In families, fights happen sometimes. Harsh things are said. Sometimes we hold grudges and we think that we have all the time in the world to make amends.
I was sixteen years old. My grandmother was seventy-eight. I cannot explain our relationship. She raised me for the first two years of my life. She was like my mother. And like a mother, she protected me from bugs and over-protected me from boys. She tried to instill values in me like respect for my elders and respect in my filipino culture and language. She taught me about my faith and instructed me to have a substantial fear of God. She also taught me silly songs in our language – to help me learn my native tongue. She told me love stories and ghost stories and sad stories – all with important lessons behind them. Lessons like:
“Don’t talk to strangers – they will kill you.”
“Don’t buy from an ice cream truck alone – they will kill you”.
“Don’t fall in love too easily – it will break your heart and you will feel like someone has killed you”.
Needless to say, at a young age I was terrified of dying.
Nanay, that is what I called my grandmother (it means Mother), also gave me words of advise that were less contemporary and had more of a wives-tale ring to it. I was not to sing in the kitchen after dark for I would get pregnant. I was not to go outside after dark while I was menstruating for I might get possessed by a witch. I was to cross the street if an abnormally large animal was in my path for it was probably a demon in disguise. She told me a great many things and I have remembered almost all of them.
To this day I can remember what we fought about on the night of the “incident”. We were in the kitchen and I was making Top Ramen. I offered her some of it. She nodded her head, her grayish-white hair coiled tightly into a proper bun. She accepted the bowl but she would not speak to me. She was already upset with me. I was sixteen – the age of boy-crazy, as my dad called it. I was too busy talking on the phone with my friends, wanting to hang-out with the cool people at school, trying to shake my Filipino-upbringing and merge into the more hip Americanized style. She looked at the bowl of soup in her age-wrinkled hands and said, “I used to feed you soup. Tonight you are the one who feeds me soup. Now we have come full circle.”
I rolled my eyes thinking, Oh God, not again.
Nanay continued, “People take care of the babies and then they get older and the babies are supposed to take care of their elders. But not here in America. People send their old people to a home. Teenagers never want to talk to their elders. They look at us and think we are stupid because we are old. Walang utang ng loob.” Ungrateful, she said. We don’t return what is owed. “I sit in the same spot everyday,” she went on, “by the sliding glass door, where there is the most sun so that I can see what I am sewing. And you pass me by. You and your two sisters. As if I am nothing.”
“Whatever, Nanay,” I told her, “I kissed you goodbye before I left for school this morning.”
She made a sound of indignation. “You wash your hands and you eat breakfast too. Should that make me happy? You don’t SEE me.”
God, I think to myself, all I wanted was a bowl of soup and now I get a half hour lecture!! “I see you, Nanay,” I try to placate her, but even I know that I’m doing a shitty ass job of it. Even I know that everything that she is saying is true. Still, there was a guy at school I had a crush on and he didn’t even know I was alive! Worse, he thought my best friend was prettier and she was starting to hide things from me anyway. Life was not good at the moment and I didn’t have time to deal with my grandma!
“Just eat your soup,” I told her.
She gave me the good old evil eye. “Eat my soup? You want me to just eat my soup and shut up?” She slammed the bowl down unto the table.
Her spoon fell to the table surface and seemed to clank back and forth in the silence for an eternity. I cringed at the anger in her voice. My grandmother was not even 4’10” and yet she was a powerful and formidable matriarch in our family.
“No,” I pleaded, “I didn’t say shut up. I just said… I want to eat and go to sleep. I’m tired, Nanay, and I have school in the morning.”
She snorted. “You listen to me, leng-leng, (calling me by my childhood Filipino name), there will be a day when one morning you will wake up – and I will not. The angel of death will come for me and you will not be able to stop him.”
“Oh my god, you’re not gonna die.”
“How do you know? You don’t know that. Time is precious. And you just waste it.”
“Okay, Okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow, I promise.” I kissed her on the forehead and placed my empty bowl into the sink before I went off to bed. I didn’t wash my bowl. Grandma usually washes the dishes.
I could feel her watching me as I walked up the stairs to my room. I could feel her
disappointment weighing me down as surely as I could feel a heavy burden placed upon my back.
* * *
Sometimes I would fall asleep to the soothing and steady rhythm of my own heart beating. On this night – it is the only thing that woke me up. My heart beat went from slow and quiet to a raging pounding that shook my very lungs and drummed throughout my ears. I felt like a locomotive were about to explode from my chest. My eyes flew open.
Quiet. I was in the dark in the room I shared with my other two sisters. They were sleeping softly on their own beds. There was no wind outside. No rain. There were no noises whatsoever throughout the house. And yet…
I shook my head to erase the remnants that the pounding left behind. Although faintly, I could still hear it. I settled myself back into my pillows and was just about to close my eyes when I heard it. It. What was that sound? Softer than a baby’s breath but with an eminent presence, like that of a mighty mountain. An exhale of something or someone that was not accustomed to taking breaths in this world. Long, slow, and full of purpose. My heartbeat picked up again, jittery like a frightened rabbit. I didn’t know what was happening, but I was certain that something was going on.
And then, somehow, I knew.
I knew with an absolute certainty that I’d never before experienced. Nanay, I whispered.
I threw my covers off of me and leapt off of my bed. I called out to my sisters, but they did not stir. Now outside the house, rain was pummeling at our windows and wind howled through the trees. I ran out of my room, down the three flights of stairs, and onto the bottom floor of my parents house. My body was experiencing the fight or flight symptoms. My heart rate was erratic. My breaths were shallow and irregular. My chest was constricting so tightly that I almost had to fight for air.
Before her bedroom door I paused in stark terror. And what did I see? Nothing.
There was nothing there. I had been so sure… I placed my hand across my pounding heart. So sure of what, I snorted. That the grim reaper would be standing there in his black hooded cloak with his scythe? A skeletal face looking at me and reaching towards me with his skeletal fingers? What had I expected?
What I saw in the next few moments defied anything that I would have expected to see in all my life. If I expected to see something gruesome and grotesque, an epitome of death, then I was, most assuredly, disappointed.
I turned around not to a sound, but to a feeling. A presence so loud that its noise could not be heard in human decibels. A shining figure descended down from the stairs behind me. A body of fluid light and energy. Like a star, its inner heat caused it to emit bright and almost blinding rays. It’s beauty was so achingly sweet that, for a moment, I was transfixed. After a time I could see the folds of the flowing robes and a gorgeous mass of silver and gold hair that seemed to both stand still and flow freely around a timeless face.
This face, no matter how many years may pass, I will never forget. It could only be
described as a pinnacle of exquisiteness. Sharp, haunting, colorless eyes with endless depth. A red mouth bowed in graceful lines. An elegant and aristocratic nose that indicated nobility and high birth. And skin like liquid silver that smeared along high cheekbones and a smooth forehead. This was a thing that couldn’t be defined by beauty, rather this was the standard from whence beauty was birthed.
The grim reaper is sometimes referred to as Father Time, but this figure belonged to no
gender. The longer I stared, the harder it was to decipher male or female features. An
androgynous creature that confused my sense of sight by sheer conflict of reason. And yet, of one thing I was certain: this visit had but one purpose.
Subconsciously, I shook my head in denial. “You aren’t real,” I whispered. “You are
fictional. A myth.”
“Am I?” Came the reply. No words had been spoken, yet the voice was strong and clear.
And, surprisingly, very female. She had the sweetest voice accompanied by the lightest,
twinkling chimes. This was, I imagined, what it would sound like if the stars could speak. As if hearing my unspoken question, she responded, “I am exactly what you see and nothing that I appear to be.” Her voice dropped several octaves until she was, undoubtedly, male. Even her features seemed to shift, so cleverly, that I only blinked once and stared into a face that was physically male. “Do you know me?” He asked me. “Do you know who I am?”
I nodded, in fear or in awe, I could not say. I nodded again. “You are death.” I shook my
head. This wasn’t possible. There was either life or death. Not both. Certainly not an undead creature whose only responsibility was to bring death.
He laughed, the cloudy rays around him shifting again so that he was once again female.
“Death? And what do you know about death?” She laughed, her long silvery hair tumbling over her shoulders, moving like snakes around her shining robe. Constantly moving, shifting. “You know nothing about death, fledgling. For if you did, you would have more respect for life.”
In her voice there was a poignant sadness, almost a bitter element. “I am the Angel of Death.” Was she sorry? Her voice seemed so heavy with sorrow.
“Why?” I asked her, choking back on my panic. “Why do you do this?”
“I have been around since life was first breathed. And when the last person on earth
breathes his last breath, it will be me who takes it.” She paused in thoughtful reflection. “I am death.”
“But you don’t want to be.”
“I cannot change what is.”
“You can’t take her.”
“You cannot keep her,” she countered.
Her face became immediately filled with remorse and sadness. She reached out to hold
my quivering chin in her slender fingers. “Your lives are not your own, my precious child. I do not take what is yours. I only retrieve what was borrowed to you.”
Tears filled my eyes and I shut them tight as I shook my head in pure defiance. “No,” I
repeated. “No, I won’t let you.”
In the span of a nanosecond, her demeanor shifted from compassionate to vengeful hate.
She laughed in maniacal anger. Her presences suddenly filled the entire room. Her hair crackled like tiny daggers of lightening. And from her eyes were bolts of fire. Swirls of light and color danced around her until she took the shape of an exploded nebula, growing brighter until all I could see was burning white. All I could hear was her wrath. Her voice was shrill and growing louder. “You won’t let me?” Her laughter was harsh and degrading. “You cannot stop me, urchin. For I answer to no one.”
But she did. All of the sudden, all of my grandmothers teaching came to head. I did
learn what she had been telling me for years. I did listen to her. Now, if it only it wasn’t too late to let her know. I lifted my chin and extended my hand towards this powerful being. And I quoted from the scripture that nanay used to always read, “Man, on the day
of his death, falls down before the angel of death like a beast before the slaughterer,” I was empowered by the look of surprise in her eyes and plowed on, “My grandmother is no beast and there will be no slaughter on this day.”
She appraised me for a moment. Smiled, even. And nodded. “Brave and foolish child.
How, pray tell, do you suppose you will stop me?”
The door to my grandmothers room was still shut. A simple wooden door. No locks. No
bars. And, even if there were some sort of barrier, the Angel of Death would probably just walk right through it. I stood closer to the stairs, a diagonal line to my grandmothers’ room. The Angel stood in a direct line to her room. She was closer. How would I save my nanay? Who was I to fight with an entity who had been around since the beginning of time?
I closed my eyes. And for the first time in my life – I prayed to the God that my
grandmother had so much faith in.
The Angel laughed. “Now? Now you pray? One may not escape the angel of death, nor
say to him, Wait until I put my affairs in order. There is no escape. No amount of begging will persuade me to cease what has already been preordained.”
“My heavenly father,” I resisted the temptation to open my eyes and continued in my
prayer. I risked the possibility that the Angel would walk the distance to the door while I prayed. But I had lacked faith for far too long. This time, I thought, this time I would not be swayed.
Perhaps she hesitated out of curiosity. Whatever it was, I was afforded the time to
plead, not for my life, but for my grandmothers. “Our God in heaven, I stand before you a foolish and humble child. Rebellious and disobedient. Unworthy. I beg your forgiveness, father, if I beg for anything else tonight, it will be your forgiveness for my willful disregard and ignorance to your words.
“I know that you hold our lives in your very hands. I know that the paths in our lives have been predestined by you and that we are offered many choices in hopes that we make the right ones. Along the path of my life, whenever I have fallen, you have stopped to pick me up. I beg you, Lord, do not leave me behind this time. Hear me, God, although I may have lost my way. Please, have mercy on your lost sheep, for I have found my way back into your fold.” I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt my hot tears fall from my chin. Still, I did not waiver. “If you must take a life tonight, take mine. My love for her is bigger than my love for myself. And she is a far more worthy servant. She is old, but not tired. And she is relentless in her pursuit to serve you. If it would satisfy you, father, I would gladly give myself for her. All my life she has sacrificed her own comfort for mine. Allow me to repay her the kindness. Don’t let me be too late.”
“I am only a weak servant, Lord. And tonight I pray that you will lend me your strength. I
pray that you will forgive me. I pray that you spare my grandmothers life, if only for a short time. If only for the reason that I have been a selfish and negligent granddaughter. Do not take her from me when I have not yet proven my love to her. Do not yet take her when I have not told her how sorry I am for not seeing her.
“I did not see her for her quiet strength. I did not see her for all her accomplishments. I
did not see her for the contributions she has made in her life. All I saw was my old grandmother bothering me, pestering me, nagging at me. What a spoiled and blind child I have been, oh god. I may not deserve it, God, but my grandmother does. Grant me your mercy, father, if only for a moment. I need your strength tonight, for I have not any.
“I ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.” I looked directly into the eyes of
“Are you quite done?” She moved closer to my grandmothers door.
With a feeling of complete determination, I moved to stand in front of nanay’s room. I
didn’t know what I had to do. But I knew what I didn’t want her to do. I rested both fists on either hip, in a stance of foolish bravery. The challenge had been issued. She would not pass unless she passed through me. I would not allow it.
The Angel laughed again. “You dare to refuse me?” She reached out her fingers and
laid them across my cheek, burning them until smoke rose from my skin. Her demonstration was as real as any pain I’d ever experienced.
I screamed from the pain, but I did not move from my position. “You cannot pass,” I told
her, nearly choking in my agony.
Suddenly, her aura lashed out against me, barraging me with pummeling fists. Her hair
was raging like an ocean, and the folds of her robe flicked at me like a thousand snake tongues. She conjured up the winds and storms in the room, so that I stood before her with my nightgown soaking wet and clinging to my body. With an invisible rod she whipped me until I could feel my skin ripping. She could hurt me, I realized. But she could not pass. The Angel screamed in outrage, yet I gave her no quarter.
When I spoke, the voice did not sound like my own. “There is no man who lives and,
seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand. But I have seen you, Angel, and you will not take me. If one who has sinned has confessed his fault, the angel of death may not touch him.” She could not pass through me. I had been lent the strength of God. “I have confessed my faults, Angel. You hold no power here.”
Enraged, she grabbed one of my wrists in her hand and squeezed fiercely. My wrist
cracked in her hand. I could feel my flesh burning and smell my skin cooking in her palm. Smoke rose from her hands and she dropped my wrist in utter disbelief. For some inexplicable reason, SHE had been burning as well. The Angel pointed her face to the heavens and let out a scream that seemed to eminate from the very core of the world. Layers upon layers of voices, both male and female, screamed out of her throat and her entity grew brighter and brighter until she was swallowed up by the folds of her swirling robes. They too coiled tighter and tighter until they also disappeared.
I immediately dropped to the floor in complete exhaustion. My limbs were stiff and could not support my body. It seemed I was caught up in the vortex she had created because my world turned black and began spinning and spinning and spinning…
But I could hear her words echoing in the darkness of my mind.
The angel of death, who has been charged with you, will gather you; then to your Lord
you will be returned.
One day, I thought during my last moments of lucid clarity, but it would not be today.
In the morning, my grandmother opened the door to her room to find me curled up in a
little ball on the floor. “Leng-leng, what are you doing?”
Disoriented, I struggled to rise. “I don’t know…” I leaned against one arm to push myself
up and found myself falling back unto the floor. I cried out in pain. My wrist felt sprained, if not broken. Upon examination, I found it seared with an unusual black ring.
“What happened?” Nanay asked.
The events of the night before suddenly came flooding back to me. I shook my head
again, to clear it of haziness. What did happen last night? Was it real? “How did you sleep last night, nanay?” I struggled to get back up.
She frowned and shrugged. “I heard the wind howling last night. Loud and awful. But,
you know what, leng-leng? For some reason, I wasn’t scared. I felt peaceful. It was as if… As if I had an angel watching over me last night. I had an angel protecting me.”
I smiled to myself. Nanay was right. We had come full circle.
My grandmother passed away in 2003 when I was 26. She was 89 years old. She loved roller coasters and motorcycle rides. She once rid her village of Japanese soldiers when they tried to take my uncle in World War II by telling them that they were suffering from malaria. She loved going to church and served as a deaconess until her memory began to fade. When my sisters were teenagers, she once chased them down with a samurai sword. She was able to attend both my sisters weddings. She was constantly trying to run away from the hospital and once streaked through the halls unclothed. She lived to see my two older daughters come into this world. She was able to hold and delight in them. And I was able to tell her how much I loved her.
Dedicated to Aquilina Del Rosario Tejada 1914-2003