Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Papa, Can You Hear Me?

God - our heavenly Father.
Oh, God - and my father who is also in heaven.
May the light of this flickering candle illuminate the night the way
Your spirit illuminates my soul.

My Father was a quiet man, too quiet for comfort. During slow hours in our store, he was content to read his Chinese newspapers and magazines while relaxing on his rattan and wicker easy chair which had an adjustable back rest and extendable footrest (which I gave to him as a gift out of my first month's salary). We knew he was in a good mood if he hummed Chinese folk songs while reading. While immersed in reading, he would consume several pots of tea. Relatives on my Mama's side of the family taught me to read, but Papa was my first role model in reading as a hobby. He always looked calm and serene while reading. After closing the store, he would wear his favorite white sleeveless undershirt (sando) and blue boxer shorts and do some more reading before going to bed. When he found something delightful in the papers, he would call me and point out to me a picture or article and explain it to me. Then we would share a hearty laugh.

Papa loved to tell us his stowaway adventure. At the age of 13, he stowed away on a Compania Maritima ship bound from Iloilo City to Manila. During the trip he would ask leftovers from other passengers. Upon arriving at the port, he walked from Divisoria and found himself in Carriedo with its row of shops and stores. He found work in a grocery there owned by a Chinese businessman who hired him on the spot upon learning that he was part-Chinese. The boss taught him how to read and speak in Fookien and write in Chinese characters. His co-workers taught him the ABCs/Abakada using the brands found on labels of the grocery items they sold. When it came time for them to teach him the letter C, they showed him a Coca Cola bottle and told him to copy the capital C with a long tail (Coke calls this the dynamic ribbon, I think) on it.

Papa, can you hear me?
Papa, can you see me?
Papa, can you find me in the night?
Papa, are you near me?
Papa, can you hear me?
Papa, can you help me not be frightened?

Papa loved babies and toddlers. He would cuddle and played with them for hours but he lost interest in them once they could speak in sentences and walked on their own. I and my siblings assumed he was the same way with us. In our photo albums, there were lots of baby pictures with us in his arms. But in subsequent photos, the closest we got to him was to sit on his lap during the photoshoots. The gap between him and us widened when we became teeners. He became distant and uncommunicative with us. We only heard his voice when he had wanted us to do something in the store or when he gave us a scolding.

Looking at the skies I seem to see a million eyes
Which ones are yours?
Where are you now that yesterday has waved goodbye and closed its doors?
The night is so much darker.
The wind is so much colder.
The world I see is so much bigger now that I'm alone.

He was too silent for comfort. As the eldest child, I could sense his growing frustration over the lessening income of our store. Martial Law saw the plunging business incomes nationwide. The bank foreclosed the land and store building because we failed to make the amortization payments. In spite of low sales, during the Christmas season, he would ask me to bring grocery bags of goodies to family friends. He would also ask us to wrap rums, calendars and t-shirts for loyal patrons. On several occasions, I would notice the slight tremor in his hand when he handed the wrapped rums to soldiers who came in the store, placed their armalites on his desk and asked him for their Christmas gifts. He survived two hold-up attempts - the first on a weekend with us children around his desk in the store while he showed us some funny items in his newspapers and magazines. The guy with a gun just came up to us and asked for the day's sales. Papa gave it to him and then the guy ran out of the store. The second time, we were in school. The men came to the store and closed it up. Papa was hogtied by two men while Mama locked herself in the comfort room. Papa was able to untie himself and yelled for help from the neighbors. The men ran away with the day's sales. He wouldn't be as lucky the third time around.

Papa, please forgive me.
Try to understand me.
Papa, don't you know I had no choice?

Can you hear me praying, anything I'm saying,
Even though the night is filled with voices?

1981. The last year of Martial Law. Exactly two months after celebrating his 61st birthday, Papa woke up as usual at 3 a.m. He was supposed to brew some tea before opening the store in front of our living quarters. Leaving the master's bedroom, he saw two men carrying boxes of goods from our store. Using a .45 caliber pistol, they shot him twice. And the men and a small boy, whom they ordered to get inside our house through the jalousie windows and open the door for them, rushed out. Papa rushed back to their bedroom, locked the door and told Mama what happened. Papa never made it to the hospital.

I remember everything you taught me, every book I've ever read.
Can all the words in all the books help me to face what lies ahead?
The trees are so much taller and I feel so much smaller.
The moon is twice as lonely and the stars are half as bright.

Papa never saw his grandchildren. The kids were born after his death. And so as soon as they were a month old, they were brought to the cemetery and introduced to him and later, to Mama too. While there, we would recall funny times with Papa.

I would retell how, as a reward for my being an honor student in high school, he treated me to a movie of my choice. I chose Fiddler on the Roof based on a Broadway musical. He slept all through it while I sat watching. The songs on screen were punctuated by his snores beside me.

Mama would tell us about the time when she bought a framed poster of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci from an ambulant vendor and hung it in the living room with the family photos. After closing the store and preparing to do his ritual reading, Papa noticed the new portrait and called out to Mama: Hey, who is this? Is she a relative of yours or mine?

My sister retold her embarrassing experience with a German customer. When Papa saw her with a foreign customer, he went to assist her. German (examining a local rum brand): Hmmm, good rum (pronouncing it as "room")? Papa: No room for rent! German (looking at my sister): Is she your daughter? Papa: No! He's my son, my son! (At that time there was a popular local sitcom named "My Son, My Son" which starred Pugo and Jay Ilagan). The German left the store shaking his head.

Papa, how I love you.
Papa, how I need you.
Papa, how I miss you
Kissing me goodnight.

Papa, to my eternal regret, I was not able to say I love you before you left us. Let me say it now: I LOVE YOU! And I MISS YOU DEARLY! Thank for loving us in your own silent way. Thank you for the quiet strength you had shown us during those critical times. Thank you for giving me the gift of education which was denied to you by poverty.

(Papa, Can You Hear Me? music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman from Yentl. Click here for the clip from the film.)

1 comment:

rolly said...

s I am just using a dial-up connection which takes a lot of time fo download something, I don't have time to listen to the music but is this the one from Yentl? I cna hear Barbara Streisand singing it.

Anyway, your father's death is very tragic and to think he's had two cases of hold-ups yet. I'm sure he knew you loved him. One does not need to utter the words to get a message across.