(THIS is an eulogy for my father-in-law, Fernando D. Arguelles Jr., who was interred
today, 15 October 2021, in Bacolod City.)
Papa was not someone you could simply describe in a single word, not even, I would venture, in an extended paragraph. He was rather, to paraphrase the late great Winston Churchill, somewhat of a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
How, for example, to reconcile the seemingly conflicting testimonies of those who knew him intimately, as they recollected their memories of him over these last few evenings. While many have paid tribute to Papa for his deep faith and abundant Christian generosity, still others attest to his relentlessly competitive nature, giving no quarter to anyone who played against him - whether in basketball, tennis or chess - not even if his sporting adversary happened to be one of his beloved grandchildren. Papa would give a total stranger in need the shirt off his back, but he would never yield a game of chess to one of his “apos,” not even if it was clear that his loss was inevitable. Such was his nature that I was struggling to make sense of, until one night -- while flicking through Netflix -- I chanced upon that now iconic exchange in “The Last Samurai,” one of my favourite movies of all time.
Following a deadly battle where many of his samurai warriors perished, and in which he was almost killed as well, Nathan Algren (the character played by Tom Cruise) asked the anachronistic samurai leader Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) why he was not afraid to die. His reply to Algren seems to me to make sense of Papa’s seemingly irreconcilable character traits. Katsumoto mused, as the cherry blossoms swirled around them in the crisp autumn air “...like these blossoms, we are all dying.
To know life in every breath, every cup of tea, every life we take. The way of the warrior...that is Bushido.”
That’s when it hit me. Katsumoto’s reply to Algren (apart from the life-taking part) explains, at least to me, what Papa was all about.
But before you shake your head and say that Papa was a devout Catholic and not an ascetic Zen monk, remember that in our Christian tradition, we have a similar belief as well, best summed up by St. Irenaeus, the great second-century theologian, who expressed the essence of Christianity with the pithy adage “the glory of God is a human being fully alive!”
For Papa, all the generosity that he had, the athletic ability he was endowed, and the brains he was given – these were all from God, and therefore gifts that should never be wasted. So he would give to the needy until he could give no more, rush to the net like he was Roger Federer in a Wimbledon final, and play chess with Renjo as if playing against Gary Kasparov himself. Each living encounter Papa treated as his last, with the same zest and vigour as Katsumoto, always striving to know life in every breath.
Yes, it seems Papa understood both the samurai Katsumoto and St. Irenaeus very well indeed. Whether it was in helping others with their basic human needs, or playing chess with Renjo on lazy Saturday afternoons in their sala, Papa never did
things in half-measures. He either did something to the best of his God-given abilities, or he did not do them at all.
One of my most memorable personal exchanges with Papa was when he sat down beside me many years ago, and with his characteristic wide grin, declared “You know Lan, I really admire your talent in writing. You can express yourself so eloquently, in a way that I only wish I could. If I had your gift, I would write about so many things, but unfortunately I don’t have your abilities.”
I thought at the time that Papa was just being complimentary, but on hindsight maybe he was really trying to motivate me as Katsumoto would have inspired a young samurai, or St. Irenaeus an aspiring preacher. I’m certain now that in his mind, I was not being appreciative enough of the gift that God had given me, and was not writing anywhere near as much as I should be. Maybe, in his trademark nice and polite way, he was really telling me to show more gratitude to God bybeing a more prolific writer.
I get you now, Papa. And I’m sure so does Renjo. And I also now understand why it is not a contradiction that an extremely generous person like you, could never bring himself to be “charitable” enough to concede a casual game of chess to Renjo.
Like a true Ignatian, you were giving glory to God by being fully alive in everything that you did. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. That’s why you could be simultaneously so humble and generous to others, and yet at the same time be tough and unyielding even to your grandsons in chess. You were imply living your life in every breath.
Indeed. You were just making the best use of all the gifts that God so generously gave you, and used them all very well, until your very last breath.