My earliest memory of Tita Ester and Tito Tisay isn’t mine, since they were my mother’s best friends first of all. They met in school but grew close when they all joined the choir at a church in Makati. My father was the guitar player, and in pictures from that time he always looked underage, undernourished, and unassuming. He tried to woo Tita Ester once – for six months he probably sang to her and wrote her love letters. But since he was younger by four years, Tita Ester turned him down. My father wasn’t the only unsuccessful one – Tita Ester turned down a lot of friends back then who were hoping they’d be something more. She and my father weren’t compatible, Tita Ester had said. But it wasn’t because Tito Tisay was already in the picture.

If Tito Tisay were already in the picture she was probably off to the side, talking to and smiling at a woman who had caught her eye.

When I was growing up in the nineties, Tito Tisay was my role model by default because there wasn’t anyone else. Tibok hadn’t come out by then, even though Ellen DeGeneres already did. Still both were unknown, and here was Tito Tisay – comfortingly local, butch, and close by. I tried hard to be like Tito Tisay when I was in my teens, but I realized early on that I was more often quiet than loud – a sincere listener than a conversation starter. No problem, I thought to myself. I’ll be Tito Tisay Lite.

Tito Tisay’s hair was always cut short, and I learned to cut my own hair so it was as short as hers. Her swagger was confident, and her laughter was loud. I worked on walking with a purpose and practicing my guffaw in front of a mirror. I’ve mastered the former but still show too much teeth in the latter. My mother told me that when they were younger Tito Tisay went through girlfriends faster than the time it took for her to learn their names. In my twenties I would like to believe I gave my family ample time to learn the names of my ex-girlfriends – even their nicknames.

An image of two short-haired women—the taller one in a yellow t-shirt giving a kiss to the shorter one with a mole by her mouth.

I never did meet Tita Tisay’s ex-girlfriends, even in passing conversations overheard when I was a child or as titas you get introduced to once and never see again. For as long as I can remember, Tito Tisay had always been with Tita Ester.

They were an affectionate couple, most probably because they were affectionate people on their own. Tita Ester is the only one aside from my mother who calls my sister and me “Anak,” and I always used to be so confused by it because I was a literal child and couldn’t wrap my head around terms of endearment by people not related to me by blood. After every visit she would hug us and say “God bless you,” and Tito Tisay would do the same. Tito Tisay gently taught me how to give back for the sake of helping when I used to arrogantly assume that the world owed me for my kindness.

Interviewing Tito Tisay and Tita Ester was something I had half-seriously planned a few years ago, similar to how I would ask my mother to tell me stories of her childhood. It amuses me that they had been together for as long as my parents had been married. The fact that they were openly accepted as a couple by both their families was curious to me. Was it an eventuality because they seemed serious about their relationship when they told their families about it? Alternatively, did their families collectively shrug their shoulders and said “Meh” and accepted their decision wholeheartedly? Did they ever fight when they were together? About what and why? Tita Ester and Tito Tisay both seem to be softies, so if they fight is it really a fight or a pillow fight? Are they sure?

When cancer hits there’s a part of the psyche that holds out hope for remission. For almost a year after the diagnosis, Tito Tisay seemed to be getting better. She and Tita Ester went to PGH every month for chemotherapy – two senior citizens helping each other get on and off public transport as they commuted from their house in Mandaluyong to Manila. Tito Tisay started losing her hair from the radiation, and she also started losing weight.

Once while Tito Tisay was receiving treatment, Tita Ester went out the hospital and to a nearby convenience store for a snack. She would later tell us this when we visited her this year but, as she ate alone, she realized that it was the first time she was on her own and that was how it felt. And she wondered how she’d fare if it wasn’t the only time she’d have to eat by herself.

Eventually Tito Tisay and Tita Ester left Mandaluyong and moved to Makati, staying at the home of Tito Tisay’s sister along with her family. When my parents came home from the US for a visit, my father joked about the three to five defiant strands of hair on Tito Tisay’s head that had been able to withstand the radiation from the chemotherapy. My mother told her she wasn’t allowed to die, because they were coming back in two years and she had better be around by then or she’d kill her.

Tito Tisay really dropped the ball on that one though, because the funeral was held in Guadalupe a few months later. She was active in their school’s alumni group so a lot of those who paid their respects knew them both for many years. Tita Ester’s mother was there, along with her siblings. Tito Tisay’s sister, the one she and Tita Ester stayed with towards the end, was handing out snacks and juice to visitors. We paid our respects and stayed for a couple of hours.

Early this year we visited Tita Ester, who’s moved back to her family home in Makati and is living with her mother and her siblings between midrise commercial buildings in one of the small residential roads near J.P. Rizal. The house interior is rife with memories, with stacks of papers and knickknacks long left behind by adults about to catch up to their parents’ ages. The sala has two beds, where Tita Ester’s mother and uncle spend their days taking naps. They can’t go upstairs anymore, so that’s where they also go to sleep at night.

My sister, my partner, and I invited Tita Ester out to lunch to check how she’s been, and she requested that we stop by Sta. Ana Church where Tito Tisay’s ashes were inurned. We parked on a side street behind the church, where Tita Ester guided us to a small gate that led to the columbarium. When we got to Tito Tisay’s niche we all said our hellos, and we helped Tita Ester light the candles she keeps close by. There was a bench in front of the niches, and we sat there while Tita Ester shared how she’s coping. Tito Tisay had taken really good care of her when she was alive, and she confessed she’s finding a hard time regaining her bearings now that she’s on her own. The printing business they established is still up and running, and her family is supporting her as she mourns. She started crying, and she shared that she didn’t want to cry in front of her family. Which started all of us crying. The pain of her loss was still there, and the feeling of helplessness at making her feel better was frustrating.

I can’t pretend to know what it feels like for Tita Ester to lose her partner. But Tito Tisay and Tita Ester were family, even though they had their own. They had a good life, and dwelling on the loss seems like an injustice to the lasting happiness that Tito Tisay brought to Tita Ester’s life. I missed an opportunity to tell Tito Tisay that I found my Tita Ester, but maybe once quarantine’s lifted and visiting Tita Ester won’t be risky for her anymore, I could tell her instead.

Ycoy Bontia looks forward to getting older because hopefully that means she’ll eventually be wiser. She likes solving problems so she spends her free time solving crossword puzzles and learning how most things work. A fan of The Golden Girls, she likes watching old episodes even if there’s something good on television.

Art illustrated by Marya Vidal.