In Tagalog—one of three native Filipino languages—the word for grandmother is Lola. It is pronounced quickly, with a gentle flip of the tongue. The sound rolls of out of the mouth and is delicate to the ears. It is a beautiful word that conveys love and kinship.
As a child learning to speak, this word was difficult for me to pronounce. I couldn’t curve my tongue enough to pronounce the first “L”. My “Lola” was in fact an “Ola”. And since I was the first of nine grandchildren, Ola was her anointed title. It was incorrect, bad Tagalog and lovingly adorned. She took the name that was given and made it her own. She loved it in all its imperfection. She loved it in its complete perfection.
24 years later with death stalking from around the corner, my lola is still as positive as ever, finding ways of turning life’s mistakes into her cherished answers.
A few weeks ago, it was brought to my attention that my lola’s health had taken a turn for the worse. She had left the doctor’s with an expiration; an estimated date to see her through. It had been nearly two years since my last visit and with this news I came to see her.
The day after I arrived, I sat with her over breakfast. She was vibrant, quick and alive. Although her body had slowed down, her mind was racing. She answered questions, spoke philosophically, and laughed wholeheartedly. Her smile was that same beaming grin I grew accustomed to as a baby. Her soul was as present as it had ever been. Her mental strength left me pondering if there was indeed anything wrong. Had this been an incredibly tasteless joke?
That evening, my questions were answered.
Between bouts of excruciating pain and a state of near comatose, it was clear that my lola was approaching the end of her life. She spent most of her time sleeping or fending off discomfort. She could barely stand, let alone walk, and she had a slew of medications that took up sizable counter space. Her life was certainly not what it was two years ago.
It was a disconcerting experience watching her body decline, yet my sadness and fear never had the chance to take over. I was too busy feeling inspired.
Despite her physical malady and inevitable future, her spirits were valiantly high. She used each moment to connect with those who to listened. She breathed each breath to invoke a sense of calm and compassion for those around her. And when she was too exhausted to speak, her eyes told her fearless story. More than anyone, she knows what is happening to her, yet she persists to enjoy the moments she has left.
The idiom that comes to mind is taking lemons and making lemonade. In her case, she was using the last moments of her life to enrich the few she had left. She received what she was given and made the best of it. This lesson has been preached by so many great minds in so many different ways, each one translating a timeless message: happiness comes from within.
My lola may be dying, she may be surrounded by an emotionally distressed family, she may even be scared, but the one thing that she isn’t is looking for more. She is content with her situation simply because it is hers. And because it is hers, she chooses to love it. Just as she loved her name.
Seeing my grandmother embody such grace and commitment to look beyond the surface, has invoked a loss of judgment in my life. Who are we to think we know how life works? We experience just a fragment of reality and impose our opinions. I see now that it is better to enjoy what is, rather than fight for what isn’t.
Her ability to see beyond the imperfections, to accept what is as the divine and to make the best with what’s given is a gift I will always carry with me.
I will remember her for this. She’s my Ola with one L.
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” ~ Mister Rogers