I only knew my father after he died.
No, it is nothing as dramatic as the kind of stuff that proliferates on prime time commercial television. But like all things in life, you never fully appreciate anything or someone until the familiarity and complacency are replaced by a sense of loss.
Unlike most Baby Boomers, I came rather late in the lives of my parents.
I was more of an afterthought, a postscript to the married years of Nena and Totoy when their two older sons have already stepped into college. I was a menopause baby.
Thus I grew up with brothers who were old enough to be my father --- and my Dad who could pass for my grandpa. My father was already forty-four years old when I came into his life. My mother was forty-two. Nena almost died in order to have me not only because of her age but due to heart ailment. But she and Totoy agreed that I should be born. So there.
Despite all that sacrifice, the age difference between my parents and I explained a lot of things about how, through the years, the love we had for each other lent itself to be misunderstood. I grew up in a house full of adults and ruled with an iron fist by my father.
When I think back, I remember two extreme sides of that man.
Oh, my Dad had this really vicious sense of humor --- which I inherited. When he was comfortable and in his elements, he would go into a tirade and never cease to enjoy the pure pleasure of laughter. He would dish out the most vicious jokes like a machine gun. He had such scathing wit.
But when he got into the extreme side of his mood swings, my father was insufferable. He was one of these people who wanted to make everyone else miserable whenever he felt awful: I marveled at my mother's capacity for patience and tolerance. I have come to believe that she was a template for all the suffering heroines of telenovelas even before that kind of media heroine was concocted by hacks and hackers.
My mother stood by my father through everything. She chose to be with him ... and like most of the women of her time, she endured. I asked her once if she ever contemplated on leaving my father --- and she gave it some thought before she finally said, "No." She said that Totoy was a womanizer --- even to the extent that during their wedding day she was shocked to discover that he hired bodyguards to insure that no one disrupted the matrimonial ceremonies at Santa Clara Church in Pasay City. Of course that anecdote made me laugh so hard ...and I still break into a smile when I remember the way my mother recounted that ridiculous scenario.
Nena also said that despite all of Totoy's women, there was something about him that made her persist and prevail. She knew that one day Totoy would get tired of all these little diversions and come home and play the role he loved doing best. That was being a Dad.
He was a good father. He was a dedicated provider. My mother's anecdotes about how my dad literally pawned his life to find food and shelter for my mom and two elder brothers during the Second World War is something that I should write about some day. My kuyas were four and two years old at that time --- and my father would walk all the way from Pasay to Intramuros and back just to do business and buy food for his family.
That was a side of my father that I did not see. Yet the stories did not surprise me at all for I knew that my father always believed in living up and being accountable for one's responsibilities. He often told me that: when you get into something, you don't do it half-heartedly. You give everything within your capacity because that speaks of your character.
Oh, yes! His sense of determination and regard for discipline were two things that shaped my growing years. For he was a man with a lot of unfulfilled dreams as well. My father was pretty set to pursue a degree in law even if he was already married and with two kids. My mother once told me that he was all set to do this, laid out all his plans ... and then the Second World War broke out. The four years of devastation simply forbade my Dad from proceeding with his ambitions. I do not know how that affected him because he never spoke about it.
I surmise that he accepted the forfeiture of his own personal ambitions as the price he had to pay for being a responsible provider.
And that was most likely the reason why he wanted me to take up law.
His two older sons had other career choices --- but being that addendum to his life, he must have thought that this was fate providing yet another option. Aside from his sense of humor, one thing I inherited from my Dad was my love for writing. Oh, my father wrote such beautiful letters with such impeccable and sophisticated English. When he sensed my love for writing, my Dad encouraged me without going overboard and fawning over my literary pieces. He was quite thrifty with his praise ...inasmuch as he was such a Scrooge when it came to money matters.
His ultimate sign of support for my writing was the gift he gave me when I was in Grade Five: he came home with a second hand Remington manual typewriter that he purchased from the equipment being replaced in his office. Together with the typewriter, he gave me a ream of bond paper and said, "Go write."
And to this day I still have that typewriter encased like the most precious possession in my existence --- for it was with this machine, my father's gift, that I practiced all my writing through all those salad years.
I knew I disappointed my father when he realized that I had no interest in pursuing law. But he never spoke a word to berate me or even openly express his sense of loss. I knew he had his doubts about my chosen career, fearing that being a professor of literature did not exactly promise a future of security yet he never discouraged me from pursuing what my heart and mind desired.
He knew I loved to read ... and write. And if there was one thing I loved so greatly about that old man was that even if he was never demonstrative or verbose about giving approval, he made it a point to make me feel that he was indeed proud of me. I would hear stories from relatives and friends about the way my father spoke about me. Later, as I would point out, I discovered how through all these years he kept tab of everything I did despite moments when I felt that he was not in approval of certain choices I made in my life.
But one of the most memorable stories I heard about my Dad was what he did the day before he died.
My Dad had a stroke and was comatose for almost four months. He was already in his eighties and our doctor was quite honest in telling us that his chances for a full recovery was close to nil ... and maybe indeed it was time for him to rest. There was only our doctor, a nurse and my Mom with my Dad at the ICU of Makati Medical Center when, much to everyone's surprise, he woke up. He saw my mother beside him and he held her hand and said, " I love you very very much, Nena." Then he went back to sleep.
Everyone in the room cried. And the next day, my Dad left this life.
I did not know what to think when I heard about this.
Not once in my life did I hear my father say these words to my mother. But I knew he loved her. I knew that he loved her very, very much. I was just so surprised that there was this side of my father that I never knew ... that there was this other Totoy who could actually say such tender words that fathers don't usually say in front of their children.
It was about two years ago when my mother gave me an envelope for safekeeping. I did not know the contents of a relatively thick but ancient manila envelope that she kept inside the secret corners of her cabinet. She just told me to read them when I had the time. I assumed they were the usual documents that required legal guidance from my lawyer. But I was quite surprised.
When I got home, I opened the envelope. Yes, they were documents of a different kind. They were the love letters of my father to my mother. And they were written in his beautiful penmanship using his favorite shade of blue black Quink ink. I was stunned as I slowly read each letter of the young Totoy professing his love for the young Nena ... and how he promised to take care of her and be the faithful man who will be by her side through all forms of challenges and adversaries.
I could not believe that these were the words written by my father. I did not know this man ... I never saw this young man who could conjure such language and express such tenderness.
Then amidst all these love letters to my mother, there was one that seemed so out of place. It was a letter he wrote to my brother in Toronto.
I do not know how my mother got a hold of this specific correspondence but it was included in the stash. Here he wrote about me: at that time I was in the States on a scholarship --- and my father was beaming with such pride, saying that he was happy for all of us --- and that the true fulfillment of any father was to see the happiness of his children, regardless of choice and definition. He was assuring my brother that I was going to be all right. And he was proud of me ... and my choices.
Now it was my turn to cry.
I never knew my father. I only saw his entirety when he was gone. And even if it has been almost twenty years since he left us, I suddenly miss him all over again. I wish I could celebrate Father's Day too.