My father was the typical man of his generation who left the parenting to my mother. Someone I only saw in shadows, flitting in and out of my young life. Someone who, once in a while, gave me a glass of water in the middle of night or teased me about my missing 2 front teeth. And someone my mama reported us to when he got home from work and for which we had to line up and get the huge whop on our butts with his belt.
He, too, was someone who made my mama weep in crazy despair with his million and one infidelities and someone I saw embrace my mother tight, asking for her forgiveness—over and over and over.
That was all he was to me before my mother died.
And when she died, his amorphous form took on a form with lines that were a bit sharper—but one that was clouded in grief and confusion.
He simply had no idea what to do with us, his 5 mewling pups, crying for his attention and care.
And I was that kid who wore black patent leather shoes with no socks on and some mismatched set of clothes—like a blind man dressed me!—because, indeed, it was a fashion-blind man who dressed me. Someone who had no idea that clothes needed to be bought on a regular basis because kids had this darned tendency to grow vertically and horizontally.
And so until he figured that one out, I was that kid, with long sleeves that either were bursting in its seams near my elbows or that had to be folded in a furiously fat bunch over my elbows lest they go over the cliff of my hands.
Ok, I lie.
He never figured that one out.
I had to figure that one out myself and then, too, I had to figure out that I had to actually ask money for clothes from him and go to an actual store to buy clothes. And even then, it seemed like such a strange concept to him and me—that clothes had to be bought on a regular basis.
It was my mother who did all that for us and maybe our—papa and I– refusal to understand this simple concept was a form of denial. This grievous mistake would be corrected. She would be back soon and we would have our old, sweet lives back And if we bought clothes on a regular basis, this was an acceptance of the unacceptable—that she had left and was never coming back. And we didn’t want to jinx it, you know?
So papa and I were pretty much on the high seas of adventure in the early days preceding my mother’s death—from clothes to brushing my teeth and everything else in between.
And that was how I got to spend a whole summer in Baguio with my Lola Idang and Tita Edna who treated me like their doll and doted on me so that, I see now, the grief of losing my mother was somehow softened. Papa had farmed us out to various relatives for the summer while he steadied himself.
And I drew the jackpot because my Lola Idang was just the kindest soul and my Tita Edna loved to spoil me rotten. So there I was in Baguio getting properly spoiled with toys raining down on me and where my Tita Edna and I played dress up.
But at night, when the shadows grew long, what I wanted was my mother—to feel her hand on my face again and to be embraced by her again and to hear her softly read the Czech tale, “Budulinek” to me once again. And to hear her sing me to sleep again.
During the day, when it was just the old fat cook and I, I would climb to the roof, sit on a chair that had been placed there and for hours it seemed, stare at the clouds that hovered over Baguio City. I don’t even remember what thoughts I had. Only that being up there on the roof, I seemed to find something I had lost. Even as I was enveloped in a sadness I couldn’t name.
And when summer is over, my father comes to fetch me to bring me back to Manila. School is about to start in a few weeks and we need to get ready. My siblings are still farmed out so it will just be him and me for a few days.
I am a child of 6 and he towers over me. We hold hands but always, there is that distance between us. Not that he is mean to me, no. In fact, he is gentle with me. As if he understands the sadness inside me.
And yet, there is this space between us that not even holding hands can bridge. But hold hands we must, as we cross the street to get to our bus. And we sit up front, to the driver’s right. This is a night trip we are taking so we are both tired.
I look at papa and I see he is lost in his thoughts so I keep to myself. But always, I hold his hand. The world seems deathly huge and if I let go of his hand, I will be adrift and he will not find me. So I hold his hand and he lets me.
A peanut vendor comes in and he asks me if I want some and I say yes. My father feeding me feels strange because until our world changed irretrievably, it is my mother, the Queen Goddess of Food and Patron Saint of the Kitchen, the Home Economics major who is my one and only source of sustenance.
He shells the peanuts for me and I can tell he is not used to it because he gives me crushed peanuts. Mama would have given me perfectly formed peanuts and I tell him this. “Mama doesn’t crush the peanuts.” And he smiles sadly and gives my nose a gentle pinch. And then he tries one more time and still the peanuts are crushed. But I take them anyway. As I have, all my life, taken my father’s imperfect offerings of love. It is love nonetheless.
We share a bottle of Coke to wash down the mangled peanuts and then I promptly fall asleep as he holds me in an embrace. I wake up in a fog because the bus has come to complete stop for a pee break and my father has to go. I am too sleepy to go with him so he says, “Just stay here. I will be back.” I nod and watch as he alights together with the other passengers and then disappears into the night.
I see that there a million other buses beside us with people alighting for their own bathroom break. I sit up and wait for my papa.
Then after a while other buses fill up and pull away from the bus station. It is dark and I see the stars but I cannot breathe until my father comes back.
Our bus fills and still my father is nowhere. I stick my head out the window and my eyes are giant saucers hungry for my father. I will him to come out of that thick black cloud. And still that dark cloud will not spit him out.
And suddenly the bus engine comes alive and the bus pulls out the station and I feel the Earth crashing down on me. My eyes burn with tears as I let out a scream to make passengers pee once again. This time, in their pants.
“NOOOO NOOOO! STOPPPPP STOPPP PLEASEEEE STOPPPPP! SOMEONE STOPPP THIS BUSSS! PAPAAAAAAAA! I WANT MY PAPAAAAAAA! STOP STOP STOP PLEASEEEEE! PLEASEEE NOOOOOOOO!! STOOPPPPPP! NOOOOOOOO DON’T LEAVE MY PAPAAAAAA! NOOOOOOOOO!! PLEASEEEE PLEASEEEEEE SIR (addressing the war shocked bus driver) NOOOOOO!”
I don’t think the bus moved 2 inches but in my newly-untethered grief-stricken mind, it was as if the dark void has swallowed my father and that like, my mother, I would never again see him.
A huge crowd of strangers gather around me and in soothing tones, tell me something I don’t understand. I was a 100% English speaking bowowow at that point in my life where Tagalog might as well be Martian language. And the strangeness of the cooing sounds frighten me even more.
ALL. I WANT. IS. MY. POPS.
Not the cooing sounds. Not the soft pats on my head. Hell, not even perfectly shelled peanuts.
And just as quickly as it started, my nightmare ends.
My father rushes inside the bus and he is thanking everyone and he is down on his knees, wiping the snot, tears, sweat off my face. And he is shushing me. I am still in the groove though so I continue my pitiful whimper . And he looks at me the way he would look at my mother when he had hurt her with yet another one of his indiscretions.
And I know this look. It is when he wants to be forgiven for having frightened me so.
And then he takes me in his arms and for the first time, I fall asleep—safe in my father’s embrace.
I suppose one never really loses this feeling of safety and security with one’s father.
That is what our fathers give us—if they do their jobs well enough.
And it doesn’t matter that he is in his 80s now with severe dementia and that I am now, for all intents and purposes, his parent and him, my child—the both of us coming full circle.
There always will be that part in me that holds on tight to his hand.
I know that someday soon I must let go of my father’s hand. And someday however much I want his hand enclosing mine, there will only be the dark void.
And however much I wait for the dark abyss to spit him out, he will never come back. And I will never again sleep in his embrace.
I know this. My mother’s early leave-taking taught me this. It is all I know of life.
But for now, my father draws breath and all is right with my world.