Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The man who was just there

My June 23, 2015 column.


Last Sunday was Fathers’ Day and it seemed everyone used the occasion to get sentimental and mushy about fathers, which was not necessarily a bad thing.   I think this world would be a much better place if everyone learned to be grateful and appreciative of the people who contribute to our respective growth.  I wrote a piece about my dad in 2008, seven years ago.  I decided to resurrect it last Sunday and was pleasantly surprised to find that it resonated with so many out there.  Some friends asked me to share it in this space, which I am doing today; abridged, though, for considerations of space.  The person referred to is my stepfather, who for all intents and purposes, was and is, my father.   
I grew up in the care of my grandmother and an aunt so my interactions with Tatay were limited to a few perfunctory gestures during official family functions and occasions.  So Tatay was simply the stereotyped “man of few words” who lurked in the shadows of my childhood.
I didn’t have memories of having been carried in his arms or being hoisted up on his shoulders; he wasn’t the man who taught me how to balance myself on a bicycle, or swam, or fashioned balls and carts out of palm fronds and tansans. I never flew kites as a child simply because I didn’t have anyone to teach me how. Somehow I couldn’t imagine imposing the task of hoisting a kite up and running with it to an aging grandmother. Which is not to say that I lived a childhood deprived of mirth and mischief. Kids do make do with what they have with their amazing ability to adjust and rationalize.
What Tatay and I shared were a few poignant moments of awkwardness as we struggled to get to know each other throughout my childhood. But I guess fathers do have a way of making their presence felt even if the impact and the power of those few shared moments would only unravel years later. My own realization of the important roles Tatay played in my life struck me like a thunderbolt when I joined a speech contest in the early 90s.  It was when I wrote that speech when the memories gushed forth.
I must have been six and running around in the backyard gleefully the way someone of that age would, unmindful of the admonitions of the adult, when I stumbled and suffered a nasty cut on my leg. I remember desperately trying to be a grown-up and suffering in silence as I tried to stem the flow of blood. Somehow, Tatay was suddenly there. He didn’t say anything. He simply sat me down, fixed the situation in his own way, and then quietly set me off to do my thing again. No recriminations, no big drama. That would be Tatay’s trademark.
I remember many times in my life when he would just quietly emerge from the shadows to fix whatever was wrong in my life and just as simply disappear. No flashy declarations of affection. No major expectations of gratitude. Tatay wasn’t—and still isn’t—big on lectures or worldly declarations of what should or shouldn’t be. He simply was there when I needed him, like an invisible shadow that hovered and appeared when needed. Most fathers are like that, I guess. They are just there. 
There’s this admonition that our mothers like to trundle out at a moment’s notice —something about how one learns to fully appreciate certain roles only when he begins to play it. It’s a clichĂ© the wisdom of which is often lost in the dynamics of familial intramurals, but one that haunts you at crucial moments when one is forced to wonder how your parents coped with your own version of your kids’ misdemeanors.
Yesterday was Fathers’ Day. Because we live in an age where consumerism is the norm, everyone who stood to profit from hyping certain occasions made a field day out of it. But I guess there’s something about getting old—or older—that makes us develop marshmallows in places where the heart should be. And I guess being at the receiving end of affection makes us come to terms with certain occasions and forces us to appreciate affection when we get it. 
So if there is something that we should be grateful for about the way consumerism has consumed our lives, it is the fact that at least it has become easier—if not convenient—for kids today to be more in touch with their feelings particularly towards their fathers. It is easier to be affectionate with mothers because their social role dictates that they be nurturing and affectionate. But fathers are supposed to be of a different breed – oblivious to hugs and tears and big expressions of affection.
Tatay and I had an uneasy relationship growing up but I have realized that this has not in any way diminished the affection we have for each other. Tatay was not the proverbial hero of my childhood but he certainly is in my grown-up life. I can only wish I am as good as father to my kids as he has been to me.  Happy Fathers’ Day, Tatay.

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