This afternoon, my grandmother Patricia Joaquin Burkhalter died. Lila, as I call her. She was 84.
Born and raised in the Philippines, she survived World War II on the run with her family from Japanese soldiers. She raised 8 children. I am one of her 14 grandchildren. She introduced me to classic movies as a child. I would spend New Year’s Eve watching old movies AMC and TCM, trying and failing to stay up until midnight. To this day, when she was around, it felt like home.
She was my standard for resilience. I took for granted her ability to overcome anything. She went quietly today, and I can only assume that it was precisely her time.
I’m listening to one of my favorite musical cast albums right now, In the Heights. In my review of Brooklyn, I praised it for managing to encapsulate so universal an experience in such a specific immigrants’ story. In the Heights does much the same thing in its story of a Latin American community in Washington Heights. I need these stories in my life. They help me feel closer to my Filipino heritage, and remind me that I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother and mother hadn’t been bold and courageous. In the second act on In the Heights, the protagonist’s grandmother dies suddenly. The entire cast joins him in an impromptu hymn. Alabanza, they sing. Praise.
Lila is an honorific invented by my older cousin Catie when she was a toddler. She was the first child in my generation. My grandmother wanted to be called abuelita, a holdover of the Spanish influence in Filipino culture. Catie mustered “lila”, just one letter off of the traditional Filipino word for grandmother: “Lola”. It was sort of perfect.
Lila beat cancer at 60. Barely two years later, her husband, my grandfather, died of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed on Good Friday and died on Easter. It’s been 23 years since he died. I thought about that a lot today. It was their wedding anniversary. Such a long time to be apart.
Lila lived through the death of her daughter, my auntie Lizzie, of mesothelioma. In the last year, two of her siblings died. When my mom was wavering between life and death a little more than 10 years ago, thanks to hospital-acquired pneumonia after a mild stroke, Lila was there, making sure my family held things together until my mom got better. She had an endless resilience, reinforced by a wicked sense of humor. You have that when your next-door neighbor is killed by a bomb when you’re 12 years old, when you go to college in Minnesota after growing up on the Equator, when you marry a white man in Georgia in the 1950s. She always survived. Over the past few years she’d had a number of frightening medical episodes. She always pulled through. This morning, my mom told me she was checked into the hospital for low blood pressure. It sounded routine. “Oh, okay,” I said, nonchalantly. Compared to past events, it didn’t sound like something to worry about. An hour and a half later, she was gone.
There’s only so much fight in every person. Lila had enough for three lifetimes. Earlier today, my sister posted a picture of Facebook of Lila as a young woman, staring into a canyon in the South Dakota Badlands. It’s the image I want to hold in my head of my grandmother, from a time before I ever saw her and yet so undeniably reminiscent the person I will remember.
Alabanza, Lila. I love you.