My father died on the 19th of March, 1987. He was 52 years old. We lived in a squatters' area in Makati, the main business district of the Philippines. Our neighbourhood was a mixture of desolation and hope, perseverance and despair. My father was one of those people who worked very hard so he could send his kids to private schools and give them a better chance in life. He and my mother were constantly saving money to pay off our school fees. We had no luxuries in our home. We didn't even have a fridge. We had a polystyrene cooler where we would keep the creamy fruit salad my mother would prepare for Christmas.
We would only get new clothes for Christmas. I always looked forward to Christmas because that meant getting a new toy. I never asked for fancy toys. There was one time when I thought I wanted a Barbie, but after weeks of deliberation, I decided that I didn't want it after all. So I never owned a Barbie doll. I preferred dolls that looked like little girls, with plump arms and legs, long dresses and clunky shoes.
Looking back now, I don't think we ever felt poor. There was always food on the table (although sometimes, I had to slug it out a bit with my brother who was always trying to eat more than his share) and on Sundays, we were always treated to ice cream. Our clothes were neat and clean, we never ran out of paper and pencils, and our house was always immaculately clean and tidy, thanks to my mother and older sisters who are paragons of tidiness. Our house was big enough to accommodate my school friends and we often rehearsed for our school performances there (I did a lot of singing and dancing in grade school); our neighbours even hired it for parties.
I guess the reason we never felt deprived is that my father made sure we were protected from whatever financial difficulties he and my mother were going through. My mother's only indulgence was a few celebrity magazines a month--she was, after all, a Vilma Santos fan and had to keep up with what was going on with her favourite celebrity. My father loved films and would go to the cinema once in a while.
His simple tastes in life notwithstanding, my father was very meticulous about his appearance whenever he went out. When he wasn't working, he would wear his smart jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and brown boots. Oh, and yeah, he had tinted prescription glasses. Green, to be precise. At home, though, the smart attire would get discarded, and we would often find him relaxing in our living room, reading the paper, with just his pants on. This is one memory we have of him that always makes us laugh.
My father had a heart attack and a stroke in May 1986. He was kept in the intensive care unit for a few days and stayed in the hospital for a week. I suffered from motion sickness. I couldn't get into a jeepney, bus or taxi without being sick, no matter how short the journey was. It took me a few days to get over my fear of being sick, but I managed to visit Tatay in the hospital eventually. He was still in the ICU then but he was lucid and getting restless. He asked me how my Pity, my cat, was (she disappeared the night after Tatay was taken to the hospital but came back a few days later). I felt very shy and didn't know what to say to him. We weren't a touchy-feely sort of family; we never hugged or said 'I love you' to each other. So I just stood there next to my father as he held my hand and looked at me silently. We stayed like that for a long time.
He recovered and went straight back to work. He had to watch his diet; he had to keep his blood pressure low. He was doing fine, although he was still working hard. We thought he was safe and okay.
He was, until that evening in March less than a year after his first heart attack. Three of my grade school friends were visiting. We were now going to different high schools so we had a lot of catching up to do. Tatay was settling into his favourite chair, getting ready to watch 'Hunter'. He was listening to our banter and would occasionally laugh with us. Then my mother came rushing in with my one-year-old nephew. 'There's a fire,' she said calmly. 'It's very near us and it's spreading quickly.'
Sure enough, we saw the heavy grey smoke just a few feet from us. My friends hastily said good-bye and ran home. One of them would lose her home that night, just like I did. She was lucky, though. Everyone in her family survived.
My father got moving. He told us to go upstairs and pack what we could. My mother and my eldest sister laid out a thick blanket and put clothes and photographs in the middle. I stood next to them, not knowing what to do. I was panicking. 'Pack your school things,' my mother said. I obeyed her. Final exams were approaching; I would need my notes and books.
I don't even know how we got out of that narrow passageway and into the open street, but by the time we got there, there were hundreds of people clutching their belongings, most of them crying. There were also people there who were just being nosy or looking to see if they could steal anything. One of them went away with our blanket of photographs. My mother was carrying Nigel, my nephew. My sister was carrying a few things. I was carrying my schoolbag. I was barefoot. I saw my godsisters and we started crying together. My father had carried out a few more things - a box with Nigel's formula and clothes, pots and pans. He turned back towards our house - he was going to get more things. We didn't want him to, but he just looked briefly at us and walked back into the fiery darkness.
That was the last time I saw my father alive. The next time I saw him, he was in a coffin. I was the first member of the family to see him in the funeral parlour. I was with my best friend Joan, to whose house we went that evening, whose mother went with my mother looking for my father everywhere, until they saw my brother (who was at the cinema when the fire started) who tried his best to revive my father when he saw him on the ground suffering another heart attack but things happened that just made it impossible to save him. I was the first to see my father in his coffin because I wanted to go to school to tell my teachers that my house burned down and my father died. So I went to the funeral parlour on the way to school, with Joan at my side.
I wept when I saw him. I still cry when I think of the overwhelming sorrow I felt when I saw his face. Then I went to school where I wept some more as my teachers and school principal hugged me and tried to comfort me. I was exempted from the final exams and assured that I would still get top honours on recognition day. I thought to myself maybe I shouldn't have saved my schoolbooks after all. I could have just tried to save some of the books that my father spent many afternoons in second-hand book stalls in Manila to get for us. I could almost hear him laugh at my silly thought.
Twenty-three years. It seems like a lifetime, but whenever I think about that fateful evening, I still feel like my father's baby. Should grief last this long? Maybe mine will stay with me all my life because my father was my one true hero. He was my hero then, and now, even when I look back with my grown-up eyes, I still cannot find anything that could make me think less of him. He was smart and kind and generous and funny. And he loved his wife and kids a lot. He loved his parents and brothers and sisters a lot. Heck, he even loved his neighbours and always gave time and money whenever they were needed.
Dear Tatay, I hope you are happy wherever you are, strumming your guitar (yes, you're allowed to sing 'Dahil Sa 'Yo' there because Imelda Marcos would never deserve to be where you are), eating your favourite pork dishes, and hopefully wearing your smart clothes instead of just your pants. I learned to bake egg pies last week so I could make one for you on your death anniversary. I remember how you used to buy me a slice of egg pie as a treat, paired with a cold bottle of Magnolia Chocolait. That was heaven for me then. Today I shall enjoy a slice of egg pie with a cup of hot chocolate, and I'll think of you and your twinkling eyes and merry laughter.