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.