Change (For Arcadio)
My grandfather, my Lolo, Arcadio DePaz Bustillo, died on September 26, 2013. I wrote this for a WRITE CLUB bout in December 2013.
A journal entry from August 30, 2013:
A day and a half of fitful deliberation and we were then in the car. 9:30 PM on a Thursday, pointed north on I-75. The interstate runs through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and into Michigan and to Detroit. To Troy. To Crooks Road. Connects us to cross streets and neighborhoods leading to my uncle’s house, to the second story bedroom where my grandfather–my Lolo–lies in a hospital bed, his lungs connected, I-75-like to a winding shiny tube connected to an oxygen machine, meant to get purity to him while the cancer inside him does what it does.
We drove through the night so Alex, my son, could sleep. We stopped just twice for gas, a handful of times to stretch our legs, and once so the Georgia State Patrol could write me a ticket for speeding. I had to drive fast, I wanted to say–I was in a balancing act between a sleeping child and a dying grandfather hundreds of miles away. But I didn’t say that.
Lolo isn’t the only one prone in bed. Lola–my grandmother–is next to him. She’s all but given up eating. All but given up. She’s holding his hand. That’s really all any of us can do. I propped Alex on the bed and he picked at Lolo’s watch and emergency bracelet. But at one point, he grasped Lolo’s thumb–grown swollen and stiff–and just held it and looked at his great grandfather in that way babies have of seeming at once a blank slate and a perfect being of compassion. He can be present and not prematurely grieving in a way I cannot.
I wrote that while getting myself very drunk on my cousin’s couch. It had been a pretty intense day. There is no journal entry after that. The next day, we went back to my uncle’s house to be with Lolo. The house was full of cousins, aunts, great aunts, children–and that hospital equipment. My mom and her sister had moved the oxygen machine into the hallway outside of Lolo’s room so it could be quiet in there where we gathered–the whole lot of us–around Lola and Lolo’s beds.
Lolo slept. He would occasionally groan uncomfortably and my mom would help readjust the wreath of pillows surrounding him. We all watched him sleep. After a while, someone produced a book of prayer. My mom, aunts, great aunts, cousins–pulled rosaries from their pockets.
I didn’t come here tonight to talk about death. Yes, I lost a grandfather, yes that’s sad, but my pain does not make me unique among you. I’d hazard a guess that everyone in this room has gone through some similar life-changing event–that we all have dead grandfathers, or dead grandmothers or dead dogs or dead careers and if you were to bring them up in conversation, we’d all nod and say we’re sorry for your loss, but inside we’d be thinking fucking hell, death awaits us all, buddy, what makes you so special, Grieving Gus? Chin up.
Okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t come here tonight to mock the bereaved.
Lolo was a doctor. He emigrated here from the Philippines in 1972. He’d been doing a public health study of these yearly outbreaks of cholera that would happen around Caloocan. He determined that it might be a cleanliness issue when he found that some of the ordinances for food handling hadn’t been updated since the 1800s. So he started revising them and had the sanitary inspectors distribute the new ordinances and there was almost immediate pushback. Calls started coming in from the municipal office asking him to just sign the health certificates. Then they started offering him money. Two pesos for each certificate he signed. That would have been a couple thousand more than his annual salary. He turned it down and went ahead with examining workers in the food service industry and started finding people who were spreading cholera. People got quarantined and medicated.
One day he gets called into the office of the Assistant Director of his medical school–all the Sanitation Inspectors are there.
“Dr. Bustillo, you know, we’re just receiving orders. I’m receiving orders, you’re receiving orders…and they told us to stop your project.”
So that was how the first study into annual cholera outbreaks in the Philippines came to an end. That day, he went home and went to his wife–my grandmother, my Lola–and asked if she’d like to get out of the Philippines.
But I didn’t come here tonight to talk about the unabated spread of cholera. I came here to talk about change. It’s actually odd for me to think of Lolo in the context of change, because if my family had one constant in my lifetime, it was him. He was the one always tinkling away at the piano during family gatherings, he was the one always cracking silly jokes, always painting or carving or planting or creating something. For Lolo, change was something he did, more than something that was done to him.
There around Lolo’s bed, laying there in my uncle’s house in Michigan, my mom, aunts, great aunts, cousins, finished praying the rosary–my Lola, who can’t speak–scrawls something down and hands it to Lolo. Her handwriting, which was once lovely, is now almost illegible. Lolo holds it close to his face.
“I love … is this in German?”
The tension in the room breaks and everyone falls about laughing. And it would be nice to say that the letting go got easier after that. It didn’t. It’d be nice to pretend that I didn’t sit my son on that bed and take a picture just to be able to someday show him that he did meet his great-grandfather before he died. To say you may never have to sacrifice your comfort and your country for your principles, and it will have been because of this man. To say this is who you came from, and for a few moments, he held you. To say this was our family, changing hands.