It’s funny the things you remember

Tita Tess and Me

“Do you work here?” my Uber driver asked, as he pulled a three-point turn.

“No,” I said, as I tried to stop the tears. “I just had to see my aunt one more time.”

My first memory of my Tita—aunt in Tagalog—involved a plane. I don’t remember too much of my life pre-immigration, but I distinctly remember the feeling of pain in my ears being up so high.

And I don’t know how my Tita did it, but she walked me down the aisles of what, at the time, felt like a giant mall, and said hi to a flight attendant as they pushed a door open and let me stand in the cockpit, peering over the pilots’ shoulders.

Since March 2020, I’ve been thankful COVID-19 hasn’t directly touched my family. Despite my sister and cousin working in a hospital, despite my father going into work, despite the cases soaring, the virus never impacted us too greatly.

Until it did.

Tita Tess and Me

When I was four, my sister was born.

And on that day, Tita bought me a gift: a Starcastle mermaid princess castle with two little dolls. It was made with shells and glitter and came with a carriage and pearl ring.

I think she didn’t want me to feel too left out going from the sole focus, to now the oldest.

I played with it every day.

In the 1990s, I lived in Ottawa, while she lived in Toronto in a bustling neighbourhood by Yonge and St. Clair. I don’t remember much of the city then, but I remember the park filled with squirrels, the McDonald’s down the street where I got a Mulan in my kids meal, the papasan chair in her lobby that I loved to lie in.

During Christmas she’d always make her crinkle cookies. She loved her Filipino dramas, showing me the new purses she got, and writing.

From letters voicing her opinions to politicians to a poem for her mom to a children’s book she was working on called Lola Osyang’s Magical Wok—based on her grandmother—like me, Tita had a love for words.

I should have asked her to share more.

When I first started my website What is Love, Tita mentioned she wanted to tell her story one day. She wanted to share how in her 30s she prayed about wanting to love and be loved. And how God answered with a baby—her babe—who became her world.

When you watch wildlife shows about mothers who protect their cubs, there’s no denying the lengths they’d go.

Tita was even more protective than that.

I still remember the day she moved to Ottawa. How my family, her and her daughter, and my Lola lived under one roof.

It was a house of fun and fullness, of chaos and comfort, but most importantly it was a house that felt like home.

Tita as a teen

It happened so fast.

So soon.

A reminder that this life is fleeting.

Temporary.

Sometimes you think you can handle it, that you can be ready a second time around.

But we weren’t. I wasn’t.

I didn’t expect that in five days my family’s world would be completely shaken. That we would have to navigate grief in a pandemic, where the air already feels so saturated with a similar sadness. We didn’t expect living in a time where there were limits on funerals, restrictions that wouldn’t be able to fit the extent of love my family and friends had for my Tita.

A love that could almost rival her strength as a single mother.

We weren’t ready.

And maybe we never will be.

For the longest time I’ve been so grateful that COVID hasn’t directly touched my family.

Until it did.

Until COVID and the other “c” took something from me.

Until COVID took away my chance to hold my Tita’s hand one more time. Until it took away my chance to comfort my one cousin as she watched my Tita, to comfort my cousin as she pressed herself up so tightly against the palliative care window.

COVID didn’t take my aunt. Cancer did.

But what COVID did was make this precious final moment in time feel like a zoo—watching, waiting, so close, but so, so far, distanced by glass.

When all we wanted, in those final hours, was to hug each other in grief.

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