Her head hung heavy beneath her bobbed black hair. Her shoulders trembled in between each sob as she dabbed her wrinkled cheek with a tissue. It was too much, the grief of losing her lifelong partner. Her body slumped in the front row of the chapel from the weight of her loss. I could sense the heaviness of it from two rows behind.
My uncle, her husband, lay in the coffin in front of the altar before her. The priest sprinkled holy water on the white box, then read from the gospel of John:
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
I was five years old when my uncle first entered my father’s small house. He had just arrived from his long flight from the Philippines but he was beaming. He charmed us all from the beginning, with his wide smile and bright eyes, always ready for the next adventure. For the next six months he took the small attic room in our house as his new home—our guest during his quest for a new life in America.
Before my uncle arrived, my mom, my sister and me were used to staying at home since my mom didn’t drive and my dad was always at work. But my uncle did drive and he enjoyed our company, he often took the three of us with him on his weekend drives exploring his new city and new country. His presence meant adventures on the weekends to places we had never been before—the zoo, the park, the Space Needle, the waterfront shops, Canada. He was the fun uncle, treating us to ice cream cones and posing for pictures with his new instamatic camera.
One morning, he returned from the airport and entered our tiny living room with a big smile on his face…and a beautiful smiling woman beside him. Her name was Helen. She had just arrived from the Philippines. She joined us on our adventures and, shortly after arriving, joined him as his wife. That was his intent, why he had stepped into our home six months earlier—to go ahead and prepare a place for a new life for them together in a new country.
Flashbacks of their journey together scroll on a screen in the reception hall after the funeral service: Helen and Tito arm in arm on the waterfront. In front of their first home on Kenyon Road. Holding up their first son in a little blue suit. Holding the tail of a kite on a rocky shore. A longtime friend recalls how on windy days he would drive them all to a beach and say, “Let’s all go fly a kite!”
This was his spirit, the kind that noticed the shift in the wind and wanted to fly with it. The kind that wanted others to soar with him, even if it could lead to a temporary crash and burn, dips and swerves. The kind that would try again despite gusts or a dead wind. The kind that would leave his home country to pursue a new direction, not only for him, but for a future family.
His spirit soared into heaven last week. His loved ones are left behind. His children. His grandchildren. The widow who cannot imagine life without him, who whispers daddy, daddy, daddy, under her breath in the front row beside the coffin in the aisle.
At the mausoleum, where a vacant tomb swallows the coffin placed into its cavern, she can barely stand. I can’t help but think back to the moment I first saw her stand beside my uncle. Even as a young child, I sensed the joy in her eyes as she slid her arm in his, side by side, ready to take on the challenges of a new life in a foreign land.
There are multiple stories that parallel this same journey of sojourners travelling into new land to start a new life told in the Bible. A wanderer named Abraham travels to a new land. Finds a wife. Initiates a journey into a foreign territory. Explores the new surroundings. Pitches a tent. Begins a family. Raises a generation. And the cycle begins again.
Through their journey the God of the Bible leads the immigrants, demonstrating his own love and commitment and protection through good and bad, through feast and famine, through sickness and health.
The God of the Bible pursued his people even when they turned away, even when they questioned his directions, even when they shouted doubts in his face. In the darkest hour, God rescued. From the parting of the Red Sea to manna from heaven His protection and provision for his loved ones repeats on foreign soil. His love remained unrelenting, a model rehearsed in a marriage covenant.
I first was introduced to the kind of love the pursues new life for their beloved by watching my uncle and his wife when I was a child. Their love persisted over the decades and standing beside her clothed in black I feel like an intruder as I observe the depth of this covenant, this sacred love between this widow and her husband, the one who followed her beloved to an unknown new land to begin a new life. In those days he came ahead of her, to prepare a place for her in a new land.
Fifty five years later she stretches out her trembling palm to touch the granite wall just sealed. It is the only thing that separates them now. Today he goes ahead of her once more, to a place she will one day follow.
Cover image by Alejandro Alas.