Dear Lola Conchita, ’yours is the kind of love that’s secure and selfless’

Separated by an ocean, Arvin Joaquin found comfort in his grandmother’s letters. Now, he’s sending her one of his own.
Arvin Joaquin
Lola and Arvin (Courtesy of Arvin Joaquin)
Lola and Arvin (Courtesy of Arvin Joaquin)

I still replay our recorded conversation from February 2020 when I came to the Philippines after you broke your hip. When I heard about your fall, the possibility of losing you was so palpable that I bargained with God. I swore I would preserve your story. That night, I held your hand as you walked me through your colourful life.

You told me your parents’ names, Dionisio and Rosita, who both died before you were 14. You lost your dad in 1940, and two years later, amid the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, you lost your mom while fleeing the war. You hadn’t mentioned them by name to me before. I imagine it was because, after all these years, it was still painful.

You stared at the ceiling and slowly recounted how, at 18, you met and married Lolo Isabelo against some of your relatives’ wishes and soon started a family. You and Lolo worked hard for your eight children, overcoming long-distance separations between Mindanao and Negros islands and working multiple jobs, from seamstress to pineapple plantation supervisor, to make ends meet.

In the years when you were meant to retire and relax, you took another turn at motherhood, taking care of me when Mom left the Philippines to work in Canada.

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I was 13 and I remember spending our 2003 Noche Buena (midnight dinner on Christmas Day) packing. Years later, I’d learn that close to two million Filipinos have left the country to provide for their families. I understood my mom’s reason for leaving, but it was still the saddest Christmas of my life.

Looking back, I wonder: what was it like for you? Mom was your third daughter to leave the Philippines and I don’t remember seeing you cry.

Mom was in Canada, Dad was living in a different city trying to start new businesses, and kids like me were often described as cautionary tales. Filipino movies showed children of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) as people longing for their parents’ presence, turning to drugs or alcohol to fill that void. It scared me. Thankfully, you and Lolo revised that script.

On days when I missed Mom, you were there with the warmest embrace. When I discovered my favourite food—mung beans with pork or fish with malunggay—you cooked them alternately for weeks until I begged you to stop. You would do anything to make me happy, and you showed me that daily.

In high school, I was so focused on assignments and friends, I didn’t notice you and Lolo slowing down. First, it was the pain in your knees. Then, you developed a limp, favouring your left leg over the right. One day, you couldn’t leave home without being helped down the front stairs. Next, your hearing faded. I had to repeat my stories from school and the dialogue from telenovelas, louder each time.

We lost Lolo to lung cancer in 2008, months before I was about to leave for Canada. You convinced us you were okay, but part of me wished I could keep you company a little longer. I was 18 and asked if you wanted to come with me, but you dismissed the idea. “The cold,” you chuckled, “will kill me.”

Separated by an ocean, you stayed close by sending me handwritten letters whenever someone visited you in the Philippines. The letters are mostly identical: Bible verses you want me to remember, little notes telling me how proud you are of me and how lucky you are that I love you. Lola, I am the lucky one.

Yours is the kind of love that’s secure and selfless. The type of love that woke up early to make me a warm cup of hot chocolate every single day of high school. It’s the same love I felt when you held me close that Christmas Day almost two decades ago, and that I feel now when you wave on video calls and ask me how I’m doing. The kind of love that can endure distance and time.

As I’ve moved around Canada, I brought your letters with me. Whenever I felt homesick, I found refuge in rereading them. Your writing was familiar, your words were comforting and, just like those years back, I felt safe.

Since our last visit, nothing—and everything—has changed. You’re still stuck in bed and we still worry about you from afar. Meanwhile, the world seems different. I feel hopeless and lonely at times. During those moments, I revisit your letters and, just like when I was 13, the warmth of your love reminds me that everything will be okay.

Lola, through your letters, I’ll always carry a piece of you with me forever. It’s my turn to give you mine.

This article appears in print in the August 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Lola Conchita…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.