My other uncle Tito Taking, a teenage me, my mom, another aunt, Tito Nonoy hiding behind my sister Anna
I’ve imparted special meaning to my future 40th birthday ever since I was 16 years old. When I turned 20, I felt the weight of being halfway there. 35, I only have 5 years left. As the actual date approaches, I am a blend of grateful and scared, happy and sad. Melancholic. I am, in Tagalog, malungkot.
You see, when I was 16, my uncle Victor “Tito Nonoy” Valencia died of advanced metastatic cancer at the age of 39, the youngest of his 9 siblings, months after first feeling generally very unwell then finally getting an official diagnosis of it’s too late.
It was July 1999. The same month he himself would have turned 40, a few days later I would turn 17.
Tito Nonoy was gay like me (but also not like me), in a large Roman Catholic family that didn’t talk about such things. Or if they did, it was in code, euphemism, hushed tones. Conversations between them (fights?) that I wasn’t supposed to overhear. When he died, the man I was so looking forward to being my role model (confidant? commiserator?) suddenly became my ancestor. And I felt very alone.
I know, and am very grateful, that my family never said “God Hates Fags”, but I did get the sense that being gay, being queer in any way was not just undesirable, it was impossible. Hindi puwede.
At the very catholic funeral, I remember Victor Emmanuel Valencia lauded for his stoicism (which they called bravery) in the face of his cancer. And they permitted his “good friend” a slot in the program between incense and pre-scripted prayers to give a sanitized-for-my-protection eulogy of general platitudes (which they called deep and heartfelt).
It wasn’t the Tito Nonoy that I wanted to remember.
I hold certain memories of him very dearly, because as a shy and awkward teen they mirrored and held hopes and dreams for my own future as a gay man. I never got the chance to come out to him, and he was never officially “out” to me. But in those moments, he did teach me a few lessons:
- One must occasionally be fully immersed in music and enjoy life.
- Celebrate your eclectic and flamboyant friends.
- Love, for people like us, is not just puwede. Tunay siya. Maaari.
This was Tito Nonoy’s car. A 1995 Toyota Celica that he bought with the money he made pushing grocery carts at Butera, caregiving for an elderly man, and then as a phlebotomist. We four niblings would pile into that little car, a sporty upgrade from our family’s gray Chevy Nova that he used to pick us up from school and run errands in. At the top of his lungs, and to our embarrassment, he sang along to Madonna’s Holiday (already an oldie by then) on the radio. It would be so nice! It would be so nice! repeating even though the song had long finished.
My oldest brother cried hard when Tito Nonoy died at home in his bedroom in the basement of my aunt Ate and Uncle Joe’s house. I remember the driveway. Were we trying to play basketball in the midst of everything?
My Kuya crumpled.
Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? Why isn’t anyone calling an ambulance? Why are we letting him just die?
My Kuya turned his grief into a refusal to let the car be returned to the dealership. Finish the payments. Soup it up. Replace Madonna with Mariah, Snoop, and Garth.
My brother graciously gave me that car when I moved to NC, and I drove it for a few years (probably a few years past being able to drive it safely). Tito Nonoy’s rosary and tassled saint icons and all. I think Tito Nonoy would have really liked Lady Gaga. And Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia as much as, if not more than, I do. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m Levitating.
Kuya, Tito Taking, and Tito Nonoy
I don’t remember the occasion. But I remember it was the first party that my Tito Nonoy had friends over to their house, amongst all the usual family. The friends were not Filipino. They had interesting jobs like writing for a newspaper, school principal. They laughed easily, had melodic inflections in how they spoke. They were affectionate with each other. And they were all men.
My Tito Nonoy loved a man named Richard Jurs, who according to my Google snooping is still alive and in his 70s now.
I don’t know how they met, they were never encouraged to hang out with us kids as a couple, and Rick was always just referred to as Tito Nonoy’s “friend.” The pair took vacations together. Went to Lake Geneva (Wisconsin, iykyk). When it was just Rick in the room, at the bedside, holding his Victor’s now frail and emaciated hand, I strained to try to hear the tender whispers between them.
But I did see photos of them. In real, physical albums. From their trips together. Rick’s knowing gaze and genuine smile to the man behind the camera. I hoped that someone would look at me that way one day. And I am so very happy that Tito Nonoy had someone to look at him that way in his short, turbulent, immigrant life.
Puwede. Tunay. Maaari.
I look at my life now and all we’re trying to do, and I am so grateful that I am safe and have found love and joy, and the capacity to connect and build community, in light of the near constant reminders that tomorrow is never guaranteed. As this symbolic date approaches for me, I feel a sense of my own mortality. And a hope that my words and actions and being, for however long I am in it, add love and hope to the world.
Victor and Rick, my dad and mom, my younger brother Kris, me standing between my aunt Ate and Uncle Joe (in front of a statue of St. Zachary), and Tito Arnie