Tonight, I attended a memorial service, my third one in the last three months.
The first memorial I attended was for my Tita Rina, who suddenly died of a heart attack while dealing with a particularly nasty case of the flu. I grew up with Tita Rina living in the house next door, and my favorite memory of her took place when I was about three or four years old. I was watching TV with her and her sister, my Tita Margot, bored because no cartoons were on. One of them brought out a curling iron and decided that it would be cute to curl my hair, and I remember thinking how cool it was that a strange metal object could make my hair look so different. I asked Tita Rina if it would last forever and she said no, it will disappear as soon as you shampoo your hair. Naturally, the first thing I did when they were done was to run home and take a shower – not because I hated how it looked, but because I wanted to see if my tita was right. I emerged from the bathroom, hair straight and heavy with water.
Our last photo together, my hair curled permanently
Tita Rina’s memorial service was a devastating affair because of the unexpected nature of her death. Her sisters-in-law cried throughout their eulogies, as did my cousins, her best friends from work, and her only sister Tita Margot. The emotion in the room was so strong, I thought my chest was going to cave in from the pressure of its force. Naturally I was bawling as hard as the rest of them, not only because I would miss her sunny presence at family gatherings, but because of something her best friend said. She asked Tita Rina how old she wanted to be when she died, and she said she wanted to live a full life and die at age 98. Her biggest fear was that her young son Marty would forget her. It was as if she knew she was going to go soon, and it saddened me to realize that she died with these uncertainties hanging over her head.
I didn’t expect to be back in the same chapel a little over a month later, mourning the passing of my Lolo Doc – Tita Rina’s father. Lolo Doc figured just as prominently as Tita Rina did in my childhood, for he too lived in the house next door. I remember always “blessing” him as a greeting (he is probably the only relative I have ever done that to) and him pretending to refuse my requests for dinner. When he died, people felt a mixture of sadness and relief, because he had been bedridden for the last six years and needed to move on to a happier place.
Tonight’s memorial was for the last person I ever expected to kick the bucket – AJ Matela, one of my first Filipino blogger friends. Like everyone else on the Internet, I first met him in 2007. Or rather, I noticed him because of how dapper he looked in his black and white plaid pants, black turtleneck, grey pageboy cap, and oversized man purse. When this terribly attractive guy came over to introduce himself I was thrilled beyond belief, for a cute guy had noticed me back! But my heart sank at his introduction: “Hi I’m AJ, baklaako.com.”
Pardon the stupid drunkface
AJ and I weren’t very close (which I’m a little grateful for, because I think I would completely lose it if any of my real friends died at this point in my life), but I do remember him being friendly, witty, and very easy to talk to. He had a sharp sense of humor, which he often used to soften the blow of his brutal honesty or to put people back in their place if they overstepped the boundaries of common decency. We hung out a few times and even did a podcast together once. Eventually I stopped going to large blog events, which is why I didn’t notice that he dropped out of the radar sometime 2009. I follow so many people on Twitter that I never realized that his Tweets grew more and more infrequent, and that when he did Tweet he spoke about being sick. Nobody told me he died; I found out about it through my Twitter feed.
I almost didn’t go to AJ’s memorial service tonight because I assumed it would be as sad as Tita Rina’s and I couldn’t handle getting pummeled by yet another tsunami of grief. In the end, I decided that saying goodbye was probably more important than my emotional state, especially since tonight was my last chance to do so. I’d like to think he would have done the same thing if it were me lying in that white coffin instead.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the old funeral cliche, “Death is a celebration of life.” When the priest said it in his homily, I snorted and wondered if that was supposed to be comforting. I’ve experienced enough death in my life to know that death is no celebration. How are you supposed to celebrate the past when you have an entire future to face without that person in your life? Yet a “celebration of life” is probably the best phrase to describe the memorial service that took place later that evening. AJ has been sick for a while and his family has had several months to accept this fact. So with a lot of the grieving behind them, they had enough sanity to pay attention to the highlights of his life. Many bloggers spoke about their favorite memories and how they remembered him as a kind, friendly, very fashionable person who loved life, fought for LGBT rights, and remained one of the greatest friends they’ve ever had.
Photo credit: Teresa Barrozo
Though my tears kept threatening to burst from their ducts, I managed to remain dry-eyed throughout the whole thing – that is, until a friend played AJ’s Fabcast sound clips set to The Spice Girls’ Goodbye. And that was when I lost it. I cried, as I am crying now, because I never realized what a truly beautiful, optimistic person AJ was until that moment. He was all about embracing life, loving yourself, loving other people, and encouraging others to find the beauty in themselves. I regretted the fact that I never went out of my way to get to know him better, and it looks like I missed out on so many crazy and memorable moments with this rare and wonderful human being. And I was amazed at how positive and strong he remained in his last days as he urged his mother and brother not to be sad at his death, for he achieved his dreams and lived a full and happy life.
I have been to three memorial services in the last three months. If I were religious, I’d say that there is meaning in these deaths, some sort of secret message from God that I need to find and decipher. How else do you explain so many deaths in so short a time? How else do you deal with the overwhelming emotions? I don’t know if I believe in a god, but I do feel like death is trying to teach me something here, some sort of lesson about life that I need to understand if I am to live a full and happy life myself.
I can’t see what that lesson is right now; I am too tired and sad to think any more. But I do know that after I hit the “publish” button and shut off my computer, I am going to hug my boyfriend and have a good cry, not because I am sad about the people who just died, because I am happy to still be alive.
AJ’s family still needs help footing his final hospital bill. To make a donation, you may deposit cash at BPI (Kidapawan) SA#8669-0851-93 (Eric John Matela), BDO cash card 5267-27000-7474-501 (Anne A. Matela), or via Paypal at fundsforAJ@gmail.com.Google+