Goodbye to Mom Tarcila: Feeling the Spirit of Samar Today

My wife’s mother, Tarcila Bohol Llevado, died tragically and suddenly nine days ago, and in a  few hours she will be laid to rest. Rena is there in Guinob-an, and I am here in Los Angeles, but I can’t escape the feeling of being there — don’t want to escape it. But more than that, I’m feeling her death, and the final goodbye, in a way that is different from how I have felt deaths of loved ones in America — and although I can’t be sure, I think these different feelings have been produced by the traditions as they have been taught to me these last nine days. There is something very beautiful and moving about the way it has been in this death that makes me appreciate the wisdom of the Waray people.

From the moment she died, Mom Tarcila’s body has never been alone, never been away from her family. First at the hospital, then at home, where they brought her to lie at rest for the nine days that are believed to be the period when the spirit stays in the home. When I mention that to Americans the reaction is often a collective “Ewwww….” at the idea of keeping the body of the departed one in the home. Yet it seems so obvious and natural to me now that I’ve experienced it with a loved one.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 3.06.40 PMDuring those nine days, as she lay in the sala or living room, in her casket, there was never a moment when she was alone — someone from the family was there all the time, and someone was awake in the house at all times. Her husband of fifty years, my father-in-law Loreto, slept in a chair beside her every night for these nine nights. During that time no sweeping of the floor was allowed — to clean it, they just use a rag and pat it clean because to sweep it risks sweeping her spirit away.

Now, as the moment approaches when they will take her from the house and walk with her first to the church, and then to the burial site, I’m feeling an intensity of a kind of sweet yet painful goodbye that is different — so different than the feelings that are evoked by the way we do it in America. I don’t mean to disparage our own traditions — only to note that experiencing this death in the traditional way, even by long distance, has had a profound effect on me.

Suddenly I find myself contemplating our tradition of turning the body over to a funeral home and leaving it there, to be wheeled in and out by service providers for brief viewings until finally there is the funeral — just feels wrong. It’s our tradition that evokes the sense of “Ewwww……”

How can we do that? The thought of leaving the body at the funeral home overnight, with no one there, parked in a room somewhere — Why do we do that? Honestly, after this experience, to leave a loved one’s body stored in some room in a darkened funeral home with no family member there beside it just feels wrong, like abandoning them.

I just called Rena and got through to her. Except on the first day when she arrived, throughout the nine days her voice has been strong when we talked, but now it shook throughout our call. She told me the specifics of what will happen.

At 7AM they will leave the house with her body and walk to the chapel in Guinob-an, arriving there by 7:30. By tradition, her father will remain at home because her spirit will stay behind at the home while her body is taken to be laid to rest, and he will stay with her spirit.  Mass will be at 8am. After the mass, the family and the casket will walk two miles to the cemetery in Bolusao where she will be buried — and meanwhile the “prayer people” (she couldn’t think of the right word) would go to the house and begin the ninth day prayer — the special novena for the departure of her spirit, which Rena says is a very long prayer.

They will bury her, then say their final goodbyes, then the family and the others will return home for the completion of the ninth day novena, and the Ninth Day Feast, which will bring the cycle to an end.

In closing these thoughts, I don’t want it to sound as if I’m hostile to our own traditions here in America. We do things the way we do them and with good reason founded on long tradition. I get that.

But much of life is about experiencing new things, and being open to them, and learning from them. I’ve experienced three deaths of people very close to me in the last six months, two Americans and one Filipino. Each was special, and heartbreaking, and beautiful and tragic. But there is something about the Philippines, and Filipinos, and in particular the Waray people whom I’ve come to know so well, that touches me in a special way. It is no random act of chance that I married Rena and in doing that brought this culture into my family — my admiration and respect and a kind of tender appreciation for the Philippines began in 1986 when I first moved there, and only grew until 1994 when Rena and I met, and reached fruition in 1999 when we were married.

Today, standing by Rena in spirit if not in person, I feel that I’m joining her family in saying goodbye to a dear and treasured family member — more than a member of the family, she was the mother of the family and matriarch of the clan — the heart and soul and life and breath of everything, the one who held the family together with a sweet embrace that will go on long after the goodbyes are over. When I think of the span and the arc of her life — to bear and raise twelve children, and more than a few grandchildren…… to be vibrant and alive and filled with laughter for eight decades, never really resting, always carrying the weight of everyone else in the family on her shoulders ….. I truly feel a sense of awe, and appreciation, and a little bit of wonder. I think of stories that Rena told me, of how before she was born her mom and dad lived for a time in the jungle growing crops, fishing and hunting, and how at night her dad would go to catch fish in the river, and when he went, he would tell her to keep out the lusong and bayo that she used to grind rice, and if she became frightened or threatened she should pound the bayo into the empty lusong, which made a very loud sound like a drum, loud enough that he would hear it wherever he was and come running back to help her. I think about the stories of Rena’s mom corralling Rena into being the one to go through the barrio calling out “isda” and selling the fish that her father caught;  how she would take Rena crabbing for tiny tutut crabs teaching her how to reach down into their holes with a sock on her fingers for protection and pull the crab out; about the way her mom made coconut oil to keep from having to spend money on cooking oil; how she took Rena into the hills to tend the farm plot with her; how she played cards and mah jong with the ladies of the town; and how when Rena got in trouble on her own journey in life, she was there to help her right her course. When I think about her I feel it is an epic journey through life that will end today.

For me, peering in from the perimeter of the circle of love that surrounds her, this is a huge milestone in my Philippine journey with Rena as my guide and inspiration. For Rena it is infinitely more — and I could feel the love and pain in her voice, and I just hope she ends the day in peaceful place. She loves her mom unconditionally and all I can really think about is, if I sit here thousands of miles away feeling wretched and weepy — what must it be like for her? I can’t even imagine.

To anyone who has stuck with me to the end of this ramble, thank you for letting me share this with you. It helps to not feel alone at a moment like this — it helps to feel connected and think that there are others who may feel a little bit of the sweetness and the pain of it all.  I may add more later on . . . or not.

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2 thoughts on “Goodbye to Mom Tarcila: Feeling the Spirit of Samar Today

  1. Nice one Michael! Thanks for this beautiful piece of writing that highlights some of the most beautiful aspects of our Filipino – and Waray – culture. Since I went to Samar to preside over the funeral of a former student, more than a year ago, I was hooked. Memories of childhood in my own hometown came back to me … The culture I grew up with all came back rushing in, and I was especially reminded of the people most of us northerners living near the cities were once familiar – a people who know how to live, laugh, suffer and die with dignity and poise. Life and death for us, prior to our being exposed to the digital postmodern and foreign culture, was just one big seamless reality. Being born and dying do not happen only to an individual, but to a family, a community, a clan, a tribe – a nation! Your writing tells me you are part, not only of Mama Tarcila’s clan, but of the bigger reality that Rena’s family and clan are but a brilliant representative of. Thank you. I felt like I was one with Rena and siblings even if I am more than 400 kms away. I left Tacloban the day she was due to arrive from LA.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Fr. Chito. It’s interesting …. I was thinking about you in a couple of sense as I wrote this — the obvious one, as a spiritual leader. But also about the frustrations you express with regard to some of the more . . . well . . . frustrating aspects not so much of Filipino culture, but Filipino political life. I find it very paradoxical that a culture I am so attracted to and admire from very deepest part of my being as a culture that is wise in so many important ways, continues to disappoint at the highest levels. But the good news for me is that at the level that matters to me — the level of Rena and her mom and her family and our kababaryo in Guinob-an — these are good, good people and I am happy and honored to cast my lot with them. As for the trapos …. well they disappoint, frustrate, and entertain in a bizarre way. Someday the goodness in this culture will win out and I hope to be there, setting out from Guinob-an in my fishing boat in search of salasugi, living in the house that just lost Tarcila’s spirit but still is filled with love and a lot of happy, noisy grandchildren…..Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Philippines could finally stagger out its political storms into some kind of sunlight where the true spirit is what guides the country — not the corrupted one that has hijacked it? We can hope for that, and Mom Tarcila inspires me to think it’s possible.

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