Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Father's Mother's Day

It was mother’s day but, like most of our family gatherings, he was the star. Papa suddenly sat across my sister and I at our restaurant table and said, “I want to talk to both of you.”

In my teens, those words would have sent me into panic. “What did I do this time?” I’d fear. In my mid-forties I’ve begun to find amusement in my father’s need for his children to listen. “Uh-oh! What funny, insensitive, racist, sexist comment will he say this time?” I thought, smiling, as he sat down across me.

You see, when we were growing up, Papa ruled our worlds. Like the king of the house that he was, he was seen as regal, untouchable and, sadly, distant. He barely spoke to any of us. We rarely heard any of his stories- about his day at work, about people he met, about himself and his feelings. Oh, but when he spoke, we shuddered with fear. We braced ourselves for the harshest words and our own buckets of tears. He never needed to be heard by his children. He would speak. Whether we listened or not was irrelevant, what mattered was that he was able to unleash his anger or disappointment at what we did or did not do.

Now that he is an old man, he is physically smaller, weaker and fragile. He no longer seems daunting or as regal. Maybe that is why I now see the humanity in his words. Why I listen intently and why, though rarely, I speak up.

“Look, guys. One day I will lose my eyesight and no longer be able to stare at the beautiful legs of women passing by but at least I got to see many legs in my lifetime” There they were (I smiled a big smile) his sexist opening sentence. “Or maybe even if you're blind, you’ll keep looking and think all legs are beautiful!” I blurted out, surprised at myself for cracking a joke in front of my father. “Wag naman (hopefully not)!” he laughed.

“Why are you guys so afraid of the elections?” he said, actually expecting a reply from us. “It’s scary,” Ate (big sister) said. “You were there during martial law,” I answered, “you knew how scary it was,” I added. “Yeah, I know. But you see? It made us all tougher. (To me) It will make your kids tougher.” I said, “I understand, but my children are young and I don’t want them to grow up in an atmosphere of fear, silence and lack of freedoms.”  He could have given a rebuttal or smirked at my point but to my surprise, the once mighty, invincible king merely said, “you’re right.” 

“I’m so proud of you, girls, you know. I tell my friends that in our family walang umuutang sa amin (no one borrows money from us parents). I tell them, “they’re all smart and have made great lives for themselves. They don’t need our money and they’re too proud to ask even if they did.”” My jaw dropped. Papa was praising us. In a language that mattered so much to my father when we were growing up, the language of money, he saw us as great and praise-worthy. Then I said to him, “me, I’m proud to tell my friends that I don’t need to support my aging parents. That my parents don’t need to ask money from their kids. Not many of my friends can say that.” He patted my back, I patted his (figuratively speaking, of course). 

Tell me twenty, even ten, years ago that I would have conversations like this with my father and I would have smirked. Papa never talked WITH me. He talked TO me. He talked, I listened and I often cried. We just never had that relationship that you see in "Father of the Bride" movies. We didn’t play basketball together. I never ran to him during heartbreak. I didn’t want him around to comfort me during the delivery of my babies. He was not that kind of father to me. 

What happened? What changed? My guess is old age and the inevitability of death. “I’m getting ready to move on. I can’t bring these all with me when I go,” he said. “In the end, all you have is yourself. You fix things. Fix relationships. You ready yourself to meet your god.” I didn’t feel it yesterday but I’m teary-eyed now. Papa’s change of attitude, the fact that he’s suddenly become human, these are his ways of slowly saying goodbye. 

So, Papa, I promise to listen to all your sexist, racist, everyone’s-a-jerk anecdotes. If I sift hard enough through the words, I’ll hear your words of wisdom. I’ll hear your words of praise. But mostly, I’ll finally hear your words of love.

It was difficult to find photos of me and Papa.
I realized it's only recently that I've been
comfortable standing/sitting near him for photos.

During a discussion on marriage, Ate said marriage is easier when you marry at an older age like she did. “Look at you (to Papa), you married in your twenties (referring to my parents’ challenging and often difficult marriage), or Aya who first married when she was 20. It’s better when you marry older because you already know yourself better.” To Ate, Papa asked, “do you know yourself?” “YES!” my sister said proudly. “I don’t,” I blurted out. And the moment I said it, I saw the words hanging in the air and I wanted to pull them back into my mouth. I knew I was going to get into trouble. I knew Papa was going to preach. 

Instead, Papa looked at me, smiled and said, “good!" "You know why?” he continued, “once you know yourself…” Then I interrupted him, “you’re ready to die.” He gave me the biggest smile. I emotionally shrunk to my thirteen-year old self. Then he said, “correct! You’re learning, kid!” Those words moved across the table and gave me an imaginary "Father of the Bride”-kind of hug. 

When we were young, Papa used to say that he wanted his kids to fight over the family business and whatever would be left for us. That was the kind of father he was. Yesterday, I realized that no matter how late in his life, I am grateful for the father he has become. Here’s to many more years of craziness, wisdom and love, Steve Martin. Maybe next week we can start playing basketball.

Father of the bride indeed!