After more than 26 hours of travel time and running on no sleep, I walked into the funeral home in Molino after midnight on a Friday morning. Mom immediately enveloped me in a deep hug. Dad had just fallen asleep on one of the pews having had little or no sleep for the past few days. When he saw me, he opened his eyes wide in acknowledgment, only to close them again in exhaustion.
Those first two days were filled with money exchanges, food orders, tasks delegated to family members from both sides, shopping trips, and coordinating who would stay at the funeral home. In the Philippines, when someone passes away, during the wake, or lamay, one must never leave the loved one alone. There must always be someone in the room, so family members and friends spend the night at the funeral home. Each room is equipped with a kitchenette and a full-size bathroom. Not wanting to get in the way of the process, I sat alone, scribbling in my notebook, trying to write a eulogy worthy of my aunt. When more people began to arrive for the last day of the lamay, I tried to speak with family members I met for the first time or no longer recognized or remember. A few referred to me as “Ye-Ye,” the childhood nickname I gave myself. A few commented on my inability to speak Tagalog. To my own surprise, I let the comment go, but it would torment me later. (It is unfair and inappropriate to call me an Englisero when I left the Philippines as a child and have lived most of my life in the US.)
Those first two days felt melancholy but not suffocating. (It would hit me later, usually when I am alone driving or in the early morning hours when I should be sleeping.) We were sad that Tita was gone, but we were also relieved that she was finally free again, no longer trapped in a body that had begun to deteriorate years ago. We even played a few rounds of Bingo to pass the time. The winners of the prize I offered—anything they want I’ll send in a balikbayan box—seemed blessed by my aunt, as if she was crowning them with her gratitude.
It wasn’t until the day after the funeral, on Sunday morning, that it felt like we could finally breathe collectively. I was only present for the tail end of a week-long lamay and an even longer waiting and visiting period when my aunt was in the hospital, but even I could sense the gloomy cloud lift just a little.
As a “thank you” trip, we went to Sky Ranch, a small amusement park in Tagaytay. We squeezed 16 people into a van, not including the driver. There were 21 of us in our group: my parents, me, members of both sides of my family, and a few family friends. Many of them were the ones who carried the burden of waiting, caring, traveling, coordinating, welcoming, cleaning.
It would strike me later how my parents were at the core of this gathering, now one of the few elders left of the Lares family tree. And me as the bridge between two family trees: Lares and Carvajal. For a few hours, I felt like part of one giant family, a contrast to how we grew up in America. When they say that an immigrant leaves behind a life, this is what I left behind: growing up and living with cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. The first few decades of living in the US were lonely. We may have been surrounded by a community of Filipino Americans in Maryland, but most of the relationships I formed then don’t go deeper than the occasional greeting at a party now or the news of life events such as engagements and births. We’re not bound to each other by DNA or shared experiences or money or legacy or expectations.
At Sky Ranch, I rode a zip line for the first time. It seemed fitting that I would ride it with my niece and nephews (my oldest cousin’s children), each of us summoning the courage to continue to climb up the stairs as the wind grew stronger. It was our shared moment, flying through the sky with the Taal volcano and lake behind us.