The last time I saw my father alive, I was drunk. He snapped at me from his sick bed to stop my snivelling – I was unnecessarily disturbing the other hospice patients. It was past visiting time, anyway.
Before leaving him with my tail between my wobbly legs and pain-numbing inebriation, I ridiculously intoned: Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas must have sneered from his grave. Were they still around in their matriarchal imperiousness in 1975, both maternal and paternal grandmothers would have lashed: Basta ya las barbaridades! Sin verguenza, Borracho! Donde esta su respeto para su enfermado Papa?
I have never been able to live down this embarrassing moment with a father who was by nature reserved. Not prone to show emotion, it would take him a bottle or two of Cerveza to open up. That also meant, he could be ragingly mad or be quietly sad.
The one time I saw him truly angry was when he slapped me one for making the entire family panic by not getting home until three in the morning --- (I had to finish the page dummies of the school paper and clean up all the stories for the monthly La Union Tab, our high school newspaper of which I was the chief editor. I wanted to win the top prize for best edited public school paper at that year’s National Secondary Schools Press Conference, after all, the TAB was the pioneer school paper in the islands.) –-- without leaving word that I would be at the La Union High School’s student paper office late into the night.
He roused our school principal, his uncle the vice-principal, the police sergeant neighbour, Mr. Calima, from hard-earned slumber; made expensive long-distance phone calls to relatives in Baguio City, in the northern Philippines, hoping I had gone there with my favourite teen-age cousin for the weekend; even disturbed the much-needed sleep of my school paper adviser, Miss Cleofe Bacungan, father’s high school classmate, their class valedictorian. “Where is my son?”
From a distance, I could espy his furious gait. There he was, my father, at three o’clock in the morning – right in front of the mayor’s house, his cousin, and about to rouse the mayor, too, to invoke Tio Antonio Ferraren’s assistance.
“Dad, Dad, what are you doing here?” I called out.
He turned around (after remonstrating with the mayor’s sentries to gain entry), and with jaws taut and eyes in an angry slit, snapped: “Punieta! Where were you all this time?” and I felt the sharp sting on my nape. The mayor came down in time to save my skin. He held my Dad’s second whack, and said: “Easy, Primo. That’s my scholar. (He promised to lend Father some hefty dollars for my fare to the United States as an American Field Service Scholar.) “Take them home,” he ordered the house guard.
When we got home, I had another harangue from a furious but relieved mother. “Where did you go? Why did you not send word? You, you…” Father held me on both shoulders and simply said: “Go to the bed. Explain tomorrow.”
For a while, I considered running away from home (Why not? Wasn’t I a typical teener?). I was too tired to even cry, and was afraid, if I did, I would get the old man hopping mad that I am not taking all this (my great undoing) like a man (which I pretended to be, anyway.)
“What did you do to him?” I heard my mother ask him. I heard him sigh one of those deep, prolonged ones he would take after controlling himself from throwing a punch at someone who has just peeved him. Silence. (Yes, I saw him hit an uncouth young man yelling profanities at a weeping waitress, one time that I was asked by mother to fetch him from his favourite watering hole. The police took the half groggy rogue to sleep off his gin-induced inebriation to the municipal jail, and apologized to my father for the disturbance!)
I asked my uncle, his younger brother, how he could do that with one punch, and he told me Father was provincial meet amateur flyweight champion boxer when he was in high school. He was quick because he was also a shortstop in the high school baseball team that won that year’s championship because he caught a fly ball that could have edged them out, but caught it with his nose and glove, blood and all, and that’s the story behind his “less-than aquiline nosebridge” looking more Japanese than his Spanish-mestizo-looking siblings who had more patrician nosebridges!
When he was sad, he was lachrymose.
That time he was called to an urgent emergency meeting with our school principal, he learned that I might not graduate valedictorian of our class, because I led a fight outside of the campus to beat the daylights out of the banker’s son who was the student chief of police in our Junior Government, where I was Senior class Governor. The late Santiago de la Cruz and his assistant, Andres Oreiro, thought I was the gang-leader of that out-of-school mayhem. What would the banker say?
My father asked for an investigation. It turned out, I was too late in joining the melee against this much-hated boy police chief (he would push boys and girls alike to create straight lines during Monday convocations), and was nowhere near the fight. My teachers rallied behind me, and my school paper adviser staked her position to vouch for my being a more “responsible student” than that. The Pre-Military Training teacher said, he would resign if I was disqualified as “valedictorian.” My woodworking teacher told my dad over beer that even if I could make only a crude semblance of a hanger and bric-a-brac for my woodworking projects, he will come to bat for me. And plotted to get drunk and disturb the graduation ceremonies, if I did not graduate valedictorian.
Enter my grand-uncle Abuelo Jose “Pepe” Apilado Casuga, then the provincial auditor, and he asked if the harsh punishment for say “a first offence, if offence it was – you will have to prove that” – is warranted. “My grandson has proven his worth to this high school,” he told the well-meaning principal.
Did he not win interscholastic medals for your school by getting the gold medal for Best High School Newspaper at the press conference? Did he not on his own win medals for his writing the best editorial and doing the best copyediting? What about winning first prize in the oratorical contest during the provincial speech contests? The American Field Scholarship grant, a first for this high school? Would a fistfight, typical of boys—and boys will be boys—negate all this? I ask for your enlightened consideration, Mr. Principal, as your respectful provincial auditor.
In later years, I would hear my Lolo Pepe recount the incident, and he would shake his head. “Budget time for high schools occur every year. I would see them there whether they like it or not pleading for their budgets from the scarce provincial coffers.”
When he came home from the meeting, my father told my mother that I might not graduate valedictorian because of the fight. I saw them enter their room, and I heard my father’s muffled sobs (my mother said much much later after his demise on December 5, 1975, he sobbed into their pillow, and she saw him punch his pillow in frustration. No remonstrations from him that evening.)
I graduated valedictorian eventually. When father and my mother came up the stage to pin the gold medal on me, I asked them not to cry. He stroked my face with half-closed knuckles, and mother pinched me in my arm. There was a prolonged ovation. I looked at my “gang mates” – those who fessed up to their role in the fight. They, too, were graduating. My school paper adviser who delivered that grad day opening remarks as adviser of the senior class of 1958-59, stood silently to my father’s right, winked at him, and hugged me. She whispered: Be a good boy, or I’ll come after you, and your father.
What did she mean by that? I asked my father later that night. He smiled and said, she was the classmate who shamed us boys into stopping a fight at the old library building. She said to shut up and study for the final examinations, or she’ll start pinching our ears. We were all gentlemen, then, son. We obeyed our brightest classmate. Look at how she saved your honours, too!
Miss Bacungan left for Manila the following year to become Director of the Philippine Science School. LUHS’s loss, the nation’s gain. When father died, she sent me a long letter of condolence and a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, all the way from California’s Stanford University where she would finish her Science Doctorate.
My father asked me to explain the following day after the “incident”, what I was up to by coming home in the wee hours of the morning, creating a disturbance in the entire town which will not be forgotten soon. I said, I was sorry, it will not happen again.
The mayor lent father the money to pay for my fare to the US to join the AFS program to take up a final high school year at the New York Free Academy. But my grandmother died that March, and the money went into her burial expenses instead. My father said, I should look at it as a year saved to go to university where my girlfriend was also going, and what kind of a scholarship is that anyway where they would not have to foot your travel fare? After all, they were interested in getting a Filipino live in an American home to learn more about their former colonials? My gain, AFS' loss?
Lolo Toning, the former mayor, never asked for father to pay the loan back. I got to thank him profusely years later when President Marcos’ Executive Secretary Jacobo Clave and I, as members of the President’s Civil Service teams travelling the entire breadth and length of the country, went to San Fernando, La Union, to campaign for the leader's 12-year Development Program.
The former mayor asked me if it was true that the President was going to replace him under the martial law dispensation – and that he was going to be replaced by a certain Albert B. Casuga.
I said, there were petitions from the market vendors sent to the President asking for my appointment vice Mayor Antonio T. Ferraren. Apparently, the instigators were other relatives who were not happy that the mayor has not paid attention to them like he did relatives of his wife (who was then cornering the tobacco business in La Union).
I have no ambitions toward that end, abuelo, I said. I kissed his hand in the old and traditional sign of respect and trust, and turned to walk to the stage to deliver my speech. The electric current suddenly conked out – and my speech and the Executive Secretary’s were called thereafter as the best speeches that were never delivered.
As a practising writer and professor at two leading Catholic universities established by the Benedictines and Christian Brothers many many years later, I finally wrote a final valediction forbidding mourning for my father:
Returning to the Root
“Will courage Redeem stupidity?”
-- Nick Joaquin
There is a manner of returning to the root
that explains the virtue of a hole,
its quietness the petering circle:
The canon of the cipher indicts us all.
And you, rocking yourself to an eddy,
drown the death wish: O that grief
on sons’ faces could tell you all.
“Will courage be visited upon my children?”
It is this cut whittles the tree down,
not of consumption but of fright
that bereaving is one’s splintering
of children’s bones. Death is our betrayal.
They are sons gaping as grandfathers die
shapes the gloom of the breaking circle.
They who knew the frenzy of the bloodcry
must never return to find sons become spittle.
That year, after his death, the poem was adjudged the Grand Prize Winner of the first Philippine national Parnasso Poetry Writing Contest. A handsome trophy sculpted by noted Philippine sculptor Edwin Castrillo and a princely sum of a thousand pesos made me happy. Father must have returned the favour. But he was no longer around to applaud. I would not even have minded a slap on the nape.
On this Father’s Day, June 21, 2009, many summer solstices later, I remember Father.
When he died after his 40 days stay at the hospice, his last words to my mother were “I am sorry. Forgive me.” They could have been my own farewell words, had I hastened home to San Fernando to kiss his hand and bid him goodbye. He did not wait for me, could not. He knew I must have been involved again in another “earthshaking” project like that school paper; only this time he knew I was working for the Ilocano’s pride: President Ferdinand Marcos at the Malacanang Palace. He liked that. The community would ask about me. He would simply smile.
Yes, Father. I remember you again today, like I always do, every day of this ageing life:
“They who knew the frenzy of the bloodcry,
Must never return to find sons become spittle.”
If you return in some flight of the spirit, like I always feel you do, in dreams or remembrances, mark only, dear father, that I have not become spittle.