I was 11 when my lola, or grandmother, passed away. My entire childhood, the complete gentleness of those years, is associated with her.
The routine was established early on: my parents dropped us off at her home in Pasay, usually in the early morning, before heading to work. We remained under her care until school was over for the day. We’d run up the stairs as soon as we got back, sit around her favourite chair, and regale her with stories about what transpired in class. She lovingly listened, amused, I imagine, by our little, happy lives. I loved her. But I also adored her, as so many other people did. Selfishly, I was grateful to have access to her heart – and she, mine – in ways that others didn’t. Our bond was sacred.
And so when she passed after a six-month battle with cancer, I was devastated. To this day, I can’t recall a sadder moment than the day my lola died. I was grieving the first death in my family. In the immediate aftermath of her passing, I recall sitting at her sala, enveloped by heartache and confronted by an emptiness I have yet again to feel.
Equipped with the curiosity of a child, I wondered about where my lola had gone. I didn’t know where to begin searching for the answers.
My parents told me stories of my lola being in heaven with God and the angels. The priest and my teachers told me the same. Having been raised in the Philippines with a deeply Catholic upbringing, that made sense. I lived with this belief throughout many years, at peace and comforted by what I had been told.
But it’s been over two decades since my lola passed. And today I find myself in a country where religion isn’t necessarily shared by many, and individuals hold personal, differing philosophies about what gives meaning to existence. Many people have come and gone since my lola’s death, but there’s a sense of closure -- a need for certainty, still -- that I seek today. An explanation distant from religious dogma.
Noble Prize physicist Arthur H. Compton believes that it takes an entire lifetime to attain a noble life. He says: “The adventures and disciplines of youth, the struggles and failures of success, the pain and pleasure of maturity, the loneliness and tranquility of age -- make up the fire through which he (the individual) must pass to bring out the pure gold of his soul.” He claims if nothingness is the ultimate destiny of all this, it would be such a waste. He chooses to believe that the soul moves on to a greater place, where it returns to the Creator with “the work he had here begun.”
Dr. Wernher Von Braun, a space physicist, asserts his belief that death is the process of evolution. Science tells us that nothing can disappear without a trace, nothing ever leaves this universe. Everything merely transforms. And he says that if “God applies this fundamental principle to the most minute and insignificant parts of the universe, doesn’t it make sense that he applies it to the human soul?”
I have returned to the words of these brilliant men, and they have led me to my own answers. My understanding of grief and loss has taken on a new dimension.
When someone passes, science teaches us it’s the end of any physical manifestation of the individual. But I have wondered about the moments when I sat under my lola’s beautiful, old mango tree, and felt enveloped by a love that can’t be spoken of. I have thought of the moments when I cried to and for her, in prayers and dreams, and felt a quiet peace descend on me. There are moments where I offer help to people in need, solely because of the memory of her. If she is truly gone, then why do I feel she is with me?
I now know, from these slivers of experiences, that there is something beyond life as we understand it. My lola has transformed, as Dr. Wernher Von Braun put it.
And although I cannot grasp the complexities of the vast and cosmic universe, nor the laws that tame it, I hold in my heart one of its certainties: That each of us has the power to be immortal, to transcend the barriers of human existence and still exist.
This is the miracle of life, of living. Though this may not be the philosophical belief of an astrophysicist or a theologian, but that of a granddaughter, it is my sacred truth. For this was the story of my lola who lived and died.
And lives. Her spirit endures. Be it in the presence of the golden angels soaring in the high heavens or in the small confines of my heart.
Of that I am certain.
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