notes from an imaginary waiting room
notes I took in Slack while waiting to hear about my grandfather
You may have read the body of this newsletter once already, so please ignore this if you’ve seen it elsewhere.
I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should publish this—I have so much left to say about both my grandfathers. But if I only published complete thoughts, I would never publish anything at all. And there will always be more newsletters.
Some may find public methods of grieving vulgar or bizarre. I find it comforting. I’m sharing this for the sake of sharing it—the world feels strange and disjointed, even though I think humanity has, in desperation, reached unforeseen levels of online interconnectedness. I know that I’m not the only person here experiencing grave and sudden loss, and if you are I hope this reaches you, though I know this may provide no greater comfort than the knowledge that someone else on the planet is also processing death.
I wrote most of this in Slack while waiting to hear about my grandfather’s condition after he had a stroke on Saturday night. I heard that the neurosurgeon wasn’t able to stop the hemorrhage five minutes after I finished it. I cleaned up a few phrases today as my brain crawled out of its haze—but overall, these were my notes from the middle of the night.
Trigger warnings for death and loss 🕊️
It’s a strange and perhaps cruel thing to sit with my computer out, forcing myself to process my grandfather’s death before it happens.
My grandparents on both sides of my family are young by American standards. Oldest of them all, my maternal grandfather died the day before his 80th birthday in January of this year. My paternal grandfather, a week away from his 78th birthday, is currently intubated and being transported from our local hospital to Loyola Hospital of Chicago, where a neurosurgeon will attempt to mend the destruction caused by a hemorrhagic stroke.
An hour away from him and more by the minute, I’m sitting upright in my sister’s bed, blinking through the night cream that snuck into my eyes when I dried my tears a few minutes ago. My sister cried with me for a bit, then left the room to find tissues in my parents’ bathroom. We’re bad at crying and we like it that way. We’re not talking. Frank Sinatra is playing on her speaker; he’s crooning about wist as usual, but I’ve never heard this song before. She’s drifting around the room, tidying, organizing, arranging. I trust that she’s full of her own thoughts and emotions. I do not need to check.
I wish I could say that I’m panicked, or frantic, or something. Instead, I feel passive. My angkong (maternal grandfather) died last month, suddenly and shockingly. A couple of ounces of ashes rest on my grandmother’s bedside table, a sorry excuse for a mountain of a man and his booming laugh. My ama (his widow) lives with us now; last week, her doctor discovered lesions in her breasts, almost fifteen years after she beat breast cancer. Her biopsy keeps getting rescheduled. Manding, the caretaker who began serving my angkong as a sixteen-year-old in the Philippines and eventually became my mom’s nanny, was admitted to the ER in critical condition this week; she has no family of her own in the states and her nurse had given her COVID. My mom called to check on her, and all she could do was apologize. It was as if she thought she would fail my mom by dying.
Tonight, we tried to drive flowers and balloons to the hospital for Manding, but we missed the window for drop-offs. We came back to the house with the flowers and balloons and sang my mother happy birthday, but the song sounded limp. At least my dad’s parents were there; I felt lucky just looking at them. We ate Chinese food and took turns napping with the dog. They left a few hours ago, only to call before bed saying that they were on their way to the hospital.
I never thought I’d run out of heartbreak, but I'm here now, searching for feeling.
Mom: Being transferred now from Loyola now to neuro ICU
Investigating science always anchors my mind, even if it can’t help anyone. I just feel like preventing shock for myself. For general health questions, I’ve been turning to Harvard Health Publishing1, which says:
A hemorrhagic stroke is bleeding (hemorrhage) that suddenly interferes with the brain’s function. This bleeding can occur either within the brain or between the brain and the skull. Hemorrhagic strokes account for about 20% of all strokes, and are divided into categories depending on the site and cause of the bleeding:
There are two types of hemorrhagic strokes: intracerebral and subarachnoid. My grandfather had an intracerebral stroke due to hypertension. According to Harvard,
About 30% to 60% of people with an intracerebral hemorrhage die. In those who survive long enough to reach an emergency room, bleeding usually has stopped by the time they are seen by a doctor. Among the 25% of people who survive an intracerebral hemorrhage, many experience a major improvement in their symptoms as their bodies naturally and gradually reabsorb the clotted blood within the brain. Among those who survive a bleeding aneurysm, about 50% suffer long-term neurological problems.
I don’t know what caused his stroke, but I know that high cholesterol and smoking increase the risk of a hemorrhagic stroke by a lot. High cholesterol is part of the lifestyle in Filipino culture, and though my grandfather stopped smoking over two decades ago, it’s entirely possible that a half-century of cigarettes has caught up with him.
Funny enough, a year ago or so, my grandfather came up to me and told me that I was the reason he’d quit smoking. He was speaking softly, teary-eyed. “You know, your mom told me you were born with asthma, and I couldn’t see you if I was smoking. I quit when you were born,” he said. “You saved my life.”
Me: how is everyone
Mom: not well
Mom: every second counts
I don’t know what to do with myself right now; my sister and I have been praying just like the rest of the family has, but I figure that if God wants to listen you don’t have to beg. All that’s left to do is wait. Stringing together memories of my grandfather feels premature. Sleeping is not the answer; distracting myself also seems wrong.
Mom: If GP survives this, you both should be aware he may not be ever the same as you have known him...pls pray for him
Before retiring, my grandfather spent his weekends designing various maker machines in his garage. The capstone project for my major is officially called The Garage Experience, a tone-setting course title for a class that’s supposed to teach us how to run a startup. For me, this phrase hits me harder than the Hewlett and Packard story ever could. Even in my late teens, I hurried through the garage, which seemed like a mystical, dusty maze of gears and blades and motors. I never understood what went on between my grandfather and his machines, but I understood that the space held a special genius, even if the rest of the world never recognized it. The air in there has always smelled of wood pulp, and the whirring sounds put me in constant fear of losing a finger. My grandmother, ever the Filipino hostess, also does her deep frying in the garage at a gas stove. No smell makes me feel more at home than the toxic combination of sawdust and frying oil.
I'm wildly unprepared to inhabit a world without my grandfather tinkering away in there.2
Earlier today, when my sister and I were waiting for everyone to sit down and watch the last episode of WandaVision, he came up to us to tell us that he was buying a sublimation machine for his birthday. “What’s that?” we asked. He explained that a sublimation machine is the kind of machine that lets you print images onto mugs and non-porous surfaces. “You should design some things,” he said.
My grandfather has planted the seeds for much of the creativity in my life. Throughout my childhood, we spent tons of time together, or one room away from each other in our respective creative bubbles: he in his garage, me sketching on an upturned laundry basket. He supplied me with materials for art and music, always checking to see what I was creating and performing before asking how my schoolwork was coming along. I know that this is because he never got to do those things for a living, despite being an extraordinarily talented artist and musician; after immigrating to the US, he worked manual labor until he retired. Music and art did not pay the bills, but he believed the circumstances could be different for me.
His love of helping others create is something that I never really identified until recently. I thought it was just his way of being my grandfather, of sharing interests, or of caring about what I cared about. He took me seriously. He was my quiet, steadfast advocate. He prepared me to believe in my own creative risk-taking.
I often wonder after the sacrifice my grandfather made when bringing his family to America in the seventies. They struggled so much for so long for both money and community. It always seemed like too big a leap for what he got in return, but I’ve reworked my analysis.
In some ways, I think that the move to America was my grandfather's greatest creative decision. Although he had grown up in poverty, my grandfather’s family became wealthy as landowners and merchants when the Philippines started to integrate more seriously into global trade in the fifties and sixties. He explained to me once that wealth had begun to poison his family’s culture — all his nieces and nephews were growing up as rich delinquents, and he wanted something else for himself, his kids, and eventually, someone like me.
He left the Philippines with my grandmother so they could author their own family’s future. He got to be the architect of a new life, from scratch. My grandparents trained their English on Scrabble and saved up their money to dress well, buying Ralph Lauren on sale and always managing to look good in spite of their means. He ate a breakfast of coffee poured over rice when my dad was a child, raised a family in a tough little suburb outside of Chicago, and constantly lost factory jobs and promotions to white blue-collar workers.
But on the weekends, my grandfather built the Filipino Friendship Society, likely the biggest community of Filipinos in the midwest. He organized cotillions and cultural float parades, printed t-shirts, and threw Filipino barbecues with full pig roasts. He created space for himself, his friends, and other Filipino immigrants who were sprawled across the state.
My grandfather loved rock music; he had won my grandmother’s attention playing guitar in Manila in the fifties. In the US, he and some of his friends played in a Beatles cover band. They toured parties and events around Chicago, performing most often at events thrown by people of color. And when he could, he drew and painted portraits.
My grandfather continued to create things of his own for the last fifty years. If he had stayed in the Philippines, he would have spent his life managing merchant lines, imports, and exports. I believe that he took the creative risk and won.
A dear friend texted me after reading this line. I hadn’t thought of it like this, and sometimes it’s inappropriate to correct someone’s thoughts as they grieve, but in this case, I found it enormously helpful. (Thank you.)