In this photo, my only nephew, Jace, is celebrating his ninth birthday with his six-year-old sister, Julia, my 73-year-old mother, whom they affectionately call, "Lola" and Lola's famous homemade chocolate pudding "slop cake." ("Lola" is the term for grandma in her Filipino language.) And, they're famously holding up their fingers to represent their ages.
One of his favorite desserts, I know that my mom made the cake for his actual birthday. And, as it's a Monday, where there are busy work, school, CCD class and sports schedules to coordinate, she just wanted to do something special while she had a moment with him to herself before a bigger family celebration over the weekend.
While looking at this photo, I got to thinking what a unique experience Jace is having and he probably doesn't even know it. And, it has nothing to do with the slop cake. Well, not really.
See, I was born in the Philippines, but raised in America. An Air Force serviceman, my father was stationed at Clark Air Base during the Vietnam War near Angeles City, where I was born. My parents were married in the Philippines, but once the government started pulling troops out of the war, my father was sent back home. My mother, still unsure about leaving all she knew behind - her family, friends and culture - didn't make the decision to move to America until she found out she was pregnant with my first brother, Tom. We were apart from my father for a whole six months before she could muster up the courage to leave the Philippines. It was an immense sacrifice she made to follow her heart to be with my father and to give her children an opportunity for a better life.
But as a result of that move, we never got to know our Filipino grandparents. My Lolo (Filipino grandfather) passed away during my sophomore year in high school. And, traveling to the Philippines was not an expense my blue-collar family could afford in time or expense. So, I never got to know my Lola, never mind celebrate a birthday with her.
However, Tom got to travel to the Philippines with my mother in 1994 when we were told Lola's health was declining. Her family strongly urged her to come just in case she were to pass. Therefore, my brother escorted her on the trip to see Lola and the rest of the family . They stayed for a period of four whole months, even spending his 21st birthday there. To honor him, at least 20 people - Lola, aunts, uncles and cousins - sang him, "Hello, Dolly" because it was the only song they all knew how to sing in English.
They had stayed for so long, knowing she would probably never return. My mother also hates flying and, again, it was an expensive trip for them to make. Traveling that far around the world warrants taking a month off when you are visiting with family you rarely see and a month is not always feasible when you have a job, right?
While I was a little jealous that he got to visit the Philippines instead of me (I was finishing my last semester of college), I'm still glad Tom was able to go. I felt better knowing she was well protected and, since college wasn't working out for him, it was a good experience for him to have in that transition. It also gave him a greater understanding of my mother and her culture and it helped him develop a deeper level of compassion for others, as my mother comes from poverty.
Lola passed away just after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. She lived longer than any of us ever thought she would. But I am happy for my mother that she got to see her before she got sicker.
Now, at 73, my mother not only gets to see her own grandchildren grow up, but she gets to spend as many birthdays as she can with them, too. In turn, my nieces and nephew get an experience my brothers and I never had as a kid. They have both sets of grandparents in their lives. My sister-in-law's parents only live 10 minutes away and my parents only live 40 minutes away. And, they're all healthy enough to help raise them, spend time with them and celebrate all the milestones and special occasions with them. Isn't that special...for everyone?
And, isn't that what it's all about? Giving children the positive experiences you didn't have?
Deep down, seeing the smiles on their faces makes me think somehow that my own Lola must be smiling from above, too. Sacrifices are things we make now only to be paid off much later, in ways we never anticipate or expect.
And, that's why every birthday my parents get to spend with my nieces and nephews is just a little more special to me than most.
Happy Aloha 9th Birthday, Jace.
Live, Love and Lead with Aloha!