January 4th would’ve been my grandfather’s 107th birthday this year. He was the New Year baby whose birthday would kick off every New Year with a huge Valmidiano family gathering. I do miss those annual New Year shin-digs. He passed away when I was 23. In hindsight, 23 is so unforgivably young, but like so many 23-year-olds eager to feel so grown up, I felt very old then, as if I had to have my whole life figured out already. My grandfather had been 90 years, 1 month, and 17 days old. I’m pretty sure he had stuff figured out, but there was also a part of him that was still so eager to learn. I guess you can allow yourself to keep figuring things out even at 90.
Time has a funny way of standing still as it seems like he’s still here, which means I must always feel like I’m 23 – clueless and far from having everything figured out, even though there remains an intense pressure to already know everything when I know I most certainly don’t.
Since starting this blog, I had promised my cousin to reprint a poem that I had written years ago about the significant relationship he had with my grandfather, none of which the other grandchildren had the honor of having due to circumstance. Granted, my grandfather was very close to all of us, but it was this particular grandson whom he had taken on a parental role since his infancy. The poem was first published in TAYO’s inaugural issue back in 2009. In commemoration of my grandfather’s birthday, I reprint the poem here, with a little prologue from a longer memoir piece that I’ve been working on about my grandfather’s passing.
Happy 107th Birthday, Lilong. Here’s to you.
As you look around the mortuary room and notice the strong family resemblance to your grandfather – eyes, nose, smile, laugh – you focus on the only grandchild who wasn’t just a grandchild but really could call your grandfather, “Dad.” He had been the one grandchild he particularly cared for, not just as a nanny like he had been for all of you at some point during childhood, but he had become a full-time parent from the point of this grandchild’s infancy to his fourth year. His parents had no other choice but to leave their youngest child behind to the care of your grandparents in the old country, while they struggled to establish themselves in the adopted one. It had been no place to migrate with a small baby then, and so this baby boy, who was weaned much too soon, became your grandfather’s baby boy.
Maybe it was those first four years. Maybe it was a genetic disposition. Maybe it was him simply imitating what he saw in those early years, but the little boy would eventually inherit your grandfather’s gait and his manner of laughing and clearing his throat before saying something important. He might have been the reincarnation of your grandfather’s little brother whom he had lost during the smallpox epidemic, reincarnated fifty years later in the body of this small child, whom your grandfather would watch over and protect, and he would grow up nothing less than successful and handsome.
With your grandfather gone, you now look at this cousin of yours and feel your grandfather looking right back at you. You tell him how much he reminds you of your Lilong, and just like that, he laughs and clears his throat before replying, “You think so?”
FIRST PLANE RIDE
You board the plane,
4-year-old lil’ boy with the sweetest smile,
but no smile this morning.
You are lost, confused,
wondering what you did wrong
to be sitting next to an old man on an airplane
who isn’t your Tatang, Tito, Lilong, or Ninong.
You have been living in the Philippines
for the past four years
without your parents, sister, and brother.
You have never met them.
You have never asked questions,
except to know they
left the Philippines to live in America
It never crossed your mind why you did not go.
The excuse was that you were too young,
just a lil’ lil’ baby,
maybe not considered a human being
to be issued a traveler’s visa
under the Marcos regime?
Decades later, none still tell you the reason.
You lived with your paternal grandparents since then,
happy as a lil’ boy,
as any lil’ boy with two old people,
Lilong and Lilang,
whom you had always known as your parents.
these two old people were sending you off,
while your arms desperately clutch Lilong’s neck
for one last embrace,
holding on tight while he has you lifted up in his arms,
you with your best blue suit on,
and Lilong with his dry, old lips pressed against your cheek.
And as your little arms are wrapped desperately around Lilong’s neck,
you proclaim without words,
but you’re my papa.
There are no Ilokano words in your 4-year-old vocabulary
during this last embrace which is breathed
with desperation and imminent abandonment.
You don’t know where you’re going,
except over the past few years
when you first began to remember life,
Lilong showed you pictures of your family
and told you they were living in a faraway place.
Did you care?
You would be eating your inapoy like a good lil’ boy,
your legs dangling at a wooden dinner table too big for you,
and you ate like a well-behaved, well-mannered young man,
while Lilong continued to point at a picture of your real parents.
None of it mattered then,
until it came crashing down to this one day,
this one moment,
when you do not want to let go of Lilong’s neck,
but want to stay with him always,
who is your papa, always, always,
how could it be otherwise?
You board the plane anyway
with an old man on an airplane
who isn’t your Tatang, Tito, Lilong, or Ninong,
just an unfamiliar family friend,
no friend to you.
You say goodbye to the parents
whom you have known since your infancy.
Do you cry?
You do not know if you cry.
You are too lost and confused
as to what strange land you will be going to.
Where am I going? Why can’t you come?
You wonder in your mind without the words.
Will you be seeing them again,
your real parents who do not board the plane with you?
Will it be weird to see them again,
not as your parents,
but as your grandparents,
in the strange land you have yet to know
*“First Plane Ride” was previously published in TAYO, Issue No. 1, 2009