years old. I would then have to engage with her as if she was at that age. It was like a game of chance to see what age she would be after a seizure. The worse parts were the hallucinations. I would know immediately that a seizure was about to occur because Mia would specify what she saw. There were moments when she would tell me to tell the children by the door to go away.

“Mia, I don’t see any children at the door looking at you,” I told her.

“Jennnn, they are right there!! They’re laughing at me with their hollowed eyes! They’re pointing their fingers at me and they’re giggling! Go away you kids, go away!!!” She yelled at the nothingness at the door. There would be moments when she would ask me to tell them to go away, and I would tell the empty space to go away to appease her. It was the only way I knew how to calm her. When I’d asked her if they went away, she would tell me they did. I asked her who were these children, and she would tell that they were the ones who died in the pediatric wing. I would never question what my sister saw. To her, they were real children who once stayed in that wing, and for all I know she was seeing such things.

One afternoon in her hospital room, I was sitting on the couch next to Mia who was sitting propped up on her bed. The hospital room was designed so that visitors who come and visit would be able to sit at the couch or the chair. The couch turned into a bed, and the other was a rocking chair. The rocking chair was placed on the corner below where the T.V. was mounted. Mia and I were watching some show on T.V. with the volume turned low. There were days that she wanted the T.V. on with the sound on low so that the images could keep her company. That day, Mia was her 17-year-old self.

The seizures decided not to come out and play.

In one moment, Mia quickly turned her attention to the rocking chair with interest and I was immediately alerted that a seizure was about to make an appearance.

“Hi. I’m ok. I get scared every now and then…. There are these kids always talking to me…” She said to the rocking chair

“Mia? Hey, I’m right here. Don’t be scared. Mia, look at me,” I told her.

“..No, I don’t like it when those kids visit. I don’t want to come out and play with them…. Even if they are lonely… are you going to come visit me every time?” Mia kept talking. And, I let her be. She was not seeing me even if I had tried to capture her attention.

“…Jen is tired, but she’s taking care of us… Why did you leave? ….. Ok, I understand…. I will tell them… I promise…. I’m tired now…. Ok, I love you too.” My sister grew quiet, and I watched her closely. She shook her head left to right as if she was trying to wake herself and shake off a thought from her mind, and I quietly waited patiently for the seizure to begin. She looked at me with her tired eyes, and I smiled at her.

“Jen, Lola Fe passed away. She wanted me to tell you that everything will be alright and that you need to rest. She’ll come visit us every now and then. She wanted me to tell you that. I’m tired. I’m going to sleep.” Mia closed her eyes.

I looked at the empty rocking chair for a few seconds. It may have been more than that. When I felt that I could move again, I jumped off the couch and immediately reached for the phone to call my Dad.

For years, Mia fought those seizures each day for the rest of her life. She became better at forewarning us when they would begin. She grew up, and in her 20s fell in-love, and lived a normal life. It was no surprise to us that years after being admitted to the hospital for encephalitis, she once again found herself on the same hospital floor. But instead of pediatrics, it would be the women’s birthing center across the hall. She gave birth to her first child.

A girl born on the same day and exact time as when Lola Fe died; the event was six years apart.

And, my mother who was present at Lola Fe’s death, was also present for when her great granddaughter Xena Fe was born. There’s a comfort in knowing that time would give us a second chance for missing out the first time around.

When I think about missing Lola Fe’s grand funeral, I felt no guilt for not being able to attend. I knew that she would have understood that I had a responsibility to take care of my siblings, and she would not have been happy had I abandoned them during a time of need. To do so would have been against everything that she had taught me. I soon learned from my mother the stories of Lola Fe’s funeral. It was majestic and it lasted for about a week or so. Lucy, Vicky, my mom, and my two uncles flew to the Philippines. They stayed for at least a month after the funeral. All of Zamboanga City had attended and paid their respects to the venerable and loved Fe. My grandmother touched so many lives and was an influential person.

There were two unexpected things that occurred that summer in 1994. During that time, I felt no emotions nor did I show them. There was something profound about the way the mind works when it reconciles what to pay attention to and what to disregard. The things the mind consciously decides that are of great importance triggered an emotional reaction, and the things that are of lesser importance, only numbness becomes the initial reaction. My grandmother’s death was not something I would consider of less importance. She was a loss that my mind could not comprehend, but her teachings stayed with me. The timing of her death and Mia’s illness was ultimately a life exam in which I needed to be in a survival and self-preservation mode. Lola Fe teachings included being mentally strong and capable of handling the unexpected things in life. I believe that as she faced her end, my grandmother was testing me.

The sunflowers and the visit proved to be a testament of her last gift to me.

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