My mother was a college student when she met my father (who was a medical student and later became a doctor). She stopped school when she got married, to raise her children. To support her large family, she was very enterprising: She opened a beauty parlor and sewed clothes (ours and others). Later, she went back to school to finish her degree in pharmacy and chemistry. She had her ninth child (me) in the midst of her studies. She became a university professor in math and chemistry. She established the school’s credit union.
She also opened a drugstore, Farmacia Milia (a combination of the syllables of my father’s name, Miguel, and her name, Lilia). She had a master’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry and was a PhD candidate in education. In Canada, she sold life insurance, learned to drive and swim and learned French. Even more remarkable, she learned to dance at Arthur Murray Dance Studio, competed in ballroom dances and developed a lifelong passion for dancing.
Mother loved to travel. She would visit her children in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California and her sister in Iowa. When the airlines had a special promotion for seniors—unlimited mileage for only $500 for 12 months—my mother jumped at the chance to see more of the world. She spoke Spanish and spent months in Mexico, living with local families, teaching them English. Once, we received a photograph of her in a bikini on a Mexican beach. When she was in her eighties, she traveled to England, Scotland and other cities in Europe and Russia.
In 1994, she celebrated her 80th birthday in the Philippines. All her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered together for a big celebration in Quezon City. Afterwards, the family went to Boracay. For the next 17 years, the family took turns hosting her birthday celebrations: in the Philippines and various places in California and in Seattle, New York, Clearwater (Florida), Las Vegas and Phoenix. Once, the family took a cruise to the Bahamas and Mexico. When she turned 94, her traveling became restricted. Subsequent birthday celebrations were held in Toronto where she lived with my sister.
By any standards, my mother was not physically well. She had diabetes (she injected herself with insulin), neuropathy from diabetes, high blood pressure, angina and congestive heart failure. She also had a series of strokes. She was hearing impaired and used hearing aid. She was classified as legally blind and, later, she started using a walker.
But she was a determined woman and disciplined about maintaining her health. Although she loved grapes, she would only allow herself two to three grapes at a time. Before she saw her doctors, she kept her regimen of medications and strict diet so she could convince her doctor to allow her to travel.
At 96, she went to the Philippines to a grandson’s wedding (she never failed to attend the weddings of her grandchildren). Also, she would always send money with birthday card greetings to her children and their spouses, grandchildren and their spouses and great grandchildren.
It was in the Philippines that my mother was informed that her kidney was failing. After considering the options (my mother took charge of her health), she chose to have dialysis at age 96. So it was there that we celebrated her 97th birthday on November 27, 2011.
The months after her 97th birthday saw a rapid decline in her health. She went to dialysis three times a week. She was no longer able to taste food and so opted for tube feeding. She began to have episodes of momentary and prolonged mental confusion. Yet my mother continued to fight to live. Her goal was to live to a hundred.
An appointment with an eye doctor on June 6, 2012, confirmed what we all suspected: She had lost all her vision. I was with her when she accepted this latest insult from aging. My mother who was petite in form and a little over five feet tall looked bigger and taller because of the way she carried herself —shoulders back, chin up, a smile on her face. When she entered a room, she was poised and regal. For a moment on that day at the eye doctor’s office, my mother looked small, her shoulders stooped.
I terribly wanted for her to take her last breath surrounded by her children, reminiscing about her life, the bonus years full of adventure and new horizons. From January to July, seven children took turns as caregivers (one of nine siblings was in Toronto and the other deceased). I was the last to leave among the five siblings who lived in the U.S. I left on July 5 to return to my family and encouraged her to go home, too.
On July 22, I got a call that my mother was in the hospital. My nephew who was in the hospital room with her told me that she raised both arms, declared, “I am dying,” put her arms down and took her last breath.
My mother didn’t make it to her 100th birthday, but she lived the longest in her family. Her mother, Mercedes Aspillera Villanueva, (Lola Chedeng, my grandmother) died at 94 and her grandmother, Maria Gribialde Aspillera (Lola Biyay, my great grandmother) died at 96.
My mother, Lilia “Lily” Villanueva Zaragoza y Aspillera, died at 97 years and 8 months. Her family will remember her not for her longevity but for her determination to live and for a life full of love and accomplishments.
Teresita Zaragoza, a community organizer and advocate, is now concentrating on her art and writing.