As a child, I’d known her as “Auntie Tita.” She was one of my grandmother’s younger sisters, making her my great-aunt. When I was growing up, she was the matriarch of the family, and was greatly respected and loved. She’d moved to the US in the mid-60s to pursue a nursing career, and never returned to the Philippines, except for short visits.
Back home, Auntie Tita (or Aunt Fortune, as I would later call her) was revered. She was ambitious, smart and hard working, and her advice was greatly sought after and valued. Always big-hearted and kind, she and her husband (Uncle Jim) sponsored many family members to come to the US, opening up their home to them while they got themselves established. Nieces and nephews were helped with their school fees, and many members of the family found work opportunities with her help and connections.
In the late 70s, I met Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim for the first time. We were living in Ithaca and we drove over to Chicago to visit them. I only have vague memories of the trip, and so I’ve relied on photographs to fill in the blanks. In the pictures, Aunt Fortune appears slender, graceful and almost regal.
It would be another two decades before I saw them again. By then, I was living and working in the UK, and came to the US on business. Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim were living in Washington DC, and so I arranged to stay with them for a weekend. It was during that visit that I really got to know them. They’d recently relocated to DC with her job (after moving into nursing administration, Aunt Fortune had completed a doctorate degree in health education, and was now working for the VA as Program Chief of the Associated Health Education Office) and were very happy to show me all of the sights.
During my stay, they went out of their way to make me feel welcomed and loved. They both had so much energy and we would talk late into the night, sharing stories about our lives and ourselves. I remember telling them how I had benefited from the balikbayan boxes (packages of gifts) that they’d send back home to the Philippines. Their daughter, Jenny, is only two years older than me, so when the boxes included any clothes that she’d outgrown, I tended to be the lucky recipient. I told them how I was always so happy to receive them, because they were from America and they’d belonged to Jenny. I also remember Aunt Fortune telling me how proud I made her, because I’d worked hard, had pursued a graduate degree and now had a good job with a highly regarded company. She liked it when her family’s younger generation followed in her footsteps.
In 2002, two years after that visit, my company closed down operations in the UK and I relocated to the US. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Aunt Fortune was starting to think about retiring. Her job was very stressful, and she decided that she wanted to enjoy her retirement while she was still strong and in good health. So, as I was settling into my new life in Delaware, Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim were busy planning their retirement. A year later, after their new home was completed, Aunt Fortune retired from the VA and joined Uncle Jim in Florida. She was 62.
In 2004, along with my then boyfriend and future husband, Robert, I drove down to Florida to visit them. I was excited to see them again, and for them to meet Robert who affectionately describes the meeting as: “After our 15 hour drive, their welcome was like the one that awaited the return of the prodigal son… There were no boundaries to their warmth, their kindness and their generosity”. Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim were as welcoming, loving and nurturing, as they were when I first visited them in DC. I felt at home being with them.
Since that first trip to Florida together, Robert and I made many, many more trips to visit them in the following years. When we got married in Florida in 2006, Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim were our witnesses. Over the years, we exchanged many stories and got to know each other really well. There was always plenty of laughter. We cooked, dined, shopped, fished, played mahjong and bingo, and attended parties together. They and their friends (fellow retirees, who were now living away from their own families) adopted us as their own, with us taking on the role of stand-in children or grandchildren. We loved being with them.
Visiting Aunt Fortune and Uncle Jim always felt like coming home, rather than going somewhere. Robert describes our visits with them as follows: “Food had always been a big part of our visits. Often we’d get in very late at night, and we’d tell them not to wait up for us. They usually did, and even as we walked through the door, Aunt Fortune would be putting wonderful home-cooked food in front of us. Then, the following morning, we’d get woken by her calling to tell us that breakfast was ready. Usually before breakfast was even over, she’d be telling us what she planned to cook for lunch!” Aunt Fortune loved to eat crabs, and we shared many stories over mountains of steamed crabs and cold beer. I remember her telling me how she’d arrived in Chicago in the middle of winter without any coat or jacket, and how clueless she’d been about where she was going. I told her how I’d arrived in the UK in the middle of summer, but still needed to wear thermal underwear to feel warm!
As we spent time together, I came to realize that Aunt Fortune and I were very similar in many ways, and that we shared many of the same personality traits. We were both ambitious and very driven. We’d both left the Philippines early in life, to pursue work opportunities and careers abroad. We’d both obtained doctorate degrees in our respective fields, and had been successful in our careers. Aunt Fortune was a get-things-done person. We both walked fast, with our husbands often trailing behind and struggling to keep up, trying and failing to understand the reason for the rush. However, in spite of our many similarities, there were also some things that we didn’t agree on, and over time we learned to avoid certain topics such as politics and religion.
While Aunt Fortune did get to travel quite a bit after she retired, she regretted that she hadn’t travelled more when she was younger. “Go everywhere you want to go and see everything you want to see while you’re still young and physically able, then learn from your travels and share your experiences and perspectives with us”, she once told me.
As it was, Aunt Fortune had only 5 years of strong, active and healthy retirement. We visited them a lot during that time, as we were building a holiday home on the lot next to theirs. During that time, like many new retirees, they seemed busier than ever: working in their garden, growing vegetables, fruits and flowers; hosting game nights and parties for their friends; enjoying cruises in Europe and in the Caribbean; actively participating in multiple activities with their church; indulging their love of slot machines in Las Vegas; and being ever-present at key family events such as birthdays, graduations and weddings.
In early 2009, during a routine mammogram, cancerous cells were detected in her right breast. Fortunately, the cancer was caught early and following a lumpectomy and radiation treatment, she was given the all clear. The following year, she underwent a total hysterectomy as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer. Again she made a full recovery, but managing her health became a larger part of her daily routine. Each time we visited, we saw that more of their lives revolved around doctor’s appointments, hospital visits and medication regimens.
In July 2013, I called Aunt Fortune to tell her that my mother had lost her battle with cancer and that we were about to fly to the Philippines for the funeral. She told me that she’d also had bad news the previous day. During another routine check up, they’d again found malignant cancer cells in her pancreas. Unfortunately, this time they had found it quite late, and the cancer had already spread to the surrounding tissues and organs. Over the next 19 months, she put up a brave fight, but in February of this year she was moved to a local hospice. We got to visit her one last time, spending the weekend by her bedside, holding her hands and telling her how much we loved her, making her laugh as we retold old stories. We said our last goodbyes and returned to Delaware, and she died a couple of days later, surrounded by her family. She was 74 years old.
At certain times in our lives, such as the death of loved ones, no words are adequate. After my mother’s death, I didn’t really deal with my grief. I blocked it off and got on with my life, and it was only when Aunt Fortune died that the walls I’d built came tumbling down, and I found myself overwhelmed with grief, sinking into a deep depression. What hit me hard was how quickly and how completely their lives had diminished, once they got ill. As they’d grown weaker, I’d watched as they progressively lost their capacity to walk, run, travel, socialize and do the things that they loved to do.
Their deaths have been an eye-opener to me, making me realize how important it is to use my time wisely. There will be no more days spent watching the clock tick by; no more days when I feel my life is coasting, or that someone else other than me is in control of my future; no more days wasted on things that don’t matter to me. Losing them has made me question where my own life is going, has made me focus on the things that are really important to me and has set me on this path of midlife reflection. They both always wanted the best for me, to live life to the full and to have no regrets. I intend to honor their memories by doing exactly that.