MY father died a day before Father’s Day weekend 2020. We were just supposed to stay in the hospital over the weekend for a simple check-up and procedure, but we ended up staying just a little over 10 hours.
My father, Feliciano “Boy” Rodriguez, Jr., died suddenly last year, June 19, 2020, of an “acute cerebrovascular accident,” or in layman’s terms, a stroke. He was 71.
I can still replay that day in my mind’s eye with such clarity, it’s like watching a video replay on a computer. It was still hot, but the sky was already turning cloudy. The rainy season was slowly creeping in.
We decided to check our dad into the hospital because in the previous month he suddenly had ascites, a swelling of the belly and lower extremities. He was hardly able to sleep well the past few weeks because of the discomfort, and so we consulted with our uncle, Dr. Francisco Arcellana.
Earlier tests showed he had no heart or kidney problems, so our uncle wanted to ascertain why my father had ascites. A cursory web search for me yielded a frightful possibility: cancer. If the heart and kidneys are fine, chances are, the ascites is caused by the feared disease.
I kept this info to myself, but steeled my nerves for this inevitability. My own late mother had a grueling 18-month battle with cancer 10 years ago, and I was afraid my father would experience the same long fight.
And so, the Friday before Father’s Day, we checked into Capitol Medical Center, where our uncle is a long-time resident doctor. As this was still the peak of the first COVID-19 lockdown (and we were both COVID negative), my dad was allowed one companion, me.
When Dr. Arcellana greeted us in our room, he told us to prepare for a weekend of tests, which would include ultrasounds, CT scans, and the eventual draining of the abdominal fluids for testing. He told us we might be able to go home in time for Father’s Day lunch, Sunday.
I was always a momma’s boy. I became close to my father only in recent years upon his retirement. I even let him tag along on some of my lifestyle assignments, when a plus one was allowed. But whatever else, I know I dearly loved him.
I prepared myself for the possibility that I would be taking care of him, cleaning him, and nursing him during our stay in the hospital. Usually it was my older sister who would be doing this, or my dearly departed mother. I was such a spoiled bunso (just like dad). I was afraid, but also determined.
So, in the private hospital room, we relaxed. He didn’t even lay in the bed but preferred to sit in the lounge chair. I sat near him in the adjoining sofa.
I didn’t know how long I was holding his hands, but I do remember my thoughts. ‘Is this it?’
A nurse came in to take his oximeter readings, and had him answer questionnaires, to prep him for the first procedure: draining the fluid in his belly.
When the nurse left, it was again only I and my father. I helped him up because he needed to pee. I held his hands all the way to the bathroom. At the back of my mind, I thought, “This is it. This will be me taking care of him for months. There will be cancer. There will be pain, and I’ll be cleaning up after him.”
But instead of horror or desperation, I felt a strong sense of duty and love: “I will do this.” I remember clearly feeling that, and saying those words in my head.
After trying to pee (no liquid came out), I helped him back to the lounge chair. His movement was jerky, like someone drunk, and he staggered back to the chair. I put it off as him being unbalanced because of his swollen belly. “Pahinga muna ako, anak (I will just rest, son),” he told me as he sat in the chair.
As I sat beside him, he closed his eyes, as if to nap. Later on, as I was browsing on my cellphone, his hands reached out to me. Not in desperation, it seemed, or out of fear; it was like someone wanting to be reassured that he was not alone. His eyes were still closed.
I thought, “Ah, he’s a bit afraid.” I expected it of him, a man who had been healthy all his life, who had never checked into the hospital for any illness.
And so I held his hands. Seconds passed, or maybe minutes. Time didn’t flow normally when I was holding his hands because I was looking at his face. It was serene, eyes closed, but he was breathing quickly, as well.
I didn’t know how long I was holding his hands, watching him, but I do remember my thoughts. “Is this it? Is he being spared the horrors that happened to my mother?”
Because whatever else I may have been thinking, I really felt that he was already departing this world, while holding my hands.
There was no pain in his face. He was breathing slowly now, and a single teardrop fell from his left eye. His head tilted slightly to the left, his body slumped, and droplets of drool slowly trickled down his mouth. I let go of his hands, knelt in front of him and called out, “Daddy, ok ka lang? (Daddy, are you ok?)” And just like in a movie, the door opened, a nurse entered with a blood pressure trolley and I told her, “Nurse, hindi na yata humihinga si Dad. (I think he has stopped breathing.)”
When the nurses and resident doctors came rushing into the room, I already knew he was gone.
“Oh, ano nangyari kay Boy? (What happened to Boy?)” my uncle Dr. Arcellana asked me when he barged into our room. I described to him Dad’s last moments.
After conferring with other doctors, he went back to the room and told me that it was most probably a cerebrovascular accident. “Your dad had a stroke. Most definitely a stroke. You could not have done anything else to help.” My ninong was clearly trying to reassure me that no one was at fault, that I should not blame myself.
My cousin Edwin recalled later what his father, Dr. Arcellana, told him over dinner, “It was better this way. The ascites was probably caused by a malignancy. Imagine your Uncle Boy. Draining the liquid in his belly, then chemo, and then there will be liquid again. So we’d need to drain it again. And then chemo again. It would have been an endless cycle.”
I agree. He was lucky, indeed. Especially after having seen my mother wither away in pain because of cancer, I most certainly would not have wanted that to happen to our dad.
So, in the end, death came as a friend for my father…. He literally just fell asleep
And so, in the end, death came as a friend for my father, a gentle companion that took him away from this world. He literally just fell asleep.
It was a wholly different experience arranging for my father’s funeral because of the community quarantine restrictions, unlike our mom’s wake 10 years ago.
Thankfully, this time, our cousin, the Reverend Edwin Arcellana, was on hand to help us with our father’s virtual funeral service.
We anticipated a simple ceremony after the cremation, but Edwin insisted that dad’s community needed to mourn properly and have closure. And so we employed technology for his wake. It became an international affair.
My mother’s funeral was attended by her local churchmates, friends, family. Her urn was on a pedestal, in her own room in a funeral home. There were food and drinks, and the wake lasted three days.
My father’s funeral was vastly different. In the hospital, I was told that his body needed to be picked up immediately because the hospital had no space in its morgue. Protocol also dictated that all bodies be cremated, whether or not the death was COVID-related. His body was picked up the same evening he died, and early the next morning, he was cremated with only five loved ones to witness—me, my sister, our cousins Edwin and Shirley, and Shirley’s husband Ogie.
The wake was entirely online. Thanks to our cousin and his church, there was a Dubai-based choir that sang for Dad’s online service, and the tech team was also from there.
What struck me was how my dad had a wonderful secret life…He was generous with his time in the last years of his life
Our cousin officiated the virtual conference from here. He gave the sermon, and we got to invite friends and relatives from here and abroad. There were relatives from Bavaria, Germany, and cousins from Dallas, San Francisco, Nevada, and even Canada.
More than 200 people logged on. We were surprised by the huge attendance, with some chat accounts having two or three participants. But what really made the service special were the stories and eulogies shared.
We knew our father was an outgoing, charismatic guy, but we didn’t realize that late in his life, he had touched so many lives. It was like he had a secret life we didn’t know.
Churchmates were crying hard while sharing their stories about “Lolo” or “Tito” Boy. There was even this young church member, Ian Espina, who fondly shared how our dad would talk to him after every church service. He would ask him about the girls in the university, and other such frivolities. “He was like my lolo who would always ask me how my week went. Or if I had gotten my driver’s license already.” He said, “I always looked forward to our little talk every Sunday.”
What struck me was how my dad had a wonderful secret life. That without me knowing, he had enriched people’s lives with his witticisms, pieces of advice (solicited or otherwise), and countless anecdotes. He was generous with his time in the last years of his life. I can’t count how many people said how “he was like a father to me.”
We were surprised to learn how he continued to tell people that he still dearly missed our mom. He never told me and my sister this.
“Alam mo, miss na miss ko pa din si Rosalie (I still miss Rosalie),” he told a family friend, Marlon Clemente. “Pero magkikita pa din naman kami. (But anyway we’d still see each other.)” This was a poignant thought for me. I knew he loved our mom dearly but I did not realize how fresh and alive his love for our mother remained.
It was astonishing to think how he transformed from a high-flying businessman to a caring father figure later in his life.
Dad was the youngest son of Feliciano Rodriguez, Sr., one of the first mechanical engineers produced by the University of the Philippines who would become the noted dean of Mechanical Engineering of Mapua Institute of Technology. “Dean Rodriguez”—he would be known to generations of students and colleagues in the profession. My father went against the grain in our family. Instead of becoming an educator like his father and older siblings, Cornelio and Lydia (Arcellana), he instead went into business, to the chagrin of his dad.
He belonged to the generation of go-getter businessmen during the ‘70s and ‘80s. In his late 20s he made his first million hedging on the booming LPG business (Liquified Petroleum Gas). In the ‘80s, he became the youngest president of the LPG Institute of the Philippines, and spearheaded the establishment of the Malabon Chapter of the Jaycees, as well as building a scholarship program for deserving youths in Malabon, his parental roots.
In the 1990s, he was instrumental in the creation of PowerGen Corporation, making the Manila International Airport self-sufficient in its electrical needs. To be sure, there were ups and downs. He was hard hit by the 1997 Asian Crisis and 2008 economic crisis, but his hardy, resilient nature always prevailed.
From a high-flying businessman to a nurturing “Lolo,” he finished well, I would say. After our mom’s death, he mentored couples and younger men in our church. He volunteered to teach Values Education to Grade 4 students at Balara Elementary School. In his death, he left a project that seeks to provide subsidized LPG cooking tanks to the poor of Manila City.
One of the first people I messaged when he died was his childhood friend from Ateneo, Benjie Pua. In recent years, the two, with me and my sister in tow, would have dinner in new restaurants in Makati or BGC. The two would often wax nostalgic about their halcyon days at Ateneo.
“There was this rock in the school grounds at Ateneo that we would stand on. You can see the whole Marikina Valley when you stood on it,” Uncle Benjie recalled. Dad himself would just smile at the memory.
I imagine him now, a 12-year-old boy, playing with his classmates at Ateneo. He is standing on the rock, seeing what seems like the whole world laid out before him, with such great possibilities and opportunities ahead. Did he realize then that he would touch the lives of so many different people? There were the lives he nourished by giving employment in his many business endeavors. The people who would call him their second father. Did he realize then that he would meet a provincial girl from Sta. Rosa, Laguna, raise a family with her, have a daughter, and have a son who would be holding his hands when he died?
Life is indeed an adventure.