Something About Father

Friday, 27 November 2009

Today is father’s 73rd birthday. He’s in Bicol, the southern Luzon region of the Philippines, right now laying foundation on his political career.

Despite his venerable age, father is not one who succumbs to the pressure of reduced physical agility. He likes moving around, making trips to Bicol, to Cubao, Makati, the Veterans Memorial Hospital for his regular check-up, the market in Novaliches almost a daily routine.

His penchant for doing the marketing in the family is something of a legend in the book of fatherhood. I can remember to this day the countless Saturdays and Sundays I and my brother (both of us in high school) had to get up at four o’clock in the morning and drove off to the Zamboanga City market with father on his motorbike. At the market, father could negotiate every transaction briskly without so much as ponderous haggling over a price; he made his way through the maze of stalls also at a brisk pace with us in tow. And the hardest part of the job of being father’s assistants is that we had to carry each sack filled with vegetables, fish, and meat with all the power we had in our puny frame.

Father’s life story is about a rural boy who ran away from home to escape poverty and the strict oppressive disciplinary ways imposed by his father, worked as a priest servant in Albay, drafted into the Philippine Navy, took his college education while keeping a family. He’s also a very athletic person, he did judo, wrestling, and weightlifting, and is a basketball afficionado. To add to this list is his passion for chess. He could play for hours at a stretch without minding food, and his matches would usually be punctuated with yells and arguments against his opponent because of perceived screw-up or cheating. The scene most of the time verges on the homicide, but later on the game would actually end up peacefully and a brotherly or neighborly feeling enveloped between the players as they retire for the day.

What I know is that father wants to write the history of his hometown of Sta. Magdalena, in Sorsogon province. He knows well its stories like the back of his hand. And there’s a sense of urgency now to this project because the old people that can provide connection to the rich past are one by one leaving this mortal world. He needs to pick their memories and bind them together in a book that will live on through generations and disasters. And only time can tell whether he could make a go of this.

Speaking of time, I have a poem I wrote for my father some nine years ago whose title I borrowed from a song of Nick Drake. I wrote this when I was working and living in Pursat, my first posting in Cambodia, at a time when father had just been released from the hospital following his brain operation due to a blood-clot. There are times that I couldn’t read this poem myself. I don’t know. It sort of possesses a power to unsettle me. Here it goes…

Time Has Told Me

Father, I was like a schoolboy, whose bones
Are whimsical and truant in a book of adventures,
This afternoon after work as I walked
Along the river bank towards the direction
Of a telephone shop in the town.
The call that I meant to make
Was like an assignment I had written full page,
Embellished with crude drawings
Of fast cars and aircraft.
Twice I dialed the hospital numbers
And twice a stranger’s voice came through
Giving me a moment of panic and bewilderment
As tough it was so bizarre for me
To be looking for you there,
As though you never inhabited the room there
And you were just at home all these days
Watching your regular fare of sports on TV
Or doing in Uncle Pat in a game of chess.
So I tried home and before Nikki handed
The phone over I heard the other kids’
Frolic in the background and gaggle of voices
Whose words I gathered faintly through this distance.
“How are you, Pa?” giving a snappy pitch
To my voice to bury my incipient fear
And keep up the tentative mood in the house.
“You checked out today, huh?”
And when you issued your words I flinched
At the pain you bore to bring them forth
Here in the settling dusk of Pursat,
Where before me the monks file past,
And in fading trees the fowls come home to roost.
You dragged them out like your tongue
Has never grown to hammer
Our bones with your ramrod words.
It stunned me to imagine you
Warped and overtaken by fate.
“I’m cutting you off now, Pa. You’re hurting.
Happy birthday. Bye.”
You drawled your thank you,
I hung the phone and suddenly seemed lost a while.
Father, I walked back along the river bank,
Stopped and sat on a stone bench
Facing the water, powerful and gushing with life,
And I felt like going with the disappearing light.

27 November 2000
Pursat, Cambodia

I promised myself that I’ll write another one of a happier mood in a happier time.


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