A year ago today, I lost my maternal grandfather (Ingcong Ben Manaloto) to throat cancer and its complications. I had known him as a man strong on traditional values (always insisting I find myself a girlfriend before he died), a man who put himself through college eventually graduating with an Accounting degree from Far Eastern University in Manila, a man who survived World War II eating nothing but kangkong (according to one of his many stories), an enterprising business person who ran a lucrative Caltex station in San Fernando, Pampanga and owned several huge tracts of land in the area, and as a man known for his unconventional methods to save a few pesos when needed (such as “extending” a can of pork-and-beans by adding water and onions). And while I butted heads with him on many of his viewpoints, I maintained a soft spot for him. Each Christmas Eve for the past few years, me and the family would visit him for the traditional Noche Buena dinner, which he especially enjoyed since all of his children had grown up and moved away in the years before that. And we made it a point to squeeze in occasional visits when we could, to make sure he was okay. He had been a presence in my life for over three decades, and his passing left an unexplained void that I have struggled to fill to this day.

The whole ordeal started back in September 2012, when I was contacted by my Tita Carol (one of his daughters) that he had reported difficulties swallowing and he was only able to take in liquids. Despite this, he refused to go to the hospital and according to one of his doctors, he suspected a growth in his throat was the cause, which he wanted to have verified with a biopsy. Since my aunt was in England at the time and would only be able to return after some weeks, she asked me to stay with him in the hospital for the coming week (which I managed to file leave from work for) and together with my sister Mitzi, we drove to his house in Pampanga and managed to convince him to be admitted to the hospital for the meantime. I would stay behind with my grandfather and keep him company in his room while my sister returned to Manila to handle matters at home.

The following morning, I spoke with his doctor who told me he suspected the growth was a cancerous tumor in an advanced stage of growth. He informed me that he wanted a biopsy to be sure of the diagnosis, and he shared the rather grim prospect that Ingcong Ben’s advanced age, further weakened by being unable to eat properly, would make him unable to tolerate the standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. We made the agreement to not reveal to my grandfather anything about having cancer, as his already pessimistic and somewhat bitter outlook in life would make him even more uncooperative with the doctors at this stage. He was later wheeled into the operating room to get a sample of the tumor in his throat, and after a few days the biopsy results would become available.

In the meantime, as Ingcong Ben’s companion, it left me with several major tasks I never anticipated. First, I became an unofficial interpreter / mediator for my grandfather and the medical staff, since I was there to communicate with him in the vernacular (Kapampangan, particularly) and to explain the various procedures they were performing on him. I also became the link between his doctors and the family, since I communicated daily updates on his condition. And on top of that, I entertained his visitors who came to wish him well and even ran errands inside and outside the hospital once in a while.

But the most stressful part of my stay in the hospital was when the nurses would come in during the night and early morning to check his vital signs such as his blood pressure, temperature and the like. While I did understand their reasons for doing so, it caused me to lose sleep leaving me to doze off during the surprisingly less busy daytime.

With boredom as a constant companion, I made use of the TV in the room a lot as well as stayed online using my smartphone. And when Ingcong Ben had visitors, I took those opportunities to step out of the room and change my scenery a bit. I also ended up eating mostly burgers (from the nearby Burger Machine stand) or even barbecue and liempo (from the Chic-Boy restaurant across the street), since I could not travel far to get food for myself.

After a few days, the diagnosis was in. He indeed had malignant throat cancer, which was at a highly advanced stage. And with his doctor expressing concern that he could not tolerate the more effective chemotherapy, he mentioned that they would go for radiation therapy as the next option; however, he stressed that this form of cancer was less responsive to such therapy and it was a possibility that his cancer had become terminal by that point, meaning that he would have just months to live.

After consulting with Tita Carol and Mum over the phone, the decision was made to proceed with the radiation treatment as a last resort. He would then be transferred to another hospital, which had the only radiation treatment center in the entire Central Luzon region. By this time, I was back at work and Mitzi had agreed to take my place in checking on Ingcong Ben every few days (which meant her travelling by bus to Pampanga on most days) until my aunt had arrived from England.

The last time I saw my grandfather alive was at the second hospital he was staying in, which was just a few weeks before Christmas 2012. He hardly gained any weight, although he returned to his usual jovial mood upon seeing me, my sisters and my niece and nephew. He still had difficulty communicating with us, despite undergoing the radiation therapy. We managed to pose for a picture with him, which is shown here.

My maternal grandfather "Ingcong Ben" Manaloto lies in the hospital bed flanked (left to right) by my nephew Mikhail, my sister Mitzi, my aunt Tita Carol, me and my sister Fran. He was undergoing radiation treatment during this time.

My maternal grandfather “Ingcong Ben” Manaloto lies in the hospital bed flanked (left to right) by my nephew Mikhail, my sister Mitzi, my aunt Tita Carol, me and my sister Fran. He was undergoing radiation treatment during this time.

So when we received word from Mum in the early morning hours of February 11, 2013 about Ingcong Ben’s passing, we made quick preparations for the upcoming wake and cremation. This time, I was asked to watch over his remains during the week-long wake, for which I quickly filed leave from work yet again. My role was to entertain the many relatives and friends who would pay their last respects in the coming days, which mostly happened during the day into the evening hours. Tito Jon, Ingcong Ben’s eldest son, kept me company each night I slept in the family room of the funeral parlor, then would head home in the morning before returning again in the evenings.

The cremation was scheduled for February 18, 2013, with a mass held in the morning before a short procession to the crematorium for the final handling of my grandfather’s remains. The cremation was completed by mid-afternoon, with Ingcong Ben’s ashes housed in a white marble urn. These would finally be placed at the family plot in the local cemetery on his 90th birthday, which would have been March 31, 2013. His ashes would then be united with the remains of his mother, siblings and infant son.

This was our first Christmas without him, and it felt different. I had come to realize that a lot of what he said and done in the years before had wisdom behind them, and I felt thankful for that. I may not have always agreed with him, but I still learned much from him and it was now time I put these into practice.

And with that, I bid a final farewell to my grandfather. Rest in peace, Ingcong Ben. And thank you.