Arroz Caldo — Ryan Montoya
Filipino Arroz Caldo is a rice porridge dish comprised of chicken, fish sauce, garlic, and ginger, occasionally garnished with scallions. Thicker than chicken noodle soup, thinner than rice congee, its ubiquity in the Philippines and in Filipino-prevalent US communities lends to many interpretations of the Philippines’s second most well-renowned meal. Every Filipino lays claim to their Lola making the best tasting Arroz Caldo. Of course, they are all correct.
The fish sauce often imparts a brown tinge to the Arroz Caldo’s otherwise white color. Soft chicken shreds, released from their bones, gracefully dot the porridge and occasionally intermingle with julienned ginger wisps. They all delicately suspend together without crowding. Not my Lola’s Arroz Caldo. Hers is different.
“Acquaintance,” my grandmother quizzes, not diverting her gaze from the Webster’s Dictionary in her hands. “A-Q-U …” I begin erroneously, before my grandmother furls her brow and purses her lips. It is the first day I am preparing for my second grade Spelling Bee, and already Lola has abandoned my official training book for the dictionary because, in her estimation, “there are harder words.” I start over, and keep repeating until I get it right. Fourteen days later, I will discover that I am not a participant in the Spelling Bee, but merely an alternate speller in the event that the main competitor fell ill. My grandmother nonetheless sits patiently in the audience with me, to watch the entire competition for which I do not qualify.
Dr. Lourdes “Lulu” Costes Ungson was born on October 6, 1923 in the Philippines, one of nine children. “Lourdes’s marital status?” asks Evette, a transition specialist at the Lorenzen Angeleno Mortuary in Reseda, California. “Married,” answers my mother, sitting across from her at the large dark cherry wood table, flanked by me and my brother Ross. It is July 6, 2015. As she scans the death certificate form for more questions, Evette apologizes timidly if any of her queries seem indelicate – it’s her first time doing this. “Occupation?” The three of us look at each other, before saying in reverential near-unison: “Educator.“
After receiving her Masters and Ph.D., Lourdes would be sent by the United Nations on scholarship to study at UCLA and eventually direct radio and television education in Australia. Her official Philippine Government ranks as Supervisor for the Department of Education, Director of State Scholarship Council, and Board Member of Directors of Aviation Education could not have been easy for a woman to attain at that time. I am told that my grandmother was a strict disciplinarian who did not suffer fools, but this was not the Lola that I knew. The Lola I knew collected rocks.
They had to be the right kind of rocks, though. “Red, like this one,” she instructs my brothers and me sagely, while we scour the green expanses of Balboa park. It is 1987 and Lourdes is the same age that my mother is today. We grinningly forage for hours, undeterred that most rubble we find is too red, too sharp, too large or too puny. When we do find the right rock, our ultimate validation is placing it in her tiny wrinkling hand, while her other hand tightly clutches a crumpled tissue. My brother Raymond is about to discard a smooth, round, navy blue stone before Lola interrupts him: “We should save that.”
You’d be forgiven for passing Lulu on the street. A tiny Asian woman below five feet in height, donning Jesus-themed scarves and wildly mismatched prints — how many other elderly women matched her physical description in the Southern California area? “DO YOU WANT LARGE, MEDIUM, OR SMALL SIZE?” over-pronounces the attendant from behind a fast food register. It is 1991 and my sister is boiling with anger that a man who appears to have read less books than my grandmother has written believes that my grandmother doesn’t speak English. “Small,” answers my sister bitterly, while my hearing-impaired grandmother continues to smile at the gentleman.
Lola’s Arroz Caldo does not have the stylistic delicacy of restaurant Arroz Caldo, and is perhaps more appetizing for it. Lola’s dish is a pitch-white congregation, chicken thighs still wrapped in their goose-pimpled skin, wide flat beads of yellow oil floating on the surface. A lot of the rice has split from boiling for so long. You have to be careful when you’re eating it, because the ginger is not shredded finely. It comes in square chunks. And the chunks sting.
It is my second year of medical school, and my parents inform me that my grandfather is at a police station with my grandmother in Sherman Oaks, California. She has been arrested for shoplifting at a local department store. It is clear that she is confused about her location, and during the interview, occasionally forgets her husband’s name.
Alzheimer’s Dementia is an equal opportunity employer that doesn’t discriminate against ethnic or educational background. Lola’s memory and cognitive function decline rapidly and her gift of written and spoken communication is almost completely silenced. She cannot express her anxieties or go to the bathroom on her own. She cannot draw a clock or distinguish between her daughter and granddaughter. She cannot communicate when she is feeling sick.
“Lola was diagnosed with pneumonia, dehydration, and sepsis, at Northridge hospital” texts my mom to me and the rest of my family. “Is this serious? Will she be ok?” It is Thursday, July 2, 2015. My brother tells us more information from the admitting ER doc. Fever. Elevated white count. Heart rate 130. Respiratory rate greater than 20. Crackles on exam. Lactic acid 5.2. Not responsive. Increased troponin. SIRS with sepsis, non-responsive, 91 years old, unknown source of infection, elevated troponin. I pause, close my eyes, and tilt my head back. I know my Lola will be dead by tomorrow.
It is unclear exactly what happened. With my grandmother’s presenting hospital laboratory values we can paint a guess. Lola likely suffers a mild stroke that she is unable to convey to her caretakers. The same part of her brain that defied the corrupt Marcos Presidency now isn’t unable to instruct her lungs to breathe properly. An infection forms in the lethargic alveoli sacs of the same lungs that conducted dozens of speeches and instructed hundreds of students. The infection spreads to her blood. The same heart that beat faster as she conspired with Ninoy and Cory Aquino now cannot keep up with her body’s increasing demands, and she suffers a heart attack. Insufficient blood reaches her small intestine and the mesenteric ischemic tissue designs a bowel obstruction. Her dehydrated kidneys do not have enough fluid and go into complete failure. Her heart beats too fast and loses its rhythm before she goes into cardiac arrest.
My grandfather is by my grandmother’s bedside when the hospital staff performs chest compressions, advanced cardiac life support, and intubation. My brother Raymond and my mother arrive at Northridge Hospital soon afterwards. It is July 3, 2015. “I thought she was DNR/DNI?” I ask my brother over the phone. “Mom and Lolo switched it, so they could say goodbye,” responds my brother. There is a thick weakening silence on the phone as we both lament the painful process that will immediately follow. We know that each moment we prolong this decision, the more difficult it will become. My brother requests one more morphine push, before asking the supervising physician to extubate Lola at 9:40 PM.
“Time of death?” continues Evette at the Lorenzen Angeleno Mortuary, moving further down the death certificate. “July 3rd, 2150 hours” I respond placidly. Evette informs us that the certificate is complete. It is Monday, July 6, and we are making the final arrangements for my grandmother’s funeral and burial services. Rocky, a large, soft-spoken man and funeral coordinator, kindly and professionally guides us through our various choices for prayer cards, flowers, and headstones.
It is 1987. My brothers and I are back from Balboa park and are dashing messily around my grandparents’ front yard, scattering rocks everywhere. Lulu patiently waits before restoring order to the stone garden — refining, and adding our newest acquisitions of the day to the mosiac. It is hard to see unless you step back. Our perfectly red rocks become a new beak for a swan, swimming in a smooth, round, navy blue ocean.
It is July 9, 2015, the morning of a lovely, intimate religious ceremony for Lourdes. A grand bouquet of white flowers is delivered by a woman in a black “Taco Bell” jacket. The card reads “We’re very sorry about your lost [sic], we love you so much. Alejandra and the Taco Bell Team.” We discover that my grandparents have been eating at that fast food restaurant almost every day, and the staff worried when Lolo and Lola had not dined there for four days. Rocky asks us if we would like to see Lola’s body one last time before the casket is sealed. My mother and I decline. We already have the final Lola image we want in our memories.
It is 2009. I finish my bowl of Lola’s Arroz Caldo, leaving only chunks of chewed ginger in the bottom of the dish. The very best part about this serving is that I do not realize it is my final one.
Ryan Montoya is a comic book artist and medical doctor specializing in Family Medicine. He grew up in Massachusetts before joining his wife to live in Bosna i Hercegovina for her work for the US government. Their next post until 2018 is in Mumbai, India. Ryan’s comics have been published by AK Comics and the Annals of Internal Medicine medical journal, and his writing can be found on graphicmedicine.org, maekan.com, and rjmontoya.tumblr.com.