Messy Edges….Lola’s story in print available today!

 

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Lola, as my mom is lovingly known (Lola means “grandmother” in Tagalog), celebrated her 94th birthday last weekend.  The greatest tribute I could give my mother is to write a story about her beautiful heart.  On her birthday I had the honor of presenting for the first time an essay entitled “Messy Edges” at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This story briefly encapsulates the beauty and the heartbreak of caring for my mother in my home for eight years, and the release I found during that time through the gift of watercolor painting.  The essay is published in an anthology entitled, The Wonder Years, 40 Women over 40 on Faith, Aging, Beauty and Strength, edited by my dear mentor and friend Leslie Leyland Fields.

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(excerpt from “Messy Edges)

My mother is still with me as I write this. Today, I stop when she notices a red geranium, just like the ones she used to have outside her home.

 “What flower is that, Mom?” I ask her. 

She looks at it and smiles. “Geranium,” she whispers. 

She smiles and time stands still. She pushes me to see beauty and wonder in every small thing, as if for the first time. My mother, even in her illness, gives me this gift, this gift of seeing. When I paint, these are the moments I try to capture. A field of sunflowers, a field of lavender. I try to keep the colors pure and vibrant on the paper, not muddied.   I try to use brushstrokes that remain fresh and lively, not overworked. For previously I was holding on, too tightly, to the brush, to mom’s health, to life, afraid to loosen the grip, to lose control of the things I could not control.  Now I understand  that beauty unfolds in the letting go, in allowing the messy edges to bleed. 

My story is one of many, glimpses into the lives of 40 women and the firsts, lasts, and always moments they have experienced during this season of life.  I am honored to have Lola’s story tucked between authors I admire such as Ann Voskamp, Elisabeth Eliot, Madeline L’Engle, Luci Shaw, Brene Brown, Lauren Winner and Jill Kandel. Each story is beautifully crafted, leaving the reader with a takeaway that could make you laugh out loud, cry, or sigh in relief knowing someone else shares your voice.

The greatest joy of this story is the hope and strength I have received in being able now to transform a difficult time in my life and my family’s life into a place of encouragement  to others along the same journey.

Please pick up your copy of The Wonder Years today on Amazon.  If you need more convincing, please check out Lola’s promotional video below!  I had the privilege of reading it out loud to her, and she wholeheartedly approves.

 

“What more important, Lola?  Faith, Beauty or Strength?”

“All of them,” she says with a smile.

Dreamer….one man’s legacy…one family’s purpose…

IMG_2860Today my father would have been 98 years old.

At his bedside in 1998, twenty years ago, he quietly revealed to my older sister his story of approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on the deck of a ship, she barely old enough to stand at his side as they passed under the monument that signified his entry into America.

“We will have a good life here,” he whispered into her ear.

He was a silent man, of very few words. We three sisters had never heard this story, his last spoken before his last breath 24 hours later in the US Army hospital where I was born.

His entry into the port of San Francisco was gained through his service as a Philippine Scout in World War II, and his survival after escaping from the Bataan Death March. After his escape, he journeyed 60 miles by foot, emaciated with malaria back to his home in the province. Slowly he recovered in a nipa hut, his home, until the liberation in 1945, when he jumped onto the US Army trucks rolling past on the road back to Manila to join the US forces and Mac Arthur in Leyte.

From America he would send stipends to his mother in the province. She proudly had a gate made to the entrance of her home that said, “Sgt. Jesus C. Bermudez, US Army.”

My father was the gatekeeper for others to come to this country, the one who would open the doors decades later as a sponsor for his brother and his family, my mother’s sisters and their families, to pursue the good life that my father dreamed of as he passed under the Golden Gate Bridge: A house. A car. An education.

Over years, decades of waiting for papers, affidavits, job opportunities, these dreams materialized not only for my father but for generations to follow.

Our children set foot on the the shores of our Philippine homeland, the land of my father, for the first time last Christmas. The children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces of my father, their Lolo (grandfather), gathered on the on the island of Boracay to serve on a medical and dental mission to the Ati people, an indigenous tribe in the Philippines.

These first and second generation Filipino Americans of my father are living the American dream he longed for: homes in Malibu, Newport Beach, Seattle, Orlando. Cars he dreamed of: Porsches, Ferraris, Mercedes Benz. Educations to be proud of: USC, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Baylor, Ohio State. Careers to make him proud: doctors, dentists, accountants, software engineers, NFL producers.

On the dirt roads of my parents homeland, fifty of us—brothers, sisters, cousins, second cousins, nephews, nieces — gathered under a makeshift shelter and thatched grass huts of a remote village to bring medical and dental care to a people who had been outcast and isolated for the darkness of their skin.

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We called it the Kamay Project: Kamay means hand in Tagalog, the Filipino language. Our families were joining hands and resources to help the Ati people. We saw 230 patients that day, giving basic medical and dental care, distributing medicines we had collected, sharing bible stories and balloons with the children, and the biggest draw, playing basketball with the kids.

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Shoulder to shoulder,
Hand to hand
Hands extending to extract a tooth, to take a blood pressure reading, to lift a child up on a shoulder, to pass a basketball up for a shot.
Hands extending over generations, language, economics.
Hands reaching out to give out reading glasses, medicines, toys, balloons.

 

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The recipients were not the only ones receiving a gift.

The ones handing out received smiles and hugs
reciprocally greater in exchange.

Kamay is also the word that describes the Filipino tradition of eating by hand. Food is spread out on the table on banana leaves. The great granddaughter of my father’s mother, a rising Filipino chef just honored at the James Beard house in NYC, prepared a traditional meal of fresh dried fish, shrimp, pancit, and rice.

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As our family worked together side by side, elbow to elbow to present the food, arranging it artfully atop banana leaves on rickety wooden tables, my cousin, one of the dentists, grabbed my hand. Earlier that day he had extracted and examined teeth for over one hundred patients.
He grinned at me from ear to ear, the way I first remember his smile when he was eight years old and just had arrived from the Philippines. He had the same bright, hopeful look in his eyes as the children gathering all around us. At their age, his mom and his three siblings lived with us for nine months preparing for a new life in America.

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“You know we all would not be here it was not for your mom and dad,” he said, nodding towards the tables where our siblings, my cousins, our children, and spouses stood shoulder to shoulder side by side presenting the New Years Eve dinner for the villagers.

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We hugged.
We cried.

Drops of rain pattered on the tin roof of the shelter. Wind blew water through glassless windows. A storm was brewing just off the island. But nothing would dampen that evening of smiles and laughter and feasting and dancing and music as generations and lifestyles and bloodlines merged, a night of celebration.

Today, we honor and celebrate you dad, for it was your hand that opened the gateway for us to give.

In six weeks you will receive your gift, the highest honor paid by this country you love:  the Congressional Gold Medal.

You and your comrades will receive a bronze copy of the Congressional Gold Medal recently awarded to Filipino and American soldiers of the Bataan Death March.  You will be recognized for your sacrifice for the atrocities you endured to defend this country and the American Flag.

The flag that was draped around your casket and handed to your widow during a 21 gun salute.

The flag that you cheered for with your cancer ridden lungs, shouting “USA! USA!” during your last Winter Olympics in 1998.  We watched them as a family from the shores of Hawaii, the closest we could get your homeland.  You were too weak to go to the Philippines one more time.

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Decades later, we have returned.

 

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For more information on the Kamay Project, an ongoing outreach to the children and families of the Ati village in Boracay, Philippines, please go to kamayproject.org

 

 

Ina: Generations of Mothers


She raised a generation of daughters. And they in turn are raising another generation of daughters and sons.

The concentric circle extends even father outward, as she was the “Tita”, the aunt to an extended generation of daughters, her nieces, whom she raised as her own and even more significantly, brought them here to the United States. She continues to be the matriarch and mother figure for decades of lifetimes beyond their own, to their children’ children, even as she lies in her hospital bed, the place where her nieces and sister gather around her now. 

The strength of my mother’s love reaches past borders and generation, touching lives even as she lies still, her left side paralyzed, her heart still as full and loving now, smile filling her entire face.

During this gathering of my cousins and aunt we shared a weekend of tears, hugs, laughter, and our favorite Filipino food, Kare Kare (oxtail soup), my aunt’s specialty. When my mother was admitted to hospice several weeks ago I had asked them to come to see her. Her Alzheimers was taking its toll on her memory and she was losing weight rapidly.

“Please come see my mother,” I asked them.

And they did. They travelled from the other coast to be here.  My mother’s only surviving sister of nine siblings, at 87, came to be at her side. My cousins, two the daughters of this sister, and one, the daughter of my mother’s younger beloved sister who passed away two Mother’s Day ago, with Alzheimer’s.

Together we leafed through old black and white photographs. Since they were raised in the Philippines and I was born here, my cousins knew so many details of the family’s life that I did not. Our bedside visit became a story telling session of our family’s past.

We pick up a photo of our grandmother. She is dressed in her best Filipino embroidered gown, a “terno”. Her waistlength grey hair is wrapped in her signature bun on top of her head. On the back of the photo in her very best writing, she writes this:

 Dear Bing and Jessie

 This picture was taken in inside the house with my appliances.

 Your loving mother,

 Filomena C. Bermudez




My cousin Carina explains to me that our grandmother was the queen of the province where she lived in the remote farmland of the Philippines. She was the only one with electricity, with appliances- an electric fan, a refrigerator, a radio, a television. Carina remembers the neighbors peeking into the window of the concrete block house, the biggest one on the street, to get a glimpse of the television working, a novelty back in the 1970’s.

My father would send his mother money to purchase these appliances from his meager salary as a food service worker at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was a veteran himself, 24 years in the US Army, a retired sergeant who had risked his life as Philippine Scout to escape from the Bataan Death March in World War II. My father, an enlisted man who fought on the front lines of the Korean War, would be so proud to know that Carinas’ sons now serve as officers in the US Army and Air Force, one as a major and one as a lieutenant as well as other cousin’s son, one who bears his name, Bermudez, a major in the Army.

These sons of Carina were taught by my mother how to read. They had just come to this country, and I remember my mother, a former third grade teacher, sitting on the couch reading our favorite children’s books, Where the Wild things Are and Curious George to these sons who are now officers serving our country.
Carina leans over the bed to my mother. She whispers, “Thank you, Tita Bing, thank you for teaching my sons to read. Thank you for all you have done for us to have a good life in this country.”


Carina’s sister, Marlene, turns to me. “I don’t like seeing your mom like this,” she cries. “She is the strong one, she is the one who did everything for us. She is the one who would make our favorite food and we would all eat at her house. Her house was the gathering place for us.”

Her mother sits quietly by mom’s beside.  There are no words between them, only a smile and grasping of hands

 
We pick up a photo of our mother’s mother. Veiled and stoic, hosting the same eyes and my mother, she is receiving an award from their priest at their parish.  I know this now because my cousin reads out loud the back of the photograph written in Tagalog in my grandmother’s handwriting.  At the end of the paragraph she signs in script, “Ina”.  


“What does that mean?” I ask Carina.

“Mother.”

Yesterday, the day we celebrate mothers, the great granddaughter of these grandmothers who lived in provinces in a country  10,000 miles away hosted a Mother’s Day Filipino Brunch in honor of these mothers.  She prepared food native to our country in a city, Seattle, known for its foodies. Her heritage menu  was promoted in a local magazine as one of the Nine Best Mother’s Day 2017 Brunches in Seattle.
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As the circle of mothers and daughters extend further out so does the gathering around the table, not only including family, extending to guests.  The tradition of welcoming and gathering with food and laughter ripples out  through the generations.


The center of this outward circle is not forgotten

My cousin Grace leans over to say good bye with tears and words of gratefulness for all my mother has done. 

“Thank you Tita, for bringing my family here, for taking care of us, for giving us the chance fo a new life here.  We love you Tita Bing.”

The cousins gather around her to sing a song, a Filipino love song that was the favorite of my mother and father.  Although the names of my cousins are barely recalled, the words of this beloved song are not forgotten.

“Dahil Sayo”.

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Nais kong mabuhay (I want to live)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Hanggan mamatay (for the rest of my life)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Ako’y lumigaya (I’ve become happy)

Ang lahat sa buhay ko’y (Everything in my life is)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you)

​​

A Bloom from dark places

We are in the midst of a drought here in Florida, all grass and flowers withering and crumbling here.
I see my friend’s peonies blooming in rich North Carolina soil, these blooms, full and beautiful, for a brief but lovely season.

And on this May Day, where we celebrate bloom

I celebrate this blossom, a dance choreographed by my daughter

Who during her young pre-teen and teen years observed the slow withering of life as her grandmother, my mother, lived with us and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

She named this piece “Help”.
Out of the years of watching her beloved grandmother decline, and our family’s growth in caring for her, and out of her co-choreographer’s mission trip to an orphanage in India this piece was born.

How lovely this bloom flowers from parched and dark places.
“Help”   Choreographer:  Lauren Mogg

Baylor Dance Company 


 

God knows what is hiding in this world of little consequence 

Behind the tears, inside the lies

A thousand slowly dying sunsets

God knows what is hiding in those weak and drunken hearts 

I guess the loneliness came knocking

No one needs to be alone, oh save me


People help the people

and if you’re homesick, give me your hand and I’ll hold it

People help the people 

Nothing will drag you down

Oh and if I had a brain, Oh and if I had a brain

I’d be as cold as stone and rich as the fool

That turned, all those good hearts away


Birdy

Songwriter: Simon Aldred

People Help the People Lyrics 

Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Flowers by Bev Walker,  A Loose Leaf Life 

Measured by the moon.

The moon hangs like an orb, suspended in the sky. Weightless. Floating. Full.

As if it does not carry the weight of measuring time and days as it brightens the dark sky on its descent into a new day.

This day it drops into is my birthday. Another measure of time, in years. A span of 365 risings and falling of the moon, marking 56 times today.

But the one who gave birth to me that day 56 years ago does not remember.

For her time is still, only measured in present. No before or after moments. Only now.

At times it is a gift, this only present moments. There is no sorrow about the past. No worries about the future. Alzheimer’s has taken away time consciousness. Perhaps it is not thievery. Perhaps it is freedom.

Time is suspended as I sit beside her bedside now, stroking the soft, thin folds of her hand in mine. I move for her this hand and arm, the one she cannot move, rendered still from a stroke months ago. She moves the other gracefully to the beat of an old Filipino song, O Ilaw:

Oh light, in the dark night

You’re like a star in the sky

Oh light in the quiet night 

Your picture, dear, makes one hurt. 


O Ilaw, sa gabing madilim

Wag is mo’y bitiun sa langit.

O, tanglaw, sa gabing tahimik

Larawan mo, Neneng,  nagbigay pasakit.
I read the translation to this song we have listened repeatedly over the past months.  Today it strikes me how true these words are.  How is hurts to see her bedridden, to see her bones so frail, her arm still, her head and neck so weak.  But her smile and the light behind her pale eyes still shine so brightly, the way they always have.

Those eyes close now, yet her hand continues to move to the beat of the music

Her voice is barely a whisper as her mouth forms the words.

Only months ago we would sing this together aloud as I took her for a walk outside, to take her out to feel the sun on her skin and see the flowers she loves bloom.  Those days now are few as her lack of mobility makes it difficult to put her in the wheelchair.

She no longer marks the days. Yesterday I told her, “Tomorrow is my birthday.”
She raised  her eyebrows with a familiar smile.
“Oh it is? I did not remember,” she says. “What month is it?”
“January,” I tell her.
“January,” she repeats.

“Do you know the day?” I ask.
She shakes her head no
“My birthday is January 13,” I tell her.
“Oh,” she mouths quietly, then whispers, “What do you want for your birthday?”
“A new dress,” I tell her.
She smiles. “Ok.You get one.”
“Ok, I do you want to go shopping with me?” We used to spend hours shopping together.
She shakes her head no.
She whispers again, “What do you want?”
I think of the time we spent only months ago, when I could push her outside and we could sing her favorite song together,

I tell her, “I want you to sing, sing really loud mommy, so I can hear you.”

Together we sing in Tagalog words that have become familiar these past months, translated:

Awake and arise from slumber, from your sleep so deep. Open your window and look out to me, so that you may understand my true lament

I read the translation to this song, this day before my birthday. This day I have scheduled hospice to come to do an evaluation of mom’s condition. Her strength has declined markedly since her stroke last August. My lament over her condition has rendered me sleepless and worried.

This day before I start a new year, I need to know. I need someone to help me measure the amount of my mom’s decline, need to know where she was at in her stages of Alzheimer’s. And the hospice coordinator comes to the door shortly after we finish our song.

“Hello,” she greets my mother, “How are you. Who are you? Can you tell me your name?”

“Bing,” she answers with a smile.

“I want to know if she has a awareness of who she is,” the coordinator had told me earlier in a brief interview.
“What do you mean,” I asked.

“Does she have a sense of who she is,” she answered. “Can she answer the question, ‘Who are you?'”
On this  birthday of mine I ask myself, Do I have a sense of who I am? Can I answer this question: “Who are you?”

In the past years it has been entangled between caregiver and mother.And lately I have fallen exhausted into both. But that is not the woman my mother raised me to be.

She would want me to answer that question, as she still can: “Who are you”

Me separate from my mother, from my children

Me the one who is shaped by caring for others but not defined by it

Me, searching for to be fully the one I was created to be

The day my mother brought me into this world 56 years ago
If the measure of our days here on earth is to have a sense of self, let me be the one my mother led by example for me to be.

Loving others, caring for their needs, listening, laughing alongside.

As she has for years

And has she does now

In each moment

Suspended still in the air

Like the moon, full.

Going Home

 

 

 

The sun climbs over my roof this morning, and under it my children are home.
Even the cat had been waiting expectantly for their return.

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Home, a place to let down your guard, a place of rest, much needed after a season of change.

Just the other day my youngest, a freshman in college, called.

“Hi sweetie,” I answer, “how are you?”

It is the 14th week of her freshman year. She has been away from home for over three months now.

“Hi.” She has that voice, the one that I have, the one where everything is ok but it is not.

“I’ve been trying to call you.”

“I’m sorry sweetie, we’ve been out.”

We’d been away on an empty nest retreat to Pebble Beach for her dad to play in a golf tournament. His life’s work, golf. And I am grateful his life’s work brings us to this place of crashing waters that shift to cerulean to grey with the winds and the sun. He can play the game he loves and I can walk these shores I love where the rocks jut out of the seas and the sandpipers nip at the shores and dogs run unabashedly into the surf in complete freedom.

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For the first time in months I felt that same freedom as I walk and reflect on the things I love and the ones I love and the salt air fills my lungs and the skies shift from grey to lavender to orange early in the morning and the surf sounds calls me to walk and think and pray along its edges during this season of shift and change of all things familiar.

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This was a gift of a week alone, in this new season of being alone.
A gift of a week before the kids come home.
A gift to reflect and pause and be thankful.

Lauren whispers into the phone,

“I just want to be home.”

“Only two more days,” I tell her.

“I just want to be home now,” she tells me.

Her voice breaks. I ask her to face time so I can see her face to face. She says no mom I don’t want you to see my face right now.

And I hear the sobs in her voice.

I want to fix it. What do you want I ask.
I want you to pick me up and take me to dinner with you and dad.
All of me wants to find a flight right now that will take me to where she is thousands of miles away to pick her up for dinner.

She’s alone tonight. All her friends are gone, a lot of them home already.

My little girl just wants to go home.

Depending on whose voice, that statement means different things at different times.

It used to frustrate me at times when my mom, in her Alzheimer’s state of mind, used to say, “I want to go home.” She had a place under our very roof, and I used to wonder “what else can we do for her?” until my caregiving counselor explained to me that when she asks to go home, she is looking for her place of safety and refuge.

Later she used to say, I want to go home, and playing along with her, I would ask, where is home?

She would smile, and point her finger up to heaven.

Yesterday during our visit at the place that is now her home, we sang songs from the sound of music, her favorite. We both laughed out loud when we sang together “so long, farewell” and in her raspy voice, weakened by a recent stroke, she sang out “Goodbye, Goodbye!” so loud it startled even herself!

 

 

When I kissed her on the forehead to say good bye, she asked me, “Where are you going? Where is your home? I don’t remember.”

Tomorrow I will try to find a good place for her to sit at home comfortably at the table in her wheelchair.

Tomorrow we will gather all together.  At home.

imageAround extended tables will be our children and our friends who have gathered around the Thanksgiving table with us over the past 20+ years, friends who at that time were far away from home and were making a new one.

And for the first time my son will gather around the table with his new wife and her parents, as the circle extends out concentrically of starting a home.