it's been a year ago today, but it feels like it was only yesterday...
Odette Melendez-David (April 10 1945 - January 17 2017)
With a heavy heart, I hereby announce that today our beautiful and beloved oldest sibling Manang Odette has glided away peacefully into the sunset. She was in her home surrounded by her loved ones.
It was "the long goodbye" that lasted years of her being slowly robbed of who she was until only a hollow shell of her former vibrant self lingered with us. Up to the very end, she fought fiercely as she always had all her life.
Fighting an illness is nothing new to her. It started early when she was but a little girl suffering from inexplicable episodes of excruciating headaches. That was to be the first in a life of countless brushes with doctors. The headaches eventually went away somehow, remedied by an ugly oversized prescription eyeglasses she had to wear as a little girl.
But like in the fairy tale, the once bespectacled ugly duckling grew into a beautiful swan, cast the boy of her dreams, Kuya Jesse, under her spell when they were in their teens, but lost him as they escaped Lingayen, the sleepy town too small for their big dreams. The story goes that years into their separation, she suddenly appeared in his dream. And so began his dogged search for her. When he found her five years since they last saw each other, she has blossomed into a confident and glamorous career woman in the big city Manila, while he himself has become a proud and dashing gentleman in crisp US Navy uniform. Indeed, they first earned their place in the sun, then rediscovered each other after. Now you know why she loves that song "Love Is Lovelier The Second Time Around".
But she had another favorite song, "Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes, since being oceans apart, theirs is a long-distance relationship before the age of the internet and texting. This was to be the first of many tests their relationship will endure. But with years and years of non-stop, old-style love letters of long sweet nothings, in cursive and by snail mail, their love for each other easily aced that test, no sweat!
By the way, there was always a "P.S. I love you" at the bottom which accounts for another of her favorite songs. I know because she made me, a 9-year-old, read to her all of Kuya Jesse's embarrassingly mushy love letters as she put on her makeup. Go figure!
She became his radiant bride and left with him in wedded bliss for greener pastures in America to live happily ever after. Sadly, the "happily ever after” part was not to last long. Their first wedding anniversary was spent in the hospital as the mysterious headache that haunted her as a kid came back with a vengeance. Later, as a young mother of two baby boys Eric and Daryl born exactly a year apart, she was diagnosed with cancer and told she just had two months left to live.
Manang Odette had other plans. With an indomitable fighting spirit, she conquered and survived cancer at a time when surviving it was unheard of, especially the very rare variant of a very rare type of cancer, liposarcoma. There were only four known such cases in the US at that time so even to the best oncologists of the best cancer hospital, UCLA, it was uncharted territory.
It hit her in the very same spot where a benign tumor was diagnosed and operated on before she got married. It wasn't so benign after all, for it recurred in it's most malignant and rare mutation five years later. Her survival is indeed a miracle, one she prayed for in a pilgrimage she made to Our Lady of Lourdes in France when her doctors have given up all hopes.
Another miracle was how against doctors’ advise as indicated by the chemotherapy that bombarded her body while pregnant, Manang Odette and Kuya Jesse never even considered abortion. Indeed, baby Jesse Jr. was born normal and healthy against all medical odds. The youngest, baby Frederick, soon followed.
No less of a miracle too was how no expense was spared so she could get the best medical care by the best doctors in the best cancer hospital in the world, thanks to the generosity and compassion of the US Navy. The only way that was possible was through one of its own, Kuya Jesse, truly her knight in shining armour.
Giving up hope or faith or a good fight was just something Manang Odette didn't know how to do, and neither did her husband. Not only did she survive cancer, their young marriage survived it just as well. And what cannot break a marriage will only make it even stronger.
Indeed, that marriage was tested to the limit as her bruising fight against the disease involved at least 26 surgeries by the time they stopped counting and unkindly scarred her face. Healthwise, my sister seems most vulnerable where she's most physically perfect: above the neck.
She couldn't live without her yucky Pond's Cold Crème with which she always soaked that face in for hours as part of her beauty routine. I also remember her as the original fashionista, designing, sewing and crocheting her own wardrobe to look glamorous on the cheap, taking forever before the mirror dolling herself up and emerging from it looking like a cover girl, head to toe, just to go to work. Even more beautiful in person, her old photos just don’t do her justice. I remember her hating to repeat a dress once she has worn it. Problem is vanity is expensive. So to pay for her growing wardrobe, she learned to dance the Hawaiian Hula and became so good at it that she started her own business teaching it, turning our cramped apartment into a weekend dance studio. My sister has always been a great problem solver! with jacket items to wear of the occasions
Cancer was going to spare her life but severely scar the face she was so vain about. That might have robbed her of her glamorous good looks, but not of her spirit, for she went on to live a full, productive, abundant, successful and happy life with her big, rowdy, growing family, retiring from a 29-year career serving those with special needs and owning with her husband five California houses as she went along.
For all their marital and material successes, Kuya Jesse gives all the credit to his wife. But I disagree for it takes two to tango. And despite his long absences as he sailed the oceans to keep the Free World safe, no husband, father, and provider could have been a better half of that marriage.
Then came the unkindest illness of them all, the one they call "the long goodbye".
In the end, even that indomitable fighting spirit of hers had to give way to an unforgiving disease that slowly robbed her first of her memory, and then of her body. Through it all and as usual, she fought a good fight.
Manang Odette was a mother to her four boys, a mother-in-law to their wives, a grandmother to eight, and the wife of the noblest human being I've ever known. Theirs was that extremely rare marriage made in heaven, truly for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death did them part.
For the way she was selflessly and tirelessly cared for by her husband up to her last breath, Manang Odette couldn't have asked God for a better man. It is said that no greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for his friend.
Kuya Jesse did practically just that to his best friend, soulmate, and wife, for he denied himself everything just so he could devote all his time and energy into showering her with caring, companionship, and affection hands-on for years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even long after she has completely lost her memory.
It was truly a love unconditional in its purest form and knows no bounds. Scarred of body and then scarred of mind, Manang Odette was cared for devotedly by her husband long after she couldn’t even recognize him anymore.
Indeed, when God closes a door, He opens a window. He might not have given my sister the best of health, but to make up for it, He gave her a husband who's even better in every possible way than she could ever wish for. The happiest I’ve ever seen my sister was when she wedded Kuya Jesse 46 years ago in her flowing white satin wedding gown, glowingly gliding to her prince like the beautiful white swan princess Odette after whom she was named.
On that note, I wish to lessen the profound sadness of this moment by posting these pictures of their happiest day together on June 14, 1970.
Manang Odette was the oldest of eight siblings, our parent’s co-breadwinner as a working student till she married and very generous to us even after. She was also our family's pioneer twice. First, she upgraded the family from a small rural town in the Philippines to the country's capital, Manila. Then, she upgraded us from the Philippines to America. So on behalf of our siblings Ofelia, Orlando, Evelyn, Junior, Cora and Joey, your favorite sibling Mario wants to thank you Manang for everything you have done for us.
As for you Kuya Jesse, thank you for everything you did for her. Our Papang was right when he said that you're like an angel who fell from heaven into our Manang Odette's arms.
Manang, now that you're perfect again and free of all pain, go on and glide into the sunset like a beautiful white swan on that fairy tale lake, and linger there awhile with your bumblebee friends, till you're reunited with your beloved prince once again.
Lastly, since that moment you left us, I can't shake off a dream-like ethereal image in motion in my mind. (Please click below.) I dedicate to you that image that will always remind me of you Manang, the beautiful, graceful and elegant white swan princess you were named after, Odette...