MAYBE, it is an obligatory thing to do. When the new year marks another turn in the calendar of our lives, we are forced to account for the previous years that have gone by. Included in the annual accounting are the new things and those that have been missing. It has been 15 years since my father succumbed to cancer and I still note the great big emptiness of his passing.
Over the weekend, I found myself rummaging over old photographs of the family and there were quite a few striking pictures of my father. Of course, I have seen them before but I was surprised to be looking at them from a new vantage point. That vantage point is afforded by time and hindsight, matters that come as a bonus with age – one of the few benefits of getting old I suppose.
I was amazed, for instance, that he had a picture of himself posing on the relief map of the Philippines built by Jose Rizal in Dapitan. Just recently, I was standing at the exact spot marveling at the genius of our national hero and similarly had a picture taken, albeit a Selfie. And it dawned on me that in so many levels I have been tracing my father’s footsteps for almost two decades without being totally conscious of it.
They say that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. I reinterpret this adage to mean that there is an unbreakable thread that exists between the narratives of fathers and sons, where the father starts the story and the son does his best to make sense of it and provide it a good resolution or ending. I am sure it was the same case for him as he dealt with his relationship with his own father, the details of which I can see reverberating in my own life a few generations after.
There I was several years ago undertaking sociological research in the marshlands of Maguindanao in the same areas where my father fought an unjust and violent war three decades before for what I have come to believe was the wrong side.
As grown men told stories of suffering and heart-breaking violence under the hands of the dictator’s army which unfortunately my father served, I arrived at a poignant understanding why my father flinches every time there is gory violence on film or on TV. He would come closer, cover my eyes with his own hands, and tell me not to look.
Perhaps, he had witnessed too much violence for a lifetime and wanted to spare me of even the sight of make-believe violence thinking that he had fulfilled the family’s quota for witnessing the pain and suffering of others, some of which might have been afflicted under his orders. And it also dawned on me why he had to take on the habit of drinking religiously, for he had many demons to exorcise within himself I realized.
This part of his narrative I have tried my best to understand and perhaps account for my profession. It was this warped intimacy of my father’s story and consequently my family’s narrative with the contradictions of living and growing up in Mindanao in the 70s and 80s that pushed me to a career that endeavours to answer the whys and hows of such systemic violence.
The site of my father in his hammock smoking with a dog near him had always been a comforting view every morning when I was about to leave for school. He always had a quiet and introspective disposition, was gentle and mild-mannered, and kept to himself and his cigarette.
Well into adulthood, I chuckle at myself for finally becoming my father. My best days are spent on a hammock, staring at the ceiling, with a contented fat dog on my side. Through puffs of ephemeral smoke, I craft my peculiar explanations to the hows and whys of life in my head just like my father did.
I remember one of those drinking sessions with my high school friends in my first year of college which my father graced. For some reason, deep into the night, the conversation steered toward the meaning of life. I don’t remember what our sophomoric takes were as freshmen in College with only basic philosophy under our belt, but my father’s answer to this question stuck with me. He said that the meaning of life was the unknown.
I have always thought that what he meant with the “unknown” pertained to an optimism about the future, of the adventures and challenges that life had yet to bring. As young kids then, life stretched out before us and the unknown was like a sexy lustful promise. But looking back now, how could a grown man, my father, who just had another four years remaining in his life then, speak about the unknown as being the meaning of his life?
Then it dawned on me that I am the unknown in his life. He passed away too early but in my quests, heartaches, and victories, he lives.