My heart sunk when I saw him lying in that bed—oxygen in his nostrils, a wire of the cardiac monitor (that looked like it had seen better years) attached in the puffy middle finger of his left hand, a dextrose needle in his right wrist. He was wearing a grayish, faded hospital gown and his lower trunk was covered by a thin fleece blanket. He appeared pale ( though my sister Lilit commented he already gained color compared to his first few days in the hospital), and looked helpless. His eyes were closed but his brows creased from time to time, as though even in sleep, he was grimacing in pain. While the room manned 24/7 by a nurse exuded special care, the patient—my father, all of his 84 years, certainly looked like it was the last place he would want to be in had he a choice despite the squeaky clean environs and the nurses’ constant, albeit mechanical scrubbing of Lysol-laced rug over the bed rails. The hustle and bustle of gloved hands and masked faces and even the occasional comments and chitchats of the white uniformed duties could not hide the gloom and disheartening atmosphere of the ICU.
My siblings, all eight of them, and I grew up and entered adulthood with our father not ever experiencing any health scare. Compared to our mother whose constant trips and confinement to Mother Seton for her gastro intestinal problem over the years has settled in as part of our normal routine, Tatay, our silent tower, has not had any trip to the doctor since, I was told 1984—and that was a long time ago. The news about Tay’s physical condition therefore, as related by sister Lilit ( the initial finding was Diabetes Melittus), caused quite a stir and cast alarm bells in the family. For one, we had never seen him physically weak even at his age. Neither did he ever complain of body ailments save for his eyes with Cataract that sometimes bothered him. A few months ago though, he had his Cataract removed by laser as an outpatient. No complications. Everything went well until…
“We just arrived from the doc. Tay has been complaining about the constant buzzing in his left ear,” gushed Lit in the vernacular, sometime in the first week of October.
” So, what’s the findings? ” curious me chimed.
“Tinnitus, that’s what the doc said. But laboratory exams should be in the works.”
“Yap, better to know the root, just to be sure.”
The day after the laboratory results were released, I received a text message. “Tay has diabetes. That’s the source of the Tinnitus and his imbalance.” I was told he already appeared weak but insisted they go home (home is a laid-back town, an-hour ride from the city) because he already had medications to take. My older brother Pan, seeing his condition, prevailed upon him to stay put in the former’s residence which is a stone’s throw away from the hospital, and put off his trip for another day to catch some rest. Tay agreed. At 4:00 a.m. the following day, he was rushed to the hospital for difficulty in breathing. He was to stay there for two more weeks including a three-day confinement at the ICU.
When hubby and I visited him at the ICU after a quick decision to the take the eight-hour travel, I had goose bumps. It was hard for me to reconcile my image of a strong, able, and physically in-command father we siblings were so accustomed to, to the helpless ash-haired figure lying in that steel bed with tubes and wires attached to his distended frame. On impulse, I kissed his forehead and in whisper, asked him how he was doing (a stupid remark, maybe. I didn’t know what to say). His voice was weak, barely audible, yet to my surprise, he still managed to crack a one-liner, “Mayo talagang maurag pag may helang” There really is no indestructible person when struck with illness). I chuckled. He was fighting. He would be on the way back to his old self.
During that brief visit, I had had enough time to gather my thoughts before we decided to go back to the hornet’s nest in the metropolis.
I have always considered myself lucky if not blessed to have grown up with a father who never failed to provide for our needs—food on the table, school allowance, moral support, ever sought-for advice . His presence has always been a source of security and comfort for all of us. Nope, he was (still is) no Santa who could afford to drop in our laps everything in our wish list, but as far as the need list was concerned, not one did he ever leave unaddressed. He grew up in a poor family, with a fisherman father who caught fish at night and who, during day time, tilled a piece of agricultural land so he could send Tay to school. The mother was a typical homemaker, with five kids to look after. Having experienced what ‘De Nada’ means, Tay’s father realized that only through education could his son be freed from the clutches of the hand-to-mouth way of life that had gripped their family. So, in the mid 1940s, after finishing elementary school in Sipocot, off to Naga city Tay and his father went aboard the latter’s wooden boat or “baruto” on a three-day ride along the crocodile-infested Bicol river. They were “armed” with farm produce, a young pig (to be raised still to pay for Tay’s school expenses and allowances) and a steely heart to achieve one goal — For Tay to earn a high school diploma. ( This was a huge feat at the time, almost equivalent to a college degree today. High school graduates at that time could already land teaching jobs in government schools).
He made it. He is a proud member (and yes, one of the few remaining members) of the Batch 1949 of the Camarines Sur National High School. Since earning his diploma, he has since then gone through paid jobs and experiences –a meter reader of Naga water district (he left the job after a German Shepherd pounced on him in the line of duty), a municipal secretary (a ghost writer and shock-absorber of the Mayor) and eventually, a livestock inspector at the then Ministry of Agriculture, where according to him, he reported to an animal doctor who was of the same age as his sons. On the side, he kept the farm he inherited from his father, tilled some more, raised cows and carabaos not to mention goats, a few pigs and some chickens—this to prepare for the education of all nine kids.
As a livestock inspector, I vividly remember him often being fetched by some guys from the barrios either to immunize or check the conditions of ailing livestock—cows and carabaos grazing some remote grassy fields. “Madelihensiya muna,” was his trademark line, referring to earning extra income. He was often mistaken for a vet and was called doc – a title he felt would fit one of his sons—Pan, who would later earn his veterinary degree from a university in Manila, despite harsh political conditions. (A few months later, this same son would make Tay proud by being in the top ten of the 1982 licensure exam for veterinary medicine graduates). Tay was ecstatic that the title doc has been legitimized, thanks to years of hard work and of going to and from the town’s comprada which helped stretch the meager allowance of his son in the city, not to mention his other kids left behind, studying in the province.
At home, Tay is the silent type, as though always absorbed in his thoughts. His words are few and far between, but always with authority. Vices he had none. He and Nay never had a major argument, much more any quarrel characterized by shouting sprees and flying cups and saucers which was a regular occurrence in a neighbour’s abode. Over the years, I have held him with such high regard that he managed to stay calm, poised and unaffected by Nay’s yackity-yaks, early morning rattle, luncheon sermons and nightly ramblings (oh, ok. Am exaggerating). How he has complemented and continues to complement Nay’s personality never ceases to amaze me. “Mmm. Maray yan tanganig mayong ribok.” (that’s better, so that there won’t be trouble—referring to his patience in not meeting head-on Nay’s blood-rushing garbles.)
When he retired from government service, he devoted more time in the farm—eighteen hectares of land (he says he gives out 2 hectares each for his nine kids). He brisk walked along the railroad in his early morning trips to and from the farm. At one time, he tried his hands on raising Tilapia (a fresh water kind of fish), but he got fed up because some greedy souls would sneak up at night and haul their customized fish nets and catchers to sate their rambling bellies. When at home, he dabbled in reading –his favourites were the Good Fight, life story of Manuel Quezon and “Last Man off Bataan,” – the first hand, harrowing experience of Carlos P. Romulo when world war broke out in Manila in 1941, until the fall of Bataan in 1942. He knew by heart, MLQ’s famous quote, “I would prefer the Philippines to be run like hell by Filipinos than for it to be run like heaven by Americans,” or something to this effect. (I found it ironic though that MLQ still sought solace in America and died there, after those quips.)
Tay also loved (and still does) to tell stories of the past especially his war experiences as a young lad serving as intelligence officer of a Guerilla unit under the Turko command headquartered at Vinzons, Camarines Norte. Every time I would go home during semestral breaks from UPLB and even after I had already landed a job in Laguna, I would expectedly hear stories of the Japs, of the pro-Japs and of the martyrs in the hands of the Japs, usually in between bites of pork bones after a sip of Sinigang or slurps of lemon-mixed Dinuguan laced with “Bungkukan“(a root crop that makes Sinigang soup creamy and frothy). “See, my teeth are still as strong as ever,” he would also proudly beam, after nibbling the toothpick he used, and returning the same to his special container, to be re-used after the next meal. Sometimes I would jokingly butt in and interrupt his stories of heroism that the real heroes were really those in the casualty list–those brave and unsung men who were on the frontline and faced the grim reaper—that Tay and his fellow vets are, actually the “better-runs” as they ran better, and retreated their way to an ‘unheroic’ escape, successfuly dodging Japanese bullets and mortars. As expected, he would let out a good guffaw.
Retirement did not deter Tay from being productive. As a war vet, he was appointed as Post Commander of the Veterans Federations of the Philippines-Sipocot Chapter. Not content with their own building, he still set up his own home office to accommodate all kinds of requests for assistance of his fellow vets and their spouses– from issues relating to their pensions, educational benefits, and death and burial assistance for members. He once joked that his association is one whose membership is dwindling by the day, instead of gaining new members. He made sure enough flags are ready in case one of their members dies, to be draped on the coffin in recognition of the vet’s wartime service to the motherland. This had been his routine until his confinement.
Thus, seeing him helpless broke my heart. All my siblings felt the same way. We even had to hold an emergency meeting to take up Tay’s situation and let our feelings out. It was hard (still is) to accept the fact that our parents are now approaching their twilight, that sooner or later the inevitable will come– one beyond our will, control and resistance. Nobody wants to face his own mortality. As I saw Tay in the ICU bed ( I wondered how many frail bodies have lain there, albeit unwillingly), my thoughts raced. What could Tay be thinking? He was physically weak but his mind was as sharp as ever. Was he afraid? Was he thinking he might not make it through? How could he accept the fact that like an over-used machine, his physique has now shown obvious signs of wear-and-tear? As a daughter, all I could do was pray—pray that Tay would seek solace in the Lord and find comfort in the fact that nothing happens in our lives without His knowledge, will and control –that faith could soothe the deepest of fears.
Before we left for Manila last October 21 (that’s after receiving the great news that Tay was on the way to recovery—after complaining he was starved at the ICU.) we (Lit, hubby and the kids) huddled together beside Tay as Rovik prayed for his speedy healing. A few days later, he was discharged from MS and would soon recover—ever thanks to Lit’s patient, undivided care-giving. I heaved a sigh of relief and muttered my heartfelt thanks to the God of second chances.
When a tower collapses, the true, indestructible tower rebuilds.
Our Christmas will be merry, after all ( I prayerfully hope so.)