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Absence (a personal essay)

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It was my father's birthday on December 1, and I remembered that I wrote two articles about him for Father's Day when I was still writing for a broadsheet. 

These essays used to be shared on Multiply, but I think I suddenly became self-conscious when workmates started adding me, so I took them down.

Today, during lunch with by best friend Sherwil, we talked about these pieces, which I found when I was going through old CDs in which I had saved my early 2000s work. Sherwil asked me if Daddy ever got to read my first essay; I said I didn't think so.  

I'm not particularly fond of this essay, but I love that I tried to be brave in writing about something intensely personal. What I enjoyed about getting published in a newspaper is that you get to release your work to the whole world, but you can also pretend it didn't happen because you are just a byline. 

It's different now with sharing your work online. People can find you.

What I now appreciate about this piece, however, is that it was followed by a second one. My father was still alive when I wrote the first essay, and he had already passed away when I wrote the second. They were just a year apart. 

I'm still a little apprehensive about sharing them on this blog, which is funny, because they were published in a nationwide newspaper. 

***

Absence
Published in The Philippine STAR on June 16, 2002

In 1989, my father, an engineer, got on a plane and didn’t come home for a full year. I was eleven, going on twelve, and you know how that is--you think of things on a daily basis and forever stretches on only until bedtime: Daddy was just not with us during breakfast; he wasn’t around to bark at us to switch off the TV and go to bed; and he just wasn’t there to torture, er, tutor me into understanding fractions and the many complexities of math. Oh, I missed my father everyday, but it was different. Life went on with the richness of its promises: I had the school paper, I had Nancy Drew, I was discovering Sweet Dreams and I was wearing my first trainer bra. From day to day, I eagerly took the path to adolescence, unaware that I was also headed for a lifetime away from my father. And I didn’t realize that its mark was just beginning to form.

It creeps up on us, the effects of absence. I didn’t think any of us felt its immensity the first year Daddy was away. Life’s many concerns kept swirling about us, and I didn’t think we had much time for nostalgia. It was a surprise, really, when I only realized what his being away meant on the first day he was back.

I already expected the changes; we had all been looking forward to his two-month vacation, and we already knew that we had a lot of catching up to do: my brother was anticipating his first year in high school, our four rabbits had given birth to about twenty little bunnies and all of them were now dead, my mom had left teaching to head the university’s outreach office, I was a few months shy of thirteen and facing everything that puberty was threatening me with, the family dog was pregnant, we had found a snake inside the house--all urgent news he just had to be updated with. I was ready to talk a mile a minute the moment he stepped inside our house. And I did just that, non-stop as he unpacked his bags and happily handed each of us our long-delayed birthday presents and other gifts that had piled up.

But I wasn’t prepared for the many invisible issues that started to landslide the minute he was home. It was as trifle as his wanting us to get up at six o’clock on the dot for a family breakfast, and as titanic as him expecting us to turn 180 degrees against the way of life we had gotten used to since he left. It was as trifle as me already forming my own, albeit raw, opinions and as titanic as him wanting the blind authority he relinquished for the year he left to work for his family. It was as trifle as his children wanting to play outside after school and as titanic as my father being shocked at how much they had grown up--and away--from him. 

We made adjustments, of course--a precursor of many that we would make each time he would come home for his yearly vacation. He was our father, the man of the house, and we learned to make concessions. For the two months he was around, we woke up at the same time he did, had coffee and waffles or champorado with tuyo for breakfast, had a real meal for lunch on weekends, went to church together, and ate dinner before ten o’clock--all happy things that had become more inconvenient as we lived our ‘normal’ lives without him. 

When I was a bit older, sixteen and arrogant because I was winging my first year in college, I found myself resenting the suspension of normalcy. By then, my mother had long since given up on setting curfews for my brothers and I, settling instead for the calmer anxiety of trusting that she had brought us up to know better than to do things that would set our live off course. My father, on the other hand, suddenly saw his three older children’s adolescence in the eyes of distrust. He was being protective, I know that now, and he had reason to be afraid for us because despite his many phone calls and the letters we regularly exchanged, he had not the vaguest notion of how his children had turned out. And I resented it; not because for two months out of twelve I had a curfew, but because for those two months I wasn’t being trusted.

We had our first big fight that year of his visit. I yelled at him and slammed the door to my room, and he promptly threatened to break it down, demanding to be respected. Later, when we had both calmed down, I stepped out of the house, urged by the familiar ring of the sorbetero. I saw him out in the terrace, pensively smoking his menthol cigarettes, maybe seeing for the first time how much our house, the neighborhood, and perhaps his family, had changed. I turned back to avoid him, but not before he asked my sister to go get his wallet.

A few minutes later, my sister handed me my favorite popsicle, one that I hadn’t tasted for years. We sat on my bed, sharing it, she with a messy grin, and I, puffy-eyed and smiling. And suddenly, she was six, and I was twelve, zeroing in on the things that mattered and would never change: we were our father’s daughters, he was just the Daddy we loved, and no history of absence could ever change that.

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