The Occasional Triumphant

The tuba steps unsteadily forward for a solo

Category: non-fiction

For Lola


My grandmother–my Lola–Esther Bustillo died on June 19, 2015. She was 85. This was written for her funeral, June 25.

I had never seen my Lola cry before. And then she was. Not sniffling like you would at a sad movie, but huge, keening sobs, like you might if you were at your mother’s wake, at Rush Funeral Home in Oakdale, Louisiana. She was sobbing and others were helping her to her feet there in front of the casket.

I was about ten years old and as best as I can remember, that was the first funeral I had been to. And seeing Lola break down like that was really heartbreaking.

Years earlier, my cousin Amanda and I used to spend summers with Lola and Lolo. We were about three or four years old and were so far the only grandchildren in the family. Which meant all of the attention and sweets and gifts were lavished on just the two of us. It was awesome (no offence to my siblings). One of the things we’d do was about once a week, Lola would take Amanda and I into the bustling metropolis of downtown Paw Paw, Michigan. The Place So Nice, They Named It Twice. She would run some errands–pick up mail from the post office, drop payments off at the power company–but we would always end those trips at the Paw Paw District Library.

Amanda and I would pick out probably some Berenstein Bears books, some Amelia Bedelia…it’s possible that I loaded up on books about dinosaurs…but the one book we would search for and check out every time without fail was a book called Bony Legs.

Bony Legs was about a witch. She lived in the woods in a cabin that stood on chicken feet. She had iron teeth. She could run really fast, and she ate little girls and boys who dared to wander too close. I’ve gone back and re-read it, it is terrifying. And yet, little Mikey and Manda would go back every time and press this book into Lola’s hands, big, eager smiles on our faces.

And we would drive back to Lola’s…cabin in the woods. Where it often smelled of chicken. And where no one had iron teeth, but I’m sure they took iron supplements and kept their teeth in a glass by their bed.

In the book, a girl named Sasha gets sent out by her aunt to borrow a needle and thread from a neighbor. Of course, she makes a bee-line for the house with the poultry foundation and the child-eating witch. And she has to grease Bony Legs’ creaky gate with butter so she can wander inside. If anyone is familiar with Eastern European folktales, it’s basically a retelling of Baba Yaga.

It took me years to realize that this book should have terrified me. The Baba Yaga story was meant to horrify little kids, to keep them from wandering off into the woods and talking the strangers. But sat there in Lola’s lap, Amanda and I curling into her on the couch, we felt so warm and safe and loved, that no iron-toothed witch could ever catch us.

Amanda and I wandered in the woods. we dealt with scary situations–some complicated births, some long-distance moves. But we were safe, because some part of us was still there, curled up next to Lola–her overwhelming warmth and love forming a sort of bubble against all the bony-legged witches of the world.

I had never seen my Lola cry before and seeing her break down at her mother’s funeral was heart-breaking. Watching her being helped to her feet was the first glimpse I had of a grown-up made vulnerable. She sobbed and shook for her Nanay and as others came to comfort her–putting their arms around this woman who had raised them and holding her up when she could not–I saw the real function of family. It wasn’t just the fun stuff.

Lola loved her family. She loved her kids, she adored her husband, and she LOVED her grandchildren. She was the embodiment of love, with her constant smile and her impulse to spoil her grandchildren at every opportunity. She set an impossibly high standard for grandmothers, and she fulfilled the role so perfectly in my life. She was, and will always be Lola. Every time someone urges me to help myself to more food, that’s Lola. Whenever I’m fighting the urge to buy my son a toy he doesn’t need, that’s Lola. Whenever I sit back at a family gathering and take in all the love and happiness surrounding me, Lola will be there next to me with that great big smile on her face.

I found a copy of Bony-Legs. I’ve kept it in my son’s room. He’s two and a half. I’m waiting to read it to him–him curled on the couch next to me, wide-eyed at the house on chicken-legs and the iron teeth. I need to be sure I can fold him up inside a safe little bubble on my own. Because the best way to honor being loved is to pass that love on. So if I can give even a fraction of the security and warmth and love that Lola imparted to me, I think that is the surest way to keep Lola with us for a long long time.


First Chair

We are currently four days into 2015 and my brother is already logging a busy year. I’m proud of him, so I’m going to indulge for a moment and brag. On New Year’s Eve, he played a show with his band Brother Hawk, supporting Blackberry Smoke in Chattanooga. Here they are doing the same a month before at the Tabernacle in Atlanta:

Two days later, he went from those loftier gigs to pounding drums on the beer-soaked stage of the Star Bar in the band we’re in together, Mice in Cars. Olivia Kieffer of the Clibber Jones Ensemble caught some of that mess on video:

And just today, the 4th, he was back at his straight job, working as music director at a church in Atlanta, where he recorded this beautiful duet:

All this is not to say that my brother is far more talented than you or I (okay, not entirely to say that), but his busy week is illustrative of a number of things. 1) Figure out what you’re good at and fucking do that. Being well-rounded doesn’t necessarily mean joining every club in the damn yearbook. 2) Music education programs (which we sorely need more of and more money for) produce, surprise! educated musicians who can rock the socks right off of your stupid feet in one moment and bring you to crippling, ugly tears with beauty the very next. And we can all agree that we could use a few more folks capable of that among us.

And 3) My brother is far more talented than you and I.

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.