Road to recovery
My father died on a New Year’s Day. It was almost 12 years ago, and it’s a wonder I can still remember everything quite clearly.
I remember that at the stroke of midnight, my 10-year-old self sneaked into his room, sat on his bed, and kissed his cheek while assuring him that the new year would bring him new life. The doctor earlier told us frankly that talking to my father was of no use because he had become delusional, yet I talked to him anyway. I told him that he would get well now because I wished for his cancer to go away after completing the nine-day Misa de Gallo.
Three hours later, after all the fireworks that welcomed 2003 had died down, my father lost his life. And I knew that from that point on, I would resent every single New Year’s Day of my life as it would be a constant reminder of the dying man lying in bed.
I called him “Tatay.” It was my mom who told me that he did not want to be called “Papa” or “Daddy” because he thought those were reserved for rich folks. He was born to a typical rural family. His father was a farmer and his mother was a housewife. So it was a wonder how a barrio lad like him managed to steal the heart of the barangay chair’s favorite daughter. Not that my mom’s family was wealthy; it just had enough, enough for my grandfather to send his eight children to one of the city’s few private schools at that time. But love has its reasons that reasons know not. Before a civil judge and under the condescending eyes of my mother’s family, Tatay and Mama tied the knot.
It took my parents a short time to realize that married life was not a walk in the park. Problems on top of problems littered their way. My mom and her mother-in-law couldn’t get along, so my parents had to move out. My mom had a delicate pregnancy, which meant a weekly trip to the doctor and an additional expense that they couldn’t afford at that time. And I was a sickly baby. Maybe it was during those interminable hospital visits that my father realized that running to his friends for help whenever his only child was sick couldn’t go on forever.
He took his first flight to Saudi Arabia when I was barely a year old. For me, it meant growing up without him around. He came home every two years, and the void of his absence was filled with monthly phone conversations and his framed photograph atop our TV set.
He was not there when I picked my first fight over a game of “Pokemon pogs.” He was not there to take me to school on the first day of kindergarten, or to put the medal around my neck when I graduated valedictorian at the end of the year. Basically, he became my real-life Santa Claus whose occasional visits I would anticipate, not because they meant spending some time with the man who gave me life, but because they meant imported chocolates, toys, and other gifts.
Then he came home for good. At first, the reason was kept from me. My mom told me he had persistent migraines, and to a younger me it did not rouse suspicion. I believed that a disease with such a fancy name was enough to cost a man his job. And just like that, Santa was with me 24/7. At the breakfast table, on the couch when I was watching “Sineskwela,” waiting outside the school gate every afternoon.
Maybe he was trying to make up for those years when he was away, so he tried to make his presence boldly felt. I remember when I went home pouting because my cousin wouldn’t let me take a turn on his swing. Later that day he built me my own swing made of an empty sack of rice with a rope fastened around the sturdiest branch of our mango tree. He would tie my shoelaces every single morning, a skill I had not yet learned then.
But there was also that one time when he scolded me because I had gone with my cousins for a swim in the river without asking for permission. I remember crying really hard and running to my mom for comfort. That very afternoon, he brought home a Jollibee “kid’s meal,” which I ate while sitting on his lap.
He was in remission for almost a year. Then the grim diagnosis: His cancer was back. For cancer patients, it was like a death sentence. One’s immune system may be strong enough to fight the disease for the first time, but surviving it when it recurs is a one-in-a-million chance. And it was not only his immune system that was exhausted: Our bank account was pretty drained as well.
It was only a matter of weeks until he turned gaunt, until he no longer recognized us, until he started seeing long-dead relatives in our living room. We knew he was leaving. And ironically, he left us when the world was drunk with the promise of a new beginning, when the noise from all the merriment was supposed to keep the bad things at bay.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says that we go through five stages when we are confronted with grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. I do not remember being in denial or bargaining for his return. Maybe I had developed a logical mind even at an early age. I only remember being
angry. And I was angry for a very long time. It was so unfair. I had spent most of my childhood without a father, and when he was finally around, he was brutally snatched from me.
Truth be told, I hated my father most of all. I hated that he died. And I blamed him for everything: when my mom and I, broke, had to move in with my grandparents, and when I had to attend a small barrio school that was completely different from the city school where I used to go.
Looking back, I think I hated my father because of my immense pain at his death. Of course, there is the natural pain that follows when someone we love dies. But there is also this pain we choose to inflict on ourselves by holding on to what used to be. It’s true that thinking about unrealized expectations results in the loss of inner peace. Most of the time, I found myself thinking about how my life would have turned out differently. I convinced myself that everything could have been better had my father lived. And it fed my resentment.
Yet I think the beauty of the human body is that it is designed to survive, that amid the uncertainty and against all logic, we are made to get by. I believe that no one, not even psychologists, can tell how long or how much it takes before one finally sets out on the road to recovery. Healing is not a process that can be hastened; it is unique for every one of us. And I believe that healing only commences after we learn to accept reality.
In my case, it took a long time. But I made it. And if asked about my turning point, I have no answer.
This New Year’s Day was when I stopped connecting the sound of firecrackers to that of a wailing banshee. I will still be missing Tatay, but I have come to realize that being in a miserable situation should never be an excuse for us to deny ourselves a normal life.
Lyndon John S. de Leon, 21, graduated from the Divine Word College of Vigan. He is now a Language and Literature faculty member at Wesleyan University-Philippines’ High School Department.
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