Tonight I am breaking my fast with a tall glass of halo-halo.
I’m not a fan of sweets but I will always have a soft spot for halo-halo. After all, it is this food that reminds me of the person behind the reason I celebrate the third Sunday of June. This Iftar is a homage to the man I love most.
Tonight I remember Papang, the man who brings home P15 halo-halo in a cellophane bag for his kids, asks them to give him a massage by walking all over his back and legs, walks on all fours like a carabao for them to ride on, buys old NatGeo magazines from thrift stores, rents books from hole-in-the-wall bookstores, buys one pair of shoes and uses it until he wears it down, gives almost every person he knows a nickname, goes out to buy something and returns hours later because he met someone he knew and he lost track of the time chatting with the person.
Papang was all that, and more. Most importantly, he was the wind rose that kept the balance in my otherwise tricky childhood.
I grew up with my grandmother and she ruled the house with an iron fist. She is a kind and loving woman, but tough. Small mistakes like spilling water on the table is reciprocated with a nip in the groin. Bigger blunders like watching TV outside the standard TV hours, getting wounds or bruises, or forgetting to wash your clothes mean a session with the belt or whatever she can lay her hands on. Heavy crimes such as bringing home a grade lower than 90, getting home later than 5:30 p.m., or simply having the misfortune of being at the wrong place (house) at the wrong time (grandma in a bad mood) means an extra lashing on top of the sanction for the bigger blunder you have unintentionally committed.
It is perhaps this early training that made my pain tolerance higher. I grew so accustomed to the beating that I stopped crying after the fifth minute. My longest and hardest crying fit was not a product of a disciplinary session with my grandmother; it came after a 15-minute talk with Papang.
I was in Grade 5 then and it was the final week of exams. Papang caught me watching Discovery Channel that day and he asked why I was not studying. I told him I’d do so after the show. He went out and came back three hours later to see my eyes still glued to the TV set. He asked me if I was done studying and I sheepishly answered, “Not yet.” I will still remember the look of disappointment on his face decades later. He sat in front of me, turned down the TV volume, and asked gently if I preferred to stop schooling. In the same tone, he spoke of how he was working hard so he could send his children to school, and that even if it meant he would not be there to see me grow up, he was willing to sacrifice just so he could give me a better future.
That night, I went to bed with puffy eyes. My science textbook was left open on my bedside, its pages patterned with teardrops.
But mostly, Papang indulged us by covering for our “crimes.”
In the 1990s, schoolchildren went home early to catch their favorite late-afternoon anime show on TV. Papang knew that. But the rule in my grandmother’s household was to turn the TV on only at 7-8 p.m., in time for “Esperanza.” As a child, I was not to touch the TV. Hence, Papang would make it a point to come home early, sprawl in front of the TV, tell me in a loud voice to turn it on so he could watch “Taguro,” and ask me to walk on his back for a massage.
My grandmother did not need to know that all this was part of his elaborate plan to let his kids watch “Ghost Fighter.” I knew. I found out when I noticed that he would always fall asleep right before the first commercial break.
Papang played his role as an “accessory to the crime” quite well. He gave me money to buy Band-aids so I could hide the bruises on my knees. He lent me his big NatGeo magazines so I could conceal my Archie comics when I read them at home. More often than not, his mere presence at home automatically saved me from a beating because he would catch the brunt of my grandma’s wrath. (I’m told that I took after my father a lot, and that means whatever I do that annoys my grandma, he does them, too—tenfold.)
I was always honest with him. I told him about my daydreams and asked him questions fearlessly: Why are you reading a book about the Bible when we’re Muslims? When the Day of Judgment ends and we are sentenced to live eternally in Paradise or Hell, won’t we get bored or tired of waiting for it to end? I gave him opinions that sounded most sensible to a 10-year-old child, and he listened attentively. He never shot me down.
When I was bullied in school, I trusted no one to know of my misery but him. I asked him what would happen if I decided to stop studying. He probed on and I told him that I didn’t want to go to school anymore because my classmates were making it hard for me. Our conversation ended with me having the courage to face another day. In effect, he told me: You are a brave and able girl. If you will give up your future for this, what else would you fight for?
So I sucked it up for one more year. Not much later after that conversation, Papang passed away. He was only 32. We lost him in 2000, during President Joseph Estrada’s all-out war in Mindanao.
The first hour was painful. It was too sudden. I wasn’t prepared. He had yet to see me compete in a quiz bee, graduate from grade school, and pass the entrance exam in a science high school. He had yet to see me grow up.
But I’m a brave and able girl. I moved on.
Years later when people would ask how he passed away, I would answer in jest: “He forgot to breathe.” It was not an attempt to mask the pain. In fact, it doesn’t feel painful anymore when I think of his death. On the contrary, the pain resurfaces, hard and stinging, when I think of how would it be like if he were alive.
Would we have trekked Mount Apo like he promised? Would he have finally ridden a plane? Would he be as equally pressured as my mom in finding me a life partner? Would he remain loyal to the stall that sells halo-halo? Would I be who I am now?
Perhaps his passing was the trigger that set things in motion. Perhaps it was why I am where I am today: working on something as fragile as the peace process in the hope that one day no one would fall asleep a beloved child and wake up an orphan.
On Father’s Day, I will think about him once more and the many things I wanted to ask him. I never knew why he bought the P15 halo-halo at the dusty Old Market. Was he being thrifty? Was the Old Market halo-halo the best of its kind? Also, why did he bring it home in a cellophane bag and not in a plastic container? Why was the ube separated from the rest of the ingredients? And why did we mix them all up in a bowl instead of a glass?
Tonight, as I sit in front of a stall selling cheap halo-halo in Quiapo, I am transported back to the past. I am once again the 10-year-old girl who, for the price of P15, learned one of the many ways a father could show that his love was priceless.
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Bam Baraguir, 28, is taking a break from graduate studies in UP Diliman to focus on her work in the peace process.
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