Writing and Remembering:
the Genesis of Bakit Nakalimutan ni Lola Celia?
[Why Did Lola Celia Forget?]
Growing old is a curious thing. For some it can be a little frightful, for others a little funny, for most maybe a little puzzling, but who knows what it’s really like to be old unless you already are?
For someone who has crossed the middle age line, this question becomes more and more real as you step out the door and keys are forgotten, chance encounters with acquaintances require an A-Z brain scan for name recall, and children are called for SOS with software applications or the remote control. It is often referred to in jest as “senior moments” to connote the fleeting nature of forgetfulness in those who do not yet belong to the age group. But when you are finally there, it seems those moments become unremarkable, something that is taken for granted and easily equated with, well, having grown old.
Forgetfulness in old age is not really anything like the “senior moments” younger folks tend to suffer from every now and then. Unlike forgetting keys, names of people we had not seen in months or years, or fumbling with new technology, the loss of cognitive functioning such as thinking, remembering and reasoning in old age —referred to as dementia—is a
chronic disease brought about by changes in the brain, and not merely a result of absent-mindedness or daily life stressors. It is probably not something we think about too much when we reduce memory lapses or behavioral changes of the elderly to simply being ulyanin, until that elderly is our Lolo or Lola, maybe even a Tatay or Nanay, a Tito or Tita.
Aside from the physiological aspect of the illness, was there any redemptive reason behind losing one’s ability to recognize and be recognized by those who loved you most?
I was very close to my aunt I called Tita Chita. She was my mom’s sister. She was also our ninang at our wedding. We would frequent her home where the doorbell was only an alert but never a necessity, because her door was always open when we came. We would go straight into her kitchen where she, dressed in her comfortable floral vestida, would wave us in and tell us to sit and eat whatever time of day it was. There was always something she would pull out of her refrigerator and toss into the microwave or heat in a pan while adding Magic Sarap for good measure while we winced and she laughed her hearty laugh. She laughed at herself, and she made us all laugh. She never pretended she could cook, but we always ate what she prepared, there being a fifty percent chance it wouldn’t be so bad, and a hundred percent chance we would always enjoy being in her kitchen listening to her stories. She had many, like the many souvenirs she kept through the years which we all boxed up eventually
when she could no longer remember why she had kept them. She liked handing us little knick-knacks to bring home - sometimes artificial flowers from her vases, sometimes fancy accessories she had bought from a tiangge, sometimes food in a Tupperware she insists will be salvageable in my hands. “Ikaw na ang bahalang mag-retoke niyan!” she would say. It seemed to me, a way of imparting pieces of herself to those who will remember when she eventually forgets. And she did eventually forget. She was diagnosed with dementia before the pandemic began. Her decline was not easy to watch. So, the visits were fewer and farther between. The last time I saw Tita Chita was on Zoom in the height of the lockdown. We celebrated her 82nd birthday online. I don’t know if she recognized me, but I did recognize her laughter, just a little softer, a lot weaker. She passed away a few months later.
In the early stages of the pandemic, I wondered about how the tragedy of Covid which deprived the family and friends of the afflicted the ability to give comfort to their sick or dying loved ones was, in a way, similar to the tragedy of dementia. How does someone with dementia feel being surrounded by “strangers” in his or her remaining days? And how do family members and friends feel being thought of as “strangers” after countless years spending afternoons in the same kitchen sharing stories and laughter over merienda? Is there any kind of comfort at all on either side? Aside from the physiological aspect of the illness, was there any redemptive reason behind losing one’s ability to recognize and be recognized by those who loved you most?
There was not much research that transpired in writing my story, I have to admit. If scientific data is concerned, it would mostly be observational. Most of what was written was based on introspection and my own experience with both the old and the young. I was a preschool teacher for more than ten years, raised three children who are now all young adults, and still frequently engage in conversations with my gradeschool aged nieces and nephew. I wanted to tell a story which I knew. Just like conversations between children who incessantly ask why and adults who try to give the best explanations only to be met with yet
another why, the story I wanted to tell was based on a question I was not certain would be answered by the time I got to the end. But as I kept writing and experiencing my characters evolve, I became sure that there was more to this story than answering the whys. It was an attempt to tackle an issue not typically discussed with children, yet experienced by them in seeing the changes happening to those who had taken care of them, guided them and loved them. It was an attempt to bring young readers closer to empathy rather than to answers.
I wrote Bakit Nakalimutan ni Lola Celia? as an entry to the Lampara Prize 2021 Storywriting Competition under the Children Category. Though I had already published a children’s book in 2013 entitled Si Pedrong Gagamba, Pito Ang Paa, and self-published Once There Was A Lonely Bubble in 2021, I only began joining storywriting competitions during the lockdown. It seemed not only a good way to complete a story given a deadline, but also to keep writing under challenging circumstances. It had been quite a while since I last picked up my pen after a writing hiatus, and so when I finally did I decided to make it worth the long while. I wanted my story to matter. I chose to write in Filipino since I had grown up speaking this as my first language at home. I thought that using the language I grew up with would make more sense. It helped make the dialogue more spontaneous and honest—the way I knew a child would have spoken to her Lola and the way her Lola would have responded. I wanted it to speak to both the children who would read the story and to the adults who would read to them and with them.
It was an honor for the story to have won the grand prize. Though it remains unpublished to date, the hope is that it would one day reach a broader audience and do just what I had envisioned it would. Meanwhile, it would always be a testament to the wonders and the woes of growing old, the wisdom of knowing and of not, the forgetting and the being forgotten, the struggle to make everything stay the same when, in fact, as we have all seen during the time of the pandemic, nothing does. And if we all eventually forget with age, then the young will always be there to remind us.
On a more personal level, my aunt did not die of Covid. It was her heart that failed her. We would have been able to visit her before she passed away under normal circumstances, but with the heightened restrictions, that was not to happen. I wondered if it would have made any difference if she hardly recognized us anyway. In hindsight, I dare say—yes, it would have. This story was written to bridge that gap.