Mourning Diary

Not to manifest mourning (or at least be indifferent to it) but to impose the public right to the loving relation it implies.
Barthes, Mourning Diary (2009 [1977])

Sometimes the kids in this building try to follow me back to my apartment, so they can get a look at the cats. “Try” being the operative word, because it’s impossible not to notice a group of 5 to 10-year-olds lurking a few steps behind, rustling whispers, as you turn the corner. Because they seemed sweet, I let them come in one morning to see Maki and Heidi, who were my fosters at the time, but neither kitten wanted to be ogled by strangers, so the kids left right away, but not without letting the whole floor know that I was its resident cat lady by shrieking, “DAMI MONG PUSA, ATE!” (tr. “LADY, YOU’VE GOT LOTS OF CATS!”) repeatedly, and almost in unison.

There’s something special about getting along with kids from your neighborhood, something about it shows a healthy balance of being both approachable and self-possessed. That wasn’t me, growing up, that was my sister. Some of my earliest memories involve seeing my sister among the streams of kids just running from house to house, up and down our block, while I stayed in and…read. Or hung out with our dachshunds (Wiener dogs > loud neighbors). When I would go out, it would usually be a short walk across the street to buy Fanta, and from there I’d see my sister being her friendly, neighborly self.

After one of these improvised playdates, my sister came home with two girls: Raquel and Dada. I remember their names, because of the two, only Raquel ever came back for a second visit. When we asked her where Dada was, she replied, matter-of-factly, that Dada had been sold by her dad.

These were kids from the neighborhood we grew up in, which is, incidentally, the same neighborhood I’m living in now, and the neighborhood where I was born. I was born in Banawe Children’s Medical Center at 3:00 am on September 1, 1985. My mom finds this funny, because both of my siblings were delivered at the very posh St. Luke’s Medical Center, which is closer to my grandfather’s very posh neighborhood. We lived in this area until I was 6-years-old, then my parents separated and it took a little over a year before we finally settled in New Manila, where we would live for about 18 more years.

It’s strange to move back to a place you haven’t lived in for over twenty years, but it’s not like I’m on the opposite end of the earth, I’m not even in another city (although sometimes, it feels as if I could be). It has its little rituals. On weekends, I often sleep in, then go to the market across the street and buy bread from the baker who barely speaks any English or Filipino and keeps his money under a miniature altar, then I get coffee from the bean suppliers a few stalls down, to go with it. Then I watch people—but even this isn’t entirely true, because I haven’t even done this often enough for it to turn into a ritual and, as of today, it’s already beginning to feel a little tired. Maybe the only ritual I have is pretending not to see the kids following me back to my place, so they can get a look at my cats. That stopped being true as of today (or maybe a few weeks ago), because the kids have gotten friendly enough to wave when they see me, and to ask politely if they can see the kittens.


I now live less than ten blocks from where my grandmother, my Lola, lived. The D.Tuazon house was her dream house. Sta. Mesa–which for a time had become the bastion of postwar society’s most affluent members–was her and my grandfather’s dream neighbourhood, and a lot of work went into earning their place in it.

She died at 3:00 am on Christmas Eve, in 2012. She had been hospitalized for more than two months after a stroke, shortly before her 89th birthday, and was left her with no control of her body from the waist down. Just a year before, we had lost our grandfather, my dad’s dad, Abe Sarmiento, to pneumonia, while he had been visiting my aunt in Prague. My grandmother had spoken fondly of him, addressing the other justices and judges at the necro given in his memory by the Supreme Court. A little over a year later, she too would be gone, lost to the consequences of her age.

What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind

“Carolina G. Aquino came to Manila to study law at the University of the Philippines. Because she was a special student, she never earned her degree. There was also the added confusion of this coming right after the Japanese occupation. She did, however, manage to top the bar exam, and after abandoning private practice, became a judge in the Court of Appeals, followed by an appointment with the Supreme Court.” This was the life story I sat through every night, as people filed in and out of the D. Tuazon house to pay their respects to my grandmother. Losing four family members (first my grandfather then my uncle followed by another uncle) in two years is more than enough to become familiar with the logistics of death, the wake being an expensive rehearsal for the massive production that is the funeral, and the finality of literally putting someone in the ground.

Right after she died, I called my sister and tried to look for flights to get her back home in time for the funeral—which proved impossible, given that this was Christmas Eve and she would have to take three connecting flights and be up in the air for almost thirty hours to bury a loved one who constantly reminded her to save her money. When it came to me, the concern was always safety and schoolwork. Both in elementary and high school, I went through periods where I hated school so much that I would stay home for weeks at a time, and it was my grandmother who would call to tell me, please, not to waste my parents’ money. This always backfired because she had also hated school as a child, and had sat out an entire year, only to be accelerate upon her return. Other calls were to scold me for riding my bike around the neighborhood and for walking home alone.

My grandmother was a conservative woman with conservative tastes. She had grown up in the province (although at the time, Iloilo may have been a bustling metropolis at par with Manila), and carried those values with her through the rest of her life; even after decades of living and working in Manila, she still warned us constantly about what people would think – that a woman who drove couldn’t afford to be driven around (which was only of any consequence if you were a judge in a third world country); that girls were not to be seen alone in public with boys who were not their boyfriends; that girls were not to be seen alone, period. When my sister was getting ready to expatriate, one of the last things my grandmother warned her about was to “not go out at night. It’s too dangerous. Even walking from your car in the parking lot to the apartment.”

We told her relatively little about me, but she always acted surprised when I would climb into the driver’s seat to take my mom and my little brother back home after our weekly dinners at her place. “You’re driving!” she would say. I’d like to think she was pleased by the fact.

Right after my grandmother died, my job was to drive my mom to wherever she was needed – to the bank to close accounts, to the hospital to settle them; by noon of that first day, I was too tired to trust myself behind the wheel, but too anxious to get any rest. I volunteered to walk to the grocery to get some instant coffee and cups. By the time I got back, I had already cut a deal to trade my old bike in for another, newer one (which got stolen after a few months). By the end of the week, I had put down a security deposit for the place where I now live.

Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand (for love, for gratitude): no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.

I will not deny that her death has been made easier by its inevitability, especially given her age. Neither age nor inevitability however can diminish how much she suffered in those last months. Carol Aquino prided herself on her youthful looks—being part of a generation whose female members essentially looked exactly the same from their mid-40s well into old age. She was not a materialistic woman and almost never went shopping, but she did seem to enjoy getting her hair done (even if it always turned out exactly the same), and I remember spending a lot of time sitting behind her while she had it teased and sculpted into this 6-inch-high wall of dark brown fuzz. Then we all went to court, where my mom would read and I would tinker with Wordstar.

It was not easy for her to see her colleagues suffering as they aged. My mom recalls how Lola would talk about Justice Whatsis or Attorney Someone now being confined to a wheelchair or bedrest, and how the horror in her voice would increase alongside the image of having to go through the same thing. By then it was probably already in her bones.

There isn’t much to be said about death if one has been reduced to waiting for it to strike. Except, maybe, the hope for it to be easy, to be merciful. And if it isn’t—and it usually isn’t—then what.

To a loved one, the most we can give, in terms of mercy, is a take it or leave it proposition. At all costs, we try to reclaim what is left of another person’s life, and in those two months my Lola had left, there was the nagging thought that we were doing this not for her sake, but for ours; for the sake of saying that we did what we could, even if it meant confinement, even if it meant delaying her chance to get some rest. Another day meant another 24 hours of hoping for a miracle, for the promise and possibility that went against the certainty that came with losing her forever.

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Cognitive Reconstruction

Or “My Grandmother, The Lawyer”

A little knowledge…
a) Goes a long way, or
b) is a dangerous thing

Let’s start with going a long way, because it’s a long and winding road that leads…

To academic tenure.

Fucking tenure.

And yet, what a great vocation. After all, the pursuit of knowledge is such a wonderful and curious blessing to devote oneself to. I’m essentially being paid to read a lot and learn things and run them through the prism of my own comprehension. But I’ve also been tasked with commodifying my own brain. In the case of consultancy work, I’m paid to do this by the hour. That shouldn’t be a bad thing. We are all paid for whatever capacities we have to offer, but in the midst of all these questions I have to deal with, all with their respective deadlines, there are the little strikes (strokes?) dealt by the burden of our own mortality; things that make you wonder whether it’s even worth it to bother with (and I’m quoting verbatim here) questions like:

In Ashcroft et. al. (1995), using the framework informative of strategies in colonialism/imperialism, explain the significance of (i) Figures of Resistance, and (ii) literary resistance

or

Borrowing Walter Benjamin’s articulation of capitalism and Boris Groys’ working theory of self-design online, we seemingly subscribe to a new religion where the Internet has become our church. Have we become devout to this new religion? Or, are we trapped in this new church?

And these are great questions to entertain, because I did not see myself talking about this for a living at 27. I thought at this age, I’d be at the same stage of Thought Catalog-flavored misery I was dealing with just the other year, but no. Here we/I are/am now, being asked about post-history and the human condition, with a word count and a format. And that’s great.

But my grandmother just had a stroke.

I know I give away a lot in this space about my own personal crises, and these things sometimes touch on family issues. I’ve written about fathers, exes, my sister, maybe a bit of my mom here and there, but I would never mean to sell a family member out for even a bit of sympathy. My problem is not knowing how else to deal with a problem without writing about it, and this is something I’ve had on the brain all day – its force contending with whatever energy I’m supposed to be devoting to those questions on post-blablabla and mechanical reproduction. I’m thinking of a different kind of post-war reconstruction. I’m thinking of something that hits closer and harder than what my tiny fucking brain can contribute to fixing the world. I mean, what is that, really?

About my grandmother: When I was little (and I truly mean little, I’m talking third grade, sixth grade, and again in 3rd year high school), she would call me up when I would go through extended periods of “I fucking hate school and I’m not going to go, fuck-you-all”. That happened every few years, and I would end up staying home for days, annoyed at all the quote-unquote bullshit I felt I was being fed, and needing to “recuperate” because I was bored and petty and selfish enough to think I actually needed a break. It never got so bad that I had to drop out altogether, but I did find my journals from these periods (I KEPT A JOURNAL IN THIRD GRADE! WTF IS THAT?!) and felt so bad about the self-entitlement that just emanated off the pages.

But it was my grandmother who would take the time to lecture me on how this was important and this would pay off eventually. Of course I resented it then, but she was onto something. (Funny thing is she also hated one of her grade school teachers and stayed home for a whole year because of that, but when she returned, she was accelerated immediately because she managed to keep up anyway.) And now, I work in a school, which is another story altogether because there’s no way she could have predicted that–but I do give credit where credit is due and she was definitely vital to this pursuit of knowledge–dangerous or otherwise.

My grandmother was a Supreme Court Justice despite her contentious credentials as a lawyer. She entered UP Law as a special student (meaning I don’t know if she was actually admitted and properly credited with a law degree…I know there’s something fucked-up [in an awesome way] about her record) and topped the bar exam that year. She was (and is) fucking brilliant, and I can draw a line directly from the example she set into my own venture into academe. She also taught me to use a sewing machine when I was in grade school.

But she was also very conservative, bordering on uptight, and I spent a lot of time (especially from my teens well into my twenties) trying to shake that off. When it comes to knowledge being a dangerous thing, it was from her that I learned (and eventually unlearned) to equate knowledge with fear or confuse it with her own beliefs. She was the type who’d watch the news (or Oprah or whatever), and her take-away would usually be how terrible the world was and how everyone was out to get you and your money and your daughters. It’s terrible to be someone’s daughter in that kind of household, but instead of even attempting to communicate my own experiences which had shaped an entirely different perspective from her beliefs, I would clam up. I did a lot of nodding.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to take back those tacit complicities about how awful the world is, but I wish I could. I don’t even know if it would help her, after all I’m a good 60 years younger than her. She lived through the fucking war. She’s sent people to jail. what the fuck would I know? But that’s the thing, I know what I know, and I had that to bring to the table to get her to believe in a kinder, softer existence, or at least know me as something better than the granddaughter who has no grey area between smiling and scowling, and mysteriously disappears from time to time and collects cats and refuses to eat meat.

I was asked a few weeks ago if I come from a family of lawyers, and for some odd reason I answered, “No, it’s just three out of four grandparents, my dad, my aunt, and my older brother.” To which the question had to be repeated, “So you come from a family of lawyers?” Yes, I do. But for someone who comes from a family of lawyers, I still have trouble gauging just how much of how the world works, and how a person should be, is grounded in the law. I’m not proud of the fact that I know very little of the constitution or my rights (as a Filipino, as a woman, etc. etc.) or all these other things that pertain to what I do. I just talk a lot. She didn’t talk a lot at home because she spoke for a living, but I know this business of talking a lot had to start somewhere and she’s definitely in that mix.

The things you hear talked about in hushed tones over hospital beds will derail you from the work you have to do. I visited her this afternoon, after class, after being told that “She can’t talk,” but “She might be able to recognize you, if she wakes up.” Although she remained asleep throughout the visit, as of now, she’s already woken up. But we’ve already been warned of the possibility that she won’t speak the same way again and the certainty that she now has minor cognitive impairment after the multiple strokes and seizures she’s endured in the past 48 hours.

And of course that–along with so many other things in the world–is just not right.