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A brief update

Hey all, it’s been a while.

The reason for that is simple: grief is overwhelming in ways nothing prepares you for. I’m at a place where my day to day life approaches normality, but my energy to watch and write about movies isn’t quite back yet. I’ve been pouring the energy to write that I do have into a new manuscript. I don’t know where this project will take me, but hopefully, it’s the lift I’ll need to get back to tending to this blog, which has been such a wonderful place for me these last five years.

In the meantime, keep watching and loving movies. I’d love to have lots to talk about when I return.

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Four weeks later

Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns you somehow.

I thought I understood this song before. I had no idea.

Sufjan Stevens released “Carrie and Lowell” last year and I went through the usual cycles of album appreciation. Repeated listens, changing rankings of favorite songs, long considerations of where it ranked in his repertoire, and finally moving on, returning to it once in a while but trying not to listen to it ad nauseum.

Carrie and Lowell feels new now, because before now I could not begin to understand it. The above lyrics used to strike me as poetic. Now I realize: like the best poetry, it is a description of real feeling, not a metaphor. I always assumed grief would be a single swing into despair. It’s so much more complex than anything I’ve been through. Since my mom died, some days go by and I realize I haven’t felt terrible and that feels triumphant. Car rides, dinner, and the routine of finding my mom every morning to greet her, to seek her out to say goodnight, are when I most notice she’s gone. That, and every single time I look forward to something and realize that I’m not sharing it with her.

Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow.

There are no stages of grief. If I didn’t know that was a myth already my experiences would have confirmed that anyway. Clearly delineated stages are far too neat to resemble life. At times “The Only Thing” is the only song- not just on this album, but ever sung- that feels true. But the disorienting haze of grief inevitably dissipates. I move on. And I will return to it, and then move on again. Grief has no stages. It’s not a path, but a whirlpool.


Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?

Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

My mom died four weeks ago today. “Surrounded by her family” is how the obituary reported it. Obituaries typically attempt to paint death as something resembling idyllic. But the truth is, the last few hours of my mom’s life will haunt me forever. There is no softening that trauma; there is only not allowing it to paralyze me. The most vivid and difficult part of grieving for me has been realizing that there are no true comforts when someone you love dies. The best I can do is move on, and to be there for my family.


 

There’s another Sufjan Stevens song I’ve been thinking about and listening to a lot lately. It has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with memory. The horror of the memories of my mom’s death are countered only by memories of her life. “The Only Thing” is the truth of grief. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” is the truth of memory.

Yes, it’s about children at a summer camp and first love and heartbreaking nostalgia and it has nothing to do with anything in my life. In the past I’ve always loved it for its sheer beauty.

But it’s the one song right now that truly comforts me. It is about feelings and moments and fragments of time long ago, so vividly rendered that I can place myself in them. And that is what I cling to. Someday the dark cloud, still so thick after four weeks, will dissipate enough that I will feel again the sunlight on the days I walked with my mom to the Dairy Queen in San Diego as a child, the evenings spent listening to her stories of growing up in the Philippines, of sharing our love of stories and telling them as I followed her footsteps into journalism school. Someday I will tell those stories myself, and if I can find a shred of the clarity and honesty that this song has, I can make sure my mom’s story continues to be told. Perhaps not today. Four weeks later, the sadness still sits heavily. The trauma, the horror, are still raw. But someday. Never trust anyone who says words don’t matter. Words have the ability to bring memories to life like nothing else. And my memories of my mom are what I have to hold onto right now. Someday, I will do them justice. That is my source of light.

Mother’s Day

You never gave up. You always fought. It was second nature to you. You had no time for complaining. Complaining was wasting time that could be spent problem solving. You never, ever stopped looking for solutions.

You moved to the United States from The Philippines in a way that you absolutely would: getting off of your college chorus tour bus and simply not getting back on.

You nearly left us 11 years ago. Your doctors said you should have. There wasn’t much explanation for your surviving a stroke, pneumonia, and heart failure. But you survived. Your entire body conspired against your spirit, your life, and you fought back and won. When you could talk again you told us: you weren’t going to leave us, not then. Not while you could fight.

You always fought for your children. You listened to us, trusted us because you raised us to be honest and worthy of your belief. As I grew up I was astonished by how many people didn’t have that. With you it was never a question: if we needed someone to fight at our side, you were always first in line.

I know you fought until the end. I know that if you could have fought your illness any more, you would have. I know that your soul has an eternity’s fight in it. Eventually, cancer would no longer let your body keep up. But you never stopped stopped fighting. You let us know that, in your final words. Cancer didn’t win, mama. It could never conquer your spirit. Your spirit will continue to fight for our family, for us, and through us. We will continue your fight for you.

Happy mother’s day, Mama. I love you. Never stop fighting.

She’s gone

Those two words still don’t feel like reality. My mom Kathleen passed away almost precisely 48 hours ago. In the time since I have broken down sobbing dozens of times. And yet I read those two words and I still can’t quite grasp what they mean.

I know the rawness of her loss will linger for a while yet. There will be times when I can’t hold in my grief and I will stop in my tracks and allow my sadness to overwhelm me for a moment. I know that there are going to be moments of sadness that I can’t yet predict, as I go forward in my life and realize all the little things about her that I took for granted. I’ve begun to have some of those. I recently began work on a book. As I started it, before my mom died, I thought how much I was looking forward to reading her passages as I progressed with my writing. As much as I can continue my writing it in her honor, I know I will catch myself looking forward to reading to her in the future tense, to seeing her smile, hearing her laugh, feeling the love of writing that she shared with me.

I know that there will be times in years to come that I will miss her unbearably, in ways that I can’t begin to predict in the present rawness. A wound hurts differently than a scar.

I am more acutely aware than ever how my mom shaped who I am today. Once upon a time, her blog was something I occasionally read with a smile, a space that I let her have to herself to reminisce and reflect on her remarkable life. Now it is precious to me. It is the closest visible link I have to her love of writing and mine. I read her stories here and realize how much I owe to her, as a writer, and most of all, as a person.

My mom loved people and loved their stories. In the aftermath of her death, I have been stunned by the massive outpouring of support and love from so many people around the world. The morning after she died, I was awoken by a bombardment of texts and Facebook messages. Cataloguing every tribute to her, many from people I didn’t know personally, has been a nearly full-time effort. I’m not surprised, of course. I was aware that she kept regular correspondence with old friends, many of whom she joyfully reconnected with on the internet. The stunned feeling stems from the scope of it. I knew she was a remarkable woman. I didn’t realize just how many people knew that as well as I did.

She’s gone. I know that. She lives on in many ways. I think everyone who knew her can agree with that statement no matter what their belief system. As a Catholic, I believe her spirit lives on in a literal sense. As her son, I burn with a need to carry on her legacy of loving people and telling stories. She, herself, blazed a path that traveled the world and connected deeply with more people than I can comprehend. No matter your take on the aftermath of death, if you knew my mom, she lives on with you in some fashion. I can’t believe my mom is gone. Part of that is grief. But part of that is also the knowledge that she lived too fully to ever really leave.

mamagraduation   My mom Kathleen, my dad David, and me at my grad school graduation

mamababyJM                                                                                                                           My mom and me when I was newborn. I had life-threatening health issues as a baby; the joy on her face here reflects that I had just been given an all-clear and could soon go home. She was finishing college at the time and took me with her to her classes. She got me started on my love of learning, reading, and writing at an early age.

Quick and cheap last second Oscar predictions

Sorry for lack of posts these last few weeks, readers. I have a lot of half-finished pieces in my drafts that I haven’t quite figured out. More posts coming soon.

Before all that, I’d be remiss not to post some Oscar predictions. I couldn’t find a window today to get to that until now.

Best Picture: The Revenant

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Best Original Screenplay: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight

Best Adapted Screenplay: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, The Big Short

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Documentary Feature: Amy

Best Documentary Short: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

Best Live Action Short: Ave Maria

Best Animated Short: World of Tomorrow

Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight

Best Original Song: “Til it Happens to You”, from The Hunting Ground, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren

Best Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Cinematography: The Revenant

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Costume Design: Carol

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Visual Effects: The Revenant

 

Praise

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.

 

 

I’ve been putting off my latest movie review roulette entry because the film I selected, Au Revoir Les Enfants, is one of the saddest I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been hesitant to revisit it. But yeah, I’m rectifying that as we speak. Next entry forthcoming.

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