Remembering Lola Opets

The first time I met Lola Opets, I thought she was a boy. Her cropped hair, her standard button down shirts, her usual black pants, and the sneakers- these were different from the more feminine shirt/ pants/ short hair look another aunt sported. For one, Auntie Pesa looked mighty flat-chested and moved quite briskly. Really, to my 4-year-old brain, she was more like my Uncle This-and-That rather than the two aunts who were my early pegs of what women are supposed to be like. It's not as if she could talk and explain her womanity to me- she doesn't talk, period. She uses the American Sign Language (ASL) to speak. Auntie Pets was my first exposure to androgyny (fashion-wise) and to a life with a definition of "normalcy" different from  you and me.

Instead of being pitiful, my aunt's life had been fascinating. She did not go traveling off to distant exotic places, but she's been to different nooks and crannies of Metro Manila. One would rarely find her home: she's usually at a friend's house or at a relative's ("She ate dinner at Uncle Ben's because they were having crabs tonight") and though this could be a cause for worry for her sometimes overprotective siblings ("Fairview? She's in Fairview?!" I remember hearing from my Auntie Claire one stormy night who was frantic because they had no clue where she was), all the worrying was just something my Auntie Pets dodged or flat out ignored.

I was a kid around the time that Auntie Pets was working at the restaurant that employed deaf-mutes in Luneta. And as my Dad loved taking me there, it felt like we had a special access pass because we knew a Luneta insider, yo. Her friends would take me to the playground and would give the most expressive smiles. Being a spectator to their world was quite fascinating for a child- all those people who communicated using frantic hand gestures and movements, chattering, complaining, gossiping without sound, just like birds.

When she retired from waitressing, she had a Christian phase where she was very active at a deaf-mute church. This was simultaneous with her caretaker phase, the period she stayed home the most voluntarily because she was the one in charge of a nephew, taking him to and from school, in charge of his needs- and take care of him she would, she won't let a raindrop touch his head if it were up to her.

Lola Pesa, taken March 2006

Auntie Pets had her vices-- food that can spike the blood pressure (crabs, anything ginataan), regular bets on the lotto & ending (a very able taya-ero, she keeps several lotto and ending permutations that she religiously bets on and from time to time wins from), kept a few quirks (she likes caps, things that light up and shine like flashlights, giveaway bags with banks' or businesses' names emblazoned on them) and insisted on sometimes irrational habits (cropped hair with bangs, always with bangs, meticulously cut fingernails, except for the nail on her left thumb which she kept long, refusing to throw away mementos- she has a lot of Guy and Pip fan art). My Aunt, because of the liberties her being deaf-and-mute afforded her, was an adult but stayed child-like most of her life. She was a refuge when things got too heavy.

Auntie Pets was also a reminder: though her "handicap" had always been present, it was never a limitation. She kept a lot of friends who are still around to this day. And if the rumor is true that once upon a time she also fell in love, I wouldn't be surprised- she's just the kind of person who won't say no to life, despite the incapacity to speak verbally and the conservative Tsinoy household she moved in, who, if it were up to them, would rather that she stays at home. The fact that she didn't, that she insisted on being out and about, has always quietly inspired me.

When she moved in with us because of stroke, it was saddening to see she can no longer walk or move without assistance. It was heartbreaking when she can't use the ASL anymore because her signing hand had been paralyzed. Slowly, we see her forgetting how to communicate. But the lesson really is to refuse to be engulfed by pity. Because of what she can't do, her quirks intensified (insisting on keeping a few precious objects by her side & throwing a little fit when she can't reach for them) and so did her silent little rebellions to stay in control (giving money to her caretakers even when she was told not to, refusing to eat bland food). Alongside these, the appreciation she would give back when you give her a few moments of your time to sit and run through numbers with her (she loved to count), to do silly salutes, to show her photos, was precious. She gave the most love-filled smiles, the most forlorn look when she realizes she no longer remembers certain things, and the funniest grin of approval whenever I'd bring around friends or a boyfriend.

Among us Filipinos, our usual attitude towards handicaps is one of wishing that they have a supportive family, that a "supportive family" is the blessing, as if they're burdens. Auntie Pets is one example that we have it wrong. We're looking at it backwards, really, because it was her presence that had been the gift. It was she who was the blessing.

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