Absent (a personal essay)

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My father died in 2003, on March 19 in Manila and March 20 where he was. I was at work, and it was a terrible taxi ride home. Maybe next year I'll write about that night.

I believe I left the newspaper shortly after, but they still asked me to write for their Father's Day issue, and I came up with this piece.


Published in The Philippine STAR, June 15, 2003

It feels like all my life, I’ve been chasing after my father. I look for him in the scent of menthol cigarettes, in his signature perfume, in tool boxes, in the parts of our house he helped build. It’s like that, I suppose, when your father works away for ten months of each year.

Last year, for his annual two-month Christmas vacation, he refashioned the dresser between my sister’s and my cabinet into a new part of our closet, out of boredom and in concession to our growing wardrobe. From scratch he smoothened two wooden panels, attached it the dresser frames, hooked up a metal pipe, and there we had it: new space for our new clothes. It wasn’t varnished--he left it up to us-and he hadn’t attached knobs with which to open it, but there it was.

Only, my sister and I didn’t use it. It stayed as it originally was--a dresser for our bottles of vanity, for moisturizer, perfume, deodorant, cologne, hairbrushes, anything and everything two girls who share a room can have. It really wasn’t what we wanted, he just went on ahead and built it, thinking that was what we needed. But I guess that’s how it is, when your father works away for ten months of each year. He can’t always tell what you want. 

But he was always tried to guess, especially when I was younger, when the years hadn’t grown into the spaces between us. Each time he would come home, he would hand us his presents. One year he gave me perfume, never realizing I rarely use perfume because it burns my skin. Another year, he gave me a gold necklace, not knowing I prefer the safety of silver. But once he brought home a digital camera--for my mother, not for me, but it made me deliriously happy.

Most of the times the presents were off, sometimes, they hit close to the spot. But it wasn’t his fault, really, because, unlike my brothers who spoke his man’s language, I never learned to ask. It’s like that when your father works away for ten months of each year. Slowly, you become too shy to ask. 

He headed for the deserts when I was 11, first mining copper, as he was trained to do, and then mining gold. Before that, he worked in the mountains of Zambales, still away, but closer, coming home on weekends, almost always in the middle of the night, or early in the morning--either which way, I’d have to wake up to see him, the same way he had to see 25-year-old me the last time he came for his two-month visit. 

Straight from an all-nighter at work, I’d sneak into the house out of concern for those who were sleeping, but he would always get up to open the door for me, no matter the time. Or, when I decide, out of practicality, to go home after sunrise, he’d be up by his lonesome, ready with breakfast and a fresh pot of coffee. Late at night, or early morning – the last time he came home, that was how he saw me. Either which way, I’d kiss him goodnight, go to bed, and wake up to kiss him goodbye.

It took him long to realize he was the only early riser in the family, waking up so promptly, only to wait until noon for everyone else to rise. But that’s how it was, he once told me, because ten months out of twelve, he had to wake up early. He used to get mad at all of us because he thought it meant we were lazy, but my late nights at work made him understand things differently, and his last visit, while all of us slept thorough the morning, he found ways to keep himself busy.

Aside from building my sister’s and my new cabinet, he crafted a shelf for condiments and canned food in the kitchen, positioning it below the glass window he had helped install a few years back. He had his car checked. He stormed to the town hall, waging battle against the illegal car repair service that camped outside our home. He drove for my mom wherever her work took her, meeting most of her friends he hadn’t met before, visiting places he hadn’t been to before. A few weeks before he was set to return to work, he flew to his hometown in Cebu for a much-delayed visit with his old friends and family, returning home with few stories, few but enough to let us know it was a joyful homecoming. He made his mother, brother and sisters happy. No surprise there, because he hadn’t seen them in a long time--as you can expect with someone who, for most of the year, lives in another country.

The last day I saw him--the last day I would ever see him--we watched a movie. He held my hand tight, like he would always do when it was nearer the day he was leaving. Sometimes, he would raise my hand, raising his beside it, and smile at how much they looked alike, short, fat fingers, thick palms, and all. I used to hate it because I didn’t want my hands to look like a man’s, but it’s his contribution to me, and now I look at it when I want to remember who made half of me. 

My brother and I offered to drive him to the airport, and, grumbling typically, he refused the fuss, opting to take a taxi and, in a way, choosing not to worry if we had gotten home safe. I took in my last look of him--my last look, or so I thought, of my father until he came back again for Christmas. Then I kissed him on the cheek, too shy to tell him I loved him--the way it sometimes turns out when your father works away for ten months of each year. Then he was gone.

And then, in a matter of weeks, he was completely, utterly gone. To his officemates, and the other people he roomed with, it was a stroke, his first, that took him away. For me, it was a phone call in the middle of the night, while I was at work, wondering if he was okay. But it wasn’t just that phone call, more than that, it was life that took him away, it was life that gave us his constant absence.

All my life, I’ve been chasing after my father, finding him in the things I associated with him--the scent of menthol cigarettes, in his signature perfume, in tool boxes, in the parts of our house he helped build. Now, I look even closer, I look at more things, vowing always to remember.

Late last night, coming in exhausted from another all-nighter at work, I looked at the cabinet he had painstakingly built, the same cabinet that had left me wondering what on earth he was thinking as he built it. And last night too, I finally had my answer. 

Me. He was thinking of me. 

All along, he was also chasing me.


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