“i love your face” she said, as i sat in front of her with glossed eyes and a soft smile. i had just arrived at the hospital- going straight from the SFO terminal to the car, and to her bedside. no stops in between. the night prior i slept at JFK, feeling the sense of urgency was too unbearable for me to stay in my apartment any longer. the morphine had set in, but she was still strong enough to talk, and as she seen my tears stream from my face she said, “don’t think like that, darling”. already knowing what i was thinking but always staying faithful that everything would be okay. that was her way, and when i say her way, i mean ‘a way’. that’s how it has always been for us and in my family; you just find a way to make it work. the rule was not to cry in front of her, although i broke the rule instantly. we each got individual moments with her in those final days. each morning, as her responses slowed to a minimum, i continued to sit with her each morning, play songs and have my moment, holding her hand and crying when i needed, at her side, for her and in every opportunity i had to speak to her, and be present. i arrived back in the bay that sunday, by wednesday she had transcended into eternal life. like a scene from a movie, the cinematic vibe was more poetic in real life than it could have been through any camera lens or technique of lighting. we knelt at her bed side, all of us surrounding her bed, until we seen her no longer breathing, it was all happening so slowly, almost gently. on her last night, i slept by her bedside, sleeping almost in a half state; listening for her breathing and waking every two hours to administer morphine by hand. “gramma, it’s jeremy- I’m gonna give you more medicine” she heard me and would gently swallow, no resistance or tension, she was relaxed. we were all there, and she knew it, demonstrated fully was our love for her, down to the last moment. there was this feeling of unrelenting emotion; where you can’t cry hard enough, you can’t release enough, the grief created too great a sense of tension, while the state of disbelief was almost urging you to let it out- a tortured state, where you just go with what you can feel and express in the moment.
gramma was always attentive, very precise and particular. always dressed, poised and aware. in passing, i came to greater realization of my roots and felt a necessary return to who i am, in being home and even to the last breath, gramma made sure that i was taken care of; leaving signs that she is still with me, as i see them everyday. almost unmarred by the process of age, i sat with her each night and morning, taking as many moments i could in those final days. just looking at her, remember how her cheek feels against mine whenever i would greet her and give that affection. thinking deeply on my flight from the east coast and back to my home on the west coast, thinking of how she snuck me into her house last christmas when i was having issues with other family members. she instructed her children, when she they started telling her she only had a few days left to live to “stop excluding members of the family”. i couldn’t help but think she was talking about me, she always fought for me, and never stopped trying. so when i think about shit that i been through- whatever bullshit happened at the model agencies, the issues that people have had with me and wanting shit my way, or even my talent of being able to develop something from nothing, and to identify hidden strengths in women. these skills, the poise, the pin point presentation- that’s the legacy. i designed her program, creating soft roses and pink against a modern type face to keep her current but classic all the same. i sang at the service, “prayer of st. francis” – the lyrics resounding like her memory in not just my heart, but the heart of every single person in my family, “make me a channel of your peace”. the love she and my grampa had trascended every line and limit in existence.
in a moment now frozen in my mind, visually; my grampa was wheeled to her bedside, and immediately, in what would be her final and most responsive moments of interaction, she moved toward my grampa, reaching for his hand as he told her “i love you”. she got prepared to make a statement, which was her last spoken request to all of us- 2 remaining brothers and their wives, 5 children, 14 grandchildren, 3 great granchildren, nieces and nephews- we were all there, listening to her. she said, “take care of one another”. and even the last time she opened her eyes, we all crowded around her as though we were on the set of a 90’s music video. i said, “hi gramma!!” and she said softly, “hi baby” – as i launched to kiss her immediately after hearing her speak. crying isn’t even the word. the tears were streaming steadily for weeks on end, even following. grampa and gramma were always strong together, she let him lead and he reveled in that. married 53 years, they were like royalty having ascended into the united states from the philippines in 1968. they had already been married in the philippines and had three children at the time of their departure of the islands. he like a president and she like a first lady, they lived in san francisco before relocating in the 80’s to an urban suburb of west pittsburg, about 45 minutes outside of the city. this is where we grew up. gramma and grampa took care of all 14 grandchildren, collectively and individually in very special ways with each. in this miraculous way, we were all honored and given our private moments in life and even in death. if you could believe that a family that large could share that close, this is the true miracle of love and again, the legacy of my family. one that i am proud to share in the final chapter of this year long autobiographical series. originally intended to be twelve parts, ten chapters will mark the end and approrpriately for the life and story of my grandparents.
seven days following gramma’s burial, it was too much for grampa to bare, he also ascended into eternal life. upon returning to new york city, i had to leave back on the same flight but this time, i had not made it in time to have a final goodbye with grampa. i started to think of their life together, the lost loves in my life and the great duty in being together, and working together, building and honoring each other, together. after marrying gramma, grampa left his own family to come to the united states with gramma’s father, my lolo, who was a soldier of world war II and was able to gain entrance into america through his military status. this feat changed our lives forever. the lives of my gramma, my grampa, their children- my uncles, aunties and mother. this was the game changer. similar to my relocating to new york city, it was this courage that they had that found it’s way to me. the seemingly vain way of self photography, or the slight movement of hair, the charm of a great joke and gentle pose for a photo with a soft smile- gramma and grampa together created these moments and awareness in life, and thus my life. grampa’s strength and sacrifice for love mirrors my own willingness. gramma’s attention to detail and how to do things right, to follow the rules and abide by structure- their faith together and individually, their community building among the filipinos who were relocating into the far east bay, and their leadership in our church. all of these things, these vitally important and instrumental moments of development that we almost looked over, because we were just focused on getting things done and being together, making it work in the moment. beyond whatever shit happens, success or failure- the life of love and strength lead by my grampa, antonio bulatao and my gramma, estelita bulatao is built into the fibers of my being. there are not enough words, or any form of phrasing that i could compose to equivalize the love and gratitude that i have for my life and the responsibility laid upon me to defend and protect that legacy in the ways i am already doing. what i have built here is proof of this legacy, you cannot have one without the other. dedicated for the entire duration of my existence as an artist and human being, my gramma and grampa will forever be the source of all that i do and all that i have done.
written for the everlasting life and legacy of
antonio and estelita bulatao
my inspiration forever