Blue Spanish Eyes: In Memoriam

His Name Was Spanish for “Tranquil Kings”

My grandfather passed away at the age of 81 at sundown on January 7th, following complications from pneumonia and a stroke. He was my mother’s father, and it had been about eight months since the passing of my father’s father last May. The previous holidays were spent in a rather peculiar manner, subdued and with less emphasis on the external celebration but rather the internal contemplation of gratitude and the intangibility of family. We all greeted the New Year in his hospital room. Deep inside, I understand why circumstances took a different turn, but dealing with the loss is something I have yet to get my head and heart around.

He Was a Soldier

My grandfather was the second to the youngest of eleven children (including the siblings who died in infancy), and until very recently, was the last surviving member of the group. He was physical proof of the strong Spanish lineage coursing through the family bloodline, having brown hair and blue eyes, which was a stark contrast to the very distinct Asian features of my grandmother. Like many living during the circumstances of the time, he was orphaned very early. When he was a teenager, he enlisted to become a soldier, although he was not of the required age. So he wrote on his application that he was two years older than he actually was, and since they were not able to properly corroborate the information, he was accepted to begin training. The exact role of my grandfather as a soldier is not known among my relatives; some say he started off as a cook in the barracks before climbing up to Sergeant, and some said that he was a medic. Perhaps all of them were true. But he was not spared from the atrocities of war. In fact, while he was in the hospital during New Years, the cacophony of the fireworks from outside the window juxtaposing the somber environment of his room as everyone tried to keep his illnesses at bay, I couldn’t help but compare the entire situation to a battle. For a moment, I wondered if he contemplated something similar.

Having had firsthand experience with an era where many countries were under colonisation, he picked up some phrases outside of his given tongues, and when I last spoke to him about what he knew, he could only remember a fraction of it. When hiding in a cemetery with his siblings in order to avoid being captured, exhausted from the manifestations of malnutrition, his brother died in his arms. Whether he spoke for sure about the ills of the past is something I will never know; I do not remember him uttering such words. But I cannot imagine the extent of the profound pain that is accompanied with those experiences, and I believe that a handful of them contributed to his life of prayer and the fervent belief of peace.

He Was a Romantic

My grandfather first saw my grandmother through his daily Mass attendance. She was working as a teacher and boarding in a convent, having been orphaned rather early in life as well. Her foster parents were a Belgian priest and nun. According to my grandfather, he said he was mesmerised by “the woman with long hair”. Knowing he had to get past the strictness of the nuns, he worked up the courage to brave them and was able to get half an hour to talk with my grandmother after Mass every day. The half hour turned into an afternoon about the town for lunch when the nuns softened to his pure intent of pursuing her. He was in complete soldier’s uniform the entire time, and after about four months, he asked for her hand in marriage. Apparently, he was the first soldier to pursue a convent boarder, and his fellow soldiers, upon seeing the success of his efforts, followed suit. My grandfather, the trend setter.

Because of my grandfather’s job, my mother and her siblings were essentially “military brats”, living briefly in the army barracks, even after the Second World War. Shortly before my grandfather passed away, my grandmother recalled one anecdote where my mother, as a child, would shout, “Daddy!” every time she caught sight of any man brandishing the khaki-coloured constabulary uniform, regardless of whether it was my grandfather or not. Embarrassed, my grandmother would hide her face and cajole my mother to keep quiet. But the unpredictable mobility of the military was not something he wanted for his four children, and shortly after that, applied for a civil servant status for the sake of a stable life. He enjoyed a quiet office job until his retirement.

He Was an Active Grandfather

Post-retirement, living a sedentary life was something unheard of by my grandfather. He maintained himself through physical and mental activity. He would wake up very early in the morning to work on his garden, which was a masterpiece in progress. He would plant vegetables and various flowers, tilling every corner of the soil, and he adhered to organic gardening principles. Gardening would take until midday, by which he would have worked up a good amount of perspiration before taking his bath. After bathing, he would have lunch, then settle with a book and a cup of brewed coffee, relaxing until the evening news. Then, he would enjoy a nice dinner (sometimes while watching the evening news), take a little bit of time to digest his food, and then prepare for bedtime. In between, there was prayer. Just recently, my grandmother revealed that he would make another cup of coffee at 2 in the morning for another reading session in the quiet of the night. She would join him in the more relaxing activities, and even though my grandfather had to travel out of town occasionally, the most important things were done in tandem. It was truly how they lived. I may not be the most romantic person in the world, but over the last several years, whenever I would look around for any hopeful manifestations of what I associate with love, I would look at my own grandparents.

He Believed in His Loved Ones

Even though a funeral is a rather dubious type of family reunion, it brought together people I haven’t seen in a while, and people who I didn’t know were so impacted by my grandfather. Former students of my grandmother also came in to pay their respects. I even saw the doctor and a nurse who was present when he passed. I even learnt that even the barber of my grandfather attended the funeral. The barber even remembered when my grandfather visited for his very last haircut. All said the same thing about his helpfulness, his prayerful lifestyle, and his being a man of integrity, and the statement truly stands for itself. Even though my grandmother spent some time writing up a proper eulogy for my grandfather, the presiding bishop — yes, a bishop did the funeral Mass — prepared his own eulogy instead. His contribution was probably one of the best ways to remember my grandfather.

My grandfather wasn’t one to make excuses for himself, or of others. He saw no hindrance in doing anything within moral approval; if it went against his conscience, he would not even regard it. Last March, he scrambled up a coconut tree to get some fruit when there was an implied desire for a cooling food, causing the entire household to develop a moderate case of nerves, much to his confusion. When I was just about to start design school, I was drowning in my anxieties and my confusion over the people who seemed so reluctant to let me go pursue my chosen major. My grandfather, upon noticing the situation, told me, “This will be great for you. Things are going to be wonderful in Singapore. Mark my words.”. That statement might as well have been carved in stone, because he was completely and utterly correct.

Now, He’s at Peace

Going back to the garden, my grandfather’s pride and joy were the one particular row of African Daisies glowing a bright orange in the front yard and the Dracaena Fragrans/corn plant he placed around the perimetre of the house. My grandfather had been very particular about the latter, and I assume it’s because of what my other relatives told me: it rarely flowers. It wasn’t hard for me to believe; after all, I don’t think I have ever remembered seeing that plant ever in full bloom.

But during the wake and the funeral, all of the Dracaena Fragrans around the house were in full bloom, including the ones that were still in its infancy. The entire residential property was overwhelmed with its scent, particularly at nighttime. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to see this plant in full bloom, or experience its smell, the flowers I saw looked like magenta and white fireworks, and the scent is comparable to a very strong essence of jasmine. It may come off as sentimental to an outsider, but I took that — and one moment where a white butterfly with a broken wing landed near my feet a few days before the wake — as a sign of his telling us that he’s all right.

I won’t lie: everything about this is still very difficult, and the pain doesn’t seem to have tapered off since he was buried last Saturday. The days ahead will be my own journey to coming to terms with this, and I have been wrangling with the grief whenever I find myself alone. I cannot imagine how much more difficult it is for my mother, her siblings, and most especially my grandmother. What I have written here is not even half of my reflections, and frankly, the unwritten bits deserve more integrity than being documented somewhere in the digital ether. But I learnt that pain should be walked through, not avoided nor delayed, and that gives me comfort in knowing that eventually I will find my own peace.


  1. Kim

    Hey […], I’m just leaving a comment here to let you know that I’ll be using your memoriam as a reference. I’m currently writing a short story for my English assignment and I’ve decided to base it off this…well, I’m not sure if I can call it an ‘experience’ but something of the sort.

    Talk to you soon, and thanks!

    [This comment was slightly edited for translation. The context of the message remains intact. – Administrator]

  2. Maria Celina

    @Dave: Thank you for reading this post and for your comment, Dave. It is because of your tribute to your own grandparents that we connected.

    I don’t know if this is at all related, but started thinking about funeral traditions and how I will be remembered when I’m gone about a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a constant thought; it was just a thought I entertained when I had little else to think about. Naturally, a lot of people thought I was being unnecessarily morbid. But I know there is a time for everything and I am a firm believer of intuition, even though I am very lousy at reading it. I’d like to believe that it was some cosmic way of preparing of what was to come.

    @Skye: Skye, I had no idea about the passing of your husband’s grandfather. My sincerest condolences to your husband and all those affected. The adage that you shared is very beautiful, because as far as it goes, the frequency in which I think of both my grandfathers would make them very, very much alive in my family.

  3. Skye

    That was such a beautiful post. Your Grandfather sounds like he was a really wonderful man.

    I was really moved by your post too (in fact, I read it shortly after you posted, and it’s taken this long to comment!) – my husbands Grandfathers funeral was actually on the same day as your Grandfathers. It has been a good part of the grieving/healing process to reflect back on his life, and realise just how much he experienced and what a great man he was too.

    Yes, funerals do bring together a lot of people. It’s amazing to see just how many people can be impacted by one persons life. I guess that it brings true the old adage that you never really die while people still remember you.

  4. Dave

    Hi Maria!!

    This was a beautiful post. A loving tribute to what sounds like a wonderful man. I would be proud of a family member wrote a post like this about me when I am gone.

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Maria Celina

    @Kim: I feel some of the frustrations that you outlined in your comment, Kim. You wanted to ask him some questions about his past, and I always wanted to take a portrait of Grandpa. It had been an idea I was mentally toying with ever since I starting taking photos with some degree of seriousness last year. I wanted to take a photo of him — and with Grandma, of course — because I wanted to capture the hue of his eyes. Sometimes I feel that I have lost an opportunity with Grandpa in that sense, but that gets overwhelmed with the emotion of loss in knowing that he has passed on, and the rest of us still remain here.

    I also understand what you meant about crying when everyone else is. Tears are more worthy when released in whole heart, rather than done out of what may feel like conformity. But when I was there during the wake, I realised that even though I cried at rather sporadic times, whether or not it was out of a reaction, I saw the associating emotions as part of the familial bond. We cried together, and when we did, we shared in the emotion of grief. When we shared that, it felt like it was lightened a little bit, and we had to experience that connection of family to go through the day, one increment at a time.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself for not being able to attend the funeral. With Grandpa being a man of great sympathy, I would like to believe that he understands the circumstances behind that. Where he is right now, perhaps the cost of travel isn’t an issue anymore, so aside from what is probably a large family reunion in the skies and being completely okay, he’s watching over us and patiently waiting for us to be okay.

    By the way, your mother read your comment and was moved by it. I’m awaiting her direct comment to this post. (Hi, Auntie!)

  6. Kim

    Hi, firstly I’d like to say that this was really well written. Everything was put in such a good way that I was reduced to tears. I know that I didn’t know very much about him, but when I read this, I realized that I just barely knew him at all. I knew he was a soldier, but that was as much as I could gather. I knew he liked gardening, I never knew he was making a masterpiece. I kmew he was always peaceful, and there are times where I wish I could’ve seen him more often. I guess that’s a little cliche on my part, because I took it for granted that he would live until I have my own kids. This memoriam helped me realize that we do take things – a lot of things – in life for granted; we take life for granted. I loved [Grandpa] unconditionally and I always will, but sometimes when I shed tears for him – whether alone in my room or doing my homework – I wonder if whether or not I really mean them. I don’t want to be the type of person who only cries because everyone else is crying, but if I cry, I want it to mean something.

    Then when I read this, it made me think a little more about it. Like I said, I barely even knew my own [Grandpa], yet I shed tears for him. Aside from the fact he is a dear part of our family, I’m thinking of other reasons as to why I feel so confused about my feelings. And then I realize that I’m happy because I had opportunities to see him, even if they were very scarce. At least I didn’t grow up without having them present at different times. I also feel angry, more at myself if anything. While reading this, I felt mad for not troubling myself with what I didn’t know. This plays into taking things for granted I guess, my regret equals anger. Then I feel sad, naturally because he’s gone. I never will have the chance to bond with him. I think that as a child, I wasn’t able to grasp certain things, and I didn’t have the proper sense of ‘bonding’. I wasn’t old enough to have a regular conversation with my own Grandparenrs three years ago, when I last saw him, I don’t think we talked a lot, which makes me regret even more that I couldn’t go.

    But now that I’m older and much more aware of my surroundingz, I realize it’s too late. He’s gone and I’ll never be able to ask him these questions myself, like why he had joined the army, or why he found gardening so intriguing. I don’t know, but what you said is right. Even though we’re all still piecing ourselves back together, at least we know that he’s looking down on us, always ready to help in the most turbulent times. Our [Grandpa] was a great and peaceful man, and I hope he’s all good, chillin’ with God (too early for some humor?).

    Thanks, and sorry for the novel I wrote. I just needed to get it all off my chest.

    [This comment was slightly edited for translation. The context of the message remains intact. – Administrator]

  7. Nikz

    I love this entry. It’s very peaceful yet magical, the way you describe him.
    Praying for him and your family, I wish you all the strength and peace to get through this time of loss. *HUGS*

  8. jannie

    that’s a very beautiful tribute you dedicated to your grandfather. based on what you wrote, he seemed like a very intelligent, loving, brave, and remarkable man. :)

  9. Brianne

    I love what you wrote about your grandfather brought back memories of my deceased relatives who were much like him :) My thoughts are with you and continuing your healing process, take as much time as you may need *hugs* you know I’m here if you need a shoulder.

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