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Driving with Tatay

05:00 AM August 11, 2019

As a family, we were not used to celebrating Father’s Day. My father left to work in Japan when I was still in my mother’s womb and my brothers were in kindergarten. Financial support became few and far between, and ultimately, my mother heard news that my father already had another wife. So while we would kiss and hug Mommy the tightest in the morning of Mother’s Day, we’d maintain a straight face while TV advertisements showed celebrations for the paternal counterpart.

We grew up with my mother assuming both roles. My mother, a public school teacher, was the one who prepared our bug-ong, how we call packed lunch in Cavite, in the morning. My mother was the one who attended PTA meetings, recognition days, and went to the guidance office in the case of my troublesome twin brothers.

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Mommy also taught the brothers how to drive. The road from our house to school was a long but straight one, which was the perfect opportunity to practice driving. Mommy taught Kuya CJ and JC the basics: how to find the balance between stepping on the gas and slowly setting the clutch free, how driving is all about feeling the humming of the machine and being one with it. Meanwhile, I enjoyed riding in the back of the car, the wind touching my face, the hum lulling me to sleep.

Even when my father came back to the Philippines and lived in the same town, there was no opportunity for me to be close to him. Or maybe, I never felt the need to make the extra effort. My brothers were more present in his life. They would sleep there and drive my father around town when he started using a cane due to a bad knee. But aside from occasional moments when I would see him walking around the plaza, I never had many happy moments with him. I would either just nod at him or pay respect—magmamano, but that was it.

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When the man who would then become my stepfather moved into the house, I was in college and went home on a daily basis. The man was older than my mother. His face was wrinkled by the challenges of time. He loved farming and brought home bananas, pineapples and papayas from the depths of the forest (luuban, we called it), which I would rarely eat.

The living situation with a man in the house as its head, a first in our household, was unusual. He did not meddle with most of the things that I had to ask Mommy permission for. In fact, he was so distant that he seemed to avoid us staying in the same part of the house at the same time. When I ate in the dining area, he would stay in the living room. When I went to the living room, he would suddenly feel the need for fresh air outside.

Whenever I would go home late and not catch the last ride to town, I would sleep at a friend’s house and would take the earliest jeepney in the wee hours. I would knock on our ramshackle door and Tatay would have to wake up to open the lock for me. Tatay would not scold me, but would tell my mother to say something about my coming home. At that time, I felt that he really wanted to scold me but just did not feel he was in a position to do so.

Mommy and Tatay, my stepfather, were already living together for quite some time with my little half-brother and I, when my real father died. I was out of town when I received a call from Kuya CJ. I did not know what to say, so I told him I would call Mommy. When I did, I was hoping she would tell me what to do. “Ay ’di tara. Pupunta tayo” was her answer — sure and automatic. I asked my friends if we could hang out in the nearby mall to eat first before heading home, stretching the time to the inevitable.

When Daddy was being cremated it was the first time I saw my brothers cry. As we heard the crisp burning of the dead body and the flickering of thirsty flames inside the yellow metal chamber, my brothers tried to hide their tears but failed. My mother cried silently at first, but it went to a wail that she tried best to control. On our way home, she explained that she and Daddy were really in love and never had a falling out. It was just the physical separation that eventually ended their relationship. She went on to talk about how Daddy courted her back in college, leading to elopement.

All through that, I never shed a tear. I never felt the need to. I was not angry with Daddy for leaving us, but I had never felt any connection with him. It was as if he did not leave me, because he was never there to start with. I was born without him in my life, and when he was already present, the moment to make memories together had already passed.

Meanwhile, Tatay was supportive of Mommy the whole time. He understood that we had to leave to go to the wake and the burial. He waited for us to come home, dinner warm and ready. He washed the dishes afterwards, too.

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Tatay always reminded me to be careful. I had to learn to drive through driving school, followed by a lot of practice with Kuya CJ and JC. Mommy would always tell me how to switch gears with ease by feeling the humming of the machine, while Tatay always reminded me to check the wheels before driving.

I have two favorite memories with Tatay. When my license was confiscated because I drove in the metro on coding day, Tatay went with me to the Makati city hall to reclaim my license. While asking for directions, I heard Tatay say, “Ito kasing anak ko, nahuli. Coding eh.” It was the first time he called me his son. Heck, it was the first time I heard any man call me his anak.

On another occasion, Tatay was worried that my driving to another province for a conference was dangerous, so he decided to accompany me. We sat in silence during the long drive, with him guiding me when overtaking or turning every now and then. Then, while marveling at the mountains that we passed by, he told me of his plans to fully furnish the house where we had moved — that he planned to have a second floor where I could have a room or a home office, seeing that I always had a lot of paperwork to do. Whatever happens, he said, this new home was going to be our home: my mom’s, my little brother’s, mine.

Whenever Father’s Day came, I would always roll my eyes seeing posts on social media about how people have heroes in the form of their fathers who loved them, accepted them and made them comfortable. I would scroll past, not even bothering to read the long posts, because I just felt they were not within my sphere of experience. All my life, I did not have a father. I have a loving mother, brothers who would bully me but would also always come to my rescue when I needed their help, and a grandfather whose sacrifices I have always respected. But I did not have a father. Or so I thought.

When Tatay came into my life, he was connected to my mother but not to me, but as the days and years passed, fate made us closer. We’ve been stuck in a small moving vehicle for hours with no one else to talk to but each other. We have nights when he’d wait for me to come home and open the gate. We have mornings when he has no duty at the provincial jail and I have to stay home from study leave. Maybe, it was through these moments that I realized I’ve been given new ways of seeing the world, this time with a man to celebrate Father’s Day for and with.

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Cheeno Marlo Sayuno, 28, teaches at the University of the Philippines Los Baños and writes storybooks for children.

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TAGS: Cheeno Marlo Sayuno, driving, fathers, Young Blood
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