(The pic above is from me and H.'s wedding last year. That's my Auntie Remy on the left, my Mom on the right)
Writing is often a way for me to process things, a way for me to express emotions that are confusing, knotty or complicated (or all three!), so it doesn't surprise me that I woke up this morning with this urge to write this remembrance--my eulogy of sorts, I guess--for my Auntie Remedios (Remy) Fernandez Manual, my mother's only sister, who passed away in Los Angeles this past Saturday, October 24, 2009. She had been suffering from complications following triple-bypass surgery several weeks ago. She was 62 years old.
The concrete things first: Auntie Remy was born and raised in the Philippines, wife of Salvador Manuel, mother of twelve children. She immigrated here to the United States two years ago, flying on a Cathay Pacific jumbo jet with myself, her husband and her son, my cousin, Richard. She was illiterate, and grew up very poor and uneducated in a small town in Pangasinan, far to the north of Manila. She worked in the market selling vegetables under the hot sun, in addition to being a 'helper' for rich families--cooking and cleaning for them, in addition to raising her family. She spoke Pangasinan and Tagalog and a tiny bit of English, and had just learned her ABCs so that, ultimately, she could learn how to read.
Of course these salient details don't give a very complete picture of my Auntie Remy. I didn't know her very well, was only with her a handful of times--in the Philippines when I was there for two weeks, in LA a couple times, and then twice when she was here in the Bay Area (for my wedding and then to spend time with my Mom)--but she was the kind of spirit who made an impact on you in a quiet, subtle and profound way. Just a few memories from the short amount of time I knew her:
The first time I met my Auntie Remy was a little over two years ago. I was nervous, hot and sweaty from the smoggy Manila night air, and nearly shaking. I had just arrived for my first trip to the Philippines, and was already completely out of my element--from the language barrier (I speak very little Tagalog and only understand a little bit more, and speak absolutely no Pangasinan, my family's native dialect) to the cultural differences (I couldn't understand how people could be wearing so many clothes when it was so hot out!), I could already tell that this trip would be challenging for me. But when I saw my Auntie Remy come out of the door of the condo, I immediately remembered why I had made this trip. My mother hadn't been back to the Philippines since she left in 1967, and refused to join me on this trip as well, and so I was her proxy, her conduit to all the people back home. None of them had had seen my mom or me except in pictures, and only had talked to us on the phone before this. When she saw me, my Aunty Remy's face broke out into a crooked smile (she was, probably more importantly from her perspective, seeing her son Richard for the first time in nearly six years), and then both of us started to cry. She held me for a brief moment, a slightly awkward, but necessary embrace, both of us knowing without having to say anything that this moment was about the re-discovery of family, about blood knowing blood, about our family bucking the odds to find each other again despite poverty, distance, cultural difference and time.
She looked out for me as much as she could while I was in the Philippines, worriedly placing her brown hands on my face and neck when I told her I felt feverish, saying in Tagalog that I needed to go to the doctor. I reassured her that I just had a cold, but her furrowed brow told me that she took it very seriously that her only sister's eldest daughter was not feeling well. She arranged with her friend to let me stay at their house my last couple nights there, because they had an air conditioned bedroom and spoke English. I think she knew, somehow, in the intuitive way that mothers of large families might know, that I was uncomfortable and lonely in this strange country that was supposed to be my 'homeland'.
It's ironic then, that what was undoubtedly the most important journey of my Auntie Remy's life was undertaken with me nearby--her transPacific flight to Los Angeles, California to live in this even stranger country, the United States. I remember taking pictures of her and her family in front of the house they were staying in--the house of a wealthy family that my cousin Lusita worked for--and how both happy and sad everyone looked. They were happy that they could all be together--we ended up caravaning to Manila so that they could see their mom and dad off--but also sad because their mother was leaving them. Auntie Remy was so clearly loved by all her children and her grandchildren, and I envied their closeness as much as it brought me joy to witness it.
After we flew from Manila to Hong Kong--my Auntie had never been on a plane before, mind you--I remember taking her to the bathroom in Hong Kong, a super-modern, luxurious place with those automated-everything bathroom, and struggling to answer the confused look on her face at all the electronic toilets, faucets, etc. She must have been as baffled by all this modernity as I was by the lack of hot water and technology in the province.
More recent memories I have of my Auntie Remy are more comforting and joyful: watching her dance at my wedding, smiling and happy; her carefree smiles as my Mom, my husband and I took her sightseeing at the Berkeley Marina when she came up for a visit, the way she kept thanking us as if what we had done was such a big deal--me for giving her my frequent flyer miles so that she could fly up from LA, my husband for driving us around; how she proudly demonstrated that she could recognize the letters on a restaurant menu. The few times I saw her in the states were probably some of the few moments of leisure she'd had in her long, work-filled life. Her children--who all seemed to inherit her good, loving nature--all talked about wanting her to rest and relax after taking care of them for so long, and I wanted that for her too.
I try not to think about how tired she looked the last time I saw her, when she'd just been released from LA County Hospital after her surgery, how she kept urging me when she got home, as if on a reflex, to "Eat more, eat more," probably because she knew she couldn't. She never fully recovered from the aftermath of the surgery, but at least now she is going home to the Philippines, where she will be put to rest in the land that she knew and loved the best, with all her children and grandchildren nearby.
Even though I really didn't know my Auntie Remy very well, I loved her. She was probably the most selfless and saintly person I have ever known, and the most peaceful. I'll miss you, Auntie Remy, and I hope you're dancing and smiling in heaven, having a good time, and just relaxing. You deserve it more than anyone else I know.