I grew up with my mother, and would only hear tidbits of information about this photographer who happened to be my father when the grown-ups in our household would happen to mention him in their conversations. I never asked my mom, nor anybody else in the house, about him. I never really knew what I was missing: my mother raised me alone since I was born.
Though I would sometimes feel that something's missing, maybe a tinge of jealousy?, seeing a classmate’s father place that Boy Scout kerchief around his neck during investiture ceremonies, while I had a teacher do it for me. I was alone when I went through the very important Filipino rite of passage held during the summer months. And then once when I tagged along a bunch of young men on their way to the rice fields behind our house for their turn to become men , I thought the sight of their respective fathers holding their hand (and with the other hand, holding a bunch of guava leaves) was just, well, really nice. As a young boy of about 6 or 7, I gravitated towards an uncle who was, most of the time, too spaced out making the most out of the last couple of years of the 70’s to bother with me at all. I then gravitated towards another uncle whose attention was already divided between being a young father to his own son and earning a living.
And then I learned how to use the telephone, and my mother ‘s way of introducing me to my father was to give me P1.50 to call him on a pay phone. 503559. 503559. 503559. I would chant the telephone number like a mantra so I wouldn’t forget it as I walked the two blocks to get to the nearest sari-sari store with a pay phone. Sometimes a female voice would answer, at times a young boy (who, later I would learn, was my brother), sometimes he himself. It was awkward, of course – what does one say to a kid he never bothered to seek during the last 7 years, and what can a kid say to someone he’s never met?
And then I finally met him in person, I was fourteen. And just like those several awkward phone calls, I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. That day I learned that I got my height from him, then later I learned that he liked fishing when I bumped into him at the breakwaters near the Cultural Center of the Philippines where I was already starting my life on stage, and a few years later as a teenager living on his own, I learned that he had a cool job when I would visit him at his studio and I would find him in the middle of a photo shoot for a famous jeans or beer brand.
And then one day, I found myself about to be a father. A few hours before my first son was born, my father arrived. I was tense, like most fathers-to-be waiting outside the delivery room for their child to be born. He put his arm around my shoulder, held the lighter out for me when I pulled out a cigarette to calm myself down – it was overwhelming, I suddenly had a father and I was going to be one myself. The next day, as I picked up my first son for the first time and held that tiny human being in my arms, I thought about how good it felt having my father there for me the night before , and I whispered into my son’s tiny ears, “I will always be there for you.” He made a face. I was sure he heard me, it made me smile.
A long time has passed since that day and I now have five children. I have held the hands of my two sons during their ordeal when it was their turn to “become men”; happily scouted the neighborhood for guava leaves to boil to help them wash their wounds; I have obeyed my oldest son’s orders to ditch the sandals for once and wear something that covered my feet at his graduation; I have held my two daughters’ chins above water at a pool teaching them how to swim; I have become a hero to my youngest son when I finally fixed the broken doorknob that had him stressing about the possibility of the family being locked inside the house; I’ve had them dress up on Christmas Eve for a family portrait, gelling the boys’ hairs, tying the girls ribbons, and stayed up late that same night to fill up their Christmas stockings with goodies; I have sucked out mucus out of all five’s noses when they had colds and couldn’t breathe. And yes, I have fought with other fathers at the playground defending my children. And I cannot begin to describe how happy it makes me to let them know that I am there for them.
And nothing else on this world brings so much joy than your child giving you a hug in gratitude for something you have done for them – and sometimes all it takes is just to be there for them. Sometimes you don’t really
have to do anything, just be there at all, as much as you can. I try.
Tonight, as I do almost every night, when they’re all asleep, I would walk over to their beds and whisper “I love you” in their ears before going to bed myself. I am very happy whenever I get a sleepy, mumbled response, but even if my whisper results only in a sleepy grunt or a sigh, I’d be happy enough.