In safe company I sometimes kid my Papa that I can summarize my relationship with him and with Mama in a single sentence: All the bad in me I got from him; all the good in me I got from my mother.
Which is a massive misstatement, of course, but one laden with a few non-negotiable truths about the good and the bad that I inherited from Papa.
My love for words came from Papa. He is not averse to filching a book from his friends’ or children's shelves, reading and keeping it until you forget you ever had such a book. He is like a Rottweiler: he grabs a book and doesn’t let go even after gnashing of teeth. Before there were National bookstores or bookshops of previously owned books in Cebu, Papa already knew where to find those dumped by U.S. public libraries and middle schools.
Books were the priority. Our house, built in the ‘60s on Mama’s GSIS loan, had only two-and-a-half rooms for six growing kids. Space was limited, but my parents invested wholeheartedly in a library, on a mezzanine that overlooked the living room and the dining area. The library was bigger than my sister’s teeny-tiny half-of-a-room (I didn’t even have a room), with Britannica volumes that lined the shelves, Reader’s Digests since the ‘50s, and a huge atlas that was bigger than one of the windows. And books. Oh, the books. I know now that part of my almost manic stockpiling of (unread) books in my home is the need to recall the best part of my childhood. They are my one true link—sad, there is no other—to my father.
Papa thought and wrote in images; maybe that was why he could never find, even now, the words to tell us he loves us. (He gave me an awkward pat a few times.) When I needed assurance that he loved me, I should just have asked him to write me an image, instead of creating a card that began with If you truly loved me (I was only nine, and I never gave the card). He took great pleasure in language, and in my wedding, he took to the stage with much pleasure, piling on the audience the image of him and my mother riding into the sunset, and talking much about Will Durant. A philosopher.
In my junior year in law school, I wrote an impassioned plea for him to fund my extracurricular studies in French. Money was hard to come by—Papa worked for the local government, Mama was a public school teacher, one brother had just finished medicine, and yet another was finishing med proper—and he replied with the only letter I ever received from him, one I keep in my Happy Box. He wrote that if he were an outsider looking in on my life, he would give his eyeteeth to be my father.
He signed his letter not with his name or with Papa—he has lovely, elegant and extravagant penmanship, eruptions of his creativity—but with a drawing of his square glasses, the lines heavily etched onto the paper. I would often feel the ridges it had created on the other side. “I am old, decrepit,” he wrote.
He didn’t end his letter with the usual, familial complimentary close, Love or With love. He came from the old school where parents were strictly figures of authority. My eldest brother, Manoy Uriel, had told us, “Papa wants to be respected, not loved.” It was the same likeness I projected onto God—He was a Father, after all, and I used to cringe before Him, even in prayer. Jesus I can deal with, he was a brother, see; God, well, He had an iron hand. It took several years of patient loving from my uncle (my Papa Danny, my father’s younger brother) and from The Coach for me to accept that though all the power in the whole universe is God’s, still He has chosen to be tender. That though the Holy God should be the righteous judge of sin in me, He has chosen to love me, gently.
Oh, the gentleness I craved, for Papa had quicksilver moods, shifting always to his default mode: anger. I know how rage tastes. But I don’t know how it looks like: it has no color, not the red that angers the bull or the white heat that blinds. It has a burning that starts from between the shoulder blades that flares down in an instant to the palms, where it seeks release.
I’m now middle-aged, but there’s still this little girl in me who needs her father’s approval. Some years ago I sent Papa drafts of a few stories, needing the father-writer to affirm me at that crucial turn in my life when I spurned his and Mama's advice and took the road less traveled by. He never said anything.
Then I got an SMS from my sister, a year or so ago. Jan, she said, Papa wanted me to text you that he thinks your stories are good.
That almost beat the eyeteeth line.
I am now in my Mama’s house—we call it that even if they built it together, that’s another story—and I see my father struggle to remember if he already put sugar in his coffee. Sometimes he doesn’t know how to prepare instant-mix oatmeal anymore. He talks to me a lot, genuinely interested, and I wonder when I’ll have the guts to tell him I love him.