My Mexican-American friends joke that Mexican families always ride 10-people deep in a compact car. Jokes like that remind me of two cultural traits that Mexican-Americans share with my Filipino-American family: size and togetherness.
I had a powerful experience involving these traits several years ago, when my adopted grandmother fell ill. Mama Hely had first been my babysitter when I was a child, but over the years I stayed close with her and her family. When she was hospitalized at the age of 71 for liver failure, we all rushed to care for her.
One day, I was sitting with my Mama as she slept. I noticed a woman lying in bed on the other side of the hospital curtain, alone. My Mama was never alone. Up to six people would be in the room with her, 24-7. She never woke up alone, never had a stranger feed her, take her to the bathroom, or for a walk.
The other woman was white, probably also in her 70s. Only once did she have a visitor: A few minutes into my watch a man came in, perhaps a son or nephew. He sat with her, watching TV. I don’t remember them talking much, if at all. Half an hour later, he left.
When the doctors hospitalized my Mama, they gave her a year to live, but she lived nearly two more than that. I’m convinced that the care she received from people she knew and loved was a major reason why she lived so long.
As someone who’s struggled with the contradictions between my Filipino and American identities—between the sometimes stifling togetherness of my Filipino family and my American worship of rugged individualism—Mama Hely’s death helped me realize that my hybridized cultural experience is both a boon and blessing, combining independence and tradition. It’s an experience shared by many immigrant groups.
And my Mama didn’t die alone in a hospital room but in her home, surrounded by her husband, children, and extended family, including me. When it’s my turn to go, I want to die like that.