Twenty years ago, I took my first trip back to Philippines to bury my maternal grandmother, who we affectionately called Mama. Before then, the last time I was home in Manila was when I was five. My mom, Mama, and I left for Los Angeles right after my fifth birthday, without me knowing it would be the last time I’d be home to see her.
If I could’ve gone home sooner, I would have. Having overstayed my tourist visa, I was then undocumented and risked a 10-year ban from the US and an indefinite separation from my mother. Though I became a naturalized citizen and have lived in the US since, I experience a permanent feeling of in betweenness, struggling to place home between here and there.
Over the course of a week, elders in my family, who I also consider as grandparents because of the way my culture is structured, will now be pursuing end of life care. I’ve been part of difficult phone and video calls trying to provide medical feedback and explanation—context—as best as I can, along with my uncle who is also a doctor, albeit in Australia.
My grandpa, who now faces palliative care for liver cancer, has very little understanding of his disease process. Having trained briefly as a surgical resident physician to specialize in liver disease, I have seen countless times how it ends. Meanwhile my grandma, who has end stage kidney disease—my family have decided that she is too fragile for dialysis and we’ve chosen to seek palliative care for her as well. In and out of lucidity, she also is not fully aware of her disease process. Opting out of dialysis was a tough choice, but since Mama suddenly went into cardiac arrest during dialysis at a much younger age and healthier state, we’ve decided that making her as comfortable as possible to make her last moments as joyful as possible is our utmost priority. Maybe it’s better that they don’t know.
They have a few months left. A year if we are lucky. I don’t know when I’ll see them again, given the state of COVID in Philippines. I haven’t been back since I buried Papa, my maternal grandfather, who succumbed to lung cancer around 2005.
The pain of separation feels somewhat surreal. There is never enough time. Today, my grandma, or Lola, as we say in Tagalog, sweetly serenaded us from the hospital while on video chat as we called in from California, Melbourne, Sydney, and other parts of Philippines. It was a bittersweet testimony to her strength and her love of family.
The ache of now forced distance is another consequence of this ongoing pandemic. I sit under the glow of the full moon with a sobering clarity and a tender heart.