Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Papa

my earliest memory of him was when i was two.

i was standing by the open door of my parents' bedroom, hugging my toy monkey with its drum. papa and mama were on their bed, one on each side, leaning on their sides facing me, with my newly-born baby sister at the center.

i don't remember what it was they said but my feeling was they were teasing me, taunting me, maybe telling me i was not loved anymore, as there was already my baby sister to take my place. mama was smiling indulgently, while it was papa who kept mocking me.

i felt confused and heartbroken, alone and pushed away. his face turned menacing for me, and i hated him that very moment. i threw my toy monkey at him and hit him on the head.

it must have hurt, as mama made a big fuss of comforting him and showing me his bleeding scalp. he was suddenly all weak and whiny, and they both scolded me for being such a bad girl.

i felt guilty.

for the first time in my life, i felt so alone.

*****

i was four or five, "vacationing" with papa in Iloilo, a city in the next island, a boat ride away. actually he was on one of his sales visits to our customers there and he took me along. we stayed at his brother's, my uncle's, apartment.

the first day, he left me at my uncle's to play with my cousins. but as the afternoon and evening wore on and he still hadn't come back, i became worried. i missed him terribly. i stopped playing and kneeled by the sofa propped against the living room window, waiting, watching for any sign, any sound of him coming home. i started crying silently.

dinner time, my uncle, aunt and cousins each called and cajoled me to the table, but i wouldn't budge. i just kept on crying, my little heart breaking into a million pieces.

at around midnight, he came. my uncle and aunt told him how i waited for him and never ate my dinner at all, but just remained crying by the window. we ate dinner together quietly.

when we retired to our room, he asked me if i wanted to go with him on his sales calls the next day. i said yes! he warned me it would be tough, could i take it? i said i will take it. he warned me we had to wake up at 4a.m. for the long road trip, i said it's okay. he said he'd only wake me up once, if i don't wake up, he'd leave me. i said okay.

i never slept the whole night, alert for any signs of him moving and waking up. when he finally did "wake" me up at 4 a.m., i jumped out of bed, dressed my self and was ready even before he was.

it was the happiest day of my life. we rode this rough railroad train where both people and animals were all bunched together. we climbed up and down several buses to get to far flung towns. we trudged up dirt roads to get to his rural customers' houses. while they talked and he charmed them with his easy manners, i sat quietly by, prim and proper and obedient, never making a fuss. when we walked down a road, i ran with my little legs just to keep up with him. he said he didn't want any sissies; if i wanted to be with him, i had to do as he did, no special privileges. i had to be tough.

but it was okay. i was with him, and that was all that mattered in my world.

*****

when i was eight, i begged mama to let me go with him in one of his out-of-town sales calls again. it was a wednesday but i absented my self from school. he drove our little volkswagen van and i was his assistant. i learned to tell we were in a new town or city when he'd point out to me the churches and the municipal halls as we passed them by.

his customers praised him for having such a pretty, quiet and efficient assistant, but he waved them off, saying i was just undergoing my necessary training.

life is tough and i've got to learn to be tough. i carried boxes of merchandise, helped push the van and assisted him in fixing it when it got stalled, and never complained of the dirt, humidity and squalor all around us.

all that mattered to me was that he needed me and i was there for him and that i felt important being around him.

*****

i was twelve. it was a sunday. the family and some of papa's and mama's friends and their families were at the local beach.

i was wearing a sleeveless shirt top and shorts and playing with my younger brother and sister in the sand. then we chased each other and swam and chased each other some more, until mama called us in to eat.

as we ran back to our cottage, i noticed people turning their heads and staring at me.

on hindsight now, i must have been a sight to behold-- a young girl with fair skin among a sea of brown-skinned bodies, playing and running gleefully like a child, but looking every inch like a full-grown woman, in wet shirt and shorts, with no underwear lining showing through.

papa angrily took me aside, covered me with a towel, and scolded me for acting like a kid. i felt confused and ashamed. he roughly asked, "hasn't your mama bought you a bra yet?" i shook my head, "no."

the next day, mama took me shopping for my first bra.

*****

i was nineteen, coming downstairs for a glass of water at 2 a.m. i found him on the sofa, hunched, smoking, looking agonized, apparently not having slept at all. he asked me to sit down. he started asking me questions about mama.

do i know this priest that is mama's friend? people have been talking; are they really just friends? what do i know of this priest?

i said i didn't know anything, that all i know is that he is also their church ladies' circle adviser, that he seems like a good and holy man, and that maybe mama is just undergoing a lot of changes right now and badly needs a friend for support.

mama has not been sleeping at home lately, but at our store.

he asked me to go with him to one of mama's church friend's house. at 4 a.m., we drove down the dark city streets to look for mama's friend's house. he asked them the same questions, both mama's friend and her husband. they couldn't tell him anything new.

i had never seen him look so confused and so tortured. my heart cried out to him, but i just kept quiet, sitting there next to him in the car. he drove home silently, gripping the wheel, tears streaming down his face.

after we got home, it was never spoken of again, that brief moment of friendship, when i saw him at his weakest.

*****

i was twenty-four. it was the eve of my wedding.

my sister and i, tired from all the day's work preparing for the wedding and attending to relatives who have come to stay with us to attend the wedding, slept at papa's bedroom downstairs instead.

there were the three of us on his and mama's large bed, with me in the middle. it was past midnight but i kept tossing and turning, while my sister was sound asleep. papa lay on his side with his back turned towards me, hunched and quiet.

i started sobbing, thinking of my wedding in less than twelve hours. my life was changing, i didn't really know how it did, things happened so fast.

sometimes in life,--i've read somewhere before,--you make one small decision, then things happen and take on a life of their own, and you are caught up in what's happening, not knowing if it's what you really wanted or are ready for.

i realized this was one of those times.

i wept quietly but the more i wept the harder it was to stop my self from shaking, consumed by my unbelievable grief.

i looked at my sister and papa, they both seemed peacefully asleep. so i gave in and wept more openly, more freely.

at that point, papa turned around, and still, with his eyes closed but brow furrowed, he stroked my hair slowly and hushed me. i wept even more as i huddled closer and he cuddled me in his arm. it was a rare moment of tenderness, coming from him.

no words were said, he just kept on stroking my hair as i sobbed. once or twice, i heard him sniff and sigh, but his eyes remained closed.

he just kept stroking my hair until finally, i fell asleep.


it took ten years to wake up.
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