It is around 9pm, way past my little girl bedtime on a summer day. I would jump around excitedly in bed, waiting for the three honks that could only mean one thing: that my parents are finally home from work. As they park their car in the garage, I try to make myself useful in their bedroom. I would smooth out the creases of the bed covers from all my jumping, and add that extra fluff to their pillow for a good night’s sleep. At long last, the wait is over!
That pretty much summarizes my childhood.
I did have my special moments with Mama in the morning before she leaves for work. Unlike her mom, my grandmother, who takes forever to get ready due to her meticulous fashion and beauty rituals — a trait I inherited from her — my mom manages to whip up her look for the day in a snap: a glide of lipstick and a nice dark shade of eyeshadow while she says out loud a series of last minute reminders to our helper. She then dons a smart blazer to seal the deal and she’s out and about, heels clicking and car keys jingling away — but not before she gives me a peck and a hug, plus an encouraging pat to continue with whatever piece of writing or art that I was working on. Mama fuels my day.
It is a completely different story at night. My father, a respected geologist in his field, was a constant globetrotter. More than the goodbyes before he leaves, I remember more the hellos when he gets back after days or weeks or months of waiting to see each other again. I always anticipate the glorious moment when he’d finally step into the room, and I’d get in the way between him and Mama (who I’m sure missed him just as much — or perhaps even more than I did). I even recall staying up till past midnight waiting for him to return from a red-eye flight from Malaysia.
We’ve always had an interesting form of bonding the moment he plops in bed. With my little hands, I would pull off his pair of socks from his size 10 feet with all my might, and throw it in the silliest way and in the most random part of the room — near the TV, the book shelf, or if I make a good aim, the doorknob to the washroom. He would then carry me and lift me up with his legs, my arms spread out wide as if I were flying among the clouds. We called the game “Airplane”. And if that wasn’t enough, he would jokingly tell me that he would eat me (“yu-yum-yum-in kitaaa”), his stubble grazing and tickling my cheeks until my fit of giggles would exhaust me into slumber. “Good night, my angel Nan”, he would whisper in my ear. The next thing I know, it is morning again, and I am in my bed. He probably carried me back to my room when I was soundly dreaming away.
Earlier this afternoon, when we went to my dad’s brother Tito Mar to celebrate Father’s Day and the recent blessing of their new home, it was impossible not to include anecdotes about Papa in our conversation.
“Kuya Ray had a soft heart”, Tito Mar said, to which his youngest brother Tito Vic agreed. With Papa’s usual uptight demeanor, this soft heart that they speak of was usually reserved for those dearest to him — and in some cases, even to those who didn’t necessarily deserve his goodwill. He was a good man, guided by his principles, which included fairness and his unwavering integrity.
Always the disciplinarian, Papa had such a high standard of living. He was strict and hard to please, and had a short temper. He was a skeptic, a critic of society, and a scrupulous educator. My sister and I would help him in checking the test papers of the students he taught at various universities, and when we come across a particularly bad student who couldn’t tell how many sides there were in a cube, he would give us a lecture about pupils who waste away the hard-earned money of their parents by not taking their studies seriously. It may sound silly, but this always made me conscious when answering test papers in my college years — I didn’t want to be used as a bad example to the children of my professors.
There was a time when Mama worked in the US, and Papa would force me and my sister to eat vegetables for dinner with not even the slightest bit of chocolate for a taste of salvation. One time when we couldn’t take eating greens anymore, we secretly threw it away, and when he discovered the morsels of food in the trash, my sister and I trembled in fear. The rest of the night was history. When I got too big to be carried for our game of “Airplane”, and when the idea of me having a boyfriend at such a young age came into the picture, I was almost always walking on eggshells with him.
It wasn’t so easy being with Papa.
However, beneath his stern façade was a beating heart, always ready to help those in need without asking much in return. He never made a huge show from his discreet acts of charity to his family and peers. He was non-judgemental — his default disposition was to have an open mind. He was always set on doing the right thing, even if it entails compromises. He respected people from all walks of life, from the humble assistants who help him and his fellow geologists in their perilous explorations, to the blind man slowly crossing the street and causing traffic. He was kind.
Which leads me to the conclusion that this is how I want to remember Papa: as the strong man with a soft heart — the man who was the wind beneath my wings as we both shout “airplane!” amid a roar of laughter. The long years may have deepened the crease between his brows, but in his last few months with us, he would always remind me how much he loved me, and that I will always be his “angel Nan”.
Happy Father’s Day, Papa. I miss you terribly.