Sk and I spent the week of Christmas with her cousin, who is like a second mother to sk and an aunt to myself. While we lived in Chicago for ten years, this cousin (Ate M.) and her life partner (Tito Cain), were our only local family members. We lived just down the road from them. We enjoyed many holidays, outings and brunches together. The night before we moved to Canada, we spent with them.
The four of us developed our own holiday traditions. Christmas Eve was always spent with Ate M. and Tito Cain; this included attending our church for its festive service. They always went to sk’s house the following day for Christmas dinner, long before I was even in the picture. New Year’s, Easter, birthday and Super Bowl parties. . . they all included Ate M. and Tito Cain coming to our place along with our self-made family. Not once did either one of them mention that they were the only seniors or heterosexuals at our parties. Those were non-issues for them.
Then sk and I moved to Canada in 2008. We called often, several times a month. Most often we had nothing important to say but that didn’t stop us from talking hours at a time. Tito Cain always asked us when we were going to come to see him. We responded by asking him when was he going to get a passport so he could come visit us. We always greeted them for all the holidays but it wasn’t the same. Unless they were visiting relatives in California, Ate M. and Tito Cain spent the holidays alone, just the two of them. This year on December 13th, we got the call. Tito Cain passed away.
We hadn’t expected him to pass so soon. It seemed like Ate informed us of his throat cancer diagnosis just a few weeks ago, in reality it had been a few months. That time of year is usually very busy for most of us so I still marvel how sk and I cleared both of our schedules for the entire week of Christmas. We did and then we drove to Chicago. Ironically, we were all together for Christmas once again, albeit with Tito Cain’s ashes sitting on the side table.
I hadn’t properly mentally prepared for those six days. I don’t know if sk did either, it’s something we still haven’t discussed. I don’t “do” death very well, who does really? There are those people who seem to always know what to say or how to respond in times of grief, I am not one of those people. I either find something inappropriately funny at the time or I put myself in the family’s shoes and make it too personal. This time it was personal and I still managed to find some inappropriately funny things but kept them to myself, for the most part.
I found the whole experience too surreal. We were in Chicago, in their condo and I met another family member for the first time, Ate’s sister. It felt more like a mini reunion for the three other women. I felt like an intruder or someone sitting on the outside looking in, sometimes literally, and not know what to do. I kept expecting to find Tito Cain sitting there or to hear his voice.
Tito Cain and I had a special bond. While sk and Ate M. went off shopping or talking about their family issues, Tito Cain and I always had each other. We kept each other company while we patiently, sometimes more patiently than others, waited for our spouses. He would often tease me, it could be on my short stature or the fact that I’m white. I would laugh and teasingly remind him that I could steer him into a wall or traffic, for he was blind. He would get the biggest chuckle and say, “Oh, I know you. . .you wouldn’t do that to me.” And he was right. I would never intentionally do anything to hurt him. Without realizing it at the time, he was the closest family male figure actively in my life. I love him dearly.
So there I found myself, sitting alone in the living room while the other women sat around the dining room table, pouring over old pictures. Much of the time, they spoke in their native language so I was seperated physically and verbally. But this time I didn’t have Tito Cain. His remains were sitting there right in front of me but they weren’t talking. Right from the beginning I was wondering how odd Christmas was going to feel without him and I sitting together enjoying one of our long conversations and consuming too many of my homemade dinner rolls. As it turned out, I was over thinking because we did not participate in any of our traditional Christmas Eve or Christmas Day celebration activities. I thought we would do some of them, maybe not all but at least some of the more significant ones; like a big turkey dinner or attending the early festive service at our old church. Nope, nothing. Maybe not having Tito Cain there while we tended to the
normal events we used to enjoy when we lived there would have made it more difficult for Ate. That might explain why we ended up watching Les Miserable Christmas evening and stuck eating at the theatre concession stand for dinner. I don’t know. Maybe ignoring everything else except Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was enough for her.
I know our purpose in going to be with Ate M. was to make sure she wasn’t alone; instead, I felt alone. Trust me when I say that I’m not trying to make this story about me, I wish it wasn’t and I don’t want it to be. Sk and I were putting Ate M.’s feelings and needs first, she was our main priority for the entire week. Each night while laying in bed, sk would report what they talked about and how Ate was feeling. Based on this, we discussed potential activities for the next day and strategy for getting Ate to agree. When we did manage to get her out of the house, we all felt like we accomplished something of significance that day. On the Thursday of that week we thought a small miracle took place. Not only did we manage to get Ate out of the house, even if it was after five in the evening, but she also agreed to a haircut, which she had obviously been putting off for many months. So all four of us got hair cuts then we walked next door and had Thai food for dinner. That was a successful day.
While sk and I were there for Ate, I found myself with plenty of “me time” and before I realized what was happening, I had begun my own grieving process. I spent more time with Tito Cain’s ashes than with the others. I enjoyed my cereal and coffee in the morning with him and his box was usually the last thing I said good night to before heading for bed. I know it meant a lot to Ate that sk and I were there and I know sk helped Ate to start her own grieving process, one that she will have to tackle alone at some point. There will come a day, when she will find herself sitting there alone with no one else around and there, on the side table, will be the box of Tito Cain’s ashes. That’s when I think the full force will hit her. She will know that she will never feel complete again, there will always be something missing.
The finality of death can be overwhelming for some. While it is important for her to face this realization on her own, it’s also important that we, her family and friends, offer our support; not just in the near future but in the months to come. She will have twelve longs months of mourning.This upcoming year will be the most difficult for Ate M. for it holds many firsts for her alone: her first birthday, his first birthday, their first anniversary, first Easter, first Thanksgiving. . .all without Tito Cain. In sk and Ate’s culture, the first anniversary of a loved one’s death is also a cause of celebration and remembrance. Afterwards, once the official grieving period is complete, maybe, just maybe, we can convince Ate into a few holiday events, a Christmas dinner if nothing else. Tito Cain, I will make my dinner rolls in your honor and will think of you as I eat more of them than I should.
I promise Tito Cain, you will always be loved, you will always be remembered and you will always continue to teach me life lessons while your memory inspires me to be better and aim higher.