One of the usual father-son relationships

June 19, 2019 – Patrick Tejada

I remember it being two years before my father passed that he was given a prognosis. No surprise there. Two lab values with direct correlations to his disease always came back above normal limits. The only episodic memory I have of that Sunday was of my father, his brave face on, telling us, his children, that he had accepted the doctor’s time table. 

I’m unsure if at that moment he anticipated, or wished, that I hug him. Or at the very least show any sign of sympathy. Instead, I reacted as I always did each time he said anything good or otherwise. I stared at him. I had no words (although I would like to think I wasn’t a heartless person and I would have at least said “okay”).

He may have already known my silence was all he would hear. This is the part in films where character arcs begin. Me and my father’s did not.

As far back as I can’t remember

My mother’s go-to story when we talked about our relationship with my father was of days winding down, us three spending our evenings singing. She recounts me, my father, and my younger brother having fun with, I think, the song “Pearly Shells.”My father strummed his ukulele. 

The song would drift over to my godfather’s home next door. With a very low wall separating our homes, he must have heard us in high definition. My godfather loved the idyll. He confided to my mother that he usually waited for our sing-alongs because our joy inspired him. He said no matter how bad the country was socially once he heard the three of us singing he felt all was right in the world.

This was circa '76 (I am literally a martial law baby). Forty-two years removed from that time, I have no memories of those evenings, but my impressions and feelings still hold true: Toddler me had fun.

Away and further on down

My mother always said she regretted the times she left me at my grandparents’ home in Quezon City, but necessity dictated this arrangement. My father did his daily Tour of Manila shuttling in their VW bug through multiple cities from Novaliches to Las Piñas, while my mother had her job as a chemistry professor at the University of The East.

I enjoyed my days living in the city. Not that I disliked my home. The long drives were chances to see sights. More so if we traversed the longer route through La Mesa Dam to what was once one of the metro’s literal backwater towns. But the days spent in my parents’ home in Novaliches felt more like weekend sojourns even when we stayed in for the summer.

Looking back, I realized the setup proved beneficial. I was mostly in the company of my grandparents, most especially my grandmother. And, of course, I did no wrong.

If I’d hazard a speculation, my father would have similar sentiments regarding the setup. At that time, he was mostly free of the expanse of my “terrible twos.” I doubt our separation contributed to the parenting gap. His waking hours was spent in his pursuit of a comfortable life. I believe it was borne of a need to have more than enough and, I suspect, a fear and shame of failing to take care of his family and his mother.

I never knew my grandfather from my father’s side of the family—he’d been dead a decade when I was born. But what scant and very general information my mother provided me explained why my earliest memories did not include happy or at least tender moments with my own father.

My father and his siblings spent their childhoods working. Apparently, they were driven hard. The safe place they needed was not at their own home. As I began making sense of our relationship, I realized why my father never spoke about this part of his life and had no intention of recounting those memories. I suspect reminiscing these bits would probably lead him to tears.

The deep wounds apparently never healed. They just scabbed over.

No way back

For all his intelligence, his childhood experiences must have persuaded him that men must expunge “weaker” emotions. Unfortunately, the feelings of empathy became a casualty.

We never had a good conversation that I remember. Maybe he regretted that. I have a suspicion he blamed and maybe resented my grandmother on my mother’s side for denying him those opportunities to connect with me. 

It definitely was not her fault she doted, and must have felt I’d have a happier childhood with her. She was right. Had my grandmother lived long enough for me to realize what she had done, I would have thanked her.

Of course, the protective shield would fall eventually.

Soon enough, my father’s curse words slipped out our car’s window and into my consciousness. I wasn’t scared. I just learned to be more cautious around him. He was a ball of anger, righteous or otherwise, always ready to explode. His fiery moments are what stuck as my earliest memories of him, his aggression negated a few prerequisites to have constructive exchanges of ideas. Not that I thought of having a good conversation with him during my teen years. 

His voice was loud. He believed in shock and awe before anyone defined the concept. His voice became an actual presence in the room, especially if he wanted to prove a point, right or wrong. I find this funny now. 

I never knew if any debate ended in anyone else’s favor other than his, but early on I realized if he could not respect points of views that went against his, what chance would a child’s voice have against his?

High school, as expected, advanced the devolvement of our relationship. No longer were his words exclusive to road rage. They followed him home upon discovering someone messed up.

When he passed away in 2010, I finally started processing these episodes. Making sense of the past was just so much easier without him. I didn’t have him butting in when I said anything contradicting his beliefs. Time also allowed me to look through his eyes. I admit some things I did merited harsher words than what my father served me, but, overall, his puritanical sermons were just overkill.

The later years

As expected, mistakes and sins have been committed. I have absolved my father where he should not be blamed. This, of course, does not mean he had no input in my actions. Since parents are also their children’s teachers, no parent, most especially deadbeats, should be excused fully from the sins they commit.

The gap that could have been bridged early on just continued to widen. My 20s presented another opportunity to start building it. We never took it. Personally, I just wanted to keep the peace I earned after graduation.

We did connect professionally for a decade only because he was my employer. Oftentimes our conversations dealt with sales figures, inventory, and selling. Nothing was done to improve on a personal level, which by then was not a big deal anymore. 

Our relationship settled into the proverbial still waters running deep. I had no plans of riling the undercurrent. I thought the less words exchanged, the better.

When I left his employ, we were unaware that his body was beginning to cash in heavily. The symptoms ramped up despite a couple of procedures and an ICU visit. My parents decided to have his disease treated aggressively. He agreed to have a third opinion. He never did like hospitals and consultations. Being vulnerable and not in control must have frightened him more than he let on.

They still believed the disease was treatable. He was relatively young at 64. The last consultation he had with a doctor must have had a hopeful beginning. He probably was expecting a treatment plan that would cure him permanently or at least keep him in good health long enough for him to live another decade or two.

I imagined the unexpected gut check numbed him longer than he admitted. I remember him trying to force a smile and hiding of a sob. To his credit though, he continued fighting hard.

Jordan beckoning

His last months were a struggle for both my parents. They still held hope and even believed that his rediscovered faith would lead to relatively good health, if not a full recovery. I saw the transformation though; his 66-year-old body, once filled out, reverted to his early 30s frame.

At that time, I was a medical transcriptionist, and I knew what my father’s appearance foreshadowed. I remained silent. If hope was all my father and mother had left, why should I take it? Still, I suspected my father knew the time table given to him was proving to be accurate.

He may not have had a character arc, but I think he finally had a few epiphanies.

Years before he was diagnosed with his illness, my mother always suggested he get to know his children, talk to us and try to fully accept who we are.

Then, just before he passed, maybe he had this one epiphany: His vulnerability. It felt more like a resignation to weakness and bouts of regret that may have prompted him to finally try to reach out to us. 

On many evenings at suppertime, my sister and I usually stayed behind, chatting away as the plates were cleared. We noticed our father sitting across from us, watching and listening. We did not talk about life matters, my sister being 15 years younger. We didn’t need his company—that was definitely out of the question. He didn’t know our pop culture references. Maybe he tried, but he never did. Our final failure to connect encapsulated the relationship we never built.

I never got to know if he felt lonely. Maybe he wanted to hug us or maybe he wanted a hug. Maybe he was just happy knowing we were happy. Those evenings were probably as good as it got for him, for our relationship. 

In those moments, I believe he rediscovered good evenings where he found peace.

Art by Pearl Antoinette Sevilla