IT was a cool, beautiful early evening. Everything was green and gorgeous in the sunset light; you could smell the fresh air. I instinctively knew it was a moment I would never forget.
My father and I were taking a walk, and his arm was around my shoulders. He was wearing one of his favorite terry towel jogging suits which Mama and I had bought for him, and I remember feeling indescribably content and safe beside this tall, hefty man with a crew cut and an imposing stance, thanks to his years as a combat soldier. I remember how he smelled, his breath, and how I, a relatively big girl, still felt like a frail little one beside him.
It was 1982, and I was in my first year of college, dead-set on becoming a heart doctor to take care of Daddy. I had just celebrated my 18th birthday that September, and now, some days before Christmas, I was with my parents for a short break in the huge industrial estate my father managed in Tagoloan, Misamis Oriental. Although it wasn’t a cushy corporate job, he enjoyed being among people, the small community he worked with. Everybody loved “the Colonel,” because he was a jolly, just, and compassionate man.
Tagoloan was like a compact paradise for me. Daddy had a comfortable, airconditioned staff house with a big swimming pool right beside it, the beach was a walk away, there were horses to ride and paths to hike. I spent many wonderful summers there with my parents, reading books, watching movies, driving around Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon and even as far as Davao.
As we walked, Daddy asked about my studies and friends, as always. I grew up a rabid Daddy’s Girl; no subject was off limits, even as, ironically, I would have to edit myself in the presence of my mother.
My father was not the healthiest of men at age 61, thanks to a slew of hereditary predispositions like heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. He had survived two heart attacks, one just barely—he only happened to be near a hospital hours before the attack because he was flying to Jakarta, Indonesia, from the boondocks of Java to be in the city for my birthday; I was in third grade, and had joined my parents for Daddy’s posting. I cried my eyes out the first time he said out loud, “So you see? My little girl saved my life.”
“You know what, baba?” he asked. (“Baba” is the Bicolano equivalent of “dear,” or “mahal” in Tagalog.) I grew up with the sheer privilege of being his baba; I was, after all, the youngest and only girl after five boys. Until he died, he always told the story of how the nurses attending my birth at the military hospital in Camp Crame, where I was born, squealed in delight and ran to tell him that finally, he had a daughter.
“I only have two wishes left in my life,” he continued. “One is to see the changing of the guard.”
‘The other,’ Daddy added, ‘is to see you get married.’ I giggled
It was 1982; even before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, even the old guard—the retired military officers—was getting tired of the overstaying, abusive president. “I want to see who will take over. It’s about time.”
The planning behind the Edsa Revolution, that would happen four years later, had not yet begun, and Daddy would have burst at the seams with pride knowing his eldest son’s role in it. (Full disclosure: my kuya is Gringo Honasan, an original RAM boy, then fugitive, then senator and Cabinet secretary. Google him, please, if you’re too young to remember.)
“The other,” Daddy added, “is to see you get married.” I giggled (which is what 18-year-old Daddy’s Girls do). “No, I’m serious.”
Daddy knew I had already had and broken up with my first puppy love, sort of; I had cried on his shoulder, and he was the one who told Mama. “I want to make sure I meet your husband.” After a quick hug and his planting a kiss on my head, we walked, holding hands, back to Mama and dinner.
Four months later, he would be dead from a cerebral aneurysm. I have some very painful memories of that time. I brought Daddy and Mama to the airport for their flight back to Cagayan de Oro the day before, in a bit of a rush because I had a swimming party to go to. Thus, my last kiss for my father was a hurried one, and that memory ate me up for years after. It still makes me cry now.
Then there was the family’s flight from Manila, on a lent private plane, to the first night of his wake in the industrial estate. When we arrived in a van from the airport, I saw Bulaybulay, the company driver everybody hated for being stubborn and combative, but whom Daddy never gave up on. Bulaybulay threw himself at the window of the van when he saw me, sobbing. I could only touch him through the glass.
Finally, there was the most terrible moment of my life, being almost dragged in my eldest brother’s arms up the aisle of the church towards his coffin. I’ve never been the fainting type, but at 18, I seriously, earnestly wanted to pass out and die, too.
Daddy got his first wish, albeit belatedly. He never got the second one, but I think we both understand that I had a different destiny from being a wife and a mother. I like to blame Daddy, in some ways; although I used to wish otherwise, I know I would have always been holding some poor man up to my father’s standard, and the fellow would have failed every time. Besides, I have no maternal instinct, unless the child barks and has four legs. That’s just the way it goes.
Come to think of it, my father had many disappointments in life. He retired early from his military career because the snooty wife of the President at the time falsely accused a number of the officers in the Presidential Guard of being loyal to the previous president (well, duh). Hint: his daughter wasn’t exactly a presidential paragon of integrity, either. Ask Garci.
Daddy got passed on for a few promotions simply because he didn’t dance along with office politics, and was honest to a fault. When he died, I remember looking through his papers, and weeping at his take-home salary, and at what was left of his death benefits after they deducted the balance of his car loan for a tiny Mitsubishi Mirage.
He had to see his youngest son hazed to death at age 19 in 1976—and still found the heart to forgive the perpetrators
Most memorably, he had to see his youngest son hazed to death at age 19 in 1976, and he could do nothing about it—and still found the heart to forgive the perpetrators. He also wished it would never happen again; 45 years later, boys trying to join a fraternity in the name of alleged brotherhood are still being beaten to death, their bodies unceremoniously dumped. Fraternities that still practice hazing today are nothing but mobs organized under Greek names to give their thuggery some legitimacy.
The good part is, Daddy was never one to dwell on his losses. He celebrated little victories with so much joy, it was downright contagious. Their two eldest grandsons, their pride and joy, were vacationing with my parents when Daddy died in Tagoloan on April 8, 1983. It took a while for the boys to get over the trauma of seeing their grandfather die, but they’ve moved on and have families of their own. I just hope they never forget how much he loved them.
I do feel a bit wistful that Daddy didn’t get his anticipated moment, giving me away in a fluffy white gown. I always, always felt his presence, though, for all the milestones in my life, most especially the tough times. The night before my surgery to remove the cancer in my left breast, I talked to him, looking at the ceiling of my hospital room, and I knew I would be all right. When I am wracked with pain during a depressive episode, I can hear him telling me to hold on because it will pass, and I feel his love and, most important, his absolute understanding. I can imagine him unabashedly and calmly talking to me about my mental illness, something my mother could never bring herself to do.
Many years ago, I was on a radio talk show hosted by my colleague, writer Jessica Zafra, and her friend Jobert was on the show, too. Jessica said Jobert could see spirits, and more important, he didn’t do all this “reading” for a fee; it was just a gift. Off the air, Jobert told me, “I see your guardian. He’s a tall, big man with a crew cut, and a polo barong with a logo, parang military.” He described exactly the logo of the industrial estate, an oval with red, white, and blue, and the company name.
“Your dad?” Jobert asked.
I answered with a smile and a full heart. “My one and only.”