My dad made me believe in heaven
People close to me know that I am a big skeptic. I don’t bet on a lot of intangible things, like a supposed stairway to heaven, and the concept of reincarnation, and most of what ‘The Good Place” portrays the next life to be. As sad and tragic as it sounds, I just expect my existence, when my time comes, to simply return to the cosmos, like how Eleanor and Jason and Chidi were when they crossed the wooden archway. There is an odd comfort from the uncertainty that follows after someone’s deal here on earth is done.
I got this skepticism from my dad. My mom, whenever I try to refute the logic behind something she believes in, has never failed to tell me: “Para kang Papa mo.” But my dad and I were different. Unlike me, he had this distinct composure when he expressed his thoughts on the biggest mysteries of the universe. He humorously mocked my mother and my sisters for their unfounded beliefs, like how you won’t get married if you switch seats when eating. He used to recall, with his trademark humor, how he chose not to go to the Taal Volcano with his superstitious relatives, who were trying to stop it from erupting — he thought it was insane. What happens after we die? He wasn’t sure himself, but all he cared about was how he would leave his family behind.
Another thing about me: I dislike celebrating my birthday. To go even further, I don’t even make birthday wishes, for I don’t really ask for much. Every time I’m asked to do it, I just close my eyes to entertain my family and tell whomever is listening that I’d make one if I really needed it. That moment finally happened this year.
On the fourth of April, when I learned just after we started eating dinner that my dad was about to be intubated because he had trouble breathing, I made a wish. It was the first time in a very long time. There was no hesitation — I lit up the candle, closed my eyes, and wished for my dad’s pain to go away so he could be with us again soon.
But it seemed like the gods and I didn’t understand each other, because he did come home to us, but not in the way we wanted. My dad passed into the light in the wee hours of April 7. Unthinkable, just three days after I turned 23.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is always difficult, but even more so right now. My online feed never runs out of black profile pictures and people offering their condolences. It is difficult to see how the coronavirus pandemic ignited a collective loss of sanity, while we now find ourselves drifting farther away from what was once sound and normal. One can only imagine the weight of losing someone you hold close to your heart, especially during times when we lean on the ones who matter most to us, to survive. There are no reset buttons, no magic wands to bring back what used to be — only the harsh reality that life would never be the same.
Even funerals are different now. Or, I don’t know, maybe funerals are lost on me because I’ve never really gone to a lot. But it was as if people who came to pay their respects were both present and absent at the same time. No comforting hugs due to social distancing; no all-out hospitality because of lockdown limitations. Our relatives in Canada, who badly wanted to come home, only managed to grieve and give us comfort through tearful conversations in front of the screen, a reminder of the agonizing distance we had to endure as a family during a very difficult time. I often wondered whether the wake went too fast, or if I was processing my emotions the way it should be, given all the restrictions brought about by the new normal. All I know is that grief, too, has sort of become restricted.
It’s ironic how all I wanted during the funeral was for it to be over. I desperately wanted to move forward with my family and learn how to live with the loss. I wanted to sit quietly at home and gaze at all the bottles of liquor he collected and treasured, knowing we’d be the ones to open them one day. But as I looked at his timeworn face during that last night, I found myself asking for more time. I wasn’t even sure myself what I’d do with more time — would I be breaking down, or revisit all the missed opportunities, or ask the universe for the impossible? I kept mumbling to his lifeless body, wishing he would hear all the things I told him.
You know how they say that no parent should have to bury their child? Well, guess what, the other way around is not easier at all. You think you’d always have your loved ones with you, but that’s not how life works. I held my breath then gasped for air after I realized the finality of him being gone. One moment, I was down on the floor outside my dad’s hospital room trying to stop myself from crying, as I questioned why he was taken from me this way; the next thing I know, I was leaving the funeral home to go back to the hospital, to process my dad’s death certificate and pay his sky-high bills.
Not a day passes by that I don’t ask the universe how I could carry on. How do you properly honor a man who climbed his way up and gave so much, to live a life worth remembering? Before my dad’s death, the idea of losing someone I love felt so foreign: the last time was that of my beloved Nanay Marta, who died 15 years ago at age 70, and even the pain from that is something I don’t remember that well anymore. I wish someone knew the right way to do all this without feeling so lost, so broken. I look at everything he left behind and never fail to recognize the jagged edges and the void from the missing pieces that would probably take a long time to find, or maybe never at all.
The truth is, I still don’t know how to be a son without a father. I still sit at our dining table and remember his face beside me every so often. I turn on the television and still catch myself waiting for his approval of the performances I listen to, as he did every time. It has been more than two months, but as helpless and hopeless as it might sound, I haven’t really processed everything yet — all I know is that it would take me a long time getting used to the fact that we’re not in the same world anymore.
What comforts me best are the memories I have of him, both full and quick. I was the last to hold his hand after he was taken out of the hospital. It was already cold, but it felt both new and familiar. You see, we were never physically affectionate; the way we bonded was through drinking and binge-watching live shows on YouTube, among many others.
I don’t even know exactly what he thought of me. He wasn’t exactly crazy over my involvement in student activism when I was in U.P., although he bragged to his friends that I went to the nation’s premier university. He often expressed his objection with my decision to be a journalist in a country where media practitioners are overworked and underpaid and in constant danger for simply doing their jobs. And yet when he saw my name on the front page of a national daily, or when he saw me being interviewed on television as a sports analyst, he was proud. I knew he was.
Last month, we marked the 40th day since my dad crossed over to the other side. The priest explained during the Mass that the 40-day period is not actually recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, contrary to popular belief. However, the practice has become such an important part of the mourning process that it has been simply accepted as tradition. I was raised Roman Catholic, but I never really thought much enough about certain practices to believe them. The soul wanders the Earth for a particular amount of time before it goes to heaven? I’m not sure about that.
And yet I look at the life my dad lived — how his earlier years were marred by poverty and family misfortune, how he hustled to spark a remarkable turnaround, and the way he rose up when he eventually started a family of his own — and all I can think about is how there is only one place that my dad deserves to be. I never really believed in heaven, but now I need to. I want to think that he is in a place where there is no more pain, only the best things he could probably ask for. So screw my skepticism.
As the newest member of the Dead Dads Club, I get asked a lot, albeit carefully and indirectly: how does it feel? And while it might be an inquiry too personal for comfort, there’s no use tiptoeing around it, is there? I learned that grief doesn’t come easy. Like the sea, it has moments of calm, like water peacefully returning to shore. Then suddenly the waves start coming at a hundred feet tall and crashing over you without mercy. But as a Reddit user explained, the waves would eventually come farther apart, and you would see them coming. And when it washes over you, you know that you will find yourself soaking wet, but still survive. Life still goes on.
This is the first Father’s Day that my father is not here with us. He would have been wearing his usual smirk with his head bowed down slightly, as if pretending to be nonchalant with the special dinner we’ve prepared for the occasion. And then he would say, just before we eat, how the celebration isn’t really necessary (even though we know he is expecting it).
Instead, we’d be at his resting place, having dinner with the rest of the family as we sing and laugh and honor his memory. He might have been taken from this world too soon, but the legacy he left behind was, is, and will be everywhere. We’ll make sure of it.
Denver Del Rosario is a writer and social media specialist for INQUIRER.net. He is currently on a quest to learn all the songs that his late father Reynaldo Del Rosario used to make his own, like Jackson 5’s “Daddy’s Home.”
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