My grandpa, Tirso de Leon, would have turned 103 today. He died in the Philippines in 2007 from natural causes. Just one day before his first wife’s death anniversary.
He was an attorney. And while the community addressed him as “Attorney,” the rest of us called him, “Pops.” He fought in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March. He credited his abilities to write and use a typewriter as the reason for his survival in the war. When a superior learned of his skills, Pops was reassigned from the front lines to be a typist.
Smart as hell, he spoke and wrote better English than all of us. He had the mind of a steel trap and a wicked sense of humor up until the day he died. It was that day I felt the pain of losing a parent. We were that close.
I wrote to him regularly for about nine years. In the last three years of his life I wrote to him almost every day. First it was snail mail. Then I simply emailed his neighbor, a dear family friend, who dutifully printed out every letter and delivered it to him across the street.
I thought I might continue to write to him after his death, maybe in the form of an unshared document, but as I mourned his loss I also let go of that regular writing habit.
In losing that writing habit, I fear I’ve started to forget my most treasured memories of Pops. So for his birthday, I write. As fast as I can, to hold onto what’s left.
What follows are my favorite anecdotes about Pops and my favorite things he has said over the years.
On me forgetting to do something:
“Thought it was your grandma who had Alzheimer’s. Not you.”
On being asked to repeat himself for the third or fourth time:
“I. Asked. What. Are. We. Eating. For. Dinner?” (While spelling out the words in the American Sign Language alphabet on his right hand.)
On playing Boggle with me. Extremely competitively (and beating me more than half the time):
“I just want you to be a literary genius.”
On asking what it was like to get shot in World War II:
“Well… it hurt. What do you think?”
On a local kid coming to his house to interview him about World War II for a school assignment:
“Oh it’s that time of the year again.”
On seeing his friend walking alongside the road while my grandpa was driving:
(Slows to 5mph to match her pace, giving precisely zero cares about the cars behind him.) “Hello Maggieeeee! How are you today?”
When I was 4, asking him to draw a “three” but I couldn’t yet pronounce the “th” sound:
(Draws a perfect evergreen tree.)
On treating us out to breakfast at a cute Spanish-themed restaurant, Dulcinea:
“It’s on me! The sky’s the limit! Just don’t order too much.” (Cheesy wink)
On seeing me eat balut (fertilized duck egg) for the first time and doing so incorrectly by nibbling at it instead of eating it whole:
“Oh God, what are you doing?” (Turns away.) “Ugh, I can’t look. I said, ‘One bite!’ One!”
On discovering he still had his hand gun behind the TV:
“Oh yes!” (Casually flicks the chamber. Brings the gun down to his side.) “One. Two. Three. Cowboy!” (Suddenly raises the gun straight ahead, in an imaginary duel. No, the gun was not pointing at me or at anybody else.)
Explaining why he had said gun:
“Because of the prowlers.”
And then, these moments…
When I was a child:
When he’d reflect the sunlight off his watch onto the wall, and I’d be captivated with this “moo moo light” (or “monster light”).
I was three or four years old and we’d play “Little Red Riding Hood” and take turns being both Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
He’d sing “Come to Me My Melancholy Baby” in the style of Bing Crosby.
When he’d bunch up his fingers with his opposing hand, and have me try to identify the middle finger.
When I was a pre-teen:
Learning he stopped eating ground meat because it reminded him too much of the wounded soldiers he fought with in World War II.
Knowing he hated “Saving Private Ryan” and had to turn it off after a few minutes because it felt too real.
When he’d sit with his wife, who had Alzheimer’s and was in the final year or two of her life, how he’d talk to her and stroke her arm and gaze at her longingly, hoping she would have a flicker of remembrance. She didn’t. And he’d turn away sadly and stand up and take a walk around the garden.
When I was a teenager:
How I’d spent my summers in the Philippines to be with him, and how hilarious I thought it was that people thought I was strange for not wanting to spend my evenings out, enjoying the Philippine nightlife.
When he thought I was feeling sad or bored so he would take me to Betty’s, a restaurant that had my favorite sans rival cake in Manila.
That time I went out shopping with my aunt and uncle and it was pouring rain. He called me on the cell phone I borrowed from him and I could hear his voice which sounded so far away, “Come hooome… It’s raining so hard.”
When I was an older teen and aware he was approaching the end of his life:
That he permed his hair.
That he had a full head of hair.
How much he loved manicures.
That the last time I saw him was a month and a half before he died. For his 90th birthday.
That I crawled into the hospital bed next to him and unintentionally shifted the IV tube coming out of his arm. I didn’t dislodge the needle and I know now my movement was harmless. But for months, I wondered if I was somehow responsible for his death.
That my last letter to him was simply, “I love you!!!” in large font.
That that letter was printed and the neighbor’s maid ran outside just in time to give it to my mom, who was on her way to the hospital to spend the day with Pops.
That my mom was only vaguely aware of the piece of paper she held on her lap.
That as Pops laid on his bed dying, my mom suddenly remembered she had a letter from me and she gave it to him.
That he held up the letter to read it, his hand shaking.
That he died that afternoon. Holding my letter.
That I know this story so well I’m almost certain I was there. That in my mind’s eye, I can see him adjusting his reading glasses, his right hand shaking, clenching the paper.
That when he died, he knew how much I loved him. That I have no regrets, no concerns about anything left unsaid or undone. To have this confidence fills up my heart. But it is only at this moment, in my 30s, that I realize that feeling has shaped the way I love the people closest to me. I have to thank Pops for that.
Happy birthday, Pops. I’m not the literary genius you hoped I would be. But I most definitely type faster than you.