Sinulat ko ang essay na ito mga 10 taon na ang nakakaraan. Na-post ko na rin ito five years ago sa Facebook. Gusto ko ulit ibahagi sa lahat ang sanaysay na ito bilang pagpupugay sa aking ama sa araw ng kanyang kapanganakan at kamatayan.
I’m already suffering from a bad memory. I have a hard time remembering names, dates, and chronological flow of events. I suppose this was due to the general anesthesia, which was injected in my spine when I underwent appendectomy more than 30 years ago. “You might have memory problems later,” I heard the doctor say.
And yet, in spite of my countless memory lapses, I could not forget that fateful day of March 28, 1970. I was six, then, and I clearly remember, I woke up at 6-o clock that morning, with strains of piano music in my head. My immediate impulse was to proceed to the piano and practice the piece, which I learned the day before. I had hardly warmed up on our piano bench. I was playing a few bars of that ditty called “Chopsticks” when my elder sister, Rosemary, reprimanded me to stop playing and be quiet because she said, daddy was sick.
I went to my parent’s room and peeped into the slightly opened door. I saw my father lying in bed, and my mom, wiping his forehead with a face towel. There was another man in the room. Dr. Ramon Pastor, a colleague of my father, who many years later, saved my life by performing an emergency appendectomy operation when I was in grade 5. He was checking my father’s pulse. It seemed like a scene taken out from a movie — a sick husband, a worried wife, and a concerned doctor. How would the plot proceed? Well, it moved quite fast. As a matter of fact, in less than eight hours, a dramatic twist took place — a benighted twist that changed our lives forever.
Daddy was then brought to the hospital and we were left to play with our cousins. Close to around 7-o clock that evening, the telephone rang. It was my Auntie Sider who answered the phone. She was repeating instructions from someone in the hospital, but I could sense that something was wrong because her voice choked and she was in tears. It was then that I learned that Dr. Antonino C. Mangubat, my father, died of aneurysm. A vein in his brain burst from blood pressure shoot-up. He was 44, and died on his birthday.
So off we went to the hospital. There I saw my mother wailing for the first time, and my eldest brother Chito, crying, too. It was also my first time to experience death in the family, and at my innocent age, I felt too numb to sympathize, let alone cry.
My father’s wake was like a feast and his funeral was legendary. In far off San Luis, Batangas, where my grandparents lived, I remember mordant activities happening everywhere: helpers cooking what seemed like tons of food in the kitchen; jeep loads of mourners arriving by the hour; women praying and gossiping; relatives intermittently wailing in chorus; children running and crying; men drinking and gambling. To this day, I could still smell the stench of burning candles and incense and visualize the beads of summer perspiration dripping in everyone’s foreheads.
In addition to the astounding reality of death, daddy’s funeral was highly dramatic. He was buried in a public cemetery on top of a bucolic mountain. There was a long procession, and countless people, all wearing black, walked and hiked for kilometers to display their last respects for their beloved barrio medical doctor. Every now and then, somebody would faint and call my father’s name. My grandmother was uncontrollable. She screamed unashamedly and I took note of her face. For many years, I have not seen anyone express such lament and anguish. Burly men, who carried me and my youngest brother Rene, made us cross over daddy’s casket. It was there where I learned the age-old Filipino superstitious belief that the ghosts of the departed would never visit children, who were made to cross over caskets.
Whether that superstitious belief is true or not, I think it served its purpose, for after that, I never saw my father again, not in my dreams or even as a ghost. From then on, every March 28 and All Soul’s day, we would trek to the cemetery to visit my father’s tomb. My grandmother would still cry, albeit she was less hysterical as the years rolled on. Daddy’s birth and death anniversary almost always falls on Holy Week and I could remember vignettes of religious rituals whenever March 28 would arrive. There was the yearly pabasa of pasyon, a reading of the Holy Bible, written in the vernacular, and was sung in a strange tune by old men and women for 24 hours non-stop. Every now and then, we would also see flagellants — a parade of half-naked men, with crowns of thorns on their heads and whips full of sharp blades on their hands. They would whip their backs as a sign of purgative penitence. From boyhood to adulthood, those Holy Week rites served as a backdrop whenever our family would remember my father’s birth and death. I don’t know with the rest of our family, but I always looked forward to a joyous Easter after a week of gloom remembering not only my father’s death, but also that of Christ who died on the cross.
Growing up without a father could be quite an ordeal, especially when families are not tightly knitted and relatives don’t really seem to care that a child of six has no father figure to act as a guide in one’s journey towards manhood. Well, I never really thought about it very much because I was quite a self-motivated and confident kid. I even thought I was smarter than the others were because I heard my relatives say so. They said that at a very young age, I could enunciate words perfectly and that I first spoke and read in English before I learned the Filipino language. Had my father been alive, he would have made me realize at that time that one’s articulateness and enunciation do not necessarily translate to high IQ. Fathers explain things like these more to their sons than mothers do, says a psychology book.
The ordeal came during my troublous adolescent years when I wanted so much to belong but felt so alone. When the choice of whether to smoke cigarettes or drink beer became a highly charged battle of the conscience. When personal demons began to crawl in my soul and I looked for quick fixes to clear my moral fog. When juvenile angst and restlessness swam in my coffee each morning and I didn’t know whether to drink or spit it out. When friends told me they had heart-to-heart talks with their fathers while I simply figured things out on my own.
How does one recover and resolve such issues? I don’t think I completely did. Losing a parent leaves one with a permanent void. It’s like a scar that reminds us of a painful wound, or a callus that never heals. One just learns how to live with it, make sense out of it, and move on.
I don’t know what kind of man my father was. I don’t miss him, for how could I miss somebody I barely know? But because I am his son, I always have this urge to know more about him. Perhaps through this, I could understand myself better. What traits have I acquired from him? Does he have my temper, creative outbursts and over stretched imagination? What dictated his beliefs? How much of his genes are operating in me when I choose what food to eat, engage in intellectual excursions, make love, explode in rage, cry in silence?
In 1981, ten years after my father was buried, we exhumed and transferred his body in my grandmother’s private family cemetery. Surprisingly, his body was still intact, with nary any trace of decay. When I saw that face which I only saw in pictures, I felt a tingling psychic jolt and a microsecond shock because I thought I saw myself lying in that almost rotten casket. My relatives were right, I told myself. He definitely looks like me.
I went through my 20s hardly remembering my father. I recall I would automatically write the word “deceased” in parenthesis beside my father’s name whenever I filled out countless official and legal forms, and not really feel anything about it. I got busy building a career and making a life. I was ambitious, driven, full of energy. Just like anyone else, I wanted to make a dent in this world. Up until my early 30s, I worked and played hard, and pushed myself to the limits, until I got tired of the corporate rat race, bolted out of Manila, and headed abroad.
Today, March 28, I woke up with a wanton itch to write something about my father. My dad, who I hardly know, and for many years, I never prayed for, but whose death 42 years ago I could still recall vividly. All those years without him, I refrained to cloud my mind with buts, what ifs, and what-could-have-beens. I just live my life each day with the thought that a part of him is in me– and that is all that matters.