I met one of my bestest friends in the world when I was nine years old. A kid I rode the bus with had a crush on this girl named Joy, and he asked me to ask her for a photo. I thought nothing of it and approached her. “Hey. Can I have a photo of you?” She replied “Okay!” and gave me a photo the next day.
It never occurred to us how bizarre that was, exchanging photos with a complete stranger.
It wasn’t until we were grouped in the same section that we truly became friends. We never forgot the photo incident and that’s how we started hanging out. Joy was Piratebay v0.01 (pre-Internet). Her aunt would send over a box full of video cassettes filled with American TV shows—-Friends, The X-Files, etc. We bonded over our TV and David Duchovny obsession and that was that, we were friends for life.
When we were 12, she moved to the States because one of her sisters, Ate Kat, had leukemia and she needed a bone marrow transplant. Among the four sisters, Joy was the perfect match. Our friendship continued in the form of handwritten letters, and when she and her family returned, we picked up where we left off.
Ate Kat’s poor health was always a gray cloud that hovered over the family sky, but her family’s combined happiness and positivity overwhelmed the cloud and the weather report was always bright and sunny with a chance of rain.
And Ate Kat, oh my God. She was the best goddamned fighter I have ever seen in my entire life. There she was, piloting a body that had been ravaged and torn apart and patched together so many times for decades, and she did it with such ease, grace, and aplomb that you had no choice but to bow down to her and her fierce determination to live. She was a tiny slip of a girl, but her lust for life, love, and laughter was so enormous that she eclipsed every bad hand she had been dealt. “Oh, is my liver failing? Patch it up, doctors, and make it quick. I’m going to catch a flight to San Francisco in a few weeks,” was her attitude in life.
Her condition did not define her, nor did it limit her capacity to enjoy the things she loved. She was never frail, never tragic. I remembered always hoping I had juicy industry gossip for her whenever I’d visit because I loved making her laugh. When I interviewed Daniel Dae Kim of Hawaii Five-O on the phone once, she texted me when she read the story, and we gushed over it because it felt sometimes like we were the only two fans of the show here. She loved to read, so we’d exchange eBooks from time to time.
When we received a message a few days ago that she was in the hospital, we thought it was just another annoying hiccup that she would overcome. We didn’t know it was different until it was. An urgent call for blood was sounded among friends and family, and we found ourselves in the trenches, trying to buy her more time so she could navigate through this rocky patch of turbulence.
It got really bad, and then it got better. Ate Kat seemed to rally again despite the odds stacked against her. And then finally, she decided to shed the body and the pain that had held her down for so long so she could really, truly fly. She left the world the same way she entered it, enveloped by the love of her family and entire clan. She was just a few months shy of her 28th bone marrow transplant anniversary.
When Joy asked me if I could do Ate Kat’s makeup one last time, it never occurred to me to say no, even though I was frightened. I had never done this before. Ever since I could remember, whenever clients would ask what type of makeup I did, I would always quip, “Everything but mortuary.” It seemed Ate Kat wanted me to have a well-rounded repertoire after all. I will conquer my fear later, I told myself. I spent the entire day researching everything I could about mortuary makeup, and whaddyaknow, eHow had a freaking tutorial on how to do it, and so did YouTube. I also consulted Xeng Zulueta, who had done it before, and her advice was invaluable.
I was so nervous inside. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to a good job, afraid I would damage her, afraid that the pungent chemicals used in preservation would make me queasy and I’d embarrass myself by losing my dinner.
We had brought Ate Kat’s makeup kit to use on her, but I also brought my extra airbrush set per Xeng’s advice. We also asked the embalmer, whose job also includes applying makeup, to help us out first. I wasn’t sure how Ate Kat’s skin would react to the makeup, but after seeing the embalmer apply a layer of Max Factor’s foundation stick in True Beige, a shade I had chosen for her, I felt my nervousness and anxiety leave me, replaced with a familiar calm I knew very well. I’ve got this.
The longer I stared at Ate Kat, her eyes peacefully closed, I began to see a landscape I knew by heart: eyelids, cheekbones, nose, lips, chin, forehead. The makeup brush felt like such a natural extension of my hand; I had already stopped distinguishing between makeup for the living and the dead. I knew this face. This was Ate Kat, beloved sister, daughter, aunt, and friend; my only duty was to try to make her look as beautiful as she was when she was alive, to bring back the color she had when she was in the pink of health.
Making her over one last time was a team effort. Her cousin Tetet took over grooming her brows when my hand shook too much while holding the tweezers; Joy traced her lips with a shade of pink we had mixed from two different tubes of lipstick; her other sister Anna brushed her hair gently so that it fell over her forehead the way it did every day of her life, we collectively “oohed” when her hair was fixed. “That’s it; that’s really how she wears her hair.”
We joked that it felt like we were getting her ready for prom. I asked her, “Ate Kat, I’m doing your makeup; please don’t visit me na ha,” and Anna replied on her behalf, “We’ll see first depending on how you make her look.” As the rituals of beautification took us over, I looked around and realized how right it was that Ate Kat’s sisters, cousins, and friends were the ones who dressed and made her up for her final appearance, fussing and obsessing over the tiny details so that she would look just right.
The natural sheen the airbrush foundation and blush provided gave her skin a healthy glow, as if the heat from the viewing room caused her face to become dewy. As the makeup did its magic, I was suddenly very grateful for a skill that was able to provide a bit of comfort to a room heavy with grief. Her friends and family hugged and thanked me as if I had done them a favor, when in reality, it wasn’t a favor at all. It was an honor and a privilege to have been part of Ate Kat’s final makeover.